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FOLLOWING THE SUMMER of the elementary school massacre that left 19 children and two teachers dead in in Uvalde, Texas, many parents and teachers are apprehensive about gun violence on campuses as students return to in-person classes. 

Not all campuses are equally prepared for the worst.  

Lighthouse Community Charter School in East Oakland takes pride in its response to America’s gun violence epidemic by creating and continually updating its cutting-edge anti-gun curriculum — and this school year will be no different.  

The school’s principal and teachers are committed to the promise to cover gun violence impacts when teaching anything from math to English to history. 

That promise began shortly after the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Jacob Gonzalez, a former Lighthouse student. 

Gonzalez died nine years ago, and shortly afterward a group of teachers, including Athena Larios and Melanie Swandby, designed this first-of-its-kind curriculum to stare directly at the issue of gun violence and children, rather than ignore it as traditional teaching does. 

Both Larios and Swandby taught Gonzalez when he was in middle school. 

It was a typical October day in 2013 when teachers at Lighthouse learned that Gonzalez had been shot while visiting a friend in Oakland for the weekend. Gonzalez had been living in Davis at the time but came down to Oakland to visit his friend. They were sitting in his car with two boys he didn’t know in the back seat. His mom, Carmen Morales, said it was a perfect stranger that took his life. 

Carmen Morales holds a bar of soap that says “I love you mom” on the side. Jacob Gonzalez carved this for her while he was in juvenile hall. (Photo by Rebecca Smith/Bay City News)

“Apparently his best friend was outside, and they heard one shot,” Morales said. “His friend came running and the two teenagers got out of the car and disappeared. His friend’s mom called me and said something had happened. I came all the way from Davis to the hospital, and then I got there, and they told me to wait, that something is wrong. Then they told me he passed away, and I couldn’t see him. That was it.” 

All these years later, Morales recalls that day with a far-off look in her eye, still feeling the love and pain in her heart. Family photos cover the walls of her Oakland home, commemorating the last Christmas all together. 

A small shrine sits in the living room with photos, Jacob’s favorite snacks and his artwork — a bar of soap he carved in juvenile hall that says, “I love you mom.” His room is kept as a memorial, stopped in time: the tattered flag he used to cover his door, a well-used comforter, his sketches on the wall and another larger memorial on the desk in the corner. A garden with an apple tree is in perfect view from his window; it was planted in his honor after his passing.  

“I just wanted to find a way to be connected,” Morales said. “When I was working in my garden, I planted a tree in his name. He’s in my apple tree. My husband says, ‘oh why do you have so many plants, it’s a lot of worry,’ but I need to keep occupied.”

Jacob Gonzalez’s untouched bedroom with his old comforter and pillows. There is also a memorial dedicated to him with photos and candles. (Photo by Rebecca Smith/Bay City News)

Morales reached out to Larios and Swandby years earlier after her son was arrested for the first time. She had tried to build a supportive community and work the system to set Jacob on the right track. After his death, they felt like the system had failed. 

“We were his teachers, and we tried to help her,” Larios said. “There were so many things with him and trying to be super supportive and she was always advocating for him, asking for help. So, it was just really hard. We lost him.”

Morales sunk into depression after Jacob’s death. She had little faith in the criminal justice system and was left asking questions no one would answer.  

“I was feeling kind of crazy, right?” Morales said. “But I said yeah, you’re crazy if you lost your kid and you want some explanation. It is not going to give me my kids back, but I’m still angry. All the systems don’t support you. They just look at you as one of the things you’ve done. You struggle with your kid, you do the best you can, and they expect this as the result.” 

Touched by tragedy

The community was shaken by Jacob’s death — Larios and Swandby’s students knew what had happened, but for many, it wasn’t their first exposure to gun violence. Swandby said it’s a topic that’s present in their lives from a young age, and students tend to ask questions or share their first-hand experiences.  

“We had kindergarteners mugged on the way to school more than once, like held at gunpoint this year,” Swandby said. “You don’t have to ask fifth graders to open up. They’re developmentally ready to share, so there were many days when kids were coming to school and saying there was a shooting right by where they were staying this weekend. I can think of five or six kids who witnessed something this year or have ongoing issues from witnessing gun violence.” 

At Lighthouse, the students vote for the topic they want to learn about during the expeditionary learning units — a teaching style that emphasizes active learning by doing and community engagement through expeditions, rather than sitting in a classroom. The conversations about Jacob, the students’ own personal experiences and their curiosity about the topic placed gun violence as the frontrunner in the vote. The topic for these units has not changed.   

For Larios and Swandby, this gun violence curriculum felt like an opportunity bigger than their school. For Swandby, it was a chance to improve students’ critical thinking skills and change the narrative that guns are toys being marketed to children. 

One of Jacob Gonzalez’s sketches of a gun he drew before he was killed. (Photo by Rebecca Smith/Bay City News)

“We talk about guns originating in this country as tools and then how they’ve been idealized to be this amazing fun toy,” Swandby said. “It’s hooking kids in and it’s marketing — like how video games used to be marketing for the army. When they start seeing how guns are glorified, it doesn’t have to change their mind, but it gives them this awareness. They might think I might do this, but now they have critical lines of thinking.”  

For Larios, it was a chance to use education as a method of prevention and address the link between education and violence.  

“I think education is the answer to a lot of problems, and I don’t think it’s being addressed in the education setting in the way it could be,” Larios said. “How does a young person deal with their fears, their anxieties, their emotions, their sorrow, their grief? I was a teacher and an assistant principal at an urban school, and I believe in education. I also think people aren’t talking enough about the connection between literacy and violence, and I think we need to address that.” 

They worked with fellow teachers to create a curriculum that would educate students and create awareness and agency. In addition, the curriculum is also designed to teach emotional maturity when resolving conflict and allow students to express their feelings about gun violence. Together they created an interdisciplinary approach to teaching middle school students about gun violence.  

“We talk about guns originating in this country as tools and then how they’ve been idealized to be this amazing fun toy. It’s hooking kids in and it’s marketing — like how video games used to be marketing for the army.

Melanie Swandby, Lighthouse Community Charter School

The curriculum begins with the history of the Second Amendment taught over the course of two weeks. The students are asked questions about how technology has changed since the Second Amendment was written and if the changes in technology should lead to changes in the amendment. 

They then look at how it was applied to the Black Panthers in Oakland. The goal of this case study is to examine a local example and discuss how gun laws intersect with race. The final part of this unit is to write a poem detailing what the student learned about the Black Panthers and the Second Amendment.   

The second case study looks at the psychology of gun violence, centered around both race and gender. It dives into toxic masculinity and asks students why men, regardless of race, are most often responsible for gun violence. 

The students watch a documentary on toxic masculinity and read “Violent Ends,” a collaboration written by 17 young adult authors. It serves as a model for a collaborative book, which the students will have to write during the unit. This collaborative book will focus on one type of gun violence — such as gang shootings or mass shootings — and the students will develop characters and work with a group to create a cohesive story. 

The third case study focuses on the local community. Over three weeks, students will interview people in the community to collect data about their personal experiences with gun violence, including age, gender and neighborhood.  

A Vision Quilt panel created by Yafet Aklilu, a former Lighthouse Community Charter School student, depicts a Black man with upraised hands that bear gun violence statistics. Gravestones carry the names of young men fatally shot by police. (Image courtesy of Lighthouse Community Charter School)

The last module focuses on artistic expression with help from Vision Quilt — a national nonprofit arts-based violence prevention program that volunteered to lead the art curriculum. During this unit, each student creates an art project on an 18×24-inch fabric panel with a personal message about gun violence that shows their feelings and their vision for a more peaceful world.  At the end of the unit, the students’ panels are put together to create a collaborative “vision quilt.”  

One panel from a previous year depicted a Black man with his hands up and the words “don’t shoot” on his shirt. His hands have gun violence statistics on them, and behind him, there are gravestones with the names Stephon Clark, Willie McCoy, Alton Sterling and Jemel Roberson, all of whom were fatally shot by police around the country. 

Another panel is a drawing of the school with a sign that says, “kids at play.” Across the top are the words “violence does not belong here.” 

These panels also include an artist statement, explaining the process and meaning of the piece.  

Art as an answer to violence

Cathy DeForest, the founder and executive director of Vision Quilt, said she believes art can be a solution when paired with innovative thinking.  

“I believe this is a solvable problem, and we need visionaries like Athena and Melanie and the kids — that’s why this is called Vision Quilt,” DeForest said. “We’re trying to get people to step into the role of being a visionary, using their voices and their imagery to make change.” 

The students curate a museum exhibition during the final two weeks dedicated to what they learned and what they want to share with the Oakland community. Lighthouse worked with the Oakland Museum of California, taking students through the galleries for inspiration and showcasing their own work at the end to the public. 

Students are also eligible for a $500 scholarship that Morales started with her own money in Jacob’s honor. Morales calls the failure to complete their final task, making sure that her son finished high school, one of her life’s biggest regrets. She dreamt a million times about seeing Jacob walk the graduation stage donning a cap and gown while holding his high school diploma in hand. 

Since Jacob’s death, Morales has made it her mission to help students walking the same precarious path that her son once strode, perhaps providing the encouragement and final support that might have made a difference for Jacob had it been available. 

Family photos cover the walls in Carmen Morales’ East Oakland home. She said one of her biggest regrets is that she never got to see her son Jacob Gonzalez graduate from high school. She now sponsors a $500 scholarship in his memory to help other students achieve their goals. (Photo by Rebecca Smith/Bay City News)

The Jacob Gonzalez-Morales scholarship is awarded to students who have dealt with tremendous life difficulties but have demonstrated perseverance and resilience. She speaks to the class every year, telling Jacob’s story and hoping to help the kids she sees bits of Jacob in. 

