• This blog is being offered by a series of guest bloggers from the staff at Gurnee District 56.  Here we share some of the many little things that make our district great!

    "Great things are done by a series of small things brought together."

    - Van Gogh

  • Three Quotes that Help Define my Work

    Posted by Colleen Pacatte on 9/14/2018 7:00:00 AM


    Guest Blogger:  Pete Helfers, Director of Instruction & Innovation

    “What do you do anyway?”  That is the question I get most often when I tell people I am the new Director of Instruction and Innovation for Gurnee School District 56.  “Great question!” is what I typically respond with.  And then I launch into a monologue of eduspeak and teacher babble of which only my most dedicated educator friends understand a single word.  Okay, so I don’t really answer that way.  What follows is my brief take on what I do with as minimal amount of eduspeak as I can muster.

    Pete's Blog

    I would like to explain what I do as Director of Innovation and Instruction with three quotes that hold significant meaning to me.  The first is from Edgar Schein, an MIT Sloan School of Management professor, who is credited with saying “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture.”  While I may not agree that creating and managing culture is the only thing of real importance that leaders do, it is certainly one of the most important things leaders do.  With that said, I understand fully that a huge part of my job here in District 56 is to play an active role in creating the kind of culture that clearly reflects to our students, teachers, paraprofessionals, administrators, parents, and community members that District 56 is an organization that puts the needs of students at the heart of everything we do.  At the end of the day, I would love it if people always said of Gurnee District 56, “that is a school district puts kids first.”


    The second quote is from education researcher and author, John Hattie.  The quote is simply, “know thy impact” and it is the central theme of three of my favorite education-related books, Visible Learning, Visible Learning for Teachers, and 10 Mindframes for Visible Learning.  Some view the world of education as one fraught with guesswork and hoping for the best.  Hattie’s charge to educators is for them to know that what they are doing on behalf of students is actually accomplishing what it is supposed to accomplish.  All three of these books inform educators that there need not be any guesswork because there are proven strategies that when used effectively have meaningful impact on student achievement and will result in measurable growth from one year to the next.  After all, innovation at its core is really just problem solving and education today is faced with the very real problem of making sure the students who are coming to us from increasingly diverse backgrounds, unpredictable home environments, and with varying degrees of requisite school experience and knowledge have access to the same education that inspires and opportunities [meant] for all.  To know one’s impact is to innovatively solve the problems described above by using the strategies proven to have impact when measuring student achievement from one year to the next.

    Pete's Blog 2

    The final quote is from surgeon and author Atul Gawande.  He says in his book, The Checklist ManifestoCoaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance.”  In his work with hospitals Gawande found that checklists and coaching had an amazing impact when it came to improving the efficacy of surgical procedures and preventing mistakes such as incorrect amputations.  We have begun an instructional coaching program this year in District 56, hiring both an instructional coach and a behavior coach. What do instructional coaches do? According to instructional leader and author Jim Knight, “instructional coaches partner with teachers to analyze current reality, set goals, identify and explain teaching strategies to meet goals, and provide support until the goals are met.”  If coaching has proven to effectively improve surgical practice, then surely we will find it to be effective at improving instructional practice as well.  Our coaches will be doing targeted work with teachers surrounding the use of proven instructional strategies and proven ways of helping students to manage their own behavior.


    So, what do I do for Gurnee School District 56?  I intentionally work to create a positive culture in which students’ needs are placed first.  While doing that, I also partner with administrators and teachers to work toward the goal of all teachers innovatively putting into practice instructional strategies that have a proven impact when measuring student achievement and growth.  Lastly, I lead a team of instructional coaches who are working to make sure our teachers have the opportunity to have personalized professional learning experiences aimed at improving instructional and student behavioral practices.

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  • Gurnee District 56, a Beacon of Light

    Posted by Colleen Pacatte on 5/11/2018 7:00:00 AM

    Guest Blogger: Dr. John R. Hutton, Superintendent


    I remember my first job very vividly.  It was in the fall of 1974, and I was going to be a middle school mathematics teacher in the same school system that I had graduated high school from four years earlier, Portage Township Schools in Portage, Indiana.  I wanted to work anywhere but there because I did not want to be little Johnny Hutton any more.  Well, sometimes you have to accept the opportunity that presents itself, and Grissom Middle School would be the first stop of my new career.

    Little Johnny Hutton


    Grissom was a new, innovative open concept school.  Colleges and Universities were often times behind the public schools, and I received no training at Ball State University on how to survive in an open concept school. Survive is the right word too. Not only did I not have any college preparation for teaching in an open concept school, I also did not receive any professional development (PD) from my new employer on tools that I could use in this new environment.  In fact, none of the teachers, even the veteran teachers, received any PD prior to opening the new school.


    I remember the first day of school as if it was yesterday.  I walked into the teachers’ office that housed the eight seventh grade teachers in the four academic disciplines and was greeted by a veteran teacher who said, “You just made the biggest mistake of your life teaching here.”  It was like someone took a pin and punctured my excitement balloon.  About 20 minutes later, 200 students without schedules showed up in our teaching area, and it was our job to organize them into learning groups. Yes, survival was the right word. 


    As I look back and compare 1974 to today, I realize that as crazy as my first job was, I truly could see that the open concept school was a very progressive idea at that time.  I can equate open concept schools to the flexible learning environments we have successfully established at Gurnee District 56. The curriculum I used to teach mathematics was individualized work sheets that permitted students to work at their own pace and required the demonstration of mastery of the skill content before a student could move to the next skill.  In today’s world, we would call this self paced classrooms. 

    Grissom Middle School did not survive because day by day, the staff tried to create ways to partition the area into traditional classrooms.  The individualized curriculum became monotonous to students, and before long, I was teaching mathematics just as I had been taught to do during my undergraduate work at Ball State University.  Within eight years, permanent walls were erected at Grissom Middle School, and it became part of the new Portage High School campus.

    The new school had no chance to succeed.  Without training, teachers always revert to teaching they way they were taught.  It is part of our human DNA, but it is interesting that the concepts being considered 44 years ago had merit and only failed because the system did not have the capacity to make them work.

    JH 1

    That leads me to today.  We have established a climate at Gurnee District 56 that has created a capacity to accept change.  That is why our 1:1 has been so successful, and we have received numerous awards, including the Distinguished School District in the United States from ISTE in 2017.  We like to look at ourselves as a laboratory school that keeps searching for ways to improve the learning environment for all students.  Some of our pilots and trials have not worked, but that has been a learning experience too, while some have provided us great hope for our future.

    Children deserve our absolute best, and our absolute best should be measured by the opportunities we provide students to become their absolute best.  We can not ever dismiss an idea because it might be too difficult to implement or have a gut feeling it will not work.  Improving the educational environment for children must be an annual, monthly, and daily endeavor.  As Jim Collins said, “The biggest deterrent to being great is being good.”  Good is never good enough at Gurnee District 56.

    I am confident that there will not be any educational initiatives that die on the vine here, like the open concept school did in Portage in 1974.  The commitment to learning for all children is too strong here, and I know this District will continue to be the beacon of light for educators across these United States of America to follow as they navigate treacherous waters in finding the best educational path for all learners. 

    JH 2

    I have learned a lot over the last 44 years and am so happy that education was my chosen career.  As I approach my final days of my long, educational career, I can say without hesitancy this has been the best job I have ever had, and I want to thank all of you for the opportunity to be your superintendent.  I want to wish Gurnee District 56 godspeed!  May your light always emanate brightly.

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  • The Wonder Years : Reflections of a Retiree

    Posted by Colleen Pacatte on 4/27/2018 7:00:00 AM

    The Wonder Years: Reflections of a Retiree 

    Mrs. Romie Bloom, Prairie Trail School, Technology Teacher

    The other day Dr. Pacatte asked me to blog about my pending retirement; I initially declined. “Just answer a few questions about…”  We have known each other since our high school days at Warren. I am more than pleased to say that we are friends, so I submitted. After all, my family and I have grown up here. My husband, Chuck, was in the first graduating class at Viking in 1971, and our children (Tori, Troy, and Teja) are all proud alumni of D56. We have a lifetime of fond memories and cherished friendships that are deeply rooted in this community. So here it goes…


    What will you do when you retire? 

    There are 11 of us retiring this year. Collectively, we have dedicated over 222 years to D56.  I am sure that I am not the only one who plans to:

    • spend more time with family and friends 

    (especially with my grand-daughter, Maisy)

    • travel (anywhere with sandy beaches)
    • pursue interests and hobbies (read books other than those listed in the annual Bluestem Challenge)
    • enjoy nature’s gifts of each season (snow for about 1 week)

     Maisey & Me

    What will you miss the most? 


    • the first (and last) day of school
    • connections to my students and their families
    •   collaboration of ideas among students and teachers
    • camaraderie of talented and fun colleagues

    PT Pals

    PT Pals 2


    What won’t you miss?

    • A clock that dictates my daily routine: get up, go to sleep, eat lunch at 10:30 AM (UGH-no time for restroom, AGAIN!)
    • Misconceptions that teachers work less than 8 hours a day with 3 months off for summer vacation (time used preparing for the next school day or year)
    • What to wear! No need for a work wardrobe (I’ll keep the shoes ; )
    • Blood-borne pathogens training modules…


    What changes in education have you seen during your career?

    The most obvious change is the integration of technology. When I was a student, my teacher was my Google. Encyclopedias and other resource materials were located in the library. Apple Computers, Inc. was founded the year I started college and my Masters in Educational Technology was a newly created program when I began my career here at D56. With fluid and unfiltered content of the internet literally available at our fingertips, students must know how to discern and curate digital information for its relevancy and accuracy. Teachers now prepare our children to navigate and leverage content, both online and off, to become responsible, productive global citizens 24 hours a day.


    What does it feel like to wrap up your teaching career?

    To be completely honest, it feels surreal. I have deflected questions about retiring because it’s too emotional for me to think what my life will be like as I step away from what I love - teaching children. I truly wonder where the years went. As far back as I can remember I wanted to be a teacher. I dreamed of someday walking in their shoes…well, theirs were a  bit more “sensible” than mine. 


    In no way could I have imagined that when I came to this country at the age of 5, speaking only Japanese, that my hopes of becoming a teacher would ever come to fruition. Back then, there weren’t other children in my school that looked like me and, certainly, there were no teachers that shared my cultural background or spoke my language. Yet, year after year, I had the good fortune to have compassionate teachers who expanded my world with experiential learning, welcomed my diverse perspective, and inspired me to pursue my passion. I tried to honor their legacy by encouraging my students to set their compass to determine their own path. Education empowered me to choose my life’s journey; that’s why our district’s motto, “Education that Inspires...Opportunities for All”, resonates so personally. 

    Romie Dance


    I am still most humbled when students and their families share that I, in some way, had a positive impact on their school experience. Nothing is more rewarding than knowing that our time together left a valued impression beyond the parameters of our classroom. I have been around long enough that I now teach along side them as my peers or have their children in my classroom or both! Our district’s Director of Technology, Phil Hintz, is an example - I was his 6th grade teacher and have taught his children…how did HE get so OLD?!!

    Daniella Alba

    As I walk out the doors of Prairie Trail School on May 29th, I will forever be grateful to Gurnee District 56. So many to thank, too many to mention by name. It truly has been privilege to have partnered with an unparalleled team of school board members, administrators, PTO, office, technology, transportation, custodial, and lunchroom staff. My heartfelt gratitude to my gracious colleagues throughout our district, to my talented and loving Prairie Trail family, and especially to my generous and supportive students and their families - past and present, who have been entrusted in my care. You have been an integral part of my life for over 20 years, filling my spirit with immeasurable joy.  

    I will miss you.

    Bloom Family


    “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”Winnie-the-Pooh

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  • The Power of Art in School Success

    Posted by Colleen Pacatte on 4/13/2018 7:00:00 AM

    Guest Blogger:  Mr. Frank Fitzgerald, Spaulding School Art Teacher


    If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never dream of.  There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.” –From The World According to Mister Rogers         


                                             You are a wonderful artist!


        One of my favorite parts of the job of art teacher is when our principal Dr. Mauer takes new student families on a tour of Spaulding School.  Often times the students are very shy hiding behind their parents, reluctant to say hello. School can be a scary place and our newest families are anxious and unsure of what awaits them on their academic journey. I always give it to them straight. “I’m Mr. Fitzgerald and I have taught art here at Spaulding School for 22 years and you are in the right place because this is a wonderful school and a great district that supports the arts. Welcome!” When I ask them if they like to make art they inevitably smile broadly. Art has the power to animate our school lives.



        It seems like only yesterday when I first came to Spaulding School  way back in August of 1996! I was standing in my art room and our River Trail assistant principal Mrs. Moreano came in to say hello and welcomed me to Spaulding School.  She swears to this day that I didn’t recognize her but that’s not the case. We attended Libertyville High School together in 1987 and no one in our graduating class could ever forget Maria’s smiling face and kindness. It is not that I didn’t recognize her it was truly a reflection of my excitement, shock and awe of the magnitude my new job as Spaulding School art teacher.

    Kids Working

        As I began my teaching career I soon began to realize that art has the power to make school meaningful in a way that I never realized before.  Art class is a hands-on, collaborative experience where the teacher facilitates the student' learning. In fact this is the way that all good teaching works. The choices that we make as artists are informed by our hard work across the curriculum.  My knowledge and experiences in the arts inform me as a mathematician, a writer, and a reader. Over the years my collaborations have led to opportunities that I never would have dreamed. I have taught music, technology and performed countless dance routines with our staff for our students. A few years back I even started my own cable access and Youtube show The Mr. Fitzy Painting Show: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCoQQq6-b4hU6kUUE3pzK2Fw I encourage all students, colleagues and families to realize their creative potential in whatever areas their interests reside.  We all are truly artists, each and every one of us.


        I thank all of my colleagues and administrators and the Board of Education for their support of arts education in Gurnee District #56.  I also want to deeply thank each one of my students and their families for allowing me the opportunity to work with your artists! Last year I was humbled to be honored as teacher of the year and quickly I realized it is truly a group award. As I go about my journey in art and teaching I keep in touch with colleagues who have retired or moved on to other districts and see former students. They always remark to me that Spaulding School was the best place that they ever worked.  It is because of the family that exists in our district and their support for arts education. When I started my teaching career I had a lot less silver hair and my first experience was setting up the artwork for Gurnee Days Festival Art Show with my colleagues the Prairie Trail art teacher Mr. Triff and Viking School art teacher Mrs. Bodanyi . They helped guide and mold me from day one into becoming the art teacher that I am today. I want to thank them for all their support and the memories of creating artistic lessons for our students together, with Mrs. Phelps, as the District #56 Art faculty. I wish them both much happiness and creative joy in their retirements this year!

    Art Team

    Always remember the power of art to change lives and attitudes.  Whenever I have a student in my class who is feeling especially frustrated with school and art I remember that it is a growth mindset process. Dr. Pacatte has taught the district faculty well about this powerful and meaningful idea. I explain to students that art is not always easy all the time but that with practice and the right attitude all things are possible in life. Our role as educators is to model this mindset and remind our students of the possibilities of art. Always remember,  “I am not an artist………..yet!







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  • Making Education Nurturing and Tomorrow’s Opportunities Real

    Posted by Colleen Pacatte on 3/23/2018 7:00:00 AM


    Guest Blogger - Mrs. Sheryl Gray, Assistant Principal at Prairie Trail School

    Whether or not we want to admit it, we all look for a representation or reflection of ourselves in most situations. Everyone wants to see someone that looks like him or herself. If you walk into a room full of people, and there is only one or two who look like you, at some point, you will make your way over to those people. We all do it. Everyone is looking for someone who they can identify with, a role model, someone to look up to, someone who understands them.


    It is the same for our students, although you might not hear them say it. I believe it is important for schools to try to provide role models for all of their students, which should include people who look like all of the students. In order to work towards this goal, I started a new program called MENTOR (Making Education Nurturing and Tomorrow’s Opportunities Real).


    I know that it is important that we first make connections with each individual student in our schools – help them to feel recognized, understood and valued. I try to figure out ways to make this possible. Someone shared with me the work of Principal Kafele, a Black male educator who is sharing his message, “https://thecornerstoneforteachers.com/truth-for-teachers-podcast/principal-kafele/” for how to help young black boys and men excel.

     Tie 2

    I decided that I could do something similar. I told myself that I know several successful Black men who are happy with their lives and with what they are doing. So I reached out to them, asking them if they were willing to give of their time to talk to the fourth and fifth grade Black young boys at Prairie Trail School.


    The main goal for this year was to find Black men from a variety of backgrounds and career paths to spend roughly 20 – 30 minutes with a group of around 25 Black boys from our 4th grade and another 20-30 minutes with a group of nearly 25 Black boys from our 5th grade. Initially, I envisioned that they might talk about their life, and how the choices they made have lead them down their path, contributed to their successes, and helped shape who they are today. I also hoped that they would take questions from the students about their lives, about their experiences in school, or about additional topics they might be interested to learn more about. MENTOR has already become so much more than I could have imagined.


    We had our first meeting with men from the community on Friday, November 17th at PT with 27 men present, and it was POWERFUL. The room was full of energy and there was so much excitement from the men as well as the PT staff.


    That first planning meeting gave birth to several key strategies and brought the men back on Wednesday, December 13th as an opportunity for the men and staff to meet to discuss the program and engage in a conversation with our staff. It was another powerful meeting: a room full of mostly White females teachers and several successful Black male community members discussing what we could do together to help young Black male students. Both staff and community members walked away with tears and smiles about what was taking place.

    Tie 3


    I just wanted to find a couple men who would come and talk to PT students a couple times a month for the rest of the year. MENTOR has expanded to more than that. MENTOR started January 9th and now every other Tuesday, we have different men coming in to talk to our Black 4th and 5th grade boys and one Saturday a month, the Rho Tau chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. meet with the 5th grade students. MENTOR has had workshops on cooking and grooming already and will be doing college tours and learning about interviewing before the end of the school year.


    Throughout this whole process – inviting mentors to talk, getting letters out, talking to staff, parents and students – my emotions have been all over the place. From being nervous and scared, to happy and overjoyed with so many willing to share, to anxious, not sure how it was going to turn out, it has been a real rollercoaster. I am excited about what has happened so far this year, and am already thinking ahead about how we can continue this program, not only at Prairie Trail, but at Viking Middle School as the boys continue through District 56.


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  • Channel 56

    Posted by Colleen Pacatte on 3/9/2018 7:00:00 AM

    Guest Blogger - Braden Lechner, River Trail 8th Grade Student


    At River Trail School we pride ourselves integrating new, fun, and interesting content to the students; and that is exactly what Channel 56 is about. Channel 56 is a student and teacher run program for seventh and eighth graders at River Trail. Ms. Diana provided a way to reach out and get equipment and software for the students to use, also to communicate with Teradek, the live streaming company we use here. The students run the camera, commercials, and activities and are also responsible for training the next generation of Channel 56 workers. Teradek is the live streaming company we at River Trail use, they help us show the daily program to all of the school. They connect our commercials and give content to youtube, where we then have the teachers use their computers to watch the stream. The soon to be ninth graders also did product development for Teradek. They sent us a beta version of an app through TestNav. We helped them develop, debug, and test the new app until it was nearly perfect. In exchange they allowed us to keep the one hundred-fifty dollar app. They allowed us to run a smooth production with as little errors as possible, if not for them our production would not be possible.


    Our school runs a quarter system, the year is split in four quarters. For two quarters at a time the middle schoolers participate in mandatory electives of their choice. The students who choose the tech class would participate in Channel 56 program. There they learn team building skills, problem solving, and different ways how to use technology. Ms. Diana, the tech teacher helps to teach and problem solve with the pupils. She also helps get much needed equipment and software. She is one of the other components that are essential for Channel 56 to function.


    We at Channel 56 always work to add new things to the broadcast, like the pledge of allegiance and promotional commercials for the things going on at school. The pledge contains the kindergarten through fifth graders.The current students working on Channel 56 work set up a green screen and record two to three classes a day, then they work to edit and replace the green screen with an American flag. We then transmit the videos from computers to the iPad we use for the broadcast. The current camera worker switches between all of the pledges throughout the course of the year. The same process is adopted for the other commercials like pizza, popcorn and others like them. We start by recording the anchors in front of a green screen. Then we edit the correct background in, play music, and put it on the iPad for the students to see.

    Everyone who is a part of our casting and help, deserves some recognition for the amazing work they put in to make Channel 56 Possible. First Ms. Diana, River Trail School’s great tech teacher, who was one of the most important people to Channel 56. Second, the 2016 eighth graders who started the program, who first had the idea to try Channel 56. Thirdly, Myself (Braden Lechner); the main camera, Cooper Stacey; the chief editor, David Lara; one of the best anchors we have had, Nick Palmieri; our very own weather man, and Amy K.; our director and script writer.


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  • Living the Dream

    Posted by Colleen Pacatte on 2/23/2018 7:00:00 AM

    Guest Blogger:  Mr. Phil Hintz, Director of Technology


    How many adults today can say they are living the life that they dreamed about living when they were kids?  Unfortunately, I believe most adults can’t really, truthfully say that about their current careers.  I am one of the lucky ones though, and I honestly believe I am doing what my purpose of being has been all along.  You know that you are doing what you were meant to do when you find that the work you are doing is no longer work, but has become a passion—That is the sweet-spot of life!  Since the age of 9, I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in music.  My elementary school Band Director said to me, “get a job you like, and you will never work a day in your life”.  I thought to myself, “I love playing the euphonium and tuba, and I love music.  I want to become a composer or a band director, or both!”  So there began my dream to pursue music as a career.  I worked hard in developing my musicianship, auditioning into a great music school, and learning to become a band director over the next 13 years.  In 1992, I married my wife and then started my teaching career as a band director in Brownsville, Texas.

    Along the way, as I was growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, video games and computers were evolving and finding their way to becoming cost-effective for schools to have one or two available for students.  I still remember my first video game system, Intellivision by Mattel.  I also remember the Texas Instruments’ computer that our school library had when I was in 6th grade.


    Computer 1  Computer 2

    Then Timex put “the power within my reach” with their 2K (Kilobytes) Timex Sinclair 1000 computer for $99.00!  I saved up my allowance and then begged my parents to make up the rest as the next 3 birthday/Christmas presents for me so I could buy one.  That began my love for technology and my skills in coding using the BASIC computer language.    

    Couple my problem-solving skills of beating Space Invaders and my emerging coding skills with my love for music technology with synthesizers and I eventually was able to code the Timex into becoming a digital music creation program, (not App), and composition tool! This is where, as Steve Jobs has said, “the intersection of Technology and Liberal Arts” collided for me as a human being growing into two of the biggest passions in my life journey.  I loved creating music, I loved creating computer programs, I loved creating something out of nothing,                             I LOVED CREATING!  

    So how did I end up where I am today as Director of Technology for one of the world’s leading school district’s in integrating technology into educational process?  After directing middle school band for several years, using tech in my music teaching, I began to work on my Master’s degree in educational administration at the University of Texas.  Coincidentally, after earning my M.Ed., the Internet began emerging into the public school space after only being available to the government and higher education. I was asked by the university if I would be interested in trying their new degree program, Masters of Educational Technology, since I already had most of the credits for this degree from my M.Ed. program and just needed the tech part and instructional  design aspect of the degree.  I jumped onboard immediately.

    It was at this time, that my 3rd child (of six) was born.  I was a high school band director during this time working with brass students, jazz ensembles using keyboards and synthesizers, and writing marching drills for our marching band show with an Apple Performa 5200 all-in-one computer. See, even Apple knew the relationship between creating performances and technology! Signs  

    I realized after my wife and I had been married with 3 children and living in the mighty Rio Grande Valley of Texas that it was time that my kids needed to know their grandparents and their cousins.  So we packed up and moved to Gurnee and after a brief stint of trying my hand in the network cabling business with my father’s electrical company, I quickly realized that my passion belonged in education.  I also realized with my 4th child on the way, I needed to have a better paying job than a band director’s salary.  So, when a director of technology position opened up for the Zion elementary district, I applied and got the job.  Then I had to put my skills to the test of now being an administrator, but also a technologist, and no longer a music educator.  But did that really have to be the way?  Did I really have to drop one of my life’s passions to replace it with another?


    Once a music educator, always a music educator!  Once an educator, always an educator!  Two years into my job at Zion, I got a call from my kids’ school district, Gurnee School District 56, to apply for their open position of Director of Technology.  I accepted the job offer, and quickly realized the huge blessing that I received.  Not only did I get to be in my own kids’ lives more often, but I also was given the freedom to explore many opportunities and possibilities of what  technology could do for our teachers and students and their teaching and learning.  Couple that with an outstanding fine arts program that District 56 has had for years, and voila, I was living the dream!  Thanks to opportunities from Mike Bandman, Jeff Worth, Ruth Moore, Karen Pionke, Mark Oestreich, Sarah Farster, Glenn Eikenberry, and Steven Boswell, I have been able to be included in many musical performance opportunities in District 56; band directing, ensemble playing, choir directing, and musical theater pit-band directing. These opportunities allowed me to also include my 3rd life’s passion, my family. Family

    Thirteen years later, thanks to these many opportunities, I can honestly say, I am Living the Dream every day.

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  • Biliteracy in District 56: Nurturing the Full Capabilities of Our Bilingual Students

    Posted by Colleen Pacatte on 2/9/2018 7:00:00 AM

    Guest Blogger:  Ms. Kyra Brown, Kindergarten Blingual Teacher, Spaulding School

    There are many myths that abound regarding bilingual students and their relationship to language and learning. A common (and erroneous) refrain goes along the lines of, “Young bilingual children are delayed in learning language compared to their peers who only speak one language.” As an adult learner of Spanish and a new member of our district’s bilingual teaching staff, I can attest to the sheer inaccuracy of such myths and can testify to the understanding, talent and joy that are untapped when bilingual students are able to engage with their two languages in celebratory, authentic, meaningful ways. As a kindergarten teacher with memories of building my own Spanish literacy still very fresh in my mind, I am overjoyed to be part of our young students’ early experiences of taking ownership of their two languages by developing foundational Spanish and English literacy skills.

     pic 1

    In addition to allowing me to work with students in a new, dynamic way, joining our district’s bilingual team has afforded me the privilege of collaborating with talented educators from across the district in order to improve my practice as well as explore the evolving biliteracy framework that we have adopted in order to maximize the learning of our bilingual students. Through strategic integration of Spanish and English literacy instruction with the exploration of science and social studies standards, students are given opportunities to converse, listen, read and write in Spanish and English at each grade level.

    Pic 2  

    A typical day in bilingual kindergarten begins with us sharing thoughts and stories in Spanish, then building the fundamentals of math and literacy in Spanish through the lenses of science and social studies. The linguistic richness of these mornings is greatly enhanced by the participation of Silvia Mariani and Rachel Cacchione, who use their knowledge of Spanish and their talents as educators to enhance the learning of  our students. Though this part of the day is a rich exploration and use of Spanish, the students are always eager and willing to communicate with their peers from other classrooms in English while socializing during lunch and recess or participating in their Specials/Related Arts classes.


    Each afternoon finds us creating opportunities to build bridges between Spanish and English. For example, Mrs. Wood and Mrs. McLeroy frequently visit our classroom to deliver engaging, helpful English literacy lessons that illuminate the joy of reading and offer students insight into story elements that transcend language. Additionally, my own bridging lessons allow me to invite students to explore the connections between English and Spanish by comparing and contrasting how our languages work. There is something deeply satisfying about showing our students how much they can do as bilingual learners, whether it be to understand and write Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous words, “I Have a dream/Tengo un sueño” in both languages or to find kinship with the characters in a wide range of books, from The Rain Came Down to Un beso de buenas noches.


    As the first half of the 2017-2018 school year has taught me, students who come to our classrooms with knowledge of more than one language are offering us as educators the thrilling opportunity to celebrate their diverse cultural contexts and to give them an invaluable, necessary opportunity to become literate in their two languages. If we as teachers do our jobs well, our bilingual students will gain with each year a firmer grasp of how to speak, listen, read and write in Spanish and English all the while gaining an analytical appreciation of the similarities and differences that their two languages possess. What better gift to give our students than ownership of the languages that have such an impact on their lives?


    As the first half of the 2017-2018 school year has taught me, students who come to our classrooms with knowledge of more than one language are offering us as educators the thrilling opportunity to celebrate their diverse cultural contexts and to give them an invaluable, necessary opportunity to become literate in their two languages. If we as teachers do our jobs well, our bilingual students will gain with each year a firmer grasp of how to speak, listen, read and write in Spanish and English all the while gaining an analytical appreciation of the similarities and differences that their two languages possess. What better gift to give our students than ownership of the languages that have such an impact on their lives?

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  • Shifting the Focus: Students as Teachers

    Posted by Colleen Pacatte on 1/19/2018 7:30:00 AM

    Guest Blogger:  Mrs. Aimee Redding, Foriegn Language Teacher at River Trail and Viking Schools


    Shifting the Focus:  Students as Teachers


    Teachers are always looking for unique ways to engage students in meaningful ways.  We are fortunate to be living in a time where learning and teaching is not constrained within the walls of the classroom.  Students can easily share information among other classes, between schools, or publish for the world to see. 


    As a seventh and eighth grade Spanish teacher at River Trail and Viking Schools, I try to give my students the opportunity to learn through teaching whenever possible. If students are put in the driver’s seat, they will be engaged and learn the curriculum at a deeper level.  Furthermore, these experiences will build confidence, independence, and ownership. 


    Over a period of two years, my eighth grade Spanish For Heritage Learners class created a virtual library of children’s books in Spanish.  The group of middle schoolers practiced their reading fluency in Spanish while creating videos with a green screen and the iMovie app.  The middle schoolers that created the videos were engaged throughout the video creation process because they were creating a resource that children would actually see and use.  Other kids in our town would actually watch their published video! The collection of videos created a digital library for our younger population of bilingual students in D56.  Younger students are able to watch these read-alouds at school and home on their iPads.


    This past fall, my seventh grade Spanish For Heritage Learners class at River Trail studied culture and completed a problem-based learning project.  Their problem was “How can we preserve and share our culture?” Students created videos in Clips that highlighted something they felt was an important aspect of their own culture.  Videos were initially created in Spanish and then later translated to English.  Students worked as a class to upload the videos to YouTube and created their class website using Weebly.  Although many students had minimal experience publishing content on the internet, they worked together to build their final website with minimal help from myself.  After their website went live, groups of students presented their videos and website to classes within River Trail School.  Not only did the seventh graders  figure out a way to preserve and share their Mexican culture, but they also wrote in Spanish, learned about digital citizenship, created a website, and presented in front of different groups of people.


    The two previously mentioned projects met my objectives as a teacher, but also went above and beyond what I had anticipated for a few reasons.  First, students were demonstrating their acquired knowledge while learning what makes and effective digital presentation.  Furthermore, students that normally resisted work were were not only engaged, but showing pride in their project. Lastly, other students in the school were excited to learn from these new materials created by other kids. It was a win-win for all involved.


