Tag Archives: high school

Teens: Watch Your Social Media Presence

twitter logo map 09

twitter logo map 09 (Photo credit: The Next Web)

“Treat every conversation you have on Twitter or Facebook as if it were a nationally televised press conference.”

This advice is not a recommendation from a public relations firm, or from a head hunter, or from a corporate policy book on social media. Nor was it taken from a how-to book on political life.

None of those sources would be surprising.

The quote above is from a sign posted in a Minnesota high school locker room in response to the rampant posting of students taking part in illegal activities online.

Some students, turning against friends, are giving coaches and teachers pictures of them in ‘compromising’ situations at drinking parties and participating in other illegal activities.

Sports scholarships have been pulled based on information coaches glean on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

In a previous post, I wrote that teens’ should make sure their online profiles are clean and scrubbed when applying to college.  As with other things, everything moves down a bit, and what teens do in high school is not exempt from a close look by interested parties.

Opportunities may be in jeopardy based on discoveries online.  Scholarships, nominations, recommendations…..all come into play mostly in the junior year of high school, but since online identities don’t disappear, it’s never too early to start thinking about this issue.

We know that checking someone out online is very tempting and all too easy.

So, for all the teens out there: think about who you are online. Does it match who you want to be? What will you need to do to make the image you want equal to the one you have?  Would you feel comfortable if a scholarship committee saw your posts? Think about the quote at the beginning of this post.

To Parents: The advice above is worth sharing with your teen as part of  a frank conversation about public and private identity, social media privacy settings, limit setting, trust and more.


“After My Bar Mitzvah, My Dad Decided to Convert. Is He Still Considered Jewish?”

Some labels might be useful. Others, not so much.

Some labels might be useful. Others, not so much.

I wasn’t prepared for such a troubling question by this slight yet earnest 8th grader. He had been so patient; holding his hand up until the discussion left an opening.

This evening, the teens were very talkative once they got going about the topic: Intermarried Families. His question arose during a workshop on sensitizing Jewish high school students to the many issues intermarried families face.

They had personal experiences about the issue, since about one-third of them were from intermarried families themselves.  The conversation had relevance for them and  they shared personal stories peppered with jokes, hurt feelings, and sometimes defiance.

The program was specifically designed for teens and consisted of film clips to trigger conversation and raise awareness.

His question came after I shared an experience I had when I was a teenager myself, while attending a large suburban Conservative synagogue in my town. I have a very clear memory of asking a congregant who someone was. He pointed to him and then lightly said: “Oh, this is Mr. So and So, who converted to Judaism….” I couldn’t figure out why I needed to know that. This man was forever labeled in my mind as ‘the one who converted.’

I’ve experienced this practice even as an adult. Why must we use labels?

Let’s come back to the boy sitting in front of me. He was obviously very concerned and wanted an answer. Yet, in the format of the program, with a full agenda and little time, I could not engage him in a full discussion of all the questions I wanted to ask him.

For example, why does he feel a need to ask this question? Does this first question represent other, more pressing questions about the choices his father made? What does he think about how the Jewish community responded to his father? Is it what he expected? Did he feel his Dad was welcomed? Rejected? Did he sense a total acceptance of the choice by his father’s family? Is he still wondering about his father’s reasons for conversion? Was it only for the ceremony or was there some deeper reason that his father made the choice he did? What impact did the father’s conversion have on him? Did it make him doubt his own choices going forward or feel more secure in them?

How would you respond to this student when there is so much more to discuss?

What I said next created some comedy, but my intention was to offer a really concrete example for this student: “Here’s how I see it. You know when someone gets his/her nose fixed? Or some cosmetic work done? Once it’s done, we no longer say, “You know, this is Ms. So and So…she recently got a nose job. We accept that the person has a new nose, and we move on. No need to reference it. We don’t need to go back to past history and label that person any differently than anyone else. Similarly, Your father’s Jewish. He’ll always be considered Jewish.”

He seemed to be reassured and we continued on with the discussion.

The students had a lot to say, and more questions to ask as the evening progressed.

