Daniel Cohen is in his office at Oak Park and River Forest High School on a Friday afternoon, having wrapped up another school day and week.

It’s been a busy first couple of weeks of school for the new English department chair. Cohen teaches one class in addition to overseeing an English division of 30 teachers, including four new hires this school year. The Chicago native says he’s excited about joining OPRF. He applied for the position in November 2009 and was hired this past spring from Deerfield High School.

Cohen did have one respite from school work. His birthday was two weeks ago and his colleagues threw a little party for him at the school. He turned 45 but looks much younger.

“The folks in the division got me a cake and said, ‘Really, you’re 45?’ I said, yeah,” the married father of two recalled.

His small yet spacious third-floor office has a few eye-catching items. There are family photos on a wall to the left of his desk, typical personal items one might find in a work space. There’s a picture of Desmond Tutu on a file cabinet and a photo of baseball Hall of Famer Roy Campanella on a book shelf behind his desk. He’s also a big fan of Roberto Clemente.

Cohen’s a baseball fan in general but slyly avoids picking between the Chicago Cubs and White Sox-he says he likes both teams, noting that he does live near Wrigley Field.

Cohen is among five new division chairs at OPRF this year, the most hired at one time in recent memory. The prospect of being part of a new team of administrators appealed to him when he sought the job. And he sees his role as both a school administrator and an advocate for his division.

“I think on some levels we’re educational leaders,” he said of himself and other division chairs. “We need to lead our divisions that way, and at the same time advocate for them and support them, and really be that teacher voice. We’re right in between. What we do as division heads will truly impact students on a huge level.”

At Deerfield, Cohen said he wore many hats. Along with teaching, he was an instructional leader there, organizing staff development with respect to “Courageous Conversations” around race. It’s a topic Cohen is very passionate about. OPRF faculty has started its own Courageous Conversations this year and Cohen looked forward to continuing that dialogue at the high school.

“There was an opportunity here to take what I was doing and apply it on a larger scale,” he said. “The district I was in, while we had a small population of students of color the inequities were still there and the racial achievement gap was still there. But to be able to step up and work in such an incredible school (OPRF) with so many resources and a great staff, it was seeing how I can fit in with all that.”

He also ended up rethinking his own ideas around race through those courageous conversations at Deerfield. Cohen, however, stresses that that process involves more personal reflection versus striving to understand other races. He says he’s had learn about his “racial biography.”

“I wouldn’t necessarily call it multi-cultural teaching but really that notion of how can I become more racially-conscience. And for me it wasn’t about just learning about black people. I think most of my life that’s what it meant. But I think for me it was also about me as a white person, I have a racial identity, and what has that meant for me to be a white person in this country?

“That’s what courageous conversations has helped me do,” Cohen adds, “and because of that I’m more comfortable having conversations about race and asking harder questions.”

Cohen think’s going through that process can positively impact student instruction.

“It’s about differentiation. It’s about how do you get all kids to succeed; well, you have to see where they’re at. One formula will not fit every kid.”

As a teacher for the last 17 years, Cohen already brought some of that mindset to his classroom. He still believes in giving students a voice and say in their education, valuing their ideas and who they are.

But Cohen admits being a late bloomer concerning becoming a teacher. He was originally a chemistry major in college but didn’t really want to pursue medicine. His love of reading and writing led to a switch to journalism and then English as a major. He recalled spending much of his time after college working odd jobs and figuring out what he didn’t want to do as a career. It wasn’t until he volunteered at a school in Chicago’s Humbodlt Park neighborhood in 1992 that Cohen was inspired to become a teacher.

He went back to school to get his masters in curriculum and instruction. Cohen taught at Chicago’s Lane Tech High School before going to Deerfield.

He’s the only teacher he knows of in his family. His dad was a salesman and his mom a travel agent. Cohen has three older sisters-none are teachers, he says.

Cohen’s vision for OPRF’s English division is to continue to enhance student and adult learning.

“Everything we do should support those things. That’s really the big picture,” he said.

Wednesday Journal will have more stories about new school administrators in upcoming issues.

CONTACT: tdean@wjinc.com

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