Chicago to Add Gym and Art Classes Recommended by VIVA Teachers Two Years Ago

For the first time in nearly 20 years, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) will require its students to have daily physical education. Two years ago, 600 CPS teachers participated in online VIVA Idea Exchange™ about how the district’s students spend their time in school. Among the six recommendations that came out of the Idea Exchange, two specifically focused on physical activity:

  • Ensure all CPS students a well-rounded education, including art, music and physical education.
  • Ensure all children have time for free play in the school day.

On Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, Chicago Board of Education will vote on new policy mandating 30 minutes of daily PE for elementary school students, and an average of 42 minutes of daily PE for high school students.

Currently, elementary school students average 60 minutes of PE per week. High school freshmen and sophomores have one semester of PE per year.

The VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange teachers called for doubling physical education minutes for all grades to 180 minutes per week. Under the new CPS policy, elementary schools will provide up to 150 total minutes of PE per week.

These changes represent two gems in a whole treasure trove of improvements that the board can access by listening to classroom educators.

Citing obesity rates among CPS students, which have only gotten worse over the last two years, the VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange teachers wrote: “We cannot morally neglect our students’ physical health. Many students also suffer from chronic stress, fatigue, lack of focus and disruptive behavior. Research shows that an increase in physical education can alleviate all of these problems as well as support student learning.”

New Voice Strategies, the nonprofit operator of the VIVA Idea Exchange™, applauds CPS for its action to increase physical education in its curriculum.

Xian Barrett, national program director for New Voice Strategies, participated in the VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange when he was teaching in a CPS high school. He said, “We are gratified that the CPS board is implementing a solution that VIVA Teachers and our parent and community allies have advocated for years. We also would urge CPS leadership to invite educators to lead the discussion as how to best implement this needed change.”

The new physical education policy will roll out over three years. CPS will use TIF funds to cover 75 percent of the cost to hire new teachers in the first year and 50 percent in the second. Schools will cover their own costs in year three. TIF funds will pay for 84 new PE teachers. Schools with the highest needs will be staffed first.

VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange teachers also recommended that each elementary school week should include 90 minutes of art. CPS has announced it will use TIF funds to hire 84 new art teachers, as well.

“VIVA Teachers have emphasized the importance of a well-rounded curriculum; especially in the face of the growing focus on standardized tests and tested subjects. There are many students whose joy of learning depends on access to rich opportunities in the arts. We hope that CPS considers further reforms to how time is used in school that place student needs before bureaucratic and political priorities.  These changes represent two gems in a whole treasure trove of improvements that the board can access by listening to classroom educators and the parents, students and communities we serve,” said Barrett.

CPS has already implemented other recommendations that were outlined in the VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange report, Time, Teachers and Tomorrow’s Schools, which was presented to the district, Chicago Teachers Union, and Mayor’s Office in December 2011. For example, CPS reduced the amount of time spent on tests and called on VIVA Teachers to develop a plan for implementing recess in all elementary schools.



News from New Voice Strategies: Leadership Team Grows By Three

New Voice Strategies (NVS), the nonprofit parent of the VIVA (Vision, Ideas, Voices, Action) Idea Exchange™, is welcoming three new staff. Former Chicago Public Schools teacher Xian Barrett joined the NVS senior management team on July 15 as National Program Director. Beginning this fall, Tina Nolan, formerly of National Louis University, will work with Barrett as full-time Teacher Engagement Director. Veteran strategy and organization expert Bart Kocha signed on earlier this summer as Opportunity Strategist.

Barrett, whose layoff made headlines a few weeks ago, is responsible for creating and implementing all NVS programs, including managing Idea Exchanges and teacher engagement activities. “CPS’s loss is definitely our gain,” said Elizabeth Evans, founding CEO of New Voice Strategies. “The passion and energy Xian dedicated to his students will now serve teachers around the country who want and deserve to be heard.”

