West Side Story

September 4, 2018 will mark 50 years since I first set foot inside a classroom on Chicago’s West Side—five months to the day after much of it was engulfed in flames in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination. My preparation was minimal: I had a BA, six hours of postgrad education credits and a guitar. I was 22 years old a bit wobbly from the tear gas and police batons that had greeted me and my girlfriend a few nights before in Grant Park during the Democratic Convention. The woman at CPS asked if I wouldn’t mind filling in as a kindergarten teacher. It sounded like fun, I said.

I wish I had brought more than good intentions to the classroom as I truly had no idea what I was doing, and I hope those 35 kids got something out of the arrangement because the year I spent with them changed my life. I was painfully aware of being a white authority figure in an all black classroom, but there I was, and the only way I could think to even the playing field was to try to listen to them as much as I expected them to listen to me. I didn’t know Dewey but I had devoured Herbert Kohl’s 36 Children.

One of the beautiful things about kindergarten back then was the absence of canned curriculum and tests. No one cared if we left the building and walked around the neighborhood or over to the Garfield Park Conservatory. We spent a lot of time talking about our dreams -- not the aspirational ones, but the nighttime ones that featured Mr. Boogerman. One day, Officer Friendly came to our class to talk about Mr. Stranger Danger, but these kids already knew about Mr. Stranger Danger and recited a list of his evil misdeeds that could have been right out of Poe or Shelly. Some of my kids couldn’t ever stop talking and a couple wouldn’t open up to me for months. We sang a lot. We did our best to channel Marvin Gaye. (This is an actual 16mm film clip of my class)

I wanted to share this little piece of my life as we launch the CPICS website and this column. This column is for your stories -- stories we hope will come from the 4000+ independent charter schools across the country. We don’t do a good enough job of telling these stories and consequently the work we do too often gets overlooked by those who don’t understand the complexity of the public education sectors or, worse, gets intentionally misinterpreted by those who want to characterize us as pillagers of the public interest. Our stories can change that narrative. They can be short or long, personal, political, pedagogical, opinion pieces or screeds. We need to tell them.

The autonomy we’re given (or should be given) in a chartered school is what ideally allows us to innovate and differentiate, to take risks and to succeed or fail in new ways. It’s very much in keeping with the American entrepreneurial spirit and it’s the stuff that sets the stage for stories to happen. Just sayin’ -- I know you have some good stories and this is your invitation to share them.

Let’s hear from you!

Steve Zimmerman

#JustSayin #SteveZimmerman


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