Five Chicago area schools getting education “right”

Teachers recognize that each child in their class learns in their own unique way and the challenge is finding a way to reach each one while not ignoring another. We reached out to some of the best from around Chicagoland to see how their schools embrace the most current research to ensure that they are using best practices to help each student learn.

Include personal experiences to make learning meaningful

Parents shouldn’t expect school to be like it was when they were students. “What we’ve learned about the young brain in the past 20 years is amazing and has flipped the experience,” says Meg Fitzgerald, early childhood director at Bennett Day School in Chicago.

“Good teaching is about learning processes, not just fact-based learning. And we know that real-world experiences are more beneficial than worksheets, because what’s personal to kids is what gets ingrained.”

For early childhood students at Bennett, that can mean a trip to the park to examine worms or a science project to determine the best way to make orange juice after a student inquired about it.

Make the most of the mind-body connection

Immaculate Conception Grade School in Elmhurst has implemented active learning. “Tons of research shows everyone learns through movement. Moving increases comprehension,” explains teacher Laura Bedore.

Students use purposeful movement with programs like GoNoodle and Adventure to Fitness to both develop memory and fluency and have two action-based breaks during the day. Bedore kicks it old school by teaching her kids different dances during those breaks. “I’ve gone retro. We do the Hustle,” she says.

Classrooms at Immaculate Conception also have nontraditional seating options including yoga balls and even pedal bikes. “There’s a lot of kids who just naturally have bounds of energy, and giving them the opportunity to move allows them to feel more comfortable and confident in the classroom,” Bedore says.

Emphasizing the student-teacher relationship

The student-teacher relationship can make a big difference in both how and how much a student learns. Rocco Gargiulo, assistant principal and math teacher at Woodlands Academy in Lake Forest, says that fostering the relationship can allow a teacher to determine how each child learns best. When students realize that teachers really do want to help them and are not scary, students more likely to self-advocate.

The all-girls school matches students with a faculty mentor as part of their advisory program and allows time for one-on-one meetings with humanities teachers so that teachers can provide specific feedback to each student. Faculty members also get to know students outside of class, which gives them an understanding of that child and the ability to relate the subject matter back to something they know that student is interested in, be it a specific sport, book they’re reading or the arts. “We are able to engage them and it makes students feel safe, comfortable and well known, which helps them become better students in our classes,” Gargiulo says.

Offering learning opportunities

The arts are integrated throughout the curriculum in both big and small ways at Alphonsus Academy and Center for the Arts in Chicago, which Principal Casimer Badynee says helps kids of all learning styles reach their full potential. “There is not one successful type of kid here,” Badynee says. “Kids connect with art in different ways and we look at multiple data points, which can be a test or it can be a performance on stage, a work of art or a composition.”

One key to helping kids learn best is to offer learning opportunities at every turn, which happens in a very literal sense at Alphonsus, where student work lines the halls and is visible throughout the school. “The classroom is not the only sanctuary for learning. Even when kids are moving from one room to another, they are surrounded by the arts and that’s a chance for kids to engage and understand.”

Continually evolve

Julia Kelly, principal of Queen of Angels Elementary School in Chicago, stresses that schools need to be continually evolving. “You have to stay current with educational trends. Our staff is motivated to research new teaching models, and there are different instructional methods going on in our classrooms,” she says.

Parents can support teachers by being involved and aware of what is going on in the classroom. “Put trust and faith in the teachers that they are looking out for the best interest of their child and doing all they can to help them learn.”

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