Chicago teacher speaks volumes to her students
By Courtney Griffin
Laura April has one simple goal as a teacher: communicate with her students.
But when considering that every student who ends up in April’s classroom is a non-native English speaker, some only able to utter as little as a few common phrases, that goal becomes more complicated.
Which is why April has situated herself in one of those tiny, plastic kindergarten-sized chairs at the moment, the kind that place her knees at the same height as her shoulders, all so she can huddle next to a seventh-grade student from China who is desperately trying to answer her question.
“What do you like best about being a student here at Nettelhorst?” she asks him again, a little bit slower this time.
He looks perplexed. His face is contorted, his nose wrinkled in frustration. April has been working with this student since he came to her in October 2013, when he was virtually unable to communicate with her.
Finally, after a few long moments of silence, his face relaxes. A smile begins to form. The clouds have parted. He knows the answer, and he knows how to say it.
“I like to play basketball!” he exclaims, victoriously.
His smile is rivaled only by April’s, which spreads from ear to ear.
As the English Learning Liaison at The Nettelhorst School on Chicago’s North Side, April, works every day with students of varying ages and ethnicities. Some of her students were born in foreign countries as far-reaching as Pakistan, while others have parents who immigrated to the United States and speak a language other than English in their home.
“Liaison is a good title for me,” said April, who works with 48 students on a regular basis in a school of nearly 800. “I ensure that all of my students are represented and that their teachers are using best practices.”
The ESL students at Nettelhorst are a part of a three-year program (although some students spend more or less time under April’s wing, depending on their English abilities), in which they take classes with a full-time teacher, and come to April for additional and often essential help.
“We want our students to meet their monolingual goals, but we definitely promote bilingualism,” April says.
While April, 44, is a native English speaker, semi-fluent in Spanish, and can pick up bits and pieces of other languages, the key to communicating with her students is not always through language.
“After a while, I just know what they’re thinking,” she says. “From there, I can break it down for them, to make it more comprehensible.”
Of course, there are the times when that combination of physical communication and a dash of telepathy is not enough.
“Thank God for Google Translate,” she says, with a laugh.
But on an unseasonably warm day in mid-February, it is pretty clear to see what April’s students are thinking, even if they sit in timid silence as class begins. Their ability to verbally communicate with each other varies, but they all speak a universal language– smile after gap-toothed smile spreads across their faces, all seemingly delighted to be with their “Mrs. April.”
“Everyone [at Nettelhorst] is very nice,” says one of April’s students, a fourth-grade girl from Pakistan. “Mrs. April helps you speak, and now I can talk to my friends.”
April is technically a part-time plus educator, meaning that she is compensated about three-quarters of what her full-time colleagues make. But that doesn’t mean that she spends any less time working for her students.
April’s husband, Jon, says the work doesn’t stop for Laura, even when she comes home.
“She brings home work every night, and spends half her Sundays writing up lesson plans,” says Jon, who added that for CPS teachers, loving your job is no longer a benefit, but a requirement.
“There’s a lot of pressure for us CPS teachers,” says Laura April, who has been working in the CPS system ever since graduating from the University of Illinois in 1991. At the age of 22, she was offered to teach sixth grade at Bass Elementary School in Englewood, a South Side neighborhood that has been hit hard in the past few years by poverty and violence.
“I was very young, and it was a challenging experience,” April says. “I feel sad when I think about it.”
April then moved to Duke Ellington Elementary in the Austin neighborhood on the city’s West Side, where she taught fifth grade and found a new inspiration.
“I just loved the children,” says April, who is an avid outdoorswoman and attempted to sponsor her class on a trip to the Rocky Mountains. While the trip never happened, April never stopped imaging the possibilities for adventure and education for her students.
After five years at Duke Ellington, April returned to her hometown of Skokie, a suburb of Chicago, where she began teaching ELL. It was some 20 years earlier, in her own time as a fourth and fifth grade student at Jane Stenson School in Skokie, where April first realized she wanted to be a teacher.
“I really liked my teachers there, but as I got older and began working as a camp counselor, it always came back to the children,” April says.
Growing up in the “highly multicultural” community in Skokie also peaked April’s interest in adventure and other cultures. While studying education at the University of Illinois is Urbana-Champaign, April studied abroad, first in Israel, and then in Spain and Costa Rica, experiences that helped her to understand what it’s like to not be well versed in the native tongue.
“If I didn’t understand what someone was saying, I’d ask them to repeat it slower,” says April, a method she still uses for her students today.
April and her family eventually moved to the city’s Roscoe Village neighborhood after her husband began working for Cappex, an online company that helps college students find scholarships, and she began looking for work closer to home. Soon enough, a charming little red brick building that was only a few blocks away came calling.
The Nettelhorst School sits at the corner of North Broadway Street and Aldine Avenue in Lake View East, a juxtaposition of modern and classical tastes– bushes artfully landscaped into the shape of giraffes line the double doorways, which are each painted with eccentric and colorful designs. Neoclassical columns with Louis Sullivan inspired intricacies line the school, and a faded scroll etched into the side of the building reads “Louis Nettelhorst, Est. 1892.”
Nettelhorst was originally founded in 1892, and as one of Chicago’s longest running public schools, it has been through its share of peaks and valleys. The school has gone through several revitalization projects, with the most recent and arguably most successful project taking place in 2008. With the help of parents, teachers, and several powerful figures in education and design, Nettelhorst went from a failing school slated for closure to a thriving institution, a process famously documented in the book, How to Walk to School.
Since the revitalization, Nettelhorst has become a fixture in the neighborhood, hosting everything from the summertime farmer’s market to the annual Family Fun Fest. How to Walk to School credits a partnership between the teachers and parents with this modern day renaissance.
April has a unique perspective on this partnership, as she is not only a Nettelhorst teacher, but also a Nettelhorst parent. One of her two sons is in second grade at Nettelhorst. Jon says he sees Laura as an excellent mother and teacher, two roles that she has excelled at because of her “generous nature.”
“She’s so giving, but can also be really silly and make the kids laugh,” says Jon, who added that Laura’s maternal sense never lessens when she walks through the doors at Nettelhorst. “Various students become parts of our family. Even though I’ve never really met some of them before, I see them and know exactly who they are because of the way Laura talks about them.”
“Just today as I was leaving school, and one of my students gave me the most beautiful scarf,” says April, pausing for a moment. The scarf-maker was a former student of April’s who came from China several years ago and could barely speak a word of English.
“It was so heartwarming,” April says of the gift. “It’s all about making those connections.”
Laura April has one simple goal as a teacher: to communicate with her students.
And through that temporary communication, they make a connection that lasts a lifetime.