Virtual classrooms at GEMS help students learn during coronavirus era

By Daniel Patton, April 1, 2020


GEMS World Academy temporarily shuttered its New Eastside campus on Friday, March 13, in accordance with Illinois Governor Pritzker’s order to close all of the state’s public and private schools to combat the spread of coronavirus. Classes resumed via online videoconferencing the following Monday.

Since then, GEMS hasn’t missed a beat. The school has been executing its remote learning plan every weekday while keeping pace with the teachers’ original lesson plans, which include lessons, individual work, and community and socializing time.

5th grader Shiven Kammula meeting via Zoom with his class and the school counselor discussing coping strategies

“We kind of sensed this was coming, so we already had this conversation with kids,” recalled Head of School Tom Cangiano. “They were prepared and had all the equipment they needed.”

The equipment includes iPad minis that students received when they were in junior kindergarten and MacBook Pros in fourth grade. The gear makes a fitting complement to the school’s tech-savvy methodology of its young scholars.

GEMS is an International Baccalaureate school that educates a diverse population of students from preschool through grade 12. With a strong focus on innovation, it incorporates emerging technology into the daily routine.

As a result, students made a rather easy transition from classroom to home.

Plugging into online applications like Zoom and Google Meet, they attend class, form breakout groups, learn from guest lecturers, and collaborate on digital versions of the traditional white board. Recently, the fourth graders studied immigration by listening to the personal stories of a Filipino archaeologist from National Geographic Explorer.

According to Director of Innovation Peg Keiner, it’s been more or less school as usual. “We had the infrastructure in place, and teachers were already doing this,” she explained. “We have a program that believes that children can learn everywhere. We just added Zoom.”

Cangiano, who teaches a literature class, said that replicating the dynamic of a group discussion with students “is not as challenging as you think.”

“Teachers are using all kinds of different strategies,” he added. “They might be sharing their screens and embedding videos.”


The Field Studies Program

A slightly modified version of the school’s unique Field Studies program also continues to thrive. As part of a commitment to inquiry-based learning, the program has traditionally encouraged students to explore their surroundings, engage with the community, and learn from their
experiences. It complements the school’s “Chicago curriculum,” which Cangiano summarized by saying, “you become a great global citizen if you are a great local citizen.”

4th grade students practice counting in French class via Zoom (photo: of Gems World Academy)

Now that students are studying remotely, instead of analyzing the food supply chain by visiting Mariano’s or observing symbiosis by watching dogs and their owners in the park, the students journey through their immediate surroundings.

“We’re encouraging kids to look at the things we can learn from home,” Keiner explained. “Normally, we would go to Mariano’s; but now we’re going to go to the fridge.”

Besides bringing lessons into bedrooms and kitchen tables (where preschoolers seem to prefer studying math), the virtual classrooms reinforce an essential component of education that cannot be learned through books or computers.


Creating communities

“People and interaction are the most important,” Keiner said. “In the absence of a physical, real-time community, we’ve had to create communities. From kindergarten up to 12th grade, we’ve had children on Zoom calls with each other, cultivating and retaining relationships we’ve built.”

Gems lower school team members have a virtual meeting on Zoom (photo: Gems World Academy)

Although Cangiano has noticed that some of the students appear to “miss being physically present,” he said that GEMS teachers and counselors offer one-on-one calls and online support, and the parents have been “incredible.”

“Our message to parents was that, in order for this to work, this had to be a team effort,” Cangiano said. The message was contained in a booklet that outlined GEMS remote learning plan and asked parents for feedback. “Everybody had helpful tips,” he added. “We couldn’t be happier.”

This connectivity fuels a larger effort that will help everyone move forward, according to Director of Admissions Adriana Mourgelas. “When you not only have wonderful administrators who are supportive of faculty but also parents, that’s something that helps,” she said. “We are a community and we’ll get through this together.”

In that spirit, GEMS sends a survey to parents every Friday to encourage communication and feedback on how things are going.

“We got a gauge on challenges so that we could adjust what we’re doing so that we could make those tweaks and fine tune those things,” explained Cangiano. “About 90% of our respondents said it was going pretty darn well.”

