Sacred Heart students ‘Stand Up’ for community

By Michelle Martin
Sunday, June 12, 2016

Sacred Heart students ‘Stand Up’ for community

Students at the Academy of the Sacred Heart sing "Stand Up" with their music teacher, Justin Nixon, during class on June 6. "Stand Up" is available for download on iTunes and Google Play. All of the proceeds will benefit Howard Area Community Center, which serves disadvantaged youth and families in neighboring Rogers Park. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Seventh-grader Gellila Asmamaw raps her part in "Stand Up," a song written by music teacher Justin Nixon and recorded by the middle school students at the Sacred Heart Schools of Chicago. "Stand Up" is available for download on iTunes and Google Play, with proceeds going to Howard Area Community Center, which serves disadvantaged youth and families in neighboring Rogers Park.

The middle school students at the Sacred Heart Schools have a message for the world.

It’s a message about diversity, inclusion and respect for yourself, for others and for the world around you. It’s a message about love instead of hate and peace instead of violence. And it’s a message that anyone can hear, because they recorded it in a song and posted a music video online.

In its first week, “Stand Up” was viewed on Facebook more than 25,000 times, and the school, at 6250 N. Sheridan Road, was featured on the WGN News. It is available for purchase on iTunes and Google Play, with proceeds benefitting the Howard Area Community Center.

Music teacher Justin Nixon said he had no idea that the song would be such a success.

Nixon, who just finished his third year of teaching middle school students at the Academy girls’ school and Hardey Prep boys’ school, asked all the students to write something they wanted to tell the world last fall. The open-ended assignment was a way to incorporate the school’s emphasis on writing into the music curriculum, he said.

He got back 240 poems, essays and song lyrics. The topics varied — one sixth-grade girl wrote about pie — but more than 70 percent had some focus on social justice and the need to stand up for what is right. The assignment came just after the terrorist attacks in Paris and the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.

“I had no idea they were feeling this so deeply,” Nixon said. “They were all reacting to it.”

So Nixon began to take bits and pieces from the students’ writing and incorporated them into a song. He took one section — a rap piece by seventh-grader Gellila Asmamaw — in its entirety, working with her to edit it slightly so the beat structure would work.

“Neither of us would have considered ourselves a rapper before this,” Nixon said.

Gellila took to the medium so much that she rapped her campaign speech when she ran for student council president. She won.

Gellila said she thinks the message is what makes the song appealing.

“It’s something the world wants to hear,” she said.

Each day, he would come to class, and each day, his students would ask if he had any more of the song to share. They noticed when their own words appeared; several lines can be attributed to multiple students, because they had similar things to say.

After he arranged it and taught the song to all the middle schoolers, they performed it at their January concert.

“I was incredibly nervous,” Nixon said. “I really didn’t know what the response would be, so I kind of put it in the middle of the program.”

The song got a standing ovation, and within minutes of the concert ending, Nixon had emails from parents who thought the song should be shared.

“I’ve had people say we should do something before, but nothing ever came of it,” Nixon said. “This one didn’t die. It kept going.”

Catherine and Matt Denny, Sacred Heart parents, own Uptown Recording Studio, so Nixon brought the glee club in to record the song.

“It’s a simple recording,” he said. “We did maybe 10 takes, but what’s on the recording is really just the best of those takes, all the way through.”

Then someone else connected the school with a videographer, who taped footage at the school and used outside footage, and edited the video.

The song debuted May 25.

“It’s been overwhelming that the response has been so significant,” Nixon said.

It’s significant to the students that the proceeds will help the Howard Area Community Center as well, because the school has an ongoing relationship with the center, which offers support to people in the school’s neighborhood.

“I wanted it to stay here, to help someone in the community,” Nixon said.


  • catholic schools
  • peace
  • non-violence
  • academy of the scared heart
  • sacred heart schools of chicago
  • howard area community center

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