Archive for March, 2011

The lights in Chicago

Thursday, March 31st, 2011


Tonight I went to an event sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation: Re-imagining Learning in the 21st Century. It was at the Spertus Institute, which if you’ve never been, is nothing short of incredible. None of the floors touch the front, which faces Lake Michigan, so every floor has an incredible expansive view of the lake. Everything is glass and white and lovely. Even the food that they served was amazing. I’m still thinking about the cucumber slices with salmon roe and wasabi peas. Well done! It was the perfect setting for the event, which featured innovation in education. Big hitters like Karen Cator and Chicago’s very own mayor-elect, Rahm Emmanuel, spoke. Specifically, they featured what Jenkins (a MacArthur grantee) calls “participatory learning”, peer-based education that is shaped around individual interests that are shared and consumed. The buzz was mostly around ChicagoQuest, which “applies the principles of game design and systems thinking to teaching and learning.”

I was invited to the event by my good friend James, and afterward, his wife, Kami, picked us up. She asked us if we could drive by the Cabrini-Green housing project, which was on our way home anyway, and we agreed. Most people have heard of Cabrini Green, but for a lot of really bad reasons. It was built with a lot of hope for lower-income residents, but because of neglect and gang violence, it deteriorated into a difficult place for a lot of kids to grow up. Yet, it was still their home and community and it was a blow when the Chicago Housing Authority decided to demolish them and replace them with mixed income housing. The residents complained that the temporary housing they were placed in until they could be relocated was substandard and that there wasn’t enough housing for everyone who was displaced. Most tragic for me were the surrounding schools: as of now, only three of the five elementary schools that existed in the area are in use. One of the ones that closed down, Byrd Academy, used our Collaboratory Project while I was at Northwestern to fight their school closing. The kids showed the poor conditions in which they were supposed to learn, which included the lack of a lunchroom (they ate on the floor of the hallway), no gym (it was heartbreaking to see the first graders having to cross a busy street in the cold to use another school’s gym), and windows broken and dirty. In the winter, I saw the students work with gloves and hats on (because the heat didn’t work) and in the summer, scream over the old industrial fans that were in their classroom (because their was no air conditioning). The building was a mess, but the soul of it was was strong and the students fought to keep their community in tact, but with a new school. They received lots of national media attention, but to no avail. Byrd was shut down and the kids were transferred to other schools.

And now, Cabrini-Green was getting torn down. Kami wanted us to see an art project commemorating the buildings. It was amazing, and somewhat creepy. It brought the building to eerie life, and I couldn’t help but think back to the lights that illuminated the floor in the Spertus Institute earlier in the night.