Chicago Educators Are #AlwaysLearning

Students are just getting back in the swing in Chicago Public Schools this week. Meanwhile, their teachers and principals have never stopped learning.

I talked with a couple of educators whose schools are part of the Network for College Success, where school leaders and teachers work with University of Chicago researchers and coaches to support students through and beyond high school. They shared what they are working on—one in the classroom, one with colleagues schoolwide.

At Hancock High School, English teacher Ray Salazar is in the second year of work to increase the amount of student-to-student academic conversation taking place in his classes. “This school year, my focus will be on helping students engage in academic conversations with each other, not just me. Whole-class discussions too often become dependent on the teacher. I want students to assume more ownership over the exchange of ideas.”

As a former English teacher, I know exactly how hard this project is, and look forward to hearing more as the year goes on. Thanks, Ray, for sharing a peek into the world of your classroom.

Meanwhile, at Juarez High School, Principal Juan Carlos Ocon and his teachers are launching nothing short of a transformation in how students chart their progress toward graduation. Juarez is one of six CPS high schools taking part in a state pilot of competency-based education.

At Juarez, the pilot has already prompted changes in curriculum, grading systems and the school schedule. “We put together a system that is truly holistic, not just focusing on academics but on the developmental side of education,” says Ocon.

Making such a big change in how his school does business has spurred Ocon to learn more himself. He’s studied how to create alternatives to traditional course sequences that acknowledge when students have mastered skills. He’s asking questions about how to recognize when a student has demonstrated mastery of skills and material, and how to allow students to move on whenever they reach that level. It requires thinking outside the box of semester and year credits for courses based on seat time.

Already, Ocon has reached out to Pilsen businesses and nonprofits that are willing to host Juarez seniors as interns.

He’s also digging in on how to teach the habits and character traits that help students succeed academically. “We are not taught how you develop character,” he notes. “We know delivering instruction on a textbook isn’t enough. I’m eager to learn more and more about how the academic and the developmental can really work together to bring out a students’ full potential.”

Thanks to the Network, Ocon can tap the expertise of University of Chicago researchers like Camille Farrington, who has taken a deep look at the role noncognitive factors play in students’ academic success, including their attitudes, behaviors and the strategies they use to solve problems. At the same time, those researchers can get an up-close look at how schools tackle new challenges in real time.

There’s a whole lot of learning going on there, together.

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Maureen Kelleher

Chicago Unheard blog manager Maureen Kelleher also serves as a senior writer and editor at brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists demanding a better education and brighter future for every child. Before joining the brightbeam team, she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of a middle-schooler. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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