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A Letter from Parent Association President Daisie Siska - 5/31/19

Seven years ago, when my older son was a Preschooler, I remember receiving an email about volunteering at Catherine Cook. As a new parent to the school, I decided to take the plunge and sign up for a few Parent Association committees that sounded interesting to hopefully meet more people. Little did I know how one click of a mouse would be the beginning of such a meaningful experience for me.

As parents, our involvement in our child’s development and education is an important aspect as we do our best to raise good people. But as the old adage goes, it truly does take a village. And I couldn’t be more grateful that my village is our Catherine Cook community. From our amazing faculty who has educated me on who my children actually are, what motivates them and how to stretch and encourage them to grow and learn in all facets of their life, to the fellow parents who have become my support system, I feel I’ve learned as much as my children over the past seven years we’ve been at Catherine Cook.

Being active in the Parent Association has allowed me the opportunity to give back to the community that I’ve gained so much from. As this particular school year draws to a close, I am truly grateful for the strength of our community. Our faculty, staff and Administrators’ tireless dedication to our children and their education, along with our parents’ continued support, has been incredibly important in this year of transition.

As we look to the future and begin to welcome new leaders into our community, I am excited at the changes that lie ahead. But I hope that the dedication and enthusiasm we have to create a strong, supportive community remains as we begin a new era in our school’s legacy.

So, for those of you who have raised your hand to volunteer for the Parent Association, thank you. You all have been the key to what makes our community strong. And for those of you who are new or haven’t gotten involved yet, go ahead and click the link to sign up. I promise, you won’t regret it.

A Letter from Parent Association President Stephanie Free - 6/1/18

Dear Parents and Guardians,

Next week marks the end of my time as Parent Association President. It has been a privilege to serve in this capacity, and I value the opportunity I have had to work alongside and get to know so many Catherine Cook parents, faculty, and staff.

One of the many things that makes Catherine Cook School special is its active parent body that supports the school and one another. The Parent Association (PA) strives to maintain a strong partnership between each family and the faculty and administration while also encouraging friendships and connection among our community.

A popular African proverb states, “It takes a village to raise a child.” When it comes to parental engagement, this statement speaks to me. It is well established that parental school involvement has a positive influence on school-related outcomes. You can spend just a minute on Google and find scores of studies demonstrating an association between higher levels of parental school involvement and greater academic success for children.

As I reflect on this school year, I am very thankful to all of the PA committee chairs and committee members who have made this past year successful. The number of parents and guardians that volunteer reflects our strong community, and we are grateful for all you do.

This school year, the Parent Association was active with 15 committees and 51 co-chairs. We had hundreds of volunteers supporting these committees, and we thank you all immensely. We held seven Parent Association meetings and introduced live streaming to provide more of our community access to these meetings. We post meeting minutes and the entire video on Catherine Cook’s website to make sure everyone has the opportunity to stay informed.

As I move on to volunteer in a different capacity, please help me welcome the 2018-2019 Parent Association Executive Committee:

  • Daisie Siska, President
  • Kristen Flather, Vice President
  • Kira Elert, Treasurer
  • Stacy Ackley, Treasurer

This committee represents all three divisions, having children in PS, JK, SK, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th Grades.

To learn more about the the Parent Association, please visit the PA web page or email PA@ccookschool.org with questions or comments. Please save these Tuesdays for next year’s PA meetings:

  • September 18
  • October 16
  • November 13
  • January 22
  • February 12
  • March 19
  • April 16

Special thanks to the 2017-2018 Parent Association Executive Committee for their leadership and their friendship – Daisie Siska (Vice President), Kira Elert (Secretary), and Janeen Hayward (Treasurer). I value your thoughtfulness, kindness, and tremendous generosity.

Wishing all of you a wonderful summer,

Stephanie Free
Parent Association President

Spotlight on Literacy: Lower School Writers Workshop Curriculum by Beth Lambert - 1/12/18

There are many ways that a school can develop their curriculum. At many private schools, the curriculum is often driven by teachers’ personal preferences, past teaching history, and individual interests, which can lead to repetition of content, nonsequential learning, or gaps in strategies and content taught. Within the public schools, teachers are bound to the Common Core State Standards and standardized testing, which often occurs three or more times throughout the school year in elementary schools.

Comparatively, at Catherine Cook, teachers take a collaborative approach as we design and deliver rigorous learning experiences for students. As a result, we provide state-of-the-art writing workshops that are continuously evolving and responding to the students we teach.

Our Writers Workshop Curriculum has strong roots in Lucy Calkin's Units of Study for Teaching Writing. This research-based program was developed at Columbia University’s Teachers College through decades of work in thousands of classrooms around the world. I am privileged to be a part of this work, as I have spent almost 30 years teaching at public and private schools in the United States and in international schools. The Writers Workshop is an interdisciplinary, student-centered approach that builds students’ writing skills through continuous exposure to the process of writing.

Teachers lead focused lessons, which address the process of writing, the qualities of good writing, as well as necessary revision and editing skills. Following explicit instruction, students spend time writing independently about topics of their choosing. They are planning, drafting, rereading, revising, proofreading, and talking with their classmates about their written work. They are doing the real work of writers! Throughout this time, teachers are moving through the classroom, conferring with individual students, and differentiating instruction.

This past summer, I had the opportunity to “nerd out” while mapping our Lower School writing curriculum. It was an exciting and enlightening experience, as I discovered what I had intuitively known all along: Our writing curriculum meets and exceeds the expectations of the Common Core State Standards. Additionally, Catherine Cook teachers have designed innovative writing practices that nurture students’ intellectual curiosity, encourage critical thinking, and promote a lifelong love of writing.

As I surveyed the grade-level writing units of study, enduring understandings, benchmarks, and standards, I created documentation of how our Writers Workshop Curriculum is aligned both vertically and horizontally. This means that teachers know what is being taught by other teachers, within their grade level team, as well as in the previous and subsequent grade levels. Horizontal alignment (within grade level) does not mean that teachers take a cookie-cutter approach to instruction. Instead, it leads to ongoing collaboration as teachers ensure that fundamental concepts are taught in each grade level, while still maintaining the freedom to adapt their approach in response to the needs of individual students.

