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My school lessons, as student and teacher

Carol Maras young teacher.

Carol Marin as a young teacher.

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Updated: November 7, 2013 6:24AM



‘We all think we’re experts in education,” cracks my educator friend Lila Leff, “Because we all had one.”

But we all didn’t have the same one.

I have two stories — about being a student and about being a teacher — that dovetail with my concern about a public education landscape that consigns students, teachers and schools to silos. And punishes neighborhood schools in favor of charters, magnets and other selective-enrollment alternatives.

My stories are about how socio-economic class determines the kind of classroom many kids end up in.

I’ve lived this story.

My parents moved from a basement apartment in Chicago to Rolling Meadows when I was 7. Neighboring suburbs of Palatine and Arlington Heights referred to our tract houses built on bulldozed cornfields as “Rolling Ghettos.” Never mind that to us, our new house was a palace.

I attended Rolling Meadows elementary and junior high schools, where I was an A student. I gave my eighth-grade graduation speech.

Off I headed to high school.

Because Rolling Meadows didn’t have a high school back then, I ended up at Palatine High.

My courses seemed remedial. And many freshmen carried books I didn’t have.

One was James Michener’s “The Bridge At Andau,” a journalistic account of the Hungarian Revolution seen through the eyes of the rebels.

I bought it. Read it. Loved it.

My freshman English teacher, Mary Lavelle, asked why I had it.

I asked why we weren’t reading it.

I didn’t know about academic tracking back then, but Mrs. Lavelle did.

She marched into the guidance office to get me moved up to the honors track.

Guidance pushed back.

The woman who headed it asked if I really felt up to the challenge? You know, dear, a Rolling Meadows girl?

Mrs. Lavelle won.

Second semester of freshman year, I was put in the honors track. But when I looked around, my new classmates didn’t live where I lived. Many of them were from much more affluent neighborhoods like Plum Grove or Inverness.

Educationally, we were classmates.

Economically, we were not.

But, hey, that was OK.

In fact, it was great!

Today we call that “diversity.”

Three teachers in my life — Mary Lavelle freshman year, Rod Botts sophomore year and Alfred Court junior year — transformed my education — and my life.

They saw me. Not a ZIP code.

Isn’t it amazing that the transforming power of a teacher is so great that decades later, we can still call their names?

When I hear someone badmouth teachers, I cringe.

Inspired by teachers, I became one.

My first year, I taught senior English. One honors course. Four bottom-track classes.

My principal said the honors class was my “reward” for having to deal with what he called four “mugger” classes.

Not surprisingly, my honors students came from more affluent West Dundee, my bottom-trackers from blue-collar Carpentersville.

It was a replay of my story.

My honors kids had excellent books to prepare them for college. My bottom-trackers? Not so much. And one stands out. Dante’s Inferno — not the terrific John Ciardi translation, but an unreadable, unteachable one.

I taught Dante’s Inferno anyway. But from Cliffs Notes. It had a fantastic explanation of Dante’s levels of hell showing how the sin matched the punishment. My kids loved hell! Especially that circle of hell where liars stood neck deep in excrement.

“Miss Marin! Look! Bulls---t’s being punished with bulls---t!”

They completely got the Inferno!

In the current, fierce debate about education and Chicago public schools, neighborhood schools are like the bottom track. Charters, magnets and college prep schools are higher up the ladder.

This is not to say that high-achieving students shouldn’t be challenged. It is to say all students should be challenged.

Until we commit to a school system that works for all students — and imagine reform strategies that genuinely include opportunities for all students — we will continue to perpetuate our system of haves and have-nots. And go on blaming principals and teachers and bad parenting.

To change this mindset, we have to break out of our silo mentality — and stop draining talent at the expense of one school over another. Stop pitting school against school.

The more elite schools can counsel out kids who don’t perform for whatever reason. Neighborhood schools cannot. They end up taking back the students pushed out by charters.

Kids with special needs do not find favor in the more selective schools. Again, more often than not, they end up in the neighborhood school.

Students, as educator Rita Pierson so eloquently tells it, need champions. Teachers need champions. All schools, elite or neighborhood, need champions.

Pierson talks about the role of human relationships in the world of education.

Not as a punitive model where poor test scores are punished, but where remedies are found to help more children flourish.

If we don’t ask the right question, we get the wrong answer.

The question isn’t whether we should have charters and International Baccalaureate programs, but how do we get the best result for every student? To float everyone’s boat higher?

The question isn’t whether high-achieving students should have options, but who gets defined as high-achieving? And how?

Charters were introduced as laboratories of innovation, a way to develop and teach the system new methods. But charters and traditional schools don’t talk to each other. They are in separate silos.

In the current combat between the Chicago Teachers Union and the Emanuel administration, there is a crying need for human relationships on both sides of that jagged dividing line.

What can teachers do?

One thing — and it may sound simplistic — is to go find your legislator and alderman and forge a relationship that lends itself to a continuing one-on-one conversation.

Not in a rally. Not in a demonstration. Not in a press conference. But in a conversation. About who you are. And what you see in your schools, classrooms, students and community.

And then there’s reconciliation. Sometimes, in the fight, we lose sight of it.

No matter how good a school might be, every school has something to learn from and something to contribute to another.

If Britain and Northern Ireland can work out a peace agreement, good grief, can’t we?

It’s been a long time since I’ve been in school.

But what I carry with me every day are those teachers who took me to a place I otherwise might not have gone.

Who took class out of my classroom.

Who replaced barriers with opportunities.

And showed me where you come from should not determine where you’re going.

Not ever.

Email: cmarin@suntimes.com

Twitter: @CarolMarin



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