At Schechter Manhattan we aspire for our students to develop the skills and dispositions to be active citizens in American society. This year, as every year, we are engaging students in study of the election cycle. The current presidential election campaign is very contentious and emotions are running high across the political spectrum. In this charged climate it is appropriate to consider how we approach politics at Schechter Manhattan and what we hope our students will learn.
We teach about the functioning and functions of local, state and federal government. In the Middle School Humanities curriculum students explore various forms of government and consider the challenges and strengths of different systems. They study the founding documents of the United States and the issues that shaped the US Constitution. In the 8th grade they analyze conceptions of the American dream and evaluate those ideas relative to the reality experienced by varied Americans. As issues come up within a given year’s election cycle, the 8th grade students consider the positions through the conceptual lens of the American dream, adding a layer of complexity and timeliness to their course of study.
In regards to specific political parties, platforms, and candidates, it has been our longstanding practice for teachers to avoid sharing their personal political views with their students. We aspire for students to engage in safe and respectful dialogue about all topics, including politics. Since teachers hold more power in the classroom, sharing our political leanings would shift the dynamic in the learning community such that it would not be as safe for dissenting views to be aired. The role of the teacher is to nurture and maintain safe spaces for students to share their perspectives and think critically. We help students engage in civil and respectful discourse, even and especially when they disagree. We remind students regularly of classroom standards of respect and intervene if students cross boundaries in the tone or content of their speech. In this way students can take risks to share their perspectives, ask critical questions, and come to their own conclusions about the political issues and speech that they encounter. Students also practice the skill and art of civil dialogue with people that they disagree with, learning to listen carefully, manage their reactions, and respond thoughtfully to one another.
The dialogue around this presidential election has often not met the high standards for respect at Schechter Manhattan. Angry rhetoric, racist and sexist speech, and topics that are not developmentally appropriate for young children, such as sexual abuse, have filled the stump speeches, debates, and headlines. In this atmosphere, there are some thoughtful and well respected educators in the larger field who are suggesting that this election is an exception and are advocating for teachers to share their political perspectives within the classroom and to publicly endorse a candidate. At Schechter Manhattan, we acknowledge the unusual and challenging character of this election, but we believe that it makes our educational approach even more important. More than ever our students need to develop the critical thinking capacities to evaluate ideas and values and make their own good judgments. More than ever they need to engage in respectful discourse with people who think differently than they do. So, we are sticking with our educational approach and aspirations.
When challenging topics come up in classrooms, for example if a student repeats racist or sexist comments heard through campaign coverage in the media, we respond through the lens of Jewish values. Teachers remind students of enduring understandings that might shape their thinking and responses to what they have heard. We tell students that in Jewish tradition we believe that every human being is created בצלם אלקים, bteslem elohim, in the image of God, are holy, and should therefore be treated with caring and respect. We point out that the sages taught us כבוד הבריאות,kvod habriot, honor for God’s creations, and that all human beings deserve to be treated in ways that avoid embarrassment or humiliation. We show them the many times throughout the Torah that God commands us גר לא תונה, ger lo toneh, do not oppress the stranger, because God expects us to care for the weaker members of society, not take advantage of or harm them. With these Jewish ideals in mind, students are asked to think for themselves about whether the comments of a given candidate, the platform of a given party, or position on a given issue is in concert with their own values.
On election day students throughout the school will practice the civic responsibilities of holding an informed opinion and casting their vote. We will have a mock election/referendum in which students will vote on some issues related to their lives. The learning activity will not involve candidates or political issues of the actual election, so that students can learn the civics lesson safely and in developmentally appropriate ways.
As indicated in our mission statement, we believe that when given the opportunity to engage in thoughtful debate across disciplines our students become independent learners and powerful communicators. The approach to teaching about elections at Schechter Manhattan affords students just such an opportunity. In the end, we aspire for our students to develop the characteristics that will make them the future leaders of America- people who are well informed, are grounded in values, can make thoughtful and critical evaluations, and who are able to engage respectfully with those with whom they disagree.
Each week we will feature the written work of our students. We hope that you will stop by every week and see what they are writing and thinking about.
During Gan’s Weekend Update writing activity, students have the opportunity to write about something they did over the weekend.
“IPLSAKR. JRABOD” – I played soccer. I dribbled.
“IYT TO MRLD. IYT N The K.” – I went to Maryland. I went in the Sukkah.
“I MNT M RDPRTS.” – I went to my grandparents
At the start of the year in Literacy, Kitah Bet created a list of possible ideas they could write about. Students have been given the option to choose one of those topics and write about it in greater detail. They were given prompts like, “A person I love is…” and “A favorite memory is…” Each writing period they are encouraged to pick one of those topics and add at least two sentences with greater detail related to the topic.
Kitah Dalet has been studying non-fiction. The students have thought about things they know a lot about. They have made lists of the things they know a lot about and have made sub lists to deepen their thoughts about what they know well.
After reading and analyzing a Greek myth, students learned the steps of writing a summary using an outline and template. Using their rough drafts, students then learned the process of peer editing and revising, and practiced these steps in pairs. After sharing their work with at least two other peers, students submitted a final draft.