An Abundance of Excellence

An Abundance of Excellence

Among the top submissions for the Prize for Teacher Excellence 2016, three other teachers and their social justice projects are especially noteworthy:

Randy Clark of Field Kindley High School, Kansas; U.S.A. Avivit Mualem of Tichonet, Tel Aviv, Israel; and Jennifer Staysniak of Mount Alvernia High School, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

A Hero of the Civil Rights Movement

The impressive submission of teacher Randy Clark of Field Kindley High School, located in Coffeyville, Kansas, focused on famed baseball player and Civil Rights leader Jackie Robinson. This Grade 12 project sought to have the students understand how to model their own advocacy on the courage and leadership that this American hero showed in fighting for Civil Rights throughout his career.

By researching the original letters of Jackie Robinson, sent to and received from Civil Rights leaders, politicians and U.S. Presidents, the students identified the values of liberty and equality for which Robinson fought so hard and so long. The students studied and analyzed the original letters and prepared banners demonstrating the struggles faced and sacrifices made by Robinson, and many other Americans, in their fight for equality in America, a battle that continues today.

Lessons of the Past

The project submitted by Avivit Mualem of Tichonet in Tel Aviv was undertaken at a public school with a diverse community of secular and observant Jewish students.

The goal of this fascinating initiative, called In the Paths of the Sages, was to lead Grade 8 students to an understanding of how ancient texts can contain social and ethical questions that are relevant to their own lives today. The values studied included human dignity, respect for elders, a passion for knowledge and wisdom, and helping others. The sources were from Tractate Avot in the Talmud, modern poetry, medieval exegesis of the Mishnah (the written compilation of oral Jewish law) and modern philosophic texts.

The project comprised three phases. In phase one, students selected one passage from Tractate Avot and analyzed it. After identifying the core idea of the selected passage, student groups created online presentations, formulated questions for class discussions, and taught one another. In phase two, students once again selected a passage to focus on, along with other satellite texts, and wrote research papers comparing the texts and formulating their own opinions. Finally, students contributed their own family lore to a new and contemporary version of tractate Avot. Their contributions were printed on magnets, which they could stick on their fridges at home.

Community Activists Heard

The fifth and final winning submission came from Jennifer Staysniak of Mount Alvernia High School in Newton, Massachusetts in the US. This private all‐girls Catholic school is based in the Franciscan tradition and the project, called Voices of Activism, was part of a Grades 11 and 12 course entitled “Catholic Social Teaching in Action.” This remarkable course explores historic injustices and how the Catholic Church, did, or did not, respond to them. With the primary focus on human dignity, the course looks at the international refugee crises, the Holocaust, Latin American dictatorships of the 1900s, prison systems in the United States, and homelessness and food insecurity today. Voices of Activism grew out of this course as a way in which to build empathy for “bystanders and upstanders, perpetrators and victims, ‘saints’ and ‘sinners’’’. The course grounds itself in the Catholic social teachings of various theologians and papal encyclicals and sources its values in the Old and New Testaments as well as motivational non-fiction writing.

Aiming to inspire activism and a call to action in standing up to social injustice, the students went into their community to interview current and former activists from women’s assistance programs, children’s support services, an orphanage, prison and re-entry services, and urban farms. All of the audio from the interviews collected were posted on the Voices of Activism website and parts of the interviews were transcribed by the students to highlight specific moments in the conversation that really stood out to them.

With the goal of imparting empathy and inspiring the students through local stories of activism, the project also enabled the development of interview skills and reflection through writing. Most notably, the project sought to have the students understand that their voices do matter and their actions can make a difference in standing up against racism, discrimination, and social injustice.

Publisher’s Note: This article is a synopsis of the five winning submissions for the Prize for Teaching Excellence 2016 and includes excerpts from components of them.

Ruth Burnstein is a lawyer whose 30-year career was in the business of law publishing.  She worked at Thomson Reuters, Butterworths, the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, and was vice-president of Canada Law Book until her retirement in 2010.  Ruth now works as a law publishing consultant and volunteer literacy tutor.


The Lola Stein Institute (LSI) is a centre of inventive educational thinking and addresses the challenge to re-frame schooling for the exigencies of our times.