A Remarkable Year

By Brian Graves

What started off as a war-zone in Chicago, with the Chicago Teacher’s strike, turned into an unexpected opportunity for me and my students.

I can honestly say that while the strike was an event of the past I surely will not forget, I will shelve it in my “teacher experience” box.

The school year had begun with a big gray cloud hanging over the city of Chicago, ready to rain down picket signs for every Chicago Teachers Union member.  Three days of school before the strike was not enough time for me to build a rapport with my students.  Still, with great pride, I spent seven days on the picket line with my colleagues, standing up for what I believed in.  After the strike ended and we went back to the classroom, I was a little hesitant on how my school year would present itself. I also wasn’t quite sure how to explain to my students or the need to explain what had just happened. I concluded that their future history class could teach them why they missed those seven days in 2012.

When we got back into the classroom, my assistant and I were banging our heads about how to get our students fired up for a fun third grade year.  She offered the suggestion of incentives.  I wasn’t a huge fan of reward-based incentives, but after enough arm twisting, I gave in. We created and implemented an Accelerated Reader monthly challenge and a homework-responsibility classroom store challenge.

The reading challenge was quite simple:  In a given  month, read x number of books within a specific genre (non-fiction, animals, states, countries) and generate an 80 percent or higher on the Accelerated Reader test.  If the students achieved their goal, they were invited to a lunch pizza party.   Last year’s class read and took 220 Accelerated Reader tests.  This year, the final tally on tests taken was over 1,200!  The students were encouraged to read a variety of genres, but we focused heavily on nonfiction. Because they needed to score at least 80 percent on test, they were motivated to read for understanding instead of finishing the book quickly.  What a sweet success to end the year, made better by all the students passing the ever-so-lovely Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT).

The homework challenge was also a success.  It too was simple.  Bring in your homework everyday and earn a “homework buck” for shopping at the classroom store (stocked by me and the Target dollar section).  Our homework return rate increased from 45 percent last year to an astounding 98 percent.

What did I learn from this year?  A challenging beginning often ends in sweet success.

Brian Graves is a third grade teacher in Chicago. He participated in the VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange.

Why Don’t I Deserve Respect?

By Brian Graves
Third Grade Teacher, Chicago Public Schools

On Monday, my schedule was pretty easy. It mostly involved walking round and round in a picket line. Why? Because I believe that is the way Chicago teachers will get the respect and recognition we deserve for the hard work and very long days we spend teaching students whom we care about deeply.

Here’s how a normal school day would go for me:

5 am: I am up early to start preparing myself for the day ahead. I wake up excited for the opportunities that will present themselves to me through my students today.

5:15 am: I eat breakfast, catch up on the latest news, sit at my computer and respond to emails that came in from parents after 10 p.m., my bedtime. Shower and shave.

6:15 am: Out the door for the half-hour drive to school. I could teach closer to home, but I have developed a relationship with
my students, parents, colleagues, and the community.

6:45 am: Park in the lot next to cars driven by the many other teachers who arrive long before the bell rings because we are
dedicated to the education of our students in this wonderful city called Chicago. I lug in my bag, say good-bye to my mom
on the phone (always have to be a good son), then pass our custodian (a silent leader) as he is reading the Sun-Times, punch in and grab my paper mail.

6:55 am: On the way up to the second floor, I pass by colleagues who already are working, collaborating, and prepping for the day, like a pre-op room in the hospital.

7 am: In my classroom now. Ahhhh, the smell of a classroom. Today is going to be great, because I love my job and students.
Whatever happened yesterday is erased because this is a new day. We have to keep moving forward in order to achieve
success. I look at my lesson plans, gather materials, sip coffee, listen to NPR.

7:15 am: I head back downstairs for an impromptu meeting to go over data and talk about how it can drive our instruction.
I look at my data and see the students right below thebenchmark, and students right at the benchmark. I need to get
them to exceed the standards in order for me to feel satisfied. My teaching partner and I discuss a plan of action and agree to
meet after school to discuss it further.

8:14 am: I am at my door ready to greet the kids with a highfive or a handshake.

8:30 am: As I am ready to close the door to begin instruction, a parent says, “Mr. Graves, can I talk to you quickly about last night’s homework? My son didn’t understand and I didn’t understand.” Thankfully, my students know to look at the schedule I have posted, begin their work and eat their breakfast quickly (yes we serve breakfast in the classroom too…another hat I wear.)

I couldn’t refuse a meeting with a parent could I? No, because I serve the public, and that parent needed my help to figure out a problem.

8:40 am: Instruction begins and the day is off and running. Morning news, kindergarten reading buddies, math groups and games, recess, lunch, collaborative planning time, reading groups, science, Chicago history, impromptu lessons about friends, family, bullying, world news, health…

That’s what I do…teach, parent, instruct, help, coach, and most of all, listen to the needs of my students. With that, I drive my instruction wherever it needs to go, because I care about these kids in Chicago.

3:15 pm: The bell rings, the kids pack up and head home. I squeeze in a quick meeting with my teaching partner to discuss how to bring those kids up to standards.

3:30 pm: I start my second job tutoring students in remedial math and reading at my school. For this I get paid a little extra, unlike the weekly Thursday morning meetings with my colleagues that we do on our own time and our own dime because our goal is to improve our practice as teachers.

4:30 pm: I head to the gym to work off the day’s stress.

6:15 pm: I finally get home and eat a quick dinner.

7 pm: I start my “night job”–grading papers and planning for the next day’s classes.

But that was Friday’s schedule. Now I am on strike. Why? Because the city of Chicago doesn’t respect the level of teaching
I do everyday in the classroom.

Brian Graves is a third grade teacher in Chicago. He was a part of the VIVA Teachers Chicago project that gathered teachers’
ideas for better ways to use time in school, half of which were implemented as part of Chicago Public Schools’ extended school day.

Collaboration, Not Confrontation, Is the Way to Real Reform

This post was written by Allan Fluharty, a VIVA Teacher Leader from Chicago, as his union, the Chicago Teachers Union, prepared to take a strike authorization vote. The Chicago Public Schools district has offered a five-year contract with a 2 percent pay raise in the first year while it launches a new school calendar that includes a longer school day.  Allan teaches high school science.

By Allan Fluharty
VIVA Teacher Leader

Teachers on StrikeThe new approach to education reform is to blame the teachers’ unions for everything going wrong with our public schools.

It seems to me these “reformers” are forgetting a couple of things:

1. The teachers union is made up of teachers, the people who spend their days with your children and dedicate their careers to helping them learn.

2. The teachers who belong to the unions are the people who know what your children need to learn and succeed. However, we rarely get asked to share what we know.

There’s a better way, one that would work for all of us–teachers, unions, children, parents, administrators and, yes, even politicians. Listen to teachers. Ask us what we need to succeed. Ask us what we know would help children learn.

That’s what happened when VIVA Teachers came to town last year. The nonprofit asked Chicago Public School teachers for their ideas about how to use time in school in a way that would serve students better. I was a part of the group that wrote the report, “VIVA Chicago Project: Time, Teachers, and Tomorrow’s Schools.”

We came up with 49 recommendations–49!–based on ideas shared by 600 of our colleagues.

There’s another report, also written by CPS teachers, that was published by the CTU. It’s called, “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve: Research-Based Proposals to Strengthen Elementary and Secondary Education in the Chicago Public Schools.”

Why are teachers taking the fall for public education’s failings? We are the solution, not the problem. Collaboration, not confrontation, is the way to real education reform that works for students, parents, the community and, yes, even teachers.