In Chicago, The City Becomes a Great Big Classroom

It’s not just schools that are responsible for preparing young people for the future. In Chicago, a successful summer experiment is going year-round, connecting kids to the city’s rich cultural resources and opportunities for learning outside as well as inside the classroom.

Last Summer, the City of Chicago, in partnership with the MacArthur Foundation and the Mozilla Foundation, launched Chicago Summer of Learning, a set of connected summer learning programs centered on the theme of science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM). More than 100 organizations took part, from the Art Institute of Chicago to the Cook County Forest Preserve. The summer was such a hit—more than 210,000 young people took part—that it’s being expanded to a year-round effort, now called the Chicago City of Learning (CCOL).

CCOL will make Chicago a laboratory of learning and enhance opportunities for young people throughout the year and throughout the city because, as the website says, “no one institution, on its own, can prepare our young people for their futures. It takes all of the city’s resources.”

CCOL will also showcase a theory of learning called “connected learning.” This approach ties together three realms of young people’s worlds—their peers and pop culture, academics, and their own interests—with the mentorship of adults. Doing that, proponents believe, can spur greater engagement in learning, wherever it happens.

More than a hundred of organizations joined CCOL sponsors in Chicago on December 4 to kick off the expanded effort. “Great energy was created in the room as everyone embraced the idea of Chicago as a ‘campus,’” said Digital Youth Network Learning Pathways project director Sybil Madison-Boyd. “Organizations worked together to develop the ‘majors’ that young people might pursue by engaging in experiences across organizations.”

The first coordinated projects will happen during winter break.

CCOL is hoping to engage the city’s public schools, city agencies such as the Park District, and the many afterschool and cultural learning organizations across the city in this year-round effort.

The original Summer of Learning in 2013 was a first on another front. It was the first citywide effort to use badges. Badges are a digital form of credentialing—and a great motivator for youth. Students earn badges when they successfully complete a step in a project or perfect a skill. Each badge builds on the prior badge to create a pathway of learning. In this way, they document progress toward a goal. The badges are housed online in the student’s digital backpack, visible to teachers, employers, and others interested in the students’ skill set. Nearly 100,000 badges were awarded by summer’s end. The Mozilla Foundation created the online platform and digital backpacks for presenting and issuing badges.

The badges were also the linchpin in another feature: citywide challenges. Chicago’s Digital Youth Network and the Chicago Hive Learning Network—organizations with deep experience in both badges and citywide learning networks—designed a series of progressively more complicated challenges for youth. To level up, youth earned a required number of entry-level badges from any organization. The end goal was a city-level badge. Earning a city level badge in turn unlocked a series of citywide challenges.

Building on these experiences, CCOL will create a new field of learning opportunities. The organizers are currently analyzing the data embedded in the badges to better understand the learning that youth engaged in over the summer to guide future programming and gain a better understanding of youths’ interests.

Other cities, including Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, have expressed interest in their own Cities of Learning, and Chicago will share its lessons learned widely.

Pittsburgh hosted a version of its own summer of learning last year. During the Hive Days of Summer campaign, youth attended more than 100 learning and creativity activities in the city and surrounding communities, including collaborations with the Andy Warhol Museum, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. And the Pittsburgh Public Schools ran the Summer Dreamers Academy, a camp that has replaced traditional summer school in the city.

“We decided to throw out remedial, punitive summer school and create a summer camp that’s just like the camp that our kids’ more affluent peers in the suburbs spend hundreds of dollars to go to, only our kids get to go for free,” Eddie Willson, the district’s director of operations for student support, told Pittsburgh’s public radio affiliate WESA.

The camp is still strong on academics, but its students also get tons of enrichment activities like water polo, swimming, and art. Though it’s cold and grey outside now, summer, thankfully, will be here before we know it. And these cities are ready.

Published December 05, 2013