Getting the Ball Rolling
Introducing Local History to a High School Community
Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in a two-part column. The second installment can be found here.
I never expected my teaching career to unfold the way it has. In 2019–20, I was hired as a history teacher at West Leyden High School, located in the Chicago suburb of Northlake, Illinois. During college and my student teaching experiences, people told me that my first year teaching high school history would be exceptionally difficult, but of course no one prepared me for it to coincide with a global pandemic.
A year later, I still taught remotely. As someone who struggles with working from home, I found myself going into the building daily to teach from my desk in my empty classroom. Teaching history at the secondary level—and particularly doing it virtually—during COVID-19 exacerbated pre-existing issues in the field. The teenagers I was supposed to teach, it seemed, didn’t really care about history. This is not a new phenomenon—a common gripe among history teachers nationwide is that the kids “don’t care” about the names and dates that litter the pages of American history textbooks—but the pandemic underscored the issue.
Soon enough, an opportunity arose that had the potential to change how my students and their community engaged with the past. About a week into the 2020–21 school year and my new routine, my principal, Patricia Makishima, approached me. It was West Leyden’s 60-year anniversary and the celebrations would include a virtual project highlighting the school’s history. Because I had founded a new club called History Hunters that focused on paranormal, crime, and popular history, she asked if I would be interested in helping to put it together. I was soon off in search of the history of the school and the surrounding community—the first step in cultivating what would shortly become a schoolwide fervor for history.
I quickly became immersed in the story of Leyden. With visits to local libraries and city hall basements, and oral histories I recorded with a few key community members, I began to piece together the community’s history. Alongside Brandon Delgado, our school’s video producer, I compiled a timeline of the school’s history that spans the removal of the Potawatomi tribe from the Chicago area to the pandemic.
We compiled a timeline of the school’s history that spans from the removal of the Potawatomi tribe from the Chicago area to the pandemic in the present.
Over the course of that semester, Brandon and I used that timeline to create a 10-minute documentary chronicling our school and community history. Published on YouTube, the video garnered comments from alumni praising our work and excited to see familiar faces. Other community members flooded my inbox with notes and queries. The response to this short video made it clear to me that not only did this community have a history, but its members also cared deeply about it.
While some expressed gratitude for how the video invoked nostalgia for their high school years, others emailed asking for advice on what to do with their Leyden memorabilia. They had held onto high school souvenirs or inherited them but didn’t want to discard them, so they mailed them to me instead. I received old photographs, newspaper clippings, and athletic uniforms. I asked my department chair, David Elbaum, to set aside space in the social studies office for this growing collection of Leyden mementos. Our school archive was born in a drawer that housed this mismatched collection of sentimental reminders of the past.
The remainder of that school year became a lesson in management and organization. I organized our materials, modeling the collection after archives I had visited. By the end of the school year, I had gained much in terms of materials but more in terms of reputation. At one basketball game, an alumnus from the class of 1977 found me in the crowd. He questioned me about game scores and names of various student athletes from his time. Though I couldn’t answer his specific inquiries, I had clearly become the school’s historian.
From the documentary to the archive to conversations with community members, I came to embrace one idea: local history belongs in the high school. My first order of business in incorporating community history began with my fellow teachers. The contrast in demographics between teachers and students has, as in other schools, created a gap of lived experience and understanding at Leyden. In 2020, while the student body at West Leyden was approximately 81 percent Hispanic, the faculty was about 87 percent white. About 59 percent of students were identified as low income, whereas most teachers do not come from low-income backgrounds. Teachers from different backgrounds than their students might struggle to connect with them, and the pandemic only furthered this disconnect between students and their teachers.
I knew that local history could help to bridge this gap. District assistant superintendent Tatiana Bonuma agreed to let me create a bus tour for new teachers as part of their summer orientation in 2021. On the original tour, we stopped at notable historic sites throughout the community, ranging from Native American treaty sites to modern music venues. Important data about the demographics of the students was also shared with new teachers as valuable context for the teaching they’d be doing in the fall. We later expanded the bus tour for current teachers to participate, and the tour’s success further accelerated the effect of history at Leyden. Word spread quickly about the tour, as well as the blossoming archive, and people continued to engage with the story of the community. My colleagues from other disciplines even began to inquire about how to integrate local history into their own curricula.
At this point, the focus of our local history initiatives was getting adults interested—by giving teachers a stake in the story, I hoped they would be better equipped to serve students. With the adults on board, the most important population in this equation was next: the students themselves.
Dariel Chaidez Rivota is a teacher and school historian at West Leyden High School in Northlake, Illinois, and an MA student in public history at Loyola University Chicago. He tweets @Chaidez212.
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