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Chicago Public Schools Fri Nov 23 2012

Interview with John Kuijper, Kohl Teacher Award Winner

In a city whose public education problems make national headlines, last Friday was an opportunity to step back and celebrate people who represent the best in Chicago Public Schools. The Dolores Kohl Education Foundation recognized three outstanding CPS teachers for their achievements in education: Abigail Weber from Horatio May Community Academy, Folasade Adkeunle from Northwest Middle School, and John Kuijper from Bronzeville Scholastic Academy. Diane Ravitch was also honored--she won the Kohl Education Prize.

These three teachers were selected from a group of candidates nominated by local education leaders. They underwent a lengthy interview process and classroom visits from the nominating committee. They posses five selection criteria: dedication, innovation, leadership, respect for children and families, and commitment to professional growth. They were also selected for their ability to speak comfortably with the media in order to expand public awareness of the importance of quality education. The awards were given out during a ceremony held Friday November 16 at the River North Marriot. During the ceremony WGN shared video of the three Teacher Award winners learning they had won.

Before the award ceremony I had an opportunity to sit down with John Kuijper and his students, Kevin and Antoinette. Kuijper teaches English to 11th and 12th grad students at Bronzeville Scholastic Academy, including English classes required for graduation. We started off talking about how he engages students who are required to take his class. "We are working in that course [English 3] with texts that are relevant to my students' lived experience yet have complexity of thought enough where they get to engage in that dialogue as a part of their lived experience," Kuijper said. "It is really honoring my students as having a lot of knowledge about their environment."

Stemming from assigned readings, Kuijper asks his students to write a "definition essay" unpacking a topic of their choice. For many of the students this essay started off with the question "who am I?" Kuijper was quick to engage Kevin and Antoinette in the conversation about this essay. Kevin observed "It really made us think. You heard a lot of opinions from people who normally wouldn't even say anything in class but just because the topic related to us so much a lot of people opened up."

I asked Kuijper for his thoughts on teaching requirements, and he explained, "There is a huge confusion between standardized tests and standard space learning. We have incredible standards--most countries that are high achieving have high standards." These common core state standards have been adopted by 46 states and are both broader and more challenging than the requirements posed by a standardized test.

"I was actually teaching my students today about common core state standards," Kuijper said. "The common core has one of the first standards in reading that says that students at this grade level, 11th and 12th, will understand and appreciate when an author writes text and then leaves matters uncertain. That ambiguity needs to be called out for what it is and explored. What is the author's purpose in creating that ambiguity? How does that ambiguity relate to their argument over all or their main point?"

The goal of the common core standards, according to the Illinois State Board of Education, is to provide teachers with "fewer, clearer and higher academic standards." For Kuijper these standards also represent freedom. "I choose my material; I have that leeway at my school. I am very fortunate at Bronzville, I have the leeway to choose whatever I wish as long as it is standards-based instruction, grade level relevant and, I would say, culturally appropriate pedagogy and choice of text."

While Kuijper did his best to break down the process for me, he noted that nothing about it is simple. "It comes from years of experience. It is so not just 'mark don't change if you think it is the best answer'."

Neither Kuijper's job nor his students' jobs are made easier by the inequality they notice in between their school and others in Chicago. Kuijper asked "When you were a kid, did they ever threaten to close your school? No! When you were a kid, did you have a library in your school? Of course! These kids have it in their face everyday."

"I feel more and more like I am part of a system that is vastly disparate." In the end Kuijper came back to the change he knows he can make. "[This] is why I love being in my classroom. I want to know how I can do what I'm supposed to do with the students I'm serving. That is where the power is. That is where the excitement is."

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