A VIVA Idea Exchange™ taps the power of the Internet to build networks for social change. In a short time, a large group of individuals are empowered to collaborate, imagine a better future, and create an action plan to make that vision reality. As a final step, New Voice Strategies connects those frontline experts directly with decision-makers interested in and empowered to make change. Since 2010, New Voice Strategies has hosted 13 Idea Exchanges, 12 of which have focused on education policy issues.

“I believe strongly that the only way to improve our education system and the world is to hear and act upon the voices of educators, parents and students,” said Barrett. “Through NVS and VIVA, I have the opportunity to amplify those voices.”

Nolan, who earned an M.Ed. in Administration and Supervision and Ed.D in Educational Leadership from National Louis University, has been working with NVS part-time for the last several months. She has moderated two Idea Exchanges and, in her new role, will work to develop the leadership skills of participating teachers.

“The Idea Exchanges have taught us that teachers are eager to participate in conversations that build consensus and create solutions,” explained Evans. “For the individual teachers who have participated in the VIVA process, presenting the final report to a key policyholder does not quell the fire that now burns bright within. Teachers want to continue to make their voices heard and develop the skills they need to speak out on education issues so that their students benefit. Tina will help us make that happen.”

Said Nolan, “My greatest passion is forming professional learning communities of educational leaders from all learning settings, making connections between and among current leaders, and crossing boundaries where progressive educational leaders are most needed.”

Kocha brings more than 25 years of strategy and organization expertise to New Voice Strategies. The former A.T. Kearney executive is focused on strategic growth and building organizational capacity.

“I am very proud of how much we’ve grown in such in a short time,” said Evans. “Bart will help to devise the road map for new strategic initiatives and the business plan to support them, as well as goals, benchmarks, and impact metrics to ensure we are getting the job done right.”

New Voice Strategies plumbs the collective wisdom of committed people with front-line experience in fields that are crucial to our country’s future, turning their expertise into recommendations for building a better, fairer and more productive America. Said Evans, “Our expanded leadership team of experienced strategists, with their wide network in government, politics, academia, media, and advocacy, will make us an even more effective operation.”

VIVA Teachers leader Xian Barrett in Education Week

Channel Student’s Energy to Social-Justice Projects

Commentary By Xian Barrett

Imagine your own beautiful child in a moment of anger, miscommunication, or poor judgment. Imagine if instead of a scolding, loving redirection, or a discussion of how to make better decisions, your pride and joy was handcuffed, whisked off to jail, and denied any likelihood of college or future gainful employment. In Chicago, for many parents, this is the daily reality.

On the other hand, imagine students directing that energy for youthful indiscretion toward surveying and working to improve our communities. Imagine students collaborating with other young people and allies on projects for social change. What difference could that make?

Click here to read the full commentary on Education Week

VIVA Teacher Leader Xian Barrett on CNN’s blog

CNN Editor’s note: Xian Barrett
teaches law and Chicago history at Gage Park High School in Chicago, Illinois. In 2009, he was selected one of ten Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellows by the U.S. Department of Education. This article is in response to comments on a previous story about Chicago teacher work days. Originally published on CNN’s School Thought Blog. Click here to read the story on CNN’s site.

Educators will often observe with some frustration that our profession is one of the few that people from all walks of life feel comfortable commenting on and often criticizing. Precious few know the intimate details of what our days are like. While the negative feedback can often be disheartening, I think we must regard the public’s interest in our work as a great opportunity—it shows that people care deeply about the calling to which we have devoted our lives.

If some people’s perceptions of what we do with our workdays does not match up with the reality, we have an obligation to inform them of that reality. This need has been particularly noticeable in the public discourse on the length of our school day.

Much has been made of the shortness of our school day, especially here in Chicago. The oft-cited 296 minutes is the amount of time Chicago elementary school teachers are in front of students. As a high school teacher, my contract requires that I teach five 45-minute periods each day. On Fridays, each class is shortened by 4 minutes to allow for a 30-minute homeroom period. Doing the math, that’s 225 minutes each day, with 235 minutes on Fridays.

I can understand how that sounds like a short day.

However, to count a teacher’s working minutes by looking at the time we are directly teaching students is like only counting the minutes that a dentist has the drill in your mouth.

