Posts Tagged 'Bill Waychunas'

A Shooting at Parent-Teacher Conferences

containing-144103_960_720By Bill Waychunas – It all started as a pretty typical report card pick up. Beginning at 4:00pm, there were parents who were eagerly waiting to find out how their students were doing in classes as their children stood nervously, hoping that the outcomes of that night wouldn’t result in them losing their phones or some similar punishment. They had no idea that this quarter’s Report Card Pick-Up night would be unlike any other.

I teach 9th grade civics at a charter high school on Chicago’s far south side. Despite all of the images and pre-conceived notions which that statement may conjure in one’s mind, especially considering the title of this post, we are proud to say that we are among the best schools in the city. Although more than 95% of our students are low-income and come to us several grade levels behind in their academic and social-emotional skills, we have had some of the top results in terms of growth within the city of Chicago. Part of our focus to improve student gains has been to emphasize parent involvement and communication, including setting the goal of 90% attendance for parent-teacher conferences.

So, here we were. I had already met with the grandmother and father of one of my advisory (homeroom) students. They were always the first ones at Report Card Pick Up and within 15 minutes, they were on their way to meet with other teachers. Next in my classroom was a student who had recently transferred into our school. She came into my classroom with her mother and younger brother. She had asked me a question as I had gone to my desk to retrieve something for our conference when it happened.








The noise came from outside the school; it sounded like from the park across the street. Shamefully, I will admit that my first reaction was to turn to the family in my room and ask, “Were those fireworks?” I quickly stepped out into the hallway and what happened next was simply a whirlwind. A shooting had happened right outside of our building as students and their families were streaming in and out to meet with teachers and get their student’s report cards. Now, we needed to quickly get everyone into lockdown.

The staff heroically sprang into action and began ushering students and families towards the middle of the building and into our library as quickly and calmly as possible. As I waved parents into the library and looked down the hallway towards the entrance at the far corner, I could see that there were dozens of students in their navy blue uniforms streaming into the building.

The screams. That’s what I remember next.

“He’s been shot!”

A crowd of boys rushed in from the outside, carrying another student between their shoulders. They collapsed on the floor and there was screaming and crying all around me. The front office staff and the disciplinarians surrounded him. My stomach sank as the teachers in the hallway rounded up the last few families from the hallway and took them into the library.

The range of reactions within that library was absolutely astounding. The staff mostly was in shock; walking around the room with a look of horror and tears on their faces. Parents were mostly calm, with looks of deep sadness which come from years of being in too many oh-so-similar situations. Some even complained or argued with staff about why they had to stay in this hot room.

As expected there was a lot of crying. At this point, we didn’t know details of what had happened or who was involved or what the condition of the victim was. Some students had been separated from their parents who were in different parts of the building or knew that their families were on their way to conferences. Fear overcame many as they worried about their family’s safety. I snapped out of my trance and started handing my cell phone to students to make phone calls home. After asking several other teachers to do the same, most students had made phone calls and at the very least notified their family of their own safety within a few minutes.

The reactions of other students caught me off-guard. I understand that people cope with trauma in different ways, but I was shocked by the number of students that continued to hang out or joke with friends, one group even going so far as to have a mini-dance competition in the midst of so much sadness and fear. That’s when I realized something that makes my heart ache to this day: for too many of our kids, this was just another Thursday night. Violence and tragedy are so common in their lives that it had become normalized, which is, in part, why so many acted as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

Eventually, we found out that the person shot was a 9th grader at our school. Police were in the building and we could hear the sirens and helicopters outside. We had to keep all of the students and families in the library until we were given the all clear by the police.

At one point, I stood at the doorway, holding it open to get some cool air to circulate into the room. As I held the door open slightly, I looked down that same long hallway towards the far corner and school entrance. This was the same hallway I looked down each and every day from my classroom at the other corner when I first arrived, between classes, during hallway duty, and at the end of the day. If any hallway in the school was “mine,” it was this one.

The school logo and mission were painted sharply in white paint on the blue wall next to the entrance. Today, my view was different. Yellow police tape was stretched and wrapped across the hallway and door; inside this box of police tape was a small pool of blood on the ground and two police officers talking seriously into walkie-talkies and staring at notepads.

After teaching in urban schools for a number of years, I’ve heard plenty about the horrible obstacles and heartbreaking tragedies which too many of our students face in their everyday lives, but this was different. Up until then, student’s lives had been compartmentalized in my reality: “home lives” vs “school lives.” Sure, bad things happened outside of school, but within the walls of the school building and classroom, we had control and created a bubble where those terrible things didn’t happen, or hardly mattered. Now something terrible from the world I had tried so hard to keep away had invaded my world at school and burst that bubble. I’m teaching at this school to make sure that students had opportunities to avoid or change their worlds and prevent violence like this from happening.

And here it was. In my hallway.

Thankfully, the shooting was not fatal and the student has been going through the recovery process. The police also arrested and charged the alleged shooter. For all of the bad things that have been said about Chicago police lately, I have to say that the officers at school that night were fantastic, even escorting staff, students, and families to their cars once the lockdown ended.

Instead of shaking your head after reading this article and saying, “what a shame,” I instead ask you to use it to truly think about the role of schools in the lives of our nation’s poor and disadvantaged.

For me, this tragedy reaffirmed my reasons for teaching at a school in the city. Sadly, for many children living in poverty, school is the safest place for them to be. Urban schools need to be places where students feel safe and have real opportunities to think and learn. Without schools that can provide our students from the most challenging of backgrounds with excellent support and opportunities to learn, they will be doomed to repeat and struggle in worlds of poverty and violence which have plagued many urban communities for generations.

This is why I hope that you don’t dismiss this as another story about a shooting on the south side of Chicago. Poverty and violence are not inevitable. Something can be done and schools are a part of that complex solution. Real students and their families are relying on amazing teachers, staff, and administrators to give them the education needed to do something about it.

So, next time you run into a person who teaches at a “bad” urban school, don’t ask them about if they feel safe at school, how disrespectful the students are, or why they would want to teach in that school. Simply thank them. They are impacting the lives of others in ways that most could never imagine.

P.S. – For more details on the shooting, click here.

Wait, Am I a Social Studies Teacher or Reading Teacher?: Part One

32936701By Bill Waychunas – Sorry to burst your bubble, but the truth is that you are both. Say what you will about the added emphasis on reading in the Common Core or standardized testing and the narrowing of curriculum, but the fact of the matter is that more and more social studies teachers are finding themselves in positions where they are being asked to tread into the mostly unfamiliar territory of reading instruction. Personally, I have no problem with this transition, as I find it hard to believe that any student could be a successful history student without also being a successful reader.

Several years ago, I began teaching at a school that asked me to be more thoughtful and accountable for reading results than I ever had been before. I wasn’t completely unprepared for this mission, as it mirrored some of my personal views of teaching social studies, but I would be lying if I told you that I was ready to successfully “marry” social studies content with reading instruction. This is especially challenging when students come in with a wide range of reading abilities, as many students do when working in a low-income area.

After much struggle, frustration and eventually triumph, I’m happy to share with you my bits of advice for differentiating reading instruction in a social studies classroom.

  1. Independent Reading isn’t just for Elementary students!

You can force kids to read as much as you want in class, but since reading is all about practice, students won’t become good readers until they want to read. Creating this thirst for reading isn’t always easy to do but will serve students in the long run if they become life-long readers. This is why in my class the first 10 minutes is dedicated to independent reading where students get to choose a book, magazine, or newspaper on their own to get them hooked on reading. (Side note: This is also a great time to check students’ homework and take attendance!)

  1. Reading aloud to students also isn’t just for Elementary School either

Skip the carpet squares and gathering around the teacher…It turns out that high school students don’t like sitting on the floor. When I first started teaching, I thought that reading aloud to students was somehow “above me” as a secondary teacher. Truth be told, reading aloud to students is an excellent way for them to be exposed to new vocabulary words which they have never heard before (look into the 30 million word gap) and also can help with fluency, especially if you have student read it back to you or their partner. This is why I will oftentimes record myself or a guest celebrity teacher from my school’s staff, to read a passage that I play for students. In this way they can hear and see text while they annotate, and I can monitor and assess their understanding through informal observations. This brings me to my next revelation…

  1. Don’t assume that students know how to interact with texts!

As adult readers, we interact with the text naturally through practice. In our heads, we use two voices when we read: one voice recites the text, the other has a conversation with the text. That second voice may ask questions, make connections, self-monitor for comprehension, react with emotions, or alert us when we come across an unfamiliar word.

Students need explicit instruction and modeling of these strategies in order to “activate” that voice in their head that interacts with the text. Close readings are great for this, but in order to get kids to naturally do this as they read, the literature teacher at my school and I developed a sticky-note system where kids stop as they interact with a text and record it in a format that we taught them at the beginning of the year. Currently, we have our students interact with the text by asking questions, making connections, visualizing, describing their mood, determining meaning of difficult Vocabulary, identifying Important Information, and paraphrasing difficult portions of text with a strategy we call the “Help Button.”

  1. Give students lots of practice with texts “at their level!”

While textbooks form the backbone of most social studies classrooms, we need to be wary of their reading levels as they tend to be especially difficult to students due to their highly challenging, content-specific vocabulary. Putting a high-school level textbook in front of a high schooler who struggles with reading and has probably had a bad relationship with social studies classes in the past is a recipe for disaster. Not being able to read the content leads to frustration, which can lead to a number of usually negative reactions that will drive a teacher bananas.

Some teachers will criticize this as “dumbing down” the curriculum, but I would argue against that notion in two ways. One, your job as a teacher is to teach the students in front of you, not the lofty idea of where you think they should be. Two, does it really matter how your student learns your content? For example, if I give two students different passages about the causes of the Civil War, one at a 4th grade reading level and the other at a 9th grade level, is it more important that they understand the causes of the Civil War or that both of them get the same assignment? I think you know where I would stand on that issue.

Anyways, to ensure that you are reaching kids on their level, assess your students reading levels early in the year and adjust the materials that you give them based on their performance. Some good assessments to use include the Scholastic SRI which will give you Lexile scores, the STAR reading tests available through Renaissance Learning, or, if school budgets are a problem, some practice ACT reading exams. I like to group my students based on several of these data points and assign readings that are around each group’s reading level. I’ve found this to be especially helpful when assigning homework, as students need to be able to access materials on their own which then allows me to up the rigor (and support) for readings we do in class.

I’ve named my reading groups Red, White, and Blue, of course. While they all might be reading about symbolic free speech through case summaries of Tinker v. Des Moines, they all are getting readings at different degrees of difficulty. Achieving this requires either a plethora of widely ranging materials or the ability to modify to meet student reading needs.

Modifying for reading level is easier said than done, but there are some simple short cuts that you can take advantage of. The first step is to get yourself some different textbooks at different levels. U.S. history textbooks are available on Amazon for elementary school classrooms or middle school classrooms. If I’m teaching a certain topic, I may assign the chapter from the elementary textbook to my lowest readers, the high school book to my proficient or advanced students, and the middle school text to my students that are only slightly behind. The result: students that are getting reading practice at their level, content knowledge that can be used for more fun social studies activities such as projects, and a teacher that doesn’t have to deal with students that are frustrated by the text.

For current events, I use an amazing website ( which takes newspaper articles and modifies them for you at different Lexile levels. The readings are even searchable and many come with pre-made quizzes. Best of all, the site is FREE!

For texts that you find online or have in a word document, modifying text yourself is easy to do. To check reading levels of texts which I can copy/paste, I like to use the website There are plenty of other free websites out there and a quick google search for “free text analyzer” should point you in the right direction. When modifying text down to student reading levels, keep a few key points in mind. Shorten the sentences. Simplify the vocabulary words. Add text features like pictures, headings, subheadings, and vocabulary definitions in captions.  When you’ve finished, paste the modified text into the text analyzer and see if you’ve gotten to the level where your students will be able to access and understand.


Congrats! You’ve just passed Part One of how to be both a social studies and reading teacher. I hope you will join me next month as I discuss further topics such as vocabulary instruction, in-class reading methods, creating book nerds, blending content and reading in assessments, and finding ways to engage students with text.

The Reciprocity for Success

US_states1970x1340By Bill Waychunas – My apologies in advance for being the bearer of bad news, but this post is directed towards the teachers-in-training who have big dreams of graduating and jet-setting across the country to find their dream teaching job. There are schools everywhere in the country, so you should be able to find a teaching position in New York, or Los Angeles, or Austin, or Seattle, right? Sadly, it’s not as easy as you would think because of the complicated and ever changing teacher certification process that is different in every state.

This summer, I wrapped up the final college coursework that I needed to obtain my Illinois teacher’s certification. It has been an arduous (and expensive) process that has spanned over a two year period. I’ve now ventured through the bureaucratic jungle that is the licensure process in three different states: Wisconsin, Nevada, and Illinois. Will I need to go through all the frustration and confusion again if I move to another state or when it comes time to renew my license? With interstate reciprocity, I am hopeful that the answer is no.

Getting licensed in Wisconsin was simple as my teacher prep program was a state approved program. The process wasn’t so simple in other states. How is it that the requirements to teach students is so different across different states? Can kids and schools in Milwaukee really be that different from those in Chicago or Las Vegas or New York?

With each new state I’ve been given an initial “provisional” license which includes a laundry list of tasks that must be completed within a given time frame, otherwise you don’t get the standard teaching license and with it, goes your employment. These requirements have ranged from submitting fingerprint cards, additional coursework, to taking standardized teacher tests which have frequently been redundant and less-than-helpful, not to mention expensive.

To date, I have taken three “Basic Skills” tests to show that I can read, write, and perform basic arithmetic. Each test was, at a minimum, $100 and required that I either take a day off of work or give up a significant portion of my weekend, which is no small-ask in the life of a teacher. Twice, I’ve taken social studies content tests and exams that determine foundational knowledge of teaching methods and theory. These tests are money and time wasted in a profession that is notorious for overworking and underpaying its employees.

In both Nevada and Illinois, I’ve had to take college courses in subject areas that I was currently teaching (government, geography, and reading). In total, I’ve had to take an additional 5 courses, costing over $4,000 in tuition, not to mention the mental and physical costs of completing coursework while teaching full-time, like the Friday night class I had to take at Chicago State University. I did learn some useful skills, methods, and information in these courses, but the costs certainly outweighed the benefits.

A standardized, national teacher’s certification would alleviate this problem. No, I’m not talking about “National Board Certification,” I’m talking about a teacher license that would be accepted in all states. It would give teachers the freedom to move and be employed wherever they would like, whether because there is an excellent school they’d like to be a part of, teacher shortages in a certain region, or simply because their significant other is taking a job outside of their current state. In a profession that is known for burnout and career-changes, why are we making it harder for teachers to do what they love where ever there is a need?

Sure, I know that “standardized” and “national” are taboo words in the world of education lately. Many states like to do their own thing, but in this case, they would be putting themselves and their students at a disadvantage because they are limiting their talent pool. We know that putting an effective teacher in every classroom is the most important variable in student achievement which we can control. This is why teacher recruiting is becoming more and more important. Any state that isn’t interested in reciprocity is severely limiting their candidate pools and hurting their chances of finding excellent teachers for their classrooms.

What is there to lose?

Finding a Work-Life Balance for Teachers

IMG_4054By Bill Waychunas – “I wish I could go, but I’ve got school stuff going on tonight/this weekend/next week.”

This phrase has been uttered by countless teachers to their friends, families, boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses, neighbors, and even to their pets. It’s used as a reason to miss out on any number of opportunities and get-togethers with our loved ones. The choice between personal and professional life is never easy, especially in a field such as teaching where our work can be easily taken home with us.

With such blurred lines between the personal and professional life of a teacher, the decision making process usually goes something like this:

Exhibit A: A friend invites you to brunch on a Sunday, which is the day that you usually spend preparing your lessons for the week and doing laundry. An internal battle ensues: If I accept my friend’s request, am I risking that my lessons this week will be less effective and engaging, while possibly running out of clean underwear? Would spending time with my friend, over the best interests of my students, be selfish? Which do I sacrifice, my friends or my students?

Exhibit B: At a school staff meeting, they announce that chaperones are needed for the school dance this Saturday, which is at the same time as your cousin’s birthday celebration. Another internal conflict: What is more important, my family or providing opportunities for my students? What if no one else volunteers for the dance? My cousin will have more birthday parties but there will also be more dances to chaperone. Which will I feel less guilty about missing?

Finding a balance between your professional life and your personal life is especially difficult for teachers in the beginning of their careers. This balance is important for both mental and physical health. Living an out-of-balance life can jeopardize or otherwise negatively impact one’s professional and personal life.

In my first couple of years teaching, I spent many late nights and weekends at school. 13-hour work days were frequent and they usually didn’t end when I left the school building. Most nights and weekends were spent lesson planning, grading, and coaching, or sponsoring student groups. I neglected my personal life and paid the price.

Sheer exhaustion led to physical and mental decline. I had stopped working out and wasn’t sleeping much. My lack of time led to more fast food and way too much caffeine. By the end of each week, I was getting sick and spending a large part of my weekend trying to recuperate. This led to a grouchiness that caused me to angrily lash out at my loved ones and students for the smallest things. I had become a worse friend, brother, boyfriend, colleague, and teacher because I couldn’t find a way to balance out my life.

Now going into my 7th year of teaching, I’m happy to say that I have not repeated these mistakes and have found ways to establish a work-life balance without the guilt of sacrificing either. Here are my tips to finding a work-life balance for new teachers:

Don’t be a Yes-Man (or Woman)
What I mean by that is sometimes you have to say “no” to being involved with things at school. Instead, say “yes” only to the things that you are truly interested in. If school dances are “totally your thing,” then sign up to chaperone those! I find school dances to be uncomfortable and boring, so I don’t sign up to chaperone them…and that’s ok!

Don’t feel pressure to sign up for things that you’re not interested in because of a “if I don’t do it, then no one else will” mentality. This is where you will get sucked into school activities that become a chore. Find what gives you joy at school and stick with that. With a diversity of skills and interests among a school staff, someone else will be more passionate than you about running Field Day or operating the spotlight at the talent show.

Plan “You Time” in Advance
Always wanted to learn to paint? Sign up for that class you’ve been eying. Looking to spend more time with friends? Join that kickball league they keep talking about. Buy those concert tickets you’ve been dreaming of. Make that dinner reservation for you and your significant other. Book that weekend getaway for you and your family.

Planning time for your personal life in advance, especially for things that require deposits or pre-payment, will make you less tempted to sacrifice them for school-related activities and ensures that you’ve built time into your schedule for friends and family. This makes it easier to say no as described above. “Sorry, I can’t go to the PTO meeting that night, I’ve got my spin class at the same time.”

Find Your “Planning Plateau”
This is perhaps the most important and difficult step. In the relationship between the amount of time spent doing at-home school work, like lesson planning and grading, versus the impact on your teaching, it is practically a rule that “the more time you spend planning and preparing, the better your lesson will be.” As my former principal used to tell me, “a failure to plan is a plan for failure.” While I believe that this is true, I also believe that there exists a point in time where the impact has been essentially maximized, or plateaued, and spending more time planning or preparing would be better spent on your personal life.

The trick is finding this “point in time” where you hit the “planning plateau.” Think you can plan an excellent biology lesson in 2 hours? Then spend 2 hours planning it. If the final product is great, then leave it be. Spending another hour on YouTube trying to find a slightly better introductory clip than the one you already have isn’t going to make that big of a difference anyway. Hold yourself to a high standard without being a perfectionist and you will have more time for your personal life.

With the beginning of a new school year, I hope that some of these tips can help to get you on the path to living a more balance and happier life. You can be a great teacher as well as a great friend, son, daughter, spouse, sister or brother. Or, if you don’t want to do it for them, then do it for yourself– you are worth it!

On Discovering My Knack and Niche for Teaching

3d0fbec22ddff84924a0cc5c31ab15bcBy Bill Waychunas – What’s up Marquette Educator blog readers? My name is Bill Waychunas (class of ’09) and I’ll be contributing my thoughts and experiences each month on this site, hopefully for your enjoyment and also to give you something to think about.

Since this is my first ever blog post, I figured that it would be a good idea to give you a little background about who I am so you can have some context for my future posts.

Let’s start with how I got into the wonderful profession that is known as teaching. As a high school student, I had a knack for math and science. This led my high school counselor to recommend that I pursue studies in Engineering. Luckily, my high school offered an Architecture and Engineering course, so I signed up.

This class (seriously) changed my life and not necessarily in the way you’d think. What I learned was that I was pretty good at the design and construction part, but that I found it to be extraordinarily boring (no offense to any engineers out there). Since this wasn’t exactly challenging and I didn’t want to spend the rest of my days working in a cubical, I knew that this wasn’t the career for me. I scrambled at the last minute to change my class schedule to something that would maybe help me to figure out the answer to the “what do you want to do when you grow up” question as college application deadlines were fast approaching. I found my answer in a course called Invitation to Teach.

In this class, I spent the last two periods of each school day serving as a teacher’s assistant at the local middle school. After some serious thought, I selected a 6th grade social studies classroom because, although not my strongest subject area, it was the content that I was most passionate about. Over the next few months, I spent time working with small groups of students, helping out the teacher, and even taught a few lessons by myself.

I was hooked.

I knew that I wanted to go into teaching. Ironically, this all happened around the time that college applications were due, and I can vividly remember racing home after school and erasing the box on my Marquette application (yes, those were still the days of paper applications) where it said “Engineering” and checking the boxes for History and Secondary Education.

Once I started courses at Marquette, I began to really appreciate the opportunities that the College of Education gives freshman to get into classrooms and work directly with students. These experiences, as well as an immersion trip with the Center for Urban Teaching (which I highly recommend), showed me the deplorable inequities that exist in the American school system. Knowing that I could contribute to changing this injustice, I decided that I wanted to teach in a low-income school.

After graduation, I moved to Las Vegas with my then girlfriend, now wife, who was working and getting her masters from UNLV. We spent four years living in the desert where I taught middle school social studies at an almost entirely African-American K-8 charter school in one of Las Vegas’ poorest neighborhoods. The school had a bad reputation and had chronically underachieved, but with an awesome middle school staff, we were able to turn things around and give students a respectable education.

During my final year in Las Vegas, I was drawn out of the classroom and served as our the School Improvement Coordinator. We made some significant changes for the better, but in the end, there were too many factors outside of our control which doomed the school and students to mediocrity at best. (maybe I’ll go into more detail in another post).

My wife and I were unhappy with our jobs and longing for a change of scenery. We were both able to find employment in Chicago, which is where my family is from, and moved here during the summer of 2013.

“Finding employment” doesn’t exactly give justice to where I am now. I had the opportunity to be a founder of a new school on Chicago’s South Side with one of the most prestigious charter school networks in the entire country. So, for the past two years, I have served as the 9th grade Civics/Reading (non-fiction) instructor at Baker College Prep.

Baker is really an awesome place. In my mind, it represents what quality education should look like in urban districts and in the two years that we’ve been open, we’ve had tremendous success. As a 9th grade team, we saw the top growth on a Pre-/Post-test in the entire network despite our students starting the school year with some of the lowest scores in the network. We’ve been able to create students that love to learn while maintaining a warm-but-strict culture. Just as our staff works their butts off to make a difference on Chicago’s South Side, we want our students to be able to go out and do the same.

Our school is named after Ella Baker,  a civil rights activist. In our mission, we seek to create “change agents” out of our students that will go out and make “multi-generational” differences in their worlds. At the end of their 9th grade year, our students complete a “Be the Change” project where they identify a  problem in their community, research its causes, then develop and present a plan about how they, as an active citizen, can solve it. Check out this link for an article detailing the event:

Outside of my school life (yes, teachers can and should have personal lives), I am an avid Cubs and Marquette basketball fan, enjoy spending as much time as possible outdoors with my wife and our dog Riley, and enjoy a fine craft beer.

With that, I hope that this post has shed some light on who I am and where I’ve been as a teacher. I’m looking forward to sharing more of my thoughts and stories with you in the near future.

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