In March, Philadelphia elementary school teacher Joe Alberti gave his fourth-grade class a writing assignment: Compose a poem using the prompt, “Because there was a gun.” As they completed the exercise, his students had a terrible oversupply of material to draw from. Among Alberti’s 30 students, 24 say they know someone who has been killed or wounded by a gun.
The poems the students wrote that morning are part of a months-long project on gun violence that fourth graders are undertaking at Samuel Powel Elementary School, which sits blocks from the violent neighborhoods of the city’s west side. To better understand the subject, Alberti’s class has invited law enforcement and activists to speak, discussed news articles and videos, and learned about local gun laws. Beginning in April, for the project’s culmination, the students are creating chants, slogans, and posters for a series of marches opposing gun violence in their neighborhood and city. (“Listen up, everyone, put the guns down! Do it today and all year round!” was one refrain heard at a march on April 21.) In May, they plan to travel to Harrisburg and march on the steps of the capitol.
“For fourth graders, talking about guns and gun violence is really scary,” says Alberti. “But then when you hear about kids who are living in neighborhoods where they’re hearing gunshots, and they’re seeing people who are dying, they should be talking about it.”
As the poems below show, writing has offered one way for Alberti’s students to wrestle with the violence they encounter. Individually, their poetry expresses the terror and sorrow of death and depict families longing for lost loved ones or forced to flee their homes. Collectively, it tells a larger story: These are nine- and ten-year-olds, many still learning to spell, who are absorbing lessons that no one should have to confront.
Below are several poems as they appeared in students’ notebooks, accompanied by lightly edited versions of the verses.
Daira writes about her cousin, whose uncle was shot.
Because there was a gun / my cousin’s uncle’s life was done. / Because there was a gun / She had no more fun. / Because there was a gun / his life was bad. / Because there was a gun / She felt really, really sad. / Because there was a gun / her family had to run
Jada writes about hearing gunfire.
Because there was a gun / I had to run. / Because there was a gun / I was scared. / Because there was a gun / I heard shots that blew in the air. / Because there was a gun / I heard bullets near the store. / Because there was a gun / I heard bullets soar. / Because there was a gun everybody had to run.
Jahaad imagines life without a brother and father.
Because it was a gun / my brother life was done / Because it was a gun / my tat begin to cry / Because it was a gun / evey budy life were dead.
Because it was a gun / my dad life was gon / Because it was a gun / my mom allways cry / Because it was a gun / are life is dead.
Kayla writes about losing her dad before she was old enough to form any memories of him.
Because of a Gun every day I miss my father. Because some one killed. His all I have to wake up every day with out a father. I never meet him But when I cry my mom [says] so your dad was saying to my stumick, Hey yum yum and then sing a song. [Lightly edited]
Maliyah reflects on the shootings of three family members.
Because there was a guns / there was a cause and a effect / Because there was a gun / people died / because there was a guns / people got injered / because there was a gun / people wanted to kill there self.
Because there was a gun / My grandpa got shot / Because there was a gun / My cuzin got murdered / Because there was a gun / My Sister dad got / Shot 15 times in / the Back and arm.
Another student confronts the incomprehensible.
guns are realy stupid / if you don’t believe me then prove it. / People get shot For stupid things / Just like Fighting in a wrestling ring. / People be shooting over a dirt bike / stop this and don’t Fight. / people get shot From playing outside / even From Just walking by / So if you see a gun Just run away / and go play outsid another day.
Raegan writes about the death of her grandfather.
Because there was / a gun my / grandfahter died / before my birthday. / Because there was / a gun my / grandma cries every / day.
Kenya writes about life after her father’s death.
Because there was a gun / everybody live in fear / Because there was a gun / my father is’n hear. / Because there was a gun / Some people cry out tears. / Because there are guns / life is a nightmaire.
[All photos by Dave Londres for The Trace]