Researchers and Soul Searchers

9 December 2016 
9 Kislev 5777 

 

This week I observed an exquisite example of what the educational world calls “project-based learning,” driven by a task with real-world consequences.  

Around the corner from Gann (or just through the woods, if you take a short-cut) is the site of The Fernald School. Before it was closed just a few years ago, Fernald was a center for adults with developmental disabilities. However, earlier in its history, Fernald was called a “School for the Feebleminded,” and its namesake, Walter E. Fernald, was an advocate of eugenics. Recently, the City of Waltham acquired the property and is in the process of determining what to do with it. This past summer members of our faculty were introduced to the archivist who has been charged by Waltham to consider how best to preserve the memory of the place and its history. This is where the project begins. 

Two of our 11th grade US history classes spent part of the last few months researching Fernald as a case study in American history. They visited the site, pored over records, met with the archivist, and even interviewed the family of a boy who was a student there. Their research was driven by some large historical questions such as: How has our society treated people with disabilities; how does our society relate to its most vulnerable populations; and how have these changed over time in America?  

For their final project, the students needed to determine how they would memorialize the site and the lives of the students at Fernald. This required them to consider two additional questions that moved beyond research into the realms of ethics, citizenship, and Judaism: What is a city’s responsibility to a site like Fernald and its history? What, if any, is our responsibility as a school that resides so close to this historic place? More broadly, what does it mean to remember and in what ways can the act of remembering bring or even restore dignity to individuals’ lives and their stories? These questions were particularly powerful because our teenagers were researching the lives of other teenagers. 

Earlier this week the students presented a version of their final project in the form of an educational website. This included some of the history of disabilities in the United States as well as the history of The Fernald School itself. It also included the oral history of one of the students and an invitation for others who visit the site to tell their own stories—the beginnings of an open-source archive. A Waltham city councilman, who visited Gann to observe the students’ presentation, invited our students to work with the City of Waltham to develop proposals for what to do with the site moving forward. Also present to observe the presentation were the brother and sister of the boy whose story our students told.  

The project illustrated how the critical academic skills of research and historical thinking can be tools for responsible citizenship and Tikkun Olam and how our students can lead, serve, give back to their world, and enhance human dignity now as authentic outcomes of their learning. The most emotional moment for me came at the end of the presentations. The sister of the boy from the oral history interview stood up and said, “I am an educator, and I just want to tell you what an extraordinary example of education this is. You not only did research. You did soul-searching.”  

With Chanukah approaching, her comment about soul-searching reminded me of the story told by the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe when he was asked to describe a hasid (a holy, spiritual Jew). He explained that all of the street lamps in a town needed to be lit manually, so a “lamplighter” would walk along the street holding a long pole with a small flame lighting each lamp. A hasid, the Rebbe explained, is a lamplighter. He searches near and far for people who need a little spark to illuminate their souls. Our guest’s comment suggested that we can do this for the living and, through telling people’s stories, we can do this for people in the past, as well.  

Sometimes we think of “research” as cold, distant, and academic. In this case, our students were acting as historian-hasids, as lamplighters, whose research actually touched the lives and illuminated the souls of one boy, his siblings, and the student-residents of The Fernald School.  

Shabbat Shalom,  

Rabbi Marc Baker 

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