The question above demonstrates just how much work we have to do to create more understanding among all of us about those who ‘choose Jewish’. Here are some tips to consider when a family member converts:

  1. Have a family discussion about the decision. Teens are at the stage when they are actively questioning many things. Especially about religion, the meaning of life, their place among their peers, and more. They will appreciate knowing your reasons for the decision, and being included in some thoughts you’ve had.
  2. This is an opportunity to connect with your teen about spiritual journeys. We often reserve conversations with our kids to the mundane. These conversations about religion and faith are of an entirely different level. Personal yes, but it opens so many doors.
  3. You might schedule a meeting with the family and the Rabbi together, so all parties are aware of any new roles and  responsibilities.

Photo credit: BazzaDaRambler, flickr. Creative commons license.


Learn these four leadership skills at a Hebrew High

English: Ronald A. Heifetz on 29 March 2010 du...

Ronald A. Heifetz: “Leadership in times of crisis”   How can you make this connection for #Jteens?

A blog I read in the Harvard Business Review mentioned all the bad habits that accrue from being part of a hierarchical and bureaucratic school system.

Coleman writes:   “Our entire education system, from elementary school to graduate school, is poorly constructed to teach young people leadership. Schools do many things well, but they often cultivate habits that can be detrimental to future leaders. Given that most of us spend 13-20 years in educational institutions, those habits can be hard to break.”

Of course, I immediately thought about how, in a community Hebrew high setting, we develop future leaders.

Mostly, we run contrary to most of the details the author wrote about.

Let’s explore four of them here, with the bad habit taught listed first, then very brief examples of how these leadership habits might be experienced differently in a Hebrew High setting:

1. Schools have an emphasis on hierarchy. Examples given are: “Teacher in front of the classroom” syndrome and priorities given to class rankings, class standings, etc. 

Teachers are often called by their first names, and when asked, share personal insights. Teachers are more often the facilitator of learning rather than the expert in a subject area.

Class rank? Often doesn’t exist in a school where some classes consist of multiple grades, with mentoring going on between students.  Coleman says it best:  “Leadership is an activity, not a position,  a distinction explored deeply by Ron Heifetz in Leadership Without Easy Answers. “

2. Schools generally teach that there are right vs. wrong answers. 

Courses in Hebrew high schools are often discussion based, where critical thinking skills are necessary. There are rarely right or wrong answers. Students delve into complex situations like Mid-Eastern politics or ethical issues, where multiple vantage and view points need to be considered.

3. Schools don’t encourage or deal well with failures.

Yet, we know that it’s precisely the activity of trying, and trying again that is part of many leaders’ accomplishments (Lincoln, Einstein, Steve Jobs, etc.).  Students who experience leadership classes or work on programming for the school deal with failure, problem-solving, and work to rectify difficult challenges presented by the student body: lack of motivation, time, interest, etc.

4. Most school reinforce the “serve-yourself’- over-others” attitude by the emphasis on individual test scores, grades, GPA’s, etc. 

The very nature of a school oriented around Jewish values is not only are you learning about core altruistic values, but you are acting upon them through school programming.

I know I’ve created a very generalized portrait of a Hebrew high experience.  All schools differ and their goals are not the same. However, in a school that develops future leaders, the examples I listed would be very typical.

So, interested in building a leader? Becoming one? The shortest route might be to head over to your local Hebrew high and sign up.

Photo credit: Wikipedia


Teens: Got a bad grade? Work it!

Life Stinks

Image via Wikipedia

Getting a bad grade, especially when you expected something else entirely, pretty much stinks.

It’s hard enough being in high school when so much of your life seems to be defined by grades. When the grades don’t match up with your expectations or your output, it must feel lousy.

Though I have issues with the idea of being defined by grades, we’re not going there now.

So, you can either sulk or use this life event to get some feedback.

Think of this as an opportunity to engage in a dialogue with your teacher about your work. I know, it’s tough, but give it a try. You can:

  • learn how to advocate for yourself
  • begin to see yourself the way he/she does, and take the opportunity to self-correct
  • figure out what the teacher really wants before it’s too late in the year
  • impress the teacher with your willingness to engage in this type of conversation
  • practice asking for clarification of a decision, which is a skill you’ll use later in life
  • demonstrate your interest in the subject matter
  • cut yourself a break.
  • learn that despite what you’re feeling now, this doesn’t define you
  • feel great about asserting yourself!

