Three students—an apprentice violin-maker, a veteran, and an aspiring novelist—sit around a sparse but cozy room in a college residence hall in west suburban Naperville. The eclectic trio makes up about one-tenth of the student body of what is now called the Shimer Great Books School, a program of North Central College and the latest iteration of a storied 165-year-old Illinois institution. Just this past September, campus building Seybert Hall became Shimer’s central administrative locale after the school was acquired by North Central. Prior to that, it independently operated as its own accredited institution for about a decade while renting space on the Illinois Institute of Technology’s (IIT) Bronzeville campus.
Inspired by C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the Staples Letters are a series of essays in the South Side Weekly written in the form of letters from a veteran teacher, Staples, giving advice to a young teacher, Ms. T. All events in the Staples Letters are drawn directly from real-life experiences in Chicago schools, and names and identifying details have been removed in the interest of privacy. Though fictional in form, the letters are used to address a variety of issues in education, from quotidian classroom considerations to national policy.
In my first few years of teaching, I loved my students so much that it seemed almost impossible for any other educator to care about their kids more than I did. But after having children of my own, I realized that while I still love my students, I’ll always love my own children more. Although I’ll always go way above and beyond for my students, there is nothing that I wouldn’t do for my own children.
I don’t say these things lightly. I’ve made a conscious effort to work for my students and the community. I’ve constantly worked to create a curriculum that teaches my students to question power structures and to work to create change when inequalities exist. I’ve written countless articles about my students and ways to improve our schools. I’ve been arrested for fighting to keep Chicago Public Schools (CPS) from closing fifty schools in 2013. At times, this commitment to my students has put me at odds with my administration, incited fear of write-ups, and produced threats from strangers. These risks sometimes make me question my desire to defend my students.
But like any parent, I would do anything for my own children, risk more, and ignore idle threats. My drive to protect my children and their well-being, education, and opportunities is stronger than anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s like that moment when you have children of your own and finally realize how much your parents actually love you. It is a window into the emotions of a decade’s worth of my former students’ parents. I now know more completely what those parents wanted for their kids, and wonder if I had fought hard enough. Did I fight as hard as I would have for my own kids?
During my first year of teaching in Chicago Public Schools, at Corliss High School in Pullman, a colleague and I started a boys’ volleyball team. We had only three volleyballs for practice, but the biggest problem I had was an essential one—I had a net that could not be raised.
In 2013, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) closed fifty public schools largely on the South and West Sides—the largest school closing in a single city in American history. Four months before, trying to head off the public backlash that quickly followed regardless, the district self-imposed a five-year moratorium on school closings. That moratorium lifted this year and in March, CPS consolidated four Englewood high schools into one and voted to close the level 1+-rated National Teachers Academy (NTA) elementary school to turn it into a neighborhood high school for the South Loop and Chinatown.
When people read stories, the first inclination is to find yourself on the shelf – things that reflect you, what your current knowledge and current experiences are,” says Tamela Chambers, the school librarian at Chicago Vocational Career Academy in Avalon Park. But are CPS kids on the South Side reading the age-old standards like Hamlet, flashy titles like Divergent, or something else altogether? In short, are students reading books they can find themselves in?
Harper High School is the oldest neighborhood school in Englewood. Over the last century, thousands of residents have graduated from there. Yet last month, the Chicago Board of Education voted to close Harper High School in the next few years. It is, by all accounts, considered a failing school. But for those who go to Harper now, the decision threatens to tear apart the social fabric that’s been woven across generations.
Kids are already doing [journalism], but we’re not talking to them about how to do it correctly or how to do it really great,” explained Liz Winfield, who runs the journalism program at Benito Juarez Community Academy in Pilsen.
The Near South Side is one step closer to getting a new neighborhood high school—and the National Teachers Academy (NTA), an elementary school for a small but densely populated strip of the area, is one step closer to closing its doors. Two weeks ago, the Chicago Board of Education approved Chicago Public Schools’ controversial Near South Education Plan, which will repurpose the elementary school’s campus as the site of the new high school.
This week on SSW Radio we continued our series on WHPK DJs, interviewed a local rapper, and heard from students developing museum exhibits telling their stories of their communities