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Chain of learning

Yavneh students, Rockleigh elders talk about Rosa Parks together

Eighth-grade students from Yavneh talk to elders about history at the Jewish Home at Rockleigh; deeper conversations often follow.
Eighth-grade students from Yavneh talk to elders about history at the Jewish Home at Rockleigh; deeper conversations often follow.

A book has the power to activate a kinetic chain of learning. When you combine the narrative of that book with a memorable and heroic personality, such as Rosa Parks, it often resonates far beyond the pages. That recipe connects various ages, populations, and even generations.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks changed the course of the civil rights movement forever. For several years, Ms. Parks had worked as a civil rights activist for the NAACP — to give it its full name, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Dedicated to its cause, Ms. Parks became an active member of the civil rights association, and later she worked as its secretary.

The events of that day in 1955 placed Rosa Parks on the historical map forever. She was transformed into “the mother of the civil rights movement.” Ms. Parks had just completed her shift; she worked at a department store in Montgomery, Alabama. She got on the bus and paid for her seat. When the bus driver demanded that she move toward the back to make room for white people, Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat. All her life experiences with racism and segregation came together right then, right there. There was no turning back.

Ms. Parks was arrested, and soon after a successful boycott went into effect. It was noted that the success of the Montgomery bus boycott launched nationwide efforts to put an end to racial segregation.

Years later, when people asked Ms. Parks whether she had been tired when she refused to give up her seat, she’d replied, “I was just tired of giving in. I‘d been fed up my whole life with being treated as less than a free person.”

Rosa Parks received many awards in her lifetime, including the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The rest is important history, and that’s where Yavneh Academy steps into the picture.

For several years Yavneh’s technology department, under the guidance of Chani Lichtiger, the school’s director of educational technology and educational design, has connected our students of different ages with the elder population of the Jewish Home at Rockleigh through a variety of projects. The eighth- grade students have been visiting and forming meaningful relationships throughout those years.

The project this year centered on a book, “Who Was Rosa Parks?” by Yona Zeldis McDonough. The elder population at the Jewish Home at Rockleigh read the children’s book, and so did Yavneh’s eighth grade students. For the first time, second-grade reading groups were added to the mix, creating an intergenerational book club. And a beautiful chain of learning evolved.

While our students in those grades read about the life and times of Rosa Parks, the elders lived through that era and had so much to teach our students. The book was a source of powerful memories, connections, and lessons.

All these elements came alive the day I accompanied Ms. Lichtiger and the eighth-grade students to their monthly visit to Rockleigh.

The inspiring story of Rosa Parks jogs elders’ reminiscences about civil rights struggles.

Sunni Herman of Teaneck, the executive vice president of the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, has been working with the Paramus-based Yavneh Academy since the inception of this project. Talking with her, it’s obvious this program is near and dear to Ms. Herman’s heart. “We have many intergenerational programs, but the Yavneh program is the most successful because of the longevity — it’s been nine years — and because of the strength and commitment of our partnership,” she said. “Both organizations are committed to make it better every year. Every year we learn and grow together.

“Chani Lichtiger and the Yavneh technology department are always thinking about how to push the envelope,” she continued. “When the program began, we started out by teaching some basic technology skills, including how to shop online and how to write an email, and it has expanded. Last year, the fourth grade and our elders read a book about bullying.”

When I interjected with a question about the residents, Ms. Herman quickly corrected me. “We don’t use the term resident,” she said. “We prefer using the term ‘elder,’ because it shows respect.

“Something wonderful evolves when you introduce young students to these activities,” she continued. “What begins as a monthly visit often transforms into summer internships, mentoring, and the pursuit of healthcare careers.”

Again, that chain of learning.

When Ms. Lichtiger arrived with the students, the elders were waiting, seated around a horseshoe table, ready for a morning of sharing and learning together. The students sat opposite from the elders. After friendly greetings, and a few minutes to catch up with each other, a robust group discussion ensued.

Steve, a former special needs teacher, spoke very articulately about the bravery of Rosa Parks and the importance of understanding history. “People are still suffering,” he said.

Then Evelyn added, “I lived in the Bronx during that time, and I went to school with only white children. As a young person, I was protected from what was going on in the south. Reading this book gave me a better understanding.” Then the discussion turned to the 1963 March on Washington, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I have a dream” speech.

Another elder connected events in the south to anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. Jews have faced many kinds of discrimination too,” she said.

Our students were totally engaged in this discussion, offering their own personal connections to the book. “My parents came from Russia and faced some similar difficulties,” one said. Another student told the group that her family, who lived in the north, supported the bus boycott in the south and didn’t ride buses during that time.

In the corner of the room, I noticed a woman working on an iPad during the discussion. Using an app called google translate, she and two students worked together to translate the discussion from English to Chinese, her native language.

The morning flew by, and it was time to return to the Yavneh school bus for afternoon classes. “We will be seeing you next month,” Ms. Lichtiger said as they were leaving. Some of the elders asked, “What are we reading next? Can we read about the life of Eleanor Roosevelt?”

Yavneh students and their teachers are enthusiastic about their work at Rockleigh.

Back at Yavneh Academy, Ms. Lichtiger described her own perspective and feelings about this long running project. Beneath her professional surface there are some deep emotions.

“When I was a little girl, the only way to visit my grandparents was to go to their senior facility,” she said. “In those days, senior homes were not of the same quality. Visiting them was difficult for me. But the Jewish Home at Rockleigh is very different. The environment is immaculate, and the elders are well taken care of. People are valued and respected.

“The beauty of this program is the same students return every month and work with the same elder,” she continued. “They develop interesting relationships and friendships throughout the year, with some students returning even after graduation. The students are learning history first-hand from people who lived through that period. It hits a nerve, because history is real and tangible.”

Finally, when the eighth-graders and the second-graders got together to brainstorm ideas from the book, there was even more sharing of ideas and connections. Together, the students learned some important life lessons.

“Rosa didn’t give up her seat. It’s important to stand up for yourself.”

“Every single person in this world should be treated fairly.”

“Rosa never stopped fighting for equal rights until she died.”

“Rosa felt voting was important and had to take the test three times to register to vote — she never gave up.”

“It doesn’t matter what you are on the outside — It only matters what you are on the inside.”

These are important lessons to remember for life, wouldn’t you say?

Esther Kook is a proud teacher at Yavneh Academy and looking forward to the next book in our book club.

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