Guiding teens without a moral compass

English: A HTC Desire S showing a compass app

Image via Wikipedia

Picture this: a class of freshly minted teenagers, not even a year after becoming b’nei mitzvah, who attend an optional Jewish education program.

Ostensibly they come from homes where the parent/s place an importance on Jewish values. Yet, despite that, they seem to have internalized society’s penchant for abdicating personal responsiblity.

Over 90% of high school students cheat. Entire schools have been accused of tampering with test results.

These incidents reverberate beyond charts and stats–and I felt the tremors last week.

I presented this scenario to students taking a class in Jewish values and ethics:

Your teacher asks you to take home and complete a unit summary without looking at notes, any textbooks, or the internet. What would you do?

I value their openness with me. Only one student in the class said that he would not cheat. One out of 15 students. Eighth graders.

What did the other students say? Most nodded enthusiastically to this response:

It was the teacher’s fault….she shouldn’t have expected us not to look at anything. Did she think we wouldn’t cheat?”

So, what they were saying is that the teacher should have known better. She should have known not to trust them.  For them, there is no such thing as an honor system.

When I was in middle school, cheating also occurred. It’s just that we knew who would cheat and who wouldn’t. I’m not sure that’s the case anymore.

In fact, what was the kicker to my question? Three students said that their teacher just gave them a similar assignment–to complete a worksheet at home–and when they came back to school she revealed that she expected them to look things up even though she asked them not to.  So this lack of trust goes both ways.

This is the world we are all living in and this is what we’re up against. 

There were other comments by students toward the beginning of the lesson that didn’t surprise me; comments about whether ‘to tell’ on a friend who cheated or stole. That was pretty predictable. The peer pressure is so intense they admitted, that no one wants to be labeled as ‘the kid who tells’.

When I discussed their reasoning for what they shared with me, they said that it’s okay because in “middle school you don’t have to worry about anything yet” (i.e. high school then college). They  continued trying to convince me that their choice was okay: “what you do in school doesn’t really matter until you get to 9th grade, or even 10th.

I wanted to teach them a different course of action and there were many topics to explore, but the clock was ticking with little time left in the period.

I could have espoused other teachings from sages and scholars who have been grappling with these issue throughout our tradition. I didn’t think this would resonate.  Instead, I briefly mentioned the perspective of Jewish law regarding personal responsibility.

Then, I told them they are like onions. Their character has layers, and everything they do, every action they take, forms who they are.  Those layered experiences are part of them, much like the peels of an onion that won’t just disappear when they get to another grade.

And if they make choices that they will regret, those choices will be there, under the surface, but there none the less.  And it will affect them.  Guiding teens through these perplexing situations is what we can do as Jewish educators and parents. How do we begin the process with our teens?

A good place to start is by opening the door to these types of conversations. Allow your teens to share what their school environment is like, and what ethical challenges they face. Listen to what they say. They are our very sweetest onions.


what I learned about marketing from working at a Jewish Community High School

You would think it would be easy to market a product that has intrinsic long-term value, is priced well, offers tremendous flexibility, is an intellectual challenge, offers social experiences and networking opportunities, and even looks good for college.

You’d be wrong.

Welcome to my world where marketing a great product  is a struggle.

Here are just a few reasons why, with more to come in future posts:

1. The ‘point of sale’ is often at a synagogue Hebrew school, where we present options for further Jewish education. Need I say more?

For these 7th grade students, they’re in a year bursting with Bar/t Mitzvah invitations and parties.  Peeking over the horizon they can see the glimmering opportunity to be ‘outta here’ (as some  parents have promised them)…well, you get the point.

2. If students decide to come on board in 8th grade, it might be because they feel compelled  (internally or externally) to continue their Jewish education.  The choice to attend a community school could mean there were either no appealing options for further education at the synagogue (which may or may not have Confirmation Programs ending in 10th grade) or this student is really, really motivated.  Synagogues who have their own Confirmation programs  work very hard to keep their students there.  More about Confirmation programs later.

