Feature stories

History in their own backyard

Al Guerriero helps his 8th-grade students at PS 126 understand the Progressive EMiller PhotographyAl Guerriero helps his 8th-grade students at PS 126 understand the Progressive Era and other historic periods through the people and places of the Lower East Side.

Two students discuss what they have learned about labor leader Samuel Gompers anMiller PhotographyTwo students discuss what they have learned about labor leader Samuel Gompers and social worker Lillian Wald. Al Guerriero was burned out. He had been teaching social studies the same way for 15 years at PS 126 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “I needed to recharge my batteries,” he recalls.

He found new inspiration three years ago — right in his school’s backyard.

Guerriero began to teach social studies through the lens of the Lower East Side, a neighborhood teeming with enough historic people and places to drive the timeline he covers with his 8th-graders in his integrated co-teaching class. That timeline stretches from the Gilded Age to the Great Depression to the Cold War and beyond.

“People walk by these places, but they tell a story,” he says. “In my class, I ask students, ‘How is history connected to your lives?’ Otherwise, the lesson is all scripted and linear with no real life.”

In a recent class, students explored the Progressive Era, the period of social activism and political reform from the 1890s to the 1920s, through people who once walked the streets outside their school.

Students broke into groups to do research and analyze material. One group viewed photographs by PS 126’s namesake photojournalist Jacob Riis of slum conditions on the Lower East Side in the 1890s; another read articles about the role Samuel Gompers played in building the labor movement. One group listened to taped radio interviews about Theodore Roosevelt’s tenure as a New York City police commissioner; another did online research about the Henry Street Settlement, founded by Lillian Wald to aid immigrants. The teams then dispersed so students could explain their research to the other groups.

Gompers was a compelling figure for 13-year-old Jacob. “He was president of the cigar workers union, and he didn’t like working conditions, which were 14 hours a day,” Jacob explained. “He started a strike to get an eight-hour day.”

Michael, who had viewed Riis’ photographs of the city’s slums, said, “Living back then was really difficult. There were no windows or fans.”

Olivia discovered that the first nurse at PS 126 was paid for by the Henry Street Settlement. “Lillian Wald set up the layout of the organization that would develop over time, and Henry Street still sponsors community programs,” she said.

Students review photographs of the neighborhood taken by photojournalist Jacob RMiller PhotographyStudents review photographs of the neighborhood taken by photojournalist Jacob Riis in the 1890s. Christopher Piccigallo, Guerriero’s special education co-teacher, shares his enthusiasm. Both grew up on the Lower East Side.

“His curriculum is amazing,” says Piccigallo, who has worked with Guerriero for seven years. “When kids see two teachers who care about what they’re doing, that makes a difference.”

Last year, 8th-graders wrote the text for signage on Catherine Street, where the school is located, that commemorates the street’s early years as a 19th-century retail center that featured stores such as Brooks Brothers and Lord & Taylor.

Guerriero organizes student trips to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and walking tours to explore the neighborhood. One student, walking to school from Tribeca, noticed how stores changed from one neighborhood to the next — a fancy supermarket here, a simple deli there — and the lesson on gentrification came to life.

PS 126 Chapter Leader Filippa Ferriolo attended a professional development session last year in which Guerriero shared what he was learning. “It helped me with my American Studies class,” says Ferriolo, who teaches 4th grade. “Now I use maps of Manhattan to show how the city evolved.” She shows them, for example, that a park near the Center Street courthouses was once Collect Pond, the settlement of the Lenape Indians.

Guerriero attributes a routine walk to reinvigorating his approach in the classroom: Every day he passes a statue of Al Smith, the local boy who went on to become governor of New York and the first Catholic to run for president of the United States.

After reading Smith’s autobiography, Guerriero reached out to Eric Ferrara, the founder of the Lower East Side History Project. Ferrara introduced him to David Bellel, a retired social studies teacher and social studies coordinator for District 1, who had done extensive research on the area. Bellel made his digital archive available to Guerriero.

“That was my bridge,” says Guerriero. “Everything started clicking.”

But Bellel says Guerriero was already well on his way when they met. “He understood how he could use the digital archive and he ran with it and started researching on his own,” says Bellel. “He’s a terrific teacher.”

Learn more about Guerriero’s curriculum »

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