The child is the worker, the teacher is the guide. | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

The child is the worker, the teacher is the guide. 

Freed by school reform to follow their own lights, Nina Finkel and her colleagues at Pilsen's Whittier School are changing the way they teach and their children learn.

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

During the last school year Roberto, a bright-eyed first-grader, kept a journal of his thoughts and activities at the John Greenleaf Whittier School in Pilsen. At first the journal contained only pictures, but gradually words crept in. In midwinter Roberto* drew a picture of himself holding a tomato with the caption, "I have a tamao." On May 21 he made this entry: "I sended a leter to my grandma becus she livs in Mexsical so i road her a leter. I put in it a sticker and a leter."

"The good spelling can come later," said Nina Finkel, his teacher, as she examined the journal one day in June. "What's important is that Roberto's into writing."

Spontaneity comes before structure for Finkel, a Whittier veteran who has turned away from traditional teaching and now presides over a classroom that's "holistic," "progressive," or "child centered," depending on your choice of educational jargon.

In Finkel's first-grade room the kids, most from Mexican immigrant families, sit at tables, not desks. Finkel circulates among the children, who call her Nina, rather than lecturing them from one spot. She teaches math using blocks and sticks, and writing by encouraging her youngsters to scribble down their thoughts, even if misspelled, in journals. Several subject areas may be covered in a single time period. In class the children move about frequently and generate a lot of noise.

"In progressive education the kid is the worker and the teacher is the guide," says Bill Ayers, the 60s radical who's now a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an apostle of progressivism. In contrast, the model of the traditional classroom has the teacher as the worker, giving information to or eliciting responses from the child.

Traces of progressivism show up in many classrooms today, but it is usually associated with elite private schools, not public ones like Whittier, where most of the children are disadvantaged. But three years ago Whittier used the power granted by school reform to fire its principal and bring in a new administrator, who then hired a group of teachers who wanted to build a child-centered curriculum.

That has created tension. Some of the old teachers left, and some of the more traditional teachers who remained voiced reservations about the new program, arguing that education requires more rigor than child-centeredness offers. "You can't totally trash the old ways," says Carmel Kuzlik, a math-lab teacher. Nevertheless, Whittier is a prime example of curricular change in a school system just now getting to the heart of reform: how teachers teach and how children learn.

On a balmy morning in June, Finkel greets her children on the playground. A 45-year-old woman with a corona of frizzy hair, she's dressed casually in a white top and pink skirt. She holds hands with one girl as she speaks to a couple of mothers, one of whom tells her that her daughter lost a sweatshirt on a trip the class took the day before to the Indiana Dunes. "I'll look for it," Finkel promises.

She ushers her brood inside, into a spacious classroom on the first floor of the school, which was built in 1893. Whittier serves 540 students, from preschool through sixth grade. The school is not as crowded as it once was, but it still has 100 kids more than it should. Even the old library functions as a classroom, and the librarian has to move about the building.

The Whittier neighborhood has always been a way station for immigrants--Irish, then Italian, then Polish. Now the families are predominantly Mexican and poor; last spring only 16 kids at Whittier failed to qualify for federally subsidized free lunches. Many of the families are transient; principal Irene DaMota reports that 30 percent of the kids who start in September are gone by June. Many of the kids come from single-parent families. Some come from homes where drugs are used. Some are physically abused. At last report the average Whittier sixth-grader performed a tad below national norms in math and was more than a year behind in reading.

Finkel believes part of the problem is the place of education among Whittier families. "If I look back over the more than 20 years I've been teaching, the situation's gotten worse. Kids come to school without the kinds of things they used to get at home. There's less time spent with parents, either because of broken homes or because the parents are working, and that hurts. There's less literacy at home. Kids come to me who haven't been to the library, who sit in front of the TV most of the time. There's less knowledge by parents of what good time spent with a child means."

Finkel has charge of 25 first-graders, three fewer than she started with in the fall. Her class is "English dominant," meaning Finkel, whose Spanish is only passable, takes children who speak English fairly well. Yet only one student was reading when the year began, and the children came to her for everything. "September and October were just incredible," she sighs. Gradually the class came together, and by spring several children were doing famously. Gilberto was reading two and a half years above grade level, though most of the kids were still at that level or below.

Nine of the children are disabled in some way, visually, emotionally, in their general ability to learn. A pretty black-haired girl started school with so few abilities that Finkel suspected she was suffering the effects of lead poisoning. "Rich didn't know to engage with other children," says Finkel. He used to bang his head against the wall constantly.

