Teachers make learning come alive

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Pat Conroy

Hubbard

“Talk about taking high school kids and making them men instantly.” Pat Conroy says that’s what happened last school year when students in his cabinetmaking class at Hubbard High School delivered bunk beds they had made to a homeless shelter on the South Side.

As the students assembled the beds at St. Elizabeth Catholic Worker Shelter, 8025 S. Honore, some 20 mothers and kids showered them with repeated “thank yous.”

Beaming all the while, Conroy’s students “realized they had done something really valuable,” he says, “and that’s important because these kids don’t always have high opinions of themselves.”

The children at St. Elizabeth had been sleeping on old, steel bunk beds that were wearing out. “The kids take out all their excess energy on the beds, and a couple had actually fallen apart,” says Gert Brixius, St. Elizabeth’s executive director. As a result, for a couple months last year, the shelter could serve only 20 adults and children even though it has room for 35.

Brixius says she mentioned the predicament in a conversation with Bob Keeley, the community reinvestment officer at Marquette Bank. Keeley, in turn, suggested she contact woodworking instructors at neighborhood high schools to see if any would take on the job as a class project. He gave Brixius three names.

Contacting all three, Brixius got the most enthusiastic response from Conroy, who came out to see what she had in mind. “He was so excited about the project,” she says.

Working two hours a day for three weeks, a dozen students, all 17 or 18 years old, built six beds so big and substantial that “two adult men could not move them,” says Conroy.

The students cut and milled boards of Douglas fir and drilled holes for nuts and bolts. “There are easier and quicker ways to build them,” the teacher concedes. But he says he wanted the beds to be “assembled like cabinets” because that’s what the students were studying.

The project pre-dated the board’s service learning requirement, but it bore the required characteristics. For example, the task was integrated into the curriculum and allowed students to share in the development of the idea.

Conroy launched the project by presenting a rough sketch to his students and asking, “Can we improve on that?” He says he always asks students for input because “their ideas are as good as mine.” The kids suggested adding a step to help children reach the upper bunk and using a sheet of ¾-inch plywood instead of slats for the base. The plywood, he says, made the beds virtually indestructible. “The kids could jump on them until they’re my age, and they couldn’t break them,” the teacher laughs.

The bunks were not the first class project done for a good cause. Conroy’s students also have made high chairs, cribs and cradles and repaired porches for families in need. Although the students can keep what they make, “most of the things go to people who can’t afford them,” he says. Conroy says students sometimes balk at giving their work away for free or a minimal price, but he reminds them, “You have this training; you will make more money than you will ever need. … You owe certain things to the community.”

Conroy notes that at least 40 of his students, including one girl, are working as apprentice carpenters. “There is a dire need for skilled workers,” he says.

Conroy, 53, sees teaching as a way to “give back” for the benefits he has enjoyed. A baseball scholarship, supplemented by wages from part-time work as an apprentice carpenter, paid for his education degree at Northern Illinois University. After teaching for a short time at Northern, he concentrated on the trade, working full time as a union carpenter on the Southwest Side.

When he returned to teaching, he first taught physical education in a suburban elementary school. Then his brother, a Chicago Public Schools employee, told him about an opening at an alternative high school for at-risk students. The job appealed to Conroy; for the next 14 years, he taught carpentry at the Industrial Skills Center in the basement of the old Washburne Trade School. When that school closed, Conroy transferred to Hubbard, which he describes as “a wonderful school.”

Conroy has been teaching various levels of carpentry and cabinetmaking at Hubbard for four years, focusing as much on civic responsibility as how to handle a saw. “I tell my students you are learning your skills from me for free, so you owe it to the community to give back,” he says.

This year’s cabinetmaking class soon will start building picnic tables for St. Elizabeth’s backyard. Conroy will make certain that his students do enough of the construction outside of class time to meet the new service learning requirement. Last spring, the kids spent “way beyond 30 hours” building the bunk beds, even working a few Saturdays. “We get busy, and we lose track of time,” he says.

And Conroy expects eventually they’ll make more bunk beds, too.

—Kimberly Fornek

Joseph Jablonski

Hancock

Last fall, James Iles, the principal of Hancock High School, invited his staff to hear a presentation by Chicago Do Something, the local arm of one of the nation’s largest youth leadership and community service organizations. The group had just opened a Chicago office and was anxious to work with Chicago public schools.

English teacher Joseph Jablonski, who has combined community work with school work since he began teaching three years ago, was ready to oblige.

“When my kids are involved in service learning, they do better in school,” he says. “They are more vocal in class, are much more apt to complete their homework and really try harder at school.”

In November, Jablonski began meeting weekly on Saturdays with 16 freshmen and sophomores and a Do Something representative. The group worked on activities to boost trust, confidence and team work.

For sophomore Gina Sandoval, those activities paved the way to a new assertiveness, better grades and a job at the Southwest Youth Collaborative, a local organization promoting student leadership. “I really speak out now,” she says. “I got more stuff to say because I know more.”

Laughing, she adds, “I’ve even done a rally at City Hall.”

One quarter last year, Gina had to stay after school for an hour each day to bring up her grades. “But not this year,” she says. “This year, I’m pretty focused.”

