What did they care about?

Sarah Beverly’s 7th grade students at Lea Elementary in West Philadelphia began the year with a motto: “Change makers learn to read and write so that together we can change the world.” This motto set them up to write their own mission statements, design intersectionality identity plates, interview family members and learn about the history of their names. Each activity moved them closer to seeing themselves as change makers in their school and community.

 In order to identify specific social issues they cared about, students participated in a community walk, photo reflection, and headline search over the course of a few weeks. Student were challenged to think critically about the world around them and identify social issues in books, magazines, television shows, movies, advertisements, social media, and songs. They read Solo by Kwame Alexander as part of the Free Library of Philadelphia Teen Author Series and Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson as part of One Book, One Philadelphia, with discussions about the social issues they encountered.

After narrowing their long list of issues to bullying, racism, gun violence, racial profiling, and representation in public monuments they worked in smaller groups read articles about their topic and each student wrote a research paper and worked together to create a presentation for the class.

The presentations set the stage for several in-depth class discussions in which they finally chose to focus on racism, an important overarching topic to study because they felt bullying, gun violence, and racial profiling could all be linked back to racism.  

What did the students learn?

Throughout the process, students learned about several aspects of racism including microaggressions and systemic racism. Students discussed articles, studied the Black Activism Timeline by the Choices Program at Brown University, and read primary sources from the Stanford History Education Group.  Students also learned about change makers during the Civil Rights Movement like Claudette Colvin, Ella Baker, and John Lewis when reading March by John Lewis. They hosted a guest speaker from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania who helped students see the impact of redlining and housing discrimination in the surrounding neighborhood.

During this period of research, the school shooting occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, bringing up questions about the causes of gun violence.  A guest speaker from CeaseFire PA came to talk about gun laws in Pennsylvania. Additionally, Senator Anthony H. Williams came to the school to hear students’ perspectives and to share with students what he is doing to try to reduce gun violence across Pennsylvania.

What did they do about the issue?

With all that these students learned about these complex issues, they decided on two types of service.

First, they wanted raise awareness about organizations working to reduce gun violence. Based on their research, students found that there was a lot of news reporting on gun violence, but less reporting on the people and organizations who are working to reduce gun violence. As a result, students decided to interview community organizations and write newspaper articles to highlight their work. For instance, students interviewed the director of Cradle to Grave at Temple University and program director of CeaseFirePA. This service engaged students in the writing process as they learned how to write interview questions, interview multiple sources, and write newspaper articles.  

Secondly, they organized a nonviolent protest against gun violence. The students named the protest the Gun Violence Prevention Protest and Philly Children’s March came to the classroom to help students prepare for the service project. PCM members helped students create protest chants and meaningful posters. Students wrote letters to community organizations inviting them to participate in the march.

On the day of the protest, middle school students, teachers, staff, college students, and community members marched from the school to Malcolm X Park in West Philadelphia. The rally that followed  included student speeches, student poems, and remarks from Senator Williams, CeaseFirePA, Philly Children’s March and a local pastor.

Reflection is an important part of service-learning. These 7th graders ended the year with final reflections about what they learned and accomplished, sending letters to express their gratitude to the many community members who worked with them along the way.  They were especially thrilled to learn that Senator Williams invited the class to Harrisburg to visit the capital and talk to congressional members about gun violence.

We are excited that these Philadelphia students already understand the importance of their voice. As one student shared,  “It’s important to research the strengths and challenges in our community because when we fix the challenges we make our community better and safer.”