This curriculum and Jacob’s story have had a lasting impact on several students: six students who had gone through the curriculum joined a Lighthouse/Vision Quilt teen council to mentor students. This council collaborates on initiatives to improve the curriculum and support system available to students. The students met after class or after school to discuss what they had learned and what they would change.  

Xitlalic Castro is a senior at Lighthouse and said that this curriculum has influenced her life as an activist. After completing the curriculum, Castro served on the Lighthouse/Vision Quilt student council where she shared her recommendations for the program.  

“One of the suggestions we made was to have more acknowledgement that this is a tough subject,” Castro said. “More mental health support should be given to students, even if it’s in a big group because I know some students don’t like to talk one-on-one, so I think it’s very important to have that big group support.” 

Castro remembers the students coming together to share their feelings, especially while working on their Vision Quilt panels. The art projects required students to deeply reflect on their own feelings about gun violence. This individual reflection created an opportunity to bond as a group.   

“We would have a lot of conversations with our peers outside of the classroom while we were completing this project,” Castro said. “I think we felt the most safe with each other since we were going through the curriculum together. The conversations we had with our peers were really important and the ones that stuck with me the most.” 

Castro said that she learned about the importance of speaking up about important issues and cultivating meaningful discussions with others. She brought these discussions home, sharing what she learned with her younger siblings.  

Although she filters some of the lessons for her 5-year-old sibling, she has tried to impart her knowledge on her brother who just finished seventh grade. Castro shares what she remembers, particularly stories about East Oakland and gun violence statistics.  

“I try to provide him with as much knowledge as I remember because I think it’s important for him to know about such an important issue,” Castro said. “I think that passing on the information you know to other people, specifically younger siblings, if it’s not too hard of a subject for them, is a good way to educate those around you.  

Lasting lessons

Will Gaston, another former student at Lighthouse who is now going into his sophomore year of college, said that this curriculum has provided life skills and study skills.  

“I can see now that these units have prepared me for not just getting good grades, but really being socially aware and having critical thinking which has helped in different classes and when looking at different issues,” Gaston said. 

What he learned that year, and the bonds he made with his classmates, have stuck with him. The emphasis on social emotional education that Larios and Swandby built into these lessons created a safe space for students to share their emotions. The goal was to teach male students in particular how to feel comfortable sharing their feelings in a healthy way.  

“I think their classrooms especially were safe spaces where it was really encouraged for students to feel their emotions and let it out in a responsible way,” Gaston said. “Not necessarily directly related to gun violence, but in Mrs. Swandby’s classroom the day after Trump was elected in 2016, we had a community circle about it and one of my friends was asleep. She said, ‘You know what, that’s OK. That’s what he needs to do for himself right now.’ So just little things like that made their classrooms safe spaces for people to feel comfortable doing what they needed to do.” 

This curriculum was taught at the school each year after the death of Jacob Gonzalez until the pandemic forced schools to move to remote learning in 2020. Tina Hernandez, Lighthouse chief academic officer, said year after year she noticed the same pattern of learning and engagement from the students. 

“I think about the escalation cycle, so there is a point where kids are super excited and engaged and they’re just like, ‘We’re going to talk about something that matters to me in my community,’” Hernandez said. “So, there’s that spike of engagement, and then there’s the tension and the difficulty of really grappling with those emotions and those experiences. Then as they begin to reflect through and get to the parts where they’re thinking about communal solutions, you see a sense of empowerment. Once they get to the place where they’re presenting what they believe to be the next steps, there’s just such a sense of camaraderie and pride.” 

Carmen Morales stands in her garden next to the apple tree she planted to honor the memory of her son Jacob Gonzalez. “I just wanted to find a way to be connected,” Morales said. “He’s in my apple tree.” (Rebecca Smith/Bay City News)

Hernandez said the curriculum will return this year, but it will take place over the course of six to eight weeks as opposed to three months. She has been working with a team to modify it, so it will meet specific grade level standards, rather than meeting a combination of seventh and eighth grade standards, while maintaining the balance of relevance and rigor.  

“It is really important that we find an equal balance of rigor and relevance,” Hernandez said. “You get people who are really clear about what the injustices are in their community, but they may not have the skills and the capacity to navigate the world if they can’t read and write at grade level. I’ve talked to so many people who have all this knowledge of the oppressions that have happened to people of color but can’t get a job.” 

She said, “You’ve got to prepare them to be able to navigate the world in whatever way they find to be relevant and real for them. The opposite is also true. Our kids don’t care if we don’t find some way to get them deeply engaged in how this is impacting their lives or learning about their community.” 

Hernandez said this year there may not be a museum, but there will still be an exposition for students to show their work. She also said this curriculum will be taught later in the school year to give teachers and mental health counselors time to adequately prepare to meet all the students’ needs while learning about gun violence. 

This curriculum will be taught at both Lighthouse and its sister school Lodestar during the 2022-23 school year. Schools and community centers around the country are also looking to adopt this teaching material.