Understanding the Future by Studying the Past

Even before bubbling social unrest and protests for racial equality dominated the news, GEMS World Academy Chicago, a preschool through 12th-grade independent school in Chicago’s Lakeshore East neighborhood, rolled out an initiative to blend critically important social justice issues into its curriculum.

As an International Baccalaureate (IB) school, GEMS students explore transdisciplinary units of inquiry that are placed-based and blend core subjects with social and environmental justice issues — using the city of Chicago as its classroom.

“Our Chicago-based curriculum encourages kids to be good global citizens, but that means they need to be good local citizens first,” explains Thomas Cangiano, head of school at GEMS. “We might approach diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) with a case study that helps students understand Chicago’s demographic makeup in a historical context of why some neighborhoods flourish while others don’t. These are real-world issues that are complicated and complex and may be related to public housing, an understanding of where people live and why, and the history behind these topics.”

Historical context boosts understanding

The many issues surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion provide ample opportunities for GEMS students to gain a deeper understanding of the complex reasons racial inequities persist, Cangiano says. By providing a historical and place-based framework, educators at GEMS provide context to local social justice issues that can ultimately be applied to a more global context.

For example, last year a 10th grade history class studied the gentrification process in the Pilsen neighborhood. Not only did students conduct field work by examining census tracts and interviewing local business owners, they also had the opportunity to meet with Professor John Betancur at the University of Illinois at Chicago, whose own research has focused on gentrification in Pilsen. Having come directly from the field, GEMS students asked incisive questions that led to a lively, thought-provoking discussion.

“What’s missing for many people trying to gain an understanding of these issues is a lack of knowledge about how we got here,” Cangiano explains. By taking a deep, historical look at politics, resources and the forces behind decision-making, students at GEMS learn about political, economic and governmental systems’ impacts on Chicago’s diverse communities.

“Our children view the world through the lens of Chicago as they see it right now. If they are observant, they will see things that make them scratch their heads regarding race and neighborhoods,” Cangiano explains. “The big difference for us is that we know it’s important to teach our students about how we ended up here so they don’t draw quick conclusions. They understand there’s a complicated process behind how we ended up where we are in 2020.”

Building a common language around DEI

Professional development at GEMS brings together a diverse community of faculty, administrators and staff to examine their own perspectives to better educate students through a lens of DEI. Staff spent the summer reading Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi to help build a common language and understanding of key terms — commonality being a tenet of IB.

They also took part in workshops with Crossroads, a national antiracism training organization, to engage in self-analysis and reflect on how the school community can continue to move forward and stand behind the social justice work it has started. GEMS is also collaborating with a consultant to craft a program for faculty and parents to participate in today and years in the future, Cangiano says.

“We’re tackling these issues and recognize that they are hard to talk about sometimes,” he says. “I’m very optimistic because I know our faculty has been 100% behind this and are eager to get the work going. We have buy-in from everyone, which is a wonderful starting point for us. Through education and understanding, we are building a strong foundation that will be tremendously helpful as we move forward.”

Learn more about GEMS World Academy Chicago at gemschicago.org, call 312-809-8900 or email info@gemschicago.org.

This sponsored content also appeared in Chicago Parent’s holiday 2020 magazine


Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Chicago Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.
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