The Power of Words: Teachers Lead with The Tikkun Olam Project
For participants in the Memorial Library’s annual New York City Summer, language and literature are among the most powerful forces in their classrooms. They are the tools with which they engage their students in meaningful discussion about the Holocaust, and they are what helps influence their classes to take up causes of social justice – both in school and within the broader community.
But it was a life-altering moment when the teachers attending the 2016 summer seminar discovered that sometimes, all it takes is two simple words to change the world.
On the second day of the seminar, participants visited the city’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, where they viewed a film which referenced the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam. Meaning “repair the world,” the phrase syncs with the Library’s mission, and resonated so strongly with the teachers, they pledged to incorporate it into their classrooms by launching The Tikkun Olam Project during the 2016-17 school year.
The project aims to entwine the concept of Tikkun Olam with the study of the Holocaust, sensitizing students to social injustice while motivating them to make a difference within their own communities. It also makes the words Tikkun Olam a physical presence within each classroom. Since the project’s launch, teachers have used the interdisciplinary approach modelled during the summer seminar to reach their students in creative ways, inspiring one another by posting images of the project in action in a private Facebook group for Library educators.
Mike Levin, an award-winning teacher of theater and literature at the Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy, a high school in Flagstaff, Arizona, saw the potential in the phrase immediately. His students thrive on social justice projects, valuing their engagement with what is happening in the world and the opportunity do something about it. They travel for service learning, making visits to the US-Mexico border, for example, and mount plays that deal with issues like gun violence, domestic abuse, and capital punishment. They are currently working on a dramatic interpretation of Sondra’s book, On Austrian Soil, and she plans to attend a performance in the spring.
At a teacher in-service program, Mike introduced his colleagues to the concept of Tikkun Olam, too. “I showed them that repairing the world is what they are doing every day as teachers,” he said, adding that they “help to foster caring, passionate individuals who will go into the world and promote change.”
After Mike hung a sign with the words “Tikkun Olam” in his classroom, a student in his Advanced Creative Writing course suggested they paint the phrase on a mural on the side of the school. The wall faces a heavily trafficked road, viewed daily by countless locals and tourists on their way to the Arizona Snowbowl and the Grand Canyon. Mike appreciates “the hug” the mural gives his students each morning, a reminder of what they, their teachers, and the rest of the school faculty “are doing each day.”
Like Mike, Holly Corkhill, a literature teacher at Flour Bluff High School in Corpus Christi, Texas, has also witnessed the impact of The Tikkun Olam Project in her classroom. She positioned the phrase so that both she and her students can see it as she teaches, the words serving as a reminder to see the potential in each of them to make a difference. It also reinforces the importance of her role in helping her students “become inspired to fix the world around them, however large or small that world might be.”
Motivated to fulfill the concept of Tikkun Olam, Holly and her students have together “created a sanctuary around the idea of kindness to one another and kindness to the world.” She is quick to credit the influence of the project on what has been her smoothest year in terms of classroom management since she first began teaching.
Holly adds, “It’s as if we – my students and I – all came to the unanimous conclusion that the time we spent together would be constructive, meaningful, and filled with good intentions.”