"Diane's back," exclaims Finkel, spying a small girl with her hair in a braid. "Hey, how're you doing?" It's Diane's first day at school in six weeks; both her arms had been broken.

The children filter into Finkel's classroom and take their seats at desks pushed together to make tables that accommodate five or six, rather than at desks in traditional rows. "Is everybody here?" asks Finkel.

Dawn isn't, a chorus of kids reponds.

"She's probably tired from yesterday," says Finkel. "Is everybody tired? Well, we'll talk about that later."

Finkel's airy classroom, with its yellow wainscoting, is divided into rough sections. The tables are one. By the windows is a science area, where celery is turning different shades depending on the color of water it's stuck in and where seeds are sprouting in plastic bags. A chart plots the growth of an amaryllis plant, and a crop of nests occupies a tabletop. One shadow box depicts life in Antarctica; another shows a forest.

A reading-and-discussion alcove has a tan rug as well as shelves filled with games and books. Taped to a piece of poster board are seeds the children have found. Art projects are undertaken at a horseshoe-shaped table, and two personal computers are on tables against the wall. Hanging over a small blackboard are snapshots of Utah children Finkel's students are corresponding with. They have captions with decidedly Anglo names: Vanessa, Brittany, Darrah, Ben.

On the walls in the front of the room are words beginning with the letters A, B, and so on. Below them, on bright yellow paper, is a list of compound words: pineapple, babysitter, grasshopper. There are also drawings and writing samples--ruminations on evaporation and on the thickness of a tree trunk, as well as a letter written by all the kids on May 12 detailing how John got a haircut: "Good morning room 101! This morning we saw a new boy in our line. Who could he be? He has red hair. It must be John!--with a new hair style."

The classroom has a cluttered look, far different from the order of a traditional first grade. And Finkel's daily schedule isn't cut into 40-minute periods devoted to math, reading, and other subjects; her day moves more serendipitously. "There's a natural flow," she says. "I fit things together if they make sense together." Unlike a traditional teacher, she keeps to a minimum the number of times she stands in front of her kids speaking to them. More often than not the children's voices drown out hers.

Finkel shepherds the youngsters over to the reading corner, where they begin "quiet reading time." Actually the time is cacophonous, because the kids get into pairs and read aloud to one another. Many of the books come from the Wright Group, a Seattle company that specializes in "whole language" materials, which are based on the notion that children learn to read best by reading instead of mastering the sounds of letters and words (the old "phonetic" way), plowing through chapters in basal readers (stories followed by lists of questions), and answering fill-in-the-blank questions in workbooks.

Dawn straggles in. "Put your stuff away, honey," says Finkel, and Dawn stows her belongings in the coat closet outside the room. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, Finkel helps Sonia with a big book. One section pictures a flying man named Don winging over a crane at a construction site. "Where's the crane?" Finkel asks Sonia, who can't find the piece of equipment. "It's the big thing, honey," Finkel tells her. Then Finkel moves to the easel, where kids are using fat pens to write the word "caught" on construction paper.

Toward 10 o'clock Finkel gathers the class on the rug to ask them questions about the trip to the Dunes yesterday. Many teachers consider a field trip as a day away--and that's about it. Finkel's trips are an important part of her curriculum. She and the kids talk about each excursion before, during, and after it.

Finkel, the kids, and a dozen parents rode a bus to the Dunes, had a picnic in the woods, and played Frisbee and baseball. Then they hung a pinata from a tree, broke it open, and shared the candy inside. They followed a boardwalk through a swamp, where they saw nests, frogs, herons, and water snakes. They climbed up the dunes, then ran and rolled back down.

Finkel asks the children to break into groups and answer several questions: What did you hear? What pleased your eyes? What animals did you see? What did you find? The kids drift off into groups and puzzle over the answers. One girl swears she heard a dolphin. No, another says, that was a seal. David says he liked seeing the ocean. "Was that really an ocean you saw?" Finkel asks. "Go over to the map and check it out." He looks at the map the class prepared before the trip and discovers his mistake.

The class reassembles on the rug, and a representative from each group issues a report. Rosa announces that her group liked the beach, the lake, and the raccoon. "And Nina," she adds, "there's still sand in my ear."

Finkel asks them to think at home about what interested them. Usually she assigns a half hour of homework each night--a math paper to complete, a book to read--but as the school year wanes she's been going light on assignments.

After recess on the playground comes lunch. Finkel distributes meal tickets and conducts the kids to the basement, where tables are arranged in two open spaces. The small kitchen has an oven that can warm food but not cook it. Today the menu consists of pancakes, sausage, applesauce, and a banana. That's too starchy for Finkel, who consumes a sandwich she brought from home while sitting with her kids. She considers lunch not as a break from her students--a common view among teachers--but as an opportunity. "Lunch is part of our day," she says, "a time for us to share and kibitz."

