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by Lisa Oppenheim
Associate Director, Chicago Metro
History Education Center

How do we tell the histories of the working people that built this country— particularly as economic shifts reshape the meaning and type of work we do? What remains of their world to keep the history alive for the generations that follow? With a nod to Boston's Freedom Trail map that marks the sites associated with the American Revolution, the Chicago Center for Working Class Studies offers the "Labor Trail" map to highlight the lives of working people in Chicago and Illinois ( The map is based on a broad definition of labor that includes all working peoples' struggles for economic and social justice—wherever people forged a common bond and organized unions, ethnic associations and issue-based organizations, celebrated and mourned, planned and took action in the struggle for better lives. While workplaces and union halls are featured on the map, community centers are included as well. The Labor Trail shows that not only did events and trends of national significance take place here, but the city's and state's history is a microcosm for the nation's history.

Every site on the Labor Trail exists today so that the public may actually see it and draw their own meanings—there are no empty lots or no new condos—though they may be serving different purposes. In some cases no traces of an industry or a struggle are readily apparent; therefore, unfortunately, those sites did not meet the criteria for inclusion. Still, nearly 200 places are marked for the Chicago area, and though the map is Chicago-based, fifteen sites in Illinois are included that cover a range of working activities in Joliet, the Quad Cities, Decatur, central and southern llllinois. While only the tip of the iceberg, it encourages people to think dynamically about the working class history of the state.

Using the Labor Trail in the classroom and into the Streets

The Labor Trail map can be a resource for teachers to create lessons that address the Illinois State Board of Education state goals of economics, geography, politics and history, and the language arts. The inclusive definition of working history allows teachers to think creatively about integrating units throughout the U.S. History survey rather than solely for Labor History Month.

Because it is a place-based history where students can see the physical evidence of the past, the map lends itself to field trips. Field trips provide an opportunity to move history out of the text books and into the streets: in doing a unit on the rise of industrial capitalism, civil rights movement, Great Migration, or immigration a teacher could design a trip based on those sites or select an area of the city that reflects the history she or he wants to cover. Particular events in history may be studied as well: the Pullman strike, the stockyards, Bronzeville, and the coal fights of central and southern Illinois. Students become history detectives of the built environment as they observe change over time—a once thriving industry, now gone; a Czech hall now a Mexican labor organization. Seeing the sites themselves provides "a-ha!" moments for students but also offers opportunities to make the field trip an active learning experience. They may be asked to:

• keep a journal of the trip with sketches and/or notes

• take photographs and later write captions of their trip

• write a nomination for what they thought was the most important site on the trip

• complete a scavenger hunt

• as a homework assignment, create their own scavenger hunts based on the trip

• write an essay or skit on "If this building (or site) could talk" in which students imagine what a selected site would say if it could reveal its own history and the people who made history there

Students could also become invested in a real or imagined field trip by organizing the trip


themselves. With the map, students would work in small groups to plot their dream field trip with reasons why they include the sites. Teachers might encourage or require students to do further research in order to justify their selections and add another layer to the lesson by representing what they've learned. For example, the students would need to produce a travel poster or brochure to accompany each proposal in an effort to "sell" their trip. The class may even vote on which trip to take. Such virtual field trips would replace an actual trip if one is not possible.

Inspire historical questions for History Fair and Illinois History Expo Projects

Historical inquiry, whether born out of an actual field trip or simply a close reading of the map, may inspire students' own research projects on labor history that can be entered in the Chicago Metro History Fair or regional competitions of the Illinois History EXPO. Sparked by their own curiosity, students in grades six through twelve could work individually or in teams to answer a question about the past and then form their own thesis or interpretation to present to the public. In doing an inquiry-based project, students will use libraries for secondary sources and local historical societies for primary sources such as photographs, an individual's papers, organization records, artifacts; they will visit sites, conduct oral histories, and maybe even uncover sources that have been filed away in someone's closet or in a union hall's files! They learn how to ask their own "how" and "why" questions, make an argument, understand significance and change over time, and connect their local story to bigger themes in history. The students' works are then presented in the form of an exhibit, research paper, performance, or a media project to the public at local, regional, and state fairs where volunteer judges assess their project. To find out how to offer History Fair or Illinois History EXPO projects to your students, contact for the Chicago area or for all other regions of Illinois.

Make a Labor Trail of their own community

Teachers may decide to use the Labor Trail as an inspiration for their students to do community history projects and make a map of their own town's sites. Because the map could not cover every site of historic importance related to laboring people's lives—especially outside of the Chicago area—students can find their town's own places of significance for working people's history. Together, teachers and students may develop criteria for what will be included on their map: what is the definition of labor (does it include all workers or union only), does a physical site have to exist? What makes a site or event significance? How to include a diverse range of working experiences? Like History Fair or Illinois History Expo projects, students can conduct in-depth research and learn new communication skills. They may produce an actual printed map, or a Web site, or Power Point presentation—all of which can be shared with the wider community.

Contribute to the Online Labor Trail

Students will be able to take their research and contribute to the Labor Trail Interactive— an online version of the map now being constructed which will function like a "wikipedia". Not only can students add sites from their own towns, but they can also add sources and information to any of the sites that current exist. Perhaps a student finds a photograph in a family album from the Cherry Mine Disaster or a flyer from the civil rights struggles in Cairo. These could be scanned and loaded onto the Web site to share. Or, students can take on more ambitious projects that use the capacities of the internet. The Labor Trail Interactive, as an ongoing and totally accessible medium, allows people from all over Illinois to participate in the creation of a site that reflects the richness and diversity of the state's labor history.

Using the Labor Trail with students— whether with the map in the classroom or out in the streets—encourages teaching labor history with historic places. This place-based approach helps make history come alive and connects students to the past. Moreover, it encourages civic engagement as students go out into the community as learners and become teachers themselves through inquiry-based projects. It can spur commemoration projects in the community, and inspire students to ask questions about the lives of workers today.

The Labor Trail map is available at no cost to educators. Contact or Jamie Daniel, Chicago Center for Working Class Studies, 11 E. Adams #1106, Chicago, IL 60603 to receive a free copy; a limited number of class sets (30) are available for high schools. The Labor Trail project is sponsored by the Chicago Center for Working Class Studies under the direction of University of Illinois at Chicago Professor Leon Fink, a team of UIC and Northwestern History graduate students, and contributions from Newberry Library and Chicago Metro History Education Center. Project funding was from a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council, and printing costs were donated by Chicago Federation of Labor.


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