COMMENT BY JEANNE WALKER July 27, 2012 11:36PM
In the midst of all the rhetoric about strikes, teacher evaluations and a longer school day, perhaps it is time to step back and ask: What is the purpose of education in urban Chicago?
I truly believe that education liberates each person to reach his or her full capacity and makes democracy possible. I know that each student can be an outstanding member of our community. This is why I teach.
Sadly, my passion and purpose appear to be the antithesis of our current “fixes” to the education of my urban students. The public arguments about test scores, time in school and teacher effectiveness are far from the actual needs of my students, who come from tough West Side neighborhoods and face challenges most middle-class people can’t even imagine.
Recently, I was asked to explain how I factor College Readiness Standards into my art classes. For kids who deal daily with violence, drugs, gangs, youth killing, teen pregnancy, poverty and racism, art is a big opportunity to express the unimaginable. And we want them confined and lassoed to College Readiness Standards that do not even exist for art? It is the round peg being forced into the square hole.
I see my job as using art to help my students explore what they need to know, the skills they need to cultivate. We concentrate on breaking down the issues and finding root causes so they can figure out who their allies are, how to make a plan and act on that plan and, ultimately, how to speak truth to power.
I see that sort of social justice and empowerment as the true purpose of education.
I build a great deal of service learning — connecting what is taught in the classroom to issues in the community — into my classroom because that helps students relate their reality to their education. This is authentic College Readiness. It teaches them to navigate the world they live in, and the world they hope to live in, how to be advocates for themselves, how to get along with others, how to think about root causes and solutions, how to think critically and how to believe in themselves as people who can bring about change.
But none of those educational goals seem to count. People don’t want to hear about my social justice curriculum. Instead, they ask: Where are my standards? What is my students’ growth on tests? How much value added can be quantified for each student I teach?
I breathe life into your standards, I want to shout. I make the standards more than a plate of dry data served up in heaps so high my students are suffocating, wondering, “Why do I need to know this?”
Everything I teach, everything I give to my students, everything my students give to me, I want it to be full of meaning and relevancy and what they desperately need to know to transform their lives.
They need to know how to talk to someone who knows 50 ways to say no. They need to know the language of policy and power and how to speak it and use it. They need to know how to make a plan, make it happen and sustain it. That’s the Life Readiness my students need.
Yes, we can and should measure how well they are developing those problem-solving skills. But first we have to agree that the goal of education is to liberate students with content and thinking skills so that they can be productive members of our community.
My bottom line is not about numbers or scores; it is about my students and their lives and do they leave my classroom believing in their ability to make change in a community surrounded by violence and drugs and guns?
If I teach them to be the change, then I can truthfully call myself a teacher.
Jeanne Walker is an art teacher at Orr High School and was a member of the VIVA Chicago Teachers Writing Collaborative, which developed 49 recommendations for better uses of time in school, many of which were adopted by CPS. Click here to read her op-ed on the Chicago Sun-Times website.