May 2013 Archives

Musical Morning at Shoesmith!!

So this Monday, Shoesmith had some really special guests: the Magnolia Singers from Charlestown, South Carolina. The school has this great program called Musical Mornings, which exposes the kids to different kinds of music. There's an all school assembly in the gym (the only space big enough to fit them all) and musicians get the chance to preform for all those eager ears.

The Magnolia Singers are an amazing group that do praise music from the Gullah tradition. In the low country of South Carolina, slave communities mixed English with African languages to create their own, distinct language, which is now called Gullah. (You can see a super cool exhibit about this at the Dusable Museum of African American History, over in Washington Park. But I digress.)

The Magonolia Singers preform traditional African American spirituals, and they also do rousing music of history and emotion that will get anybody going. There's clapping and foot stomping, with dancing and a history lesson woven on in. This is the way that a whole people communicated for hundreds of years, and it is still amazing when preformed--it's a great treasure that was shared with us and the children.

It was a little bit of serendipity that got the Magnolia Singers at the school. You see, the church where I intern, Saint Paul and the Redeemer, has a big multicultural celebration with musical guests for the yearly festival of Pentecost. They go all out. This year they flew these five singers up from South Carolina to take the church by storm with Gullah music. Since the church wants to be supportive of Shoesmith, they also helped facilitate a Musical Morning so that the Magnolia Singers could share their music with the students there, too.

Community organizations in a school's neighborhood can be a great asset to the school. They can provide the kind of connections that schools need to really thrive as a neighborhood center. They can connect schools with unconventional volunteer pools (and donation pools!) The church wanted to support Shoesmith's arts programming, and so they arranged (through a nonprofit called the Friends of Shoesmith) to have the Magnolia Singers do the Musical Morning on Monday.

It's pretty great what a few connections can do for the benefit of the kids. When I think about how to get things done at schools, I always want to think: Who can we connect with whom? Who has good ideas, and who knows people? This was definitely a serendipity of several people who knew how to make connections: one organization to another. And the kids (and the adults too) got to really enjoy the playful, joyful and beautiful music of the Magnolia Singers. The power of community organizations is super valuable when trying to do good things for the kids. The several hundred kids bobbing up and down and grinning proves how valuable these community connections can be to them.

Session at St. Martin's

I started working at St. Martin de Porres, House of Hope in January 2013. Lucy, my manager, told me that it'd be "a bit different" from regular preschools Jumpstarters were placed in. To begin with, St. Martin's isn't a preschool. It is a recovery home for homeless women who are affected by substance abuse. Food, shelter, and programs are provided for women and their children. That being said, it's important to realize these kids have much more on their plates. As part of an effort to make sure they don't fall behind their peers, Jumpstart comes into the daycare every Monday and Wednesday to do an altered session for an hour and a half.

We have kids that have trouble identifying the first letters of their names, but at the same time, some that can spell and even write their names; some that don't quite grasp different colors and shapes, but others that can easily identify and match both. In a room of kids at so many different developmental levels, it becomes hard to engage each and every one. Keeping this in mind, with our class of eight to ten, a typical day looks like doing three reading groups, clapping names and reading a poem at circle time, and finally picking two centers to do per session.

When repeated book and writing centers get dry, art is definitely a great go-to. Like other preschoolers, the ones at St. Martin's love making things and showing them off. But the art centers on the Jumpstart curriculum don't fit St. Martin's too well. For one session revolving around the book, Max's Dragon Shirt, the art center called for them to sketch their favorite things and design their own dragon shirt on a piece of green construction paper cut into the shape of a t-shirt. It was a great idea and it could've easily been a favorite at other preschools, but I felt like it'd be hard to pull off. How could I ask the kids to draw objects when regular shapes themselves were difficult?

One Friday, I came in and flipped through the book a few times and wondered how I could make the art center simplier without watering it down too much. I started out with cutting shapes. I figured handling a gluestick would be more managable than wielding a marker. I had long skinny rectangles, squares, isosceles triangles, and different-sized circles. For the kids that didn't quite know all their shapes, these would be good examples. They would also introduce the fact that triangles don't always have to have equal sides and rectangles can be long and skinny too.20130419_143913.jpg

Then, I used the shapes to make different pictures on the shirt. I made a truck as a shout-out to one three-year-old that was crazy about them. I also made a stick figure and a house: pictures I'm sure they would've been familiar with. The thought process behind this was that for the kids that knew all their shapes already, they can begin to use them as their tools. Shapes are not just stand-alone figures. Shapes can be parts of pictures too. 20130419_143944.jpg

Luckily, this activity was a success. Not only was I able to sneak in a mini-lesson and refresher on shapes, but the kids got really excited about using shapes to make pictures. There's nothing quite as satisfying as hearing them pumped to make the truck and make the king and make the pretty house. It was so popular that our teacher even joined in! Needless to say, the session we had that day was great.

