If there’s anything middle schoolers can’t do, FIU alumnus and teacher Kelsey Major ’95 doesn’t know it. In the fall of 2018, only months after watching his youngsters grapple with the horror of the Parkland high school shooting, just an hour north of their own Everglades K-8 Center, he set students on a path to civic activism. And they haven’t stopped yet.
Teaching math and speech/debate during the day, Major began offering what one observer has called a “life-changing” experience of self-expression, creativity, fact finding and leadership building during a once-a-week after-school program.
The premise was simple even if the topic at hand was not: invite sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders to discuss, research and produce a publication around issues related to gun violence. With counselors available as needed and Major guiding them, the children dove in and made the project their own. They collected data about lives lost and turned their findings into charts and graphs. They wrote biographies of victims. They composed letters to their representatives. They proposed ideas for making schools and other places safer through new laws and greater funding for mental health services. They even addressed their fears through original poetry.
Ultimately, with a grant to defray printing costs, the group shared its resulting 52-page magazine with state and national lawmakers in hopes of driving home the need for common sense reforms.
“I firmly believe this is what the founding fathers probably envisioned,” Major says of the energy students poured into informing themselves and collaborating on a common cause. “They’re beginning to see how democracy works. This isn’t about politics. This is way beyond politics. This is preserving our democracy. And they’re beginning to get it. They can coexist, they can have differing opinions and still work on an amazing project.”
During its second year, which just concluded, the program exploded to welcome more than 40 participants.They worked in groups under the direction of peers, and their project grew to include a web site.
Eighth-grader Ethan Silvers was among the leadership team. He helped make decisions about magazine content and kept track of deadlines. He found the work challenging, he says—students did most of it outside of their weekly gatherings, sometimes at local libraries—and was rewarded when he saw a big picture emerge.
“I just wanted to get involved in the civic process,” Silvers says of an activity meant to influence elected leaders through the lens of a young person’s perspective. “It’s helped me to learn that it’s very important to listen to your constituents not just because they vote for you but because you represent them.”
Others had more personal reasons for taking part.
“My sister died of gun violence,” eighth-grader Mia Romano says. “It’s something that really gets to me, and I don’t want it to happen to anybody else.”
While not yet sure how their work will impact those currently holding the reins of power, the students have drawn plenty of attention. The Miami affiliate of National Public Radio in January produced and aired a story about their project. The same story eventually was heard around the country when it ran on the national program All Things Considered.
Just before public schools closed for health concerns in mid-March, the students took an already-scheduled day to hand-deliver the latest issue of their publication to the offices of South Florida’s Congressional delegation. First stop, however, was a meeting with Miami-Dade County Public Schools board member Larry Feldman. With their principal, teachers and counselors along for support, the kids arrived at the school board building to munch on bagels, make a presentation in the board chamber and receive recognition.
“Education by itself means nothing. The whole goal of education is to apply the knowledge that you learn,” Feldman, a former principal, says of his interest in the program and his hope the children will continue to serve as a voice for their generation.
Two-time alumna Jackeline Fals ’97, MS ’00, a teacher for 10 years and now chief of staff to Feldman, likewise appreciates the real-world learning Major has made available at the school.
“I’m so impressed with what he has been able to do and what he’s been able to create for all of these students,” Fals says, “to be able to express themselves, integrate their learning, all of the various curricula, from research to art to just the ability to communicate.”
Adriana Canaves, mother of Ethan Silvers, credits Major’s compassion and caring as a motivating force for the students.
“He listens,” she says of Major’s attention to the kids. “He’s got a heart of gold. He knows how to be a mentor, a friend, a father figure, brother figure, and it’s amazing. My son loves him. The team loves him.”
While in quarantine, the youngsters followed up with legislators to get feedback on their publication, and Major accepted the task of developing a guide to help other schools replicate the program.
True to form, Major is eager to identify opportunities that people can embrace as they look to move forward from the current situation. He even wonders if the pandemic will provide a topic around which students can build a project during the next school year.
“What a great time to fix and reinvent and discover,” he says of the forced confinement. “When we come out of this, you’re going to see some amazing things that people were doing.”
Spoken like one who would know.