What We’re Watching: The Chicago VIVA Project

By Education Next 03/26/2012

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In Chicago, teachers are working directly with policymakers via the VIVA Project. As the district struggles with the challenges of using a longer school day to improve student learning, teachers participating in the project are able to offer their own ideas.

In this video, members of the VIVA Project Chicago Teachers Writing Collaborative talk about the empowering experience of working together and having their voices heard by the massive Chicago Public Schools system. CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard says The VIVA Project, as a neutral third party, made it possible for him to hear from teachers, the real experts on how to use time in school to better serve students.

The VIVA (Voices, Ideas, Vision, Action) Project brought Chicago teachers into the education policy discussion by providing not only a platform to share their ideas, but also guidance to build on each other’s ideas and create a report of recommendations that was ultimately shared with the Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard.

You can find out more about The Viva Project here.

Comment on this article
  • Phil c says:

    Hearing and listening are two different things. VIVA is a great idea and in some districts it could really affect policy in a positive way. So far in Chicago, officials have met with VIVA teachers and heard their words, but they don’t seem to be listening terribly well. CPS picks and chooses from VIVA teachers’ ideas and then claims that CPS’s policy process is collaborative when, in fact, our mayor and his hand-picked, unelected board do whatever suits his political needs. I think there is a danger that VIVA may unwittingly legitimize some harmful CPS policies. For example extending the elementary school day by 90 minutes is something that many teacher and parent groups oppose, but the CPS VIVA project around that issue was only about how to implement the longer day, not about whether to extend the day by so much or not. Voices concerned about negative aspects of extending the day by so much were not welcome. Voices concerned about the lack of extended resources to fund the extended day were not welcome. This is not VIVA’s fault, as they had to negotiate with CPS to get guaranteed access, but I fear an unintended consequence of this model is to marginalize some critical voices in an effort to make some more “acceptable” voices heard.

  • Karon says:

    It is unfortunate that politics is ingrained in public education policy. A fact, but unfortunate. I understand your point of view. You have some valid concerns. I do not want to “legitimize” the Tea Party but what do I do if I agree with something they say? Republicans dismiss Obama’s ideas because he is Obama (my opinion). Do we throw out the baby with the bath water?

    I want to clarify my position. I am not speaking for VIVA, or teachers, or anybody. My 45-minute un-paid lunch belongs in the middle of the day where it belongs. If I worked in the corporate world, OSHA among many others would be in an uproar if I were expected to work from 8:30 – 2:30 with two 10-minute breaks. It is inhumane. I, for one, do not want to be stressed out everyday because somebody wants to leave the building 45 minutes early.

    Another Opinion: Elementary school is too rushed. We don’t have enough time in the day. Have you seen the common core standards? The world is changing. These students have a lot to learn. My students need a stable, consistent schedule to develop procedures and practices that have a positive impact on academic achievement. I am saying this because I believe it to be true and I can’t help who agrees or disagrees with that. Most of the teachers at my school are excited about the new innovative schedule we have planned for next year. It includes student learning communities, technology integration, and common planning time for teachers.

    When we agree or disagree with policies because of who presents them, we are headed in a downward spiral on a slippery slope. We should agree or disagree based on the merit of what is being said. I don’t select my opinions because they side with Rahm or Lewis. I am “in the trenches” and this is how I feel about it.

    Finally, I agree that other voices should be heard, but I disagree that it is a consequence of the model. Someone is listening. Someone is finally listening. Did CPS pick and chose? Yes. But it’s a start. I think now is the time for everybody to be Pro-active, not reactionary.

  • Elizabeth says:

    Hi Phil C:

    I heard you and am listening to you (thanks social media!) As the founder of The VIVA Project, I can assure you our aim (and our impact) is not to legitimize harmful policies nor to marginalize any voices. Quite the opposite. The sole aim of The VIVA Teachers’ Project is to elevate the professional judgement of classroom teachers so that their experience and training are factored into policy creation.

    We are extremely clear about what we are doing and what we are not doing. We are not dictating policy. We are not the sole voice in the public square. We are not part of the vital management/labor bargaining process. We’re not replacing or supplanting the responsibility of public school system administrators to set system-wide policies.

    We are carving a new path for productive public discussion. We are brining practical expertise grounded in real classrooms to policy creation, which often happens utterly disconnected from classroom realities. We are giving teachers from any school, any subject matter, any grade and even across districts a chance to connect around shared passions and collaborate on productive problem solving. We are creating communities of practice that teachers can rely on as they do their work. We are tapping into teachers’ passions for teaching and celebrating their leadership.

    At the end of the day, we all need a reality check. And, The VIVA Teachers’ Project is giving all of us–public officials, parents, fellow teachers, students–thoughtful insights based on professional training, actual experience and powerful collaboration. Are there politics involved in making public policy decisions? Sure. Is VIVA Teachers’ Project the antidote to those politics? Absolutely not. Far from quashing other voices, The VIVA Teachers’ Project offers all of us an alternative starting point–real classrooms– for important public discussion about public schools.

    It’s our aim to promote more discussion and more voices engaged in productive discussion. Let’s start where the rubber hits the road–classrooms.

  • Allan Fluharty says:

    Bravo Elizabeth. As a Chicago VIVA teacher, I fully agree with your sentiment on the philosophy and goals of the VIVA project. I feel limited in having my opinion heard because of the “system” is at CPS.

    The administration is top-down with school principals, in large part, controlling what teachers do or say about school policy and decisions. The union is democratic, but requires the time and energy of the teacher in order to have an impact.

    Teachers are extremely busy, constantly under pressure, and work many hours beyond the time we are required to be at school. I found the VIVA process an efficient and user friendly way to obtain and consolidate the opinions of a large number of teachers on important policy issues. Participating in VIVA requires only a few minutes of my day, and as long as I have internet, I can participate.

    The creation of a mechanism to provide teacher voice is brilliant, extremely relevant, and has been a long time coming. It is critical to have a forum for teacher opinion within CPS that is not influenced by CPS or CTU constraints.

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