After lunch a consultant with the Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science, a hands-on program sponsored by the Illinois Institute of Technology, pays a visit. The IIT program trains teachers to use blocks, cards, sticks, beans, and plastic geometric shapes--"manipulatives"--to get across math skills and concepts, methods pioneered at the University of Chicago. "Too many teachers are back with 19th-century accounting practices," says Sylvia Smith, director of IIT's math program. "We have calculators and computers now. Yes, we need to know how to perform basic operations, but we need the conceptual knowledge to solve problems." Each child in Finkel's class receives a bag containing a calculator, counting chips, geometric blocks, play money, and a tape measure. Finkel also has her kids pick up "finger math," a system of counting with fingers for slow learners that was developed at the University of Chicago.

Finkel uses the manipulatives to teach most of her math lessons. "You can do four-digit addition and subtraction using these objects, and the kids are actually seeing what's happening," she says. "Paper is basically for homework." She rarely turns to the blackboard, and she totally avoids the workbooks and work sheets of prescribed skills--addition, subtraction, beginning fractions, money, and clocks--that are hallmarks of the traditional teacher.

Finkel distributes eight beans and a tray to clusters of kids. "Divide the beans in half," she says. "Do you have four in each half? Now suppose there are four people sitting in the corners of your tray. Let's divide the beans so that each person gets the same amount of beans. What if you had three people in each corner? Can you divide the beans equally? Can you use up all the beans?"

Some kids pursue the assignment avidly--one girl counts the beans out by twos--but others get distracted. One boy swallows a bean. Though another recess is not scheduled and gym is coming up next, Finkel decides the children need another break on the playground. "Why beat your head against the wall?" she explains. "The kids aren't getting anything out of this stuff right now."

Later the gym teacher picks up Finkel's class, and a speech pathologist comes in to discuss Rich's case. He no longer bangs his head on the wall, but he still speaks poorly. He wasn't diagnosed as having speech problems until January and receives only a half hour of therapy a week. "I'm worried about Rich's self-image, about the way the other kids react to him," Finkel tells the pathologist. "I wish he could get a little more help." The pathologist says he's sympathetic, but it's June and there isn't much he can do until fall.

At 1:20 the kids return from gym. Finkel directs them to sit on the rug, where Nick recites a poem about a seed: "In the heart of a seed, buried deep, so deep / A dear little plant lies fast asleep." Nick reads so well that at the end the other kids applaud him. Finkel asks for compound words hidden within the poem. "Sunshine," shouts a girl. "Wonderful," offers a boy.

The focus--though not the subject--shifts from language arts to science as Finkel gets out bean and vegetable seeds the class has been sprouting on paper toweling. The kids are asked to draw what they see in word and picture journals they're keeping. To Finkel writing means putting thoughts to paper, not the old-style approach of copying letters off the board or perfecting handwriting.

What's this called? Finkel asks. "A seed coat," answers one child. And that? she asks. "A baby leaf," replies a girl. What makes the leaf green? Finkel gets a unified shriek. "The sun!"

The day ends with a play period. "You may call it free play, but I don't see it that way," Finkel says. "This is a way for me to see what kids are doing, what they're interested in." By the end of each year she expects her academically advanced children to be engrossed in projects or reading during this period. Gilberto and a pal are doing math problems on a computer. Diane is making designs on a paper towel with an eyedropper, and Rosa is completing a dinosaur board game with a friend.

In walks a motherly woman named Alice Brent, a resource teacher who helps learning- or emotionally disabled students, with Antonio in tow. She had taken him on a field trip, and now she sits with him and Norma as they struggle with a book. Brent sometimes takes these children out of class to work with them individually as an old-style resource teacher would, though she conducts them to a homey closet with a rocking chair and stuffed bears, where they write down impressions of books they've read or work with math manipulatives. Older children play Monopoly, with Brent looking on, trying to make the game instructional. But more often Brent simply melts into the classroom as she spends time with lagging kids. She's scrupulous about not making children feel stigmatized. In fact, it's hard to know she's doing anything special with Antonio and Norma because two regular kids come over and join them.

Finkel arrived at Whittier in 1969 as a half-time kindergarten teacher, a recent graduate of Northeastern Illinois University. The Polish families who had dominated Pilsen were in the process of leaving the neighborhood, and by the early 1970s Whittier would become predominantly Mexican.