3. The ‘product’ we’re offering is impossible to explain to these students.  It’s like describing what college is like to a high schooler. You just don’t get it until you go.  Which is precisely why so many colleges have figured this one out a long time ago and created pre-college programs for 11th graders. The ‘try it, you’ll like it’ programming through free visits and orientations works.

4. Aha! you say, what about Orientations and Open Houses?  These programs do help when conducted at our school sites and both programs capitalize on the fact that potential students need to experience how great it is to sit in on classes, feel the ‘vibe’ at break time, have Q & A opportunities (mostly questions related to their fear of  ‘fitting this in’ ), and meet tons of teens who have made the choice to continue and are obviously happy.

5.The difficulty is getting the word out about these options. Synagogues that have their own programs can’t promote it. There are no advertising dollars to spend. Federations, straddling both the synagogue and communal worlds, can’t really get in the middle of this either.

6. Back to Confirmation programs, instituted as a life cycle ritual by synagogues to retain students after the infamous Bar/t Mitzvah drop-off year…all with good intentions.  What’s happened though, is that the end point has just been moved up, but it’s rare at that point for students to continue to 11th and 12th grade (for exceptions, read here).  Yet, that is exactly the time when teens are ready to engage in Judaism with some maturity, insight, intellectual rigor and curiosity.

7. When these students think that they’ve gone beyond all expectations in continuing even to this point, up to Confirmation…..imagine how hard it is to ask them to sign on for two more years?  This is also precisely the time when they are also at their busiest, participating in gobs of outside activities and prepping for college.

More school anyone? How about on a Sunday morning?

Yet, we’re doing quite well despite the above. Go figure.

I believe in what we have to offer–strongly–and as a result, marketing and promotion have become part of my job.

Imagine what impact we could have if we didn’t have such an uphill struggle.

How would you deal with any of these challenges? I’d love to hear suggestions, ideas, or expert marketing advice.


Ethical Issue: When Teens Cheat

St Paul Talmud Torah Nursery School graduation

 What are the obligations of a Jewish supplementary high school in raising the ethical level of its students? How do we hold our students to a higher standard while trying to explain all the cheating going on by education professionals? How do we prepare the next generation to succeed in college and beyond? 

With these questions in mind, what happens when a teacher notices that a student may have plagiarized material, or copied from a friend?

The first time a teacher came to me with this I struggled with the questions above, adding a few more: can we confirm evidence of cheating? How can this transform into a learning experience? How can I make sure the parent(s) is(are) on board? In what ways can I work to ensure that this student really changes? How can I create an accepting environment for the student but not the behavior?

I am actually grateful that these issues arise in a Jewish context, because it gives me a unique opportunity.  Working with teens on ethical conduct is exactly what we should be doing.  For me, it is part of the ‘value added‘ of the supplementary school experience.  Our response to cheating is a test for us, and students will remember what we do. We can reference Jewish texts to support advice when we help students navigate through this.  Those texts should also inform our behavior. We can give them skills to self-adjust and offer moral support along the way.  Plagiarism is a serious offense, especially in college, and we can give them a foundation of Jewish ethics to lean on.

This is tough stuff, but doing any less in today’s times creates more moral murkiness.  I believe we are preparing the next generation to become leaders which requires us to respond quickly and appropriately especially when the road ahead will be even more challenging.


Teens and the Road to College

Finding your path

This year, thousands of high schoolers will be entering college. Sometimes I think they have things way too figured out, and am not sure whether that’s good or bad in the grand scheme of things.  

For example, I was interviewing an internship candidate who just completed her junior year in high school. I asked her what she thought she’d enjoy taking in college. Her response was not a version of:

 “I’m not sure yet” or

 “I haven’t given that much thought” or

 “I have no clue, just feeling good about finishing out the year” or

“I’m waiting until I get to college to work that out”

She proceeded to tick off two to three very specific careers she was thinking of pursuing: pediatric dietician work, or pediatric emergency medicine, and a third which I can’t remember because I was still in awe after hearing the first two.

