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Dr. Susie Tanchel, JCDS Head of School
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By Ifat Bejerano, Parent of Danielle ’17 and Stav ’13
As my youngest daughter, Danielle, prepares to graduate from JCDS in a few short weeks, I find myself reflecting on my family’s nine years at JCDS. I think back to the first time I visited the school. My husband, Yaniv, and I were living in Watertown at the time, and we happened to meet a JCDS parent. He asked us how come we, an Israeli family, weren’t sending our kids to JCDS — so we decided to visit.
The first time I stepped into the building, I became aware of all that was available right around the corner from where we lived. The first thing that caught my attention was the Israeli music being played. It wasn’t the old Zionist pioneer songs that can be heard playing in other Jewish circles, but modern Israeli songs. I noticed the student artwork that always covers JCDS’s walls. Many works contained Israel-related symbolism and all of them were signed with the student-artist’s Hebrew name and then I saw how the young kids in the lower school classes were spread around — some on the rug, others sitting up, but all busy enjoying their activities in this lively way. All I could think was: how did I not know about this place before?
Now, nine years later, my family is about to say farewell to this community we know and love. Our older son, Stav, is about to graduate high school and go to college, and Danielle is getting ready to start her freshman year at Gann Academy. Yaniv and I brought our kids to JCDS to maintain their Hebrew and teach them our traditions and values; we found all that and so much more.
“Yaniv and I brought our kids to JCDS for their sake, but we had no idea how it would affect our lives. The community at JCDS has truly changed us.”
Hebrew plays an integral role in the JCDS curriculum. Through a Hebrew-throughout-the-day immersion approach in the lower school, the kids learn Hebrew naturally and continue to progress throughout the years. In the middle school, they learn the language through songs, plays, projects, and reading. I love how Danielle sometimes comes home with Hebrew songs that are so current that I don’t know them!
The connection to Israel is also remarkable. From Yom Hashoah to Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut, the kids have a chance to engage with guests, including soldiers from the IDF and holocaust survivors, to hear their perspectives and ask them questions. On Yom Ha’atzmaut, (Israeli Independence Day), the whole school takes part in a day filled with fun, including “traveling” to Israel, making falafel and labneh, and participating in an Israel-themed scavenger hunt.
As an Israeli-American family, we are thrilled with how well our kids can speak, read, and write in Hebrew. They are able to stay connected with their family in Israel in meaningful ways, and when we return to Israel, there is no language barrier between Stav and Danielle and their cousins, which is so powerful to see. This summer, Danielle will travel to Israel by herself for five weeks to spend time with our family. I give much credit to JCDS for helping my kids develop strong Hebrew skills and a lasting connection with Israel.
Yaniv and I brought our kids to JCDS for their sake, but we had no idea how it would affect our lives. The community at JCDS has truly changed us. Like many Israelis, we tended to have predominantly Israeli friends when we first moved to the United States. Now, most of our friends are from JCDS. Many are parents from Stav’s class; even four years out of JCDS, we still meet for Shabbat dinners. We have been blown away by the strong, warm, and welcoming community.
We are thankful for our partnership with JCDS, which has created thoughtful kids who love Israel, and are knowledgeable about its history, culture, and language.
Dr. Susie Tanchel, JCDS Head of School was honored at Keshet’s annual OUTstanding! awards gala. Along with Rebekah Farber and Dr. Marc Kramer, Dr. Tanchel received the Hachmei Lev Award for modeling Jewish LGBTQ inclusion and equality in the Jewish Day School movement. Dr. Tanchel was, until recently, the only out head of a Jewish day school in the country. Serving as a role model through her own journey of coming out, she played a crucial role in creating a space for LGBTQ students, faculty, and parents to be able to be themselves in the Jewish Day School world.
Mazal Tov to Dr. Tanchel on receiving on this incredible honor. Below are her remarks from the evening.