The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Finkel grew up in South Shore. Her father was a bookkeeper for a string of auto-parts stores; once Finkel and her sister were in school her mother sold clothes part-time in retail shops. Asked why she wanted to become a teacher, Finkel says that when the neighbor kids congregated in her backyard to play teacher games she was always the teacher. She also remembers being taken with her third-grade teacher, who brought plants to class and made sure to visit the homes of her students without waiting to be asked.

When she first came to Whittier, Finkel relied on teaching techniques she learned at Northeastern. "I was following the curriculum guides that came from the Board of Education," she recalls. But she says she gradually altered her teaching style "as my life changed."

She was becoming an outdoors person. As soon as school let out in June, Finkel would take off and go camping in Wisconsin and in national parks out west. Fifteen years ago she bought a plot of land in northern Wisconsin, where she put up a tent and usually stayed the summer. She took a year's leave of absence from Whittier to convert the tent into a two-story cabin, which still has an outhouse and no running water.

Finkel, who is single and has no children of her own, continues to travel, alone or with a friend, during her summers. Her longtime boyfriend owns his own piece of land next to the Wisconsin cabin. Last summer she was in Utah and Montana.

"I began to bring parts of the natural world into the classroom," she says. Rocks, birds, soil. She relished nothing more than a field trip to the Dunes or a nature center.

From the outset Finkel also seemed to display unusual sensitivity to children. Between 1976 and 1981 the Institute for Juvenile Research, a child-guidance agency, consulted with schools in Pilsen, including Whittier, on ways to deal with problem children. "Nina was one of the best teachers involved," recalls Betty Karrer, who directed the IJR program. "She was attuned to kids at the periphery. Not only the kids who acted out, but those who were retiring and shy too."

After 1983 Finkel taught primarily first grade. In 1988 she linked up with like-minded teachers outside Whittier when she joined an after-school rap session for progressives that Bill Ayers established at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her teaching continued to change, and she abandoned curriculum guides altogether. She drifted away from basal readers in favor of the books put out by the Wright Group.

A decade ago Tom and Arlene Wright, who had produced guidance materials in San Diego, imported a kit of 118 books published in New Zealand. Called the Story Box, the kit guides kindergartners and first-graders into reading using simple illustrated stories that usually end with a clever twist or moral. The beginning books have only a few words. "The idea is to start kids with whole words and then move to the parts," says Wright, who later added big books for group reading to his catalog, and began offering "whole language" workshops, one of which Finkel attended.

Nature became an increasingly strong part of Finkel's teaching. In the mid-80s she was assigned to care for a garden at Whittier through a Chicago Park District program. She and the children turned a crabgrass-infested section of ground east of the school into a garden of marigolds. Every class cultivated a plot, and Whittier won an award for having the best garden in the city.

While visiting southeastern Utah a couple of years ago, Finkel asked a newspaper editor in Moab if he knew of a progressive teacher. She was referred to Mary Mullen, a first-grade teacher at the Red Rock Elementary School, and felt she'd found a soul mate. She spent her next spring break visiting Mullen's class, and during the summer of 1991 the two women went white-water rafting down the Colorado River.

Last year Finkel's and Mullen's classes corresponded a half dozen times. Photographs of Finkel's kids were posted on Mullen's wall and vice versa. At first, says Mullen, the letters from Chicago were indecipherable, but gradually they grew more readable. "My kids liked the names of the Chicago kids," she says. The Moab children wanted to know about the city: Were there mountains? Lizards? Did it get dark at night?

Now Finkel weaves nature into almost everything she does. Last year her kids studied the properties of metal, wood, and rocks. Rocks particularly intrigued the kids--"probably because I had so many beautiful ones," guesses Finkel, an amateur jewelry maker. They did an experiment in which they used hammers to break apart different rocks, some of which had been sent by the pen pals in Moab. "We counted how many hits it took to pulverize each rock," says Finkel, "and we made a chart."

That led to an examination of soils from Moab, Chicago, and Wisconsin. Juan, looking through a magnifying glass, was delighted to discover a tooth and some bone in one sample. Radish seeds were planted, and the kids predicted which soil would be the best growing medium (the Chicago earth won hands down). Next the kids grew narcissus and amaryllis bulbs in bowls of water with pebbles.

"Then the kids became interested in birds, and we got to talking about nests," says Finkel. She showed them real nests and asked the youngsters to make nests of their own at home. The homemade nests were arrayed on a table, with a real one hidden among them, and visitors were invited to identify the genuine article. Their responses were put on a chart.

