MLK Day Behind the Scenes
Typically, AJA’s Middle and High School faculty and students take a break from their studies and spend the Friday before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day engaged in hands-on community service. Historically, high school students split into groups and took buses to help at soup kitchens, clothing donation centers, or local parks. After a few hours spent helping at places in need, the students and teachers are filled with a sense of gratitude and accomplishment. In previous years, students spent their time involved with both on- and off-campus service; this year they spent their day having conversations over Zoom.
Due to COVID-19 safety guidelines, this year’s service-learning day had to look different. AJA’s administration were tasked with planning a day that could be safely interactive while incorporating the values the day is meant to instill. As both the Middle and High School were faced with planning the day entirely different from other years, several 5th-12th grade faculty and administrators came together to plan a new curriculum for the day. “I really enjoyed working together [with the Middle School] to produce a great opportunity for our students,” High School General Studies Instructional Team Leader Mr. Joel Rojek said. “It was two totally different divisions of the school working together with a common purpose, and [that] was very enjoyable and rewarding.”
According to Sylvia Miller, Early Childhood, Lower School, and Middle School Counselor, “The administration had unanimous feelings that due to [COVID-19] and our inability to go out into the community safely, a Yom Iyun [Day of In-Depth Learning] would be a perfect opportunity to celebrate the values of this ‘national holiday.’” To prepare for the panels on Friday, all students were assigned a choice of movies to watch and write reflective journals about, and Judaic Studies classes taught about related topics the previous day.
“How we decided on the panels [of guest speakers] was really…a collective brainstorm in terms of who had contacts that might be interesting or who had ideas for panels,” High School English teacher Mr. Dave Byron explained. “We thought it would be neat if we had different people coming in to discuss [subjects] like race and identity from different angles,” Mr. Rojek added.
Ms. Miller said, “We are looking to open up our minds and hearts to address race and educate our students and community as we navigate our complex world as Jews and human beings.” Similar to the typical service learning day, which had multiple locations students could choose from, the teachers wanted students to have the option to choose from a panel of speakers based on their personal interests. Using different contacts, the teachers were able to have a total of eight-panel options that ran throughout the day.
For example, the school set up a session with a professor from UCLA who is an expert on the Bill of Rights. In relation to MLK Day, Professor Eugene Volokh discussed the right to assembly and protest protected by the First Amendment. Mr. Rojek explained that “timing-wise, it felt really fresh” in relation to the riots that occurred at the capitol just days before.
“We were hoping that there was a nice variety in the topics, while still sounding thematically similar,” Mr. Rojek said. “We were also hoping that there were different voices… We didn’t have teachers teaching sessions; we wanted it to be people who were external.”
While planning out the schedule, the teachers also acknowledged that it can be very difficult to sit at a screen for a few hours and stay invested in the topic at hand. Therefore, they set twenty-minute breaks between each 40-minute session to give people the opportunity to get up and move around before their next session.
This year’s schedule was very different from this day in the past, but the teachers felt that it was very successful in what it was intended to do: spark conversations and discussions. In regards to how MLK Day looks next year, Mr. Byron said that he hopes to continue with what has been done in the past. “Going out and being active in clearing the trails or working with your hands helps you feel good about accomplishing something concrete and something different during the day,” he explained. However, he also recognized the panel’s success and said, “I think that the panels were so great, so if we could just have one or two panels of this strength in the morning” that would incorporate the benefits of both models in one day.
After a few hours of presentations and conversations, the administration hopes seeds have been planted and that students will continue having these discussions. The goal of this day is to reflect on different ways to be better people and dig into difficult issues with hopes of improving ourselves and our communities.
Updated at 6:42pm on February 3, 2021, to include mention of Judaic Studies classes teaching about MLK-related topics the previous day.