Just as you want to your dentist to prepare before operating on your teeth, parents should want educators to prepare before we teach your child. We have many duties beyond the time we are directly instructing students.

How much time do I really spend each day?

Most Chicago teachers give our all in very challenging conditions. A recent Gates study suggests that the average teacher works 53 hours per week, while University of Illinois researchers found that Chicago teachers work approximately 58 hours per week. Several years ago, I counted my own hours and found that I was consistently working between 70-90 hours each week.  Through challenging conditions, we impact hundreds of students positively every day; sometimes in small ways, sometimes in earth shattering, life-changing ways.

I teach 9th grade world studies. In a given day, between classes, organizational activities, hallway interaction, phone calls and social media interaction, I will engage between 200-250 students, former students and parents.  At my current school, I report to work at 7:22 a.m. and can clock out at 2:15 p.m. with a 45 minute lunch period. This compares similarly with the lengths of school days in the higher performing suburban districts. In Chicago, public high school days that are the “shortest in the country” exist only in the minds of those attempting to impose a longer school day.

In addition to teaching five classes, one 45-minute period at school is reserved for preparation; we get four of these each week. There is little time to prepare anything as students are there as well, catching up on work or participating in our “restorative justice program,” where students help each other design constructive programs to restore damage they caused by breaking rules. This program saves us time in the long run; a reduction in student misconducts has reduced missed time dealing with discipline and has lowered the number of students failing for disciplinary reasons.

Another period is dedicated to our mandated common planning time. We review the district’s latest initiatives or analyze our student achievement data. The students spend nearly four weeks of class time taking standardized tests

The last period of the day is spent with my cooperative special education teacher as we plan for the next week. We trade advice on how to support some of the students struggling a bit in each other’s classes.

When the end of the school day comes, I head down the four flights of stairs to the basement where I meet our Youth Summit organization members. Our meetings last until 3:30 and we often will schedule collaborations with other student groups or trips in the late afternoon. We also travel and perform service-learning projects most Saturdays during the school year.

On any given day, I will spend two hours at home creating my own lesson plans or adjust existing materials to the specific needs of my students. I will also sit down to grade papers and return calls and messages. Many of my texts, emails, Facebook, Twitter and phone messages are from current students, usually regarding homework and several are from former students needing a letter of recommendation or support on some life emergency.

The other day, I finally called back my mother who’s been calling me for days. She says, “You sound tired, I’m going to let you go.” I set my alarm for 4:30 a.m., and glanced at my cell phone. It was 1:14 a.m. I fell asleep on the couch.

Last month, our hundreds of elected union representatives voted unanimously to reject a recommendation of an 18.2% pay raise in compensation for an extended school day. We want improvement in our schools, and we would like to be compensated fairly for our work. There are just far more effective ways to support our students’ learning.

Both the Chicago Teachers Union and the VIVA (Voices, Ideas, Vision, Action) teacher group I work with have created reports on how to better use time in our day to maximize student learning.  (You can click on the links on their names to see those plans.)

Personally, I simply wonder where the extra time would fit in. I don’t want less time with my students, I want more self-directed time where I can give my students what they need rather than give them more district proscribed testing and test preparation.

I am happy to work on solutions—one year I did a policy writing fellowship with the U.S. Department of Education while teaching five classes—but too often community, student, parent and teacher-generated solutions are ignored. I don’t think this is unique to Chicago.

My hope is that we can get beyond the common teacher bashing narrative to acknowledge that we share a great deal: we all want what’s best for the children of America; I and those in my profession just express that desire through our direct work while others express it through their desire for school improvement. If we can respectfully dialogue and build solutions, we can reach the best possible future not only for our students but also for our nation at large.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Xian Barrett.

Xian Barrett’s letter to the editor in the Chicago Sun-Times

Xian Barrett, Chicago VIVA teacher who was honored at the CPS Board meeting for his work on the 49 recommendations for the longer school day, says “listen to the people who know how to fix things–teachers, parents, and students (download).”