Monday, February 2, 2015

Teaching character

In December and January I took an online course in character education. The course was designed for teachers in secular, public and private, schools, and offered by the Relay Graduate School of Education. Relay has provided training for teachers in charter schools in New York City, where much of the emphasis on character education in secular schools seems to be taking place.

A religious school like ours is arguably in the business of character education. That may be why I found the course somewhat unsatisfactory. Specifically, it emphasized just a few character strengths—such as persistence and optimism—that have been shown to contribute to success in school.

At its best, Jewish complementary education (that’s the formal name for Hebrew school) contributes to students’ general education and to overall success in school. But success in secular school is not really a goal of Hebrew school, and it shouldn’t be.

First, we place becoming a good person above earning good grades. This is one of the reasons that we don’t use the standard grading scale. Some of the charter schools in which classes were filmed for the online course give “character growth” report cards with numerical grades. 

In fact, that reminded me of the time that a Hebrew-school committee in another city asked me if there was an organization like the Iowa Tests that we could invite in to test all our students every year. 

There isn’t, baruch Hashem. To a student who received a low score, it might have seemed like failing at being Jewish. Our tradition teaches us, “Do not think of yourself as a bad person,” a reason not to grade character.

Second, the qualities that have been shown to contribute to secular school success do not entirely match those that we most want to develop. While persistence is undeniably helpful in, for example, bar/bat mitzvah preparation, another of our goals is to encourage love of [Jewish] learning. Too much persistence in academic drudgery might have the opposite effect. 

Finally, although most Hebrew schools are modeled more on secular schooling than on, say, Christian Sunday school, the direction in which secular education is moving is wrong for Jewish religious education. 

For example, more and more schools expect students to be reading in English by the end of kindergarten, even though it does not lead to their being better readers in upper grades. It is conceivable that we could push students hard enough in Hebrew to have them ready for a bar/bat mitzvah ceremony at the age of 11 instead of 13, but that doesn’t mean that they would be ready to assume responsibility for their own religious lives at the ripe old age of 11.

It was never completely clear why Relay chose some of the specific character strengths that it did. Some of them contribute to academic success; others probably don’t. 

The only one that would have had equal standing in Jewish education was gratitude. Gratitude contributes to psychological well-being but not directly to academic success. It may have been chosen only because it’s possible to promote in the classroom.

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