Nonprofit helps Philly students discuss Israel, gun violence, and other tough topics

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Philadelphia students and teachers are not shying away from tough topics.

In teacher Emily Goedde’s class at General George A. McCall School, Teresa Flocco and her sixth grade classmate Reagan Allen have been researching the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Goedde’s class has spent the last school year studying the history of the region and learning about the importance of peaceful de-escalation tactics and problem-solving as part of their English Language Arts curriculum.

“A lot of people want peace,” Flocco said. “It kind of felt like ‘well what’s a sixth grade class gonna be able to really contribute’ … but we can tell lots of people about it.”

As part of their classwork this year, their class met with representatives from the activist group American Friends of Combatants for Peace. They also held a bake sale to benefit World Central Kitchen, an aid group that distributes meals to people in Gaza.

The conflict has become a lightning rod for educators across the country, but students are increasingly saying they want to participate in the conversation. “When the kids proposed this topic, I was like, ah, please don’t pick this topic,” Goedde said.

But ultimately, she said the class took the opportunity to focus less on “is there a right or wrong side?” and more about “how can we think about peace work and building peace in our own communities?”

Goedde’s students and thousands of their classmates in grades 3-8 across the city explored these subjects through a service-learning program facilitated by Need in Deed, a local nonprofit that aims to help students and their teachers grapple with societal problems and instill lessons of empathy, community, and social engagement.

“The way in which these students tackle these very complex social issues, and learn about their causes and effects and then actually do something about it is inspiring,” said Kyra Atterbury, Need in Deed’s executive director. “It just gives me hope.”

Need in Deed serves up to 3,000 students in 100 classrooms at up to 60 schools across the city every year, and are looking to add more teachers to their network.

This year, students chose to dive deep into issues like housing instability, poverty, inflation, gun violence, mental health, war, climate change, animal rights, and more. They spent their class time researching their topics and speaking with local community groups that focus on their chosen subjects.

Students also developed a service project to accompany their research. Some held bake sales, built informational websites, and designed t-shirts.

Throughout the process, Need in Deed provided teachers with free training, coaching, and mentorship educators can lean on when they encounter obstacles or difficult questions.

Like Goedde, Emma Butler, a fifth grade teacher at Thomas Holme School, guided her students through their research on the current conflict in Gaza. What gives the discussion in her class additional texture is that Butler’s students are learning English as a second language.

“This is a small group so it’s cool to really hear their voices. It’s also challenging because sometimes it’s hard for them to express themselves in English,” Butler said. “They are really finding their voices when they get to talk about something that they’re passionate about. Even if they don’t quite have the words, they’re much more motivated to try.”

At first, Butler said she tried to steer them away from choosing the Israel-Hamas war “because it’s just so complex and divisive.” But her students persuaded her by explaining that “they’re from so many different countries,” many of which have also experienced war and conflict.

“Even though it was a distant issue, it felt personal to them,” she said.

By the end of the year, Butler said she came out with a new perspective informed by her students.

“I feel like I can much more confidently speak about this issue now that I’ve learned with them,” she said.

At Need in Deed’s student Shout Out event this week celebrating their work, students were also able to share their projects with their peers and discuss what they learned.

Edward Heston School students Demi Lassiter, a third grader, and Sarah Newman, a fourth grader, spent their year researching gun violence in Philly and how to properly secure firearms. Lassiter said the ongoing gun violence in the city has affected her family and it’s made her “sad and frustrated.”

“The reason why I’m frustrated is it keeps happening … more family members die just because guns are out,” she said. “I just wish there were no guns or nothing like that that could hurt other people.”

Chris Puchalsky, a third grader at Penn Alexander School, now knows how much energy it takes to produce a hamburger and the connection between food waste and climate change. Diary Sow, a third grader at Henry C. Lea school learned how her asthma is impacted by the air quality and pollution in her neighborhood.

Atterbury of Need in Deed said having conversations “with all of our students” — even the youngest — is vital to building a strong, safe, and healthy community.

“They have opinions, and they have thoughts and they have hope,” she said. “Sometimes, I think adults lose a little bit of hope. But when we talk to students it fuels us forward and we can work together with them to build a brighter future.”

Carly Sitrin is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Philadelphia. Contact Carly at [email protected].