THE BLOG
08/28/2013 10:14 am ET Updated Oct 27, 2013

On the First Day of Class, One Question this Teacher May Avoid Asking

By Gina Caneva

I can remember sitting in one of my last college classes at the start of the semester when my history professor wanted to know a little bit about his students. He prompted, "Tell us your name, why you are taking this course, and something you learned this summer."

Names came out rushed and forgotten, reasons were written down only by the professor, and the somethings learned got smiles and occasionally a laugh. But one response still resonates with me every year when I start school with my students. And this year, with the summer turmoil that Chicago Public School (CPS) students have faced, that memory is at the forefront of my thoughts.

I have forgotten her name and her reason for taking the course, but I remember that she did not want to answer the professor's final question. She looked toward the next classmate.

"You forgot about the summer question," my professor asked. She half-smiled and replied, "Oh...um...I don't know. I didn't learn anything."

The professor uncrossed his arms and motioned with his hands as he spoke. "Come on, you can't think of one thing you learned this summer?"

Students' heads turned and leaned forward to listen intently to the young woman. I didn't think the professor was going to let her off the hook.

To everyone's surprise, she began to cry softly. Then she explained, "My brother drowned two weeks ago in Lake Michigan. I can't think of anything else to say."

Everyone looked to the professor for a response. His hands dropped to his knees, and he stumbled for the words. "I'm very sorry for your loss..." he continued, but I cannot remember the words because I was focusing hard on the carpet so as not to stare at the crying girl, still mourning her brother. I remembered that news story from just two weeks prior.

Class resumed, just as school will this week for CPS students. Now, entering my tenth year as a CPS high school teacher, I wonder what would happen if I asked that question to my students.

They may tell me they learned that their elementary school was one of the 49 being closed down for supposed budgetary reasons.

They may tell me they learned that they now have to walk their younger siblings to school along a Safe Passage Route and that seven people have been shot, one fatally, along such a route this summer.

They may also tell me they learned about the grief of losing a loved one to violence. Chicago teens paying attention to the news or witnessing it firsthand learned of July's homicide number hitting 51. So far in August, the tally is 18.

They may talk about the verdict in the Trayvon Martin trial, as they watched glued to their televisions. They may have even marched downtown in his remembrance.

They might say that one of their favorite teachers has been laid off, even though she was tenured and highly regarded. CPS laid off 1,036 teachers near the end of July. Many had received high ratings from administrators.

They may be able to explain how Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds are being used to finance a DePaul basketball stadium at McCormick Place but are not being used to help improve their own schools.

Or worst of all, they may actually tell me they didn't learn anything and mean it. Research shows that students in poverty suffer from summer learning loss at much higher rates than more affluent students.

All of these possibilities give me anxiety about asking the question my professor did years ago, "What did you learn this summer?" These possibilities show how many obstacles my students face because of decisions that often do not put them into the equation. It angers me that they have so many challenges to overcome because of where they live, and the polarization across stakeholders is doing nothing to help my students overcome unimaginable challenges.

Here is what I propose:

1. Lessons can be planned around these issues to try to help students cope with them. For example, English teachers can ask students to write journal entries, op-eds, and letters to politicians about the school closings and teacher layoffs as student voice has been lacking in decisions that greatly affect them. History and civics teachers can use the Trayvon Martin case to teach kids about laws and evidence and even hold mock trials in the classroom. Math and Economics teachers can explain TIF funding and ask students to calculate how much TIF funding goes where in our large city versus how neighboring suburbs use TIF funds. Students can also devise truly Safe Passages to and from their school for younger classmates who may not know of the trouble spots.

2. In terms of the achievement gap and summer learning loss, both the union and the district need to come together for a plan that includes year-long schooling. This is not a popular discussion or choice by any means. Teachers and students will not want to give up their summers, and the district will no doubt be concerned about the expense, which could be considerable. All three parties need to think about the ever-widening achievement gap and more instructional time, not less.

These discussions are lost in the media and lost on the bargaining table for more dramatic theater. Bulldozers take down schools, and teachers get arrested in protest. Immediacy has taken over thoughts of the future. Immediacy is the same mindset that we see on our streets causing so many homicides. CPS is operating with only a year in mind, while most of our children will go to school for more than a decade. This thought process is not good enough for Chicago students; it's not good enough for any student. We need to start thinking more creatively to change the minds of the decision-makers. We need to publicize accomplishments, not just arrests. We need to put out data about our students' and schools' accomplishments.

3. Perhaps the biggest solution, one much bigger than this teacher and her classroom—and this is going to be extremely difficult—is to ask and answer very difficult questions about money. It is highly disturbing that in New York City, the largest district in the United States, per pupil spending is around $19,000. In Chicago this year, per pupil spending has been cut to a little over $4,000. It is no wonder schools are failing students when so little is put into both students and their schools. Chicago and other cities across the nation need to look towards New York City for answers to this problem.

As we embark on the new school year, I will probably avoid the question of "What did you learn this summer?" and replace it with "What do you hope to learn this year?" Then, I will try my hardest to exceed those expectations. I'm hoping my city will do the same.

Gina Caneva is a National Board Certified teacher in her 10th year in Chicago Public Schools. Currently, she is the school librarian and Instructional Leadership Team Lead at Lindblom Math and Science Academy and a Teach Plus Chicago Teaching Policy Fellow.