Finkel says her methods allow students to follow their curiosity, with her as facilitator. "I like to teach 'out,'" she explains. "The more kids are interested in one subject, the more they're engaged--and then we can move out from there." She pays only cursory attention to the first-grade guidelines in the Board of Education's "Systemwide Objectives and Standards," which replaced the old curriculum guides, though she says, "I make sure I cover everything I have to." For instance, the Board of Education suggests that a first-grade teacher cover the neighborhood and family in social studies; Finkel includes them in discussions of the children's feelings about their homes and neighborhoods, and in walks through Pilsen. She prefers the fire station over the police station. "I'm not big on the police," she says.

The kids write whatever they're capable of, even if it's only scribbles, much of it in their journals. "Sometimes we make entries every day, sometimes once a week," says Finkel. "The kids might be answering a specific question, or they just might write what they want. The point is that they come to see writing as something that's enjoyable." She makes corrections sparingly. "If there are ten errors on a page I won't correct them, because the child will end up feeling defeated. But if the kid's struggling with short vowels--if that's the problem--I will make corrections."

Some writing exercises are done in a group. Finkel usually sets aside time for "the daily news," when kids regale her with what's new in their lives or on TV, and she writes it down on paper. She also leads sing-alongs, leaning forward and pronouncing words with emphasis. She believes that learning songs strengthens the children's vocabularies.

The tenets of progressive education were laid down by John Dewey, the professor of philosophy and pedagogy at the University of Chicago who founded its laboratory school in 1896, and his contemporary Francis Parker, who established the north-side private school that bears his name. Dewey and Parker, reacting against the drill-and-rote instruction of the 1800s, started a movement toward creative, activity-based learning that spread to private schools and a smattering of public schools, including those in Winnetka.

By the 1950s progressive education had grown somewhat stale--it had never expanded much beyond the schools where it started, and even the Progressive Education Association (PEA), founded in 1919 to foster child-centered learning in the U.S., folded in 1955. But soon after, a new tide crested with the advent in the British primary schools of "open classrooms," the concept of which derived from the theories not only of Dewey but also of developmental psychologist Jean Piaget and Italian educator Maria Montessori. Space in an open classroom was divided into functional areas, each rich in resources--books, games, crafts, science kits--and kids were let loose to explore the room and engage in activities that attracted them. Teachers worked with small groups of pupils. During the 60s the open classroom spread to alternative schools in this country.

A progressive classroom normally requires adventurous administrators, freethinking parents, and a relatively small class size (or so it's thought)--which is why progressive schools remain largely well-to-do with an elite image. "There is unfortunately a preciousness associated with us," admits Carol Ouimette, a teacher at Parker and executive director of the Chicago-based Network of Progressive Educators, a successor to the PEA established three years ago that is intent on spreading progressivism. This is not to say that progressivism doesn't exist in public schools. It does, most dramatically in New York City's impoverished Spanish Harlem, where 52 child-centered schools have been organized since 1974. Because space is limited, most of the schools double up, so that some buildings contain up to five schools, each a "school within a school."

The question always asked about progressive education is, Does it yield a better outcome? Bill Ayers says that it must, given that it instills in children the excitement of discovery more than pure facts. "It disposes the mind to inquiry, action, and confidence," he contends. His favorite example comes from his experience teaching preschool on the upper west side of Manhattan. He would put paints by an easel and marvel as kids mixed blue and red together to yield purple. "Look, Bill," a kid would yell. "I made purple!" Ayers says, "I could have laid out that blue and red makes purple in a lesson plan, and then explained it to the class--and it would have been a fairly anemic affair. But that the kids figured out purple themselves--now that was something."

For decades the seminal argument for progressivism was contained in a study sponsored by the PEA. In 1932 300 liberal arts colleges agreed to relax their entrance requirements to admit graduates from 30 progressive schools, among them the U. of C. Lab School, Francis Parker, the North Shore Country Day School, New Trier High School, and New York City's Horace Mann, Dalton, and Fieldston schools. Four classes of progressive graduates were paired with more conventionally educated students on the basis of age, intelligence, interests, and family background, and then the groups were compared.

The study found that the progressive students earned slightly better grades, were more precise in their thinking, solved practical problems more resourcefully, read more books, took a keener interest in world affairs, and danced better. The eight-year study is now suspect because, according to Carol Ouimette, it considered "a population that was not diverse. So it is very vulnerable for ignoring issues of class and race."

In 1982 Larry Hedges of the U. of C. and Rose Giaconia of Stanford University looked at 153 smaller studies of open education. In their summary of the studies they stated that open education fostered a better self-image, more creativity, and a more favorable attitude toward school. But there was do discernible difference between the open and traditional classroom in achievement in reading, math, and language.

