Before their school science fair, even before their fifth grade heritage fair, the fourth graders at Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford put on a social actions fair.
At the fair this year, the students made a presentation to their parents and their peers about a social cause they’d researched and then worked for.
“They could say that something they had done in their activism project had made a difference in some way in the world,” Rachel Greenwald said. Ms. Greenwald teaches general studies to the school’s third and fourth graders; she and her colleagues, Rozanne Rosenberg and Tamar Simansky, developed the social responsibility curriculum that culminated in the fair.
“Their sense of accomplishment and their pride when they were presenting at the fair was amazing,” she said.
The curriculum begins in third grade by introducing the students to the United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child.
“They learn that children around the world have very specific rights,” Ms. Greenwald said. “Things like the right to a name and safe housing and clean water.”
At the end of that unit, the students wrote letters to their federal representatives — the president and the vice president, New Jersey’s two senators, and Congressman Josh Gottheimer, who represents New Milford— “asking why the United States is one of only two countries in the United Nations not to have ratified it. They wrote a really fantastic letter, saying they had learned about the convention and didn’t understand why the United States hadn’t taken that step.”
Looking at the rights of children served to bring discussions of empathy into the classroom. “It was a good way to realize that there are other people outside our bubble, that there are children in the United States who don’t have clean water and don’t have the education they have,” Ms. Greenwald said.
The fourth grade curriculum builds on concepts of rights they’d learned about in third grade to teach students about social action.
“It starts with an appreciation of civil rights and then we go from civil rights to human rights,” Ms. Greenwald said. “They learn about Rosa Parks and Sylvia Mendez and many other people who stood up for human rights.” Rosa Parks has long been famous as a civil rights icon for her 1955 arrest for sitting in the wrong section of a segregated bus in Alabama. Ms. Mendez was 8 years old when her father filed suit against the California school board that had assigned her to a segregated Hispanic school. The victory of the case in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1947 led to the desegregation of schools in California and was an important milestone in desegregation in the United States. President Barack Obama awarded Ms. Mendez the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
And then, toward the end of fourth grade, the curriculum guides the children as they take on their own social action projects.
“It starts with a discussion of what does the word social mean and what does the word action mean,” Ms. Greenwald said. “What does it mean to be a social activist and what does it mean to use their voices?”
The teachers asked the students to describe what an ideal world would look like. With a wish list of things to fight for, the students began discussing “what we felt we could help with and what would be too big for a fourth grader. They narrowed down their focuses to something where they felt they could make a difference.”
Last year, Schechter had three fourth grade classes with 12 or 13 students each. Ms. Greenwald’s class divided into three teams, which launched three projects.
As it happened, one had a very local focus; one a more community-wide focus; and one was global. “It wasn’t planned that way, but it evolved from what the students wanted to do,” Ms. Greenwald said.
The local project was called “Project Pick It Up.”
“They decided they wanted to do something about the litter problem in the school, which was pretty big this year because everybody was outside a lot,” Ms. Greenwald said. “They decorated one of the massive outside garbage bins.”
Another group of her students called themselves “Cans for Kindness.”
“They learned about food insecurity and decided to run a can drive,” Ms. Greenwald said. “They set a goal of collecting 250 cans of food to be taken to a local food pantry. They stood outside in the carpool line with placards asking people to bring in cans. They ended up with almost 300 cans, and they were taken to a food bank in Fairview.
The third group connected to an organization called “The Shoe That Grows.”
It had been started when the organization’s founder, an entrepreneur named Kenton Lee, “visited Kenya, looked down, and saw that a girl had cut off the toes of her shoe so her toe could stick out. He developed a shoe that can grow five sizes. He came and talked to us on Zoom about his organization.” And he sent some samples of the shoes, which are sort of overgrown sandals.
This tied in to the third grade curriculum too — those younger students learning about children’s rights had learned about children who had trouble going to school because they didn’t have shoes to wear.
The fourth graders held a walkathon to raise money for the Shoe That Grows.
