The fall 2021 City of Boston class stops for a group photo at Education Street

Civics and City Dwelling: An Inside Look at Our “City of Boston” Class

Coming to Boston’s Back Bay for high school can be thrilling...and a little intimidating, even for the many Commonwealth School students who grew up in the city. Boston is our campus, and its personality and bountiful resources are part of what makes attending Commonwealth so special. To empower students to harness those resources, and to appreciate the beauty and complexities of city life, we require all ninth-grade students to take City of Boston, part of our ninth-grade seminar, to explore Commonwealth’s neighborhood and well beyond it. 

Originally offered by English teacher Brent Whelan in the 1990s, history teacher Melissa Glenn Haber ’87 currently shapes the curriculum. Here, Ms. Haber explains the why and wherefore of City of Boston and how the class turns every student into a more thoughtful Bostonian, wherever they hail from.


The Shape of the Class

Though the class differs from year to year, City of Boston is designed to make students comfortable with their surroundings while at the same time helping them examine some of the uncomfortable questions cities often raise, like who decides how cities change? And who should decide? 

How better to start sussing out the answers than by experiencing Boston firsthand?

From Chinatown to the West End to Dudley/Nubian Square, weekly field trips both familiarize students with navigating the city and allow them to see how Boston’s neighborhoods fit together. Follow-up discussions then give them a chance to talk about what they observed and delve into questions about civics, public policy, and society. One class period might include a discussion of the Fair Housing Act or environmental justice; another might explore the costs and benefits of economic development, with illustrative outings for each. 

A perennial favorite field trip sees students heading to Boston’s North End, where they discover this charming Italian neighborhood is more than just eateries; it’s also a case study in the positive and negative effects of gentrification. Students seem to appreciate learning about class mobility and the impact governments can have on a particular neighborhood. They also seem to enjoy the requisite stop for cannoli.

“We introduce a lot of ideas about the structural reasons for differences that we see,” Ms. Haber says, like the role of the Federal Housing Administration in creating areas of wealth and depressing areas, mostly for people of color. They discuss Henry George and the idea that the increased value of housing could accrue to the community that made the neighborhood more valuable, rather than to the investor. (Ms. Haber points to her own experience living in Somerville over the past three decades, watching the city bloom around her—and her own property value increase. “I've done none of this. Other people are bringing in the fancy oat milk latte store. But I'm benefiting,” she says.) 

The class also covers the complicated idea of limited equity ownership, which aims to ensure that all new development in Somerville, Cambridge, and Boston, for example, includes “affordable” housing. But this, of course, raises more questions: Affordable for who? And what are the long-term implications? “Some of those apartments, you own them, but you don't own them—you don't own the equity,” Ms. Haber says. “That takes away that path to wealth that my grandparents had...but it also keeps the price low.” The City of Boston class grapples with that tension.  

Like all Commonwealth courses, critical thinking is at the core of the class, and Ms. Haber wants her students to give careful thought to every space they enter and how it came to be. This starts early in the semester, as she engages students in a close-watching exercise, where they describe how they might behave in the Public Garden versus Boston Common. Some students feel happier and safer in the Garden; others, in the Common. Why is that? “And how do those small decisions that we as individuals make about where to go, how to behave, reinforce a lot of the things that we really don't want to be true in our society, and yet are somewhat unwittingly perpetuating?” Ms. Haber asks.

Another exercise has students describing a “normal” street. Invariably, they point out the inherent problem with the assignment: there is no universal “normal.” “What I think is normal is just my perspective,” Ms. Haber says. Even students coming from the same towns have different backgrounds and experiences. “Do we all see the same things, feel the same things, as we're coming from our own different backgrounds?” Ms. Haber asks. “A lot of the course is exploring that space of, ‘Wait, we're all living in the same city, but we're not all living in the same city.’” 


Why Offer the City of Boston Class?

The more practical roots of the City of Boston class date back to the mid-1990s, when Commonwealth started attracting more students from well beyond Boston proper—Arlington, Lexington, Malden, Medford, Newton, Sharon, Winchester, and as far as Lowell and northern Rhode Island. It became clear that these suburban students would benefit from some city life training: how to ride and conduct yourself on The T (Boston’s subway system), how to navigate crowded areas safely (don’t leave your backpack open!), what Boston’s various neighborhoods are (South End, Roxbury, East Boston, Theater District, etc.), and more. 

But the class also coincided with the founding of Commonwealth’s community service program, and City of Boston supported those efforts as well. “We're all supposed to come together to help students have a formal space to think about issues of social justice and about our role in them,” says Ms. Haber.

“Partially [the class] is a history of who got the voice, and partially it's a civics class about where we are today,” Ms. Haber says. “For me, the course has really been about what it is like to live in a multicultural democracy” and the questions that multicultural democracy gives rise to. How do you decide whose city it is? Whose city should it be? What does it mean to have a diverse city, both in terms of the ethnic and racial backgrounds of its various neighborhoods as well as socioeconomically? “The ideas we're going to discuss will touch on the uncomfortable topics of race and class and culture," she says. "This class will help you think about your experience and your community and how they are the same and different as others', and to recognize your own assumptions.” 

Think of the class as a giant “coffee cup” thought experiment, Ms. Haber says, borrowing from influential sociologist Karl Mannheim. She summarizes: imagine sitting across from someone, trying to describe the coffee cup between you. You say the cup is pink; the other person says the cup has words on it. No, it’s pink, you assert. No, it has words on it, they say—and they call you stupid because you don’t see the world for what it so clearly is. And thus a simple disagreement bubbles into a terrible fight—all because you saw different things on different sides of the same coffee cup. It’s a matter of perspective.

“Luckily, being humans, we can talk to each other about what we're seeing,” she says. “The more we are willing to share what we see from our narrow perspective, and the more we are open to what other people are seeing, then suddenly, like gods, we can see 360 degrees. But it requires the step of believing that other people are seeing what they're telling you they're seeing and that what you're seeing is also true.”

Everyone benefits from learning about the parts of the picture we cannot see, through literature, art, conversation, Ms. Haber says. The City of Boston class creates a discussion environment that not only acknowledges each of us understands a part of the picture others have not yet seen, but also enters into that space with curiosity to have a fuller picture than we have today.

“I don't try to have any answers,” Ms. Haber says to her students. “I'd just like you to think about these things for the next little while—and all the next little whiles.”

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