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Emeryville Students Map Their Town's History

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Lena Wolf from the Alameda County Office of Education shared this inspiring story about a student mapping project led by educator Sara Stillman.

On a recent visit to Sara Stillman’s advanced art classroom at Emery Secondary School, students are immersed in a rigorous interdisciplinary mapping project on the history of Emeryville. Sparked by the Yale Initiative, a professional development program that offers K-12 teachers in urban and rural schools the opportunity to explore a topic in depth, Stillman began this unit at the high school after extensive planning at the University.

Evidence of the project fills the classroom — photographs, transformed maps, original drawings, collages and writing uncover hidden stories about place. Stillman notes, “Beneath Bay Street at the corner of Shellmound Street and Ohlone Way lays a story of our city and nation’s growth, decline, and rebirth. This history is rich in beauty and uncomfortable truths that my students are exploring as they question what they will leave behind to tell their story and how our society will be viewed by those who come after us.”

Through this project students are not only are expanding their the formal training related to the craft and skills associated with art making, they are embodying the methods and tactics of true artists engaged in interdisciplinary practice and critical inquiry, leading to a unique body of work. Like professional artists, their technical training is expressed through complex content they’ve uncovered through their own research, leading to a greater understanding of the world at large. Students are learning things they didn’t know before about the city they inhabit and this knowledge is transforming their perspectives. 12th grade student Darrell Thomas explains, “When I go to Bay Street now, I know what happened there, that it’s a burial and memorial site. It’s a strange feeling. We’re going there to shop but it feels disrespectful. Doing this research has changed the way I see the city we live in.”


12th grade student Fatima Mujahed explained her experience working on this project, “We’re not told exactly what to do in here, we have choices. I feel like we learn more because we’re actually interested in the subject we’re working with. The subject is relevant, because we’re researching the very place where we live.”

Thanks again to Lena Wolf and Sara Stillman for sharing this project with us. For more information about the history of Emeryville, check out the film Shellmound. This content should be previewed before sharing with students, and is only appropriate for older students.

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