More recent confirmation of the benefits of progressivism was reported by Mary Galloway James, an attorney for Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, in the organization's April newsletter. In the "schools within a school" program in New York City, the percentage of children reading at or above grade level has risen from 15.9 in 1973--the lowest in the city--to more than 50 percent, student attendance has climbed 20 percent, and the number of eighth-graders gaining entry to New York's competitive high schools skyrocketed from 10 to 350.

Whittier School has long had a small corps of teachers, including Finkel, who were wedded to the child-centered approach. But only in 1990 did the school tilt decisively toward progressivism, when the local school council (LSC) fired principal Raphael Guajardo and hired Irene DaMota.

The change was controversial (see sidebar), but DaMota was undaunted. A native of Argentina who emigrated to Texas at age 15 with her family, she remembers with some pain the low score she got on her ACT. After graduating from Corpus Christi State University, she became a teacher and then interim principal of the Pasteur School near Midway Airport. DaMota soon became a convert to progressivism, and says that when she assumed her duties at Whittier in 1990, "I felt a mission calling."

It was a mission several members of the faculty did not share, and within a year or so after she took over ten teachers, largely bilingual staff, left. DaMota replaced them with progressive primary teachers, among them Susan Kilbane and Leslie Wilson. The two women, both in their mid-20s, had studied under Bill Ayers and had been drawn to the Dumas School in Woodlawn by its reform-minded principal, Sylvia Peters. Yet its staff remained divided along progressive and traditional lines, and, according to Kilbane, "There wasn't a lot of movement there." She and Wilson moved to Whittier.

Joy Hebert, a refugee from the corporate world, met Finkel at a workshop and soon migrated to Whittier. Alice Brent came abruptly from Sabin Magnet School, where she'd been nurtured by principal Lourdes Monteagudo, after Monteagudo left to serve as Mayor Daley's first deputy mayor for education.

"We want kids not to be passive but to draw out knowledge on their own," says Wilson. "Learning should be relevant to children--because we believe if they want to learn, nobody has to hit them over the head to make them."

DaMota has taken such talk as dictum. Under school reform each principal, in consultation with the LSC, must come up with a yearly school improvement plan (SIP). Whittier's current SIP is filled with the buzzwords of progressivism--"hands-on," "day-to-day involvement with real life situations," "wonder oriented." It calls for courses to revolve increasingly around environmental themes and encourages teachers to undertake more in-class projects.

What's intended are projects that range widely--and sometimes drift. Finkel has always done such things; now other teachers do too. Wilson, for instance, mentioned to her bilingual third-graders that her brother had been in Germany. The kids picked up a few German phrases--for "hello," "good-bye," "I love you"--and then voted to learn more about China. "I think they picked China because it was so weird to them," she says. The class read folktales, studied the emperors and the Great Wall, and visited Chinatown. "Then my dad came in and cooked Chinese food," she says. The study of China stretched into February.

Whittier has also been reorganized into mini "schools within a school" (SWASs). The preschool and first-grade teachers make up one, the second-grade and third-grade instructors another, and the upper-grade teachers a third. In addition, DaMota awards a portion of the state and federal dollars Whittier receives for having low-income students directly to the SWASs. Last year the allotment was $20,000 each. "The idea is to decentralize the principal's office, so that I become an overall facilitator," says DaMota. "The teachers can figure out for themselves what they need."

Wilson and Kilbane bought big books, blocks, computer programs, and printers with their portions of the money. Finkel purchased math manipulatives and books. Before, the teachers had had only $42 to spend independently on supplies and materials, a sum mandated by the Chicago Teachers Union contract.

The SIP also endorses the use of portfolios in assessing children's progress, so that a child's work throughout the year becomes an adjunct to, if not a replacement for, conventional testing. Vermont was the first state to experiment with portfolios, and Kentucky and California are now moving toward requiring them. All Vermont's students in the fourth and eighth grades assemble portfolios in math and writing. They must include specific things--a critique of a play, book, or cultural event, say, or solutions to math problems that display the children's sense of numbers--as well as excerpts from their best work up to that point. Each portfolio is rated by the child's teacher; a representative sample of the writing portfolios is judged at the statewide level.

Journals, artwork, and assorted papers go into the portfolios Finkel's children keep. "What goes in should be work that I like that they've done, or that they like that they've done," she says.

