Good morning, I’m Jeannie Marie Olson and I’m a Chicago Public School Parent.
Welcome to Backpack Blessing Sunday.
Last fall, my daughter was the new kid at school. We had just made the decision to come back to our neighborhood Chicago Public School and it felt good. I showed up early to my first meeting with a PTA representative, determined to pitch in and volunteer and make a difference, all energy and no direction but ready for the plan!
The school is four blocks from our house and we used to walk past it before we had children. The parents and students playing at the playground. The shiny red glazed brick of the addition. And here I was with my very own kid—not borrowed, mine—and ready to get on board with the Parent-Teacher Association.
We talked a lot about diversity. Specifically, how to get it reflected in the composition of the PTA. My daughter’s school is 36% Hispanic, 29% South Asian and Asian, and only 20-ish% white. Part of the reason that we love this school is because of its diversity, the families who speak over 35 different languages at home. But at the moment, when school families pictured the PTA, that picture was looking very, very white. Not entirely white. But pretty white.
Before I go on with this story, there are some things you need to know about me, and what I believe about education.
First, as a good disciple of John Dewey, educational philosopher, I believe that experience is learning and it is all around us constantly. We never stop learning inside or outside of the classroom. That the best teachers—along with getting us excited about algebra and confident about spelling--help us to turn that experience into knowledge about ourselves, others and the world.
Second, I believe that two tools are essential for me in this world:
The first one is this. (Holds up magnifying glass)
A magnifying glass.
From the Latin word for “to extol, to praise, to have the power to increase.”
And this. (Holds up mirror.)
A mirror. From the Latin word meaning, “to wonder”.
If you look up the word “mirror” in a dictionary, you might see the following definition: Something that faithfully reflects or gives back a true picture of something else.
And then it gets even cooler. Because if you look up the Latin word for “reflect?” It means, “to bend back”. To cause a change in direction. Like this mirror can reflect light if I turn it to the light.
And what was needed in that moment from me, in my school community, was a mirror. Because my school community was awesome and was already doing a pretty great job of inclusion. I had watched some of the more involved parents and PTA representatives working the crowd at drop-off and pick-up…giving hugs, shaking hands, laughing with other parents… parents in saris…parents in hijab… parents in shiny Doc Martens with a little hint of a tattoo. But I also saw the shyness, the hesitation. Many of our parents are newcomers to the U.S., many struggling with a new language and new cultural norms. The PTA members saw themselves as part of this community. But how did these parents from other countries see their own place in the community?
The day of the Back to School Picnic last year, I was ready. I had my 35 mm camera on a tripod, a white curtain backdrop and a box full of props like funny mustaches and princess crowns. And I had my sign…Free Photobooth. After a few hours, I had over a hundred photos of parents and students and teachers, many sporting some sparkly crowns and mustaches.
My mirror was to reflect everyone back to themselves, not as individuals, but as members of a bigger school community. To say, “You are here. We see you. Everyone belongs.” I printed out dozens of these photos and handed them out before and after school over the next few weeks. They were the jumping off point for making connections, strengthening relationships, and yes, invitations to come hang out at the PTA meetings. Everyone is welcome. Bring your sparkly crown.
In my work as a qualitative researcher, I enjoy collecting observations through photographs and sketches the most. I often collect many things from my fieldwork in the quest to understand the “why” and the “how” of particularly nuanced and complex problems, how and why people interact with each other the way that they do. Long, detailed narratives and journals of observations, bits and pieces of paper and artifacts. Clues that lead us to deeper questions about priorities, assumptions, decision-making, and prejudices. It’s all data. And I like data.
Data is from the Latin word meaning “to give”. Data has always given to me. It gives me a sense of order in a disorderly world. Which is good, because a year ago I was having what Elise Doody-Jones calls “The Annual School Decision Freak Out”. This is a yearly ritual that goes like this: You wake up at 3 a.m. with your heart pounding and wondering, “Oh no, did we choose the right school? Public or private? Charter or non-charter? Bus ride or walking? Am I doing the right thing for my children’s future? Or will they be destined to live in our basement forever?”
There is just so much uncertainty in the world right now, and in public education especially. The events of the past year in Chicago—the strike, the closings, the budget cuts-- have brought that uncertainty crashing through the lives of many of us. When that uncertainty struck me at 3 a.m. last fall, I did what I have been trained to do…I went to the data. I took out my magnifying glass to find something that I could praise and extol.
