What some Chicago schools are doing to help kids learn better

Students learn so much more than reading and math in school; they are developing a wide variety of abilities, including social-emotional skills, physical abilities, curiosity and self-worth. Here are a few ways that Chicagoland schools have incorporated educating the whole child into their curriculum.

Fostering imagination and innovation

Area schools have very much taken to heart the Margaret Mead quote that “children must be taught how to think, not what to think.” That often includes thinking outside the box and being both imaginative and innovative.

“It’s important in Waldorf education that children get to exercise their imagination. … We do that by giving kids strong academic education in a wide variety of subjects and also a lot of opportunities to develop artistically. The idea is that every time a child has an artistic experience, it gives them the opportunity to exercise their own imaginations and also develop resilience and courage that you need in life,” says Carol Triggiano, an eighth-grade class teacher at the Chicago Waldorf School.

Using imagination and trying out new ideas are key to the focus on innovation at Quest Academy in Palatine. “The technology students will be using when they graduate high school or college does not exist today, so we need to teach kids to be creative and to innovate,” explains Khalek Kirkland, head of school.

Focus on spirituality

For religious schools, educating the whole child includes exploring students’ faith.

“As a faith-based school, we can tap into the students’ spiritual lives, not in the sense that we are training them to be little Lutherans, but we are asking them to think about issues over and beyond what is in the textbook,” explains Chris Comella, principal at Pilgrim Lutheran School in Chicago. The religious education program at Pilgrim includes chapel buddies as well as a service component. Comella says the service opportunities not only allow kids to contribute to their community, it opens up discussion and questions in the classroom.

Similarly, the Chicago Jewish Day School includes spirituality in its effort to help students grow as a person. “Being a Jewish school, the spiritual part is an integrated part of teaching the whole child,” says Jill Kushnir LeVee, assistant head of school.

Developing social-emotional skills

The foundation for success in the real world starts very early on, and teaching “soft skills” sets the stage for even the youngest students to function well both in the classroom and the world outside of school. “The research is strong that if there is a focus on social-emotional learning, the academic gains are great, too,” says Kushnir LeVee.

Kathryn Barnaby, executive director of Kidwatch Plus in Chicago, says for anyone to succeed, we need to learn to get along with others. “Kidwatch’s classrooms teach rules such as waiting patiently, taking turns, and sharing while encouraging them to make friends and settling conflicts peacefully,” she says.

Chicago Jewish Day School holds morning meetings in each classroom to provide opportunities to develop social-emotional skills. “While the meetings look different depending on grade level, they are a time for teachers to gather with students to work on skills like greeting each other, listening and asking questions.”

At Quest, lunch time is an opportunity to build social skills. Students are given cards of different colors and sit with people with the same color card. Kirkland says is a gentle way of pushing students outside of their comfort zone and building the skills they will need to work with diverse groups of people at school and in the workplace.

Educators agreed that educating the whole child doesn’t happen just in the classroom and that it often requires a collaborative effort between home and school.

The goal of integrating these components into the school day is to help children emerge with a full battery of skills that will help them succeed in all areas. As Comella says, “When kids leave our school, they have both a great academic education and this whole view of the community and the world in which they live that they wouldn’t have gotten if we focused only on reading and math scores.”

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