    This has proven successful in the classroom; thus, our classes have embarked on our next project.  Spanish language students are revamping the culture portion of the curriculum through student created Clips videos. In this new project and future endeavors, I’m looking forward to continually finding ways to shift the focus from me as the sole teacher to my students to create quality content that can be used to teach others. The skills that students develop from creating high quality digital presentations will transfer to other projects and into their future 21st century careers. 


    Check out my students’ work here:

    -Digital Library for bilingual students

    -Class website about Mexican culture


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  • Civics: Middle School Students Step Up

    Posted by Colleen Pacatte on 12/22/2017

    Guest Blogger:  Mr. Brian Barsotti, Social Studies Teacher at Viking School

    In the past half century, one focus in education has been to bring equity to the system so that all students have a fair and equal chance of succeeding. This focus on equity stems from the broader purpose of public education, which is to prepare students to effectively contribute to our democratic processes. This philosophy dates back to John Dewey and reaffirmed by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

    This year we are going back to those roots and piloting a new civics curriculum that provides students with opportunities to apply their knowledge about the foundations of our democracy and practice the skills needed to sustain it. Students are learning about how our democratic systems interact and establishing well-founded opinions about issues that are of concern to them. Students compare opposing viewpoints on a variety of civics related topics to assess their merits and debate potential solutions to perceived problems.

    Students participate in progressive activities and structured discussions on topics that range from our rights and values to domestic and foreign policy. Below is a class that is engaged in a tag team round table discussion about certain foreign policy questions that made the short list during the previous presidential debate cycle. Students generated responses and proposed solutions to these tough questions. In this type of discussion, students choose from a series of questions. Three students begin the discussion in the middle of the class and provide their responses. After hearing all three responses, students discuss the viability of their responses and are tagged out when their peers on the outskirts have something to add to the discussion.

    Picture 1


    This new curriculum has components that extend beyond the traditional classroom. The Civic Action Committee was established to review civic contributions of our communities and the needs that were met with these services. In addition, committee members organize and facilitate service projects that engage our communities. The CAC partnered with Share the Harvest to provide Thanksgiving dinners to families in need. As you can see below, committee members collected donations for a designated family and decorated boxes for delivery, and were part of an effort that fed 285 people during a holiday that is as American as apple pie.

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    MathCon incorporates math through construction projects that contribute to the school community. Last year students constructed benches for an outdoor learning space that is adjacent to the library at Viking. For the 2017-18 school year, our members will participate in the Moving Mural Project. The Moving Mural Project is an effort to define and present the civic values that solidify our society by creating a mural that portrays the perspectives of our students. They are working hard to unveil their product at the Maker’s Faire being hosted by Viking Middle School on April 11, 2018. A schedule will be established for the mural to be transported and displayed in a variety of venues throughout the community. The theme of this project revolves around the answer to the following question: What do our civic values look like? Below are MathCon members brainstorming ideas about civic values by gathering insight from their peers and other notable figures.

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    Reserving judgment by a jury of our peers is one of the most fundamental rights in our democracy. Peer Jury is a tool to bring about restorative justice and provides a positive outlet to resolve student infractions that is an alternative to detention and suspension. It redefines the role of students in addressing misconduct by having them take leadership roles in the school and the Peer Jury process. Instead of students answering only to staff members about their behavior, going in front of the Peer Jury makes them accountable to their fellow students. 

    This strategy can be effective because students can: relate to their peers, influence each other in positive ways, and help their peers get a second chance and learn from their mistakes. There are three goals to the Peer Jury process: to have students recognize the results of their behavior and reconcile with those affected by it, identify positive strengths of the student that has been referred to the Peer Jury, and come to an agreement that is attainable, measurable, and reconciliatory.

    Picture 4


    The Peer Jury program has reduced office referrals coming from 8th grade students by an average of 10 percent in the previous two school years and is on track to replicate those results this year. In addition, the 6th grade is piloting the program this year by dedicated teachers that want to provide their students with alternative interventions to traditional methods.

    Civic learning not only promotes the knowledge and skills for civic life, it also supports systemic improvements. It increases student achievement from interdisciplinary lessons, which closes the achievement gap; builds on 21st century competencies, such as collaboration and problem-solving; and has led to better school climates and lower dropout rates because students are more invested in their schools. It also increases democratic accountability of our elected officials because citizens that are informed and engaged expect more from their leaders; it improves public discourse because knowledgeable citizens will demand more from their sources of information; and it provides for civic equality by giving every citizen the tools to be a full participant in the process.

    The return on our public educational investments should not only be measured in terms of educational attainment standards, but it should also be gauged by how well the next generation of Americans are prepared to take the reigns to lead our democratic system into the future and protect the values that solidify our society.

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