Project Soapbox Forum Helps Chicago Middle Schoolers Find Their Voice

Chicago middle schoolers work on a root cause analysis of a speech topic. Photo by Jasmine Armand

CHICAGO–(ENEWSPF)–April 9, 2013.  Fourteen-year-old South Shore resident Shakira Nunnally knows gun violence firsthand. She has lost five close friends and saw eight teens gunned down while walking home from the store with her father last year.

“I was like so nervous,” said Nunnally, a student at Perspectives Middle Academy in Chicago’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood. “I was crying and shaking.”

Nunnally shared her story with more than 170 Chicago Public School middle school students and teachers and DePaul University College of Education students who attended a recent Project Soapbox forum at DePaul.

Designed to give Chicago middle school students a voice on community issues, the first-of-its-kind forum was organized in partnership with the Mikva Challenge by Joseph Gardner, associate professor and director of curriculum studies in DePaul’s College of Education.

Nunnally said it has been therapeutic for her to prepare her speech for the forum. “It’s the only way to help me calm my anger down because the gun violence is getting to me,” she said.

Of the 15 speeches given by students from eight CPS middle schools, four were about gun violence while others covered immigration, school closings, poverty, bullying and animal abuse. The students also spoke about the importance of youth leadership and having good role models.

After the student speeches, DePaul College of Education students worked with the groups to help them analyze the root causes of the issues and discuss action plans to help address the social ills.

Chris Williams, a 12-year-old seventh grader from Audubon Elementary School, wanted to make people aware of the danger and epidemic of gang violence in an effort to inspire change. He spoke about the vital and unappreciated role of police officers in curbing the violence, recognizing how they regularly put their lives on the line.

Brendan Aleman, a 14-year-old eighth grader at Ames Middle School, spoke about school closings, a topic close to him as Ames is set to close or be turned into a military school. Aleman said Ames is the neighborhood school and closing it would force students to commute farther away and create overcrowding issues at other schools. Dropout rates would also increase, he predicted.

Gardner said such community-involved teaching gives his future teachers a better understanding of the issues that students are dealing with in today’s society.

“Effective teaching happens when we provide students opportunities to think critically, dialogue and take action, and to work with others for positive change,” said Gardner. “I hope that this event gives my DePaul students a small taste of what is possible when we work with others to get students directly involved in the issues that affect their lives and communities.”

Alex Beyer, a DePaul junior majoring in sociology, said the workshop gave him real-life experience working with children, especially in an urban environment. It also showed how to get children to open up about issues that are important to them. Beyer hopes to be a social worker or school counselor and has taught at McCutcheon Elementary School in Uptown.

Elizabeth McCullough, a DePaul senior majoring in history, said Project Soapbox showed her how to help kids express themselves, which she says is vital for being a good teacher.

“It was so fun and inspiring,” McCullough said. “All the kids were very supportive of each other, and it was great hearing them get up in front of all those people and speak about very important issues.”

Jill Bass, director of curriculum and teacher development at the Mikva Challenge, said the workshop helps give future teachers experience working with students outside the classroom on issues that matter to youth.

“Working with DePaul’s College of Education is really important to us because we want to expose pre-service teachers and even teachers and administrators to the potential of what could be happening with students and give them a forum to help kids find their voice of what kids could do,” Bass said.

The Mikva Challenge is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that prioritizes the development of civic leadership in underserved Chicago high school youth. It was founded in 1997 as a tribute to former White House Counsel, Judge and U.S. Congressman Abner Mikva and his wife, Zoe, a lifelong education activist.