A few weeks later, we found all the artwork hanging in the lobby! A definite first for us! It was such an amazing surprise. After the activity, our teacher told me that Jumpstart really added something great to the classroom.

Though working at St. Martin's requires quite a bit of patience, walking in every week and seeing these t-shirts makes it worth it. Seeing the kids engage with the curriculum and embrace Jumpstart as a permanent fixture in their otherwise unstructured days is incredible. I wouldn't give that up for the best, most well-behaved preschoolers in the world.

-- Daisy Lu, undeclared first-year in the College
For more about St. Martin de Porres House of Hope, visit

Classroom Connect - A New Initiative of NSP

classroom connect sample


This spring we're launching a beta test of a project that we're calling "Classroom Connect", a project that's been kicking around in the ether for the 3 years that I've been responsible for NSP. Put simply, Classroom Connect asks local teachers if there is a topic that they would like a University student/staff/faculty member to make a presentation to their class about (15-30 minutes), then lists the opportunity online where students can volunteer for them, and finally the NSP office acts as the trusted intermediary to make the connection and smooth the process out. The topics covered can be academic (e.g. how does electricity work?), cultural (e.g. What are some conversational terms in Swahili?), or experiential (e.g. What's it like to climb a mountain?), or really whatever is helpful for the teacher. Our hope is that this will dramatically broaden the volunteer opportunities available on campus.  We know many students would love to make a positive impact in a classroom, but can't quite align their schedules to do so in the traditional NSP context, so this opens up opportunities for them to be part of our community in different ways.  We also know that many students (especially graduate students) are actively looking for teaching experience, and that many student groups struggle with making contact with schools independent of NSP. We're being very conscious about having this start out being very teacher-directed, so that we're aligning the talents of the University with the school-based needs as the schools see them.  Perhaps future iterations of this project may turn into more of a marketplace, but I think it's important for the University to be very attuned to the expressed needs of our local schools. The Classroom Connect idea is built around the premise that NSP has strong existing relationships with schools in the area that enable this kind of learning exchange to happen.  Newly-formed organizations have to start from the beginning and build trust (and a track-record), whereas NSP -as a resource to the entire University- can leverage our existing relationships/resources to support new programs and initiatives. I should also say that I have some personal experience with this kind of project, as a returned Peace Corps Volunteer, I did quite a few classroom presentations for elementary schools on South Africa, Nelson Mandela, and the Peace Corps.  The experience was great for me, and the teachers and students seemed to really appreciate the opportunity to talk to someone new about topics that they'd read about. All that said, we're hosting a small beta test of the process in May and June, focusing mostly on the schools in walking distance of the University.  Please check out the Classroom Connect website, share it with teachers that you know, volunteer to do a presentation, and share your feedback! -SR. Update:  On day one of the Beta Test 6 teacher projects were posted, and 4 were claimed by students! PS: I need to thank the NSP Staff, School staff at Ray, Bret Harte, Kenwood, Dumas, St. Thomas, Murray, and UC-Donoghue.  Additionally, thanks to ITServices, Sandbox, and our NSP Classroom Connect volunteer coordinator Emily Hancock.

How Children Succeed

This post is for anyone who has an interest in children, schools, reform, economics, pyschology or good stories: read Paul Tough's How Children Succeed.

Last quarter, I had the opportunity to see Paul Tough speak at the Law School.  I attended because I had heard about his book and knew he was a real celebrity in the education reform world.  I had not read his book yet, but now having started it, I wish I had read it.  If you have heard of Paul Tough or this book and have considered reading it, trust me; take the time to read it.

This weekend I went home for a wedding and Mother's Day (Happy Mother's Day to everyone).  On the plane ride home, I started How Children Succeed.  What a book.  The section of the book that enthralled me most was the one on Character.  Tough compares strategies taken by two essentially opposite schools (a KIPP NYC school and Riverdale private school) that focus on how to teach character.  For all the NSPers out there, this book draws heavily on the experience of Chicago Public School students, and I am sure that many of the CPS stories will sound familiar (they did to me).  Should schools teach character?  If so, what character traits should they teach?  What do you think of a CPA (character point average)?

At UCW, each student is part of an advisor group that meets regularly with a teacher.  Most teachers from my experience watch inspirational movies with their students during these times.  After reading this book, I would really like to try some kind of reading group where we go through this book and discuss the various ideas put forth by Tough and the research he highlights.  I think there would be plenty of fruitful discussion for everyone involved.

I can't wait for Paul Tough to come back to UChicago.  I look forward to following him and all his work.  Thank you Mr. Tough!


What's the most adorable thing in the world?

I'm pretty sure it's a kindergarten classroom trying to do the Harlem Shake.