I remember it vividly. Around a decade ago, this spirited, intelligent, Jewishly committed, 16 year old, sitting in my office at Gann Academy with tears rolling down her face. She could barely get the words out, as she poignantly asked, “Ms. Tanchel, can I be gay and Jewish?” I remembered wondering that very same thing, years before, along my own coming out journey. I remember feeling terrified that I would lose a job I loved and cause a controversy for a school I cared so much about. Remember this was 1998 – it was a different world for LGBTQ Jews back then.
Thank you, Keshet, for this award; it means a great deal to me. You play a critical role in transforming the national landscape for LGBTQ Jews. Special thanks to Idit Klein, who I had the good fortune to befriend many years ago, to James Cohen, who we are blessed to have in our JCDS community and to Arnee and Walt Winshall, for your tremendous leadership on so many issues. Thank you to all of you who are here to support me tonight: so many from the JCDS community, my parents, and friends, including former Gann students, your presence here means so much.
Tonight is a celebration of the positive movement toward inclusivity and that LGBT kids and families are far more integrated in the day school community.
Before: we were invisible at day school conferences
Now: there are sessions dedicated to LGBT issues
Before: there were no GSAs at day schools
Now: not only are there many GSAs, even, some Orthodox day schools have support group for their LGBTQ kids.
Before: there were no out heads of Jewish day schools in this country
Now: here I am and I am not the only one
Many are responsible for these leaps forward and I am deeply proud to be among them. My desire to be a better role model for students thrust me out of the closet. I distinctly remember the first time a student came out to me, though sitting calmly, I was inwardly thinking holy cow what on earth am I going to say now. The words that came out, “mazal tov,” expressed the celebration of greater truth. Later this same person, would be my central teacher introducing me to the concerns, challenges, and blessings of transpeople. When you are very fortunate, as I have been, your students are also your teachers.
These advances are wonderful, but we are not done. I know this because last year a Jewish educator called me, someone whom he actually doesn’t know that well. He had to call me because each day, all day, he hides that he has fallen in love with a man. He wanted someone in our field to bear witness to his truth. As I voiced my excitement for him, I privately wished he could enjoy the freedom I do every time I acknowledge my wife’s support at large school events. No big deal for straight people, but a hard-won victory for us.
More change is required because an excellent Jewish Studies teacher at a different school recently quit her job. As we talked it through, it was evident her prominent school was not yet in a place to accept her because she wanted to be out. This was a loss for all involved because, believe me, excellent Jewish Studies teachers are not so easily found.
I remember coming out – scared at first, I quickly found it exhilarating. Schools contexts matter so much in this process. I am indebted to Rabbi Danny Lehmann and Arnee Winshall for each creating school communities that courageously grapple with complex issues and celebrate differences. If we seek a more just world in which our civil discourse does not denigrate difference, but upholds the dignity of each person, we need to prioritize teaching our children how to engage with people different from themselves. At JCDS, we begin this work, when we instruct our kindergartners to explore their differences as a critical part of friendship. Differences strengthen communities. We cannot underestimate the power of teachers normalizing differences by, for example, showing kids exemplars of all different kinds of families, or by not assuming, in word and in deed, that every kid is straight. It is essential for Jewish day schools to be inclusive and accepting, for they are formative communities in our children’s lives. It is here where our future Jewish adults develop their life-long templates for how to treat others.
I’m very proud that one of the hallmarks of JCDS is being a warm, accepting community. Thus, our children have the gift of being loved and appreciated for exactly who they are. This is evident when a girl, comes up to me and says, “Dr. T, my mom finally bought me these cool Spiderman boxers” or a young boy proudly wears his princess or Frozen t-shirts and his pink sneakers to school. Perhaps it is not surprise that it was this kind of a school that was the first to take the courageous step of hiring an out lesbian as their Head of School. As we do for our children, so we do for all members of our community.
Within this supportive context, we also have more work to do. Currently, we have a bathroom challenge. Last year I learned about a child who was suffering on my watch because they didn’t feel comfortable going to gender assigned bathroom. We came up with a temporary, less than ideal, solution. As we struggle to come up with a better one, I have talked to many people. Some ask, “why do we have to make drastic changes for so few kids,” but recently a friend to JCDS offered these words that made a lasting impression: “Susie, even if you didn’t have any, not even one, trans kid in your community, you would want to do this. You school wants to communicate we are an inclusive, welcoming community regardless of who is at the school at any given moment.” Yes we do! Our Jewish values and human decency demand it.
