"They Make It About Us": Engaged Learning on Chicago's South Side


To reach students here, teachers need to know their kids as much as their subject.

Tosha Jackson, assistant principal, Fenger High School

Ron Towns' advanced statistics class, Fenger High School

October 3, 2013

by Barbara Cervone

For the past six months, WKCD has been documenting daily practice in a diverse group of U.S. high schools that work hard to join social-emotional and academic learning. Chicago's Fenger High School is one of the six schools in our study. In 2009, Fenger became a poster child for urban school violence when rival gangs from the school beat to death an honors student on his way home. Four years later, the school is making news again: as a turnaround school, where staff do everything in their power to build a community of supports, where failure is not an option. Last month we described how a vibrant restorative justice program has been integral to this transformation. Here we offer a snapshot of how teachers at Fenger strive to engage students in "deeper learning"at a school where academic failure has been the norm.

CHICAGO, IL —Corey barely picked up his pencil during his first few weeks of eleventh grade English. “I don’t want to do nothing,” he told the teacher. When the class started reading Totsi, about a young South African man growing up in apartheid, Corey lifted his head and started to listen, but he still refused to read actively. “You have to read with us!” his teacher, Ellen Lau, told him.

When the syllabus moved on to Othello, Lau decided to experiment. She and several colleagues were part of a yearlong professional development seminar, run by Chicago’s Shakespeare Theater, which mentors English teachers from some of the most at-risk Chicago public schools. Guided by the theater troupe, Lau and her colleagues had explored best practices in literacy through drama-based strategies. She decided to try those in her unit on Othello, and it blew Corey away.

“Suddenly, he was into everything,” Lau recalled. “Yes, his ability level was still low. Yes, he could read but his comprehension was poor. But he became more engaged, more willing to struggle with the reading than he was before.” It was the acting, Lau believes, that helped Corey embrace the text and, in turn, awaken as a student. This is the sweet spot Fenger teachers strive to hit with all their students: engaged learning.

As part of Fenger’s turnaround, teachers meet weekly in both subject-area and grade-level teams—planning, comparing notes, and growing as teachers. Each year they pick an instructional target for the school as a whole, and this year’s target was “authentic literacy”: the intensive integration of purposeful reading, writing, and talking across the curriculum. The approach, gaining momentum nationally, has special resonance at Fenger, with the possibilities it provides for joining social-emotional learning, relevance, and the rigor of Common Core standards.

“I like the word purposeful,” said Lau. “With authentic literacy, you are not only learning to write, but also writing to learn. Whether it’s learning math or science or social studies or English, writing becomes a tool for reaching into content.”

Students are also asked to think and write about how texts resonate within their own lives. As well as Othello, Lau’s reading list for her eleventh grade English class included Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Athol Fugard’s Tsotsi, and Elie Wiesel’s Night. Reading Othello, students wrote in their journals about their own trials with jealousy. With Totsi, they turned to their personal experiences with stereotypes, gangs, and making decisions, bad and good.

“They make it about us,” an eleventh grader said. As students share their personal experiences and reflections with one another, they also practice classroom norms they have created together. A poster with rules for respectful and serious discussion, created and signed by students, hangs at the front of Lau’s classroom.

Rigor and differentiation

When Fenger teachers—across several subjects—agreed that students needed coaching in conducting academic discussions, they created an "Academic Talk" rubric. They use the rubric in their English, math, and social studies classes. Download rubric

When Ron Towns' students wrote up the findings from their bullying surveys, Towns' commented on both their writing and their use of statistics. The students' essays were scored against Fenger High School's essay rubric. See examples of essays and rubric scoring


In a school where fewer fights and lower dropout rates are important measures of success, one might expect rigorous instruction to take a back seat. At Fenger, rigor, not classroom management, has been the focus of professional development for several years. The high expectations embedded in Common Core standards dovetail with social-emotional lessons about perseverance, a growth mindset, and key academic behaviors. According to Long, such demanding new standards empower teachers to push hard.

"I tell students, 'This is what’s expected of you and I expect great things from you.' You keep pushing and pushing, no matter how much the kids want to butt heads against you. They know you care at the end, and they want to do it for you and themselves."

Students respond to the high expectations, too. “The teachers here, they challenge your mind,” said Anna. Amanda Long recalled a student who told her, “You are mean.” But then the young lady went on to say: “You are pushing me really hard and I like it. Thank you.”

At Fenger, one also hears a lot about differentiated instruction—providing students with multiple ways to acquire content. To an outsider, the student body at “struggling” schools like Fenger may seem homogeneous: poor, minority, and low performing. Inside, however, heterogeneity shows up everywhere. What works for one student may not work for another—one reason why the faculty’s weekly subject-area and grade-level meetings hold value.

“To reach students here, teachers need to know their kids as much as their subject,” said Jackson. “They are always evaluating, always inventing. If you do it this way, Sean will get it. If I add this, Marissa will feel challenged.”

Fenger eschews the tracking—visible and invisible—that is the norm in many comprehensive high schools. Honors and Advanced Placement classes are open to any student willing to put in the work, as long as student and family agree to the behavioral and academic expectations. Rather than focus on test scores—both as a gatekeeper and a goal—these classes prize persistence and hard work.

“I can think of students in my honors classes who normally are the strongest students, but they haven’t showed much growth this year because their full heart is not dedicated to it,” Ellen Lau mused:

"Then there are kids who are considered the lower tier. They are the ones who often amaze us with their academic growth. It’s not that they are going to score well on their SATs or ACTs or pass the AP exam. It’s how far they traveled from where they started."

Social-emotional learning meets math proficiency

In Ronald Towns’ advanced statistics class, groups of students dug into the day’s lesson on standard coordinates and slope intercepts. At one point a student shouted out: “I got it! I understand!”

Towns moved from group to group, praising the students’ efforts at every opportunity and answering questions with more questions. Intermittently, he pulled together students for a mini-lesson (on decimal notation, for example). The class ended with an impromptu student debate on which was better, a high confidence level or a low margin of error.

Towns, who majored in statistics and secondary education at Columbia University, considers social-emotional learning a handmaiden to his lessons in statistics. He uses a project-based approach that requires students to work as a team while they think like statisticians. He prods students to gather and collect data about issues close to them.

Recently, he asked students to design a study that answered the question, “What’s bullying like at Fenger?” Over a period of five weeks, teams of students put into action what they had learned in theory, from designing surveys with unbiased questions to random sampling. Based on the data they gathered, they formulated a core argument about bullying at Fenger and then produced policy reports that they shared with the Fenger community.

Though the class had been working in groups all year for different tasks, never had it happened on this level or for so long. If they were to learn the collaborative skills necessary to succeed at this challenge, “I’d have to plan for it and organize it from my end,” Towns said. He arranged students into groups he thought would click, identified roles, and then let students decide within their group who would have which role. He modeled what was involved in facilitating a meeting, giving feedback, getting everyone to contribute.

That careful attention to group work skills paid off, it seemed. Students who struggled with math found standing in other ways: as the person who could move things along and get them done, the one who came up with good survey questions, or the one who enjoyed persuading classmates to complete the survey.

And, as Towns also hoped, the bullying issue hit home for students.

"I did the project with two classes. One of them actually had a good number of bullies in it and they were kind of offended. Even though I wasn’t calling them out, it was, they felt, personal. By the end of the unit, these kids really started to think about their bullying, 'Well, wow. I never thought of this.'"




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“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”

– Deborah Meier, educator