Building Authentic Connections

During my middle and high school years, my family volunteered on a regular basis. This included serving Thanksgiving dinners in shelters and volunteering with organizations whose mission was to support people with physical disabilities. While my brother and I occasionally grumbled (like typical adolescents we complained about homework and relished sleeping in on weekends!), these acts of service were mandatory in our family. My dad’s response to us was always his favorite quote from Muhammed Ali: “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth."
This quote has stuck with me—I referenced it in my college essays and reflected on it as I selected a college major and chose a career. Once I began my work in education and had my own children, I thought a good deal about how to teach and raise compassionate kids who will grow into positive community members. Certainly, volunteering in various organizations and raising money and giving donations to those in need are valuable and important. However, the tragic events in Squirrel Hill this fall have shown us that we need to foster respect and understanding of our differences and connect with the people in our communities in order to develop empathy. We must offer students the opportunities and guidance to create their own initiatives.

One of the most rewarding things about teaching Middle School students is seeing the growth of abstract thinking between fifth and eighth grade. At first, students learn to see another perspective through the books they read, in class discussions, and in peer relationships and problem-solving. In our Global Citizenship elective for seventh and eighth graders, students are learning the difference between dialogue and debate, how to be an active listener, and the importance of seeking understanding of another person’s experiences. Once we acquire the skills of listening and understanding, we must make sure that we connect with people in order to provide students with a rich and diverse experience. Our Global Citizenship class will begin blogging with a school in Pakistan on women’s issues. Our seventh grade Homewood Project is an example of a collaborative project with our East End neighbors. Students work with an architect, travel to Homewood to begin their design work, and engage with community advocates to understand their hopes for their neighborhood. They will present their designs to community representatives at the Middle School meeting in December.

Most importantly, we need to listen to our students and hear what is important to them. Our students care deeply and want to take action by sharing personal narratives and working cooperatively to make a difference. In our small group discussions this fall, a group of students asked to share what it meant to them to be Jewish at this time. At a recent Middle School meeting, a panel of students discussed their faith and practice. Several eighth-grade students and the Middle School Student Council are collaborating on a project to support the Tree of Life congregations with middle school students from The Odyssey School in Wakefield Massachusetts, whose Head of School, Margaret Douglas, is an Ellis alumna. At the most fundamental level, it is this proximity to one another’s stories and our commitment to providing opportunities to practice empathy that help our girls grow into positive community members.