I have one rule in my sixth grade Language & Literature classroom at Brooks Middle School: lead with love. When working with a partner, when walking in the hallways, when interacting with your teachers, when you are alone with yourself — always lead with love.
It’s inspired by the late congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis. In 2013, Lewis spoke with On Being’s Krista Tippett. As he reflected on his work for civil rights, which included being attacked by police during the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965, he said, “The movement created what I like to call a nonviolent revolution. It was love at its best.”
“It’s one of the highest forms of love,” Lewis said. “That you beat me, you arrest me, you take me to jail, you almost kill me, but in spite of that, I’m going to still love you.”
Along with my colleague Katy Alejos, who is the Language & Literature Department chair at Brooks and teaches eighth-graders, I’m excited to support a community collaboration this fall, in which middle-schoolers will help lead community discussions about John Lewis’ graphic novel trilogy, March.
These honest, anti-racist discussions are recommended for anyone age 11 and up. Intergenerational peace circle sessions will give all participants an equal opportunity to speak, listen, and be heard as we reflect on the impact of civil rights movements today.
Along with adults and students from Dominican University, Oak Park and River Forest High School, and Julian Middle School, I know our Brooks Middle School students will lead with love.
They’ll also bring the heat. Students bring passion, newness, fragility, and vulnerability that we adults can’t always bring.
As Katy says, “Middle-schoolers often get a bad rap. But I think adults new to this scene will be amazed and inspired by our middle-schoolers.
“The topics of race, racism and antiracism are swirling all around them throughout their daily lives, and most of them are very conscious of that, perhaps more than adults,” Katy points out. “Their daily experiences make them experts, and therefore they have a lot of really valuable input and ideas and thoughts and knowledge that needs to be heard and hashed out and discussed.”
I agree with Katy. Students offer me so much more than I ever thought imaginable. They have the insight and realness that has not been tainted by old age. They are filled with hope and belief in change, they are fresh, and we have to cultivate that.
Please join us for this three-part series, a collaboration among Oak Park Elementary School District 97; Oak Park and River Forest High School; the E-Team of Oak Park; Dominican University’s Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation group; Oak Park Township; and the Oak Park Public Library.
Book 1: Tuesday, Oct. 26, 7-8:30 p.m.
Book 2: Tuesday, Nov. 16, 7-8:30 p.m.
Book 3: Tuesday, Dec. 7, 7-8:30 p.m.
Find all details and register at oppl.org/march.
Nichelle Stigger is a sixth grade Language & Literature teacher at Brooks Middle School. Katy Alejos is an eighth grade Language & Literature teacher at Brooks Middle School as well as the Language & Literature Department chair.