The Lessons from Parkland for Jewish Education
By Jonathan Cannon
Any attempt to explain, understand, contextualize or reframe the tragic killing of 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is a disservice to those who died and the families that mourn them.
Our lack of understanding should not be an excuse for failing to learn. The circumstances of this tragedy provide an opportunity, and perhaps a duty to support the students and families of the school in their quest to find meaning in this senseless and horrific act, and to bring about change. I and many others are in awe of the passionate, articulate, and sensitive way in which the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School present themselves and their ideas.
Some have chosen to label these students as naïve. I prefer to view them as unaffected by the cynicism and hopelessness that defines many of us from all political persuasions, who see only obstruction and discord among those from who we seek leadership and direction. The students believe that change is possible; they believe in safer schools and a world that can do better. I hope that our experience and cynicism doesn’t turn into a cudgel with which to, “knock some sense,” into these beautiful young minds.
When I reflect on my time as a head of school, I am proud of the successes and reflective on things that I might do differently. One of the areas in which my understanding has deepened, is that schools can and should trust and empower students. We can provide opportunities for them to participate in decision-making in ways that are genuinely authentic by allowing their participation to play a part in influencing outcomes in meaningful ways.
In my consultancy work, I have visited schools where students are actively involved in planning curriculum, strategizing about enrollment challenges, and participating in the decision-making that surrounds disciplinary action. I continue to be impressed and energized by the seriousness with which students carry out these responsibilities and their ability to understand and absorb the significance of the big picture and precedent in informing outcomes. I have been wondering whether if we were to take a group of day school students on a two or three-day retreat and asked him to wrestle with the challenge of school affordability, we would hear about some new ideas or possibilities that would be both practical and impactful!
The education of the future is rightly dominated by discussion about STEAM, project-based Learning, game-based learning, critical thinking, collaboration and communication. Part of the work that Alanna Kotler and I do with Prizmah and the Avi Chai foundation is to explore with schools how to apply these educational ideals to engage students in the learning of Judaics, Hebrew Language and Israel. The difference between success and failure in utilizing these techniques is often determined by the authenticity of the challenges and problems that the students are being asked to think about, analyze, and solve. For example, many of our students are passionate about environmental issues and when they are challenged to design a sukkah, celebrate Tu B’ishvat, or examine the laws of keeping kosher in ways that enhance the environment, and promote the dignity of all of G-d’s creatures, the results of their work are often eye-opening and practical in ways that can directly impact our religious observances and our festival celebrations
Repeatedly our students act as problem solvers and trend setters and while we are often discussing and highlighting the negative aspects of progress and technology, there are times where we remain unaware of the potential positive outcomes that can be brought about through trust and authenticity. I recognize and accept that as educators and leaders there are many times that we have a responsibility to make decisions on behalf of our school community, informed by circumstances and our best judgment. The response to this tragedy serves as a reminder to me that there are also times when we must empower our students to act on their own feelings and trust that they will do this responsibly and appropriately. Most times they do and if they don’t, that will also be a moment of learning for all of us!
The tragedy of Parkland and the response of the survivors has become a teachable moment across the United States and the world. The question is whether we can recognize that this time it is the students who are teaching, and us adults that are learning.
May The memories the seventeen teachers and students that lost their lives be for a blessing. May we have the foresight and strength to elevate their memory by understanding and engaging with bereaved families and grieving classmates. May G-d grant the leadership of our country, and all of us, the wisdom and strength the end this plague of violence that has stolen the safety of our beloved students.
Jonathan Cannon has been a Jewish day school leader for over 25 years, most recently completing a 12 year tenure at the Charles E Smith Jewish Day School in Greater Washington. Currently, his consulting company, Educannon Consulting, is working with the Avi Chai Foundation, Prizmah:CJDS and individual schools with a focus on leadership in Jewish Day Schools.