How many twelve and thirteen year olds can reach calm and polite consensus, reversing their previous decision? The stereotypical picture of this age group is of an argumentative bunch that bucks most adult suggestions. This week, I saw with my own eyes the opposite of this stereotype. Our middle school student council is a model of mature behavior. That may be a bit of an overstatement – but they definitely are thoughtful and deliberate in their thinking and planning. What I saw, and how this group of students reacted to an “only in a pluralistic Jewish day school” dilemma, reaffirms the importance of our emphasis on, and mix of, social emotional learning, Jewish values, problem-based learning and critical thinking.
I attended my first middle school student council meeting this week, because I thought I needed to wrestle a particular issue with the students and because Mrs. Haire (who usually attends this meeting) was out sick. First the issue: a week ago this student council deliberated about what movie to show for their upcoming Chanukah movie night when their Reali School friends would be visiting from Israel. They wanted a clean comedy that would be easily understood and that could be viewed within 90 minutes. They had settled on “Elf”. I found out about this choice last Wednesday when the first of several parent complaints reached my in-box. The emails were about the appropriateness of showing a “Christmas-themed” movie at a Jewish school on Chanukah.
The answer seems so clear to so many of you. For some the answer is this shouldn’t ever have been entertained as a possibility. An equal number of other members of our community clearly see this as an appropriate choice. The dilemma puts its finger on one of the key issues in every community Jewish day school – are we too Jewish or are we not Jewish enough. Our school is about allowing various Jewish perspectives to live together and to understand the differing perspectives. It is not about dismissing a perspective, but about understanding the position and its supporting evidence. It is about decision making that best represents our values and our various constituents. Many times those things are not in harmony. We are also a school that values giving children opportunities to exercise their own judgment in a thoughtful way.
I spent the next few days tossing the question around in my mind. On the support of “Elf” side was the idea that this might be an interesting way for our students to help their Israeli friends understand how American Jews frame their Jewish identities in a Christian dominated society. Additionally, the movie is not a serious “Christian” movie but rather a spoof on the cultural aspects of Christmas. (Yes, I watched Elf to make sure). Finally, there are so many other movies that our children see that represent values that are far more antithetical to Jewish values than those in this movie.
On the other side, there is the argument that there is no place in a Jewish school for a Christmas themed movie. Many people choose our school to avoid the assault of Christmas that they experienced in public schools and that is so pervasive in our society this time of year.
I entered the student council meeting ready to do battle, because I had clearly made up my mind. I assumed that the students would feel the need to passionately defend their choice, that they wouldn’t easily understand how this choice would be offensive to so many people.
Instead, the co-presidents announced that the main agenda item was the need to change the movie. Before I ever spoke, four of the students said “fine” and then proceeded to make other suggestions. One student asked why they were changing it. The co-Presidents gave a cogent argument for why it needed to change. I had never met with them nor told them about the different sides of the argument – they had already processed it on their own. They said something like “there are too many people upset with this choice.” I simply nodded in agreement, and added a comment about people coming to a Jewish school not wanting Christmas programs. They chose another movie, the secretary of the group sent out the notice of the change, and that was the end of the story.
For me, this story is paradigmatic of the balancing act that a community Jewish day school must play. The way this all played out represented the best possible outcome – careful thought, respectful understanding of the different positions, calm discourse and resolution that we all could live with.
I had just been reading a critique of the Common Core Standards with respect to their silence about social emotional learning. Educator Kristie Fink stated in Edutopia “The standards do not explicitly address the quality of the learning environment or the culture of respect, responsibility, and excellence that must be in place for optimal student learning. Every student needs to feel that the school has a deep commitment to preserving his or her safety, worth and dignity. The school community must have as a standard genuine, caring relationships between and among students, teachers, parents, and staff.” (in Edutopia, January 2014) The student council meeting that I observed met this standard, and I thank the parents and teachers who allowed our students the time to work through this dilemma on their own.