Gina credits Jablonski for some of her progress. “He really made us think about things. He was not just concerned that we got the right answer, but wanted to know why it was the right answer. He also makes us feel like we can change things.”

By March, Hancock’s Chicago Do Something group had begun brainstorming potential community service projects, including gang prevention, drug awareness and helping the homeless.

It would be up to Jablonski to weave the project into his curriculum. But he’s had practice at that.

In his first teaching job, at Bogan High School in Ashburn, he got students to volunteer in soup kitchens, local churches and hospitals. Then he offered extra credit if they would write a report and talk to the class about their experiences. Community service, he says, is a way to make issues of morality and humanity, which are staples in English classes, relevant and concrete.

When Bogan’s enrollment dropped in 1997, Jablonski found that as “last man in,” he would be the “first man out.” Principal Linda Pierzchalski tried to talk him into staying on as disciplinarian, but he did not want to leave the classroom.

Around the same time, Hancock, which was converted from an elementary school to help relieve overcrowding at Gage Park High, was looking for new teachers. “I needed an English teacher,” says Iles “I called around and heard he was a good teacher. Hiring him was one of my better decisions. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say he’s a 10.”

Jablonski quickly found that Hancock’s special circumstances made community service a stiffer challenge. Most students lived too far away to remain in the community after class, and few had driver’s licenses, he says. Improvising, he had students plan community service projects, such as designing a school for other students.

Initially, the students thought like teenagers, including a catered cafeteria, lounges and big screen TVs in every classroom. But as they talked about how a school could help improve its community, the wish list changed to libraries, books, computers and family services.

“Kids are just tired of being looked down on,” says Jablonski. “There’s not a lot of positive stuff portrayed about them out there. But they do want to help others and do good things; sometimes they just don’t know how, and that’s where adults come in. Then, when kids pick up the ball, they run with it.”

Jablonski himself is running with a ball that came to him relatively recently. Initially, he set out to become an electrical engineer, but that “didn’t pan out.” His love of reading prompted him to try teaching. But it was not until he stood in front of a class as a student teacher that he knew he had made the right decision.

“There’s nothing like seeing that glimmer in the eyes of a student,” he says.

—Debra Williams

Wayne Schimpff

Von Steuben

When Wayne Schimpff taught horticulture at Bogan High School in the mid-1980s, he agreed to take the kids who were having a hard time learning, those with learning disabilities, discipline problems or D’s and F’s.

“I understood these kids,” says Schimpff, now a teacher at Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center. “When I was young, I was a joker myself.” He also suffered from mild dyslexia.

Schimpff says he knew he had to make learning come alive for these students, so he centered his teaching around hands-on projects. Coming from a former Eagle Scout and Peace Corps volunteer, the projects had a public-service bent.

For instance, students cultivated plants and used them for landscaping at the school, even converting a barren courtyard into a patio with waterfalls and ponds. Students also participated in neighborhood clean-ups sponsored by the Mayor’s Office. Back in the classroom, they had to research natural history and reflect on what they had done.

“A lot of my kids had not had positive experiences in their lives,” Schimpff recalls. “I thought one way to do that was to help them make a difference in their communities.”

In 1986, Schimpff co-founded Caretakers of the Environment International, a group that links high schools engaged in environmental projects and conducts annual conferences on global ecological issues. Every year since, he has taken some of his students to conferences in such places as Russia, Holland and Ireland. This year, he is planning a trip to Costa Rica.

“A new world opens to them,” says Schimpff, 58. “When students go outside their community and travel abroad, it gives them a sense that they are important. It helps them see that they can help others.”

Elizabeth Conklin, a Von Steuben senior who went to a conference in Ireland last year, attests to that. “I’d never traveled outside of Chicago before,” she says. “I got the chance to meet people with the same interest that I have from all over the world. I learned about erosion and corrosion. We did water testing, and the whole time, we were asked ‘What would you do to make things better?’ I felt people really listened to what I had to say and that my voice counted.”

Shortly after helping launch Caretakers, Schimpff fashioned his lessons and projects into a curriculum called “People, Plants and Kindness,” which eventually became a part of President Clinton’s Learn and Serve America Program promoting service learning.

Through the curriculum, students learn about plants and how they affect the environment, how to create better indoor settings using plants and how to do outdoor landscaping around the school. Finally, they participate in projects like “River Rescue Day,” which involves cleaning up sections of the Chicago River between Kimball and Pulaski.

Afterwards, students join another 700 to 800 of their peers from public and private schools from around the city to celebrate and share experiences at a festival. Later, at school, students write their reflections about the whole event.

“After the curriculum became a part of the Learn and Serve Program, it was nice to know that what I had been doing had a name, service learning,” says Schimpff. “I never had anyone to talk to professionally about what I was doing. I was always the teacher with the loose screws.”

No other Chicago public school is using Schimpff’s curriculum, but he is working with central administrators to incorporate his program into the board’s service learning curriculum.

“His classes are definitely not the norm,” says senior Matt Knipp, who took Schimpff’s biology class as a freshman and is now in his horticulture class. “Instead of reading about DNA strands, we construct them. And when he teaches, he also preaches about giving back to the community, not just taking from it.”