A few weeks ago, I was dragging my feet when I entered the kindergarten classroom at Shoesmith. It was the start of the week, and I'd already had a rather frustrating discussion in one of my own courses at the Divinity School. I was annoyed and not feeling particularly friendly towards human beings, and not really looking forward to the immediate needs of 34 tiny people.

That all changed, however, when I discovered what the 34 tiny people in my classroom were doing. It was dance time.

The students get rewarded with dance time, when the teacher takes out her iPhone and lets them flail around on the learning carpet to popular (but not vulgar) pop-club songs. I don't remember exactly what they were dancing to when I entered the room, but I can tell you that it took every fiber of my being to remain a stable, stationary adult. I wanted to dance right on with them.

More importantly, next up was the Harlem Shake. 

"Okay," Ms. Fitzsimons says, "The rules are very important for this song. Remember, you CAN'T DANCE until he says 'Do the Harlem Shake!'"

It was so, so, so hard for them to remain still at the beginning of the song. They were staring at their teacher with eager, anxious grins--eyes bugged out from anticipation, slowly teetering towards her until they got the okay--but they remained still for the whole time. And I think that's probably the longest time I've seen any of them stand still. Then, of course, on the introduction of an epic bass beat, they started to flail around again. One kid even attempted to break dance in the back of the room. 

You see, dancing might be really cute and uplifting for adults who are having a case of the Mondays, but there's also a lot of teaching logic behind it too.

In kindergarten, kids are learning to be with other kids. A lot of students at Shoesmith don't have much access to preschool, and that tends to be the place where children are first socialized into communities of other children. Kids who don't go to preschool already have a lot of catching up to do as far as classroom expectations go. 

One of those classroom expectations is knowing how to "be in your body". Kids that age don't really know, all the time, where their hands and feet are, or what happens when they move quickly (or slowly). They have a hard time coordinating themselves. 

One of the things that dancing teaches, in a really fun and (hopefully) exhausting way, is how to "be in your body", rock out, and not dismember anyone standing beside you. The most remarkable thing about dance time is that the kids usually don't hurt each other. They figure out how to have fun in their bodies without clobbering anyone, and that's a hugely important skill for 34 five year olds crammed into a classroom designed to hold 20.

The other important thing, especially about Harlem Shake, is that it teaches them DIRECTIONS. Seriously, it is really, really hard not to dance at the beginning of that song. The kids want so badly to dance, but they know that they can't, because that's not the way the song works. There's an amazing lesson in Harlem Shake for little people: "Doing this right is the most fun." That  is taught to them in the most amusing way possible (for them and us), but it really carries over into non-dance time activities. Dance time is a great way to get them to think about real serious lessons that they need to learn in order to be successful later, and it is--definitely--the most adorable thing in the world.


Comer Update!

Brought to you from Mr. Tan at the Gary Comer Youth Center

With all the great weather this week, the Gary Comer Youth Center was all smiles.  On Tuesday (how could you forget that 80˚ day sent from above), me and my Study Buddies group went outside and played dodgeball and football.  Josh had been talking about playing dodgeball every single week for months.  Every day, he would come into Study Buddies and ask, "Can we play dodgeball today?"  Then he would show us his matrix-like dodge moves.  Well, on Tuesday, Josh finally got to hone his skills by ruthlessly pummeling his teachers and tutors in a student vs. staff game.  Now I understand why Josh loves dodgeball, and in the future, I will choose teams (read: choose which kids are in my team) much more carefully.



NSP Workshops on Proposed School Actions - May 9 & 14


I posted this WBEZ article on the NSP FB page this morning - it does a great job of highlighting how inter-related a proposed school action is to other schools in the area, and to other proposed school actions.  This particular article focuses on a cluster of schools - Fermi, South Shore Fine Arts, Woodlawn Community School, Dumas, Wadsworth, and UC-Woodlawn - that we work with at NSP. I've been fielding questions from students (NSP and otherwise) trying to make sense of the proposed actions and the policy goals that are trying to be reached, particularly since this is the largest set of urban school actions ever proposed in a single year. To help people understand what's going on, we're going to host two workshops this quarter broadly on the proposed CPS School Actions.  One, led by myself, will be focused on identifying the different perspectives at play in this debate and looking at the different pros/cons risks/rewards that each perspective brings. We'll look at the local literature mostly, but will try to see what connections there are to similar efforts in Philadelphia, DC, etc.   We've got this scheduled for May 9th at 5pm in the Berwanger room at Ratner. On Tuesday May 14th at 4pm, we'll be partnering with the Chicago Studies Program to host a Faculty Fireside chat with Marissa de la Torre from the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR).  Her work has focused on school closures and turnarounds in Chicago (2001-2006). Hopefully, between these two sessions, you'll have a better idea of the complexity of what's going on in Chicago and in the Urban Education landscape more broadly.  I hope that whatever understanding you leave with has an impact on how you interact with these systems - be it as a member of a (school) community, as a policy thinker, or as a voter.