Archive Hosted by the AFL-CIO

Earth Without Art: Insights on Chicago

September 12, 2012 By Mary Cathryn Ricker, Guest Commentary

One of the many inspiring signs I saw on the first day of the Chicago Teachers' Union strike was "Earth without art is just 'eh" and it sure is.

One of the most cogent points Chicago teachers are making is that their students deserve more creative subjects back in their school day like art, music & world languages. Chicago teachers are insisting that if a student day is going to be discussed, it makes no sense to myopically discuss the length of a student day and ignore the quality of that student's day.

Merely lengthening the day puts students at risk for even more standardized test prep rather than the opportunity to experience, firsthand, what makes us a vibrant civilization rather than just a concrete collection of humans.

Exposure to and mastery of art, music or world languages, for example, does not just make students more appreciative of those things (but so what if it did?), it does not just help English teachers like me with additional fodder for metaphors (but so what if it did?); studying art or music or a language other than English puts context to history, offers valuable grounding in math concepts and more.

It is vital to instructing students to be more than test-takers; it makes them innovative, creative, rightful inheritors of the future of America's ingenuity and spirit. A world-class, well-rounded education should not be dependent on a child's zip code or the numbers on their parent's tax return. It should be accessible to every child. This is what fuels the sort of KittyHawk-like ambition that lands us on the moon—not a fixation on standardized test prep. Before you can think through rocket science, you have to dream it and believe in rockets or there is nothing to think through.

It is one of the reasons in 2009 our teachers in St. Paul prioritized negotiating school-based control over the content of the additional length of any school day that may be voted on at a particular site. Our union understood that school sites may want some flexibility in the length of a teaching & learning day, and we committed to making sure the creative control of any negotiated time was determined by the school community because we know the closer a decision gets made to students, the more relevant that decision is to those students.

We've negotiated over a dozen of those agreements in the last three years. Have they been perfect? No, not yet. It has been a work in progress, with an emphasis on the progress part. Progress because we have a commitment to talk to each other at the site—as close to our students as possible—rather than have decisions made by someone who stopped by St. Paul for a cup of coffee and a rally.

It is that commitment to talk to each other and make those decisions together that will improve our process. And that agreement came from our bargaining table. I support the Chicago teachers at their bargaining table and on those strike lines that are bringing attention to the discussion we must have and decisions we must make about the school day our students deserve. Please join me.

Mary Cathryn Ricker is president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers. Be sure to follow her frequent educational insights at her blog.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.