They made posters, a video public service announcement, and sponsor forms, and asked all the third and fourth graders to take the sponsor forms home. They raised more than $6,500 for the organization.
“On the last day of school, we got him back on Zoom, and said we raised the money,” Ms. Greenwald said. “He was absolutely blown away. The children were so invested. They had to work for the campaign, they had to work for the walk.”
As the students learned about the causes, they also learned about how organizations work. They also learned about persuasion.
“Each group wrote a mission statement,” Ms. Greenwald said. “We looked at the mission statements of other social action groups to see what a mission statement looked like. We looked at our school’s mission statement.”
That statement includes the line: “We inspire our students to pursue peace, compassion, freedom, and equality. We empower our students to make a difference by doing acts of tzedek (justice) and gemilut chasadim (loving kindness).”
The students wrote slogans for their projects and they wrote publicity materials, both for print and for video. “It was very hard making PSAs in school with masks on — they had to put in subtitles” because some the students were hard to hear beneath their masks, Ms. Greenwald said.
Not coincidentally, the social action projects also were lessons about teamwork.
“It was one of the things they found challenging,” she said. “They learned to listen to one another, how to use their voice. There were some disappointments. Sometimes there was some tension.”
The final result, though, made it worthwhile.
“Student got so much out of this, because it was them,” Ms. Greenwald said. “It wasn’t us telling them what to do.”
How much impact did these programs have? That’s where the balance between local and global comes into play. Because while the consequences of actions on behalf of Kenya can be hard to see, the local projects can bring immediate results.
In Ms. Greenwald’s class, that took the form of the prettified garbage container.
A group in another class brought up concerns about the problems posed by traffic on the busy street the school adjoins.
“They wrote to the local council and asked for orange delineator posts in the middle of the road,” Ms. Greenwald.
The council agreed and the posts were installed.
“It was amazing,” Ms. Greenwald said.
A third group campaigned for the school to install a bike rack, to encourage students to bike to school. That has been taken under consideration by the administration.
The social action projects are felt throughout the school, by the entire student body.
“For two weeks, my kindergartener said ‘we need to bring cans’ when we went to school,” Micaela Gold, a parent and the school’s manager of marketing and communications, said.
Lauren Goldman-Brown, Schechter’s principal for early childhood and elementary school, said that the social responsibility curriculum fits into the school’s ethos. “Tikkun olam is one of our core values,” she said.
“Any kind of unit of study that the kids are working on in any grade is always looking at how can this have an impact, what can we do to make the world a better place. These teachers were pretty artful in being able to give the kids a lot of voice and choice in what the project would look like. The teachers really wanted the kids not to just think about this on a theoretical level, but to really be able to make a change as a kid who is eight, nine, or ten years old.”
Even outside this curriculum, “kids always come to me or my partner in Judaic studies” — that’s Ricky Stamler-Goldberg, the school’s director of education and Judaic studies — “with chesed projects they want to do. They want to raise money for a children’s cancer fund or they want to support an organization that is cleaning oceans — we really encourage them. We get kids in first and second grades who want to do those things.
“It’s very much in the fabric of the school. Children from the time they are little are learning about ways to help other people and do good in the world.”
The social responsibility curriculum ties into the third grade social studies priority of understanding communities around the world,” Ms. Greenwald continued. “Studying China or a country in Africa wasn’t speaking to the kids,” she said. “Our teachers wanted to find a way to make it meaningful.”
By looking through the lens of children’s rights — something all the students could relate to personally — the students were interested in exploring how those rights looked around the world.
Which brings up the question this reporter would have asked about children’s rights back when he was in third grade: What about the right not to have homework?
“The truth is, we really have very little homework,” Ms. Goldman-Brown said. “Even if we did, I’m sure the teachers would let the kids write a persuasive essay on why children shouldn’t have too much homework.
“If you look at the research, at lower grades homework has very little value in terms of children’s learning. We’ll have homework if it’s purposeful and meaningful and it connects, not just for the sake of giving homework.”