The vertical alignment of our writing curriculum ensures that the instruction in one grade level prepares students for the next. Teaching is deliberately sequenced and structured so that students are gaining the skills and knowledge necessary for the higher-level work at the following grade level.

At Catherine Cook, we share the belief that developing the literacy skills of children is also an act of social justice. I believe that Teacher’s College says it best, “Students become powerful readers and writers who read and write for real reasons - to advocate for themselves and others, to deepen their own and others’ knowledge, to illuminate the lives they live and the world they are a part of.”

2016-2017 Cultural Competency Program Highlights by Jessica Majors - 6/9/17

We have a deep commitment to diversity at Catherine Cook School. Our Cultural Competency Curriculum is grounded in the mission of the school and the board-approved Diversity Statement. My work is to help teachers translate the big ideas of the Cultural Competency program into their classroom. Here are some highlights from the program this year:

Taking Action: Service Learning Across the Grades
Junior Kindergarten (JK) students make community connections through a service project orchestrated with PAWS. This project allows students the opportunity to learn about how some animals need help, then act to meet the needs of pets at PAWS Chicago. This authentic experience empowers our JK friends to see a need, then act to make a change.

Each Monday, an 8th Grade advisory group travels to the Food for Friends program at Church of Our Savior in Lincoln Park. This program offers a meal to homeless and otherwise needy individuals. Our students greet guests, prepare plates, and serve meals to the guests. This program allows for students to interact with new people and humanize those in need. It provides an opportunity for hands on learning and empathy-building.

Community Connections
Senior Kindergarten (SK) classes fostered community engagement this year by choosing country studies with close connections to people in the community, allowing for authentic instruction, access to primary sources, and deep learning that could follow students’ interests. Ms. Katie McDermott guided students through a study of Ireland, her country of origin; Mr. Justin Woodward shared his knowledge about Japan; and Ms. Natasha Witte provided firsthand information and resources about Turkey, where she recently spent several years teaching. Similarly, during the Junior Kindergarten Africa Unit, classrooms hosted guests with firsthand experiences in the regions studied each week. Ms. Lerato Wooden shared her experiences in South Africa, Ms. Liz Kruse talked about her time in Ethiopia, and Mr. Jean-Christophe Leroy shared his knowledge of African music and drums. When we offer these types of personal connections to students, it opens them up to firsthand knowledge about other people’s identities, which is a key understanding in the Social Justice Curriculum.

Equality and Social Justice
Senior Kindergarteners explore the Social Justice Curriculum framework of identity, diversity, justice, and action in a developmentally-appropriate approach through the Equality Unit. In this unit, students begin to recognize unfairness (injustice) in their world and in history. Through their classroom experiences and the rich literacy program, students learn about key people in the civil rights movement including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, and Ruby Bridges. They observe and learn about unfairness, including segregation and prejudice, and experience a range of actions that people can take in the face of unfairness, including marches, sit-ins, and peaceful protest.

Arts Integration
One strategy we have employed to offer more perspectives to students is through the integration of the arts. For example, Early Childhood Music Teacher Ms. Karla Beard-Leroy enriched the JK Africa study through a music investigation. During this unit, Junior Kindergarteners learned about modern West African dance and music. They used Just Dance as a gateway to 20th century African pop music by singing and dancing with Mariam Makeba's "Pata Pata." They also spent time with Yemi Alade's music, which is considered part of the 21st century's new wave of AfroPop.

Ms. Beard-Leroy supported the second grade Native American unit through her study of modern Native American music and dance. In May, Lower School students were the guests at a mini-powwow hosted by the American Indian Center of Chicago. Students experienced stories, music, and dance, and learned about modern American Indians who live, work, and go to school right here in Chicago. These cultural experiences bring so much value to our students by offering concrete touch points to broaden their perspectives.

Areas of Diversity: Disability
Ms. Heather Vardis’ 4th Grade class conducted an interdisciplinary investigation into disability. As a class, they read Out of My Mind, a novel that shares the story of Melody, a girl with cystic fibrosis. Students then used their book club choices to further their understanding of the lives of people with disabilities. Books included Rules, So Be It, King of the Mound, Reign Rain, and Anything but Typical. The class used guided reading time to study other issues related to disabilities, such as adaptive devices for athletes. In addition to the work in reading, the class used writing time to work in collaborative groups to write opinion essays based on “brave statements” which were then supported with evidence. Some brave statements from the 4th Grade opinion pieces include:

  • The wheelchair symbol should be changed to be more inclusive
  • Disabled people should be a part of able people’s lives
  • Not all people have visible disabilities
  • Disabled people are just as powerful as able people

This unit shows the interweaving of areas of diversity, a key component in our Cultural Competency Curriculum, into the already masterful literacy program in 4th Grade.

Culture Study through Middle School Humanities
One of the novels read in 6th Grade is Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan, which explores the culture of modern-day India through the experiences of a young girl named Koly. Ms. Elizabeth Niketopoulos guides students through a study of India using the book as a backdrop. In consultation with a former parent and the Indo-American Cultural Center in Chicago’s Little India, Ms. Niketopoulos plans a field trip experience for the 6th Graders. They experience many new sights and smells on the trip as they visit shops and grocery stores, but also learn about deeper cultural norms, such as how space is used in different cultures and why. Students complete a scavenger hunt in the neighborhood to learn about clothing and food, but also about immigration experiences, marriage traditions, and housing for Indian people in India and Chicago. After learning about India through in-class activities, the novel, and the field trip, students create a culminating project that allows them to explore an area of their interest. Students have chosen topics including immigration rules, environmental issues, the village of widows, religion, diet, and civil rights. This unit shows the value of a multicultural curriculum, including a broad range of resources, topics, and areas of diversity.

