JHS 10th & 11th Grade Learn More About ‘Justice For All’

Jamestown High School’s “Justice for All” class visited Jamestown Union Gospel Mission as a way to see firsthand some of the societal issues, such as homelessness, they are studying in class. Submitted photos

The sounds of reading, laughter and chatter filled the classrooms at the YWCA’s Early Education Program when Jamestown High School students from Betsy Rowe-Baehr’s “Justice for All” class visited the three- and four-year-olds.

“This was just something different for our children. They love having the JHS students visit with them,” said Tina Jones, YWCA Early Childhood Education Director. “Because it’s intergenerational, they can interact with older kids. We are seeing kids that can’t sit still for long being really engaged. It’s a great collaboration and I think it is so nice that a class is doing this in the community.”

The visit was just one of many service projects the JHS “Justice for All” class takes around Jamestown to engage students and give them a firsthand knowledge of the societal issues they are learning about. Other service projects the students have undertaken include: visiting Tanglewood’s Memory Garden to play games and create an art project with residents and assisting at the Jeeva store at Chautauqua Mall to promote awareness about individuals with disabilities in India.

“We don’t stay in the classroom and just talk. We go out in the community. We give our time and help,” said JHS Justice for All student Minelys Perez-Cruz.

Justice for All is a new English Language Arts elective at JHS this year for 10th and 11th grade students. Students are engaged in a dialogue where they read, write and discuss societal issues from both historical and modern times so that they may begin to define justice, understand diversity and acknowledge the importance of tolerance and advocacy.

Jamestown High School students, Seneca Parker and Kenard Marion, read to students in the YWCA Early Childhood Education Program for a service project as part of their class, “Justice for All.”

“Everyone should take this class so they get exposed to the reality of the world and truly see what the problems in the community are,” said JHS student Emily Crasti.

In addition to their service projects, students have taken field trips to the Robert H. Jackson Center for a session with Floyd Abrams, a Supreme Court lawyer, on the First Amendment and toured St. Susan’s Center and the Mental Health Association where they heard personal experiences of participants. They visited The Compassion Experience, a simulation of world poverty and refugee life. They toured the UCAN Mission House and discussed local homelessness. They met with the director of CASAC about educational efforts to promote healthy life skills and visited Taste of India Restaurant and El Jarocho Restaurant. They have also heard from guest speakers including: The Potter’s Hand, who discussed the prevalence and reality of human trafficking and a JCC presentation by Professor Catherine Ianello about human services and global studies degrees that promote cultural understanding.

“You get to experience others’ lives through a lens that you may never have been through,” said JHS student Seneca Parker.

During class, students discuss issues raised in society because of power, privilege, oppression, class, ethnicity, ability, race, sex, sexuality, gender, sexual orientation, and other social identities. All members of the class are expected to be respectful, truthful and to uphold the golden rule, even when there are disagreements.

Notably during high school years, the “us” and “them” mentality is heightened with social groups. Some people fit in and are accepted by those with power. Others are marginalized and forced to navigate the system from the outside. Racial tensions, class misunderstandings and diversity conflicts can foster an environment of intolerance. Stereotypes, prejudices, and biasness have had a harmful impact on the world, historically and today. Tragically, this creates an atmosphere of fear, shame, and division. Whether it roots from insecurity, experience, or privilege, this alienating reality impacts the microcosm of school in a distracting and hurtful manner. Empathy and compassion need practice. Understanding and advocacy need encouragement.

“The Justice for All class aims to create a space where young people can learn from one another and explore perspectives different from their own,” said Mrs. Rowe-Baehr. “As students begin to listen to other voices, I hope the class will charge each participant to take action against injustice and make a difference in society for the good of all.”

At the heart of the course are the central texts, a carefully curated collection of rigorous materials, both in print and media formats, exemplifying anti-bias themes and meeting the requirements of the New York State standard such as: “Twelve Angry Men,” “Wonder,” and poems from the “House on Mango Street” and films such as: “Philadelphia” and the documentary “Gender Revolution.” Students also read informational articles and web quests encouraging students to question common understandings, consider multiple viewpoints, analyze and critique power relationships, and act to change unfair and unequal conditions. Many of the resources have been gathered by the Teaching Tolerance curriculum, “Perspectives for a Diverse America.” Students also independently select topics to explore the social justice themes further.

“I have energy and I’m smart and innovative and compassionate and I want to help,” said JHS student Chloe Short. “We want to talk about these things, but have nowhere to do it,”

Students participate in small and large group discussions, which can occur with traditional formats in class conversation; however, there have been moments to respond via electronic modes in Google Classroom blog-like posts. After each community field experience, or after a guest speaker has presented, Justice for All students are required to journal and record their thoughts about the issue. Students engage in creative writing extensions where they have used poetry or personal narratives to share. They respond to issues of social injustice with a personal passion research project in order to create understanding and make positive change.

“The most meaningful takeaway point was even if everyone is against you, stand up for what you believe,” said JHS student Katie McDowell.