WICKER PARK — The students in Wendy Weingarten's classroom are only in the fourth grade, but they've already learned that answering a question with a question is not polite.
"They can't say 'What?' or 'What do you want?' They need to first reply, 'Yes, Mrs. Weingarten,' " said West Town resident Nicole DiBiase, whose daughter Olivia was in Weingarten's classroom at LaSalle II Magnet School, 1148 N. Honore St., last year.
DiBiase credited Weingarten, whom she referred to as a "stickler for manners and doesn't take any junk," with being "an amazing teacher."
"I think it's my job to teach my students more than just language arts and math. I need them to be ready for the world outside of CPS, and that means saying thank you, writing thank you notes, saying excuse me if they walk into a room where a teacher is teaching," said Weingarten.
"I say to my students, 'If you learn nothing else this year, you'll learn ...' They finish the line with 'manners.' ''
For Weingarten, it's not just about exercising one's social skills. It's also about exercising bodies and minds.
Last year, DiBiase, a teacher herself at a school in Cicero, was one of many LaSalle parents who donated to a "Lit and Fit" program that Weingarten launched on DonorsChoose.org, a site that connects classroom projects with people who want to fund them.
With a $1,000 grant from the LaSalle II PTA and a $1,000 matching grant from DonorsChoose.org, Weingarten purchased a set of 31 iPod Shuffles and audio books for the classroom.
In warmer weather, students listen to a book of their choosing as they walk around the neighborhood in small groups supervised by Weingarten and an aide.
"Lit and Fit" was so popular that this year's fifth-graders who were in Weingarten's class last year are asking when it will return, according to DiBiase.
Weingarten, 42, a former collegiate-level gymnast who got her start in Chicago Public Schools as a physical education teacher at Gray Elementary School in Portage Park at 3730 N. Laramie Ave., is planning to incorporate the "Lit and Fit" program into "Friday Fundays" this spring as a reward for good behavior all week long.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, the veteran educator who was among the first teachers to be hired at LaSalle — initially as a reading specialist — was bidding goodbye to two of her students who'd participated in an extra 30 minutes of after-school tutoring to improve their test scores in math and reading.
Waiting in the school's lobby for her son, Eric, 9, Maria Saucedo praised Weingarten.
"She's strict, but a very good teacher. She has taught my son to behave and have manners," said Saucedo.
In addition to teaching fourth grade, Weingarten started a gymnastic club at Lane Tech High School that she's taking a break from this year. And for "down time" she spends every summer working as a gymnastics coach at an East Coast camp.
During the school year, Weingarten also works at Chicago Teacher Inc., an educational supply store at 1855 N. Milwaukee Ave. about two weekends a month, a job she said she has "just for fun."
While admitting to being "not this huge pro-union person," Weingarten found herself stepping up to the plate in 2009 to volunteer to be the school's Chicago Teacher's Union representative when LaSalle II grew big enough to need one.
"People think [teachers] are so greedy, and legally we can only strike over benefits and wages, but that strike was about so much more," Weingarten said. "We are an inner-city urban district, and not every school has a social worker or a nurse or a library, that’s what it was about. If every school was like LaSalle II, we wouldn’t have had a strike."
Describing herself as “high-energy,” Weingarten relaxes by working out and occasionally having what she said her husband calls "a cave day," where she just vegges out on the couch — not an easy task for a woman who thrives on "projects."
"My whole philosophy about education is that it isn’t just a job for me, it's a lifetime commitment," Weingarten said.
And when's she's asked if she has any children of her own, Weingarten has a ready response.
"Yes, 31. In my classroom."