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Week in Chicago an education in cultural diversity

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by Julie Wedel

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – In January, I had the privilege of traveling to Chicago for a week with a group of fellow education students in the School and Community class.

I am a music education major so School and Community is a required class for me, and when I found out that it was going to be an interterm class with a week of travel, I jumped at the chance.

The class is designed to study the relationship between schools and their community, with a major focus on multicultural education, which is how the trip to Chicago came in.

Rather than being gone the duration of interterm, we had three weeks of class on campus and one week in Chicago. So after a week of class, we all met at the Newton train station to depart for Chicago, which started the adventure on an interesting foot when our train was 4½ hours late.

We spent the week at the Chicago Center for Urban Life and Culture. We got to see different areas of the city, observe in a variety of schools and attend various activities beneficial to Chicago Public School (CPS) students, as well as explore tourist sites in the city. We stayed in an apartment building that the center owns in Hyde Park. 

To start off the week, we went on a mural tour to see the artwork, and a driving tour through different communities to show how close they are to each other. One block would be a predominately white, upper middle-class neighborhood, then the other side of the block would be run-down houses and vacant lots with a diverse racial population.

A story that stuck with us was that one of the upper middle-class neighborhoods, to this day, does not allow African Americans to live there. In one instance, an African-American family placed an offer on a house in the neighborhood and that night the house was fire-bombed and destroyed.

In the evenings, we went to some performances by groups that both partner with after-school and summer programs to give CPS students a way to express themselves through writing. One group, Barrel of Monkeys, takes stories written by elementary school children and acts them out word-for-word. They use money raised from ticket sales to keep the program running.

Another group attempts to stop the fighting and violence in schools. This group, called L.Y.R.I.C., works with middle and high school-aged children to write about their experiences and perform them as a part of open microphone nights.

After we learned how to navigate the city of Chicago based on its grid system, we spent the rest of the week observing in various schools across the city. Some of us were placed a five-minute walk from our apartment building and others had an hour-and-a-half trip by public transit.

For many of us, the schools we were in were different than what we experience while at Bethel, because of the ethnic diversity and in some cases the sizes of the schools.

To reflect on our experiences, we heard a panel of some leaders in the CPS system.  It was good to hear from the other Bethel students as well as from education students who were with us from two other institutions.

We enjoyed traveling as a group and sharing our different experiences and opinions with each other. It helped us become closer and have better discussions related to different classroom ideas. Our experiences within the culturally diverse classrooms, as well as the city in general, will stick with us as we continue our career paths of teaching.

Out of all we witnessed, one occurrence stood out. One evening as we were walking downtown, we saw a homeless woman sitting cuddled under a blanket. This wasn’t our first sight of a homeless person, but what hit all of us was that she was begging for help with her two elementary-age children beside her.

It was eye-opening for us to realize that those children could have attended any of our schools and we may not have known they were homeless.

Even though the trip was short, I am grateful for the experience of working for a short time in the Chicago schools and for the people I met as well as got to know better.

Bethel College is the only private college in Kansas listed in the 2012-13 analysis of premier colleges and universities in the United States and ranks in the top five “Best Baccalaureate Colleges” in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2012-13. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

Julie Wedel is a junior from Peabody. Other members of the Bethel 2013 interterm class School and Community: Chicago, with Lisa Janzen Scott, assistant professor of education and mathematics, were Rebecca Bradley, Omaha, Neb., Leah Clark, Manhattan, Kevin Coash, El Dorado, Kris Dubach, Topeka, Kaitlin Heller, Lawrence, Malerie Hertzler, Hesston, Sadie Minkevitch, Newton, Alyssa Scheuerman, Scott City, Micah Smith, Topeka, Spencer Suderman, McPherson,  Rebecca Trumble, Newton, Aaron Tschetter, Freeman, S.D., and Lindsay Waltner, Freeman, S.D.

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