Civic Spirit and Students' Passions Brought to Life in DJDS High School Elective

Civic Spirit and Students' Passions Brought to Life in DJDS High School Elective
  • Outside the Classroom
  • Upper Division
The DJDS Marketing Department

By the DJDS Marketing Department


As elective courses for the 2023-24 school year materialized over the summer, DJDS Upper Division Teacher, Channa Schweid (Class of 2008) wanted to develop an advocacy-centered elective that would allow high school students to incorporate their passions. Channa came across an organization called Civic Spirit, which partners with educators and schools rooted in a faith tradition to strengthen their capacity for comprehensive and non-partisan civic education. Channa reached out to Hillary Gardenswartz (Class of 97’), Director of Student Experiences at Civic Spirit, and a seamless partnership was formed with Denver Jewish Day School through this High School elective course. 


As the elective began in August of 2023, Channa asked her students to choose issues in their community or the world they were all passionate about. Each group would then focus on their topic/issue for the rest of the semester. Some of the topics in the elective included Homelessness in Denver, Holocaust Education, Kindness and Gratitude, School Beautification, and Mental Health Awareness of Teens in High School.


As the students began researching various elements of their issues/topics, one element Channa encouraged students to pursue in their research was reaching out directly to professionals who are actively involved and/or seeking change in the field of interest. One group in particular - Holocaust Education - got ahold of Dr. Dan Leshem, the Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council at JEWISHcolorado. Dr. Leshem and lobbyist, Jeannie Vanderburg agreed to come present to the whole Civic Spirit elective because they felt it was important for Jewish high school students to hear about the work they have been doing regarding Holocaust education. This particular lesson was a very worthwhile discussion-based lecture. 


Shira Merenstein, Maya Friedlander, and Mia Wexler make up the Holocaust Education group, and they were immediately interested in the concept of finding out more about creating or being involved in a Committee that oversees Holocaust Education in schools in the state of Colorado. 


Dr. Leshem and Jeannie quickly broke things down and explained to the students how dense a process proposing and then requiring a particular model of education statewide is, and then providing a proper network of resources for educators to correctly teach said proposed education. After explaining the process of how a Holocaust education bill was passed into law back in 2020, Dr. Leshem and Jeannie then told the students that their work was hardly done and they asked the students why they may have run into problems and challenges even after their bill had been passed into law. They wanted the students to be problem solvers and forward thinkers, to hopefully inspire future generations on the topic of Holocaust education and the legislation involved with it. 


Dr. Leshem and Jeannie explained to the students the complex problems they ran into before the element of Holocaust education even landed in the classrooms. With 170 school districts that make up public education in the state of Colorado, including a wide array of city and rural districts, implementing education and properly disseminating materials to schools can be extremely challenging. How do you provide proper resources to teachers? How do you ensure that teachers are teaching students in a thoughtful and considerate manner? These are just two of the prominent questions that can lead to additional problems, confusion, and even misinformed students if these teachers are not properly trained and prepared to teach the material on a very sensitive and important topic. As Dr. Leshem and Jeannie began to take a deeper dive into these complexities, the students in the Civic Spirit elective quickly realized how complex implementing Holocaust education across an entire state really was.


The fact that there isn’t even a mechanism in the state of Colorado that can alert social studies teachers that they are now required to teach a new curriculum or topic also bodes as extremely problematic. Furthermore, each district has a certain date that they are required to share with the state of Colorado when they would like to implement new elements of education, but there is no mechanism that can actually force them to. Lastly, no mechanism within Colorado’s Department of Education allows the state to reach every individual social studies teacher in the state. The bill that Dr. Leshem and Jeannie were able to get passed didn’t have any money tied to it, so now the students fully understood the dynamics of the challenges they were facing. 


So Dr. Leshem and Jeannie identified the problem: there was no Holocaust education in the state of Colorado. They passed a bill of legislation into law in 2020 to help fix that. But now they are stuck yet again. Now, Dr. Leshem and Jeannie are in the process of proposing new bills to help fix these issues. They are in the closing stages of finalizing newly drafted legislation to be proposed, but the key was that they were able to show the students the complexities of this entire process, and how much focus and perseverance it requires to enact change.


“I strive to encourage my students to focus their energy on worldly issues that are steeped in their passions,” said DJDS teacher, Channa Schweid. “When a student is invested in the core belief of a position, they are more committed to making a difference.”


And especially with the current times that Jews are now living in, Holocaust education has taken on a whole new meaning to many young future Jewish leaders across the world.


“Holocaust education is meaningful to me because it defines the modern Jewish era that we live in,” said DJDS Junior, Shira Merenstien. “Today more than ever, it is so important that everyone in Colorado receives a reliable and accurate education about the Holocaust.”


DJDS Seniors Maya Friedlander and Mia Wexler are both heavily involved with the DJDS Moot Court Team and are interested in pursuing futures revolving around law and legislation. In addition to participating in their team’s competitions, they were both thankful for this unique opportunity in their Civic Spirt class.


“To be able to witness legislation in the making is incredible,” said Maya Friedlander. “For me, this is equally as valuable and special as competing in our Moot Court competitions. I can’t stress how cool it is to experience these processes behind the scenes before I head off to college.”

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