Ten Stories That Made Us Smile in 2020
DISTRICT | December 20, 2020
Ten Stories That Made Us Smile in 2020

This year will be hard to forget. Despite being defined by its ups and downs, our schools were brimming with stories that inspired us, motivated us, and simply made us smile. Students, teachers, principals and other members of our CPS family did not let the unprecedented nature of 2020 keep them from achieving excellence both inside the (virtual) classroom and across other parts of their lives. Here are 10 of our favorite stories from this past year. 

An Englewood Teacher’s Noteworthy Career

In January, we met Ms. Constance Roberts, a middle school language arts and social science teacher in her final year of teaching at King Academy of Social Justice. Teaching at the Englewood elementary school for over 30 years meant touching several generations of students in that community, and Ms. Roberts focused on teaching students African-American history and supporting them socially and emotionally. 

“If I can help one student—and I hope for more than one—but if I can help somebody at King, that’s what I’d rather do, than to be in an area where there’s so much affluence and I’d just be another person who’s there,” she said.

Black History Wax Museum 

February was Black History Month, and we visited Hampton Elementary to check out their annual tradition: a wax museum. Fifth- and sixth-grade students each created a mini exhibit to celebrate a prominent Black historical figure, and the entire school community came together to learn more about these heroes. 

“It’s important for our students to see themselves when we talk about history and know that there are many, many contributors to American history, including many African Americans,” said Hampton Principal Zaneta Abdul-Ahad. “My hope Is that this project brings students to be more curious and think of themselves as citizens who can impact society at-large.” 

Making Remote Learning Fun 

While none of us had even thought about the concept of online learning prior to this year, by the early spring it was something we were all getting used to. To help her students adjust to the new normal, Faraday Elementary teacher Ms. Sheryl San Juaquin created a music video that quickly spread on social media. Faraday Principal Tawana Williams called Ms. San Juaquin a “one-woman show.” 

“I’m very passionate about teaching, so a lot of times in the classroom I’m in a more serious mode trying to accomplish many different things for my students,” Ms. San Juaquin said. “When my students saw this video, they were able to see my creative side and know that I have two sides to me.” 

An Artistic Transformation

At Edison Regional Gifted Center, fine arts teacher Ms. Deni Drinkwater has always believed that the best way to get students thinking creatively is to combine many different artistic practices together. One of her favorite assignments required students to send in a picture of them recreating a painting of their choice. She got everything from a pair of siblings transforming into American Gothic to a version of Dogs Playing Poker using stuffed animals and the family pets. 

“The idea for this assignment kind of just popped into my head as soon as everyone started staying home,” she said. “I knew my students would have the vision for an assignment like this, and I love how hilariously wonderful it turned out.”

A New Kind of Bus Tour

One of our most popular stories this year showed that you can keep students’ spirits high even as they learn remotely. To celebrate the new inductees into the school’s National Honor Society, Morgan Park High School principal Femi Skanes and her team spent a day personally congratulating each student with a visit to their home and a customized sign—socially distancing, too, of course! 

“Even while my students are at home, I’m always thinking about ways to keep the rest of their school year as normal as possible for them,” said Principal Skanes. “When visiting our students, we of course want them to stay safe and practice social distancing, but you can do that and still bring out your cameras and blow up social media to celebrate.” 

Educating Others through Writing

In May, we met Alcott Elementary School student Riya J. Inspired by her own questions about the pandemic, Riya worked with a talented team—including CPS Chief Health Officer Dr. Kenneth Fox—to write and publish The Class That Can: Coronavirus, a book that follows a group of students as they use a remote learning session to question medical professionals about the coronavirus. 

“After picking my own brain on what I would want to know, I also questioned younger students which led us to personalizing the book in ways they could relate to, such as making it look like it was on a computer screen,” Riya said. “My favorite part of the process was getting that first copy in my hands.”

How to Transform an Elementary School 

Over the summer, Emmett Louis Till Math and Science Academy Principal Terea Peoples shared the hard work behind helping her school blossom into one of the top-performing elementary schools on Chicago’s South Side. Her secret? Placing equity at the center of every decision that she made as a leader. 

“Equity ensures that all students have access and opportunities to the resources and information that is needed to become successful,” she said. “It has led to academic attainment marks that keep moving up and gets us closer to more and more students being prepared for life after Till.”

Providing Access to Culturally Relevant Literature

Willa Cather Elementary and 42 other CPS schools participated in the district’s Summer Reading Initiative, receiving hundreds of packs of modern, culturally relevant texts that students from kindergarten through eighth grade were able to take home and keep. These books were meant to help students start their personal libraries at home. 

“There’s been substantial research that demonstrates that even a small home library can really make a difference in terms of students’ long-term academic trajectories,” said Dr. Jane Fleming, CPS Director of Literacy. “This couples with our mission to increase access to high-quality texts in general, and we also want to expand the notion of what a text can be.”

Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month Virtually 

A new school year always means that Hispanic Heritage Month is right around the corner, and, this year, schools had to get creative when celebrating. At Columbia Explorers Academy, teachers incorporated the festivities across all areas of their instruction. 

“As a teacher, I want my students to remember me as someone who taught them something new and something different,” said pre-k teacher Ms. Jane Cepeda. “I never want them to say that I was a mean teacher. I want them to say that Ms. Cepeda taught me about the colors of the flag, that she said that mariachis celebrate Mexican independence.”

Engaging Students Around the Presidential Election 

The presidential election was one of the most talked about events of the past few months, and educators across the district found unique ways to make it especially relevant for their students. At Stone Academy, Ms. Jamie Perry led a mock election where the winning candidates had the opportunity to meet with school administration and staff to discuss ways to improve remote learning. 

“When students realize their voice has power in their community, it’s a lightbulb moment for them,” said Ms. Perry. “I want them to understand that elections are powerful and they can participate in them right now by being informed.” 

The upcoming year is sure to also have an abundance of powerful and encouraging stories that highlight the great work happening in classrooms across the city. As we prepare to reopen schools at the beginning of 2021, make sure to routinely check blog.cps.edu for important information about our plans as well as new stories from around the district posted every week.