EAST GARFIELD PARK — Social issues that plague the West Side are a key part of Robert Davis’ social studies lessons at George Westinghouse College Prep.
Since the start of the pandemic, Davis’ ninth and 11th graders have studied unequal access to health care on the West Side, the history of disinvestment, the lack of public infrastructure and the many vacant lots and run-down buildings in the area. Davis has also incorporated lessons on food access into his classes since the lack of grocery stores and supermarkets on the West Side has contributed to severe health disparities.
Davis’ approach to social studies and civics won him a Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching this year. The Golden Apple Foundation organized a celebration to surprise Davis with the award at Westinghouse’s gymnasium with his students and colleagues.
Being recognized as one of the state’s top teachers has been a “great opportunity for me to reflect on what I’ve been doing as a teacher the past couple years,” Davis said.
Davis is among 10 winners of the prestigious statewide award, which includes a $5,000 prize and a spring sabbatical provided by Northwestern University.
David said he was proud to be recognized for his teaching strategy, which encourages students to “see an issue and think about how to fix it.”
“We’re getting them to recognize that the stuff they walk by, the abandoned buildings they walk by, there’s a reason that’s there. Then they can think about how to get rid of them. It’s hugely empowering,” Davis said.
Westinghouse Principal W. Terrell Burgess said he nominated Davis for his work tailoring social science lessons to be culturally relevant to students’ lives.
“I don’t remember learning about history in a way that connected to me and my lived experience. I always felt like an outsider in my history classes,” Burgess said. “Students shouldn’t feel like an outsider in their learning.”
Students are more likely to succeed when they feel invested in the material they are learning, Davis said.
“The first step is letting students know how things relate to us,” he said.
Davis’ approach to education is “not only teaching people about the past. It is also giving them the belief they can change things,” he said. “I’ve done huge things around students being active in the community and seen some tremendous results. I just created an atmosphere where they could show their full potential.”
Other teachers at Westinghouse benefit from Davis’ abilities as an educator, Burgess said. Davis is a natural leader who heads the school’s freshman-level team, where he has implemented academic support programs and mentored other teachers, the principal said.
As temporary social studies chair, Davis “singlehandedly changed the trajectory of that department,” in part by having “courageous conversations about the work that is needed to move us forward,” Burgess said.
“It wasn’t about making a name for himself. It was just that this is the work that needs to be done, and he was the one called to do it and willing to do the heavy lifting,” Burgess said.
Davis said his success as teacher continues a long tradition in his family as educators, dating back four generations. Practically every member of Davis’ family has been a teacher at some point, he said.
“This is my family business. I’ve had educators in the family since the late 1800s. For me to be up there is kind of a moment for all the educators in my family,” Davis said.
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast”: