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Lighthouse Community Charter School in East Oakland created a curriculum to teach their students about gun violence statistics, personal narratives and the history of guns with the intention of education being a method of gun violence prevention.  

The curriculum was written nine years ago after the death of former student Jacob Gonzalez. It wasn’t taught while students were learning remotely due to COVID-19-related school closures. With gun violence on the rise and students returning to their desks, Lighthouse teachers and administrators advocated to bring back the curriculum.  

Lighthouse isn’t the only school teaching their students about gun violence this year, schools and community centers across the country are looking to adopt this material. 

Melanie Swandby, left, and Athena Larios, teachers at Lighthouse Community Charter School in East Oakland, cofounded the anti-gun curriculum that formed the basis for an online toolkit that is freely available to educators throughout the country. (Image courtesy of Lighthouse Community Public Schools/Vision Quilt)

Athena Larios and Melanie Swandby, Lighthouse teachers and creators of the gun violence curriculum, made the units free and completely digital — it can now be taught anywhere. Larios and Swandby used a $20,000 grant from Educator Innovator’s LRNG Innovators Challenge in 2019 to fund this digital teaching model. 

The Educator Innovator’s Challenge is partnered with musician John Legend’s Show Me Campaign and the National Writing Project. It believes that young people can benefit from the opportunity to follow their interests with peers and mentors to create work meaningful to them. The challenge asked educators to create ways for students to share their work with authentic audiences and build real-world connections to material and issues they care about most.  

The online curriculum is called “Addressing Gun Violence: Creating Visionaries, Storytellers and Community Activists,” and can be adopted by schools or community centers across the country. 

Connecting with the curriculum

Carmen Morales, Jacob Gonzalez’s mother, is an advocate for the gun violence curriculum but said that she believes its effectiveness is completely contingent on the teacher’s compassion and dedication to the topic.  

“When you don’t have the passion, if you don’t connect to the curriculum in a very real way, then it totally fails,” Morales said. “It’s just like any other subject; you need to have the emotion and the heart behind what you’re teaching.” 

Both Lighthouse and its sister-school Lodestar will teach the curriculum to eighth graders in the spring of the 2022-23 school year. Chicago public schools — with over 300,000 students — have demonstrated their interest in the curriculum and community organizations in Oakland and Portland, Oregon, have reached out about adopting the units. 

Vision Quilt — a national non-profit arts-based violence prevention program that volunteered to lead the art portion of the curriculum — is partnered with several organizations and Cathy DeForest, the founder and executive director of Vision Quilt, is planning on presenting this teaching opportunity to them. 

One organization, Teachers Unify to End Gun Violence — a coalition of educators and school staff speaking out about their experiences with gun violence — was founded by three teachers. These teachers include Sarah Lerner, who survived the 2018 Parkland shooting, Abbey Clements, who survived the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, and Sari Beth Rosenberg, a New York public high school teacher. Their organization is advocating for new safety policies and curriculum to combat the mass shooting epidemic. 

A Vision Quilt panel created by former Lighthouse Community Charter School student Marison Garibaldi. As part of the school’s anti-gun violence curriculum in partnership with Vision Quilt, students are encouraged to express themselves through artwork and think critically about issues surrounding gun culture and its impacts on society. (Image courtesy of Lighthouse Community Charter School/Vision Quilt)

“Although school shootings happen very infrequently, we know the kind of trauma and devastation that happens when they do occur,” Clements said. “Our organization is not just about school shootings because the educators and school staff and the parents and children come from communities that are suffering across the country. We really feel strongly about elevating the voices of schools as they’re like a hub of a community and to hear from people who are on the front lines of this public health crisis.”  

Clements and Lerner both said they think education, open discussions and school-endorsed programs can help students better ccdprocess incidents of gun violence and may even help prevent gun violence. 

“We’ve been kind of thinking about that, too, where you know how to write a curriculum for little kids when you’re talking about gun violence prevention,” Clements said. “How do you talk about it as a middle schooler? Gun violence is the primary cause of death for children and teens in the United States. We need to be doing everything in our power, including curriculum, that addresses it.”

Tackling a difficult topic

They agreed that this curriculum would help teachers talk about an issue that touches everyone in education. Clements said it is essential to tackle the issue head on.  

“I think, you know, we left them this mess, the adults,” Clements said. “I think we need to be doing everything in our power to help them process what they know is happening. I think by talking about it, by bringing it to the forefront, you’re refusing to normalize it. We know that gun ownership is very high. We know that we have more guns than people in this country, so we need to talk about that honestly and try to help them attain some skills and safety.” 

While they weren’t sure how the entire curriculum could be applied to other schools, the teachers said they see the benefits of incorporating parts of it.  

“We know that gun ownership is very high. We know that we have more guns than people in this country, so we need to talk about that honestly and try to help them attain some skills and safety.”

Abbey Clements, Teachers Unify to End Gun Violence

“I think it would be very helpful to have that available to students and teachers,” Lerner said. “It’s just finding the right way to approach it because the way we would talk about it in an area that is plagued by gun violence is different than the way you would approach it where it was an isolated, single act of violence like at Newtown or at my school. You have to look at it from that lens, but I do think it would be something that would be incredibly helpful.” 

Teachers Unify to End Gun Violence will continue working with DeForest and Vision Quilt as their organization expands. Currently, it has over 700 members comprising teachers and school faculty from across the nation.

Lighthouse and Vision Quilt used their own money, resources and expertise when creating this curriculum. Now, they hope it can help others as much as it has helped them and their students.