Last Friday, all the Middle School classes were dedicated to a daylong teach-in on contemporary social justice issues and Martin Luther King's legacy.
As is the habit at Gordon, the history lessons were persistently applied to current events, personal experience and the need for everyday activism.
In one of the morning's eight workshops, seventh and eighth graders heard a fourteen-year-old's poem on white privilege, discussed the power of spoken word poetry, then answered the prompt:
What do you need to say about power, privilege, or prejudice? You can focus on race or another social identifier (gender, socio-economic class, sexual orientation, nationality, family configuration, ability, etc).
Across the school, in the theater, students were role-playing real-life situations where social power can be abused: seat saving on the bus, for one, or a nasty comment dismissed as "just kidding."
For these students, these ambiguous situations are more common than obvious bullying.
They are also harder to intervene in.
Another workshop was inspired by the eighth grade's study of contemporary Islamophobia in the fall.
"Throughout the unit," their teacher explained, "the students kept discovering things and saying 'I can't believe I didn't know this! Other people should know this!'"
Last Friday, they got a chance to teach it all to fifth and sixth graders.
A dozen eighth graders prepared a four-part lesson, start to finish, from the seat assignments to the final questions and answers.
As any teacher can attest, preparing a lesson is an excellent way to master a topic.
When there's a daylong teach-in on social activism, what do the science and math teachers do?
On Friday, one math teacher had students reviewing census data to uncover patterns of childhood poverty in Rhode Island.
In a science lab down the hall, students were investigating racial segregation in contemporary US schools.
After a brief presentation, students identified a series of questions they had.
Then, they dug into government data in search of answers.
Some of their questions would have simple answers.
Others would not.
Second, third and fourth grades were invited to join the Middle School for the mid-morning assembly.
Among the dozens of voices that were represented, a theme of everyday activism emerged.
The assistant head of school told the story of how a reader's letter inspired the creator of Peanuts' to introduce the comic strip's first African-American character.
The school nurse and a math teacher talked about how they integrate service to others into their daily lives.
Seventh graders read poems on personal identity - race, ethnicity, gender expression - inspired by Langston Hughes' poem "I, too".
One poem gave a vivid snapshot of how pride and selflessness can coexist in the mind of a twelve-year-old activist:
I am the person that does stuff for people without them noticing
They look around and ask who did it
But I am the one that did but don't want to be acknowledged
Tomorrow, they will know it's me
After a sing-along of John Lennon's Imagine, dozens of students shared their responses to the prompt "I imagine I can..." or "I imagine I will..."
The result was a broad pastiche of concrete action steps, directed, in age-appropriate ways, towards making positive change in the home, in the classroom, in the school and in the broader community.
In a follow-up assembly yesterday, students asked for online links to some of the advocacy efforts they learned about. Here's a sample:
The Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence
Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America
The campaign to end restraint and seclusion abuse in schools
The Rhode Island Developmental Disabilities Council
Affinity groups for people with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer parents and caregivers
Local progressive politics
Showing Up for Racial Justice Rhode Island
Students leading the islamophobia workshop used excerpts from this video