Brooks Middle School eighth-graders Zoe Swanson and Jamera Barnes hold up a few of their holiday cards, which they planned to send to residents at Oak Park Arms, a local senior living facility. | Provided.

For the last month, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Madeline Ainsworth and her classmates, Stella Smith and Teresa Delgado, have gathered at the school nurses’ office, painting one of the white walls pink. Unfinished flowers bloom from the wall’s corners and meet in the middle where a bold affirmation, still in pencil, reads: “Be You. Be Kind. Be Amazing.”

Brooks Middle School eighth-grader Teresa Delgado (left to right) and her classmates, Stella Smith and Madeline Ainsworth, pose for a picture in front of their mural in the school nurses’ office. | Provided.

The mural is part of Ainsworth, Smith and Delgado’s community service project, a culmination of teamwork and tenacity. The three, all of whom are eighth-graders at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School, said they wanted to center their project on positivity and settled on designing a mural with a mantra. Brooks is at 325 S. Kenilworth Ave.

“I hope that when they [staff and students] see it, they smile,” Ainsworth said.

And Ainsworth, Smith and Delgado aren’t the only Brooks eighth-graders with big ideas.

Take Zoe Swanson and Jamera Barnes: The pair spent weeks drawing and coloring 150 holiday cards for residents at Oak Park Arms, a nearby senior living facility. Meanwhile, other students such as Sophia Chavez, Kate Kjarsgaard and Francesca Cajina recently drafted a land and labor acknowledgement to recognize enslaved Blacks and indigenous communities and are working with teachers and administrators to create a public display.

The service projects create pockets of opportunities for students to explore their passions, said Veena Rajashekar, an International Baccalaureate (IB) program and special area coordinator at Oak Park Elementary School District 97. Rajashekar said District 97 offers Brooks and Percy Julian middle schoolers an IB program called Middle Years, which focuses on student development and engagement. Percy Julian Middle School is at 416 S. Ridgeland Ave.

That means, sixth- and seventh-graders often work on service-oriented activities and projects in the classroom and as a whole, while eighth-graders can foster their own ideas and opt to partner with other students or work by themselves. Eighth-graders are asked to journal the progress of their projects, as well as present to their classmates what lessons they learned along the way.

“IB aims to develop lifelong learners in and out of the classroom, so it’s really providing students with opportunities to take their learning into action,” Rajashekar said.

Brooks Middle School eighth-graders Francesca Cajina, Sophia Chavez and Kate Kjarsgaard showcase some paintings meant to illustrate their own land and labor acknowledgement. | Provided.

Chavez shared that her group’s plans to showcase a land and labor acknowledgement on school property is about owning America’s past and honoring those who “built this land.” Chavez, Cajun and Kjarsgaard noted that they also viewed the acknowledgement as a branch of inclusivity, one that they hope future students of color would see as a welcome sign.

“I’m Mexican. I like to acknowledge [my] ancestors and the people who came before me,” said Chavez, adding she already painted a few pieces to couple with the acknowledgement. “When it comes to this project, I feel like it’s a big topic that needs to be discussed that not a lot of people like to acknowledge.”

Kjarsgaard interjected, “I think it’s important to get a message out because no textbooks or anything talk about it, because they just try to erase what happened.”

Beyond that, the goal of the service projects is to help students understand the true meaning of community and build relationships with the people around them. Rajashekar noted that the IB program provides little guidance on what the project should entail, which allows students to freely interpret the definition of community and collaborate.

“It’s left up to students to decide what community means to them, so you can see the different types of projects and ideas that emerge from them,” she said.

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