Seniors at Woodland Hills Junior Senior High School learned their local history this week by meeting with adults in the community who had a hand in creating it. Over three dozen community members and municipal officials came together for an oral history project set in motion by English teacher Lisa Silverman.
Silverman developed the idea after teaching August Wilson’s play Fences. “The importance of community is central to August Wilson’s work,” she explains. “I wanted to translate that to our students by creating an opportunity for them to visit Wilson’s Hill District neighborhood and later meet with adults from their own communities.”
The second week of February, Silverman took 90 seniors on a tour of Pittsburgh to generate discussion about Pittsburgh and community. The tour included a ride through the Hill District to the August Wilson Center where students met with activist and Good Peoples Group co-founder Liana Maneese, who conducted a teach-in about gentrification, redlining, and equitable housing. The August Wilson Center donated the meeting space, and the trip was funded by a generous mini-grant from the Woodland Hills Foundation, an independent non-profit dedicated to enhancing educational opportunities in the Woodland Hills School District.
“The bus tour was a real eye opener for my colleagues and me,” Silverman explained. “We had students on that trip who had never really left their own neighborhoods. Some had never seen Point State Park before.”
Emonie Campbell enjoyed the teach-in where she “not only learned about the issues [of gentrification and equitable housing], but how to act on them.”
Maya Sanders loved touring Pittsburgh. “Seeing August Wilson’s old house and then going to the August Wilson Center was so empowering,” said Sanders. The field trip reaffirmed her view of her potential. “No matter where you come from, you can make something of yourself.”
As a follow-up to the Pittsburgh trip, Silverman brought the discussion of local history home to Woodland Hills Junior Senior High School, where she invited all twelve municipalities currently comprising Woodland Hills School District to participate in the oral history event. Guests included school board members, municipal council members, and community members with an affinity for local history.
The event at the high school gave students the opportunity to learn about their own communities’ histories within the larger context of Pittsburgh: points of pride, the Woodland Hills merger, zoning laws, blight, and revitalization.
Most students expressed excitement in learning about their local history and meeting with members of their community. Braddock resident Triniti Straughter enjoyed hearing older residents reminisce about shopping in Braddock and Council President Tina Doose’s future plans for a civic plaza.
Julia Zelinsky and Alex Klemmer agreed that it was important and interesting to learn new things about Edgewood from Council President Patricia Schaefer.
Student council member and Turtle Creek resident Kevin Tinsley especially valued “the focus on rebuilding the community,” while East Pittsburgh resident Brian Lucas just “liked how everyone came together.”
If it takes a village to raise a child, Silverman didn’t have to walk far to the village. Teacher alumni from the twelve boroughs, many of whom are her colleagues at the high school, pitched in with the oral history. Behavior specialists Mike Chancey and Mr. Mack piped in on the discussions of respective neighborhoods Braddock and Rankin. Technology coach Marty Sharp and math teacher Bill Coles used visuals to tell the story of East Pittsburgh. Retired teachers Calvin Lewis and Denny Damico, with assistance from current Career and College Access Center Director Dr. Jen Damico, traced Turtle Creek history back to the Iroquois who once inhabited the land.
Technology coach Jason Coleman and social studies teacher Jason McDonough shared stories about growing up in Swissvale amidst the ever-changing industry. English teacher Laura Arthrell brought her husband, Roy Arthrell, and her brother-in-law, Braddock Hills Council President Chuck Arthrell, to speak to students about the local history and family lineages of their borough. All three Rodrigues brothers—technology coach Justin and social studies teachers Matt and Rob—contributed to the discussion about Forest Hills and the impact of George Westinghouse on the eastern suburbs.
Al Senick, substitute teacher at Woodland Hills, and George Spencer, president of the community group Mad Dads, shared high school stories from attending General Braddock together. Students like Joseph Ward enjoyed hearing about how much things had “changed from when they were kids to today,” and Jeannell Hicks was pleased to know that “Mr. Spencer knew my whole family.”
The event also gave council members the opportunity to take questions from their young constituents, many of whom are already registered to vote or will be registering soon.
Churchill Council Member Diana Yankes described her interaction with the students as “uplifting.” She and Wilkins Council President Sylvia Martinelli both praised the students for their engagement and ability to ask good questions. In parting, Martinelli “encouraged them to get involved in their communities.”
Silverman was overjoyed with the project, which both community members and students suggested she replicate for future classes. She stressed, “The east side of the Squirrel Hill Tunnel has a fascinating history, and I wanted our kids to understand that they are a part of that legacy. People from these twelve boroughs had a hand in building the United States with steel and other industry. I have great hope that our youth can be the next torchbearers with the generous support of this wonderful community of adults who came to donate their time to them.”