Finkel doesn't much like the prevailing means of assessment, standardized testing. Her children take the Iowa tests each spring, but she says, "I don't put much value in the Iowas. They're archaic and don't pertain to a kid's life--they only reflect one day." Yet she explains the tests shortly before they are to be administered and shows the children how to fill in the circles. This year she also told Raphael, who tends to stay up late, to get a good night's sleep before the tests.

The standard Board of Education report card also troubles Finkel, who thinks letter grades with little chance for teacher comment are harsh. But last year Susan Kilbane headed a team that revised the report card for the primary grades. According to her, the new report card is patterned after one at Dumas School and is meant "to look at the positive." Each quarter children are judged in reading, writing, math, and social studies through less judgmental categories: "independent," "developing," "beginning," or "no evidence." There is also a page for longer teacher comment.

Teachers are also encouraged to make home visits. "You have to learn to value the home, even if there is drug selling there," DaMota says. Last year Kilbane made it a point to visit the homes of her second-graders and by June had seen the families of 17 of her 28 students. She usually came for a meal. "At the end everybody said, 'This is my home. Please come back.' I feel now the families have more faith in education."

Yet parent volunteering at Whittier remains low. To help change that the Whittier LSC agreed to pay parents $4 an hour (DaMota calls it a "love offering") to work part-time in the classroom. Last year two parents, Lorena Hernandez and Pam Carter, worked under Finkel. Hernandez, a native of El Salvador who says being in the classroom helped her with her English, would sing Spanish songs to the kids. Carter, a Lumbee Indian from North Carolina, brought in Indian pictures and a doll, and made rainbows and stars with the kids out of glue, rice, and coloring.

Even before school reform began in Chicago, activists were pointing out that curricular change had to be part of the equation. But any shift toward progressivism has been slow, primarily because school officials and activists were fixated on problems of governance--on how LSCs were elected, on who would be principal, on what powers the central administration should retain.

Bill Ayers's after-school rap sessions drew no more than 30 teachers at a crack. The Progressive Educators of Chicago, an outgrowth of the Network of Progressive Educators that has a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, now meets twice monthly. "It's impressive that people are giving two, two and a half hours of their time," says Carol Ouimette, who coordinates the sessions. But only two dozen teachers participate, among them Kilbane, Wilson, and Finkel.

Some fault the Board of Education. "You get hostility from everybody there," says Ayers. When the Teachers' Task Force of the CityWide Coalition for School Reform staged a conference on curriculum last spring, the board did provide substitutes for those who wanted to attend. But the task force's program director, Ann Cox Porter, says she hasn't "directly felt" any encouragement from the board for the task force's activities on curriculum.

Adrienne Bailey, the deputy superintendent for the office of instructional services since August 1990, disagrees. "There are many ideas that are being promoted with our help," she says. "I've been working in the short time that I've been here to change the culture." Yet she adds that her department has been hamstrung by deep staff cuts and the near-total phaseout of the centralized curriculum department. Bailey also says that while she's inclined to favor progressive education, curriculum decisions now fall to principals and LSCs. "We can't impose particular ideas on schools, in spite of what we might want," she points out. "If a school says they want a more traditional approach, well, we'd help with that too."

There are other impediments to a shift toward progressivism, say its advocates. "The norm among teachers now is the teacher-directed classroom," says Pat Hulsebosch, director of undergraduate teacher-training programs at National-Louis University's Chicago campus. "That's the air that they breathe. If they haven't seen the alternatives, then they can't go against the tide." Bill Ayers is more blunt. "We train our teachers to be clerks. The only real option in the system now is to be a better clerk or a worse clerk." Hulsebosch also points out that the notion that progressive classes only work for the advantaged persists, so that many parents and teachers think they work only "for kids at the Baker Demonstration School [which is affiliated with National-Louis] or in Winnetka."

Hulsebosch and Ayers also admit that progressive teaching is still often seen as a method preferred by teachers who are either lazy or naturally disorganized. In fact, Ayers argues, done correctly it requires more planning as well as an ability to be keyed closely to each child. (Finkel now does a lesson plan every night, whereas at the old Whittier she did one once a week. She is often up until 11 or midnight planning.)

Yet even teachers who have seen progressive education working at Whittier say their students need more structure in the classroom. "The kids we see here basically run their own lives," says Carmel Kuzlik. "They don't have much structure at home, so they need it here. The newer people really don't believe that kids should have rules." Lura Riley, a third-grade teacher who has been a fixture at Whittier for 30 years, adds "Children need things nailed down, concrete, to take them from day to day." DaMota defends her approach to discipline--which includes such steps as child-parent contracts and in-school suspensions for troublesome kids--and says it has cut rowdiness and gang activity.

