Jan. 18, 1996
Vol. 15, No. 9

current issue
archive / search

    Year of events celebrates century of learning

    s In a fourth-floor room in Blaine Hall, archivist Alice Karl sits among the photographs, ledgers, yearbooks and other records of 100 years of learning at the Laboratory Schools.

    At her fingertips are the stories of the projects that have challenged students and inspired teachers at the Laboratory Schools since the schools' founding in 1896 by John Dewey, a philosopher of education and an early member of the University faculty.

    Karl is sharing a century's worth of records and mementos with teachers who are helping their students develop projects to learn more about the Lab Schools' history. These history projects and many more special events are all part of the schools' centennial celebration.

    The Lab Schools will launch the yearlong celebration on Sunday, Jan. 21, with an All-School Sing at 2:30 p.m. at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. The students will perform songs associated with various periods from the past 100 years, as well as historic songs from Lab Schools history. After the singing, 100 birthday cakes will be served at the Lab Schools while entertainment by student groups continues.

    Other centennial events include a benefit dinner dance and auction, "Connections '96: The Party of the Century," on Saturday, April 13, at Navy Pier; a special exhibition, "100 Years of the Laboratory Schools," from Friday, May 31, to Monday, Oct. 14, in Special Collections at Regenstein Library; and an alumni weekend of reunions, including a dinner on Saturday, Oct. 12, at the Drake Hotel.

    "We hope that everyone who is part of our community -- our parents, students, alumni and friends -- will join us at these events," said Lucinda Lee Katz, Director of the Laboratory Schools. "We have much to be proud of from our heritage and a great deal to look forward to in the future. We have many things to celebrate."

    Learning the schools' story

    The evidence of the Laboratory Schools' heritage is close at hand for Karl, who has been a volunteer archivist at the school since 1990. When she began her work, records were kept in a loft in Blaine Hall and were covered with dust. With help from others, she cleaned the area, organized the materials and oversaw their move to a new space, where she is now using a computer to establish a list of what is available.

    "I've been very interested in the history of education in this century," said Karl, who received her Ph.D. in government from Harvard after completing a dissertation on school reform efforts in Boston at the turn of the century. "This gives me an opportunity to work with materials that I find fascinating."

    Students, teachers and administrators at Lab have come to appreciate the work done by Karl, who has volunteered as a parent at the schools for many years and has served on the Laboratory Schools Board.

    "Alice is an archaeologist as well as an archivist," said Beverly Biggs, Principal of the Lower School. "She is unearthing wonderful treasurers to help us reconstruct and reconnect with our past. She takes delight in each of her findings, and that delight is passed on to teachers and children in turn."

    The archives hold a vast array of information that teachers, students and others interested in the Laboratory Schools' history find revealing. Among the items are hundreds of pictures of student learning activities from the early part of the century as well as from later periods. There are also student publications and reports, in addition to reports by teachers.

    The school was founded by Dewey in a house on 57th Street. After several moves, Dewey and Francis Parker, another early education reformer, joined forces in 1901 to open the school in Blaine Hall. University High School was opened in 1903 and quickly became a sports powerhouse as well as an outstanding college-preparatory school.

    Students working on their own history projects have been intrigued by what the school was like in the early years, Karl said.

    "One of our fourth-grade teachers, Curt Lieneck, came to me and asked what information we had on daily activities in the lower grades," Karl said. "I suggested that he contact retired teachers and ask them. He did, and as a result, there are some wonderful letters from teachers describing their classrooms of years ago." The letters will eventually go into the archives.

    Karl is also working with high school students to find photographs that illustrate important moments in the history of University High School for inclusion in a center spread for Renaissance, the high school's art and literary magazine. She is working, too, with the Special Collections Department at Regenstein to identify and transfer to the University Library materials that may be useful to scholars. She also has been working on the Special Collections exhibition, locating materials that will help tell the story of the schools.

    "I've been interested in the work that was being done in progressive education in Europe at the time, so that we can illustrate how the ideas associated with Dewey sprang from a context. These were not ideas he came up with all by himself," she said.

    Dewey's views

    Dewey felt that students learn best from their own experience, a perspective shared by a number of European scholars of pedagogy in the 19th century. He discouraged learning by memorization, but sought to help students find ways to learn through active engagement in the world around them.

    "In critical moments we all realize that the only discipline that stands by us, the only training that becomes intuition, is that got through life itself," Dewey wrote. "That we learn from experience, and from books or the sayings of others only as they are related to experiences, are not mere phrases. But the school has been so set apart, so isolated from the ordinary conditions and motives of life, that the place where children are sent for discipline is the one place in the world where it is most difficult to get experience."

    The idea of learning by experience had many applications in the Laboratory Schools. In language classes, students were encouraged to perform everyday activities, such as sharing a meal, to learn languages through conversation rather than by memorizing verb drills. That conversational approach to learning foreign languages is still used today.

    Students were also sent to the kitchen to learn about science. They learned about the quality of an acid by making tomato soup and testing its acidity against vinegar, for instance.

    Dewey's views revolutionized thinking about education in the United States. After Dewey left the University in 1903 for a professorship at Columbia, other scholars continued his work at the Laboratory Schools and tested new approaches to education, encouraging teachers to use a variety of approaches in instruction.

    For many years, for instance, students at the Laboratory Schools took courses in manual training. Both Dewey and Parker felt that using the hands helped students develop better mental abilities. The equipment and programs of the Chicago Manual Training School, which had been a separate institute, were incorporated into University High School when it was established.

    The schools have also had a distinguished history of student publications. In its early decades, University High School had one of the nation's few high school daily newspapers. The newspaper reported on lively activities among the students, including the high school's many championship football teams.

    Today, modern technology plays an important part in instruction at the schools. Students use electronic publishing technology to produce one of the nation's outstanding student newspapers, The Midway, which is published monthly and has received many national awards, as has Renaissance, published annually. And teachers have created pages on the school's World Wide Web site to help teachers elsewhere in teaching science, for example.

    Throughout the years, the schools have worked to expand the geographic and racial diversity of the Lab Schools' student body. About 35 percent of the students come from African-American, Asian-American, Latino and racially mixed families. Students also come from throughout the Chicago area, including many who commute from Indiana and from Chicago suburbs.

    "The heritage we all share is very important to us," said Katz. "But equally important is our vision for the future. I think we can look forward to the Lab Schools in the next century being a place where new technologies are tried, where cooperative learning is encouraged and where important work is done in organizing curriculum so that it meets the challenges of an increasingly connected, multicultural society."

    -- William Harms