Live from your living room: new experiences to have at home

By Stephanie Racine


Virtual museum tours

Travel through the travel ban and visit some of the world’s most famous museums on a virtual tour. Some of the tours available include the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, which houses works from famous French artists such as Gauguin, Monet and Degas. Locally, virtually visit The Art Institute of Chicago, The Field Museum and The Adler Planetarium, available through Google’s Art and Culture Platform. Visit


Help out a local Library

The Newberry Library is looking for volunteers to help transcribe historical letters from the 19th and early 20th centuries. The process is simple and can be done on the Newberry’s website. Read letters and diaries from people who lived in the midwest and those expanding the West, including some Native American history. Click here to get started.


Livestream a zoo

The Cincinnati Zoo will be going live on Facebook every day at 2 p.m. through April 9. One of their animals will be highlighted each day and an activity will be shared. Those without Facebook can watch the daily video on The Cincinnati Zoo’s website, or YouTube.


Foster a pet

PAWS Chicago is always looking for foster homes for their pets. Apply to foster a pet online at the PAWS chicago website. Fostering of some pets have specific requirements. Other pet rescues organizations looking for fosterers include the Anti-Cruelty Society and ALIVE Rescue.


At-home meditation

Meditation apps can help for relaxation and mindfulness. Calm and Headspace are apps that offer free or paid options. Listen to calming sounds or guided meditations in soothing voices. Available on the Apple App store and Google Play. 


Social media concerts 

A number of famous artists have taken to social media to perform livestream concerts. John Legend, Chris Martin of Coldplay and Keith Urban have taken requests on Instagram. Stay tuned on social media for the next surprise live performance.

Streeterville restaurants still cooking through the ban

By Stephanie Racine, Elisa Shoenberger, and Daniel Patton


The Chicago culinary community is not taking a backseat during the restaurant shutdown. With Illinois’ shelter-in-place order planned through April 7, local restaurants have had to alter their methods of feeding the community.


Volare Ristorante is a great friend to have

Benvenuto “Benny” Siddu, owner of popular Streeterville eatery Volare Ristorante Italiano, is responding to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis by helping others.

Benvenuto “Benny” Siddu, owner of Volare Ristorante Italiano

“Twice a week, we donate food for 50 people at the Ronald McDonald House,” he said. “We are not allowed to go in, but we drop it off and we do whatever they need.”

Helping the Ronald McDonald House, which supports the families of children who are hospitalized, is just the beginning of Siddu’s generosity. He is also doing everything possible to retain the staff that has helped his restaurant thrive for 23 years.

“We’ve got 120 employees,” he continued. “Yesterday, everybody came to pick up their check, and we offered to feed them all.” When the restaurant order is lifted, he hopes to “have a general meeting with the entire staff and hopefully compensate them for the time that they have taken off.”

Located at the intersection of E. Grand Ave. and St. Clair St., Volare has become renowned for an extensive menu that includes traditional pasta, robust chops, gilled calamari, and spaghetti and meatballs. Siddu, who was born in Italy, says that his favorite dish is the linguine with zuppa di pesce — linguine with fish soup.

Besides serving its full menu every day, Volare has also increased the size of its pasta dishes for the duration of the in-person order. “We do 16-ounce portions,” he said. “That’s a one-and-a-half order.” The restaurant also plans to repeat a half-priced special on steaks that ran last week and sold out the entree.

And if Viddu is available when the food is ready, he’ll make the delivery in person.

“The neighborhood has been more than gracious to us,” he explains.  “They have made me who I am today, and I love what I do.”

Entrees from Volare Ristorante Italiano

To place an order, call (312) 410-9900 or visit


Sweet Mandy B’s still baking away

Business at the Streeterville bakery has been “pretty solid with online delivery” during the in-person restaurant ban, according to, Assistant Manager Laura Amelang.

“We have temporarily reduced staff, but we look forward to being fully staffed when things get back to normal,” she explained. “We had to figure out a lot of changes very quickly because we had just opened when the in-person prohibition was issued.”

