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Teaching Baltimore: Lake Montebello third graders learn a complex history




This spring every third grader in the city received a colorful, graphic textbook thanks to the work of graphic designer and educator BeckySlogeris.     

On a rainy day, Ms. Heather Tuttle’s third grade social studies classroom at Lake Montebello Elementary in Northeast Baltimore, reads from a book written just for Baltimore City kids.


"Jane Jacobs was a writer and thinker about cities," Tawnaja Hilton reads. "Jane did not learn about cities from books or schools. Instead she learned about cities by watching people use them in every li- in everyday life."


The students in groups. They all have their own copies of My Baltimore Book . It’s about the size of a short novel -- A mix between a textbook, journal and photobook.



In today’s lesson, students learn the meaning of urban and suburban; and how Baltimore’s population tumbled starting in the 1960s with white flight and the loss of industrial jobs -- all in the context of the Baltimore of today.


Ms. Tuttle prompts a question for today's lesson: "I want to be thinking about specifically why do you think having a diverse neighborhood or a diverse community why do you think that’s a positive? And if don’t - maybe you think it’s a negative..."


Students chat about their experiences in small groups. And Darian Edmund shares his thoughts with the class.


"My neighborhood is segregated because it’s black on the other side and another block down there it’s white." And mentioning the friend at his table: "And me and Anthony mostly play with black people."


The students have their books open to a page with white and black circles mixed together - symbolizing diversity.


Below that: an image of black dots on one side and white dots on the other -representing segregation.




Becky Slogeris wrote and designed My Baltimore Bookwith input from the community. Ms. Tuttle, who was the first teacher to use the book last year, says it has the students’ own experiences in mind and teaches them how different policies shape where they live.


"I think an informed citizen is the best citizen," she says. "I try to stress to all of my students regardless of grade level, my job is not to teach you what to think but how to think and come up with your own decisions."


She said she hopes the reading gives them tools to better understand citizenship and rights – major social studies concepts in third grade. RaeLynne Snyder, social studies coordinator at City Schools says the school district is doing more to bring Baltimore into the curriculum.


"You know the city really is our classroom and we feel by taking the kids out into the city and interacting with that city that they become more aware of the world around them which just enhances their existing curriculum," she explains.  


Back at Lake Montebello, Makhi Thomas, one of Ms. Tuttle’s former 3rd graders, stops by her class. He has his dog eared copy of My Baltimore Book with his name in big letters on the cover:


Every now and then I modify my book. Like I go and finish some pages that I didn’t do.


He flips to a page with an image of one of Baltimore’s blue light security cameras - ubiquitous in the city's high crime neighborhoods.


Thomas reads, "Each blue light costs $30,000 to install. What would you do to improve your neighborhood if you had $30,000?" And reading his answer from My Baltimore Book: "If I had $30,000 I would spend it on giving it to the neighborhood, redoing houses that are condemned. Stuff like that."


Ms. Tuttle says connecting the curriculum to things students know first-hand helps with reading comprehension, writing and their vocabulary.




"I don’t want them to only be able to identify a definition; I want them to use it, and I want them to use it in their justification but I want them to use it in a free flowing conversation," she says, mentioning lunch break discussions and the conversations she has with her students as they're waiting to get picked up from school. 


And she says her students have a growing ownership of the topics in the book.  




Jonna is a radio producer, documentarian, and media artist. Her feature stories and audio documentaries have aired on WAMU, Marketplace, The World, Living on Earth, and Virginia Public Radio, among others. She also produces nonfiction films and installations using ethnography, archival research, and collaboration as part of her process. A Maryland native, Jonna is a graduate of Bowdoin College and holds an MFA from Duke University.