By: Eric Macias (Middle School Literacy)
As an educator, I am very rarely left speechless. In fact, you could say that, as a teacher, I am paid to speak. From reminding my students about proper grammar rules to leading class discussions on our reading novels, I am constantly speaking or leading discussions. Moreover, I always tell my students to speak their truth. But, earlier this school year, I found no words when I needed them the most.
We’re a very tight-knit school and I can honestly say that I consider my students and my fellow teachers an important part of my extended family. As a result, I know a lot, and I mean A LOT, about my students and their families. And this is especially true for one of my students this year, J. Even before she became my student this year, I had already known a lot about her study habits, homework completion and home life. Over the past few years, I’ve gotten to translate for J’s mother at her parent-teacher conferences. In these conferences, I learned how J often becomes distracted in class and frequently does not complete her work at home. Her mother works very hard to help her to the best of her ability. However, as a first-generation immigrant from Mexico with limited English proficiency, she often cannot help her daughter with her homework.
Yet, I was slightly shocked to see J really struggling in my literacy class this year. She consistently didn’t submit homework assignments and she rarely read her assigned chapters. As a quiet and timid student, she often just shrugged her shoulders when I asked her what was keeping her from doing her work. I would find the answer during our first grassroots campaign class discussion.
In late September, the upper grades teachers brought together our homeroom classes to brainstorm topics for our grassroots campaigns. We asked our students to talk about unmet needs and other concerns in our communities. If our brainstorming session were to be solely judged on how many topics we came up with, then it was highly successful because we had numerous topics. In addition, these topics ranged from the lack of healthcare to segregation to the proliferation of drugs and gangs.
After further discussion and presentations on what we could do with a few of the major topics, our students voted and decided to focus on violence prevention. Over and over again, students consistently brought up their concerns about the seemingly never-ending violence in Chicago. However, when I held my first class grassroots campaign discussion with my homeroom in early October, I was surprised to hear that my students didn’t want to focus on gun violence or gang violence.
One student, S, who isn’t afraid to share her thoughts at all, said, “To be honest, I’m kind of tired of talking about only gun violence. I know there are other kinds of violence.”
Initially worried that the conversation might become too unfocused, I said, “Yes, you’re absolutely right. There are other kinds of violence. Why don’t we write up a list of a few of them and decide which one we want to focus on?”
Students suggested a few other kinds of violence. For example, one student said that bullying was a form of violence and, so, we should include it. Another student suggested police violence. And our list kept growing and growing.
Then, J raised her hand and I was initially taken aback because she tends to be quiet in our discussions. In a startlingly confident voice, she said, “I don’t feel safe at home but it’s because of my dad. He yells at my mom and hits her.”
Other students began raising their hands. One by one, they shared deeply personal stories of how domestic violence has affected them. As students recounted these traumatic experiences, I found that my voice had become shaky as a lump settled in my throat. For several personal reasons, domestic violence has always been a very tough subject for me to address, let alone lead a discussion on. Many students felt similarly because they said that they often found the subject too hard to talk about.
Instead of fighting my sudden case of speechlessness, I allowed my students to continue talking about domestic violence until it soon became evident that we had chosen the focus of our grassroots campaign this year. After a largely symbolic vote, my students overwhelmingly chose to focus on domestic violence prevention.
Already bursting with ideas, students began brainstorming actual steps that we could take to help reduce domestic violence. While we wrote down several of the ideas, I told them that we needed to conduct research in order to map out our action plan. The next day, students talked about articles they had found and we read one aloud that I had found from helpguide.org. Soon, students were suggesting that we hold a peace run/walk, hold a fundraising drive for domestic violence shelters and a food drive for necessary supplies for domestic violence survivors. Again, our list kept growing and growing!
Then, after speaking to one of our counseling interns and to our school’s community outreach coordinator, I told the class that we could also make care kits for survivors and fill them with materials that we got from our fundraising and food drives. Students immediately gravitated to this idea and it quickly found its way into our action plan.
One student suggested that we write a brochure with helpful advice for survivors. Other students quickly jumped on board and recommended that we write articles about domestic violence shelters and allied organizations in order to spread the world. After a few adjustments and some in-depth research, we decided to create a monthly e-magazine that we entitled “Our Future.”
While we’re still hashing out some of the logistics and specific details in our action plan, my students are incredibly excited to work hard to help prevent domestic violence. As the year progresses, I can see how my students are becoming more and more empowered to speak about domestic violence. It seems that my students and I are looking to J as an example of a domestic violence survivor who is willing to speak her truth.