Photography by Lucy Wurst
A year after a school shooting left 17 dead in Parkland, Florida, and the young survivors of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School responded by launching the March for Our Lives movement, a teacher more than 1,000 miles away in University City is teaching his students about gun violence.
Dan Holden is a teacher at the alternative Lieberman Learning Center, part of University City schools. Last semester, he taught a lesson he called Cold Dead Hands. It asked his students to consider: As a citizen of University City, what can you do, and what should you do about gun control? Students read Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds—a work of free verse centered on a teenager seeking revenge after his brother is killed by gunfire—and wrote essays about the protagonist. They also listened to speeches from the national March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C., and interviewed members of the community about their experiences with gun violence.
The lesson was “timely, but it’s been timely for a long time,” Holden says. In Missouri in 2017, there were 1,307 firearm-related deaths, up from 1,144 in 2016. “We’ve lost some students here, and that ticks me off. I’m very much against guns, and my wife and my son, we all decided to go to D.C. for the march. I saw the Naomi Wadler speech. And she was 11. I'm like, if she can do that, my students can do something as well.
"I wanted to make sure that I made it super local," he says about the Cold Dead Hands lesson, "so that they were focused on what was happening in their community and trying to make it much more attainable.”
With Cold Dead Hands, Holden wanted to keep up the momentum of the March for Our Lives movement, but he also wanted his students to see how gun violence affects people. Most of the people his students interviewed were school staff and faculty. “They got to see administration and teachers as actual human beings who have had experiences and tragedies and the same things that they're going through. And it was nice to talk about somebody else's issues, because getting students to talk about it, they're still very emotionally attached to the situation. It gives them a more objective kind of view of what's going on.”
Junior Aleyah Ball, who lives in the University City area, participated in the Cold Dead Hands lesson. Before her interview with someone who had lost her son to gun violence, she had never talked to a person in that situation, and she described the assignment as difficult but one of the most valuable she’s ever taken part in. Even though the assignment didn't change her opinion on guns—"I'm against guns. I don't feel like anybody needs a gun"—Ball said that she feels if more schools taught similar lessons, it might change minds about gun control.
"I feel like we should do more," she says. "More and more people lose their lives to gun violence. It's something I feel like all schools should be doing."
Another goal of the project was to memorialize those community members who were killed due to gun violence. Holden would like the work his students create—essays, along with photos and video—to be posted online as remembrances.
“As a teacher, you're concerned about their potential,” Holden says. “And we see it. [Students] come over here because a lot of people don't see their potential, and then when that vanishes, that's rough.”