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Sunday, August 10, 2008

"Community Studies" for Third Graders? A good start!

I won't typically delve into education. It's a topic I'll admit I know too little about. I don't know what's the best learning environment for children, nor how to handle the achievement gap, etc.

Still, when I stumbled across this website maintained by a third grade teacher at the College School in Webster Groves, I was intrigued.

One teacher, named Matthew Diller, takes his students through St. Louis neighborhoods, engages them in what's going on in these parts of the city, who works there, who lives there, who plays there, and has students record their experiences.

Getting children/students out in city neighborhoods (especially those from the suburbs) is a great step toward reinvesting in our central city. The greatest threat to the city of St. Louis--the tiny, 350,000-souled city at the heart of a 16 county sprawling metropolitan region--is its own obsolescence. By that I mean this: too many "St. Louisans" grow up and live their lives without dealing with the City. If they do, it's an experience tinged with extreme levels of fear and caution. Too many people in our bloated region have simply written off the city--so much so that bias against cities in the region exists. St. Louis's old and beautiful historic housing stock, its diversity, its nightlife, its restaurants, what little retail it has--all are threatened by a larger populace that has never had a taste of and appreciation for urbanism.

Diller's experiment is a noble one, in my opinion. It reveals one major theme: third graders are at least as knowledgeable about what makes a good urban neighborhood as our current crop of leadership in the city. At times, they're well advanced beyond that low standard.

Here are a couple eye-openers, by neighborhood, that the children have written. If you want to bypass my yanking quotes, click here for the firsthand experience.

Cherokee Street

We visited Cherokee Street. It is between Ohio and Texas streets in south St. Louis. It is kind of scary. There are a lot of broken windows and burnt wood on the ground. I think they might make up for lost time in a couple years. They need to rebuild the population. A lot of the buildings were empty.

Today, when I went to Cherokee Street, at first I was scared because people were speeding, the streets were empty and littered, and the buildings were old and had bars all around. I felt much safer when we split up into groups and went to the bakery.

I liked how the road crews were putting more vegetation in the community. If I were in charge, I would plant even more vegetation. I think lots of vegetation is important for the community.

If I could I would change the "gangsters" in this community because if I were living there I would not let my kids go out without adult supervision.

I'd also like to see more "Mom and Pop" stores in the St. Louis community, like I saw on Cherokee Street.

In this community the people are all friends. They celebrate Cinco de Mayo together playing Mexican games and eating delicioso Mexican food.

Today my class and I went to the Cherokee Street neighborhood. The buildings are old and some were empty. They looked better on the inside than out and the people were nice.

My comments: While many children talked about how rundown the neighborhood appeared and that it scared them, most enjoyed the people, experiencing a Buddhist temple, El Chico bakery, one of the supermarkets, and the Tortillera.


After visiting the Farmers Market I suggest that you go for a walk through one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. Just up the street from the market you will find houses built around one hundred fifty and two hundred years ago. Most of these homes are brick, and many have small gardens and terraces. It is a nice place to walk. The sidewalks are brick and granite and they gently rise and fall from the old tree roots growing underneath the sidewalk. Week-day mornings you can watch cars speeding past on the highway, but in Soulard, the side streets are quiet and peaceful. While you walk, you can hear birds sing, and if you’re lucky like I was, you can even see them nesting.

The thing that I liked best about Soulard is that people stop to talk to one another on the sidewalk or at the market. No one seems too busy to stop to talk. It is a very friendly part of St. Louis. Where else can you get lunch in St. Louis, in view of the Arch and the city skyline and only spend two dollars? Plus get some delicious fresh fruit for free? Why, at Historic Soulard Market, of course.

Today we went to Soulard. We took a big yellow bus down I 44. Upon arriving, we first took a tour around the neighborhood. There were a lot of interesting buildings. A lot of the had interesting patterns in the brick.

I would change this neighborhood by adding more people and having them walk instead of drive cars. We also talked to a woman about why she moved to Soulard. She said she moved here because she thought it would be a nice neighborhood and it was. She eats at Molly's and a club called Obie's.

South Grand

South Grand is an urban neighborhood. It is urban because there are a lot of office buildings, apartments, and you can easily get parking tickets if you don't put money in the parking meters. There are many old houses that have vines on them and trees and flowers.

I went to South Grand on March 6, 2001 to visit this old neighborhood. It is a nice place to live. It has beautiful homes and friendly people. Between 1850-1899 some homes looked fancy. They had iron stoves, lights, and chairs.

People live and work in this neighborhood. Some people work in the restaurants. Some people have picnics and play in Tower Grove Park.

South Grand has a lot of German immigrants. There are Vietnam and Bosnia immigrants, too. The place we went shopping is called Jay's International. I bought a soda from Vietnam. After we went shopping our group went to a restaurant called South City Diner. There we interviewed different people. I think that all the different people is what makes South Grand interesting.

I left hoping that every neighborhood would be as nice as South Grand. I love our neighborhood studies because they're fun and we get to meet new people and explore different places.

Today, March 3, 2001, I visited the South Grand and Shaw neighborhoods. My third grade class went there by bus because we are studying different St. Louis communities. I learned that Shaw is a beautiful and old neighborhood. However, I interviewed someone who worked on South Grand, and she was robbed once. So it seems to be a dangerous place to work and live. My mother works there, at the Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital. She agrees that it could be unsafe sometimes if you are not careful. I know this is true because I fell off a curb and skinned my knees and my chin!

To see more (including the Hill, the Loop, the Central West End, Carondelet, and Downtown), click the link above.

It is interesting how some children complain about the presence of too many buildings and not enough parking. One kid commented that the only problem with the Central West End was that there was not enough parking lots and that s/he'd tear down buildings to provide them.

Like I said, the kids are at least as knowledgeable about urbanism as the adult leaders of St. Louis today!

Still, many children made excellent observations. They were taught the values of diversity, of walking as a form of transit, of beautiful architecture and how it can define a neighborhood, of local businesses and how them both employ people and provide neighborhood a character of their own.

What an excellent find! Credit goes to the College School and Matt Diller for this excellent classroom idea (and for recording it on the internet).


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