(Originally printed in RAVSAK journal HaYidion in Spring 2013 – No longer online on their site)
Each fall, the seventh grade students in my Jewish Social Studies (JSS) class begin the year by participating in The Jewish Court of All Time (JCAT) online simulation. JCAT is an innovative learning adventure that is a joint venture of the graduate programs at the University of Michigan School of Education and the University of Cincinnati and is supported by RAVSAK. JCAT is a virtual trial that is moderated by graduate students and whose participants are middle school students at Jewish schools around North America. Participants select a historical persona whom they will portray for the duration of the trial, which takes place at a virtual Masada. Students, in “character”, consider, and gather, evidence, post responses to questions and proposals and get familiar with each other’s points of view. Justices are then nominated and must gather votes of confidence from fellow participants before they can rule on the case. At the end, participants are asked to reflect on their experience and on the decision of the court. Participating schools are asked to work on JCAT two periods a week. I usually do one period of learning related to the topic and one or more of the students online completing assigned tasks related to the trial process.
This may all sound rather dull, but, done well, it is anything but. The experience of watching my 7th grade students fully engaged and excited about their learning as the events of this past fall’s JCAT trial unfolded was amazing, and anything but dull. Each year, the JCAT coordinators select a timely and Jewishly relevant dilemma to be considered by the students. This year’s trial was based in events in France related to a law forbidding the wearing of “ostentatious religious items” in public schools. The co-plaintiffs were a Muslim girl and a Jewish boy who had both been expelled for wearing religiously required items to school. I began the unit by doing several lessons about the situation in Europe related to Muslim immigrants and the wearing of the hijab by young Muslim girls. We discussed the pressure from observant or fundamentalist Muslims for all girls to wear it and related this to pressure in other religions as well for everyone to meet a certain standard of observance. We also learned about the history of secularity in France and their commitment to both freedom of and freedom from religion in the public realm. Armed with this knowledge, and a better understanding of the subtleties of freedom of religion and freedom of expression in a country dedicated to secularity, the students were ready to participate in a meaningful way in the JCAT trial.
Character selection is a tricky thing. Students all want to be someone famous and deciding for which of the five kids who want to be Anne Frank or Lady Gaga you are going to list that as one of their choices is not an easy job. Students often make the mistake of thinking representing someone popular will be easy and it is my job to help them make good choices. In a trial related to freedom of expression, Lady Gaga might be an excellent choice; in a trial about reparations to survivors of the St. Louis, last year’s topic, she might not. Once they have their final assignment, it is their job to get to know their person well enough to be able to speak to the issues at hand as their person would have responded. They write a “resume” or letter of introduction, as I call it, and post this online so that others can learn about their opinions and experiences, and they begin to build alliances. The personal opinion of the student becomes unimportant, as their job is to present the opinion of their assigned identity. Some students choose to play against their views and do well with this, others find choosing someone closer to their own view more comfortable. Being the “odd person out” can be fun if you have the self-esteem and independence for it, or disheartening if you don’t. I have seen both in my class.
This year’s trial was especially exciting as a movement to unseat the “host”, Benazir Bhutto, developed over Thanksgiving break. The rationale was that a Muslim woman should not be hosting the trial of a Muslim girl. Students returned to find a putsch underway and not much time to respond. Within days, Bhutto was out and a cohort of strong minded leaders – Napoleon, Charlemagne and Rasputin to name a few – had taken power under the leadership of Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician who is rabidly Islamophobic. This group froze the trial, raised the number of votes of confidence needed and added their own members to the list of justices. I carefully presented this new reality to my class and then set them loose to respond. It was amazing to see them fly into action. Quickly groups formed and alliances were made. Leaders were chosen, goals set and strategies outlined for getting Bhutto back or at least getting rid of Geert. Revolt Against Geert (RAG) was formed by a group of girls in my class and RAG became the group to rally around for all the JCAT participants who wanted to restore order. A day of protest was allowed for a Wednesday, which happens to be a day I don’t have this class. I invited students to come in during their lunch and recess and the RAG group showed up in force for 50 minutes of high powered action and strategizing. It was truly a teacher’s proudest moment to see these students scrambling to be successful in their plan to unseat Geert and his cronies. I trust them to save the world when the time comes after seeing how hard they worked and how well they planned for something related to a virtual trial in their JSS class.
JCAT offers students an opportunity to think outside the box – even outside their own brain as they participate as someone else. My students reflect on this aspect of JCAT and find it one of the most challenging and rewarding parts. They learn new things, see new perspectives and experience someone else’s thoughts. Interacting with the other people out of history also allows an opportunity to learn about people who they might never otherwise encounter. I find JCAT to be an amazing experience for my students, and this year in particular it offered learning experiences for which I could have never written a lesson plan. I watched quiet and timid students find their voice and see its power and I know that they will never be the same. To feel that your actions might change the outcome of something important, and to be motivated, at 13, to get up early to check online and see what has happened since the previous night in a school project – it’s not what is expected in middle school, but JCAT makes it happen.