Chicago’s Simeon Career Academy is recognized across the state, Midwest, and even the nation for the success of its high school basketball program, producing top professional players like Jabari Parker and Derrick Rose.
Last fall, 42 of Illinois State’s aspiring educators helped some of the most outstanding students at Simeon and fellow neighborhood school John G. Cook Elementary showcase their talents beyond the hardcourt. Huddled together with hundreds of P–8 students and community members, eyes glued to center stage, the Redbirds witnessed an engaging slam poetry performance in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.
For 90 minutes, finely-crafted expression hit the audience’s ears in Cook’s auditorium. For the Illinois State students, the final score was a greater understanding of the day-to-day lives, thoughts, and emotions of Chicago’s urban youth. For Auburn Gresham’s young artists, their performances were cathartic. The forum allowed their voices to be heard and gave them the confidence to stand tall.
The event was the product of a creative mentorship dubbed the Revolution Of Young Artists as Leaders (ROYAL). Throughout the fall semester, Simeon’s established slam poetry group, Writers Never Die and faculty advisor Lisa Roule made trips to Cook to mentor their younger peers, develop their live performance pieces, and empower them to use the power of spoken word as a positive outlet to talk about what is going on in their community.
The Writers Never Die group is recognized throughout Chicago, finishing second in the “Louder than a Bomb” competition in 2014 and 2015. Senior Antwon Funches nabbed first place for his individual performance piece last year.
The P–12 students’ performance pieces hit upon the importance of their family, friends, and mentors; the acts of violence happening around them; and the misunderstandings of individuals who do not share their experiences. In each recitation, the acutely observant poets put their hearts and thoughts on the line.
Kendall Roberts, a junior at Simeon and ROYAL mentor, said the experience with the Cook students has guided her to personal growth and further cemented her desire to become an English teacher.
“I am still equally as young as [the Cook students] in a lot of ways,” Roberts said. “I can get hotheaded just like them. So, greater patience and understanding is definitely what I took away from this experience.
“It also made me think about what I wanted to do in college—I want to continue to do things like this because I really do feel like I have a connection with these kids. It’s important for me.”
Illinois State’s involvement
While P–12 students are the focus, ROYAL represents a larger partnership inclusive of the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation (GAGDC), Illinois State’s Chicago Teacher Education Pipeline (CTEP), and April Mustian, an assistant professor in the Department of Special Education at Illinois State.
Mustian, who in coordination with CTEP, serves as the coordinator of an urban-focused academic sequence in special education called INFUSE (Innovative Network of Future Urban Special Educators), approached her Chicago-based university partners in 2015 to develop a service learning opportunity for aspiring educators. The goal was to involve her students in an effort that would make a difference in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) while adding to future teachers’ knowledge base in urban education.
“There was, and still exists, a need to bring extracurricular opportunities to schools in Auburn Gresham, and the collaboration between Simeon and Cook held the opportunity to provide a true benefit to both groups of students,” Mustian said. “By inviting us to participate, we became part of something great.”
Last spring, Mustian’s first group of students began fundraising for ROYAL to cover programming costs that include stipends and transportation for the Writers Never Die mentors and bringing in guest artists. The inaugural efforts brought in $4,600, with $2,000 of those funds going to each school. Her fall students have raised nearly $3,000 for these same efforts.
The informed fundraising efforts included the creation of an online giving site, prodding several local businesses and an online jewelry store for donations, and talking with fellow Redbirds and community members in Central Illinois and in their hometowns.
“The fundraising support is really great for programs like ours that do not have a lot of funding sources within the school,” Roule said.
Roule, who transitioned from a small town in Indiana to teach in Chicago Public Schools 10 years ago, said the teacher candidates’ participation in ROYAL will be invaluable to their development.
“From a teacher preparation standpoint, I think this partnership is extremely beneficial. For college students coming from outside of an urban environment with an interest in working for CPS, this is a great way for them to see who our students are,” Roule said.
In the weeks leading to the Chicago visit, Mustian’s class learned about the Auburn Gresham neighborhood, the assets within the community, the issues they face, and received video and photo updates of the ROYAL workshops as participants began working on their crafts for the culminating event in November.
“All of us are invested in urban education, but (Mustian) made sure we developed a thorough understanding of this work before we brought the cause to the community. Because the truth is, this work was new to most of the people we brought into the conversation,” said Cassidy Herman, senior special education major.
For most of the aspiring educators, the trip gave them a more complete experience than any of their past trips to CPS.
“It was cool to have the chance to see the outcome. Because of (CTEP), we are able to take bus trips to Chicago Public Schools, but in this situation we were able to witness how our work has helped these kids right in front of us,” said Cassidy King, a senior education major.
Before seeing the slam poetry performance, the aspiring educators were welcomed into Auburn Gresham schools for two hours of classroom observations. They also participated in a question-and-answer session with neighborhood leaders.
“Hearing the perspective and advice of practicing teachers, parents, and community activists was so valuable as a new educator because there is so much you don’t know when you join an urban area, but you want to make a positive impact with students,” King said.
Illinois State students also bought and sold ROYAL T-shirts, designed by College of Education graphic artist Kristen Grimes. The back of the shirt includes the poignant words of Malala Yousafzai, an 18-year-old Pakistani activist for female education: “I raise my voice not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard.”
“A lot of these kids are those voices who are not being heard,” Roule said. “What better way for them to have a chance to express themselves than through written and spoken word? They’re revising and performing with their peers and with our poets from Simeon. It’s ideal.”
The quote took on new meaning on November 2, less than a week before the ROYAL event, when Tyshawn Lee, a 9-year-old boy and student at Auburn Gresham’s Joplin Elementary School was murdered less than a mile from Cook.
“The truth is, for a lot of our kids—and my poets especially—this violence is not new to them, but the situation was heightened by the fact that Tyshawn was just 9 years old,” Roule said. “They are writing about this kind of issue in their performance pieces, the violence, and the senselessness of it.”
As a symbolic tribute to Tyshawn and all lives lost to violent acts, and as a way to expose students to the African cultural tradition of libation, students were invited to the stage to share the name of a voiceless victim, pay homage to their memory, and give new life by watering a plant. The names of friends and relatives were honored.
Following the performance, Simeon and Cook students took questions from Illinois State’s future teachers. They gave the aspiring educators important advice on how some of their own teachers have inspired them to overcome negative influences and embrace their abilities.
“It was so important to hear those words about how we can help them, and to hear it directly from the students,” King said. “They have so much to share that can improve our teaching.”
No single experience can develop an aspiring educator for the challenges they will face in the classroom, especially one in an unfamiliar environment. But the collaborative efforts of ROYAL did not only serve the poets of Cook and Simeon schools. It left a lasting impression on 42 aspiring educators on the importance of forging authentic relationships with urban youth.
“Even if what we do is just a small effort in the grand scheme of things, it can be a part of something that affects a student so greatly,” Herman said. “In the future, I am definitely interested in finding opportunities like these to serve students. I just want to keep pushing to help Chicago schools.”