Although she hasn’t yet selected a college, she’s pretty sure of what her path will be once she gets there.  What is wrong with that? Don’t we want our youth to be focused and thinking ahead? I doubt this bright young junior is the only one who has these things all worked out, yet it seems to me that the time of exploration and wonder has been way too condensed.  

College used to be the place that you could spend a year or two sampling courses, musing about majors, optimizing degree outcomes, and generally taking some time to work things out.  It was like experiencing an all-inclusive educational buffet and sampling a range of offerings.  Now it seems that the pressure is on to have a career path in mind before you arrive. 

There are all sorts of reasons why this has occurred, many of them economically driven.   Many colleges, complicit in this, pressure students to declare an early major.  The risk of not doing so may mean thousands of extra dollars spent on courses that may not ‘count’ toward the final destination. 

Overall however, we might be pushing our teens too hard and not letting them swim in the soup of indecision long enough.


Talented Teens and Performance Highs

America’s into talent of all types, and we seem eager to watch, based on show ratings and tallies of millions calling in to vote for their favorites. This past Sunday we had a school talent show.  In what was a thoroughly enjoyable display of amateur ability we had singing, dancing, a fencing demonstration, quick sketching, a song parody, comedy, and dramatic readings.  What made this display of skill so energizing and exciting?   I think part of it was giving teens the opportunity and freedom to express themselves in ways besides the academic.

We say that in our environment teachers should share more of “who they are” with their students, as these role-modeling opportunities are built into the fabric of Jewish educational programming. This works both ways. Students also need to share their talents with teachers, and not in ways that are limited to annual classroom ice breakers.

At the show, we were able to see these students at their best, doing what they love while being generous enough to share it with others.  It’s interesting that as much as we think they might be afraid to be judged by their peers, they were incredibly open about performing in front of them.  I hope that we will continue to give our teenagers opportunities to shine and get applause.


Jewish Teen Engagement: Don’t ask me for a tissue

Why is the Jewish community crying? I’ve worked with teens in the Jewish  community for many years, and feel privileged to work with such a talented group who are in the minority among their peers.  In study after study I’ve read about how the ‘younger generation’ is not connecting to the Jewish community. Since silence assumes agreement  (Shtika kehodaya dami) I’ve decided to speak—actually write.  I’ll define ‘younger generation’ here as those high school junior and seniors who are not enrolled in day school.  It is a time in their lives when they’re making decisions about their identity. I’ve gotten to know them and a little bit about their lives.

Let’s pretend you’re one of them.

Your bar/bat mitzvah was several years ago.  Against all odds, you decided to ‘stay the course’ after that and remain in your synagogue’s Confirmation program, though 50% of your friends dropped out.  So, let’s say that makes it down to 10. After that, you decided to go for more learning, and enroll in a community Hebrew high school for 11th and 12th grade.  About 75% of  the 10 decided not to.  Now you’re down to about 3. You’re clearly in the minority, swimming upstream as they say.  The good news is that by being a part of a larger community school, you now have a whole new peer group, and no longer feel that you’re one of a few, relatively speaking.

In what ways have you been involved in the larger Jewish community?

You may have been invited by the Jewish Federation to participate in the equivalent of a “Super Sunday”: spending a  few hours of cold calling to the most disengaged members of the Jewish community and trying to convince them to donate money.  It was not a great experience, but hey, you got to be with some of your friends and eat a bagel.  You may have even gotten a T-shirt out of it.

You may or may not have been involved in some youth group activities.  That could have been iffy. Some chapters good, some not so much. It would have depended on where you live. If you ‘moved up’ in the organization, your leadership would have been focused on the particular movement. 

You may or may not have gone to a Jewish camp.  It’s doubtful that when you returned from camp, enriched by all the amazing  Jewish experiences, that you would’ve been called upon to take on any leadership roles in the community, but hey it’s your friends at the camp that matter the most to you right now.  Thank goodness you’ll see them at the camp reunion. Maybe you can even work there as a counselor when you’re in college.