Riley also complains that when youngsters arrive in her class each fall, they write their names tentatively and sloppily, often in capital letters. "And all they know is how to play with those manipulatives," she says. "This is not third-grade work. I expect more." And she gets it by demanding that her students master their times tables and learn their spelling words. Riley says she supports the whole-language approach to reading but still has doubts. "Kids can read when they come to me, but do they really know what they're reading?" Kuzlik is troubled that older kids tend not to know their tables or how to compute with a pencil. "When kids miss something in the primary grades, it snowballs until by the time they're older they're in trouble and frustrated." DaMota admits that a lack of coordination on what skills must be mastered in the lower grades has indeed hobbled Whittier's older children. One solution she has planned for this year is getting teachers in the upper grades working with their colleagues in the lower grades. She had hoped to create more time for the teachers to meet by making the school day longer, but a proposal to do that was narrowly rejected by the teachers in June.

Riley also senses an antitest attitude at Whittier, and that disturbs her. "In order to get a job in this world or to get into college you need to know how to take a test--instead of just running up and down the hall," she says. "Kids in my class get tests from day one." Last year, to her and other teachers' regret, several youngsters did not qualify for the gifted center for seventh-graders and eighth-graders at Whitney Young Magnet High School because their test scores were too low. DaMota too would like to see the children's reading and math test scores rise, though she wrote in January that she views her charges as children "whose minds capture, engender, create and discover learning that no Iowa test could ever document."

Riley and Kuzlik also have doubts about DaMota's participatory style of management. "Irene is much looser than Guajardo was," says Kuzlik. "Teachers need a boss, somebody who will listen to everybody and then make a decision. As it is, I have less and less time to teach because there are so many meetings. You've got all chiefs and no Indians around here. Sometimes I just want to lock the door and spend time with my kids." DaMota says she takes to heart such criticisms, though she says she continues to believe in group decision making.

Still, Kuzlik applauds DaMota for "freshening" the faculty by attracting good new teachers. "They are really dedicated," she says. But then she adds, "We end up fighting with each other because we are strong personalities. A lot of times we spin wheels and don't work well together." Riley says she tries to avoid the SWAS-related meetings, which she finds divisive. Kuzlik likes the idea of portfolios, but the new primary report cards leave her--and some of her students' families--perplexed. "It's so subjective," she says. She keeps a chart that equates the new fuzzy words with the old letter system. "Independent" equals an A or B, "developing" equals a C. She'd prefer a blend of the traditional and the progressive. "I see the kids getting cheated," she says. "I hope they aren't being used as guinea pigs."

Ayers counters, "School reform provides the opportunity to think about teaching and learning in new ways. Teachers in particular should seize the time."

It appears that more will be doing so this fall. The Quest Center, a program of the Chicago Teachers Union underwritten by the MacArthur Foundation, is giving $3,000 grants to 11 schools that are making serious curricular changes. Among them are Taft High School, which has reorganized into five career-oriented mini-schools, and Prescott School, which is turning itself into a child-centered school or "exploratorium."

The city's first true school-within-a-school is being established by former teachers from the Dumas School in vacant space at Price School, which serves the Oakland and Kenwood neighborhoods. At the Foundation School--so named because it's bolstered by the MacArthur and other foundations--156 students through fifth grade will be taught with progressive methods. "Drill and kill, and chalk and talk" will not be in evidence, says Lynn Cherkasky-Davis, the school's program director.

Whittier was among 35 schools that applied for a Quest grant; its application, which was rejected, asked for support for a program to bring fourth-graders through sixth-graders into the real world by having them handle mock bank accounts, publish a newspaper, and do in-school social service. DaMota wants to start the program anyway.

Finkel is now back in the classroom. During the coming year she wants to involve more parents and pay home visits. She defends her commitment to progressivism, saying, "My classroom's a fun place. Kids like to be there, and when they go on vacation they tell me they're disappointed not to be in school. They are happy and stimulated to be learning." Even those who quibble with progressive methods voice respect for her. "I don't care what she does," says Kuzlik. "She's a wonderful teacher."

* The names of the children have been changed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Grant Pick

  • Grant Pick’s People

    Grant Pick’s People

    Rag man, rug salesman, drag queen, neo-Nazi—if you lived in Chicago, Grant Pick wanted to hear your story.
    • Feb 7, 2008
  • Uday's Hypnotist

    A Chicagoan fondly remembers his time in the service of Saddam's son.
    • Feb 3, 2005
  • The Power of the Keys

    Lugging around that mass of cold, shiny metal helps Doug Jennings bear his more existential burdens.
    • Dec 2, 2004
  • More »

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories