A New Lesson Plan

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Anna Guzman sketches a self-portrait in an art class at Von Steuben.

But the contemporary focus on teacher collaboration means DuFour would write the part of the curriculum that covered the Intolerable Acts, while his next-door neighbor might prepare the part on the rise of republicanism in the Colonies. Together, they would prepare a test that assessed learning of both topics.

Although these programs require teachers to give up some autonomy, several teachers say they appreciate the results. Jennifer Anderson teaches math at St. Charles North, where last school year a half-dozen teachers collaboratively wrote a new college-prep Algebra 2 curriculum. "It went great," she says. "We talked about what algebra students will need when they get to calculus, what they will need for the ACT. One teacher says, 'It worked well for me in the past to fit these two concepts together into a unit,' and another one says, 'My students never pick up on this concept; what do you do?' And that's how we built the course into something we all teach."

For teachers, the benefit comes from sharing the workload; students, meanwhile, get access to the best of what every teacher in the math department knows, not just the best of what a lone classroom teacher knows. Venegoni suggests that the change will help teachers as much as it helps students. "The public has a right to expect a return on its investment in schools," he says. "These days of accountability are good for teachers, because if we can provide our public with recognizable, measurable results, then we have credibility, and it's easier for us to make the case that teachers deserve better pay and working conditions."

The new, student-friendly approach that pervades Chicago-area high schools can pay off in more than just higher test scores. At Northside College Prep, kids can stick around the campus long after class time is over, whether to work on projects or just to hang. "There's something to be said for treating students as interested learners rather than as potential troublemakers," says Evan Burrows, a 2006 Northside graduate and now a student at Cornell College in Iowa. "When you feel like the administration trusts you with the building, then you're less likely to violate that relationship."

While at Northside, Burrows pulled off two memorable artistic projects precisely because school administrators trusted him. One was the performance by his band Caw! Caw! in a restroom. "The acoustics were great in there," he says. The other was a photo shoot that entailed putting fully dressed high schoolers under water in the school's pool. Even his parents remember being hesitant about that one; but with a lifeguard on duty, the shoot went fine. The cooperation he got on those two projects told Burrows that the adults in charge of the school "were educators who are really, truly interested in what their students want."