Community Engagement at Art on Sedgwick
A group of Middle School students and teachers collaborated with Cecil McDonald, Jr., Columbia College professor and resident artist at Art on Sedgwick, to create a community art project. Catherine Cook students conducted several visits with sixth graders from Manierre Elementary. They got to know each other, played games, conducted interviews, photographed each other, and assembled specially-printed kites. Students learned about one another’s schools and lives over the course of several weeks. Their work was featured in the My Street, My Voice, Our Story exhibit at Art on Sedgwick on June 4, 2017. The community celebrated the conclusion of the project by flying their portrait kites together. Through this in-person engagement, students learned about the lives of other kids in Chicago, found commonalities, and learned to honor their differences.

Affinity and Alliance Groups: Gay Straight Alliance
The Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) is a Middle School alliance group focused on creating a safer and inclusive space for members of the LGBTQ+ community and their allies at Catherine Cook. The group meets twice per month during lunch and is composed of students, as well as teachers and staff, from all areas of the building. Facilitators Ms. Sara Folger and Mr. Jeff Edmonds create a welcoming setting where participants can learn and build a caring community. The GSA also fosters student leadership in 7th and 8th Grades, when students volunteer to generate ideas for discussions and occasionally lead meetings. The GSA has become a bright light and safe haven for many members of our community to be themselves. This group is helping to build an atmosphere of inclusiveness that is on its way to encompassing our entire community.

Exchanging Thoughts with Author Katherine Applegate - 1/17/17

After reading Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate, Mr. Freed's 5th Grade humanities students reached out to the author with several questions about the book. Here is a sampling of the questions and their responses from Ms. Applegate:

We think your use of metaphors and similes was powerful and effective. Did you choose to use them to better convey Kek’s feelings and perceptions or was there another purpose?

This kind of descriptive language is extremely useful when you’re trying to convey a character’s take on the world. There are potholes galore when playing with similes and metaphors, though. They have to be fresh, even startling. They have to use references that would be familiar to the character. And if you use too many of them, the reader starts to get antsy.

When you get a metaphor or simile right, it’s such a great feeling. When you can’t get it right, you feel (to quote Kurt Vonnegut) “like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.”

Do you have any tips or advice about creative writing for students in middle school?

1. The feeling Mr. Vonnegut describes (above) is not, in fact, the exception when you’re writing. It’s the rule. However, every so often, you have a moment, or even an hour, of writing that’s pure bliss, and that is why you keep on writing.

2. If you write, you’re a writer. You don’t need to be published to say that.

3. Tell your inner editor to shut up. On first drafts, your I.E. is aggressively moronic. You need to be able to write freely, without worrying about punctuation or grammar or whether your Uncle Derwood might be offended.

4. Read, read, read, read. Read some more.

The Importance of Voting by Ellie, 5th Grade - 10/7/16

People should vote in the presidential election because the decisions of the next president will impact our generation. It impacts your children, jobs, companies, and more. It impacts our generation because children go to school, they go to summer camps, and they do many activities. This person can change that. They can raise taxes so you may not be able to pay a tuition for school, they can start a war, and they can do so many other things to impact a child's life. I am pretty sure that every parent or adult cares about a child in their life, and they want that child or those children to be as safe and happy as possible. I hope every adult and parent is making a good choice and choosing what's best for their families.

Another reason people should vote in the election is that everyone has a voice, everyone has their own opinion. You're only one vote, but one vote can make a huge impact, change, or difference. You are a human being. You have a big voice, but nobody is hearing it if you don’t vote. It's a democracy - let people that have never been heard be heard! Make great choices, and choose what's best for your family, country, and maybe even the world.

Tips to Prepare for High School Placement by Eddie Pryce - 9/23/16

High School Admissions season is underway, and each fall there is a lot of excitement—and sometimes anxiety—about what is ahead for our 8th Grade families. This fall, our biggest 8th Grade class to date will be navigating this exciting and grueling challenge that will undoubtedly land them in a great position to matriculate to the right high school next year.

For parents of Middle School students in 5th and 6th Grades, I cannot stress enough the importance of acknowledging what is ahead, but focusing on what’s in front of you. Often times, parents and students stress so much about the unknown that they burn up energy worrying about everything except the experience. My best advice is:

  1. Engage the Catherine Cook curriculum and enjoy everything it has to offer. Encourage your kids to do all the activities, play all the sports, and take all the academic and social risks they can with your guidance. While it may seem scary to let your child get a bad grade or fail at a new activity or endeavor, there are no real consequences to any pitfalls they may encounter. It may be disappointing in the moment, but these experiences will help your child build the grit and resilience that is found in successful students both in the high school process and beyond.
  2. Make sure your child enjoys Middle School and their time with friends. Starting early in Middle School, things can change at any point as adolescents start to mature, and the pressures of life and school affect people in different ways. Children interact with you and their friends differently, so enjoy this time while it lasts!

For 7th and 8th Graders, there is no denying that the stakes rise. For Chicago Public High Schools, a huge emphasis is put on performance in 7th Grade. In fact, outside of testing, that is all that they evaluate. Both parents and students feel this pressure, especially if there are aspirations to move on to Selective Enrollment or top IB programs. In 8th Grade, there is an expectation to perform well in the classroom and on multiple important tests. It can be intimidating and exhausting, but the way to make it through with peace of mind and a sound mental state is to do the following:

