“Who stole the coo-kie from the coo-kie jar?” 

A small group of no more than 10 second- and third-grade special education students sang along in crookedly cute harmony. They were gathered in an intimate circle in the back of an Irving Elementary classroom — each of the students gleefully naming a culprit until one settled on the teacher.

“Ms. Saliny stole the coo-kie from the coo-kie jar!” 

 Lauren Saliny, the latest Oak Park Elementary School District 97 teacher to win the coveted Golden Apple Award, says it’s routine, but engaging exercises like these that help anchor her instruction.

“I like to provide my students with a very positive learning environment where they definitely feel supported and where there’s lots of encouragement,” she said in a recent interview.

“I’m also very structured and very routine-oriented. My students require a lot of structure, and they definitely know what’s going to happen next,” she added. “They also learn accountability and responsibility.” 

Saliny, a 10-year veteran in the classroom, talks about teaching the way Charlie Parker may have mused on bebop or Stravinsky may have deliberated on neoclassicism. 

“Teaching challenges you to change what you’re doing and to basically learn to experiment in different ways and through different modalities,” Saliny said. “Some of it happens on the spot, some of it happens when you figure out what the child needs after a well-thought-out process.”

Special education students, she said, also require a much greater degree of individualized instruction and intimacy. It’s the difference between directing an orchestra and taking the lead in a string quartet.

“We’re very fortunate to have smaller class sizes and to have teaching assistants who can break up into small groups and help teach lessons,” Saliny said. “Each child really does get what they need to be successful.” 

The musical references are a nod to Saliny’s inspiration and perhaps one of her greatest professional influences — her late grandmother, who taught elementary school students in Oak Park and Berwyn, in addition to providing piano and violin instruction. Saliny says her grandmother was an inspiration for her and her sister, who teaches at Holmes School.

“I think it’s really because of my grandmother that I became a teacher,” Saliny said. “From her, we learned the importance of working hard and doing our best.”

That artistry, gifted from her grandmother, that Saliny brings to teaching may have been part of what made the Irving teacher standout from the more than 600 other teachers in the state who applied for the award. 

Earlier this year, after Saliny was nominated by parents of her students and after having completed an exhaustive application process, representatives from the Golden Apple Foundation visited Saliny’s Irving classroom. They had to have heard the music. 

According to a foundation statement issued after the award winners were announced, those representatives found that Saliny “starts each day with a ‘morning meeting’ where students sing songs, play games, and set the emotional tone for the day.” 

Saliny learned that she’d won the award on Wednesday, May 13, when Golden Apple officials, her family members, fellow teachers, staff and school administrators showed up at the school that morning bearing balloons and other festive accoutrements. According to reports, Saliny is the eighth District 97 recipient of the award in Golden Apple’s 30-year history.

John Hodge, Irving’s principal, has known Saliny since he was hired in that position 10 years ago. When asked what about the district attracts so many teachers like Saliny, he mentioned a number of factors.

“We’re near a large urban area, we’re very diverse, we have a great deal of parent engagement in each of our 10 schools — those are big selling points for staff,” he said.

This year, Saliny was one of 10 pre-K through third-grade teachers in the Chicago area selected for the award. Each recipient earns $5,000 and a spring sabbatical to study at Northwestern University tuition-free.

“I think this will open a lot of doors and enhance what I’m doing as a teacher,” Saliny said of the opportunity to study at Northwestern. “Hopefully I can bring back a lot of ideas and research on education to the district. It can only help me improve and become an even better teacher.”

The foundation will honor the recipients at an Oct. 30 awards ceremony held at WTTW/Channel 11 Studios in Chicago. The public TV channel will also broadcast the event as a one-hour television program.

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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