Our Own Little World
SCHOOLS | March 2, 2020
Our Own Little World

How Armstrong Elementary Exemplifies the Importance of Representation

Denise Pellikan, the veteran music and band teacher at George B. Armstrong Elementary in Chicago’s Rogers Park community, loves to ask her students to point out where they are from on a map. Armstrong’s student body represents nearly 75 countries and speaks nearly 50 languages. Ms. Pellikan and her colleagues describe their students as respectful, culturally-sensitive, and proud, which are qualities they say creates an incredibly vibrant and welcoming school culture, especially since Armstrong’s staff reflects the diversity of its student populations. 

“It makes a difference for our students to see their teachers and say: ‘There’s someone like me here,’” said Anisa Khan, a fourth-grade math and science teacher at Armstrong. “When you share a background with your students, you understand where they’re coming from, what they’re going through, and how they’re dealing with their peers and their teachers.” 

In her classroom, Ms. Khan believes in exposing students to a diverse range of historical figures to show them people of all backgrounds have made an impact on the world. During March for Women’s History Month, she is especially focused on empowering her female students to ignore gendered stereotypes and pursue what they are passionate about. 

“We’re showing our students that for all of us to be together at this school, it was because of people like Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges who stood up for what they believed in and did something about it,” said Ms. Khan. “As a math and science teacher, I try to encourage my female students to go into STEM fields by introducing them to female scientists in my class.” 

Computer science teacher Tori Pickens says that the strong female representation in her after-school program illustrates the importance of supporting female students. One of the ways she works to break down gender stereotypes in computer science is by fostering an environment where students of all genders are encouraged to work with each other and approach their work from different points of view. 

While it’s important to introduce students to new academic subjects, Ms. Pickens says that it’s even more important to stick with students as they learn and work through increasingly challenging material. 

“Computer science is about perseverance, and girls are not quitting these days,” she said. “My students are pushing through; they’re focused, and having that drive will help them both in my class and their other academic classes.”

In addition to inspiring female students by introducing them to historical female figures in the classroom, the staff members at Armstrong understand that they influence their students, too. Second-grade teacher Yadira Jara says that sharing different parts of her life with her students and getting to know them in return helps them see what is possible for their futures. 

“For our female students, I think it’s important to show them that you really can have it all,” she said. “Yes, we’re teachers, but guess what: we’re moms too and you can be a mom and have a career and be whatever you want to be.” 

Having grown up when Ruth Love was Chicago Public Schools (CPS) chief executive officer and Jane Byrne was the Mayor of Chicago, Ms. Pellikan and her colleagues know that they are educating the city’s next generation of female leaders. They also don’t discredit the importance of helping their students develop social and emotional skills every day. In her band and music classes, Ms. Pellikan says that students have an outlet to express themselves, work together, and expand their minds. 

“As a music teacher, I feel that it’s my role to get my students warmed up and ready to go for the rest of their day by being a break from their core academic subjects,” she said. “I teach students who can be very reserved but they sing like songbirds because music class is where they feel safe and comfortable and successful.” 

Armstrong’s teaching staff comes from a wide range of backgrounds, and the teachers say that they work together seamlessly because there is a school-wide culture of respect. They believe that they hold each other with such high esteem because no one truly understands how multifaceted teaching is better than fellow teachers. 

“Teaching is not just academics. There is so much that goes into teaching,” said Ms. Khan. “It’s a full-time, 100 percent commitment to connect with every individual student and understand every personality to reach them and to teach them.” 

Ms. Pellikan, Ms. Khan, Ms. Pickens, and Ms. Jara agree that CPS, and the work they do for the district, should be given the respect it deserves. Because while their classrooms are in Rogers Park, they are building the next generation of Chicagoans. They are changing lives and benefiting the world.