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Union solidarity helps students sharpen critical thinking skills


Chicago teacher bridges the gaps between community and his classroom

“We are a community-involved school. If you want to get involved, we have a place for you,” said Jason Merel, who teaches middle school social studies at Nettelhorst School in Chicago. Inspired by the school’s strong connection to the community, last year Merel decided to engage parents, students, his family, and his union in his effort to launch a student debate team.

Merel started the team at the suggestion of a former student teacher who was an avid debater. She helped him get the club up-and-running, and soon 20 students were interested in participating. But to be included in the Chicago Debate League, his club would have to raise thousands of dollars.

“With funds being so scarce at our schools, it’s hard to make the case to the principal, ‘Contribute $3,000 to a team of 20 kids out of a school of 750.’ It just wouldn’t be fair to the other programs,” Merel said.

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So he came up with an idea that served two purposes – supporting the debate team and standing in solidarity with his union, the Chicago Teachers Union, IFT Local 1 during their current, protracted contract talks with the Chicago Board of Education.

Merel devised a plan to work with a union colleague at his school and a family member who was a graphic designer to create union solidarity t-shirts. Proceeds from the sales of the shirts to his fellow union members would benefit Nettelhorst’s fledgling debate team. At the same time, their proud solidarity message would make a statement about the local’s strength during contract talks.

Once designs were developed, Merel worked with a t-shirt printer and his wife, Annie, on a distribution plan. What started out small quickly gained popularity and became a full scale, time consuming operation. Merel and his wife recruited more family members and union colleagues to help.                    

“We aren’t business people at all,” explained Annie Merel. “I had to start with a binder with tabs to keep track of orders. My brother-in-law who’s an accountant set up spreadsheets.”

With so much support from family and colleagues, Merel decided to reach out to the community to further boost sales. 

“Jason taught my son for a couple of years,” said Anne Merritt, owner of the Perfect Cup café in Chicago. “He talked about these shirts he was designing and he wanted to showcase them at the coffee shop. I wanted to support the teachers and the teachers union."

Merel also took to social media with his solidarity shirts, where he made a connection with the “Revolutionary Lemonade Stand,” a store that sells clothing with progressive political messages. The store’s owner agreed to sell the union shirts, helping further increase sales.

The success of the union solidarity shirts has helped to display union pride in his school and the community, but most importantly, it’s making a real difference for students, Merel said. Kids on the team are learning to think critically and realizing the importance of using evidence to support their claims – in debates and in life.

“They all have these tools and we sharpen them together,” described Merel. “I don’t teach every middle school student, but I see debaters every day. They love arguing. I’ve never met a middle school student who didn’t love arguing,” he joked.

The team had its first intramural debate last month, and plans to join the Chicago Debate League in the fall. Although the effort has been challenging and far more time-consuming than he ever imagined, Merel says been 100 percent worthwhile.

“I do this because I love it,” explained Merel. “I fight for my students, their families, our community: I want a better world.”




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