September means only one thing to principals and teachers: the beginning of school. Class lists are made, curricula is set, bulletin boards are decorated, and classrooms are filled with supplies. All we need now are our students. For many educators in Jewish private and synagogue schools, however, this year poses a particular interesting conversation around curricula. With the current political climate and recent events in Charlottesville, more and more discussion has centered around character and moral education. To be clear, this has always been a part of the curricula in Jewish schools. Yet, it has taken on a new urgency as educators, parents, and clergy debate how best to confront the growing need to effectively teach the values we espouse to be the core of Judaism so that they are lived.
There is much more work being done in the public sphere of education where these skills are not taken for granted and are taught intentionally. So, why has this not been the case in Jewish education? One possible explanation is the erroneous assumption that these skills do not need to be intentionally taught, as children are either born with these skills or “just learn them” through various experiences (Elias and Kress, 2001). Another is that historically, Jewish education has focused on content knowledge with the understanding that the primary site of moral and character development was the home. Lastly, one can argue that they are taught and is an important component of the Jewish content knowledge every child is expected to achieve. So the question is, are our Jewish children learning them in a way that informs their behavior and decisions in and out of the classroom?
Interestingly, there has been some acknowledgement in the field that we need to reevaluate how we are teaching and assessing these values as more and more Jewish educators have come to embrace constructivism and experiential education, which encourages learners to create personal meaning as they engage with the world. As a result, educators work hard at designing experiences that address the needs of the “whole person.” This means educating not only the mind, but also the heart. But how does one “educate” the heart?
This can be achieved by incorporating social and emotional learning and character development into the lessons we teach. Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. SEL programming is based on the understanding that the best learning emerges in the context of supportive relationships that make learning challenging, engaging, and meaningful,” (http://www.casel.org/social-and-emotional-learning/).
Like any skill, Social Emotional/Character Development (SECD) needs to be intentionally taught and modeled. Additionally, students need to be reminded of their learning, and given ample opportunity to practice the skills they are trying to master
Here’s how to do just that:
- Teachers need to take the time to teach the particular skill and/or character trait. As with all good teaching, various modalities will help facilitate the learning, while providing examples of the skill and trait in the students’ lives will make the learning relevant and meaningful. Perhaps most importantly, SECD cannot be taught as something “extra” to the curriculum; it must be valued as much as other academic subjects. In fact, according to Elias, et al (1997), “SEL programs and activities that are coordinated into the regular curriculum and life of the classroom and school are most likely to have the desired effect on students, and are also most likely to endure,” (p.79)
- Children learn through imitation, and so, modeling serves as an important tool for teaching SECD. As role models, teachers need to model the skills and traits their students are learning. Teachers can do so in the way they interact with their students and colleagues; by sharing and thinking about a problem out loud; and by being open and honest about how they are feeling in a particular situation. Teachers must also remember that children will notice discrepancies between what they say and what actions are actually taken in any given situation. A teacher’s actions must match their words.
- It cannot be assumed that once the skill has been taught and modeled that the student will “automatically” use it in the appropriate situation. In fact, it is quite natural for students to revert to previous behavior when they are experiencing stress and other strong emotions. A prompt and/or cue can serve as an important reminder of the skill and when and how best to implement it in a given situation. Prompts and/or cues can be in verbal, as well as written forms, such as posters, notes to students, and bulletin boards.
- Students need multiple and a variety of opportunities to practice the skill they are learning. Practicing these skills in a wide range of activities and contexts will help strengthen the skill. Reinforcing the skill and/or character trait in all situations and settings helps the student understand when and how to appropriately implement SECD in real life situations.
If our goal for our children is to live what they are learning, and to be knowledgeable Jews who make informed decisions based on Jewish values, then is seems that SECD will help our students achieve these goals. Additionally, according to Elias and Kress, (2001), social emotional skills are the foundation for academic success, as well as developing relationships with others, and with managing one’s own emotions. Clearly, these are important skills for a successful and happy life. And ultimately, isn’t that what Jewish education is about?
Elias, M. J., & Kress, J. S. (2001). Social and emotional learning in the Jewish classroom: Tools for a strong Jewish identity. Journal of Jewish Communal Service 77.3(4): 182-190.
Elias, M. J., Zins, J. E., Weissberg, R. P., Frey, K. S., Greenberg, M. T., Haynes, N. M.,
Kessler, R., Schwab-Stone, M. E., & Shriver, T. P. (1997). Promoting social and emotional learning: Guidelines for educators. Appendix A. Alexandria, VA:
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.