Learning the catch-22’s

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John Waters

Photo by Jason Reblando

John Waters

John Waters had only been a student teacher at Manierre Elementary for a couple of weeks when he began to worry the school might close.

Waters recalls that a CPS official came to a staff meeting at the start of the school year and warned of potential school closings in the community, especially if test scores didn’t go up. About half of the students at Manierre met state achievement standards last year, far fewer than the district average. (At press time, the district had not yet released a list of schools slated for closure, and it was not clear whether any would close.)

Declining enrollment was another potential nail in Manierre’s coffin. The school, which primarily serves the moderate-income Marshall Field Garden Apartments, saw its student population drop to 420 in 2010, down from 755 in 2005. The rest of the Near North Side neighborhood gentrified a number of years ago.

Waters had done classroom observations at Schiller and watched that school close, too, he recalls with dismay.

Still, he accepts that schools in Chicago have a precarious existence. It’s just one challenging reality in a system with many.

“It’s not the kids’ fault, and I don’t really think it’s the teachers’ fault,” says Waters, a student at DePaul University. “Everything about Chicago Public Schools is just a catch-22.” (Waters has since graduated from DePaul.)

Another catch-22 is parent involvement. Waters knows that economics has a big impact on parents’ ability to be involved in their children’s education. During a seminar several weeks into the semester, student teachers note that parents often work at jobs with unpredictable, inflexible hours and simply can’t make it to conferences.

There’s consensus that teachers should make time to meet with parents on evenings or weekends, by any means necessary. But economic inequality, like school closings, is something that teachers cannot control, and Waters and the others have learned that there’s only so much they can do—and sometimes, it’s still not enough.

“We had a two-hour block for parent-teacher conferences, and three out of 23 parents showed up,” Waters says. “If parents aren’t involved, it’s just something you have to accept. You have to work around it.”

In a 1st-grade classroom at Manierre, Waters is going over the physical properties of matter—or at least, trying to.

As part of the activity, groups of students have been given packets of small objects. Waters picks up one of them. “This wood right here,” he says, tapping on it with a finger, “is rigid. Is it going to bend?”

“No!” a boy answers excitedly.

Waters then hands out a worksheet for students to fill out—they’re supposed to check off the physical properties of each of several objects—and breaks the class into groups of four. But many of the students are off-task. A fight erupts over the materials.

Waters tells one boy he’s lost recess and changes another student’s behavior card to yellow, a warning signal that he has crossed a line. The noise level rises. Waters rings a cowbell.
“Everyone, eyes on me. Go back to your normal seats,” he says.

He opts to re-do the lesson as a large-group activity, “hopefully in five minutes” because it’s almost time for recess.

“We’re starting over,” he quietly tells the teacher, Mary DuBois. A couple of students will need new worksheets.

Quickly Waters realizes that the large-group format is a better choice. It lets him call on students who aren’t paying attention and immediately redirect those who get lost or need help.

The larger lesson is one that every new teacher learns: When something doesn’t go well, try to do it differently next time, and go over material again when students haven’t been paying attention.

Soon it’s time for recess. Waters has successfully finished the lesson.