“Learning should never be stagnant.” | Facing History & Ourselves
Lori Zaimi headshot

“Learning should never be stagnant.”

Lori Zaimi credits Facing History training for fostering an inclusive and responsive culture among her staff and students.

Lori Zaimi has been the principal at the Helen C. Peirce School of International Studies, a Facing History Partner School, since 2015. With over 23 years of experience as both a classroom teacher and administrative leader in the Chicago Public Schools system, she has seen what works and what is sustainable throughout the district. Her dedication to education was recently honored when she was named a 2024 Golden Apple Awards for Excellence in Leadership Finalist.

As a longtime Facing History teacher and advocate, Lori knows that integration of Facing History’s curriculum sets the tone for both teachers and students, helping to create a more equitable, cooperative, and academically rigorous environment. She was kind enough to sit down with me recently to chat about the trajectory of her career and how Facing History has been an important part of her path in the classroom and as an educational leader.

Jessica Weingartner: Has the adoption of Facing History in the school resulted in any neighborhood or community change?

Lori Zaimi: In terms of Facing History's relationship with the school, we've done a lot of work in particular with equity and revising our school curriculum to make sure that it's culturally responsive. As the neighborhood has gentrified over the decades and the demographics of the community have shifted, we’ve tried not to lose sight of all of the students that are part of our building who come from diverse backgrounds, be it religion, race, gender, orientation.

Having a partner like Facing History, who has supported us with curriculum and materials, professional development for our teachers, and as a thought partner to myself and our leadership team, has helped us create a learning environment where our students can be global thinkers so that no matter what changes are happening in the community, they feel that they’re seen and heard in our school.

Facing History has also guided us in cultivating learning environments that embrace individual identities as we explore difficult topics and things that are hard in our history. There are topics that are maybe easy to learn about, but not easy to talk about because there's often a fear of saying the wrong thing. We’ve given our students language that they can use. And that's powerful. Our students are our future leaders, right? But we also see them as leaders right now. And as we continue to navigate difficult things—and we know difficulties are going to keep happening—we ask ourselves, “How do we prepare young people to engage in dialogue with each other?”

Jessica: What brings you again and again to Facing History’s professional development as a school leader and what has it meant for you as you've led your school in equity work?

Lori: Learning should never be stagnant. And there's a lot that you know you don't know. Key to my own learning is that I'm constantly involved in spaces that push me as a learner and a thinker. It's important to me that I keep growing and learning, and I also have the same expectation of my leadership team and staff.

And while it’s good to push for excellence and for growth, it’s also important to just acknowledge that things—learning—can take time, and that what you hold onto today is gonna be different than what you held onto in a previous learning session. Sometimes going through the same sort of topic multiple times allows you to see something from a different angle that you didn't necessarily connect with the first time. I really want to practice continued learning and discovery and model that for my teachers, because, ultimately, things are constantly changing, society is changing, our kids are changing, needs are changing. School improvement efforts are changing. We have to be committed to wanting to grow and be our best selves.

Jessica: What drew you and your school into becoming an early adopter of Facing History’s curriculum in Chicago?

Lori: When Chicago Public Schools were deciding whether to partner with Facing History within their social studies track, partnering with you just made sense—you were able to provide both curriculum materials and the training for teachers—you had both, which was so critical, because you can’t give teachers curriculum materials without providing training. Also knowing that your materials were culturally relevant, aligned to standards, and appropriate for middle and high school students really resonated with our needs.

Jessica: What are some of the big takeaways that you and your staff have brought back to school from Facing History professional learning workshops?

Lori: There have been many. There’s consideration about how we enter into discretionary spaces and understanding our power. And there’s understanding the impact that that power has on the people who we're working with. My team and I have been very intentional about acknowledging power when we're having conversations with each other and with our staff.

Another big takeaway came from being introduced to Facing History’s guide Fostering Civil Discourse. We've shared the Fostering Civil Discourse guide with our teachers so that they can use it when entering into topics that are more difficult to talk about. That has been a resource that we consistently come back to.

Focus on individual identity is also something that we lean into from Facing History training. We encourage and ask our teachers to do this with their students. Not just at the beginning of the year, but throughout the year. Identity work has been a huge part of our lessons that we embed throughout our courses. 

Jessica: If another school leader is looking for a way to improve school culture or academic outcomes, why would you recommend Facing History?

Lori: Facing History takes a comprehensive approach to having school leaders think about where their school is at and where they want it to move toward. And they offer ways to adjust their approach based on how things might be changing at a given school. So you might start with one path and then realize, okay, maybe we really need to work toward our goals from a different direction. Facing History has great support for helping to think through big picture ideas and adjust curriculum and materials to best serve students.

Having that thought partnership at the administrative level, along with Facing History’s professional learning that’s both virtual and in person, presents a range of opportunities for reflection and engagement. In fact, there are so many ways for educators to engage with Facing History as part of the Partner Schools Network that I know my teachers are learning from and utilizing Facing History in ways that I haven’t even realized yet.

 When you’re in the Partner Schools Network it can be really difficult to differentiate what your team and teachers are bringing in from Facing History versus what they've just fully integrated from being part of Facing History for so long—it just becomes second nature.

Jessica: What does it mean for you as a school leader to be part of the Partner Schools Network and connect with other school leaders?

Lori: It's so nice because you realize that you're not alone in the work. You're able to hear how other schools are navigating the work that they're doing, and where you feel like you maybe weren't doing as well, and also, like, “Oh okay, we're actually in a much better place compared to some other schools dealing with this particular issue.” I'm also able to share discoveries with other people. So that's been really great—to share the work but then to also learn from others.

Jessica: How do you feel like Peirce, being part of Facing History’s Partner Schools Network, has positively impacted the community you’re in?

Lori: The recent passing of our student Jayden Perkins, and the way our school and community responded, speaks to the culture that’s been cultivated. We watched as students were able to self-organize how they wanted to celebrate Jayden's life and how they wanted to navigate their own grief. Tremendous leadership came from our students. The environment of the school has taught young people to feel empowered and they know what’s important to them. Students organized, outside of school time, a way to create a memorial and hold a vigil for Jayden. That was just so beautiful.