To make a long story short, I had some burning questions about equity within our school district and about public education in general that I wanted answers to. I wondered why so many CPS schools didn’t have a library or a librarian. Why so many of them were without proper heating and cooling. Why the same schools dominated “The List” each year. And if you are unfamiliar with “The List,” it’s an annual ritual for media organizations to rank schools by their Standardized Test scores. I wondered how the rankings and lists of schools also take into account the kids who don’t begin their learning path with a richly appointed preschool or learning games on iPads. I wondered about the way parents and students saw the data supplied to them about their child, themselves and their school, and how this changed their behavior, thoughts and feelings about themselves and their school.
Not because of an interest in numbers alone, no. I was hooked because of the importance of the mirror and the magnifying glass. These numbers that we use are important. They reflect how we measure the worth of others. They reflect our priorities and assumptions and prejudices and even our fears. They help us to trace the paths that we travel on our way to decisions.
Looking at the data was actually very affirming. Peeling back how school ratings were calculated, for example. (Explain how a school’s ISAT Composite can mask what is going on in the school.) Or how the school utilization formula related to overcrowding and what the District considers to be underutilized. (Explain why)
When I paid the proper attention to the data and carefully reconciled it with what parents were experiencing, I was affirming them. Affirming that what they saw was real, even though it didn’t agree with what they were being told. And sometimes giving them new and uncomfortable truths to think about. Reflecting on the data was reflecting on how we measure and value our schools. Praising some virtues that are often masked by the math, and giving other parents the confidence to advocate for their schools and their students.
Reflect. Extol. Give.
The SchoolCuts work I engaged in was particularly difficult and exhausting. I remember the first community hearing I attended and my heart broke watching parents, students and teachers plead, rage and cry at the panel of often blank-faced representatives, begging for their school to be kept open. The School Cuts team came together and launched our project in less than 3 weeks, giving parents the data that they needed to advocate for their school and their possible alternatives. We wanted parents to feel informed and empowered instead of helpless and defeated. And I remember that my jaw dropped at 8 am in the morning as I was driving in my car listening to Linda Lutton, the education reporter for WBEZ in Chicago, interview a Southwest Side parent whose school was on the closing list about why her son should be allowed to stay at his school and not be sent to another specific school. The parent didn’t break down in tears or plead helplessly on air. She reached into her purse and pulled out the test score data for both schools and broke it down for the reporter, why her son’s school was a better choice.
It’s been a year now that I’ve tried to be a magnifying glass and a mirror in Chicago Public Schools, particularly neighborhood schools that don’t have a test or lottery for admission. Yes, there are so many things wrong with public education right now and I won’t go through the list because many of you know it by heart. But there are so many things that are going RIGHT in classrooms and schools around this City—despite what sometimes seems like the best efforts of District Administration to dismantle some of them, even if they believe they have the best of intentions-- and those things need to be reflected.
If, as John Dewey reminded us, we view the whole world as our classroom, what can we learn about the events of this past year? About the struggles in our City? How can we engage each other and all of our students—from public schools or non—in reflecting on the critical role that a free and fair public education plays in our society and in our civic life? About what engaging and collaborating with others LOOKS like when it isn’t just words? About the hard truths around the issues of equity, justice, politics, business and government, and the complexity of all of it? What can we extol? What can we magnify?
I can offer something.
I have been so heartened, so lifted up by the increasing awareness of all parents and citizens of this City around the important details of inequity and complexity that exists in the District. I’ve often talked about it with others. I know specific groups and other parents have too. But it hasn’t been until this year that I’ve seen different groups and neighborhoods and communities joining together across the City, across zip codes, to listen to each other even when the District wasn't listening to them. To engage each other, even when the District was not engaging them. And to advocate for each other even when they thought that no one was in their corner.
Forgive me if I use someone else’s words here instead of my own, but these words from Elise Doody-Jones were a mirror for me when I needed them this year, and I would like them to be a magnifying glass for some of you:
When the first day of school arrives, I see the long-term friendships my son has and we parents have, the amazing teachers who have struggled for far longer to teach under difficult situations and a principal who regardless of the politics manages to make it work with a smile because, no matter what foolishness the adults are engaged in, kids need to be taught and need to be taught well if we are going to survive as a free society.
Yes, we could run off to greener pastures but someone at some point planted and cultivated that pasture that is so green. We choose to continue to tend the garden here at this school despite the harsh climate because someone else somewhere else at other schools took the time and energy to do the same for us.
We have to set the example of how you are supposed to BE in society.
We often feel so helpless in the face of overwhelming political and bureaucratic obstacles that we forget that we have so. Much. Power. TO be a mirror. To be a magnifying glass. Not everyone is going to go about this in the same way, being the mirror for a hurting City or at the District level. But we all have the power to reflect back to others…to students, to parents, to teachers…to give them new data, to give them a more powerful and empowering view of themselves, their school, and their place in this City, in this world.