U-High Midway

Graduation speaker heals through stories

Debra Gittler credits U-High experience for building her foundation

READING+AND+WRITING.+Debra+Gittler+reads+to+students+at+San+Jorge+School+in+rural+El+Salvador.+ConTextos%2C+Ms.+Gittler%E2%80%99s+organization%2C+originated+in+El+Salvador.
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Graduation speaker heals through stories

READING AND WRITING. Debra Gittler reads to students at San Jorge School in rural El Salvador. ConTextos, Ms. Gittler’s organization, originated in El Salvador.

READING AND WRITING. Debra Gittler reads to students at San Jorge School in rural El Salvador. ConTextos, Ms. Gittler’s organization, originated in El Salvador.

Provided by Debra Gittler

READING AND WRITING. Debra Gittler reads to students at San Jorge School in rural El Salvador. ConTextos, Ms. Gittler’s organization, originated in El Salvador.

Provided by Debra Gittler

Provided by Debra Gittler

READING AND WRITING. Debra Gittler reads to students at San Jorge School in rural El Salvador. ConTextos, Ms. Gittler’s organization, originated in El Salvador.

Grace Zhang, Arts Editor

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Working in jails, cities, and countries with high violence rates, Debra Gittler seeks to give thorough education to those affected by trauma. As a founder of ConTextos, an educational organization established in El Salvador and Chicago, Ms. Gittler appreciates the experience learning at Lab, especially how it guides her work, personal life, and worldview.

Ms. Gittler, a 1998 U-High alumna, will share her experience and advice as the featured speaker at this year’s U-High graduation June 7.

For Ms. Gittler, Lab’s education is very profound and not just about learning. At Lab she gravitated toward the humanities, learning and understanding how to think critically, become a writer, express herself, and engage in meaningful conversations.

“I would say what has been a guiding force as I’ve moved forward is the education I had,” Ms. Gittler said, “which encouraged me to be a deep thinker, have my own voice, and strong opinions based on real experiences. That is not just the foundation for my work now, but for much of my world view.”

Darlene McCampbell

She explained that teachers encouraged questioning and taught her that learning was cumulative and iterative, and how different extracurriculars brought an understanding of working in teams and leadership. English teacher Darlene McCampbell, who was one of Ms. Gittler’s influential teachers, is working with Ms. Gittler as a member on ConTextos’ board.

“Working with her is inspiring because she has a mission and she knows how to bring it into fruition,” Ms. McCampbell said. “The people on the board believe in and want to help her fulfill the vision.”

During her time at Lab, Ms. Gittler had also experienced the death of her sister. Seeing it as an opportunity to understand and navigate what the loss meant to her, she realized that the literature and writing taught at Lab had helped her, even though most of her classmates hadn’t experienced the same type of loss.

Ms. Gittler was a teacher in the Bronx, New York, who then worked in El Salvador and Honduras in educational programs. When she left those activities, she started ConTextos in 2011 to provide better education to kindergarteners through 9th graders in El Salvador, a country with one of the highest homicide rates, as well as high poverty, domestic violence, migration, and low literacy rates.

“When the environment started shifting, kids started engaging and sharing their ideas,” Ms. Gittler said. “They wrote about was loss, they wrote about hurting and being afraid, and all of that resonates with me.”

She realized that people experiencing trauma also inflict trauma onto others, and to respond to people living in environments with high levels of trauma was most meaningful.

Ms. Gittler started from providing educational opportunities at various schools to going into schools in areas labeled as gang territory, prisons, then finally expanding to Chicago, especially working in Cook County Jail.

“All of our work is based on ‘hurt people hurt people,’” Ms. Gittler. “If we think about all these young people, and some of their behavior in ways that we can understand what caused it, maybe we can heal it.”

Outside of work, Ms. Gittler also often sees classmates from Lab also doing work in fields that is helpful to others, such as education or social justice. She said Lab’s educational philosophy impacted her and her classmates.

“There was a common sense of values,” she said. “Concepts of social justice and fairness were things to be explored and demanded and worked for.”

“What was planted is being a professional that brought justice, beauty, discovery or learning.”

Citing Lab’s education as motivation, Ms. Gittler said: “Lab really challenged us as students to consider a life of purpose and making a difference in the world.”

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Graduation speaker heals through stories