You hear a lot these days about standardized testing and regimented lesson plans in the public schools. So it was refreshing to meet two teachers over at P.S. 126 on Catherine Street who have managed to engage their students through an innovative program focused on local history. The concept is pretty simple: supplement the routine eighth grade curriculum with something the kids can relate to very easily; their own neighborhood.
Alfonso Guerriero teaches social studies at the Manhattan Academy of Technology. Chris Piccigallo is a special education teacher. They both grew up in the neighborhood. Together, Guerriero and Piccigallo came up with a program to, as they put it, make their students “hear and see history unfold right before their eyes.”
In a conversation in their classroom one spring afternoon, Guerriero explained, “the history in this neighborhood is so profound, but sometimes there’s a disconnect” between the national history kids read about in textbooks and their lives.
In one exercise this past spring, the students did not need to go very far. As part of the annual chalking project commemorating the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, they took to the streets around the school, where several victims lived.
“Our chalking experience was a good way to remember those who died and how the event ensured that working conditions in factories were made safer,” said 8th grade student Michelle. “But I hope that by chalking it will also lead to something bigger because the women who passed away deserve much more.”
Other activities have included the creation of special historical magazines, participation in neighborhood walking tours and show-and-tell sessions with historic artifacts relevant to the Lower East Side. Piccigallo estimated that up to 70% of the kids come from immigrant families. “They have amazing stories,” he said. “We wanted the students to document their own histories, because their stories are not unlike the stories that we’re reading about.”
Jacqui Getz, the school’s principal, is a big supporter of the program. “It is such a gift to the students to study their own neighborhood through the lens of major historical events,” she observed. “The questions they ask, the connections they make and the facts they uncover are so meaningful because they are invested in their setting.”
Guerriero and Piccigallo have big expansion plans. They would like to take the curriculum to other schools in the area, to partner with other teachers and to reach out to different types of groups in the community. They’ve already formed a partnership with the Lower East Side History Project. They hope to speak with a local lawmaker about supporting government or foundation grants for the program.
“We’re giving the children the opportunity to voice their ideas,” said Piccigallo. “There are not many chances for kids to do that. We’re saying, ‘your voice counts in our class. We’re in this together.’”