As Chicagoland students rejoice at the end of school, teachers also approach the summer with excitement – to be able to relax and recuperate from a busy school year.
Chalkbeat talked with five recipients of the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching to hear about what they do over the summer to recharge for next school year.
The award is granted by the Golden Apple Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting school leaders and teachers. It honors outstanding pre-K-third-grade teachers in the Chicago area, granting recipients a paid spring sabbatical at Northwestern University, in which they can take any course they choose, and also lifetime membership at the Golden Apple Academy of Educators, in which they mentor prospective teachers and help shape education reform efforts in Illinois and nationally.
“Third grade is a benchmark here in Chicago Public Schools, so there’s a lot of pressure put on students to pass. And that pressure we take on as teachers.
“In the summer, sometimes [to recharge] it’s just getting enough sleep, because during the school year, I stay late at work and I come home and I do work. So, [I am] just doing nothing and sitting and watching a TV show – and actually watching it. Even right now, I’m writing notes to my students as I’m watching TV.
“I feel like my mind is freer and, like, when I’m at Target, I’m not like, ‘I need this for my classroom,’ but I can just go to Target and be like ‘oh, I need this just for me.’
“[During the school year,] you work so long, you work at school and then you come home and work and also on the weekends. Just being able to tell myself, ‘hey it’s OK to take a break.’”
Meghan Dolan just finished her 15th year of teaching. She’s a third-grade teacher at Palmer Elementary School in North Mayfair, and she co-teaches reading and math. She previously taught second grade and K-3 special education in Dubuque, Iowa, and Ferguson, Missouri. She was awarded the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2018.
“This year was a special year because I was participating in the Golden Apple sabbatical. I got to take any class that I wanted at Northwestern University, and one of the classes that I took was a photography class. For the rest of summer, I will continue to take photos.
“I have a philosophy that students should see the world through different lenses and appreciate the wonder that’s around them. Working through this photography class, it forced me to do the same for myself. Through the lens of my camera, I had to manipulate the aperture and shutter speed and all that to see the world differently. It just reaffirmed my ideas that there’s still wonder in the world. I didn’t have to go anywhere, I just had to change the angle of the lens to see the different light, and that just simple idea helped refresh me.
“I noticed as I took this photography class that I had always taken photos of my daughters and used a selective focus so that the background would blur out and the subject would come forward. But I forced myself to use a deeper focus so everything in my photos was sharp focus, and that made me appreciate the surroundings and appreciate every little detail.
“As I progressed through the class, I took a photo of a mural and my wife walked in front it. She was a little blurred out but the picture was still just so much more interesting with her in it, and then I realized the importance of the characters within the settings, not just the settings themselves. The characters – that’s what I was so interested in. It reminded me that no matter where you turn your lens, no matter what you take a picture of, that person is living this incredibly vibrant life with their own settings and their own backgrounds and their own stories.
“And that reminds me as a teacher that every one of the 31 students that are sitting in front of me is the focus of their own photo, or the protagonist of their own story. It helped me appreciate them as characters within their own settings. It’s something that drives the teachers. Like, guess what? They’re living a life as vibrant as the one that I’m living and they come with all these traits that I have to understand better.
“It’s seeing the world through fresh eyes.”
Fitzgerald Crame has been teaching for 22 years. He has taught fourth grade at Edison Regional Gifted Center in Chicago in Albany Park for six years, focusing on STEM and project based learning. He was awarded the Golden Apple for Excellence for Teaching in 2017, and he was honored as a Symmetra Classroom Hero in 2018.
“Teaching is like two jobs, almost. Your day job is your time with your kids and your night jobs are your planning and preparing. There’s only so many hours in the day, so in the summer, because I don’t have to be teaching kids, I can just fully focus on planning.
“I’m such a nerd. I have an ongoing folder of ideas for class projects or activities that last all year long. I bring this folder home and read through the ideas I’ve collected so that I can add a new one for the next school year.
