The city of Baltimore has a unique history, and the Ashburton/Forest Park neighborhood is no exception. It’s a neighborhood known for the way that its Black and Jewish residents coexist. Now city native, Terris King II, looks to blend storytelling and technology to showcase this rich history through a new lens.
Temple X, a new organization headed by King, partners with Liberty Grace Church of God, Beth Tfiloh Community School and Synagogue and Ashburton Elementary School to create an interactive walking tour app. It combines the stories of two girls in the 1950s, one is white Jewish girl and one is Black Christian girl; both of whom tell the area’s story. A prototype of the app premiers this week.
A friendship story
The walking tour follows the friendship of the two girls (voiced by children from Beth Tfiloh and Liberty Grace Church of God) as they journey around the neighborhood together. They compare experiences and face hardships, such as seeing a sign saying “No Blacks Allowed” at Gwynn Oak Amusement Park.
“We are using these walking tours, using augmented reality, and creating the app so that families can take their devices outside. They can engage in another world of learning around them by using this technology,” King says.
“Whether they go back to school or not, kids can be outside of their homes, walking, engaging with their families, and engaged in learning that is connected to standards and their development,” he adds.
The inspiration for the app came during the five years he taught kindergarten in Shanghai, China, he says. While there, he worked with his students on X Reality, which involves using both augmented reality and virtual reality.
“The concept was to use different kinds of technology to create learning experiences where children can engage in the world by leveraging technology to have different types of hands-on experiences,” he says.
The app targets pre-K and early elementary school students. It uses the help of the community to guide the storyline in addition to the voiceovers. Through Zoom sessions with the children of Beth Tfiloh, Liberty Grace Church of God and the Ashburton/Forest Park community, both King and Susan Holzman, director of professional development at Beth Tfiloh, connected with kids. Then they were able to see what the kids looked for out of the experience.
“There was a week a few weeks ago where we had daily Zoom sessions with the children. And in the beginning, we worked with them to interact with each other and find commonalities and get to know each other,” Holzman says.
“As the week evolved, we got to pick their brains about things they were thinking about and what they would want to know about growing up in that neighborhood during that time,” she says.
The main concept for the app’s storyline came from a day when the children interviewed two people who grew up in the neighborhood during the ’50s—a Black Christian man and a white Jewish woman.
“There were some magical moments where they were sharing what it was like to be part of the community, and especially with Gwynn Oak Amusement Park. Our Jewish guest talked about how she and her family would go a few times a year and how it was considered a special treat,” Holzman says. “And then, our African American guest talked about how the bus would go by, and he would want to go, and he wouldn’t be able to go because African Americans were not welcomed.”
The walking tour includes the original location of Beth Tfiloh, the Enoch Pratt Free Library Forest Park branch and original location of the Forest Park Theatre. Temple X also worked with Baltimore City Police to create a safe experience for families; the app even includes voiceovers from police officers to remind children to stay aware of their surroundings during the tour.
For King and Holzman, a key part of developing the tour was teaching children in a way they will understand, but being honest with them about issues such as segregation.
“I feel like for me, it’s about having an anti-bias kind of approach to creating this,” King says. “Everybody’s voices are heard. But then we are also making sure we are focused on telling the truth. And the truth is having these different perspectives, not just one.”
Jana Ponczak, a mother of a student at Beth Tfiloh, says her son’s involvement in the app created a unique learning experience for him that he has continued to take with him.
“I think, when you’re coming at it from the perspective of where we are in the world today, I think being honest with children and, telling them the history of places in Baltimore City is a very important piece.” she says.
“Especially because the Jewish community and the African American community in Baltimore are fairly intertwined in historical ways. And so I think that it’s really beneficial to teach the future generation of both African American children and Jewish children, that there’s a lot of shared history,” she adds.