Amelang says that the most popular items are the cupcakes, with red velvet, peanut butter chocolate, lemon among the favorites, but she likes the confetti best. There is also a big demand for birthday cakes.

To order, visit any time between 10 a.m. 5 p.m., when the last online order is taken. Customers have until 6 p.m. to pick up their goodies.


Miki’s Park open for takeout & delivery

Calling itself “a Korean bar with Seoul,” the new River North restaurant located at 109 W. Hubbard opened up just in time to greet the in-person dining ban, but that hasn’t stopped it from cooking away.

“We are currently doing a carry out and we are available on caviar,” said Chris Johnson.

He remained in high spirits while speaking with New Eastside News on a drizzly Saturday afternoon. “We are all keeping our fingers crossed and hoping that sooner than later we can be open again. I’m spending 13 hours a day at this takeout window on a street that’s usually really busy, and there’s not a soul on it right now.”

The takeout menu is available every day from 11a.m.-11p.m. To order, visit


Cupitol Coffee & Eatery working as a team

Owner Sellia Georges thanks her staff for being adaptable and rolling with the tide. “Everyone is working more as a team now,” said Georges, “My barista is helping run food, or my food runner is making a smoothie”

Georges has retained employees who relied on Cupitol as their sole job, and is hoping to re-hire everyone back when this is over.

But customers are being generous with tips, and new people are ordering for delivery services and pickup at their 455 E. Illinois location. Coffee and all of the morning sandwiches seem to be the most popular orders, according to Georges.

Cupitol is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. for delivery and pick-up. Visit, to place an order.

‘The heart of the city’: State Street Corridor to be revitalized

by Stephanie Racine

“Elevating State” will be the goal and catchphrase of a new plan to revamp the State Street Corridor in the Chicago Loop.

The State Street Corridor plan was the main focus of the Chicago Loop Alliance and Foundation Annual Meeting on Feb. 20. Ernest Wong, co-founder and principal of Site Design Group, presented his plan for the revitalization.

“I am excited about the State Street Corridor plan,” said Deputy Mayor of Economic and Neighborhood Development Samir Mayekar in his speech at the meeting. 

State Street has a long history of being the hub of commerce and tourism in Chicago, Wong said. Marshall Field’s and Sears were heavily visited by locals and tourists for many years in the 1900s, but Wong recognizes commerce has changed.

 “Retail is more of an experience” he said. 

With commerce change, so must the location change, according to Wong’s proposal. Wong has looked to other famous streets for inspiration and examined why they are so popular.

Great activities and destinations, safety, equitability, accessibility and an inviting nature are all aspects of a street designed to be visited, Wong said. 

He observed the humor of streets in Shanghai with anthropomorphized dumpling sculptures and noted that it really is the people that make a place. 

Wong plans to conduct workshops this year that focus on three features of developing State Street—place, mobility and market. 

Wong and Chicago Loop Alliance welcome the opinions of residents on how to Elevate State Street in the upcoming months. By late 2020, using the workshops plus feedback from residents, Wong will solidify the plan for the corridor. 

“The Loop is the heart of the city, and we want to make sure the heart is strong,” Mayekar said. 

To learn more about the project and to lend your voice to the upcoming plan, text ELEVATE to #63566 or visit

Freezin’ for a reason: Special Olympics’ Polar Plunge celebrates 20 years

by Doug Rapp

They’re freezin’ for a reason.

The 20th annual Chicago Polar Plunge to benefit Special Olympics Chicago is scheduled for Sunday, March 1, 2020, at North Avenue Beach. “Plungers” collect donations and pledge to jump into the icy waters of Lake Michigan.

“People are excited we’ve been doing this event this long,” said Heather Kundert, executive director of Special Olympics Chicago.

Kundert said they’re expecting 4,000 plungers, a combination of nearly 300 teams and individuals. Their goal, she said, is to raise $2,020,000 for the year 2020, all of which benefits the Chicago Special Olympics organization.