“This summer, I’m very excited to begin an ‘integrating notebook.’ I’m a fan of integrating concepts between subjects because this can help make content more relevant for students. This school year, I kept notes all over the place about times I integrated content. [For example,] while reading a ‘Fly Guy’ book by Ted Arnold to the class, I realized I could tie it into the engineering design process and review the steps in that process as I was actually reading that book for a character study. Sometimes integrating is planned and sometimes you just seize the moment. That’s the beauty of the elementary model where one teacher teaches the same kids for all subjects. We can do that kind of integrating.
“Even while out and relaxing with my family, I’m like a mad scientist and have to keep a notebook with me at all times because family activities give me great ideas for classroom activities.”
Lisa Buchholz has taught for 27 years. She’s a first-grade teacher at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. She first starting teaching preschool while in college, and since graduating, she’s taught in the same district. She’s taught first, second, and third grades, having spent the most time teaching first grade. She was awarded the Golden Apple Award for Teaching in Excellence in 2018.
“It’s reaching out in both ways – spending time as a mom and a Chicagoan, and then also I’m reaching out as a teacher.
“I have two younger kids and as a teacher, there’s not as much time to be a parent or to be a chaperone and spend that kind of day time with the kids, like how a lot of other parents can. So in the summer I spend a lot of time with them – taking them to the park, going swimming with them.
“Also, every summer, I get to work meeting my new group of kindergartners. I reach out to my new families through surveys, orientation, and one-on-one interviews. At Edison [Regional Gifted Center], we welcome 28 new families into kindergarten from all over the city. Since these families are not all coming from the same neighborhood, it’s essential to build a sense of community at school right from the first moment.
“In this way, my teaching feels cyclical rather than linear, because there isn’t a clear end, so I don’t always feel I need to refresh or recharge, but just move into the next part of the cycle.”
Daneal Silvers has been an early elementary (kindergarten and first grade) teacher for 10 years. She also teaches at Edison Regional Gifted Center. Her early-childhood curriculum emphasizes exploration of the concepts of peacefulness, empathy, grit and growth mindset. She was awarded the Golden Apple Award for Teaching for Excellence in 2018.
“I have a group of teaching friends and colleagues and get together at a friend’s house that has a pool and we just spend the time talking about the year, talking about memories. Those conversations, when they revolve around school, definitely help me reflect on what I’m doing and what else I need to be doing to be a better teacher. And, being in the sun and the pool helps too.
“There are times in my school year when I feel very defeated, and I feel like nothing I’m doing is effective. The thing about teaching is that any day it could be anything. Sometimes I do get frustrated with a mandated curriculum or mandated assessment that I have to give. Other times the frustration comes when you have a student that you have to advocate for and everything that you bring to the table and you know would be best sometimes isn’t necessarily the path that they choose for the child. There are processes that need to take place before the child can get the help that they need and it’s frustrating from the teacher perspective because the process can be very lengthy and time-consuming.
“That’s why my time at the pool with my girlfriends is so valuable to me – the connection that you have with the teachers that you work with or just teachers in general is so powerful, because when I do feel lost and frustrated, and I don’t know if I can teach any longer, just being able to voice your feeling and your frustration to a fellow teaching partner really helps you talk things out and get you back up on your feet.
“That’s the teaching process. You’re going to get knocked down, and hopefully you can stand back up, take one step at a time, push right through. And then the magic happens, and you were wondering why you ever thought why you couldn’t do it.
“When I first began teaching, I didn’t take the small successes, I was always looking for the big things. Now, teaching for as long as I’ve had, I know that there are a lot of things during the school year that can weigh you down. Sometimes you really just need to think, ‘did I do something that made a difference in at least one of my students’ lives today?’ Then in the summer, you look back on that and you see so much growth.
“You sit back and think, ‘wow this whole time I thought we weren’t going very far very fast, but look at where we ended up.’”
Carrie Garrett just finished her fourth year of teaching first grade at Lynne Thigpen Elementary School in Joliet, Illinois. Before that, she was a reading specialist, a fourth-grade teacher and a fifth-grade teacher. She was awarded the Golden Apple Award for Excellence for Teaching in 2018.