Black Lives Matter movement inspires students’ writing

Students and teachers participate in a 15-year-old program called Writers Matter that encourages teens to use their voice.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Writers Matter is a program started in 2005 by Robert Vogel, then a La Salle education professor, in which teachers are trained to help their middle and high school students write their own stories.

“It’s a motivational program to get kids to want to write,” said Vogel, who retired four years ago after more than four decades at La Salle. “It was developed to be integrated into the school day, taught by certified teachers, and sustained over the course of the whole year. Basically, we’re looking at ways of empowering these kids to use writing as a tool.”

Today in Philadelphia, the program involves more than 3,000 students and 70 teachers in 14 schools. Anywhere from three to eight teachers might use the curriculum in a given school.

“We begin to have them write about their lives and what they’re going through,” Vogel said. This year, as you can imagine, “there has been a drastic paradigm shift.”

First, students wrote about what it has been like learning in the COVID environment, with many sharing their fear and loneliness while schools were closed. Then came the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the protests against police violence.

One of the schools where the Writers Matter program thrives is the Feltonville School of Arts & Sciences, which serves grades 6-8. Aubrey Stewart is an 8th-grade English Language Arts teacher there.

“One thing I try to instill in all of them is that their voices are powerful,” said Stewart.

She witnessed the effects of the program on students during her first year of teaching at another Philadelphia school. Students were given the prompt to write a poem that starts: “I am from …”

The exercise, she said, “was incredible. It was a stepping-stone for students who had not been doing any work. I was watching how it built classroom community.”

In learning about their classmates through their writing, students “could empathize with the students sitting next to them,” she said. “I saw some of the biggest and baddest bullies cry.”

Stewart, who just completed her third year teaching 8th grade, writes along with her students. She shares her own story of growing up in Mountain Top, Pennsylvania, a town of 10,000 people near Scranton in the Poconos, where, as she put it, “houses are not next to each other, there are farm animals and dirt roads.”

From there, she went to West Chester University and, determined to broaden her horizons, she enrolled in the urban teaching program. Her parents, she said, were supportive, “but I’d be lying if I said they weren’t scared” for her to be living alone in Philadelphia.

She has no second thoughts. “I’m happy I pushed myself out of my comfort zone to teach in Philadelphia,” she said. “My students are phenomenal and inspirational.”

She said she learns from them as they learn from her. She shares her own story – not just what she now recognizes as her “privileged” upbringing, but her travails in middle and high school, including a bad relationship. “We have a lot of conversations, and sometimes they feel they are not capable of things and that they cannot be successful.” The writing helps them overcome that.

The program produces a book of student writing each year. She said one student had refused to do work or to read anything, but then devoured every poem in the Writers Matter book. “That student’s own writing flourished by the end of the year,” she said. “It is so meaningful for them to read what other students wrote and to see their work in a published book. It’s huge for them.”

As students see themselves as authentic writers, their confidence grows. Mostly they don’t like writing, because traditionally it has been “an essay … that the teacher returns marked for corrections in red pen.”

Now, she said, they have ownership and pride in the product “and want to constantly revisit their work and collaborate with others to improve their piece. … Writers Matter has been a huge resource in increasing the level of student engagement, building student confidence, and creating our strong classroom community.”

And, she added, “Once they learn to be confident in themselves, I can teach them anything.”

Following is a selection of her students’ writing about Black Lives Matter. Even before this year, she and her students researched victims of police violence, including Freddie Gray, reading about the uprising in Baltimore that followed his death and creating spoken word poetry around the events.

“So when the rioting and looting in Philadelphia began, my students wanted to take action,” Stewart said. “Feeling helpless while they watched Army men in tanks carrying automatic weapons surround their homes and community, they felt compelled to put pen to paper and begin to write. What they have produced here is truly eye-opening, inspirational, and will cause others to self-reflect.”

— Dale Mezzacappa

Some of the writers quoted here were in Stewart’s class in previous years, but they eagerly accepted her invitation to write about what is happening now.

A document with more of her students’ writing can be accessed here.

We Shall Stand

William Tejada- Castillo
Rising 9th grader at Central High School

“No Justice, No Peace.” The phrase that all Black lives have come to stand for and represent. A phrase that is as small as it is, but as clear as it has become. May 25th, of the year 2020, was the day of yet another police racial targeting towards Black men, and once again, has ended fatally. The death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man from the state of Minnesota who was murdered by a racist police officer. A man who came from living life as a feared Black man and constantly having a target on his back to becoming a headline story. A story that many Black men fear to become. One that will be told and shared for many years. A story that emphasizes what we live through and what we fight for. “Please, I can’t breathe” were the words that came out of the mouth of George Floyd while being forcibly sentenced to death. His crime: being Black in white America. Eight minutes and 46 seconds. Officers on the scene trying to convince innocent bystanders that the situation was under control, when in reality, it was just another setup in the system for another Black man to fail and become the victim of a murder led by the racism of an officer. Therefore, the USA is witnessing the unmuted rage of not only Americans, but of many people from around the world. Specifically speaking of the city of Philadelphia, that you may know as “The City of Brotherly Love.” A city with so much anger and pain from the years of endless oppression, to systematic injustice, to police brutality, all coming to life in our city streets. Anger that led to protests forming, infuriated protests becoming riots and riots leading to looting. Hundreds of people all over the city looting small and big-name brand businesses. The country needs a leader in these hard times, someone to take action and stand for what’s right and wrong under all the chaos. What do we get – a president that showed the world that he wasn’t strong enough to stand up and give this country faith that we will ALL fight for change? A president that would rather head to an underground bunker and hide instead of showing his face. A president who sent military tanks and officers with AR-15s to gun us down – in front of our own homes. We love all. We are better united. While all lives will always matter, this moment we recognize the injustices within the Black community and we stand strong with and for Black men, women, and children. #BLACKLIVESMATTER


Together, We Say…

Khamani D.
Rising 9th grader at Philadelphia High School for Creative & Performing Arts (CAPA)

I say” BlackLivesMatter!”

