VIVA Teacher Leader Karon Stewart is a middle school math teacher in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago. Her students face significant challenges, not the least of which is surviving the violence in the neighborhoods. Stewart talks eloquently about the violence and how it affects her students and herself. It was the centerpiece of her speech when she was invited to introduce Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at a recent meeting of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
One of Stewart’s students was shot while Duncan still served as head of the Chicago Public Schools. She reminded him of that incident and told the audience of Duncan’s personal response to her email asking for help in getting information about the condition of the student, who at the time he was presumed dead. After his speech, Duncan asked Stewart to share her ideas for combating the overwhelming and seemingly intractable challenge of ending violence against youth in America. This is what she told him:
Dear Secretary Duncan,
It was an honor to introduce you to the “Teacher Voice” conference participants. At that time, you charged me with the task of suggesting ways to stop the violence in the Chicago. I really wish I had the answers. We feel each other’s pain. I am always devastated by the level of violence I see. Unfortunately, I cannot allow my emotions to sidetrack me from what I am paid to do: teach middle-school math. Even in saying that, I am in danger of becoming as anesthetized as my students, and I applaud you for always bringing this travesty to the forefront.
I will share my opinion.
Parents are the key factor and we have to find ways to support them in their efforts to raise their children. I also believe that when students have chronic behavioral or discipline issues, their parents should be mandated to attend regular conferences that include a community service component. Finally, something has to be done to help children in homes with parents who are substance abusers. It appears that children who commit violent acts are more likely to be in this demographic.
Expand the Chicago Park District programs, but you have to make it a safer place in some areas. Increase police presence in more positive ways. For example, have Police District teams challenge teams of teachers from the schools in their district to bi-annual basketball games. The “MVP’s” from these teams would then play student stars.
Expand the G.R.E.A.T program (Gang Resistance Education and Training). It was very effective at my school. The woman officers squashed a really violent series of altercations between about 16 7th and 8th grade girls.
Bring back Camp Hastings, the YMCA camp that gave students a chance to get out of the neighborhood for a week and participate in a plethora of outdoor activities.
One of my students was selected in the Barbie I Can Be…Mentee Search and attended the White House Project awards ceremony in New York. She returned more purposeful. She became a classroom leader and inspired several other students to be successful.
I have also heard very good things about the Steve Harvey program. That program offers a Mentoring Weekend to break the misguided traits of manhood and introduce role models who provide positive examples of manhood.
Socio – Emotional Learning and Arts Programs
Parents, students, and teachers in challenging communities need to participate in programs that include an effective conflict resolution component.
Campaign to end the “Snitches get Stitches” mentality so people will not be afraid to fight against abusive conditions. Utilize veterans in these programs. They are not afraid of the gangs and they push back!
Challenge potential gang members to make a positive impact on their communities. Penalties for petty crimes should include more extensive community service options, like cleaning vacant lots, assisting victims of violent crimes, etc. Many students, unfortunately, identify with a gang without actually participating in criminal activities. I understand this, but the gang mentality has to be replaced with something positive.
Update on my student who was shot:
My concern for this student began right after I added a picture of him and two other boys to my Donors Choose web page. Another teacher said he was going to be a hoodlum. Unfortunately I understand why the teacher said that. But my student was facing major obstacles. His mother was sick (she has since died and while his family was at the memorial, his house was robbed) and he had an enormous amount of unsupervised time. This is the biggest problem with children in depressed areas. I began tutoring that student and another Bond alumni every Wednesday, after school for three years. I, along with several other teachers in the building began rewarding them with gift cards when they received good grades, and eventually, making the honor roll. They were successful at a school that was voted one of the worst schools in the US. I am very proud of him. He overcame tremendous obstacles and setbacks, but it took THE WHOLE VILLAGE.
Karon Stewart, National Board Certified Teacher