Ameerah Rollins and Desiree Gabarin are recent graduates of Polaris Charter Academy in Chicago. This post is the second in a three-part series on the relationship between deeper learning and the Common Core State Standards. The first part appeared earlier this week.

As two students who just graduated from 8th grade, we are representing the work of 50 of our classmates from Polaris Charter Academy in Chicago, Illinois. Together, we took part in a 7th grade learning expedition called “The Peacekeeper Project” that included a year-long study of the United States Constitution. During our deep dive into the Constitution, we started a discussion about second amendment rights, trying to answer the question “Who is responsible for gun control: The people or the government?”  We learned that the Second Amendment protects people’s right to bear arms, but we also knew that guns were a big problem in our community. 

We began studying the gun debate in Chicago, researching how policy makers shape city gun laws and debated their constitutionality. During this time the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary happened. This horrible event created a sense of fear in our school. Our teachers set aside time for us to share our own stories and experiences of gun violence. What we found out about each other was shocking: 84% of us had been around a gun, 96% knew someone who has been shot or killed and 100% have felt unsafe in our neighborhood. We think it is important for people to understand that gun violence isn’t new for us – we just accepted it as the way things were. It wasn’t until our 7th grade expedition that any of us thought about trying to do something to change it for ourselves. When Sandy Hook happened it brought up all of the fears we were living with and because Polaris teaches us to be Active Citizens within our community it seemed like the right time to try and do something about it. 

This graph shows the number of shootings around Polaris Charter Academy in one year.

We returned to our expedition’s guiding question, “Whose responsibility is it to ‘ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity’?”  It didn’t take long for us to come to a consensus that it was our responsibility to create change in our community. So we created a plan to try and change things for the better in our community and at the same time honor all the people who have dedicated their lives to trying to stop the violence in our city.

The Peacekeeper Project included two final products: a city wide Day of Peace—in which there would be a day of no violence throughout the city—and a published book honoring the people we refer to as “Peacekeepers”; those people in our community who actively advocate for peace.

The city wide Day of Peace was a big undertaking. We scheduled meetings with local officials to get their support. We worked with the seniors at Westinghouse High School to create four original public service announcements (PSA’s) about gun violence

Taping PSAs about gun violence as part of the Peacekeeper Project.

and the alternatives to gun violence. We then hosted a series of neighborhood events, called “sweep-and-greets”, that got neighbors (who otherwise don’t interact) to work together to literally clean up their community, and in the process build trust and cooperation.

During the taping of our PSA’s we invited 16 Peacekeepers to be interviewed on camera and took an original portrait of each person to later be used in the book. We interviewed amazing people like Ameena Matthews, a local hero whose life work as an anti-gun violence activist was featured in the documentary “The Interrupters”.  We used the images and the interviews to begin writing our book “Peacekeepers of Chicago”. To the get the money to publish our book and promote our day of peace we started our own Indiegogo campaign. You can see our short video promotion here:

The Peacekeepers book took us through the whole writing process of planning, revising, editing and rewriting. We used peer critique sessions in order to help us revise our bio-sketches so they would be clear, convincing and correct. The end product is a book that is housed in the Mayor Daley Branch of the Chicago Public Library – something we are really proud of.

(left to right: De’Angelo, Desiree, Ameerah, Kameron).

So here we were: 50 7th graders engaged in Deeper Learning, figuring out the Constitution, gaining a deeper understanding of direct action versus public policy and trying to use what we were learning to make our neighborhood and our city a better and safer place. June 10th, 2013 was our proposed citywide Day of Peace. We had gotten the word out through the news channels, our alderman, our neighborhood sweep-and-greets. We thought we were really going to change our city. 

The fact is, we fell short. We didn’t have a citywide Day of Peace, but…we did have a day of peace in our community! No shootings, no killing, no violence in all the neighborhoods we targeted on the West Side. We were very excited and very proud.

The Peacekeeper Project was an important expedition for us. We learned a lot about our government, we learned a lot about writing and we learned the most about ourselves. The Peacekeeper Project taught us that we have a role to play in changing   our futures for the better. Our work together taught us that with perseverance and persistence we can accomplish more than we thought possible. Our deeper learning expedition—starting with studying the Constitution and leading to making a real change in our community—has given us the confidence that makes it possible for us to walk through the doors of high school, college and beyond.