By Ben Joravsky

Some of the fifth-graders in Karen Malhiot’s science class have never been outside the neighborhood surrounding Cabrini-Green. But thanks to an innovative course in family history, they’re beginning to realize that they have roots in countries around the world. The program, designed by retired public school teacher Pat Bearden, uses family histories to teach everything from social studies to math. “It’s a marvelous way to open up the world,” says Malhiot. “It’s a great tool for teaching.”

Bearden says she conceived of the teaching tool eight years ago, after a chance conversation with a boy at Metcalfe School on the south side. “I asked Calvin where he was going for Thanksgiving, and he said, ‘Down south.’ I said, ‘Where down south?’ and he said, ‘I dunno.’ I said, ‘On Monday tell me where you went.’ Well, Monday came and I asked Calvin where he had gone and he was silent. He didn’t know. I wondered, how can you go somewhere, come back, and still not know where you went? That’s when the light went on. How can we expect kids to be interested in social studies and history and geography when they’re not even interested in themselves?”

In 1991 she won a grant to teach workshops on family histories. But first she traced her own. “I started interviewing relatives, and eventually I found a cousin in Texas I didn’t even know I had.” That cousin, a woman named Eddie Parrish, sent Bearden a picture of Fredonia Smith Parrish, their great-great-grandmother. “Fredonia was a beautiful woman of Indian-African-Euro-American descent,” says Bearden. “I was over 40, and this was the first time I’d seen her or heard about her. It just opened everything up.”

After months of research Bearden discovered that Fredonia Parrish had been born in 1840 in Virginia and had died in Mississippi in 1913. “You could have knocked me over, my heart was so filled,” says Bearden. “I knew Fredonia had been a part of the westward movement and through her I was part of that migration. I was a part of that history. I can’t tell you what that has done for me. I wish I had known that as a child growing up on the south side. It would have done wonders for me to know that my great-great-grandmother had traveled that trail west when she was only nine. My imagination would have gone wild. Every child should have a chance to use her imagination. After that it was my passion. If it worked for me it could work for kids just like me. Through family histories they can see themselves as part of the fabric of America. They know how they fit in.”

Bearden retired from full-time teaching in 1993, but she still teaches workshops and consults with teachers at three public schools, Hurley, Jenner, and William H. Brown. “I believe family histories can be a base for all learning,” she says. “You can start by having your students interview their parents and their grandparents to find out where they came from. Then you look up those countries on a map and you study the heroes of that country and the climates and the food. We all come from somewhere. We all have stories and families. Once you start, the whole climate in the classroom changes. I had this one little girl down as from Mississippi, and she said, ‘Oh, no, my mama said we’re from Alabama.’ Her awareness of the world had gone up a few notches.”

For the most part parents have answered whatever questions about the past their children put to them. “I had one mother write a note saying it was none of my business,” says Sharon West, a third-grade teacher at the Hurley School, on the southwest side. “There was some resistance from parents who were feuding with relatives. We needed the students to interview their grandparents, only the parents and grandparents weren’t talking–that sort of thing. But a lot of those people settled things once they started talking about this project. I tell my kids it’s OK to be angry, but you should get over it because you only hurt yourself when you stay angry for years.”

The program can also break down barriers between ethnic groups. At Brown, where Savannah Smith uses the program, African-American children were surprised to learn that some of their white teachers had marched for civil rights. “One student interviewed a Euro-American clerk at the school who told her that she had once been discriminated against,” says Bearden. “That brought the biggest smile to the student’s face as he realized ‘It’s not just me.’ We have to help our kids realize that all groups have all types of oppression and that people overcome it. Savannah took it a step further. She started comparing Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The students realized that every ethnic group has its own heroes–its own Martin Luther King. They could feel their connection to the greater world outside the west side.”

The program is particularly strong at Jenner, near Cabrini-Green. For the past year Malhiot has been helping her students trace their family roots as far back as they can, sometimes even to Africa. They’ve made time lines of important events in African-American history, drawn maps of the world, and read books about the Middle Passage, the brutal transatlantic crossing in which thousands of slaves perished.

In the spring Malhiot brought these lessons to life when she joined Chicago sailor William Pinkney as he retraced the voyage in the Sortilege, a 78-foot yacht. “I sailed with Captain Pinkney on one leg of his journey, from Accra, Ghana, to Dakar, Senegal,” says Malhiot, one of 12 teachers who made different parts of the journey. She was gone for six weeks; when she returned, her students bombarded her with questions: Where did she sleep on the boat? What did she eat? Did she get seasick? Why was she gone for so long? “Mostly we ate canned food–lots of spaghetti,” says Malhiot. “We all had chores. Mine were cooking and cleaning dishes. I also did watches. We’d sit on the deck and watch for big ships or objects that might damage our boat.

“We had our own cabins, very small quarters that consisted of a bunk. I slept great. I found the rocking motion put me to sleep. I liked to watch the stars and tried to understand the southern constellations. At night the water glowed with a greenish color–sort of like a firefly–because there’s plankton that glows when it’s moved or agitated. We saw tons of dolphins. The captain told many stories; he’s a great joke teller. We had a couple of storms, which I actually welcomed. That was our chance to take a shower. I’d wash my hair and hope that there was enough rain to rinse out the shampoo. When I got back the kids said they missed me. They said, ‘We didn’t think you were coming back.'”

Since her return the class has done a lot of reading and talking about the Middle Passage. “It’s not an easy subject,” says Malhiot. “I’m still struggling with how to teach it. For so long it was something I avoided, not only in teaching but even thinking about it. Now I think it’s a subject we can’t afford to ignore because it’s so embedded in our history. As we do family histories they come to realize that their ancestors were slaves. They have to think about what that means. In some ways it’s made me more aware of being a white teacher. One student said to me, ‘You wouldn’t have done that,’ meaning I wouldn’t have been a slave owner. I had to be honest. I said, ‘Yes, I wouldn’t be a slave owner because of the values I was raised with. But if I was raised back then by slave owners I’d have different values.'”

In early June, Malhiot’s sea voyage and the family histories came together when Captain Pinkney talked to her class via ship-to-shore radio. It was a stifling hot day in Chicago and the windows were open wide to catch a hint of breeze. “Tell him where you are and tell him what you see,” Ina Pinkney, the captain’s wife, told the class. “He’ll be very jealous because all he sees is water.”

“Where are you right now?” one boy asked.

“I’m 1,550 miles west of Accra, Ghana,” Pinkney answered. “That’s about 1,400 miles east of San Juan, Puerto Rico. So I’m a little bit more than halfway finished with the journey.” One by one the children asked their questions: How long would he be at sea? Could they someday travel with him? Why did he keep Ms. Malhiot away for so long? Was he having any problems? “Someone once said a boat is just a list of problems,” Pinkney said. “But we’re doing fine. I hope to visit you when I return to Chicago.”

The children talked about that conversation for the rest of the day. “The voyage and Pat’s family history program have made me very aware of so much,” says Malhiot. “We tend to see things with the perspectives we were raised with. We have to get out. We have to travel around the world just to know who and where we are.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.