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'Developing lifelong learners who care about the world'

Brad Parker

In his seventh-grade humanities class at Josephine Locke Elementary School in Chicago, Brad Parker brings the world to his students. Thanks to his travels in Haiti and Costa Rica, Parker has exposed the kids to different cultures and climates as well as offering them a way to help people in need. “Students are hungry to make a difference,” he says. “All they need is a spark.”

Parker, who has been teaching at Locke for six years, went to Costa Rica for two weeks last year to participate in an environmental conservation program for educators. The trip inspired him to do more work with the environmental club he started at Locke. So upon his return, Parker and the 40 members of the school’s Green Team began a recycling program, in which they pick up each classroom’s trash after school and then track how well each classroom recycles. The club also has sponsored an electronic waste drive where community members donate old electronics that can be refurbished for high-poverty schools in this country and abroad. Parker proudly says that during the drive held in April, his students collected more than 4,200 pounds of used electronics.

Brad Parker with students

Brad Parker, at rear, with his students at Locke Elementary School.

In March 2010, Parker traveled to Haiti where he spent a week helping to rebuild an orphanage after that country’s devastating earthquake just two months earlier. So his students could follow his efforts and learn about the country, Parker set up a blog and a Twitter account. When Parker returned to Locke he did presentations about his trip for the entire school. He also helped students organize a fundraiser for Haiti’s recovery, in which they raised more than $3,000. Parker says the amount was “no small feat” since many Locke students come from low-income families. Through community service, Parker hopes to instill in his students a desire to help others. “Education should be more than the basics of learning to read and write,” he says. The goal should be “developing lifelong learners who care about the world.”

Parker lays the foundation for students’ learning about the world in his humanities class, which focuses on history—from Columbus’ discovery of America through the Civil War. A timeline—decorated with maps, Native American artifacts, and pictures of U.S. presidents—fills an entire wall of his classroom. Parker has devoted another wall to pictures and quotes from people he’s met on his travels. His room “looks like a museum, there’s so much stuff in it,” says Jennifer DeBruin, a special education teacher at Locke.

Parker mentored DeBruin in her first year as a teacher, and she observed her colleague’s passion for teaching firsthand. “He’s phenomenal,” she says. “When you walk in the classroom, it’s a different environment. The kids are all engaged. They’re leading discussions. They’re taking ownership.” DeBruin says that some of Locke’s toughest students, the ones who pass notes and disrupt class, have thrived with Parker. “They get to his class, and all of a sudden, they’re paying attention.”