The work continues. With the support of many, we will continue to make the Jewish world a more just and inclusive place. This will of course benefit LGBTQ Jews, but it will likewise be a benefit to entire the community. Not only because we all want to be our better selves, and to embody our Jewish values, but because, as we all know, we are stronger together.
By Dr. Susie Tanchel, JCDS Head of School
Growing up, I loved candy. As a kid, I wondered why the adults around me didn’t eat candy all the time. I mean, they had the freedom to do it, so why didn’t they just indulge constantly? Though I did not know it at the time, I was wondering about the nature of freedom. What meaning did it have to the adults around me? Now as an adult, I am curious about the same thing — albeit from a very different perspective — as we prepare to celebrate another Pesach.
The Torah offers at least one response to the question I asked as a sweet-toothed child. Shmot 7:16 states: שַׁלַּח אֶת-עַמִּי וְיַעַבְדֻנִי (“Release my people, so that they may serve me.”) The grammatical structure of this verse makes clear that the very purpose of the freedom from slavery is to serve God. While I appreciate that we each have a different interpretation of precisely what “serving God” means, it remains clear that freedom has an intended purpose. In other words, freedom is intimately — and necessarily — connected with responsibility.
According to our Haggadah, one of the responsibilities our freedom demands is for us to retell the story of our Exodus. In this process, our attention is focused on the immediacy of each night of the Seder as famously epitomized with the question: “Why is this night so different from other nights?” And yet in one of the most famous paragraphs of the Haggadah, the obligation does not seem to be so time-bound:
בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאלו הוא יצא ממצרים
In every generation one has to see/view oneself as if he or she came out from Egypt.
This passage does not specify that we need to see ourselves as if we came out of Egypt only on this night; rather, “in every generation…” implies that we have an ongoing obligation to do so. This interpretation is further strengthened by the Sephardi and Yeminite versions of the Haggadah, in which the instruction is להראות את עצמו “to show oneself” as part of the Exodus story. This distinction between seeing and showing ourselves as newly free people reminds us that it is not enough to talk about this story for one night; we have to figuratively inhabit the transition to liberation — and then act with the awareness that our freedom demands. Moreover, while we can see ourselves in private, the act of showing demands the presence of an other, be it a single witness or an entire community. By both seeing and showing ourselves as if we came out of Egypt, the many years between then and now collapse. Now we are recalling the Exodus not as an event that took place long ago to our ancestors, but as a foundational narrative of our People that continues to have meaning today. We are obligated to derive our own personal purpose from this story and to act in our lives in accordance with its implications.
Just last week, I learned with and from our 4th graders as they took the lead in creating a space in which they, their parents, and teachers could grapple with timeless questions during their Milestone. They shared poetry and music, and then led their families and friends in profound text-based conversations about slavery and freedom. They asked us to consider: what does it mean to be free? How can a person have an enslaved mind even if his/her body is free, and vice versa? Who is not free, and what can we do for those that are still enslaved? Their authentic curiosity about the full meaning of freedom and its impact not only on their lives, but on the lives of everyone in the world, inspired me to reflect more deeply on the enduring legacy of our narrative.
Thus, the questions I am left thinking about even as I invest much energy into planning our Seders are: what am I going to do next week, next month, to keep the spirit and meaning of freedom alive? What is the national memory of the slavery of my people going to propel me to do? And I now I know it means more than just buying candy – though there might be a little of that too.
I wish you and your families a chag kasher ve’sameach.
Last month, I made a presentation to 4th-8th graders, teachers, staff and my family at JCDS about my physical disability, Multiminicore Myopathy. Multiminicore Myopathy is a very rare hidden disability that affects the muscles and makes them fatigue easily. I was inspired to give this presentation to raise awareness about all physical disabilities and other medical conditions so that the JCDS community’s questions about me could be answered and they could learn how to better support me. Also, the program Understanding Our Differences was very inspiring because if total strangers could get up there and talk about their disabilities then I could, too, and the school could relate more to a peer than someone they don’t know personally.
I wanted the JCDS community to learn about how the disease affects me, what I do to provide support and stability and what the JCDS community can do to better help me. Part of the presentation was a PowerPoint slideshow. My physical therapist, Jan, and I spoke about the things we do together, like keeping my muscles strong and improving my range of motion and vestibular strength. And I planned an interactive portion by passing around goniometers, which measure range of motion. And at the end of the presentation there was a questions and answer period where kids and adults could ask me and Jan questions.
Leading up to the presentation, I was excited! On the day of the presentation, my dad was supposed to bring my motorized scooter and was a little late, but he got there just in time. Speaking in front of almost 100 people was not super intimidating because I had spoken before in front of a much bigger crowd of people I didn’t know. It was very interesting to have the entire middle school learn about me and my condition. I am going to be with and learn with this group of students and teachers for the next three years, so now they really understand and accept my differences. The questions were very interesting to hear because this was a new group of people that had different opinions and wonderings about me. One of the most frequently asked questions was about getting my service dog. Also a question one of my teachers asked that was very helpful was what can people in the JCDS community do to better support me.
I wanted people to walk away with the understanding that people with and without disabilities are all different, some a little more than others. When you have met one person with a disability, you have met that one person — not the whole group. I’ve observed that when you see someone in a wheelchair or with a service dog, just smiling and saying hi really means a lot to them. In addition, I wanted my peers to understand that I am still a kid and I like doing kid things! I don’t want my friends to think I can’t play tag and they shouldn’t ask me; I want them to ask because I almost always will say yes. I have limitations because I can’t run as fast as everyone else, but what matters most is that I can still play. Some things that people can do to better help me are small things like picking up a marker for me, or grabbing my siddur from the shelf, or signing me up for something when everyone runs to the board. These are little things that I can do, but they take up energy that I can use later to play a game or do math work in class. I felt like my classmates and teachers walked away from my presentation with a better sense of what my disability is, how it affects me, and how they can continue to support me in the JCDS community.
We recently had the honor of presenting at Prizmah – the North American Jewish Day School Conference – with our colleagues, Orit Kent and Allison Cook. Our presentation, Integration Through Strong Teaching Teams, examined how using the skills and strategies of the Pedagogy of Partnership (a relationship-centered pedagogy) in our work allows for us to be a stronger teaching team and provide our students with a better learning experience in our classroom.
JCDS is a leader in the Jewish day school world with regard to team teaching. Our K-4 teaching teams are made up of two full-time, lead teachers — one English-speaking and one Hebrew-speaking — who are in the classroom together throughout the day. This team teaching approach brings together two strong educators who help one another learn and grow, and helps to create a more consistent, well-balanced learning environment for the students. Our Middle School staff also works hard to create strong grade-specific teams by holding regular meetings about students’ educational progress and social-emotional growth using specific protocols.
In our session at Prizmah, we led participants through a series of videos and activities that highlight our teaching “stance,” “practices,” and classroom-specific “structures” (Kent and Cook, 2012). Our goal was for the participants to see how important it is for these three aspects of a partnership to be clear to the students, as well as to the teaching team. When any team — whether it is a classroom-specific team, a grade level team, or a larger team — has the skills and strategies to engage in deep and meaningful conversations about stance, practice, and students, the members of the team become better teachers.
Talmud Berakhot teaches us that it is more powerful to study Torah with a partner than alone:
אין התורה נקנית אלא בחבורה – Torah study is only attained with a group.
The best way to “study,” or understand a child, and what he or she needs to be successful, is with a partner. In our teaching teams, we bring evidence in the form of anecdotes and examples of student work in order to carefully study each child’s needs. We push one another’s thinking and challenge each other’s ideas with the common goal of wanting to do what is in the best interest of our students. We believe in the saying:
חנוך לנער על פי דרכו – Teach a child according to his/her ability,
and try to embody this concept in every aspect and moment of our work.
It was an honor to share the JCDS teacher team model with the Jewish day school community. Other day school leaders left our presentation with ideas on how to improve the teamwork in their own schools and adapt our model to fit their needs. Our hope is that more schools will develop stronger teacher teams and will view partnership as essential to their educational model. Modeling this partnership learning for our children will ensure that they will continue to receive the best possible education.
PoP (Pedagogy of Partnership) strengthens instruction and learning across disciplines through the intentional cultivation of the attitudes and skills of relationship and ethical dialogue. PoP builds learning cultures in schools to foster reflective practice among educators and to set students on a path to be lifelong learners.
About Ayelet and Michelle
Ayelet Lipton and Michelle Janoschek are the 4th Grade teaching team at JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School in Watertown, MA. Ayelet holds a BA in Psychology from Northeastern University, an MA in Teaching Hebrew from Brandeis University and has studied at Mechon Hadar for the last two summers. This is Ayelet’s 6th year at JCDS, where she is a Teacher Mentor, a member of the Pluralism Taskforce, and a certified OPI tester with the ACTFL. Michelle holds a BA in Biology from Clark University and an MA in Elementary Education from Lesley University. She has been teaching for over 10 years and is currently in her third year at JCDS, where she is the Teacher Leader for Grades 3-5. Michelle is trained in the EmPOWER writing process, Digi-blocks, Responsive Classroom, and has spent time at Mechon Hadar.
By Dr. Susie Tanchel
Since we are not together at school this year to honor the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., I wanted to share with you an excerpt from a speech Dr. King gave at the Ebenezer Church in Atlanta in March 1968 entitled “Unfulfilled Dreams.” Dr. King reflects on public historical figures – including King David with his dream to build a Temple – who died before their large-scale dreams were realized, and the importance of resiliency and perseverance, two of our JCDS Habits of Heart and Mind.
“And each of you this morning in some way is building some kind of temple. The struggle is always there. It gets discouraging sometimes. It gets very disenchanting sometimes. Some of us are trying to build a temple of peace. We speak out against war, we protest, but it seems that your head is going against a concrete wall. It seems to mean nothing…And so often as you set out to build the temple of peace you are left lonesome; you are left discouraged; you are left bewildered. Well, that is the story of life. And the thing that makes me happy is that I can hear a voice crying through the vista of time, saying: ‘It may not come today or it may not come tomorrow, but it is well that it is within thine heart. It’s well that you are trying.’ You may not see it. The dream may not be fulfilled, but it’s just good that you have a desire to bring it into reality. It’s well that it’s in thine heart. Thank God this morning that we do have hearts to put something meaningful in. Life is a continual story of shattered dreams.”
There are undoubtedly vicissitudes in life, dreams fulfilled and dreams delayed. At school, we are committed to helping our children develop strong, clear hearts filled with dreams that are tempered with patience and fueled by persistence. We are a community that unites in our shared value of working toward a more just world in which our civil discourse does not denigrate difference, but upholds the dignity of each person. Though there will surely be obstacles and setbacks in the fight for justice, may we – like all those who fought and continue to fight for the civil rights of all human beings – not be satisfied until we have reached a time in which the prophet Amos’s dream is fulfilled:
“וְיִגַּל כַּמַּיִם, מִשְׁפָּט; וּצְדָקָה כְּנַחַל אֵיתָן”
“May justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream.” (Amos 5:24)
On this MLK day, may we rededicate ourselves to focusing on the ideals that are in our hearts. Our Va’ad has publicized a few ways to participate in community service activities that day and I know that there are many other options organized in our hometowns as well. I wish you and your children a meaningful MLK day.
By Dr. Susie Tanchel
During the time that the Maccabees were at war with the Greeks, it took courage to be visibly Jewish. We recognize that in certain places around the world this remains true today. Likely in response to this historical reality, the Rabbis instructed Jews to place their chanukkiyah (the menorah for Chanukkah) on a windowsill, visible to all who pass. By individually lighting our own chanukkiyah, each of us makes a public statement about our commitments and values. Each display demonstrates an individual’s capacity to contribute, and the collective display reflects our strength as a community.
Like the symbol of a chanukkiyah on a windowsill, each day at JCDS, we publicly share and celebrate our growth as learners. We believe that publicly sharing student work is a critical step in the learning process, and that the ways in which we display each student’s contributions reflects our educational vision.
Student work is featured in many different ways at JCDS: on boards and tables in hallways and classrooms, through performances, and during opportunities for students to teach their families. These creative expressions serve as more than proud displays of a final, polished product – they reflect a learning process designed to provide opportunities for children to persevere through challenges, to collaborate, and to encourage curious and respectful engagement with the content and with each other.
Whether it is their peers or their family, our students know their work will have an authentic audience. This pushes them – as it would for all of us – to increase their effort in order to ensure that they share their best possible result. Students understand their work is relevant and important now. We are not merely preparing them for high school and adulthood (though we are!). We are also communicating to our students that their work matters in the present, and that they can shape how others understand and relate to a math equation, a scientific question, a sacred biblical text or rabbinic commentary, or a beloved piece of American literature.
These public displays are only a small window into the deeper culture of students making their thinking and learning visible. Each day in our classrooms, the children ask questions, offer insights, and generate strategies and solutions with each other. Our students are able to do this because their teachers have previously made their own thinking visible; they have modeled for our students how to do this. They share the objectives of their lessons, why the content is relevant, and their own process in making sense of the material. This induction into the world of reflective practice enables our students to learn and to understand how they learn. This skill will serve them as they continue learn new things in JCDS and beyond.
The process of making their learning visible to others enables our children to develop a keen sense of themselves, deep confidence in their ability to learn and grow, and pride in what they have accomplished. The spirit of the Maccabees lives on in the public displays of learning we share in our community every day. Chag Urim Sameach! May we all enjoy a season of light, learning, and bold displays of growth.
By Dr. Susie Tanchel
The power we feel in belonging to something bigger than ourselves is an important part of what lies at the heart of people’s “just Jewish” identity.
Where do you feel you belong in the Jewish community? According to CJP’s 2015 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study, one of the most significant shifts in Jewish identity in the last 10 years is how Jews define themselves as Jews. In 2005, 83 percent of Jews defined their identity in terms of denominational affiliation. Now, a mere 10 years later, that number has dropped to 55 percent. Today, close to one in every two Jews (45 percent) understands themselves as “just Jewish.” This is a significant trend in our community and worthy of further exploration.
“Just Jewish” certainly can be interpreted to be Jews who, according to CJP’s typology, are “minimally engaged.” But one can also apply a far more nuanced approach to this analysis. Denominational divisions are becoming far less relevant as fewer and fewer Jews affiliate in this way. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us, since this shift is consistent across other faith communities and suggestive of a broader societal trend. All around us people are eschewing labels. A person’s occupation, location and even gender is less fixed than it was a generation ago. Fluidity and boundary-crossing are, themselves, values. We must not mistake this lack of affiliation for a lack of desire to belong.
Belonging to something greater than ourselves remains, as always, a significant motivator in the human experience. Connections matter to each of us. Even as denominational affiliation has decreased, according to this study, the number of Jews in Boston has seen a moderate increase (4.6 percent since the previous study). So now perhaps non-Orthodox Jews are no longer joining or belonging to synagogues because of denominational affiliation, but rather based on the strength of their feelings for the rabbi/spiritual leader or for their commitment to the other members of that community. But make no mistake, belonging—connecting around a shared purpose—still frames our search for meaning and relevance. Living in a world that feels increasingly isolated and polarized—due to the ways technology is used, the more palpable political divisions and the more transient nature of millennials—highlights the importance of connection. Being a part of a larger group grounds us, comforts us, gives us joy and offers opportunities for connection. The power we feel in belonging to something bigger than ourselves, that preceded us and that will continue beyond our time, is an important part of what lies at the heart of people’s “just Jewish” identity.
