By Dr. Ray Levi
Like many of us, I have been heartened by the student response to the horrific Parkland shootings. As I watch with admiration the passionate, articulate, and yes, indignant voices of many of our youth, I also ponder the role of schools as a new student movement emerges.
As a teacher and former head of school, I have always believed that our classrooms should be places where multiple perspectives can be shared, where a diversity of student voices can be honored. Yet, at this moment in time, how do we also see our role in relation to such foundational Jewish values as the pursuit of justice? How does our commitment to “tikkun olam” (repair of the world) ring true? And as we listen to the words of Parkland youth, often spoken through tears, how do we respond to their call for schools, which we see as sacred spaces, to be free from the threat of deadly violence? How do we respond to their call for action?
As I have considered these questions, I have been returning to my own high school experience as editor of the student newspaper during the early years of the Vietnam War. In those days, political issues were kept far from student publications. Yet, our editorial team, inspired by our own forms of righteous indignation and need to advocate, was interested in bringing Vietnam related content to our pages. We opted to conduct a survey of student views in three classes, writing a lead story about the results. We were blessed to have a passionate and dedicated journalism teacher and advisor – Patrick Harnett – who took the article to a staid and skeptical principal for the approval that was needed prior to publication. I cannot imagine the discussion that ensued, but I can be grateful for the professional capital he was willing to sacrifice on our behalf. In the end, a very leery principal indicated that he wouldn’t approve the article because it didn’t reflect a “representative sample,” and Mr. Harnett jumped on that reasoning to convince him that an effective compromise would be a schoolwide survey – which we conducted, reporting on the results with bold headlines.
The lasting takeaway that has guided my own work as an educator has been the importance of teacher advocacy on behalf of students to help them find their voices. Being committed to “student–centered classrooms,” I have been wondering what that means in our middle– and high–school settings, as we respond to the events that have unfolded in the last weeks. We have a number of responsibilities – and opportunities:
- To look closely at our own responses, to examine if we are too clinical, focusing too closely on specific protests and thereby missing the depth of righteous indignation of our youth – in Florida and beyond.
- To set aside time for meaningful discussion of issues where a variety of perspectives can be heard and honored, where students can learn from differing perspectives through civil discourse;
- To enrich the understandings our students bring to current events by studying core Jewish and American democratic texts that speak to pursuit of justice and advocacy;
- To provide places for students to consider, evaluate, and determine which forms of protest, advocacy, and political action, if any, will work for them, recognizing that different students will make different choices;
- To support our students as they take risks, even as we must recognize that they will make mistakes in the way that each preceding generation has;
- To avoid placing stumbling blocks in front of our students in the form of administrative concerns, allow them to be creative in providing alternatives so their initiatives will flourish and they will see us as their teachers and not their adversaries;
- To recognize that the student choices will not necessarily be those we might make, but that this is part of the process of empowering them and giving them voice.
Our mission statements and programs speak frequently about nurturing leaders. The success of our work as educators is reflected in the passionate concern for justice that students are articulating. Skeptical of our elected officials, this generation of emerging adults is also asking whether their teachers’ actions will reflect the values of the texts studied. They wonder if we will truly see them as leaders. There is much potential for us to test our understandings of student-centered learning and reflect upon the Rambam’s words, “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and the most from my students.” (Mishneh Torah 5:13)
At this moment of pain and change, our students are watching. Can we find the courage to truly live those values that are so close to our hearts?
Dr. Ray Levi, director of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) at The William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at Jewish Theological Seminary, was a head of school at Jewish day schools for 22 years.