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How should educators talk to their students about gun violence? That’s the question two East Oakland teachers asked themselves seven years ago. Now they’re sharing their answers—a comprehensive gun-violence teaching toolkit, aimed at middle schoolers—with schools across Oakland and the country.
Complete with humanities, math, and art components, the curriculum educates students about the history of gun laws in the United States, recommends guest speakers who have personally been impacted by gun crimes, and gives students guidance on how to become advocates against gun violence in their communities.
At the time, the Lighthouse community was still reeling from the death of Jacob Gonzalez, a former student who was shot and killed in 2013, when he was 17 years old. Students listed immigration, homelessness, and other issues, but gun violence topped the list.
In 2015, Athena Larios and Melanie Swandby were teaching seventh and eighth grade students at Lighthouse Community Charter School and wanted to create a course that would be engaging and relevant to their students’ lives. They polled the rising eighth graders on what topics came up in their own families and neighborhoods that they wanted to learn about.
“This was something that was really personal to us,” said Larios, who now teaches fifth grade at Cox Academy, an East Oakland elementary school. “There are a lot of kids who felt like, ‘This is the first time that what I’m learning in school actually matters.’”
The teachers partnered with Vision Quilt, an organization that promotes using art to advocate against gun violence and find solutions. Throughout the course, students created artistic panels to express their feelings about violence, school shootings, and bullying in their communities. Some of the students’ artwork can be seen along International Boulevard as part of the “Banners for Peace” installation between 73rd and 102nd avenues.
Last year, the collaboration was one of 10 winners of the LRNG Innovators Challenge grant to fully develop the curriculum into a toolkit to be shared with others. With the Uvalde, Texas school shooting propelling gun violence in schools into a national conversation, and persistent gun violence in Oakland, the group is hoping that the toolkit can help educators talk to their students about the impacts of gun violence in a responsible and thoughtful way.
The expansive curriculum lasts three months and begins with a unit to get students talking about how gun violence impacts their communities, where they review statistics about shootings, and talk about their own experiences with guns. In the second unit, the class examines the Second Amendment and the history of gun laws in the United States. This section also includes a case study of the Black Panthers, who famously carried guns as they monitored police interactions, which led to a crackdown on carrying loaded weapons in public. In the third module, students explore the social underpinnings of gun violence, talk about “toxic masculinity,” watch “The Mask You Live In,” a documentary about men and boys navigating gender stereotypes, and read “Violent Ends,” a fictional account of a school shooting told from 17 different perspectives.
“Questions like, ‘What does society expect of men? What does society expect of little kids, both boys and girls? How does that affect all of us,” said Cathy DeForest, the executive director of Vision Quilt. “You can support the kids but also ask these very important questions and have them reflect on their behavior.”
In the fourth unit, students research gun violence in Oakland, survey community members on their experiences with shootings, and write their own newspaper editorials addressing gun violence. The fifth and final unit focuses on art as a way for students to express themselves. Students learn concepts such as shape, lines, color, and texture, and create their Vision Quilt pieces.
The course culminates with a public exhibit for students to share what they’ve learned. Prior to the pandemic, the exhibit had been held at an art gallery, and downtown at Chapter 510’s Department of Make Believe. Students’ displays have included their Vision Quilt panels, written op-eds, memorials for victims of Oakland shootings, a “Gunopoly” game, and a map of Oakland that lights up according to the frequency and location of shootings.
The toolkit, available online, comes with guiding questions for class discussions, activities and resources for each unit, and guidelines for incorporating social and emotional learning. Larios and Swandby are also willing to offer a training workshop to any teachers who are interested. To reach the group, teachers can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The 2016-2017 school year was the first year the Lighthouse teachers taught the curriculum, with support from the entire school community, including the principal and a school counselor, who could be available if the materials upset any students. One teacher, Michelle Fitch, said she added an emotional intelligence unit, where students would fill out surveys about how they were feeling mentally and emotionally throughout the program.
“Some of the kids had really experienced some hardships in this area, with parents being shot or their sister or brother being shot,” said Fitch, who taught at Lighthouse for five years and also serves on the board of Vision Quilt. “There are a lot of emotional needs.”
Fitch added that ultimately, it’s critical to present these lessons in middle school, so that by the time students get to high school, when it’s more likely that they could be exposed to guns, they can make good choices.
“They can say to themselves, ‘I’ve learned too much to be a part of gun violence. I want to teach my little nieces and nephews not to be a part of gun violence. I wouldn’t want my cousins and neighbors to be a part of gun violence.”