Exploring the Gateway City

St. Louis is more than toasted ravioli, gooey butter cake and the Gateway Arch.

It’s a city steeped in rich cultural traditions and a complex history. There’s a lot to explore, even for natives. This year, MICDS Upper School students were offered a new elective that allowed them to dig deep into something that, for many of them, was already familiar: the History of St. Louis.

The class was created after an audit and re-design of the 5th through 12th Grade History and Social Sciences curriculum. In addition, MICDS History Department faculty members collaborated with professors at Washington University, Saint Louis University and other colleges to create the new course. The History of St. Louis class, required for juniors in trimester one starting next year, continues the development of core skills while introducing a new content area. In addition, it allows students to make cross-disciplinary connections with their American Literature studies and their Regional Research and Resilience projects, both of which are components of the 11th Grade English curriculum.

In the course, students explore how topics including economics, local politics, business, race, immigration, geography and technology help shape communities, all while continuing to improve their ability to write and think critically. Through their focus on St. Louis, a city that is ostensibly familiar to them, students develop an understanding of urban studies and work to recognize and anticipate themes that can then be applied to any city around the world. “Understanding the history of St. Louis helps us understand the region today, and in the process learn about the challenges and struggles of a metropolitan area,” said Carla Federman, JK-12 History and Social Sciences Department Chair. “In so many ways, both in the past and present, our city has served as a microcosm of the country as a whole.”

Throughout the trimester, students also continue to hone their research methods and techniques, taking advantage of local resources. This year, Tony Messenger, a columnist with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, spoke about politics. Felicia Pulliam Collins, who has served on the Board of Trustees and is the parent of two MICDS alumni, shared what she learned through her work with the Ferguson Commission. Current parent David Woodburn works at Cortex, and offered insight into the changing economics of St. Louis. By tapping into local speakers and leaders that are readily available to talk with students, the class offers a current view into the regional issues and policies that drive St. Louis.

Margaret Woodburn ’19 moved to St. Louis with her family two years ago. She gave up a free period to learn more about her new hometown. “What surprised me was that it wasn’t a traditional history class but more of a case study on how to build a successful city. We went by topic, ranging from French settlement to the World’s Fair, to redlining and its effects today. While everyone may know basic facts, even ‘lifers’ won’t know most of the topics taught in the class, and they are important because they can help us revise our decision making for the future.”

History Teacher Marshall McCurties, who taught the first section of the class this year, agreed, saying, “The course was designed to demonstrate the importance and relevance of St. Louis by highlighting its successes as well as understanding ways it has fallen short. We explored the mindset of how can St. Louis be better tomorrow.”

As a capstone project, students work on a research paper covering a topic of their choosing—for instance, The Hill, the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Ferguson or McDonnell Douglas— and then use that research, along with interviews, to form the basis of a five-minute documentary.

Senior Sam Kohler ’19 said, “I really enjoyed taking this course because we got to learn about relevant topics.” He produced a documentary about the Ville, a neighborhood of north city St. Louis. “I learned about a place in the city where I have never been. I thought the class and the documentary project helped give me a lot of perspective on issues in St. Louis.”

“Students come to see St. Louis history in its entirety,” Mr. McCurties said. “They learn how and why one St. Louisian’s experience is vastly different from another’s, even if they live less than one mile apart. No matter who that student is, they can understand a point of view different from their own.”

Watch Sam Kohler’s video on The Ville:

Here’s Margaret Woodburn’s video on the St. Louis Public Library: