May students use art to encourage peace in Austin

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More than 100 seventh and eighth-grade students at Horatio May Academy took to art over the last year as a way to express their thoughts about violence in their community.

The students showcased their work during the school’s “Violence in Austin” assembly June 7.

Since September, the four seventh-grade and eighth-grade classrooms at May worked with artists and teachers from Columbia College Chicago as part of its Transforming Education through the Arts and Media, or TEAM, program based at the Center for Community Arts Partnerships.

The TEAM program was active at seven schools across the city, and each participating Chicago Public School voted on its own project theme.

May students took photographs, shot film, made a music video, wrote news articles and haikus, and rapped about violence on the West Side.

Krista Wortendyke, a photography instructor at Columbia College Chicago, worked with a group of about 30 math students during the school year.

Through online research, the students discovered 30 people had died due to gun violence in Austin in 2011.

Each of Wortendyke’s students was assigned one of the victims to represent and research. The students then had the freedom to design a T-shirt in the victim’s memory.

The 30 kids took to the stage during Thursday’s performance, standing along the border of a large, white rectangle. As one student, Michael Parker, rapped the victims’ names, the student wearing that T-shirt stepped into the rectangle when the month of that person’s death was read.

Rapping the names means the victims of violence aren’t forgotten, Michael said.

“I get to rap about the people who lost their lives, and we made a shirt to represent the people who lost their lives,” he said.

Akeem Rollins, who sat next to Parker before Thursday’s assembly began, said, “I’m happy that we’re doing this and that Krista came to May Academy.”

Matthew Wilbourn, a seventh-grader, introduced his class’ performance on stage.

“All together, the class brought 30 voices back to the Austin community,” Matthew said in an interview with AustinTalks.

Many of the people who were shot and killed in Austin “died for no reason,” he said.

“My person, Jimmy Parker Jr., he was just walking down the street, probably just going someplace, either to a party or some place else, and at 10 in the morning, just shot dead,” he said.

“To me it means something – that we aren’t just letting these people’s voices just fade away. We’re bringing them back up.”

Wortendyke said she was proud of the student’s hard work during the past months.

“These kids are awesome,” she said.

Curtis Lawrence, another TEAM member and associate professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago, taught the students how to write news articles and haiku poems.

Sydney Erskin was one of Lawrence’s students who wrote two stories for the class blog.

One article Erskin wrote was based one of the class’ interviews with Catrell Dyer, whose son was shot to death and robbed while attending a party in Austin. (Check out for all of the students’ articles and poems.)

Another group of students at May wrote, filmed and edited a music video.

“On spring break we filmed a music video outside and in the neighborhood,” said filmmaker Mitch Wenkus, who worked with the students.

He said the students spent a good eight hours during spring break putting together the video.

“I really enjoyed working with students.”


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