August 4 — 10:49 am, 2014

Honoring the heroic work of student leaders

Many young heroes attend schools like Beeber Middle School. Any of the student leaders who worked alongside parents, teachers, and the community to keep Beeber Middle School off the closing list last year could be called heroic. The same could be said for the many students who strive to succeed academically and socially in a challenging and under-resourced school.

On Wednesday, the National Liberty Museum will honor two rising 9th graders from Beeber Middle School for a Young Heroes Award. The annual award goes to ordinary young people in the Philadelphia area who have done extraordinary things in the areas of civic engagement, conflict resolution, promoting liberty, diversity, and school or community leadership.

Deciding which of my students to nominate was not easy. I chose to nominate Sarah Louiness and Xavier Muchison, because they embodied the composite of all the young heroes I teach and encounter every day. They challenged me to be a better teacher and a better person.

Xavier is a disciplined young man who exhibits quiet leadership. He used sports as his outlet and advocacy platform. For one of our class projects, he developed a social media campaign to promote bringing sports back to middle schools. Using the hashtags #phillysports and #beeberms on Twitter, he and his friends championed the importance of sports and academics. He wanted school officials to know that when students participate in sports, there are fewer disciplinary issues.  

Xavier is well-respected by his peers, because he can navigate the academic and social responsibilities of being “cool,” yet level-headed. As one of the organizers of Beeber’s lunch/recess intramural basketball teams, he worked with the physical education teacher to establish this informal program, which helped improve school climate during lunchtime and motivated students to stay more focused in class. Xavier also participated in the Village of Champions basketball and violence prevention program.

Xavier was an exemplary ambassador at Beeber Middle School. When Beeber was placed on the closing list last year, he and his family were active advocates for keeping the school open.

Xavier is slated to attend Mastbaum High School in the fall.

Sarah is a quiet and immensely powerful student. She compelled me to closely examine how to create equitable learning spaces for both female and male students in the class. Sarah made me a better teacher by challenging me to look closely at my own teaching practice. Through an essay assignment, she pointed out that I treated girls in the class unfairly — I allowed boys to get away with things that I didn’t allow the girls to get away with. In fact, she asserted that I was sexist.

I admired Sarah’s stand for fair treatment and justice. I allowed her to facilitate a discussion in a class meeting regarding her perception about the way I unfairly treated girls. Some male students countered Sarah claims, noting that I equally redirected and got on boys’ nerves, too. One male student asked why I didn’t respond and defend myself during our class circle meeting time. I explained that I was modeling active listening skills. In creating a democratic classroom, I had to honor students’ voices, even if I disagreed with Sarah’s claim.

Her voice prompted me to have a smaller group discussion with Sarah and some of her friends and our school counselor. I posted her essay on the hallway bulletin board, shared her essay with the principal and arranged for a retired teacher to visit our class to observe the class dynamics and prepare a report about teaching and learning dynamics in the class. Ultimately, her brave act of respectfully standing up and challenging my teaching practice benefited our entire class.

Sarah is a great arbitrator of conflicts. For a social studies research project, she wrote a pen pal letter to students taking Spanish at Science Leadership Academy@Beeber. Her letter and subsequent class visits to SLA@Beeber helped bridge some tensions that existed between two student bodies (Beeber Middle School and SLA@Beeber are co-located in the same building). Sarah and her classmates were frustrated because the 8th graders were unable to go to the third floor, which is used by SLA@Beeber. Sarah used this conflict to find common ground with students and ease some of the tensions between the schools.

Sarah was one of the few of my students who submitted an entry for the Jackie Robinson Breaking Barriers National Essay contest. She wrote a compelling essay about what it takes to overcome barriers in challenging academic environments. For her service-learning project, she designed a youth-based project called Just for Kids. In her research, she used some of John F. Kennedy’s values of service and youth development to frame her action research. She and her partner interviewed youth workers and youth, and decided to organize a fundraising campaign to support the Boys and Girls Club of America. The guiding principles of Just for Kids was that "youth should help youth" to make our communities a better place to live.

Sarah will attend the Philadelphia High School for Girls in the fall.

In addition to receiving the Young Heroes award, Sarah will receive the Violence Prevention Distinction. This is a special distinction of the National Liberty Museum 2014 Young Heroes Award. The distinction goes to young people who have worked against violence in Philadelphia.

I am grateful that the Liberty Museum has this tradition of honoring young people like Sarah and Xavier. As a society we need to do more to recognize the ordinary teens that are assets to our communities. They represent the generation that will lead the change we have all been waiting for.

 

Sarah Louiness and Xavier Muchison will receive their Young Heroes medals, certificates, and recognition during a special event held on Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014 at the National Liberty Museum, 321 Chestnut St., Philadelphia.

 

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