Teacher Spotlight: Heather Van Benthuysen
Heather is an English teacher and chair of her department at Alcott College Prep in the Northside of Chicago. She has been a Mikva teacher for 7 years and has a had a fascinating journey in Action Civics. She is both adored by her students and effective at instituting a culture of youth voice and youth leadership at Alcott and through the “Mikva Club.”
What is the most impactful project your students have done with Mikva so far?
My first project was remarkable, a true testament to youth becoming part of the community. I was teaching at the VOISE Academy in the Austin neighborhood, which is a tough one. The kids were very disenfranchised but it all changes when I started the Mikva Club. I saw a big change in the students just within a month or two.
The Club chose to resolve the issue of low attendance in the school (it was at 72%). They were bothered by all the assumptions everyone had about why students weren’t coming to school and so decided to break down the myths and find the real issues. Their research showed that those assumptions were totally wrong. Kids weren’t coming to schools because of dirty uniforms or street safety and not because the teachers weren’t good or the parents were lazy. It was really news to everyone. The principal was so impressed by this research and the students that she implemented one of their suggestions which was to start a laundry program at the school. This project changed everything for these kids. The students felt the change was real, that they were actually being heard. I get emotional just thinking about it.
How do Mikva programs transform students?
They learn the art of process tracing. They think about root causes, they think about “why?”. So right away they are no longer victims of circumstance but are empowered with reasoning. The reasoning and understanding empowers them and they quickly develop the tools and the skills to affect change when they have an end goal in mind.
Can you think of a student who has been transformed by Mikva?
I had a student who was a total mean girl and hated school and was trying to graduate early. It was a coincidence that she was placed with the Mikva Club at Alcott but it totally changed her. She started to care about school, she liked being here and she became a leader. It has changed how she looks at herself and her role in the community. Now she’s one of the most confident students I have ever had and goes out of her way to get students involved. And every single essay that she writes for college is rooted in what Mikva has given her and the club.
What do you love most about Mikva Programs?
Mikva makes [youth] count, it makes them matter, it makes them part of a conversation. And it keeps adults accountable for listening to them.