In moving beyond denominations, I believe we in the Boston Jewish community need to strive to create new Jewish communities of substance and connection, which avoid developing a secular and religious divide. Even as we remain welcoming to the “immersed” and “affiliated” into these communities, we need to commit to ensuring that our hearts and doors are open to do the difficult work of integrating the voices and the perspectives of all families raising Jewish children. This is especially important in what historically have been more closed settings, such as Jewish day schools.
As the diversity within our community continues to become more pronounced, we certainly will seek to forge connections around the issues upon which we all agree. But it will be equally important to engage with one another on more complicated and controversial issues. Future Jewish adults will not magically develop these necessary capacities at age 18. If we hope for adults who can collaborate with others through empathic listening and respectful challenge to solve the complex problems confronting us, we need to start educating our children toward these goals—today. At Boston’s Jewish Community Day School (JCDS), we are training our children to develop the habits of mind and heart necessary for engaging with difference. We believe these conversations, and the resulting productive tension that children learn to navigate, leads to creativity, the refinement of ideas and the generation of new insights.
How blessed we are to be a part of this vibrant, diverse Jewish community. I look forward to engaging with you around our differences and thereby creating a stronger community for us all.
Read the 2015 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study here.
By Samara Soiref, Fifth Grade General Studies Teacher
For this year’s election unit, I wanted to find a way for the students to truly understand the process of electing a president, but I did not want to address the actual candidates or issues. I therefore decided to engage the students in a mock election for Class President so that they could experience the election process firsthand.The class voted on issues that were important to them, decided on names for their political parties, and picked roles out of a hat. Campaign workers furiously prepared advertisements and readied their candidates for debates. Candidates worked on solidifying their platforms, reporters interviewed and observed the goings-on in each campaign headquarters, and the “debate crew” prepared two debate sessions. It was an exciting whirlwind!
Perhaps my favorite part of the election unit was when students created reasons to support their party’s platform, even if they do not personally agree with the idea. Students who would love to be able to skip class, for example, were expected to find reasons that this policy would not work; similarly, students who adore waterparks explained the many potential safety risks that accompany them.
Perspective-taking is a core skill in the fifth grade curriculum and this exercise gave students a meaningful way to experiment with the skill.
Another exciting aspect of the unit were the primary and presidential debates. Student-planned and student-run, these debates allowed the candidates to express their ideas and challenge their opponents in respectful, productive ways. Our students improved their ability to engage in positive and articulate discourse with one another.
In the midst of all the excitement, our election fell into the trap that real-world elections also fall victim to: students got swept up in the excitement and it began to feel more like a popularity contest than an election about the issues. Feelings got hurt and tempers flared as students felt the pressure of the competition.
This brief episode of contention and conflict opened the door for some valuable teachable moments. We discussed the fine line between wanting to have an authentic election experience and also taking peers’ feelings into account. We talked about ways to work with, listen to, and respect one another’s ideas. We processed the potentially damaging effects of attack ads and the tensions we face when we want to win but don’t want to tear down our peers. The students came up with this impressive list of steps to address the challenges we faced as a class community:
- No bribes for votes
- No attack ads
- Vote the issues, not the person
- If unaffiliated, help each campaign equally
- Keep your vote private to avoid hurt feelings
- Ad limit so no one group has more than another
- Help any group who is behind
I was touched by how they put their own feelings aside to offer thoughts on how to move forward as a group. This conversation enabled us to have frank discussions about what it means to have one person win while others lose, and what we can do to be gracious in victory and defeat. It also led to fantastic debates in which students actually discussed issues and their positions, and not each other’s character.
The social-emotional curriculum and the dynamics of our fifth grade learning community played a significant role in this unit. As their teacher, I was challenged to provide the students with an authentic experience, while keeping in mind that they are still learning how to navigate complex social interactions (that even adults have not mastered!). Throughout the unit, the students engaged with genuine emotions in purposeful, respectful, and educative ways. I was tremendously impressed by the skills they developed, the maturity with which they interacted with complicated issues, and their thoughtful approach to the entire unit.