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At the Rashi School, King’s message resonates

Elena (5) worked on her poster for the school's MLK Day "March for Kindness".
Elena (5) worked on her poster for the school's MLK Day "March for Kindness".Meghan Sorensen for The Boston Globe

The Rashi School, a K-8 Reform Jewish school in Dedham, has long looked to social justice as a guiding principle. It was the first K-8 school in the Boston area to have a full-time social justice coordinator and hews to the belief that “social justice is an academic endeavor, not an afterthought.”

So it should come as no surprise that with Martin Luther King Day approaching, Rashi’s kindergarten students are preparing for a “March for Kindness” while older children are learning about prominent civil rights figures.

Janie Brauer, for example, led her first-grade students through the story of Ruby Bridges, who in 1960 became the first African-American student to integrate an elementary school in the South. She was just 6, like most of Brauer’s students.

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In teaching about Bridges, Brauer introduced the topic of racial discrimination. “How would you feel if you were treated this way?” she asked the class. A young girl named Tali shot her hand into the air and answered “Brave.”

“She just stood up and she never gave up,” Tali said.

Brauer said these conversations are important because kindergarten lessons often revolve around the concept of fairness. Students should learn that some children were not able to do things they take for granted every day and that people are still treated unfairly, she said.

Kindergarten teacher Sharon Miller used a scenario to teach her students about discrimination. She said that only students with Velcro shoes could have snack time. After hearing many complaints, Miller said she had changed her mind; only students without Velcro shoes could have a snack.

As students considered this, one said “I’m going to be sad if I get to have snack but not everybody gets to have snack because I care about everyone at the Rashi School," Miller recalled. Another student responded, “Me too.”

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“We needed you to know how it feels to be left out," Miller recalled telling the students, assuring them that everyone would have snack time. “How it feels to have a rule that excludes you and we also needed you to know what it’s like when someone stands up and uses words like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did.”

Miller said she hoped the exercise would help teach students about King’s nonviolent tactics by showing them that words can be powerful. Her class has also discussed what it means to be fair and how students can be fairer to each another in their daily life.

In preparation for the march, students have made posters describing how to be fair. One first grader, 5-year-old Elena, portrayed two friends drawing the same picture with the caption “let people learn from you.”

“The teacher wants us to learn from each other,” she said. Just as people learned from King. “He made the world a better place," she said.

Connecting the lesson to their religious studies, Miller reminds students that the Torah teaches that “it’s our responsibility to stand up for others.” All social justice lessons focus on the school’s core values, which include learning, justice, community, respect, and spirit. Much of the community work the school does is centered on Tikkun Olam, the concept of helping repair broken parts of the world.

For each grade, Rashi has created social justice standards that tie directly into religious lessons. Fourth graders, for example, are expected to develop awareness of other perspectives, identify areas of brokenness in human relationships, and understand the mitzvah of Hiddur P’nei Zaken (honoring the elderly) by building a relationship with an elderly community. For this project, students visit Hebrew SeniorLife’s NewBridge on the Charles, which shares a campus with the school.

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“We want them to feel the power that they have, as individuals but collectively as well, to change the world,” said Jen Blum, head of the middle school.