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Geography and tzedakah come to life in MJDS 7th grade effort
July 1st, 2012
Geography class is good for students. At the Milwaukee Jewish Day School, it’s also good for the people being studied.
Beginning in 2008, then-geography teacher Brian King has taken educational enrichment to a new level.
MJDS students not only study and research people in other countries. They also learn about how to advocate for disadvantaged children around the world, how to execute a complex fundraising operation, and how to make a real and lasting difference in others’ lives, thanks to Voice of the Children, Inc. (Kol HaYeladim in Hebrew), their own 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.
When MJDS introduced World Studies, King wanted to make the subject live and to weave Jewish values of tzedakah and tikkun olam into his curriculum.
As reported in The Chronicle in April 2009, King heard a speaker named Craig Kielburger, a Canadian who, when he was 12 and with some friends, founded Free the Children. This charity helps children in developing countries.
King wanted to do something to “bring geography alive” and decided he and his students could make fundraising a class project.
Looking back on four years, he said he wanted “to activate some sense of social justice, which is something seventh graders naturally have, but you’ve got to know where to light the match.”
King became head of the school in 2010, but the unique curriculum he introduced has continued into a fourth year under a new teacher, Michael Hinkins.
King explained that first the class spends time studying the Jewish concept of tzedakah and how it differs from simple charity or philanthropy.
The program has three components. Students study about designated region of the world to raise awareness of poverty and other related problems. They work in groups, researching the subject in the computer lab. They create educational videos, available through the VOTC website.
Then they raise funds through a variety of means. They have sold donated items online and also raised direct contributions through the website. During the past two years, they held fundraising events.
Last, they determine how to use the money, investigating various charity organizations and presenting information to their classmates about the groups’ missions, programs, administration, and finances.
They create PowerPoint presentations, with pie charts, that explain how the charities allocate funds, give speeches (also videotaped) to their classmates, and vote for the winning charity.
The first class set out to raise $5,000 through Voice of the Children, but ended up raising $16,000, which they decided to donate to Free the Children to build a school in Kenya.
Half of the money came from the family of Judee Ross, a seventh grade English teacher who taught at MJDS until her untimely death in 2005. Her husband, Richard A. Ross, has continued to match what the children raise every year since.
In 2010, MJDS seventh graders raised $18,000, which they decided to give to Half the Sky, the only U.S. non-profit organization allowed to work with orphans in China.
Last year’s class raised $20,000, which they decided to give to Water for People. After reading “A Long Walk to Water,” the Linda Sue Park book about children in Sudan, the students staged a special fundraising event that simulated the daily chore of many African girls: they took pledges to walk several miles on the school’s track carrying two gallon jugs of water.
This year’s seventh grade class focused its attention on poverty in Latin America, including Haiti. According to Noah Wolfe, a member of the class, they debated several different fundraiser ideas, including a one day fast.
The winning idea was a day of silence. The students took pledges from their families and anyone else on how long they could go without speaking. One student lasted more than 14 hours. Two local television stations sent crews to the school and did stories on this effort for their news programs.
Noah and his group reported on Direct Relief International, an organization that provides help, especially medical help, to disaster victims and indigent people around the world.
According to Noah, they persuaded their classmates to choose DRI because of its willingness to earmark the money they donated for Latin America and its remarkably low administrative and fundraising expenditures, less than 1 percent each. By the end of the school year, they raised $22,800.
Noah told The Chronicle that the students did all the research themselves, although their teacher did some preliminary fact-finding about charities. He says he learned about poverty in Latin America, and he learned about working with groups, not getting mad at classmates, emailing, video-making, and film editing.
As for his classmates, he said, “Everyone took it seriously and nobody fooled around. You can’t fall asleep [in this class] and not care about it.”
See www.voiceofthechildren.net for more information.
Milwaukeean Susan Ellman, MLIS, has taught history and English composition at the high school level and is a freelance writer at work on a historical novel.