In the wake of the verdict of the Derek Chauvin trial last week, school leaders rose to meet the challenge of how to bring the lessons and values of this difficult moment in history to students. Teachers in all grade levels approached the topic in ways that were appropriate, safe and productive. Guided by JCDS’ Social Justice Group, teachers focused on the frameworks of justice and action in their teaching. It was important to give students space to ask questions, reflect and discuss, and then talk about what they can do themselves. Teachers stayed rooted in the JCDS Habits of Mind and Heart, especially in multiple perspectives, empathy and reflection.

Once lower school students had a chance to absorb the facts of the verdict in age-appropriate detail, they explored the Jewish values of tzedek (justice), the moral responsibility to do what is right, tikkun olam (repairing the world) and pikuach nefesh (saving a life takes priority over everything). Classes reflected on these values and what they meant to individual students by quietly communicating their thoughts on large pieces of paper labeled with these concepts. The students then came back together to reflect on what they had learned from this collaborative activity. Teachers closed the session with a reminder of the pasuk in parshat Shoftim:

צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף
“Justice, justice you shall pursue”

This was a reminder that we must constantly be working together toward a more just world. By facilitating conversations in which Jewish sources can be viewed as a resource for making sense of complex events, students are given the tools and the understanding to turn to Jewish values in difficult moments in their own future.

After making space to discuss the trial and verdict and opening the conversation to student questions, middle school students discussed the concepts of justice (the moral responsibility to do what is right), heal (become sound or healthy again, alleviate a person’s distress or anguish, correct or put right an undesirable situation) and accountable (to be held responsible). Students talked about the ways in which these concepts are similar and different to one another and the role each played in this trial and verdict.

In small groups, middle school students examined this excerpt from Pirkei Avot:

לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר וְאֵין אַתָּה בֶּן חוֹרִין לְהִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה
“It is not on you to finish the task, but neither are you free to ignore it”

There is so much change that is needed in our world, and the idea of creating real and lasting change can be daunting. As students strive to make sense of long-standing and complicated historical patterns that manifest in current events, this text encourages them not to despair of making an impact. We are urged to all do what we can in the time that we have. Students understood that if each of us does something small to educate ourselves and others or supports those most affected by racism and bigotry, we can make a big difference together with intention, energy and empathy.

This concept immediately resonated with many of our middle schoolers, who came up with their own ideas for how to create a better future for all people in our country. Student ideas included using their own spheres of influence to spread thoughtful anti-racist materials, such as on social media, learning the stories of leaders in these movements, exploring why COVID disproportionately affects communities of color and many more. While at first our students were the recipients of the facts and perspective we gave them, they quickly stepped into their own leadership moments and re-inspired their classmates and teachers to pursue justice together in ways large and small to make a lasting impact.

Shira Deener is head of school at JCDS.

The School Sparks blog appears periodically by various writers among the JCDS educational team. Learn more about JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School.

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