Yesterday I participated in an end of the quarter awards assembly at my school.  I have always felt torn about awards because of the feelings of those who do not receive them, and we all know when there are winners, there are losers.  At my school we balance academics, attendance, citizenship when we award students.  Many of my students deserve the celebration, but what happens to the children we continually do not recognize?  Yesterday’s awards had an added twist, they awarded classrooms for highest average attendance, GPA and behavior with a class flag, and announced them in third, second and first place.  As soon as this was announced, I got a sinking feeling.  I traditionally have a challenging set of homeroom students, all of the grade level’s special education students are in my homeroom, many students with  behavior struggles, a student with a chronic attendance issue that is less about him and more about his home situation, and handful of struggling students, but those things feel like an excuse too.   Yet, my students have made SO many gains this year.  They improved their attendance by 2% points over the first quarter, have more students on track academically, and have been working extremely hard through class meetings to solve their interpersonal problems and grow as citizens.  Yet, even in their growth, I knew they would not rank in the top.  I saw the slumped shoulders and the sad faces and those around them cheered and received awards and it made me wonder, how resilient are they?  How resilient should we expect them to be at nine years old?  Aren’t they more than the data?

Of course, anyone you ask who interacts with kids says, without question, they are more than data, but this is what we celebrate about them.  I work in a place that has data driven in it’s mission statement, I work in a district that lives in data, so how can I expect anything else?  I also know that those data points matter.  Kids that are present learn more, kids that have their behavior together can learn more, and students who are studying and completing work, tend to do better and earn better grades.  I want my students to be present, have positive behavior and do well academically.  But there is more to students than those three things.  There is more to their education than academics.  There are relationships, collaboration, learning from mistakes, having empathy, perseverance, and hard work.

I knew the class meeting was the place to bring this conversation. My homeroom starts every day with a class meeting.  We have a simple but powerful format.  We start with compliments for others.  This is a chance for them to recognize the bright spots in each other.  Over the last twelve weeks, there has not been a student in my class who has not received a compliment from another.  They range from simple statements of someone picked up my folder when dropped  to something powerful like inviting another to join a game or breakfast table and showing inclusiveness.  They are sincere, they are mindful and they are proud of themselves and each other.  They also solve problems in the meeting.  These also range from a cut in the line to bullying to distracting from learning because of behavior choices.  They are using language to express how they feel, giving suggestions to others on how to solve problems, tell the others what they need to move forward and then show bravery in apologizing and healing relationships.  It is the most powerful part of my day, and likely theirs. The skills they are gaining in these meeting can not be measure in any data point collected at my school.  Yet, they are happier, more collaborative, and empowered problem solvers.  I had my students reflect on meetings recently and they consistently said it made them feel safe, included, helpful and valued by their peers.

When I started the meeting today they said all the things I expected: proud of those who received awards, frustrated they did not, sad when they have been working so hard and were not recognized, but still hopeful to win in the future.  I agreed with all the emotions and explained as I did above that those awards are recognition of important aspects of school success, but there is more to them and more to school than those three pieces.  I asked them what they thought our class was the best at in the first quarter.  I have never cried in front of students, but I did today.  They said they were the best at teamwork, supporting others, including others, being themselves, sharing compliments with others and solving problems.  And they were right about each of those things.

I told them I agreed and that instead of feeling sad or frustrated it was time to problem solve.  What did they want to do to create change in the way they felt and most likely a lot of others felt after that awards ceremony?  They had ideas like have each class give themselves an award for what they have been the best at, just as they did.  They also said to find a way to celebrate what is special about each student.  I invited my administrators to our meeting Monday so my students can advocate for themselves.  They need to speak with them about how they felt, what they think is valuable, and how they want to celebrate more than just the data points.

After the discussion I told my students that I originally had submitted all their names for citizenship because I had seen positive citizenship from all of them during the first quarter, some more than others, but growth by all.  I explained to them that I felt pressure to not do that because I was worried that someone would question me and say something about a student who had been suspended, or about a negative interaction and I changed at the last minute to not include some of my students who had received an administrative consequence in the first quarter.  I told them I realized I should have given them to all of them because I believe they all were working hard at aspects of citizenship.  They agreed and I called the first student’s name to receive the award and all of the kids clapped for him and all the others I gave a late award to at the meeting. Those seven students wore their medals with such pride and smiled for the rest of the meeting.   It may have been the first time they had ever been recognized or celebrated.

Sometimes when we see our kids as only data we forget what else they are.  When we expect nine year olds to be perfect in any areas, we leave little space for growth, mistakes and learning.  If we create a school culture without space for learning from mistakes, problem solving, safety and belonging we are not fully educating our kids.

Recently, I was having a conversation with some fellow teachers about online sharing.   We were discussing the idea of sharing our work we do with our students on the internet and the impact that has on us, them and others.  There is a common understanding that sharing is a great way to show new ways of thinking, innovative ways of using tools and getting others to feel inspired to try new things.  In fact, all of us agreed that we have tried something in our classrooms that was someone else idea, creation or lesson.   These teachers are also the best example of sharing well. If they share an idea they developed from a shared idea from another, they give credit.  If they present an idea they developed in a collaboration, or like a term that another has used to describe an idea, they ask to use it, with credit.  Every time.

Sharing is important as educators and it’s important for our kids.    Our kids are able to see that ideas often come from other places and are a blend of our thinking and others.  Our kids then get to see their work as being valued and important and worth sharing with others.  They see audience, importance of quality and that special feeling of being recognized for good quality work and the possibility of inspiring others.

But there have been some issues in the world of sharing recently as well.  These problems are generally limited and the exception, but they occur and I personally feel they need to be addressed.  Some people are using what others share and are not giving credit, or they are giving credit but not asking permission, or they are asking permission but then telling an inaccurate story.  People  are using what others are sharing and telling “a” story, but too often it’s not “the” story of the work.  I make the distinction because even if I see a person’s blog, video, student work, etc.  I don’t actually know “the story.”   The story has background, relationships, context, and meaning that only the person who is involved in the story can tell accurately.  Even if you have heard the story, it’s still hearsay.  If you are a person who wants to tell another person’s story, do the work like a reporter.  Ask the person about it, say you would like to tell it and where you would like to tell it, after they tell it to you, tell them what the story is you heard and check for accuracy and details.  Ask is there anything else to add.  Finally, ASK permission to tell it.

This failure to ask to use and failure to use properly is misuse of sources and not giving credit to the work is plagiarism.  I had a friend who recently was presenting at a conference and was in another session where someone she didn’t know was using her work.  It was the same work she planned to use and discuss in her session.  The person didn’t ask her, didn’t tell the story correctly and was presenting at a conference.  My friend was brave enough to confront the person and express the desire to have been asked to use the work.  This example and others have happened countless times to her and I am sure to others.

Presenting and sharing other people’s work without credit is fraudulent.  If you are getting paid to present and you don’t give credit I think that is almost criminal.  If you are presenting only other people’s work with permission in a session the title should somewhere include curation.  You should clearly state that these are other people’s ideas. They are ideas you found, ideas you heard about, ideas you like, but they are not your ideas.   If you have permission to use, share and speak about someone’s work, no problem, but please still give them full credit in your presentation.

Teachers need to continue to share, I will continue to share the work I do with others and my students.  But people who are entrepreneurs and making money in the education world by stealing from others deserve to be called on it.  Education conferences need to review the work of presenters and just as a editor would require citations for published work, the committees should require credit to the source of the work too.

Dear Mr. Vitale, Mr. Ruiz, Mr. Azcoitia, Mr. Bienen, Ms. Hines, Ms. Pritzker, Ms. Zopp:

It is decision time in Chicago.  You have been presented with a plan by the Mayor and his hired CEO.  You are his appointed Board of Education members with the power to decide.  I use the term plan loosely because by definition it is,  “a detailed formulation of a program of action, a method worked out beforehand for the accomplishment of an objective.”  This school closing action is definitely not a plan, up until the day of the announcement even people in the CPS central office were unaware of many parts of it.  Imagine how poorly it will be executed when it continues to be drawn up minute by minute with little thought and consideration of the outcomes and consequences.  Even if the community opinion and parent voices are ignored, I hope the research is considered by the board. I hope you have taken the time to read the articles and research discussing the cost, dangers of school closings, as well as information about the schools closed and the impact on welcoming schools.

The Board members actually have an opportunity to lead a change in school reform with your vote.  By looking at the research and saying NO to school closings you can shift the conversation, lead real reform in urban schools.   You have a chance to determine what a community school can look like in every neighborhood.  You have a chance to do just as our school motto says: educate, inspire, transform.

So here is your chance.   Here is your moment to do something for Chicago.  Make a choice as a Chicagoan, a community member and a leader in education. You are at a crossroad: will you  be a part of the destruction of Chicago and its communities or will you be  a beacon in the storm of education reform?  Your name is attached, your legacy will be remember, your choice will have an impact for generations. Will your name be written with those who create positive change and bright futures for our children, or will your name be written on the death certificate of neighbor schools and the communities they serve?

Dare to give our neighborhood schools and the children that attend them an education the mayor gives his own children.  Show our children what it means to think critically, take all the information from the research detailing the damage of school closing on communities, children and finances and make a decision to keep schools open.  Show our children what courage looks like,  stand up to the man who appointed you and say you think what’s best for our children is to have a quality neighborhood school in every neighborhood.  Show our children that you think of them first when you are making decisions.  Take the money that is set for security and busing and use it to give children the resources they need, show them you believe they deserve all of that in the school they are in, not just if they are willing to face danger and distance to get it.

Let your choice and legacy be the model that other urban districts follow, let this world class city lead by offering a world class education to all of our students in their neighborhood.

Sincerely,

A Chicagoan

We have resilient students and teachers which I have seen first hand how they will adjust to any condition faced.  Whether it is class size, budget, buildings, principals, testing, or another factor people in our schools do their very best.  They do this out of the desire to get an education and to give the highest quality education.  They will do what they must, but they should not have to overcome as much as they do.  I know that no matter what our future holds, teachers, staff and communities will come together to do their best at giving our kids the best education they can.

Our mayor says he wants to reduce violence and give our students opportunities for success, but those must not include getting an education in their neighborhood. Our efforts should be to build quality schools in EVERY neighborhood.   We have students who attend our schools despite major adversity now, to add stress by closing schools is not going to help us prepare our students for the future, in fact stress is a huge obstacle to learning, why aren’t we working to remove road blocks for our kids? Imagine the stress of having to get to school, outside of your neighborhood and have that route feel unsafe.  The message it sends to me is that our kids education is not a priority for our city.  It says we don’t believe you deserve the best, even though every person working with our young people believes they do deserve just that.

We heard the commision recommend not closing high schools because of gangs and violence issues, yet our K-8 students will be left to face it.  How many more kids’ lives must be sacrificed?  Should the gangs be held accountable for violence? Of course. But should our schools be the ones putting our students in unsafe spaces? No.  The amount of money the city will have to spend on bussing (if they do at all) and security will be more than they save in utilization.  The loss of community centers in schools and safe zones in neighborhoods is beyond measure.  It is definitely beyond the math or seats, classrooms and number of students in a building. Why can’t we utilize the space in schools to offer after-school community programs, lease out the space to park districts, heath and fitness programs, nonprofits that want to come in and help in our communities?  Why can’t the mayor “sell” that? Chicago Public Schools is advertising on public transit a way for people to vote for community programs, can’t we do both: keep schools open and use the space in schools for community programs?

The recommendations for schools should come from a commission of community members, parents, teachers and city workers who live in and work in our communities. I imagine a parent, police office, religious and community leader would bring better insight to the decision. The solution to keeping schools open and utilized can be solved with the members of each community invested in the schools themselves.  How invested can a CEO be by living here for less than 6 months?  How much does the mayor care when he has only been back for a few years and will likely be gone in a few more and doesn’t send his kids to our schools?  Yet our children, families and teachers remain here to learn and work in our community schools.

I hope CTU has a plan to stand for children and keeping schools open as they did for a fair contract.  The message sent when thousands of people stand together in our downtown displaying the need for something better for our kids and schools was powerful. The mayor says he wants our students to dream of a possibility of what our downtown has to offer them in their own futures.  I hope our young people, teachers, families and concern community members listen to the mayor and take our children downtown very soon to send a message about their education and their future.

In Chicago we are on the verge of teacher contract strike.  Depending on who you ask and what you read the reasons behind it are different.  Depending on who you ask and what you read what is fair for the pending contract is different.  Both sides are fighting for what they believe is right for students.  Doing what’s right for the kids of Chicago.  I have only worked with Chicago kids, so they are all I know, but I have also only worked in neighborhood schools on the far south and south side.  I only know kids who are coming to school from neighborhoods that experience poverty, gun violence, and high unemployment.  I only have worked with students who are often below grade level.  These are the classrooms in which we need the best teachers, in my opinion.  And I have worked with some of the best teachers in the city.

I have worked in a school without the arts.  And I have worked in a school with music, art and a pool for students to learn to swim.  Without a doubt, it makes a difference.  There is no test score that tells me that, there is no value-added score to support my conclusion.  But when I see students who have been enriched with arts they have more connections to make, offer creative ideas and solutions, and bottom line, have a richer student experience.   All children should have these opportunities.

I have taught 24 students and I have taught 31 students.  Seven kids makes a world of difference.  Smaller classes are more productive for students and more productive for teaching and learning.  Knowing students and having a relationship with them makes me a better teacher for them.  Not just because I have a relationship but because I can know them as a student, what they need support with, what content they are struggle to grasp, what areas they need to be accelerated to grow even more.  This works for students, this works for teachers.

Chicago is a place of extremes.  We have some of the top rated schools in the nation in our school district.  I am proud of that fact.  We also have some of the toughest, hardest to staff, neighborhood schools in the nation.  All of them are filled with teachers that want students in their  classrooms and schools to be successful.  I know that too.

My teaching partners and I last year experienced a unit of study with our students called “Equalize our Education.” They learned about the history of education in our country, they found out about how not all schools are equal even within our own city, they found out their school had things others didn’t and that other schools had some things they didn’t.  They had ideas and dreams about what schools of the future should be like, they talked about technology, the arts, student voice.  Not one of them talked about more testing and bigger classes. Listen to the children of Chicago and do what’s right for kids.

As I went to my room after school I checked my phone as normally do after a day of having it silenced.  I saw three missed calls from my dear friend, Peter and another from a good friend, Sara.  The missed call number is large, but my friend Peter has had a brain tumor for the last 16 months and has been recovering from a major bleed at the site of his tumor since December.  I was so alarmed that something else had happened, I immediately checked his first voicemail and heard his mom’s voice say my name and then pause and I knew it was terrible.  She tried three times to leave me a voicemail to tell me he had passed and hung up each time before she could say the words.  My friend Sara simple said call me when you get this.  I called her and she confirmed for me the terribly sad news.  When his mom called me back this time we spoke through sobs about him passing and how he spent his morning before it happened.  Hours later I am still lost in this sadness, but want to tell the story of our friendship so I selfishly don’t forget any of the details.

Peter and I met the year after my college graduation while volunteering for Americorps in St. Petersburg, Florida.  We were both former college athletes, he was a basketball player from the West Coast and grew up on Orcas Island, a small island in the San Juan Islands off of Seattle.  We were instant friends.  We had the same birthday month, we love watching college football and basketball, crosswords and jigsaw puzzles, and mostly have a good time and laughing with friends. But this was just the start of our 10 year friendship (almost to the day of 10 years)!

Even as we moved on from our volunteer year we stayed close friends through different moves to different states we managed to stay connected, he moved back to Florida and we picked up where we left of as friends, even teaching high schoolers SAT prep math on Saturday mornings which we manage to fill with laughter.  He was one of the most carefree, funny and downright enjoyable people I have ever know.  We never spent time in Florida doing much past watching games, spending the day at the beach with friends, grilling and grabbing drinks.

He married his wife in Florida and they radiated love throughout their lives together, beginning, middle and even in the end when I know those bright spots were hard to come by, the way they looked at each other never changed.  They were happy together and had a small family with two boys who will never have the chance to truly know how great of a man their father was in his short time here.  I don’t think even the stories will do justice to the living man.

Peter had a few of us out for a relay race in the Northwest about four years ago.   At that point I had been in Chicago for a few years, he had been in Florida and then on the East Coast and we still talked and connected, but the few days back together was as if no time had past, as is true with the people who really “get you” in life.  He was someone who has always gotten me and I him.  In the first few weeks of meeting in Florida we did a team building activity where we had to think of the person in the group who was our “known” and some as our “unknown” in an exercise.  Later that day at lunch when the group was talking about it, I leaned over and said to him, “you were my known” and he just smiled and said, “you were my known.”  I just think of this as who we were as people, for some reason we were “known” to each other and remained that way.

He left me a voicemail 16 month ago, which I saved at the time and when I got a new phone I saved his and a few other voicemails to my computer.  I can still hear the carefreeness in his voice.   That next conversation was the one were he told me about his tumor, it was then that his life started to change and the treatments.  I saw him that summer, last summer, as he started to have radiation treatment.  He told me the honest truth about when they put the beads in his head, and how the treatments were making him feel tired and also this new anger that had never been in him before.  The thing about being knowns is those conversations can never be false, they are always raw.  At this point he was still feeling optimistic even through the treatment and the side effects.  He was on my mind so often. I would text him when I would run and let him know I was thinking of him on it and feeling his presence on it, or  when I would dedicate a yoga practice.  With those things I could take him with me on the things he didn’t have the energy to do because of his fight.  I think this was teaching me how to carry him with me.

Two weeks after welcoming his second son, Peter experienced a major bleed at the site of his tumor, which had him airlifted to Boston and in an induced coma to help his recovery.  This news sent me reeling, it seemed so dire, but news of his progress came after a few days and weeks and he was moved to an outpatient hospital.  I finally spoke with him again in March.  I told him then it was so amazing to hear his voice and smile over the phone.  I had been wanted to visit since December but was waiting for the time to be right.  He said I could come when I was free, so I schedule my flight for the next week.

I only went for the day, his mom tried to prepare me for a different Peter, but this was my known.   He was asleep when I got there but made his way out with his mom’s help and although different, still the same Peter.  We spent the day catching each other up on life, him telling me about his rehab routines and days off with the family, me telling him about Chicago and teaching.  He told me his frustration with his doctors not telling him about his recovery and time.  This idea of time was on his mind even then.  We talked about time and how maybe they didn’t know or didn’t want to put a limit on him.  We never said if we were talking about recovery or lifetime.  I think we were talking about both.

My biggest fear is that time will fade my memories, this is why I want to write them to secure them.  But there is so much more to say.  When I spoke to his mom today and thank her for calling me she said, “oh Autumn, Peter just adored you, he was so thrilled when you visited this Spring.”  He had so many people in his life who he touched, countless friends, but he was one of the most important friends of my life.  I am lost in this great loss.

This question has been debated for a while now, many argue against it saying that parents are doing it, kids are not learning from it and its a waste of time.  As with all arguments there are no absolutes in this case either, some homework is great for kids and some is meaningless.  As a teacher I have a very hard time with its place as far as assessment, feedback and time spent in class.  My grade level team is currently grappling with all three of these issues.  But I have never questioned not giving it to my students and here are some of the reasons.

I teach in a school with 95% plus on free or reduced lunch, at a school that was on probation, but most importantly I teach students who are or at one time were below grade level or multiple years below grade level in core subjects.  These are the students who headstart and preschool for all programs are aimed at, these are kids who do not have access to a rich environment for learning.  They need homework.  They don’t live in a place that is safe to go outside and play, they don’t have multitudes of books in their house, they aren’t involved in after school activities like sports or arts.  They need more.  They need more time to learn, more time to grow and more time to build knowledge.  They need homework.

They need homework because before they came to school they also didn’t have all the things mentioned above and came in behind because the work wasn’t being done at home.  The work at home needs to be done now.  I don’t want parents “doing” the homework for the students, but I want parents working with their child on homework, figuring it out with their child.  I want parents to call me and ask questions because it shows they want the work to be done too.  They may be “doing” it sometimes, but I hope they are doing it side by side with their child and having a discussion too.

If you work with students in who are at-risk of dropping out during their education what message does it send when you don’t give them work to continue at home?  For me it says, education is a 8-2 job, it only happens when you are in school and its up to me, not up to you or your family.  By giving homework I think it says, its going to be hard but you can do it, I can support you and so can your family, the more you work at your education the better you will be and education takes place outside of school hours.  I am working hard for their education well over my school day hours, and I think they should too.

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