You may or may not have gone on an Israel trip, though you know that if you did go while in high school, you’d be disqualified from going on a birthright trip in college, while most of your friends who didn’t already go will be entitled to. 

The above is what has been called “engagement”.  And here you are, the ‘cream of the crop’  (among non-day school kids).  What experiences have you had (beyond the discrete denominational connections) with the larger Jewish community? In what ways have you been reached out to? In what ways have you been made aware of Jewish communal needs? Interests? Leadership opportunities? Internships? Jobs?

You probably will be among the future leaders, simply because the education and involvement you’ve had puts you there.  All of the activities you’ve had provided you with wonderful ways of connecting you in some ways with your Jewish heritage. Participating in all of those things are truly beneficial to building Jewish identity. 

Back to now. Is this all thatwe can do?  Are these all the resources we can muster? Is this how we’re modelling engagement? By denomination? Through fundraising?

If things were substantially different, we wouldn’t be lamenting and crying so much.  The Jewish community will need leaders for the future, no question about it.  It’s been called a crisis.

I just don’t think we’ve done our part.  So, no tissues from me.


Can our students just show us some love?

credit: Mike D'Angelo

 

How can we get our own students to love us the way their friends do?

This past Purim, students were asked to bring friends to school to share in the festivities.  Out of over 200 students, only one brought his friends because he wanted them to experience a fun holiday like Purim. As it happened, his friends weren’t Jewish. As it also happened, they had a great time.  They loved being in a ‘unique, challenging, fun and educational place’ !

In a recent small focus group at the school, we were trying to get to know students a bit better, and what makes them decide to attend.  We asked them why, if they enjoy attending so much (satisfaction rates are above 90%), they don’t bring their friends. They basically said that ‘unless cookies were falling from the sky’ they wouldn’t ask their friends to come.  Oh, and they also asked if we were kidding: didn’t we realize that since they were attending on a Sunday morning their friends already think they’re crazy and that they wouldn’t be caught dead asking their friends to wake up early to join them?

So, I’m trying to put this together with a recent news item by Rabbi Justus N. Baird in the Religion section of the Huffington Post . He reports on several studies (one of which was a decade’s worth by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life), which show these same results: that American attitudes toward Jews are as positive — or even a few degrees warmer — as attitudes toward Catholics, and significantly higher than toward any other religious group (the Pew data does not ask about attitudes toward Protestants).

Even the Anti-Defamation League had similar responses to the surveys they conducted. So, this should make us feel very good, very secure, and surely steady enough on our feet to hear the term Pro-Semitism without falling over.   

Love from our students? I think we get that, it’s just that they won’t tell anyone else about that….except maybe their non-Jewish friends.


Safe Haven

Sometimes I can’t believe what our kids have to deal with yet they just seem to accept it. Probably none of  the following will be news to you.  It’s just that hearing about how our students’ lives have changed (in the few short years since my own kids were in high school) had an impact on me today. It is a horrible fact of life that a safe place for learning in secular schools only seems to occur with a great deal of effort.  It’s more amazing that these procedures are taken in stride. 

Today I visited an Introduction to Talmud class, and the conversation was about personal responsibility.  The following incidents that students mentioned were not meant to be the ‘meat’ of the discussion, but were casually inserted like a side order of fries. When I seemed surprised to hear some of the stuff, the response was “it’s no big deal” and “it’s just what happens”.

One student who attends a large high school told me that when kids come to school late, she thinks that they may be carrying a knife or a gun since they missed the screening in the beginning of the day. There was a killing that occurred when she was in middle school (MIDDLE SCHOOL) and from time to time she thinks about it.  This is not an inner city school. Two students at two other schools mentioned that there were fights in the cafeteria just last week.  A student mentioned that whatever you carry in the hallway has to be made of clear plastic because there was a gun problem. Another student said that entering school is not unlike checking into an airport: body scans and bags on the conveyor belt.  This was at a school with a ‘solid’ reputation.

I write this not so  much for you, because as I said, these things may not be news.  But for me, it is a stark reminder of how much harder we need to work to make sure that every single space we create for our students in the time they’re with us needs to be a safe haven from the commotion outside.


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