  1. Continue to embrace the process and academic growth.
    Over and over again, we have seen first-hand that those with the most success in the high school process have full engagement in our program and development of character, self-confidence, and self-actualization. It may seem like the grade is all that matters, but it really is all about the process and the academic growth that takes place. In addition, our students have access to a highly regarded curriculum and teaching staff that has led dozens of high schools to rave about the level of preparation they have observed in our alumni.
  2. Keep an open mind. This is not to say that you should discourage your child from falling in love with schools as they first start to visit schools or hear their friends, family, and acquaintances talk about a particular school. This is a place for you to continue to expose them to a variety of schools, and take advantage of opportunities to see schools on a more personal level—especially in 8th Grade—with open houses, tours, and shadows. You really do not know what is out there and what might work best for your child until you check out at least 5-10 schools. If you do this with an open mind and serious consideration and exploration, you will find that your child will have plenty of options and a sense of confidence.
  3. Put a premium on fit over reputation and trends. While you may hear certain schools come up more frequently than others, think about what your child needs and wants, look for those offerings in exploration of several schools, and prioritize based on those and other factors such as proximity and reputation. Those are not factors to be ignored, but it can be a mistake to focus only on those name brands. It may not be a school that everyone recognizes immediately, but there are literally dozens of schools that have children just like yours and yield the type of results that you are seeking and hoping to provide for your child. Even if you can get into a prestigious or highly sought after institution, that does not mean that it’s the best for your child. When this is done properly, families often come back raving about their high school and share stories about their bravery in going somewhere off the beaten path.

High schools are eager to get a crack at our kids because of our very engaged parent community, smart and well-rounded kids with character, and the preparation, teaching, and love they get from their teachers. Trust the process and put a premium on learning and academic engagement. Most of all, make sure your child has fun. If it seems you’ll have to strain and fight and claw to get your child through the high school years, it’s a sign that maybe they would be better off at a school that would accept their normal performance level. Plenty of very good schools accept less than perfect grades, and only a handful of schools put a premium focus on elite testing scores. Good luck to all of you, and enjoy Middle School!

How to Talk to Kids about Race and Diversity by Jean Robbins - 2/17/16

Few times in recent memory has the discussion of race been as relevant as it has been in the last 18 months. Regardless of recent happenings, our mission holds true at Catherine Cook to foster cultural competence, ethical literacy and a productive mindset. With Black History Month upon us, this means there is even more reason to broach the topic of race as we prepare our students to become global citizens. Still, it can be a difficult subject even for adults, so how do we approach it with kids?

By the age of 3, children are noticing physical differences among people, including skin color. Many parents cringe when children (loudly) comment about these differences, when they should instead, very matter-of-factly, open up the discussion and know that their children can handle its complexity. For example, parents can simply explain to children, “An African American is someone who usually has brown skin and has great-great-grandmas or grandpas who came from Africa. All of our families came from a different country at some point!” Parents should also be aware that children can be very literal when it comes to race, so anyone with brown skin might then be African American to them.

Many parents are afraid to say the wrong thing, so they avoid conversations about race, but their silence sends unintended messages to kids. Silence tells kids that there is something wrong with or negative about people of color. Talking about race, on the other hand, stimulates curiosity and minimizes fears about race.

There are daily opportunities to celebrate diversity and there is no need to wait for Black History Month. For example, taking your kids to museums, restaurants, and cultural events across the city, or watching movies and reading books about children from other cultures are all ways to increase awareness. Some museums, libraries, and cultural institutions offer free informative events for families during Black History Month.

Children like to learn about topics as they relate to their own lives. By framing American history around ideas of conflict, fairness, and sharing, even young children can understand lessons about any historical period. Keep it simple, but be accurate and honest. For example, maybe you pose a question to your child: “People who owned slaves didn’t want to do the hard work and didn’t’ share the money with the slaves. Do you think that was fair?” This will open up broader discussions and encourage critical thinking.

Parents are examples for their children, and can be models of learning and curiosity. It is okay for parents to admit when they do not know something, and then suggest to their children that they find out together. Parents should not be afraid to say, “Let me think about that” or “I’m not sure, let’s find out together!” A family visit to the library is a great way place to start.

We all bring diversity in one sense or another. Parents and teachers can encourage students to explore their own identities and reflect on what they learn about themselves. At Catherine Cook School, a Diversity Committee composed of parents, teachers, board members, administrators and staff members work together to integrate diversity themes, topics, and activities into the curriculum, starting in Preschool. Together, we can teach children about their cultural and ethnic identities, even through cultural traditions such as cooking or the clothes we wear.

Following these tips to make race a comfortable topic of conversation both at home and in the classroom will empower children to develop an inclusive understanding and appreciation for race and diversity. While these conversations should happen year-round, Black History Month provides a great opportunity to dive in.

Dr. Jean Robbins
Head of Early Childhood Education

The Role of Identity in Diversity Work by Jessica Majors - 2/11/16

As I work to translate the goals of our Catherine Cook Diversity Statement into our school curricula, I have noticed some very interesting trends in the types of skills and dispositions we are working to instill in our community.

When 2nd Graders worked on their “It’s Okay to be Different” unit of study, I found teachers and students working to answer essential questions around the concepts of identity - What are my identities? How do others see those identities? – and diversity - How am I similar to people around me? How am I different from people around me? These connect to the cultural competency goals of:

  • Recognize and understand the differences and similarities of peoples, institutions, and world views.
  • Employ empathy, respect, and appreciation for persons who are perceived as “other.”

4th Graders created Public Service Announcements to extend their learning after reading the novel “Out of my Mind.” Some essential questions from that unit focused more on justice - What clues help me identify when and how people are being treated unfairly? – and action - What can one person do to create a safe, welcoming place for all people? How can I work with others toward fairness in my community? They were working toward these additional cultural competency goals:

  • Pursue equitable and fair treatment of all.
  • Transform communities to create a culture that welcomes, understands, and respects differences.

This isn’t to say that there is a linear progression of learning, with boxes to check for these concepts of identity, diversity, justice, and action. The learning in these areas of cultural competency is cyclical in nature and deepens as each person grows. Each school year, students spend time defining their own identities and learning about their classmates and teachers. For example, 8th Graders spend time analyzing identity characteristics and complete an identity collage to represent themselves. What a powerful statement - and record – of teenage identity! Each time I see them, I learn more about the children and wonder what my collage would look like if I were to take the time to make it today.

