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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Passover: A Time to Grow Students' Vocabulary and Aspirations

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service

Whether or not your school provides explicit or implicit opportunities to address Passover, Easter, and other spring religious observances, our teens need us to use this time of year to have important conversations about aspirations.

Passover, in particular, has very rich symbolism, often around the Hebrew peoples' exodus from slavery and their journey to physical freedom and spiritual discovery. But the wider lesson of this season, which, for many of us, coincides with spring, is renewal. And this is especially important in light of a growing database speaking to the relationship between youth aspiration and youth accomplishment. The findings are just what you would expect: youth who do not feel they will graduate from high school, go to or complete college, find meaningful jobs, raise a healthy family, or contribute to their communities are significantly less likely to accomplish these goals than their similar peers with higher aspirations.

So we need to use this time of year to discuss renewal with our high school (and middle school) students and help them see this as a time to change their fate. The story of Moses -- born in a time when male babies were condemned to being drowned -- is a good example. He was set adrift by his parents but was found and nurtured and use the opportunity to become a prince of Egypt and eventually take his place among the most revered figures in history as a leader and a prophet.

But his story is not one of privilege and ease as it is one of resilience and bouncing back in the face of adversity. Whether or not we want to point out such role models from religion or elsewhere, there are many for us to point to. What we want teens to get is that even when the future looks bleak, it is possible to find a path to success.

Vocabulary Focus

This is where our vocabulary lesson comes in. Have your students look up this word: renewal.

Once they have definitions, ask them for examples of renewal they are aware of, including examples in their own lives or lives of people they know directly. Be sure to give historical examples as well. Then, have them look at synonyms to renewal. They are likely to find these:

resumption, recommencement, reestablishment;

regeneration, revival, reinvigorate, revitalization;

renovation, restoration, modernization, reconditioning, overhauling, redevelopment, rebuilding, reconstruction.

Examples for some or all of these can be solicited as well. Perhaps an aspirational essay can be written, or inspirational artwork created. The message for our students is that they can renew themselves to achieve aspirations that may now seem out of reach. That is a key meta-message of Passover.

Passover is fundamentally a testimony to how a group of people, and the individuals within them, could go from the most downtrodden to the most exalted. And this could not have happened without their own effort and courage. We know very little about the Hebrews who chose to stay where they were and not challenge their fate. Ultimately, any advantage, any path that is available will not yield results unless a choice is made to actively follow it with determination.

In this season of renewal, we must ignite our students' sense of aspiration. What they may have done in the past does not constrain them or confine them. They can rebuild, overhaul, reestablish, and revitalize themselves and head toward important goals. And then, we need to provide them with structured guidance and support so that they have a true shot at being successful. Passover is testimony to that, as well.

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service
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