Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Instilling in Students Civic Responsibility

Last night I had the privilege to attend Magen David's freshman parent orientation.  In addition to a ton of information parents were given about how to help their children succeed at the high school, there was one speech by a young Rabbi that resonated with me as particularly appropriate for all high school educators and administrators to be thinking about as the school year begins.  Rabbi Haber, our Assistant Chief Academic Officer of Judaic Studies, spoke about the need for children to feel attached to their community, a sense of responsibility towards their community, and towards the greater world.  He spoke about how children cannot live for themselves alone.  I have long said that newer educational models must take into account an increasingly selfish society, but challenge students to appreciate that they are citizens of an ever increase international society, global citizens as to speak.  This speech knocked it out of the park.  While he touched on other areas as well in the speech, I would like to focus on this one point.  

Personal accountability is certainly a key life skill we try to instill in our students over their educational career, but further, communal responsibility, or a persons responsibility to the society that helped make them what they are is even a step beyond that.  We must do both.  

Rabbi Haber spoke about people concerned that our community will not look the same in 10-20 years from now, that people will not be as invested, because the youth are seen as already not so.  He then challenged parents to advocate to their students to be involved in activities throughout school and beyond that give back, take ownership over their community, and show appreciation towards the community that they live in.  As we all know, any great educator will tell you it takes a community, a family, and a school to raise a great child working in harmony (I wrote about this in previous posts).  Rabbi Zucker, the school principal, echoed this concept yesterday.  However, instead of relying on the community to passively be a participant, we must make our students activist in their community to ensure its continuity.  

Encouraging students to be responsible for their communities is not a new goal of educators.  In fact, John Dewey wrote in Democracy and Education in 1916.  He wrote, "We have seen that a community or social group sustains itself through continuous self-renewal, and that this renewal takes place by means of the educational growth of the immature members of the group.  By various agencies, unintentional and designed, a society transforms uninitiated and seemingly alien beings into robust trustees of its own resources and ideals.  Education is thus a fostering, a nurturing, a cultivating, process." (Chapter 2,

We must teach our students that it is their duty to give back to their community, their nation, their world.  While many schools have environmental clubs, community service clubs, and even EMT certification programs in house, we must make every effort to instill in our students the priority of participating in such organizations in addition to community organizations outside our walls.  In fact, we must begin to allow students to learn about these community organizations within our walls.  

While many schools utilize internships programs to further allow their students to get real world experiences and learn through doing, it is also important that students are able to reflect on their learning during these experiences and do volunteer work that is meaningful to themselves and their community.  While a person may decide he/she wants to become a doctor, they could also volunteer in their community in both medical related areas giving out free care to the poor and serving on a school board parent committee relating to health in the schools.  These are not mutually exclusive, rather they work together.  

Great schools make sure students realize this role they will play later on outside and within their professional life.  "Service Learning" has become the new catch phrase for this.  It attempts to classify the idea that schools should give students access to community experiences that provide the student with job related skills and foster in the student the concept of good citizenship.  While certain states have created comprehensive initiatives, other schools simply attempt to redefine their clubs as providing students with both career opportunities and community involvement and awareness.

At Magen David, we have an individual (Rabbi Tawil) dedicated to helping students find their way in the world of extra curricular activities.  Among these many opportunities is a sense that they need to be involved not only for themselves, not only to help them get into college, but to make them better people and sustain the fabric of their very community.  While we have a comprehensive internship program (thanks to Sabrina Maleh) very much aligned to students' career interest, we require reflection on their experience and investigation into volunteer work that gives back to the community at large.  Our students classes are very much connected to their career goals so their is symmetry between the skills they learn in class and the adaptation of them to the real world.  Building a sense of a community in a school is key (I will write about this more another post), but also having a school build on the foundations of the community around it is equally vital.  I was thrilled to hear Rabbi Haber discuss this civic responsibility.  

Furthermore, if we want our students and children to be community activists (ok I hate this term, but can't think of a better English one), we need to be as well.  So, when my husband asks why I am running to a meeting at my child's school in the late evening, I always remind him, if I do not do it, our children won't.  What school will the next generation have?  As John Dewey wrote, "Aims mean acceptance of responsibility for the observations, anticipations, and arrangements required in carrying on a function."  If this is our aim, it must be carried out with the responsibility firmly resting on us educators.   As Horace Mann once wrote, "A different world cannot be built by indifferent people."

On this day of 9/11, when the world is reminded of the terrible tragedy that befell us, we must also be reminded of the sense of community that was created that day when strangers from all walks of life stepped up to the plate and helped their fellow "man."  Let us not wait for tragedies to strike to be involved in our communities, let us stop and appreciate them daily and teach our children to do the same.