For the 20th anniversary, Kundert said they’re recognizing people who’ve participated since the beginning. Long-standing team Kidd Krue has raised over $42,000 and is the top non-corporate team. Some of the polar plunge founders attending this year include Gerry Henaghan, Pam Munizzi, Ernest Alvarado, Richard McAvoy and Michael Brady.

Kundert said they also want to recognize some other participating agencies, such as Envision and Misericordia, that support people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

“We’re excited to partner with some of our sister agencies in a different way this year,” she said.

New this year, Kundert said, will be an “Olympic village,” where sponsors and partner agencies will have different fun activities to encourage people to learn about other agencies helping out people with disabilities.

Kundert also praised the park district and the dive team on hand during the plunge. 

“We’re really proud that the city has really embraced this,” she said. “We wouldn’t be able to do a lot of what we do at the scale we do it without the park district’s help and their partnerships.”

John Fahey, of Team Dan Fahey is plunging for the fourth time this year. His brother Daniel is a Special Olympics athlete, he said, who plays basketball and baseball among other sports at Mt. Greenwood Park. John Fahey said his team raised $38,000 last year but this year they’re hoping to raise $40,000.

“We know it’s a good cause…we wanted to give back a little,” Fahey said.

Fahey recalled how last year was exceptionally cold and ice had to be cleared to make way for the plungers, but it’s an experience he still enjoys.

“It’s pretty awesome,” he said of running into the chilly lake. “It’s exhilarating, you get a pretty big rush. The adrenaline’s pumping. You’re yelling and screaming out there with a bunch of your friends.”

Kundert said many of the participants like Fahey have a personal connection to the Special Olympics but many plungers just want to help out. 

“Really they’re just all trying to get behind the city of Chicago and what we’re doing and what we do for these individuals,” Kundert said. “They really believe in supporting individuals with intellectual disabilities.”
To register as a team or individual or to donate, visit

Police want to keep Streeterville residents safe

by Stephanie Racine

Streeterville police want to work with residents to help keep them safe.

After a slew of violent muggings and surprise carjackings in Streeterville at the end of December and beginning of January, 18th district police held a community meeting on January 11 to discuss safety tips, plus the efforts being made to combat crime in the area.  

Officer Theresa Kelly led the talk, with help from Detective Colin O’Shea. They both emphasized the notion of being aware. 

“Maintain awareness of the people and circumstances around you,” said Kelly. 

A gut feeling of feeling in danger is oftentimes a sign of fear, according to Kelly, and trusting that gut feeling is often wise.

Detective O’Shea noted that using a phone while you walk can be dangerous and unsafe in several ways. 

“Stealing a phone is an instant $100 to $200,” said O’Shea. 

Paying too much attention can also make you unaware and make you look like an easy target. Shoulders are hunched, attention is on the phone and hands are occupied. 

O’Shea and Kelly also warned residents to be wary of any solicited donations—it can be a sleight of hand trick to steal something. If you want to help the community, research what official charities are in the area, and donate or volunteer there. 

“Carry as little on you as possible,” said Kelly. 

Kelly and O’Shea recommended carrying portable alarm systems that make a loud noise when pressed. They are available for under $10 on Amazon, but Kelly reminded the crowd to keep the alarm in your hand—not in your bag or pocket—so it can be easily accessed. 

Keeping a purse or bag on your weaker shoulder is advised by Kelly and O’Shea. Having your stronger hand free is recommended. Cross-body bags should only be worn under coats—thieves will take victims down in their attempts to steal purses. 

Many residents were grateful for the advice, but wanted to know how the police are going to respond to these attacks.

Commander Daniel O’Shea was also present and he assured the attendees that they had asked for more resources from the city, including more officers, both uniformed and plain-clothed. 

Alderman Brian Hopkins said he was working with police to make sure they would get those resources. Hopkins said he had received a phone call from the Mayor’s office approving extra police resources in Streeterville during the meeting. 

Police reminded the crowd to always call 911 if they see anything suspicious. They also reminded residents to attend CAPS meetings to further discuss ongoing crime in the area. 

