The Corners and Classrooms of Chicago-#FreedomTeaches

the corner still

This post is a part of the “Freedom Teaches” series, where I post my reflections on teaching video production in the alternative schools of Chicago. 

“The Corner” is a recently restored documentary about the early days of Chicago’s Vice Lords street gang. Filmed in 1963, it is astonishing in both what has changed since that time for many young black men that get involved in gang life, and what has not.


The voices narrating the piece are from members of the Vice Lords themselves. These voices note challenges to their well-being and livelihood. Gangs (or clubs as some of them called them) offer community, protection, sometimes income and for a young black man with little education and few job prospects, a way to occupy ones time.

The differences between 1963 and now, however are stark. The voices describe engaging in violence with other gangs, but in fisticuffs and not gun fire. There’s no mention of drugs and the worst thing a woman gets called is a “broad.” Teaching video production in Chicago’s alternative high schools has made me think about the needs of students who are in this system, many of whom are affiliated with gangs and/or wards of the state. When thinking about the concept of “needs” I refer back to Maslow’s Hierarchy.


Physiological-As it pertains to my teaching style, I know that before I can start teaching  students new things and perhaps pushing them outside of their learning comfort zone, I need to do what I can to remove any immediate threats to their survival. I bring fruit and water to every class, not (only) to bribe them, but if any of my students haven’t eaten that morning, it’s highly unlikely that I will have their attention for the full 3.5 hour duration of my class.

Safety- Threats to their safety also have to be eliminated, or at least reduced, if I have a chance of reaching my students. There are security guards on every level at the schools where I teach but sometimes the threats are in the classroom (more on this below). As much as I try to ban disrespectful behavior from my classroom, I’m not always successful.

Love/Belonging-Students will be distracted if they have threats in their home situations. If I sense that a student is distracted or in a bad mood, I start out by doing a class check-in, and I ask students if they would like to talk about anything that’s going on with them. Some of them will take the opportunity, some won’t but they have the option to express what they are thinking and feeling.

Esteem-  Since video production is new to almost all of my students, I focus on the fact that they are trying to learn new concepts and skills and praise them for doing so. 40% of what I grade my students on is attendance, because I want to emphasis the importance of showing up, literally. Attendance is an issue at most public schools in Chicago and in the alternative schools it’s even more so.

Self-actualization- Many causes of the violence within the classroom intersect with another need on Maslow’s hierarchy. Before we can reach the top of the pyramid of needs, self actualization, the place where we can not only learn but challenge our prejudices and counter-productive behaviors, we have to have our selves affirmed in the classroom. We have to feel like we are good, worthy, respected. This can be a difficult reality, because it basically means that as much as I want to call out a student for calling someone a THOT or a “fag” in the classroom, without those initial needs in order, I may not do more than bruise the student’s ego. It doesn’t keep me from doing it, of course, but I know that challenging students and developing their social justice awareness and cultural competency is hard in the most ideal environments.

I’m still learning and working on being a better educator, and being high school teacher in Chicago has its own challenges, which I will elaborate on in future posts.

Your Turn: If you have any tips/advice for engaging disenfranchised students, please hit me up on Facebook, Twitter on in the comment section.

What do you think?