Moral Education in the Time of Covid

The coronavirus pandemic has inspired our pluralistic school to place a higher priority on moral education than ever before. While it isn’t new to us to attend to the social and emotional needs of our students and to their moral development, the pandemic, awareness of racism, economic inequities and public calls for justice around police brutality have pushed us to accelerate the drive.

Each year in Jewish studies, our students address moral issues through a combination of text study, project-based learning, advisory group discussions, assemblies and programming from the Derech Eretz Honor Council. The topics covered are:

Sixth grade: the meaning of peoplehood and identity

Seventh grade: honoring parents, respecting and returning lost objects, pursuing justice and tzedakah

Eighth grade: gossip and inappropriate speech

Ninth grade: pluralism

Tenth grade: medical ethics, business ethics and moral issues in Israel

Eleventh grade: moral exemplars in the Tanakh and deep moral questions related to reward and punishment, free will and repentance Twelfth grade: gender, sexuality and identity

It is an equally high priority for our general studies departments to take up moral issues through the study of complicated literary characters, historical events and leadership decisions, and issues in bioethics and other fields. The tenth-grade English program focuses on power and alterity, and throughout the curriculum read short stories, speeches, narratives and novels by a wide range of African-American and African writers, in addition to short film, video and music clips.

In a new interdisciplinary and cross-cultural class for this school year called “From Hallel to Hip-Hop,” students are exploring connections between religion and music from the Psalms through Gregorian chants, Christian and European classical works such as Handel’s Messiah, Protestant hymns, Negro spirituals, the blues, works by jazz artists such as John Coltrane and Miles Davis, singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Emmylou Harris and 20th century orchestral works by William Grant Still, Ernest Bloch and Leonard Bernstein. Culminating in the work of recent hip hop and pop artists from Kanye West and Joey Bada$$ to Subliminal and other artists from the United States and Israel, students are exploring how religious themes permeate the music they listen to, offering comfort and reassurance when the times such as these are so demanding.

FIRST TRANSITION: COVID

In the absence of in-person classes and assemblies, we had to find new ways to touch the moral lives of our students. We formed a new moral leadership team and task force called SSEL: Spiritual, Social and Emotional Learning. Faculty members of the Health and Wellness Committee and the administrative task force called “We Love Jewish Life!” joined together to form this new task force that brings faculty and administrators together. We took action in several ways, beginning with attending to our students’ physical and spiritual health and wellness:

Recommended and achieved reductions in weekend homework.

Recommended and achieved changes in assessments, moving from traditional assessments in many classes to project-based learning.

Changed the daily schedule by reducing the number of class periods each day, beginning each class day later, ending earlier and instituting “Wacky Wednesdays” with no afternoon classes.

Some curricular units began to feel more urgent and relevant than ever. Middle school Jewish studies classes that had discussed gossip in the fall came to discuss anti-Asian prejudice and name-calling that emerged as a result of the transmission of the virus from Asia to the United States. Our high school sophomores who had studied medical ethics considered the moral implications of privacy, access to health care, and the responsibility of federal and local governments in a pandemic.

As excited as we were about these new initiatives, there were costs, including the loss of learning time and the possibility of shortchanging our curricula in every subject; the loss of face- to-face contact time; a physical library and hard copy texts that should be shared side by side. But the gains included the elimination of commuting time (75% of our students have a commute of one hour or more) and students who appeared more healthy because they were sleeping more each night, in tune with adolescent circadian rhythms. Advisory periods showed that students were more aware of contemporary issues than they usually are, and nearly everyone knew someone who had contracted the virus or whose life and livelihood had been affected, often for the worse.

SECOND TRANSITION: BLM

The SSEL task force was beginning to coast and congratulate itself as we were counting down the final days of the school year, when public unrest erupted around the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. The SSEL task force took on a new moral challenge, focusing not only on physical and mental health in the time of the pandemic, but also on the moral health and culture of the school at a time of increased awareness of systemic racism. We have already taken some steps, with much more momentum needed ahead of us:

Our students of color shared that they had been the targets of racism and racist comments both in public and in school. They called for an examination of the curriculum and for outreach to future teachers and students of color.

Our LGBTQ students voiced their renewed concern about homophobia and reminded us that having gender-neutral bathrooms was not enough.

Two graduating seniors developed a curriculum focused on antiracist practices and texts that has fueled curricular conversations about a new learning module for all students that will complement what we teach already about pluralism.

Our Derech Eretz Honor Council mobilized to prepare questions for advisory group discussions and to propose programming ideas for the fall.

Our professional leadership met at the request of concerned parents and students and acknowledged that our school leans towards “Ashke-normative” practices, with Ashkenazic Jewish culture dominating Shacharit observance, holiday celebrations, Shabbaton practices and some informal language that refers to “Shabbos” instead of “Shabbat,” in effect delegitimating Sephardic practices and language, Israeli culture and culture brought by Jews of color or adoptees.

We appointed a colleague to become a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion coordinator to guide our thinking and steps in hiring, student admissions, curriculum and programming.

Our Jewish studies and general studies curricula are focusing more on questions related to public health, access to health, diversity, what we mean when we talk about “Jewish values” and systemic racism.

The pandemic forced the school leadership to confront its four Derech Eretz values of honor/kavod, moral courage/ometz lev, kindness/chesed and community/kehillah. Because we value honor, we have to honor the differences among our students. Because we value moral courage, we have to make curricular changes and allow voices to be heard that may make some feel discomfort. Because we value kindness and community, we have to make special efforts to include those who have felt themselves to be at the margins and extend our sense of community to include new members as well who ruled us out as a spiritual and educational home. While it is unlikely that we would open our school to people who are not Jewish, we can find other ways to make sure that our students encounter diverse voices.

The SSEL task force is determined to address several questions going forward:

Now that we have a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion coordinator, how can we support his success?

At our pluralistic Jewish school, how can we transform our co-curricular programs from Shacharit to athletics, health education, drama, advisory and the faces of our students and teachers to be more inclusive of different voices, abilities and traditions?

To what extent can we, as we teach, celebrate and transmit our unique Jewish heritage to our students and join together in partnership with schools that represent other religious and ethnic heritages?

To what extent is the board ready to expand its membership to bring in new voices?

Living in the midst of the pandemic has meant that we are hungry for meaningful connections, so we will continue to convene virtual meetings with diverse constituencies as we answer these questions, mindful that the pandemic has led us to expand our notion of health to include moral health. We are filled with hope, both for a vaccine and an end to the pandemic and also for the kind of moral growth that will enable our school to thrive and be better than ever before.

Author
Judd Kruger Levingston
Issue
Remodeling
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning, School Policies and Procedures
Published: Fall 2020