HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Middle School Social Justice Trips Bring Meaning to Young Teens

by Cheryl Maayan Issue: Jewish Inspiration Saul Mirowitz Jewish Day School, St. Louis

Middle school students are crying out for meaning—body and soul. During the tender years, when they are plagued by an obsession with pimples and popularity, young adolescents are grasping for autonomy. They are unsure of their place, and test out the boundaries in all directions—with their parents, their teachers and their friendships. Middle schoolers feel powerless, and it is upon schools to show them that they do indeed have sway.

Jewish schools are uniquely positioned to motivate middle school students to channel the authority that they do have, and direct them to exercise their muscle. For day schools have both the time and the breadth of Judaism to guide them through life. It is a gift to be able to pull together global issues with Judaism, history and science, and demonstrate for young people how Jews navigate life’s challenges. Day schools have the potential to elevate the intellectual space that occupies the minds of adolescents and to inspire them toward action. In science, they learn about the many ways God’s earth is being damaged by humans, and ways we can help. In social studies, they learn about violations of civil rights and human rights throughout history and open their eyes to the same violations that are occurring now. In Judaics they learn about our sacred obligation to protect the earth, guard justice, give tzedakah and show compassion to those in need. Middle schoolers take all of this in and start to formulate their own role in the improvement of society.

Day schools should go the extra mile by giving students the space to respond. By doing so, we allow them to exercise their power and lead them to believe that they—even as middle school students—have value. School leaders need to carve out time in the schedule and gently coach students, by pushing forward their drive to improve the world.

At Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School, we reinvented the middle school experience (for sixth to eighth grade) five years ago to align with our students’ need to exercise influence and control. Each year begins with a theme of social justice: hunger and poverty, civil rights, or the environment. We begin by taking the entire middle school on a five-day trip to immerse them in the study of that year’s global issue. We return to school with children who are shocked about the extent of the problem, angry that more people aren’t out there fixing it, and ready to put themselves to work to change the world. We then gently facilitate a process by which they formulate an action that responds to their newly ignited passion. Students have the room to take leadership if they choose and the freedom to decide on the direction of their response. If Jewish schools spend more time igniting the fire in our students’ bellies and letting them take the lead, we will provide them with excellent leadership training.

One way to accomplish this is through intensive focus. The modality of a school trip that exposes students to significant issues has a high impact. On the hunger and poverty trip, students are led through a poverty simulation at Heifer Ranch in Arkansas. Overnight in the woods, they experience what it’s like to have less than you need, and gain extraordinary empathy for those who live in poverty every day. Students are divided into “families” and given challenges, roles and limited supplies. One family member is a parent, holding a water balloon baby in a sling. The biggest challenge is to get a fire lit before dark so they can cook dinner. While several families are given matches and a small portion of firewood, only one has a matchbook with which to light the match. Each family receives some provisions: one a bag of onions, another two potatoes and three carrots, another a cup of rice. One family has access to drinking water…and so the bartering begins. The students are on their own to figure out how to get enough food for dinner. Some steal. Some trade. Some share. No matter their choices during their simulation, the students have volumes to talk and write about how hunger, discomfort and stress impacted them.

As part of the experience, they also learn about the value of asking for help, about statistics on hunger and poverty, and about the geographic landscape of world poverty. Upon return, the students respond with a project. The middle school faculty carves out time for them to formulate a response and does not dictate its direction. This allows students to explore. After the most recent hunger and poverty trip, the children were inspired to help children in Ferguson, which is about 15 minutes away from school. They found that our local NCJW has a community closet in one of the elementary schools and mobilized the faculty, elementary school students, their parents, grandparents and the St. Louis Jewish community to collect personal care items for these local children who are at risk. They delivered the items and were able to tour the facility. Their response was the beginning of an ongoing relationship between our school and the community of Ferguson. We have continued the relationship by participating in two peace through pyramids circus projects in which our students join together to learn and perform the circus arts. We are also currently formulating a literacy partners project in which our middle school students will help children in Ferguson work on their reading skills.

On the Civil Rights trip, students are agape as their bus passes Confederate flags on the highway heading south. They stare shocked at the KKK uniforms in the Civil Rights museums in Montgomery. They sing “We Shall Overcome,” as we march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. For our students, racial discrimination feels like ancient history—until they notice that the plaque next to the KKK uniform staring out at them is from 10 years ago. In Memphis, they walk in the shoes of Martin Luther King Jr., just before he was shot. The students are challenged to think about what it would take for them to give up their safety for a cause, like those who joined the Civil Rights movement. They become aware of their own tendencies to stereotype and are sobered when faced with the potential effects of a society that normalizes racism. Upon return to school, the students struggled to find an appropriate response. Ultimately, they decided to take a role in protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. Although the uncomfortable political climate has made it challenging, the students are working on conducting a “Stand In,” for the Standing Rock Sioux, in which they hope to raise money by standing collectively for 24 hours during an overnight at school.

During the environment trip to the Smoky Mountains, our students learn about watersheds and nocturnal creatures, and participate in citizen science research on salamanders. They take an eight-mile hike, ending with a glorious shower in a waterfall. They measure their food, water and paper usage, and become determined to reduce waste. They return more aware of the careless manner in which they impact our environment. After our last environment trip, the students responded by leading the entire school through a waste audit. They engaged the elementary school as well as the faculty in collecting data on food, water and paper waste in the school building. The middle school students developed a campaign to raise awareness and encourage the school community to reduce waste. At the end of elementary school’s lunch each day, the middle school students would quiet the school down, and with great anticipation weigh the food waste. An announcement about the progress made, including the reduction of paper waste also became routine, and so encouraged the community to be cognizant of their everyday impact on the environment. Middle school students were inspired, and they used that passion to inspire others.

Students emerge feeling proud of their sophisticated knowledge, and of the success of their efforts to improve their community. Young adolescents thrive in a community of shared values, where they can rise above the surface and spend their middle school years working toward something significant and meaningful. The social justice trips serve to form a sacred shared sense of community in middle school.

During the middle school years, students’ physical and mental capacities rapidly mature. They seek to find productive ways to exercise their place in the world around them. As mission-driven institutions, Jewish day schools are poised to provide them with the guidance they need by helping them to take the Jewish learning and apply it to issues in the larger society. Through intensive programming in social justice, including both lessons in the classroom and in the field, Jewish schools can inspire students to not only understand Jewish content, but to enact Jewish values. By doing so, we raise young people who have direction with which to navigate the many challenges of adolescence.

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Jewish Inspiration

Day schools aim to transmit a passion for Judaism to their students. Parents send their children to day school because they want them to cultivate a love of Judaism in all its dimensions. The articles in this issue explore the vital but elusive notion of Jewish inspiration from various angles. How do we define it, measure it, and recognize when we've achieved it? What does a school need to do to become a place that inspires students, faculty and all who work there? In what ways can schools undertake a process of change to improve in their work of inspiring students? And what do students and alumni tell us inspired them? Come to read, learn and be inspired for your work in Jewish education. 

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