The next CAPS meeting for Streeterville is on at 6 p.m., March 5, at Access Living, 115 W. Chicago Ave.

Chair Yoga helps New Eastsiders embrace an active lifestyle

by Mat Cohen

When people think of yoga, they often think of twisting, sweating and breathing in a 95-degree room. However, that’s not always the case.

Chair Yoga is practiced around the neighborhood, including at Renaissance Court in the Chicago Cultural Center and a senior class at the Maggie Daley Park Fieldhouse.

Peggy Figiel teaches the class at 12:30 p.m. on Tuesdays at Renaissance Court.

“Seeing people move into the pose and smile and say ‘I did it,’” she said, “that’s one of the best things.”

Figiel began teaching yoga to seniors at a suburban park district 16 years ago. 

“I felt like (seniors) understood it better,” she said.  “It wasn’t about twisting and sweating. It was about relaxing, going inside and finding your inner peace. It was more of an inner exercise.”

There are benefits beyond calming your mind. In Chair Yoga, students do exercises sitting in a chair and standing beside it. They won’t be on their knees or lying on a mat.

“Even doing chair yoga you are still going to improve your balance, your muscles, your bones and increase range of motion,” Figiel said.

Fifteen women regularly attend the Chair Yoga class at Renaissance Court. Figiel  makes the environment welcoming for participants of all  abilities.

“There are so many ways to  modify and they can still do  yoga,” she said. “There are unmeasured benefits and I’m just  here to guide them along.”

 Rose Lathan, who has been taking the class for four years, said the modifications are very helpful.

“I also take a class at LA Fitness with the mat and I can’t do all the poses,” she said. “But here she shows me different ways I can do it and be successful. I always feel great after.”

Another regular yogi, Elvira Azarcon, clearly feels the bene- fits of the class. 

“It’s really great,” she said. “I’ve been coming for a while and I can feel a difference with my flexibility and my joints.”

Figiel also teaches classes in 400 E. Randolph, 360 E.  Randolph and 340 E. Randolph. She loves the New  Eastside community and working with the people in the neighborhood.

“Everyone is still very active,” she said. “You have to walk and you have to be mobile. People can’t run or ride their bike maybe as much as they  want to, but they can still get a workout doing yoga.”

For more information about  the Chair Yoga classes at Renaissance Court, visit and for information about the programs at Maggie Daley  Fieldhouse visit

Chicago’s Christmas history a mix of traditions

By Elisa Shoenberger

Chicago’s Christmas traditions are  a mixture of ethnic and racial celebrations, combined with the strategy  of the city’s retailers to form the public celebrations we know today.

“One of the things people don’t  know is that 19th century immigrants (brought) many of the Christ- mas traditions that we know in the  U.S.,” said Julius Jones, assistant curator at the Chicago History Museum. While the Christkindlmarket is a relatively new tradition in Chicago,  beginning in 1996, German Christ- mas traditions go back to before the  Great Chicago Fire in 1871. 

But Chicago’s Christmas traditions aren’t just based on Germanic  traditions. Ethnic and racial groups  throughout the city celebrate the holiday in their own robust and unique  ways, Jones said. For example, a midnight Christmas processional takes place in the Ukrainian Village in January, in accordance with the Ukrainian Orthodox calendar.

Many Chicagoans, regardless of background, have traditions centering on the great Christmas tree in the Walnut Room of the former Marshall Field’s department store. In 1907, waiters put up the tree themselves in the room, according to Jones. By the mid-20th century, it was the biggest Christmas tree in the  U.S. and people would  flock from all  over to see it. Macy’s, the current occupant of the former Marshall Field’s  building, keeps the tradition going.

“Retailers absolutely made Christmas into what it is now—a shopping experience,” Bill Savage,  Northwestern professor and Chicago historian, said. Retailers such  as Marshall Field’s and Montgomery Ward were instrumental  in creating the visual culture of Christmas, Jones said.  

The Ward catalog “was the place where you ordered Christmas presents from afar. Marshall Field’s was where families went to look at the window decorations, and to not just buy Christmas presents, but as  a family outing,” Savage said, noting that even the famous character Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was  first commissioned by retailer Montgomery Ward in 1939.