It may seem like a strange dichotomy, that the foundation of work about diversity is a person’s own work to understand themselves as an individual. As a busy working parent, I often find it very difficult to carve out the space to reflect on my experiences and perspectives and how those impact my daily life. However, it is in the moments when I connect the dots between my cultural identifiers and my response to problems that I learn and grow. It is in these moments of clarity that I am suddenly able to see my colleagues and students in a new way. Deeper understanding of self (identity) leads directly to deeper understanding of and respect for the identities of others (diversity).

Shall we take some time to learn about ourselves? Consider: What are my identity characteristics? If I were to make a magazine cut-out collage, what would it look like? How does my identity influence my attitudes and decisions? This chart below is one way of visualizing the many qualities that influence our identities.

Graphic adapted from Diverse Teams at Work, Gardenswartz &Rowe (SHRM 2003)

I think it is important for a community of learners to spend time observing and analyzing their own identities in order to fully appreciate the diversity of all the identities in that community. It may feel like this introspection takes more time than we have to give, but the benefits to our families and school community are many and lead us on a path to a more equitable and inclusive community.

I wish you a wonderful break filled with relaxation and maybe even some introspection!

Jessica Majors
Curriculum Coordinator for Cultural Competency and Project Based Learning

Differentiation by Max Weinberg - 1/22/16

In differentiation, not in uniformity, lies the path of progress. - Justice Louis D. Brandeis

I will always remember my first tour of Catherine Cook. I was wowed by the physical space, the level of calm engagement, and the teachers’ dedication. Equally - if not more important - it was also clear that the adults in the building were working hard to meet each child’s needs. I walked from classroom to classroom in the Lower School and saw students and teachers engaged in class meetings, mathematics, literacy, science, and social studies research in different formats: whole group, small group, partnerships, and one-on-one. The materials being utilized were varied and stimulating, clearly chosen to meet the goals and objectives for specific students. In other words, I saw a high level of differentiation happening throughout the Lower School classrooms.

Carol Ann Tomlinson is an expert teacher developer around differentiation. In a 2010 article in Ed Week, she explained exactly what I saw when I came to Catherine Cook. She explains: “One of the first things I look for are teacher-student connections. Does this seem to be a teacher who is really paying attention to the kids, who’s going out of his or her way to study them and understand what makes them tick? …(This) provides motivation for differentiation: If I can see kids as real individual human beings, I’m going to be much more invested in helping them learn and grow individually.”

The Lower School teachers’ Responsive Classroom approach helps teachers begin this important work. They also deepen their knowledge of students through differentiated curricular work. There are endless ways that you may find teachers differentiating in the classroom. Here are some types of differentiation you can find in all of the Lower School classrooms on any given day:

Form/Groupings: Teachers use strategic groupings (whole group, small group with teacher support, student partnerships, one-on-one support) to help students handle the work that is intended. Different types of groupings also allow a teacher to assess the speaking and listening or collaborative skills that are so valuable in social learning environments. Teachers remain responsive to student growth around groupings and keep the groupings dynamic, adjusting them as students grow.

Space: Teachers are intentional about how and where students work. Switching through different spaces or ways of sitting also allows students to get movement in the classroom. You’ll see children spreading out materials on the rug, working independently at a desk, standing up to give a speech, using common spaces to film something with their iPads, and more.

Assessment: Teachers put considerable care and thought into determining the most effective vehicles for assessing knowledge and skills. Gone are the days of all assessment looking like a seated paper and pencil exam or (gasp!) Scantron test. You’ll see teacher- or student-created rubrics, speeches and presentations, or modes of technology used to formally and informally assess student growth and progress.

Teaching Delivery: Teachers use a variety of approaches to present new material, including - but not limited to - traditional chalk-and-talk/lecture, introducing new material by film, using iPads and other tech devices to introduce work, student presentations, and more.

Connecting Learning Outside of the Classroom: Whether it’s a trip to the Library to journey through books or a trip across the city to a museum or to see a specific speaker, teachers are committed to helping kids gain exposure to real world experience so that the learning in the schoolhouse has meaning once they are living their non-academic lives.

The work of making sure that differentiation is ongoing is never ending, as you can imagine. This is what makes classroom teaching such challenging work. Students are snowflakes; teachers must always use a variety of research and assessment techniques to assure that they understand the child(ren) they have in their care. On-going informal assessment ensures that teachers layer keep tweaking and developing their understanding of students and their needs. What makes being a teacher so rewarding? When a teacher sees that he or she has discovered just what helps a child grow and can continue to build on this knowledge. Here at Catherine Cook, we are fortunate to live and work together in a learning environment that values this type of high level work. There are many positive effects of this nuanced care - one of which is that students see themselves as understood, validated, and capable of taking more risks in their learning. They know that their skilled teachers will get to know them and support them through their academic, social, and emotional growth.

Max Weinberg
Head of Lower School

Dr. King Assembly 2016 by Cory Stutts - 1/15/16

Dear Catherine Cook Families,

Today we celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at our Friday Assembly. 33 8th Grade students committed Dr. King’s words to memory and brought them to life for a new generation of future peacemakers and justice-lovers. It was an inspired and inspiring performance. This cherished tradition, now in its seventh year, is brought to our community through the loving efforts of 8th Grade Humanities teacher David Harris with support from On Your Feet teacher Blaire Strom. Each year, Mr. Harris guides his 8th Graders in an original production inspired by Dr. King’s words. Each year, I think this is the best one yet. This year, however, recent events in Chicago and around the nation have highlighted how prescient Dr. King’s words were and how necessary they continue to be. At one point in the rehearsal on Wednesday, I could not tell at first whether the words the students were speaking had been written during the 1960s or now.

Mr. Prexy Nesbitt was our guest speaker and his description of trying to protect Dr. King from flying bricks at the 1966 march in Chicago’s Marquette Park was riveting. Mr. Nesbitt grew up in Chicago, was educated at Francis Parker, and has been a lifelong educator, activist, and lecturer, working alongside the likes of Dr. King and Nelson Mandela. After the assembly, Mr. Nesbitt engaged our Middle School students in a deep and wide-ranging discussion of the concerns on their minds. Their questions included: What would Dr. King do if he were in charge of Chicago right now? What changes need to be made in the Chicago Police Department? What do you think things will be like 50 years from now? What do you think about the 2nd Amendment? The discussion went on for over an hour and could have gone much longer. Afterwards, students lined up to thank Mr. Nesbitt, shake his hand, and ask even more questions.

Our beloved city of Chicago is struggling on many fronts right now. We may not always know how to engage in productive ways to help right the wrongs we see, but one thing we can always do is speak and educate. Our children need to learn from the time they are very young that difficult things happen, that the world is not always set up to be fair, that they can learn about people and events outside of their sphere, and that their voices matter. When asked by a teacher about what young people could do, Mr. Nesbitt’s first response was to keep your families talking, keep asking questions, and keep up with current events. Decide what you stand for and what you will stand up for.

I can’t think of a better way to honor Dr. King and to continue the work that still needs to be done.

I hope you all enjoy the long weekend, and let us all create a little more peace and justice in our own corners of the world.

Cory Stutts

Head of Middle School

The Gift of Time by Margaret Hermanek - 12/18/15

At a time of year that is so marked with celebrations and gifts, it seemed only appropriate to take this space and extend thanks to the many people who give generously of their time throughout the year. We are, as always, so grateful for the gifts and donations that make our Annual Giving Campaign and Annual Gala so financially successful. What many may not realize is that both of these efforts are led and enriched by strong groups of volunteers. Now in its eighth year, the Annual Giving Cabinet is made up of parents, Trustees, faculty, and staff. Together, they work to educate Catherine Cook about the Annual Giving Campaign, answer questions, and act as a peer resource. Thanks to their efforts, we’ve seen a strong increase in both the funds raised and community participation. Throughout the year, they volunteer their time and creativity to the Campaign. The Annual Gala would also not be possible without the incredible leadership of our parent community. From soliciting corporate sponsors and encouraging attendance to selling raffle tickets and collecting auction items, the entire Gala is a group effort from start to finish. With volunteers spanning all grades, the Gala is also a great source of community-building, offering opportunities to fit any schedule or interest. Last year, these volunteers helped the school raise more than $1 million for the annual operating budget – a Catherine Cook record!

We know that today’s world is full of commitments and obligations and that the most precious resource any of us has is our time. As Catherine Cook has grown and expanded over the years, the one thing that has not changed is our parents’ commitment to being actively involved. Thank you to everyone who continues that legacy and gives us the gift of their time – we are so very grateful!

by Margaret Hermanek, Associate Director of Annual Giving and Special Events

A Pathway to Peace by Dr. Michael Roberts - 12/7/15

Dear Friends:

The winter holiday season brings a long to-do list, buying of gifts, excitement, nostalgia, memories of loved ones, and family rituals of music, food, and fun. This year, the season has been joined by horrific images of terrorism, police brutality, the outrage of pain, sadness, and a crying out for social justice that has been denied to many in our world for far too long.

For some, the holiday season and world events seem at odds, both vying for position and both loudly demanding a right to the center of our national attention. For others, these things are inextricably connected lest we forget what we hold dear and what is at stake for all of us. This is an invitation to take a deep breath, to decide how to share power, and move us all along the path to a clearer understanding of what it means to be human.

Like unseen sentinels, fear and silence sit in watch over our private thoughts and conversations as we try to sort out and make sense of the senseless. How do we talk about these complicated issues to our friends and neighbors? Will we sound racist? Will we sound insensitive? Will we be judged? Will our assumptions be challenged, make us uncomfortable, only to make us silent again?

How do we respond to the innocent questions of our children when they see or hear about these horrific images and turn to us for answers? We want to make them feel safe, to speak truth to them, and to equip them to navigate the world into which they were born. We worry and wonder if it is possible to keep our children safe in a world where killing has become the way too many people express their outrage. Is the color of our children’s skin, the route they take to school, or assumptions people might make about them, going to make them a target?

The adults in our community are grappling with these questions on an almost daily basis. We must also routinely navigate these issues with children in age-appropriate ways. As we are engaging in happy holiday rituals with and for our students, these questions and the resulting confusion continue to invade our consciousness and demand our attention.

Langston Hughes, in his great poem “Freedom’s Plow” writes:

The people do not always say things out loud,
Nor write them down on paper
The people often hold
Great thoughts in their deepest hearts
And sometimes only blunderingly express them,
Haltingly and stumbling say them,
And faultily put them into practice.
The people do not always understand each other.
But there is, somewhere there,
Always the trying to understand. . .

So, in the end, all of these disparate feelings sit together with us. Our students, our parents, and our faculty will discuss and ponder them; sometimes together, sometimes in small affinity groups, and sometimes alone, to try make some sense of it all. Our Diversity Committee discusses these issues. Our Parent Education Committee provides reading sources, speakers, and a safe place to discuss difficult topics.

Catherine Cook is committed to being a loving community in which to push our fears aside, be seen, and discuss ways to live responsible and productive lives in the face of an uncertain future. We are standing here for you and beside you to become involved in the conversation in whatever way that makes sense for you. Our community is solid, our commitment to social justice is strong. As we enter the holiday season, know that we are part of a safe place where anger, confusion, conversation, hopefulness, and a love for our children can help us find the pathway to peace.


Michael Roberts
Head of School

Parent/Teacher Conferences: We are Always Changing by Jean Robbins - 11/13/16

Last year, I wrote about parent conferences around this time and frankly, I wanted to rerun the article but a deeply rooted aspect of Catherine Cook culture is change. Our hopes for parent conferences have not changed but we spend a lot of time reflecting and questioning whether the changes we’ve made have the intended impact. Ergo: we are always changing. Students will be leading Middle School parent conferences for the first time and there are divisional discussions about Lower School and Early Childhood progress report process and content, with changes on the horizon. Learning is change and we learn a lot in talking with you.

Parent conferences give us a chance to talk about the depth and quality of each student’s learning experiences while you get the opportunity to know the people with whom your children are spending their days. As a baseline, we expect every teacher to have a strong foundation in content knowledge and pedagogy. But, Catherine Cook teachers have an enormous foundation of knowledge, insight, and understanding to develop a productive and rich learning environment; these qualities are not necessarily obvious to the casual observer. For instance, teachers must have the intention and curiosity to understand their students’ strengths and needs and their families’ expectations and cultural context. Great teaching requires skill, empathy, intelligence, judgment, integrity, purpose, as well as the vulnerability to learn and listen, courage to be honest, compassion to be gentle, and discipline to be firm.

Parent conferences can be fraught because it feels like WE are being evaluated or at the very least, our parenting is being evaluated. Ugh! Teachers labor to make the conference a genuinely valuable learning experience for you and for themselves. They want to share your child’s progress and learning, to get your advice on what works at home, to explain why they teach what they teach, and to tell poignant/funny/revealing stories about your child. The teachers are deeply invested in your children’s growth, connections, and accomplishments. In school, our most profound joys are watching children’s learning unfold.

With all of our changes, our commitment to strong relationships with children, families, and each other remains constant. So, please come to parent conferences with an open mind, questions, and a willingness to join hands in partnership to celebrate learning.

Literacy Development in Lower School by Max Weinberg - 10/30/15

Literacy development is at the heart of a Catherine Cook Lower School student’s experiences. The growth that students make with their reading skills between 1st and 4th Grades is always remarkable. Learning to read is a complicated process that involves physical and cognitive development. As their minds and bodies grow, children are able to connect experiences, stories, and information to the letters and words, stories, and images on pages to make them come alive.

I feel really fortunate to be leading a staff that is so passionate about literacy development, where we can reap the benefits of a magnificently stocked library, run by Mr. Gall and Ms. Ashley.

I have the opportunity to weave in and out of classrooms watching masterful teaching and highly engaged learning. I would like to provide a window into the literacy approaches that are valued here as best supporting healthy literacy development. We are working to nurture lifelong learners and readers. It is clear that growing children’s skills and passions around literature and information really happens in everything we do here at Catherine Cook. We see it in the songs students sing in music, the muscles they stretch and grow in PE class which allows them to free up those parts of their brains and bodies to internalize language, the visuals students create in art, the materials they get their hands on in science class, and in the assemblies that celebrate lived experiences. Beyond this, the tools and strategies students receive in their classrooms through a variety of carefully planned experiences are a critical part of their lives at school.

Here is a list of the organized literacy experiences that your students will experience in their Lower School career:

  • Independent Reading or DEAR time: Just as we learn to walk by walking, learn to play basketball by playing basketball, we also learn to read better by reading. Teachers create dedicated time to allow students to try out new strategies, research specific questions, or even get lost in text during the class day.
  • Reading Conferences: During independent reading and writing, teachers will meet with one student or a small group of students in targeted ways. If a child has moved into more challenging texts but needs assistance to identify plot development, for instance, a teacher may take time to teach and model this specific skill, and allow the child time to practice under the teacher’s watch.
  • Guided Reading (Small Group Instruction): Teachers will pull small groups of children together throughout the week to work on specific genres of texts, to practice skills or strategies, to work on word attack strategies within texts or a variety of other reasons. This is a golden time for focused instruction and practice time.
  • Reading mini-lessons and shared reading: Teachers instruct their whole class the skills they need to access information or stories. In our 1st and 2nd Grade classrooms, an observer may witness many lessons about retelling, summarizing or making connections in texts. In 3rd and 4th Grade, teachers push their children to consider themes that are touched in fiction texts or to move beyond the text to consider author intentions. During this time, you may also catch teachers reading texts together in unison to practice their reading fluency or to search for specific evidence in a text to support an idea.
  • Reading Partnerships or Book Clubs: Students are grouped in partnerships or in groups of three to five to select books and share their findings and thoughts on different texts. This is a great opportunity for building student speaking and listening skills while honing reading strategies that help readers dive deeper into texts.
  • Research: Through the amazing projects and social studies experiences that our teachers provide, students are exposed to more and more nonfiction. They learn the strategies of using nonfiction features (a diagram, an index, headers, and more) to access information and use it to communicate learning or new ideas. This year, several teachers are trying out self-directed research projects that allow students the opportunity to seek out relevant resources.
  • Writers Workshop: Teachers work with their students to build an understanding of different genres and approaches to writing. We work on a process-based writing approach so that students have the opportunity to get ideas down, reflect on and refine their ideas, and work towards publishing. They become more adept at working through the process as they move through the grades.

In getting to know my team’s work and approaches upon my arrival to Catherine Cook, it was clear that teachers seek ways to get to know their students as readers. They have used assessment tools, information from previous teachers and parents, conferences, observational data of student habits, surveys of reading interests, and more to develop an idea of strengths in literacy development and areas for growth.

Later this month during Parent-Teacher Conferences, families can look forward to learning more about the experiences your children are having around literacy in their specific classrooms and the type of exposure, instruction, and experiences that can continue to foster literacy growth.

by Max Weinberg

The Darst Center by Abby Presutti - 10/16/15

A place filled with teamwork, trust, truth, and excitement. The 8th Grade class this year went to The Brother David Darst Center. The Darst Center is a social justice education center located on the south side of Chicago, in the Bridgeport neighborhood. We also visited St. Leonard’s, which is a halfway house, and Precious Blood, a small ministry in the ‘Back of the Yards’. Each experience taught me more about what people had been going through. At St. Leonard’s, we got to talk to people who had recently been incarcerated. We got to listen to their stories and ask a few questions. At Precious Blood, we got to listen to a few young boys who had been through recent tragedies, such as their friends being shot or something of the sort. We also got to share relevant experiences with the boys at Precious Blood. On the second day we stayed at the Darst Center, a few people came in to talk about families and people crossing the borders that couldn’t find jobs because they were either undocumented immigrants or illegal immigrants. Taller de Jose was the name of the group. The entire 8th Grade and our teachers absolutely loved staying and playing at the Darst Center. At first, I thought this would be one of those retreats where all you do is learn but no with interaction. At all of the locations we went to, we all learned new things but we also got to interact with people around us. I think that this experience made us more aware of what we aren’t facing at home. We learned what people are facing each and every day of their life, trying to make it right again. As a fellow talker, I loved talking to every person we met. I loved hearing people’s stories about how they decided to help themselves get back their lives. I can truly tell that these people worked really hard to get to where they are now.

I hope that sometime in my life I could come back to the Darst Center, and I’m sure a few of my fellow classmates would love to, as well. One of my personal highlights from the trip was discovering that I could relate to everyone in a different way (meaning my classmates, of course). I couldn’t believe that I had so much in common with just about everyone surrounding me in my everyday life. I learned not to judge a book by its cover or its first page. I learned how to accept that people are different and they will do what they want to do. I also learned that making some decisions in life are bad but some good. In the end, I would love to return to the Darst Center to continue to learn from other people’s stories.

by Abby Presutti

Developing the Habits of Mind and Body by Jean Robbins - 10/2/15

Inside the busy classrooms on the first floor, children are building, listening to stories, engaging in conversations, pretending to cook, and having a great deal of fun. Learning is one of the most satisfying and pleasurable things that human beings do. Some of us experienced school as the place where teachers poured facts onto our empty heads with the hope that something would stick; this dry kind of schooling only reaches a specific kind of learner. However, there is overwhelming evidence now that learning is not a unidirectional, objective, flow of data from an expert to a novice – it happens in interactions with others. The wonderful thing about these relationships is that all the participants are learning, children and teachers are gaining deeper understandings, knowledge, and skills. Learning is about connections.

The goal of Early Childhood education at Catherine Cook is to help children develop the habits of mind and body to be successful lifelong learners. The habits of mind and body are things like: attention, language/vocabulary, listening, sharing, impulse control, developing body strength and stamina, learning to interact with others effectively, and to regulate emotional states in order to be present in learning situations. Social-emotional skills are honed over a lifetime. We intentionally focus on them in our earliest grades because they are among the most challenging of all human skills and the ones that are most strongly correlated with academic and career success.

Play offers children opportunities for self-expression and creativity; they’re also exercising their hand muscles as they handle Legos, blocks, and puzzles. These fine motor activities prepare them for writing. As they pretend to be chefs, parents, and veterinarians they’re building internal models of how our culture functions. They’re learning to express their ideas, wants, and needs through language, art, music, and other creative projects, while also building negotiation, self-control, sharing, waiting patiently (or not), and integrating others’ ideas. Literacy, math, science and other foundational knowledge and skills are integrated into daily lessons and activities.

Along with the joys, there are also challenges, difficulties, and the occasional tears. Disappointment, failure, and conflict provide rich sources of learning also but for parents and teachers, this can be extremely difficult because we empathize deeply with our children and suffer when we see them struggling or hurt. Pain gives children (and adults) valuable opportunities to develop resilience and problem solving strategies. Failure is feedback that our approach is not working. We all become stronger and more flexible when we find ways to recover from disappointments and repair relationships after conflict.

Witnessing the rhythms of play and learning as children grow is indeed beautiful.


Jean Robbins

Ethics and Culture Team at Catherine Cook by Cory Stutts - 9/25/15

The Catherine Cook Ethics and Culture Team (ECT) held its first meeting of the 2015-16 school year on Wednesday, September 16. This group of teachers and staff has been meeting regularly over the past seven years to guide the school in implementing ROARS and the Catherine Cook Core Values, and takes an intentional approach to building a healthy school culture for students, staff, and families.

Our conversation centered on ongoing work to help our staff and students develop cultural competency. The Ethics and Culture Team shares many members with the community-wide Diversity Committee, which was started last year. We discussed a framework the team developed over the summer to help teachers infuse cross-cultural perspectives into curriculum and conversations. The framework also aims to inspire and guide teachers in their work with Ms. Majors, Curriculum Coordinator for Cultural Competency and Project-Based Learning.

The division heads reported that we are looking into Illinois Safe Schools training for our October 12 in-service day to make sure we are creating an inclusive climate for all our students. We also began to explore the possibility of creating groups for families and students that would bring people with a shared affinity together to build community and support. We will be reaching out soon to families with an invitation to join us in thinking about needs and priorities for affinity groups.

A brief history lesson: The Ethics and Culture Team got its start seven years ago when Catherine Cook began a partnership with the Institute for Global Ethics (IGE) and their Schools of Integrity project. IGE staff trained a group of our teachers and administrators in an approach to decision-making that they have been refining over the past 20 years, and which is outlined in the book How Good People Make Tough Choices by IGE founder Rush Kidder. Through this training, we developed a set of core values for Catherine Cook and learned tools and frameworks for making the difficult decisions that arise in the course of daily living, both in school and out.

In the fall of 2008-09, one of our first tasks was to work with students and staff to develop a set of core values we could all agree upon to guide our work together. We brought the entire staff together in the gym that first year and used an inclusive process to hash out five foundational values. When students arrived, Middle School advisors worked with them to do the exact same work. Our lists were close, and in a final teacher/student session in October of 2008, we worked our way to the following five: Respect, Responsibility, Compassion, Integrity, and an appreciation for Diversity.

For the first two or three years, Middle School students and advisors worked to understand these values and make them visible throughout the school. Realizing that it was more of a challenge for younger students and their teachers to take these abstract ideals and make them concrete, we came up with ROARS (Respect, Ownership, Appreciation, Responsibility, Safety), which has taken root and flourished throughout the school. When students arrive to Middle School, we tie back to the original core values with ROARS + 3 (Compassion, Integrity, Diversity).


Cory Stutts