By: Catalina Sanchez (Middle School Math Teacher)
Four months ago I had no idea what I was getting myself into! From the moment I left my interview for Village Leadership Academy I knew that I would love the opportunity to teach here. I haven’t felt that way since 2007, when I accepted my first teaching job. VLA has indeed been a different teaching experience than I have ever encountered. I brag to my friends how well rounded the school is, where the kids have classes such as technology, music, art, Spanish, capoeira, tabura, and life skills regularly and how appreciated the teachers are. The students can also be involved in a World Scholars program, which allows them the opportunity to visit various countries such as Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa.
A concept extremely new to me was our Grass Roots Campaign, where students pick a cause that affects their community. After a cause is identified the students and teacher then create an action plan to make an impact. With the crazy world we live in, one would hope such young students wouldn’t have to deal with such issues as bullying, gun violence, hunger, and homelessness. Nonetheless, the reality is they see these issues in their communities and their young hearts want to make a difference. As a middle school team we decided to combine our fourth through seventh grade students and create an umbrella topic in which our students can then build off. To hear their ideas of cancer research, HIV awareness, hunger, accessible housing opportunities and adult literacy blew me away. It is one aspect for students to identify issues they see in their community but another to want to make a difference. After a majority vote our students wanted to make a difference towards violence in Chicago.
As an experienced teacher, who is a new teacher to city I haven’t lived in for ten years, within a new school, that could never be compared to a public school, I am sure one could feel how overwhelmed I was and had no idea where to start. With guidance from administration and previous stories from students, we jumped right in. My students strongly felt that gun and gang violence is a huge issue in their community. After a vote, the class Grass Roots Campaign would be Gang Violence.
My goal was for this Grass Roots Campaign to be student led and teacher assisted. My homeroom has sixth and seventh graders. I truly believe that my students should be given the freedom to create a campaign they will be proud of, not a campaign in which the teacher did all the work. Although, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about the content students were about to embark on while researching gang violence. During this process, I was astounded by the organizations that students were already familiar with such as Ceasefire, ChiTown Down 4Life, and Lyric. My students found all the statistics for gang violence in Chicago, articles written about Chicago’s gang violence, and video clips.
In three days, we shortened lessons and put in work to create a presentation they would be proud of. I was nervous. They were nervous. But in three days they pulled it off. I’ll say that again, THEY pulled it off. It touched my heart to see students who, as any other students, get on each other’s bad side, work together to rehearse their lines, make sure posters were neat and grammatically correct, and find information that would impact their peers and judges. I could see that glimmer of fear of failure in their eyes as we rehearsed one last time. I told my students that no matter what feedback we received from the community panelist, we were not going to down any other classes’ presentations and that I was proud of the work they did on their own. I stressed how proud they should be for creating a great presentation independently. Needless to say, my students made a few mistakes, but overall they killed it!!!! The student chosen video even had a judge to the point of tears. The students’ involvement came through in their presentation and they owned it. I was extremely proud of them. Not the proud you feel when you see your class correctly sings their Christmas song at the winter performance; this was way more meaningful and thoughtful.
After receiving their feedback and compliments from the community panelist and teachers, the glimmer of fear turned into a glimmer of pride. My students are always asking what are we going to do next for our Grass Roots Campaign and are eager to move on to our next steps. I know my students won’t stop gang violence in Chicago overnight or this year, but the fact that they are eager to make a plan and a step towards change is what makes that difference.
On my rough days, I remember experiences from my last six years teaching and remind myself kids will be kids. They will get mad at the teacher, forget an assignment, talk back when they’re angry, and get lost a little along the way. However, I know that at VLA the students are striving to be leaders. No matter how big their contribution to the world may be, they have one goal and that is to make a difference in the world around them.