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  • MEF Communications

MEF Spotlight Series: One Millburn Day and Sharon van Blijdesteijn!

Updated: Jun 14

Following the horrific events of October 7, 2023, educators and staff at Millburn High School (MHS) wanted to take action for our students. They wanted to sponsor something meaningful and substantive that would create the conditions for deep student engagement and reflection. They wanted to address the terrible things that had happened and reinforce the MHS community's commitment to the support and protection of all people everywhere.

Sharon van Blijdesteijn, faculty member of the Social Studies Department and 20-year veteran of our District, took leadership of the endeavor. She and Gina Watts, the Social Studies Department Chair, reached out to the Millburn Education Foundation (MEF) for financial and administrative support. But the questions were daunting. How can the world move forward? How can we improve our own community? What can we, as individuals, do? And how can educators deeply engage 1,500 different high school students in these complex questions and the pursuit of answers?

To Mrs. van Blijdesteijn, the pathways became clear. Students would need choices and alternatives. Presenters, speakers and discussion guides would need to cover different topics and offer different access points. A school-wide assembly alone would not suffice. "To make it bigger, we had to make it smaller," Mrs. van Blijdesteijn said.  

Mrs. van Blijdesteijn went to work. She explained her plans to the faculty at MHS. She organized a complex framework of workshops, discussions, activities and events. One-by-one, she recruited guest speakers and faculty members to lead them. She also recruited and organized over 50 students to serve as event and discussion leaders. 

While many in the Millburn community vacationed, Mrs. van Blijdesteijn spent her spring break preparing this complicated network of events. The goal was to maximize options and breakout alternatives, thereby increasing opportunities for intimate discussions among students. She endeavored to make every alternative as interesting and engaging as possible, in order to limit the encroachment of outside distractions. "We wanted it to be a tech-free day," said Mrs. van Blijdesteijn.

On April 19, 2024, One Millburn Day occurred at MHS. The event involved a series of highly-prepared and intimate discussions on topics including current global crises, social justice, equity and inclusion, and student mental health. Students attended four event sessions in total. Each session was 45 minutes long.

All MHS students attended two assemblies. The first assembly involved a keynote address by Eugenie Mukeshimana, who discussed her experiences as a survivor of the Rwandan genocide and her work leading a charitable organization that helps genocide survivors rebuild their lives.

All MHS students also joined a panel discussion titled “Schools are No Place for Hate.” Presenters from local universities discussed the impacts of racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, transphobia, and homophobia on students in schools. Panelists also discussed protective measures that schools are taking, and what students can do to increase tolerance and understanding in their school communities.

The remaining two sessions gave students options to join an array of workshops and discussions -- over 30 choices in total -- on topics including leadership toward social justice, responsibilities toward refugees, mental health rights, immigration rights, current global crises, volunteerism and community contribution, self-expression, reflection, and stress reduction.

According to Mrs. van Blijdesteijn and Ms. Watts, student feedback on One Millburn Day has been extremely positive. Many students have expressed their desire for similar opportunities to be offered more frequently. Students have also conveyed their hope for even deeper levels of engagement going forward.

MHS is listening. Mrs. van Blijdesteijn confirmed that the next One Millburn Day is already under discussion. According to Mrs. van Blijdesteijn, additional objectives include increasing student engagement through the creation of a student advisory committee to guide planning, guest speaker selection and event execution; sponsorship by even more student clubs and affinity groups; and additional small spaces for intimate discussion and reflection.

The Millburn Education Foundation is pleased to provide its support. Deepa Krishnan, Co-President of the MEF, said "the MEF has been excited to sponsor all aspects of the One Millburn initiative. We remain fully committed to enhancing the experience of Millburn students through this initiative." Joe Smith, Co-President of the MEF, explained that "the MEF exists to support the students of Millburn. We are completely dedicated to delivering our volunteer time and resources to support our community."

The Millburn community thanks Mrs. van Blijdesteijn and our faculty and staff at MHS for making One Millburn Day successful and meaningful for the students of Millburn!

A grant from the Millburn Education Foundation supported One Millburn Day. Thank you for supporting the MEF and the students of Millburn!

MEF's Spotlight Series celebrates the educators, programs, events, and grants that help make Millburn an exceptional place to live, learn and grow.

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