Tag Archives: Parents

Can Character Be Taught to Teens?

Character Education: what has your teen learned?

Character Education: what has your teen learned?

 

What are the most important traits to develop in students?

At the end of high school, what would you want your teenager to know?

What character attributes will help teenagers succeed beyond school into the journey of life?

These questions are different from ‘outcome’ based education, which is based on content knowledge.

Instead, they ask the larger, more complicated questions that have no specific answer.

Yet, the quantifiable often gets the nod over those things that are difficult to measure and assess.

In a recent New York Times article, some schools have determined that building character is more important than building curriculum, and are backing that goal up with new initiatives.

What are the essential qualities to build character? Leadership?

Most of us recognize that the turmoil of years past, with ethical missteps and outright criminal behavior being acted out in the public arena, by formerly esteemed individuals, we need to really think about how to instill character-building activities in our youth.

Schools are stepping up to the plate, and regardless of how little or much parents are doing, most see this as a good thing.

One Chicago school professional labeled character traits as “resilience, integrity, resourcefulness, professionalism and ambition” which lead to leadership skills.

But this change will take time. What does exist now, are experiences for teens that work on these very things. Think scouting, faith-based after school education, and informal leadership activities like youth groups.

So, if you agree with this concept, that we need to pay attention to character traits (however you define them), your task as a parent and/or educator is to create opportunities for these traits to flourish. Starting  now is a good idea.

image: wikipedia.org


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.


News Flash! A Collaborative Model in the Jewish Community

Circle Design
A tightly knit collaborative circle. Image by matley0

I’m by nature an optimistic  person (I’m a Jewish educator, after all). But, there’s no doubt that when I consider the topics I’ve written about the outlook seems a little gloomy, and the word ‘kvetch’ comes to mind.

The process of change seems to tug along slower than a cruiser trying to glide through oil.  

Even though I tell myself that what I’ve observed and written about is true  and some would say it’s in the best interest of the Jewish community for me to point these things out, the overall vista is more than gray. “Kvetch” is still the word stubbornly sticking around.    

Since the month before Rosh HaShanah is a time of introspection, I decided to get back to my optimistic core and write about a program that works as a model of collaboration on behalf of Jewish teens. 

I recently spent time during our evening program with over 45 students in 11th and 12th grade who are making an incredibly serious commitment to the Jewish community.  They are amazing, many will be our future leaders, and I owe it to them to talk about what they’re doing. 

In partnership with the URJ, local synagogues, and a Jewish community high school, Jewish teens participate in a win-win situation. 

Students work in their synagogues one day a week as classroom aides, and attend a second day (YES, a second day) taking classes which complement their experience and add to their repertoire of teaching techniques. 

In the final year of the program, students take a freshman college course in Foundations of Education (child development, multiple intelligences, classroom dynamics, lesson planning…) plus a college level Bible course.  

“Training Students to Become Jewish Educators”  is an article I co-wrote which is relevant here and outlines only some of the benefits of the Education course.

In this arrangement, synagogues get the benefit of classroom assistants who are role models for their school, but not only as paid staff, but as students who are making a continued commitment to their own Jewish education

Working to make this program successful are local Reform Jewish Educators, Rabbis of the reform synagogues, administrators and educators at the Jewish community high school, plus parents who encourage and support their teens in the program.  When I think about this program, the word optimistic fills the space in my mind, as the word kvetch silently skulks off stage.


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.


Classroom and Community: Making It Real for Teens

courtesy of katerha's photostream

Recently I was teaching a class the Jewish value of G’milut Hasadim (acts of loving kindness). I asked them to think about a time when someone (friend, family–anyone) did something for them that they would define as an act of G’milut Hesed so we’d have an example of how the value is applied to real situations.  This is a class of intelligent and outspoken students, grades 8 and 9, who attend public and private schools in a suburban area. No hands shot up. I waited and gave some examples in case they didn’t understand the concept yet, suggesting that it was a difficult question and to take as much time as they needed. Still nothing.  Not one student had anything to say.

I discovered that the way  they experience kindness is through gifts or exchanges of things.  At this point we brainstormed about what they could do for others.  At first, they also thought about things: buying someone lunch, buying them an itune, etc. It took some work to move beyond that, but we did.

I don’t know if this lesson will ‘stick’, or if its ramifications will affect them in any way. But it stuck with me.

I learned that this is pretty much their world.  It’s not that gifts are bad (which we talked about). It’s just that in their experience there seems to be little in the way of true community at work.  In a non-Orthodox Jewish community it is really hard to build that into Jewish life.  I didn’t hear anyone talk about their synagogue or their youth group in this context, let alone the public arena.  This is the setting in which community and classroom have to go together.  The classroom needs to be the vehicle to put G’milut Hesed into action and any other value that we try to teach.   We need to make it real.


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.


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.


Not Wanted: Parents?

That’s actually the opposite of the way I feel, but before I whine about how I’d like more parents involved in what their teens are doing at a Jewish supplementary school, I have to think about the messages they’re getting from the secular world about how much their presence is desired.

How often are parents part of the picture at middle school? High School?  When my children were in elementary school, there were numerous ways to be involved: classroom parent, library aide, PTO member, usher, office worker, committee member –and encouragement to volunteer my time any way I could. 

So, what happened as my children got older? All of a sudden, the welcome mat disappeared. Whether this was intentional, implicit, or perhaps inspired by teens who would much rather not associate publicly with their parents is a mystery.  This experience has been confirmed with other parents, especially when invited for programs and they tell me they’ve promised their teenaged children complete anonymity and decide to stand ‘way in the back’ unnoticed.  So, contrary to popular expectations, I want parents to show up.  A place in the back guaranteed but not condoned.


Jewish Teens’ Best Kept Secrets

I can’t help thinking about it.  Why do our most committed students keep their Jewish involvements a secret? Even from Jewish professionals?  Are we guilty of modelling  that behavior to them?

I co-facilitated a workshop a week and a half ago that featured a teen panel (volunteers) who were asked to discuss communication and other issues that are important to them.  There was no set criteria to be on the panel and they were not billed as “Super Jews”. These were teens who were willing to share their opinions with a group of Jewish educators and parents.

None of the adults knew the students personally. Ironically, the teens all opted to continue their education past the age of  the infamous Bar/t Mitzvah drop-off, and are enrolled in supplementary synagogue and community high schools.  A majority of them are well into their senior year of high school.  Some are taking college level courses and earning Teaching Certificates. Yet, when introducing themselves to this group of Jewish parents and educators they mentioned their secular high schools, towns of residence, some hobbies, but none said that they were currently enrolled in a Jewish supplementary high school program (ignoring the kvell factor entirely).  Why the secret?

Our students may be compartmentalizing their lives, and we may have trained them to do so: “I go to hebrew school on Sundays and Tuesdays, baseball practice on Wednesdays, debate class on”…..and so on.  I’ve even heard students say on occasion: “When I’m here, this is my time to do things Jewish (sic), I don’t have time to do (extra research, projects, language practice) anything in addition to that. I only have this amount of time for that.”

Even if I get the fact that their time is limited,  the question I still need to ask is “okay, so why are you keeping what you’re doing a secret? Why aren’t you proud of the fact that you’re doing this double academic load? Why is doing this not a cool thing to do? “

The question I need to ask myself is whether, as a Jewish educator, I’m helping to ‘keep the secret’. Am I complicit in setting this standard by not talking about my Jewish life outside of class? Am I modelling what I want my students to do?


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