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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Fate and Free Will: The Grade Nine Integrated Day of Learning

First a brief preamble: When we tell educators in other schools about Frisch's integration days, they invariably ask how we're able to get all of the teachers to collaborate and to prepare special lessons for the days, lessons that are not necessarily part of the standard curricula. As Mrs. Tikvah Wiener has worked with her colleagues to create these educational experiences we have been gratified (but not surprised) that not only do we not have to motivate our teachers to participate, even teachers who don't necessarily have to be involved volunteer their help.
The members of the Frisch faculty throw themselves into the preparation for these days, researching their topics in depth, creating new PowerPoint presentations and Smart Board lessons, and suggesting wrap-up segments or other ideas. Moreover, a real sense of camaraderie builds among the faculty, as they all prepare a unit with the same theme. 
The lessons prepared for the freshmen today all centered around the theme of fate and free will, a topic being explored in Biology, which has just finished a unit on genetics, and in English class, in which students are spending the second semester occupied with works that question how much of our behavior is destined and how much is of our own making.
The day actually began yesterday: In Biology class, students completed a survey on  the school wiki which asked them to design their own babies. This morning they watched Gattaca, a dystopic science fiction film about a society in which one can succeed only by having been genetically engineered at birth. The main character describes the 'genoism' that permeates his world: Society has turned 'discrimination into a science.' Thanks to Mr. Douglas Dunton, our resident science fiction expert, for introducing the genre of science fiction and the film to the students.
During the last many hours students have been busy attending five different sessions on the theme of fate and free will:
English: Dr. Anne Berkman, Mr. Douglas Dunton, Mrs. Meryl Feldblum, Mrs. Tikvah Wiener
The English department is analyzing Gattaca with the students. So many of the film's motifs pertain to the notion that despite one's perfect or imperfect genes, 'there is no gene for the human spirit,' as the tagline of the movie states.
Biology Lab: Dr. Marie Conroy, Dr. Mindy Furman
Having completed their unit on Genetics in Biology class, the freshmen today are heading to the biology labs, where Dr. Conroy and Dr. Furman are having students 'make their own babies.' (Be ready for a new addition today when your child comes home!). Students are carefully deciding on character traits for their babies, being careful to prevent as many harmful diseases as possible and having to deal with the consequences of their genetic choices.
History:  Mrs. Rhonda Leibowitz, Mrs. Phyllis Waterstone
In their integrated course on Ancient/Classical Civilization and Jewish History students learn about Early Christianity.  Today they discussed the Christian doctrine original sin and whether that theological   approach removes a person's free will? How does Classical Jewish thought compare to emerging Christian doctrine? 
Talmud: Rabbi David Sher, Rabbi JZ Spier, Rabbi Joshua Wald
Rabbis Sher, Spier and Wald discussed some of the Halakhic issues pertaining to in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), the technologies which can be used to create designer babies. The Rebbe'im showed the students how modern Poskim extrapolate  Halakhot involving the latest medical technologies by looking back at ancient, medieval and modern sources and applying them to today's reality. The lesson is a fascinating one, as the rabbis demonstrate how Torah is a living, dynamic entity, constantly adapting and growing to meet new realities.
Jewish Philosophy: Mrs. Yael Goldfischer, Rabbi Gedaliah Jaffe, Ms. Racheli Weiss, Dr. Shira Weiss, Mrs. Shaindy Zudick
Prepared by the head of the Jewish Philosophy Department, Dr. Shira Weiss, today's lesson on the Jewish approach to fate and free will began with the question of whether the  hardening of Pharaoh's heart in Sefer Shemot or of the hearts of the Jewish People in Sefer Yeshayahu is incompatible with free will.  The presentation included Rambam's, Rav Joseph Albo's, Prof. Nechama Leibowitz' and the Rav's views of fate and free will and ended with the Rav's message that though man may be inclined towards indulging his negative traits, he must learn to use his destructive tendencies in service of his constructive ones.
Wrap-up: The day's lessons are concluding with a wrap up that includes a clip from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. It is in book two of the Harry Potter series that Harry realizes he shares many of the same traits as Voldemort, the darkest evil wizard of the magical world. At the end of the movie, Professor Dumbledore reassures Harry, however, telling the young wizard that it is not the similar characteristics that Harry shares with Voldemort that are important; it is the actions that Harry chooses to do in the world that will distinguish him from his malevolent nemesis.
At the wrap up students are being surveyed again about designer babies and will weigh in on whether they would change their selections based on what they've learned throughout the day.
The lessons for the program, particularly the Jewish Philosophy session, are important ones for the freshmen to hear as they embark on their high school career and are faced with many challenging decisions to make. Therefore, Rabbi Ciner is ending the wrap up with an exhortation to the students to use their free will in healthy ways that benefit themselves and the world around them.
The wiki and PowerPoint presentations:
For the last two periods of the day, each student has been paired with a classmate and will be working on a PowerPoint presentation that will be the two students' reflections of what they found most meaningful from their sessions. All the information from the day can be found on the ninth grade wiki, on a page, made especially for the program, entitled Fate and Free Will. 
Thanks once again to everyone who contributed to today's program!
And remember: 'Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will.'  -- Jawaharlal Nehru

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