While certain traditions have persisted, some traditions have fallen by the wayside. Notably, the  Christmas Tree Ship that allegedly brought thousands of trees to  Chicago in the late 19th century. A  ship called Rouse Simmons brought trees from Michigan, until it sank in a terrible storm in 1912.

A year later, Chicago put up its  first official tree in north Grant  Park, commissioned by Mayor Carter Harrison Jr.  The tradition continues but now in Millennium Park.   The tree had been moved to Daley Plaza in 1966 and in 1982 it stood at State Street and Wacker Drive.  

‘Secret’ Ace to close: Gordon’s Ace family glue will continue to keep community strong

by Mat Cohen

It’s rare for a father-son duo to go to the local elementary school dressed as Santa and an elf to wish kids a merry Christmas. But for Jeremy Melnick and his dad, Les, it was to give back to the community they’ve been part of since 1950. Jeremy’s grandfather opened his first Gordon’s Ace Hardware store franchise on the corner of State  Street and Oak Street, neighboring Ogden Elementary School and expanded the number of their  stores over time to include a highly frequented but tucked away store at 680 N. Lakeshore Drive.

“It’s how I got started in the first place,” Jeremy Melnick said. “It was a daily, weekly conversation around the dinner table.”

 Melnick got his masters degree and left banking  21 years ago to partner with his dad in the family business. 

“In the back of my mind I think it was always  something I’d want to get into,” he said. “Twenty-one years later, here I am.”

Gordon’s Ace has eight locations, four scattered around downtown neighborhoods.

“We’ve been a part of it for so long,” Jeremy Melnick said. “There’s been an Ace store down here forever… you see generations of customers, which is always nice.”

 Gordon’s Ace didn’t always have the coverage  across the neighborhoods it has today.

“When we partnered with my dad we had a growth plan,” he said. “We opened our second store on Orleans in 2005. Eighteen months later we bought a four-store chain.

“We went from one to two, to six stores in a relatively short period of time from 2005 to 2007.”

The location in Streeterville, 680 N. Lake Shore Drive, has been nicknamed “the secret Ace” by its customers because there’s minimal signage.

The location, which has been in the neighbor- hood for 30 years, and owned by the Gordon’s for  seven, is closing the end of December.

 Store manager Bob Willis says he’s come to know many people throughout his 10 years as manager.

“They’re all sad to see us leaving,” he said. “It’s been the best part to help people and get to know people around the building and in the neighborhood.”

Despite being in the city, Gordon’s Ace stores create a local community, stocking such items as local barbecue sauce or humidity tools to suit high rises downtown.

The company gives back to the community everyday. Last year it raised $100,000 for Lurie Children’s Hospital.

They won’t rush into finding another Streeterville location, but with the right place and timing,  they hope to be back in the neighborhood soon.  

Thank a veteran For Veterans Day

By Doug Rapp

Veterans Day is Monday, Nov. 11, and whether you mistakenly spell it with an apostrophe or not, there are several ways to thank Chicago-area veterans.

Officials with the Illinois Department of Veteran Affairs (IDVA) say there is no single way to thank a veteran.

“There is no best way to thank a veteran, other than to thank them sincerely,” said IDVA acting director Linda Chapa LaVia.

“If you want to offer to shake their hand, do that. If you want to simply say ‘Thank you for your service,’ do that. Whatever you do, do it with genuine gratitude for the freedom and security that their service has afforded you,” she said.

The aptly named Soldier Field will be honoring veterans at 11 a.m on Nov. 11 with a ceremony in the south courtyard. Originally named Grant Park Municipal Stadium, it was renamed Soldier Field after WWII at the request of the Chicago Gold Star Mothers, an organization for women who lost children in military service, according to Soldier Field’s website. 

The Pritzker Military Museum & Library, 104 S. Michigan Ave., will have free admission on Veterans Day. The museum features a 75th anniversary exhibit on D-Day along with an exhibit recognizing Medal of Honor recipients.

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