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Monday, November 1, 2010

Empowerment and Chicago's Top Schools

Here in the United States and probably in most of the Western world, we consider basic teaching adequate when a child can read well enough to read a book, can write well enough to express himself in a letter or an essay, and can calculate well enough to balance a checkbook. Is teaching these things educational empowerment? Empowerment can mean literacy. But there is some confusion here because Webster's dictionary defines literacy as “being literate” and the first meaning of literate as an adjective is “an educated person” but the second is “being able to read and write.” To empower is also broadly vague, meaning both “to enable” and “to promote the self-actualization of..." So when we speak of empowering students, are we speaking of the minimum or the maximum? Or something entirely different?

Traditionally we judge the empowerment of children through grades awarded and successful testing. I am looking at the Chicago Tribune (Friday, October 29, 2010, Section 1, p.5) at an article beginning on the front page, “Region's Top 50 Schools.” In this article Chicago regional public schools have been rated by the percentage of students who met or exceeded state standards on Illinois state tests. Of these there were two Chicago elementary schools having all classes from third grade (the youngest tested) through eighth grade receiving scores of 100 percent: Lenart Elementary Regional Gifted Center and Keller Elementary Gifted Magnet School. The top three high schools were also in Chicago: Northside College Preparatory High School (98.7%), Payton College Preparatory High School (97.3%), and Whitney Young Magnet High School (93.8%). Quite impressive!

Both my parents were public school teachers and I have always been proud of them. But now they are gone, and I am sixty-seven with two grown children, a daughter who is forty-one and a son who is twenty-five. They each received a Montessori education. But I came through traditional public schools, sitting at desks for hours at a time where I was expected to assimilate lessons and absorb textbooks, just as most children still do today fifty years later.

And teachers today still delude themselves with the idea that grades help children learn, rather than understanding that the real purpose of grades is to control children through competition so that they will study even if they have no interest in the subject. And this may work even with the children who do see through the ruse but have the patience to study anyway, and it also works for children who will compete without any other reason but merely for the sake of the competition. The children who are dropping out of school are the ones who have no investment in academics and have seen through the system. In leaving they have empowered themselves in a different way and they know it. But they leave for an uneven existence that, at least in my Humboldt Park Chicago neighborhood, leaves them surviving too often on the wrong side of the law and rotating in and out of jail.

Real empowerment comes from being interested and invested in what you are studying. Incredibly effective teachers, some with quite a flair for the dramatic, can do this. But really, even in their classrooms the focus is on the teacher and not the subject of study. Montessori requested her teachers to remain in the background; to come forward occasionally when necessary for classroom business or certain lessons, but otherwise to work unobtrusively with small groups or individuals. This allows children to work by themselves or with others to further their own projects. This is real empowerment! Seeing is believing. And this works. If you have never watched a Montessori classroom in action, you should make an appointment to view one. In Chicago there are some well established schools that likely would let you observe a class. Try making an appointment with either Near North Montessori School or Rogers Park Montessori school. Or find one that has been in existence at least five years in your own neighborhood.