We have a tradition in February to have a focus on kindness and justice. This is linked to a NYC Department of Education initiative called Respect for All Week that takes place this year from the week of February 13. We are entering February this year with a sense of urgency around this focus on kindness and justice. Nationwide, there appears to be an increase in hate speech and hate crimes in schools and in neighborhoods. Helping children to understand the impact of their words is complex. In addition to children mimicking what they hear or see in the media, they often lack social and/or historical understanding of why certain phrases are offensive. As a school, we are committed to helping children understand how language and images can be hurtful, to teaching them to be critical consumers of media, and to build their social and historical knowledge. All of this is part of teaching empathy, a character trait that seems to be on the decline in America
As most community members know by now, on Monday afternoon, we were alerted that there was graffiti in the 8th floor boys’ bathroom. A swastika had been drawn in pencil along with the phrase “sig heil trump” [sic]. We immediately erased the swastika and writing and then I met with Nico, Mary, Alexis, and Mara to plan our response. We knew it needed to be carefully designed to clearly communicate that this is not acceptable along with an explanation of why. We also wanted to provide the students with a positive message of how we expect our community to work to create a safer world for all. We do not know how many students saw the graffiti. We are aware that many students were unaware that it had happened. However, as a school we do not tolerate acts such as this. We continue to work hard to insure that all students know that they are welcome and safe in our school.
As part of our response, middle school teachers organized a special assembly. All middle school teachers participated as we wanted to make sure that students understood that we speak with a united voice on this matter. We began with a bit of historical background on the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany and the meaning of the swastika symbol. We then shared with students the words of Martin Neimoller, a Protestant pastor in Germany who became a vocal critic of the Nazi party. We shared his “First they came…
” poem with the students. Different teachers read each stanza. Students then were asked to turn and talk about how this poem has meaning for us today.
After talking about Neimoller’s role as an upstander, several 8th graders volunteered to share their thoughts. They had been given the stem “As a __(fill in part of their identity)_____ , I felt __(fill in emotion about the incident).” Some examples of how they represented themselves are
As an American,
As a Muslim girl
As a Jewish girl
As a Republican
As a Jewish person
As a friend
As a student
As a community member
As a New Yorker
As a person of German heritage
Some examples of how they felt include:
Offended that our leader (no matter what political party) was compared to Hitler
The need to do something
This is not a joke
Middle school students then broke into smaller group discussions with teachers. We will be following up this initial conversation in upcoming advisories and continue to build more opportunities to talk about racism and offensive behaviors in all our classrooms in developmentally appropriate ways. Some things that have been happening recently in classrooms around educating for empathy include:
- This past week, we were fortunate to have the NYC Kids Project perform for our kindergarten and third grade classes on empathy. In addition, eighth graders in the community service elective will be working with the NYC Kids Project to develop “empathy projects” with which they will teach their younger buddies how to be more empathic.
- In first grade, students have been learning about Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King. They are learning from these American heroes how to stand up for what is right.
- Our middle school students all visited the Museum of Jewish Heritage in December. There they heard from two holocaust survivors — one who had survived concentration camps during World War II and the other who had survived the Rwandan Genocide.
- Our fifth graders read novels and memoirs about the struggle to fit in due to different aspects of their beings. Discussions focus on character actions — those who are upstanders and bystanders — with consideration of how our own actions impact the lives of others.
I feel fortunate that I work in a school in which teachers and families are committed to raising children who are concerned about justice. There are no standardized tests that measure our children’s empathy, but we know it is critical to teach this quality anyway. Here’s to a more kind and just world. Together, we can work to achieve this goal.