An urban curriculum for social change

iStock_000002198598XSmallPaul Skilton Sylvester, a third-grade teacher in Philadelphia, engaged his students in real-life social and economic issues through an innovative, educational model he learned at The Bank Street School, New York. Sylvester’s social studies curriculum was guided by his students’ questions and interests as well as by state requirements and his own beliefs about what should be taught. He used the Bank Street model to involve his students in a hands-on study of their neighborhood. With his guidance, students identified and analyzed real-life problems and learned to address them in productive ways.

Class environment

Ninety-three percent of the students in Sylvester’s school were on public assistance. His own class of 24 students was made up of 23 African-American students and one Latino student. During the school year, six students transferred into his class and eight transferred out.

Sylvester described his class as highly structured. Despite significant differences in achievement levels, Sylvester discovered that his students were more motivated when they worked together as a class. Maximum progress occurred when the entire class worked on an exercise, with the more advanced students tutoring those in need of help.

Students have considerable input into learning

Within a traditional, basic-skills curriculum, Sylvester’s students were allowed considerable input into their learning and great flexibility in the approaches they used to complete their work. Moreover, when students behaved well and completed their academic work, they were hired for important jobs such as collating homework packets.

Students were paid in class “dollars” for these jobs and for the academic work they did in class each day, as well as for responsible social behavior and for the achievement of personal goals that they set for themselves. In the last ten minutes of every day, students evaluated their performance and filled out a pay sheet figuring how much they deserved to be paid that day.

A maximum of $25 could be earned on any given day. Students then wrote their personal goals for the following day. Students were paid on Friday afternoons. Before they could spend their wages, however, they were required to pay rent for their desk and taxes for municipal salaries. With the remaining money they could buy free time for educational games and other activities. When the entire class worked hard, Sylvester used Friday afternoons to take them on walking tours of the neighborhood.

A town is born

As the year progressed, Sylvester and his students were inspired to create their own neighborhood in the classroom which they called Sweet Cakes Town. To learn about starting businesses in their town, they visited a nearby restaurant.

The owner taught them about starting small, saving money, buying wholesale cheaply and selling retail less cheaply. He told them to remember that businesses grew little by little.

After this visit, the students decided to set up an educational toy and game store, an art supply store, a bank, a clothing store, an art gallery, and a petting zoo. In January, when the stores had been constructed, they were auctioned off. Students bid against one another using the classroom dollars they had earned. A lesson in supply and demand grew out of this experience.

Over the next months a hair-braiding salon and other stores were added. Owners hired and paid other students to work in their stores, partnerships were formed and stores were bought and sold without Sylvester’s intervention. With each proposal for a new type of store, the class interviewed a local store owner or did research in the public library. English lessons were developed around thank-you letters they wrote to local business people.

Student owners were required to fill out forms on which they calculated their gross receipts and subtracted rent and taxes from their earnings to find their net profit.

By gradually increasing the complexity of these forms, students carried out meaningful applications of math problems at a challenging but attainable level. Stores opened for business on Friday afternoons. Sylvester reports that this was an exciting and usually orderly time in which students followed their own pursuits, either working at stores to earn more money or spending their money for the good and services offered in thee stores. For the most part, students ran Sweet Cakes Town by themselves.

Real economic issues addressed

Gradually, Sylvester introduced into the classroom economy the kinds of problems that existed in the real neighborhood. High-paying jobs were withdrawn after it was explained that the job had moved to the suburbs. Sylvester’s students lost jobs to fourth-grade students who worked for nothing just to be released from their own class.

At one point, Sylvester kept cutting wages for classroom jobs because he could always find someone willing to do the job for less. It took the students a while to organize, but eventually they formed a union to fight wage cuts. Students thus were introduced to recessions, layoffs, wage inequities and alliances of capital. Sylvester encouraged his students to regard these problems as challenges to be overcome rather than defeats to be endured.

The government of Sweet Cakes Town evolved as problems occurred between individuals. City officials were elected and laws were voted on. At one point when an official was accused of breaking the law, a court was set up, a judge was elected and jurors and lawyers selected. An African-American lawyer came to class to coach both the defense and the prosecution. Witnesses were sworn in and a trial was held.


Sylvester reports dramatic improvements in the social and academic behavior of several students, and he attributes this to their experience with Sweet Cakes Town.

The experience appears to have been particularly helpful for students who had been retained one or more times and, as a result, had trouble fitting in with their younger classmates. The Sweet Cakes Town experience also greatly benefited students who were academically below average and had experienced difficulty with traditional academic lessons.

Meaningful applications of basic skills

Sylvester summarizes the benefits of Sweet Cakes Town as follows:

1. It created opportunities for repeated, meaningful applications of basic academic skills.

2. It helped students divorce academic success from “acting white,” to learn that a positive racial identity and succeeding in school are not mutually exclusive for minority students.

3. It provided opportunities for students to imagine and try out new roles. It enabled them to practice ways to transform their lives.

4. It gave students the opportunity to experiment with strategies for getting and using power effectively.

5. It helped students question and analyze existing social conditions. It enabled students to step back and scrutinize their personal experiences in their neighborhood. They acquired personal, interrelated, concrete and practical knowledge of how their neighborhood works.

6. It created opportunities for students to feel hopeful and to develop strategies for overcoming barriers to economic success in mainstream society.

7. It enabled students to view social structures as changeable. They had the opportunity to question why certain conditions exist and to try out new approaches through legislation, taxation, social services and labor/management relations. The importance of imagination in social change became clear.

“Elementary School Curricula and Urban Transformation”, Harvard Educational Review, Volume 64, Number 3, Fall 1994, pp. 309-329.

Published in ERN, November/December 1994, Volume 7, Number 5.

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