You say “BlackLivesMatter!”

Together we say “BlackLivesMatter!”

“There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”

Seeing a grown man scream for his mother, beg and plead for his life… How can you silently stand by and stare?

I say “BlackLivesMatter!”

“When the color of your skin is seen as a weapon you will never be seen in this country as unarmed.”

We have been silent for too long and it’s time we make a stand with peace and harmony – not destruction and chaos. Our weapon of choice, is our voice!

I say “BlackLivesMatter!”

“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

Every day an innocent Black child walks outside their home wondering “Am I next?”

I say “BlackLivesMatter!”

“Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

Every civil rights activist who witnessed this cold world before us walked so we could run. What will the story we write say?

I say “BlackLivesMatter!”

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

We are letting them tear us apart and that’s showing the enemy that they will always dominate.

We need to get through this storm in unison and show them we are strong, we are powerful, and we are a united family!

I say “BlackLivesMatter!”

You say “BlackLivesMatter!”

Together we say “BlackLivesMatter!”


To Those Who Remain Silent

Yariza C.M.
Rising 10th grader at Central High School

“You have the right

to remain silent.”

Yet the color of your skin

gives me the right to use violence.

To those who remain silent,

but no longer quiet

when speaking about the riots.

You’re tired of hearing about systematic racism?

Tired of all the activism?

They’re tired of fighting for the right to be alive.

To those who remain silent,

There are children younger than five

being taught how to deal with the police.

Now tell me why can’t we even protest in peace?

Soldiers going against their own people,

trust me, it’s getting brutal.

There should be no such thing as staying neutral.

To those who remain silent,

why are my brothers and sisters a target?

We’re all human and bleed the same regardless.

Wait, you don’t like being called out for your ignorance,

but you don’t do anything to make a difference.

Even after knowing the accused victims were innocent.

To those who remain silent,

Why is it that you have chosen

the side of the oppressor?

Hope you take a step back for a moment,

so you can educate yourself, and we can come together.

Instead of fighting with us,

use your privilege and your voice to fight for us.

To those who remain silent,

I don’t understand how you’re not ashamed

when you decide to not fight for what’s right

because I’m young, yet heartbroken and enraged.

Let me ask you this:

How many more lives does it have to take?

How many more signs do we have to make?

So you can wake up and realize we need a change.

To those who remain silent,

this shouldn’t be Black vs. White in your eyes,

It should be everyone educating those who are racist.

Learn about what makes you uncomfortable and grow from it,

from these issues we must promise to no longer run.

Face both the good and bad in life because we don’t get another one.

Stop acting like the precincts don’t need improvement

and support the Black Lives Matter Movement.


I Must Ask…

Joshua R.P.
Rising 10th grader at Science Leadership Academy

Do you murder us because of our fear?

Or your fear?

Do you murder us because of our color?

Or your color?

Do you murder us for our protection?

Or your protection?

Do you murder us for our freedom?

Or your freedom?

A country that is named United

Finding it impossible to be as such.

We are from a place of disparity.

Where we lose sleep worrying that our mothers and fathers will be sent to the graveyard.

We see you posting on social media that you are disgusted

But you’re too timid to take action.

We riot because human beings are murdered, on camera, in cold blood.

By men sent to protect.

We riot because our pleas have been silenced

We riot because we don’t know where to place our built up anger.

Yet you riot over sports teams and it is accepted blindly

Your feelings matter less than our lives.

How many black deaths do we need to witness in order for change to happen?

In order for my brothers and sisters to walk down a street peacefully?

In order for my brothers and sisters to drive legally in their car?

In order for my brothers and sisters to live like every other white American?

I will not shut up. I will not sit down.

I’ll stand in front of my brothers and sisters who want change in this town.

The issue will no longer remain hidden.

You need to change the system or we will change your privileged lives.

Our color is beautiful –

Triumphant, powerful, undefeated.

We protest peacefully, yet we still see no change.

Crazy how you’d rather see our nation burn down

Then open your eyes and put your pride to the side

We scream ¨I CAN’T BREATHE”

You hear our cries, you see our pain,

And even our own president hides out and doesn’t want to take any blame.

It’s time America stands up and makes the change!

I must ask, “Will you stand with us?”


My Daddy

Lalany L.
Rising 10th grader at Community Academy of Philadelphia

July 6 was the day my daddy died.

I had to watch him take his last breath while those bullets took his life.

By the time he got to the hospital I knew daddy’s soul followed God’s light.

But the cop knew what he was doing. He didn’t even hesitate twice.

I watched him die from the backseat.

I knew I was scared for my life.

Do you know what it feels like to stay awake at night because you feel someone is plotting to take your life?

They put me in this crazy place I don’t know if I can make it out alive.

Why did you take my daddy’s life and had to ruin mine.

I know you can feel the pain in my eyes when we watched him die

These visions repeat. I can´t get it out of my mind.

I´m going crazy, daddy please, give me a sign.

Because I don’t think I can make it through this America alive.