Chicago Sustainable Education

Bringing more to Chicago’s classrooms

Recent alum Micah Zaker (BSEd ’18) is not that different from other School of Education students who graduated this May: He already had big plans for life after Commencement.

Unlike many of his former classmates though, Zaker got an early start his senior year—when he decided to take his passion for ecology and protecting the environment and apply it to his studies. While earning a degree in middle grades education, he took a special interest in the research of Tim Hoellein, PhD, a biology professor at Loyola University Chicago. With help from instructors in the School of Education, Zaker decided to develop a new course curriculum for middle schoolers teaching them not only how ecosystems work but how trash affects the environment.

Zaker’s course is not asking students to look at islands of plastic in the Pacific Ocean or rising shorelines at places they’ve never been. Instead, they’re investigating something much closer to home: Lake Michigan.

“As a science student, I can study how lions impact the Serengeti or how the wolves impact Yellowstone,” Zaker said. “But if I can be a student in Chicago and look at how trash is impacting the beach, I think that’s much more transformational.”

“I might not be able to impact Yellowstone, but I might be able to study how garbage is affecting Lake Michigan.”
— Micah Zaker (BSEd ’18)

His curriculum starts with a phenomenon, or an unusual occurrence: Fish and birds in the lake’s ecosystem are being found filled with plastic. The students are charged with investigating how the plastic is making its way into these animals. To do that they need to develop a better understanding of how organisms interact within an ecosystem. They also need to uncover how litter can alter an environment.

Zaker, however, didn’t just look to Hoellein’s work to better understand Chicago’s waterways and beaches. Hoellein is also a champion of engaging average citizens to become scientists themselves by helping collect data and making a difference in their own spaces. Zaker took inspiration and wants to encourage his students to do the same.

“Everyone can be a scientist. You don’t have to have a PhD in chemistry or a PhD in biology,” Zaker said. “Science is about collecting data, thinking up a hypothesis, trying to figure out a way that you might test it, and then testing it. There’s this notion of citizen science which is inherently connected to what we do at schools. We want our students to be engaged learners.”

Continuing Partnerships in Chicago

As an education professor and the Plan 2020 coordinator who works with Loyola’s Rogers Park school partners, Anne Marie Ryan knows that alums like Zaker have learned what it takes to be a teacher in a Chicago school.

From their first year on campus, students are placed in local schools as well as museums—learning not just how a teacher works within a classroom but how teachers can work in public spaces and community environments. Students don’t just read about policy issues, they speak with working educators and administrators who work within those state policies. By the time they graduate, all students gain experience in special education, all earn an English as Second Language (ESL) endorsement, and most receive an International Baccalaureate (IB) certification. According to Ryan, Loyola teachers learn how to educate every single one of their students.

“That was critically important to us,” she said. “Instead of saying I’m a general education teacher, and I’m going to let the special ed teacher do this or the ESL teacher do that. It’s more: My job is to teach all of my students well and to know how to teach all of my students well.”

“Belief is one thing—believing that my students are capable—but believing that I’m capable of teaching all of my students is also critically important. That’s self-efficacy. Do I have the belief that I can actually make a difference in the educational life of a child?”
— Anne Marie Ryan, education professor

With his passion for science and ecology, Zaker learned about better ways to teach the subject to his students, ways that are less focused on textbooks and more in learning the skills of investigation and reasoning. During his final internship in Ogden International School of Chicago, Zaker student-taught a couple of classes based on his curriculum and was able to gain feedback from his sixth graders. This fall, Zaker will be at Gunsaulus Scholastic Academy on the Southwest Side of Chicago and is hoping to finally put his course plan into action.

His curriculum is part of his short-term goal as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools. As part of that, Zaker says he’s ready to build space in his classroom to encourage his students to take more ownership in their education.

As for his long-term goals? Zaker sees himself being a part of changing the education landscape in Chicago.

“One day I want to be a principal of a CPS school, and I’ve been saying this since freshman year: I want to be head of Chicago Public Schools someday. [I want to] continue to work in this district that is continuously growing, changing, and improving in structure—that has a lot of struggles but also has a unique resilience. I want to be a part of that, and that starts with working with kids and making sure that every day they come into class, they have the ability and the space and the materials and the support to begin to think critically about the world.”