Chanoch L’Naar

At Gann Academy, we decided that, if we wanted this language, culture, and practice to impact our entire school, we needed to start with the adults in the building, especially the school’s senior leadership team.


[eJP note: This article is part of a series focusing on new ideas emerging from the day school field with relevance for Jewish professionals in Jewish education and beyond. The post contributes to the conversation on the topic of Leadership.]

by David Jaffe

New research featured in “The Harvard Education Letter” (Jan/Feb 2013) demonstrates the importance of perseverance and character to intellectual learning and success.

For instance, Researcher Angela Lee Duckworth of Penn University argues that students can be taught to change their belief systems about success and failure. Through learning that “feelings of confusion are a hallmark of learning,” or that “… messing up is a normal part of learning,” students may be less likely to give up after a failure. In another example, Jason Biehr of Loyola Marymount writes that repeated actions and practices can develop qualities of grit and self-control. He cites illustrations including third-graders chanting a promise to practice certain intellectual virtues and students developing tolerance for other opinions by taking on a practice to argue the other side in a debate for a week.

In fact, these cutting-edge approaches to student achievement correlate quite closely with the Jewish practices of Mussar, the area of Jewish thought and practice dedicated to spiritual and moral development. As old as the Bible itself – stemming from the tenet, “Be holy, because I am holy” (Lev. 19:3) – Mussar is enjoying a contemporary renaissance in Israel and North America. At Gann Academy in Waltham, MA, I lead a Mussar-based character development program called Chanoch LaNa’ar (CLN), named after a verse in the Book of Proverbs which advocates for sophisticated child-centered education.

CLN follows the Mussar method of growth, which involves purposeful, small, repetitive practices that develop our middot (soul traits) over time to make us as God-like as possible. Grounded in millennia of wisdom about human behavior, this method is based on the premise that everyone has a personal soul curriculum with individualized challenges and goals. Such goals could include developing self-awareness about our character traits (hergesh), delaying gratification (kibush), and sublimating our impulses to positive ends (tikkun). The soul curriculum unfolds in a laboratory of the mundane events of everyday life, such as not looking at a classmate’s paper during a test, overcoming embarrassment to visit the learning center, or inviting a new student to sit at your table during lunch. Through a combination of learning from traditional texts, action and reflection, we work to develop middot such as keinut (honesty), kavod (respect) and yashrut (integrity).

Students who practice Mussar are constantly becoming more aware of how they manifest these traits in different ways in the classroom, at home and on the ball field. In CLN, we take on practices related to a particular middah for a week or two. These practices include repeating phrases, usually from the Torah; adopting small behavioral changes; and journaling at the end of the day. Students may choose to apply humility by taking up or giving space to others in the classroom, honor by being more conscious of the attention they give their teachers and parents and trustworthiness by challenging themselves to use their school planners each day for a week.

For instance, someone working on the middah patience would choose a 15-minute period each day when they know they usually get annoyed – such as lunch time in the cafeteria or a class with a difficult teacher – to decide to do anything they can so as not to lose patience. The point is not so much whether they succeed but what they notice about themselves in trying to be patient. This self-awareness builds the choice-muscle the next time a patience-trying situation arises.

More than a just a skill, making positive choices (behira) is a key to life. Looking for behira points trains students to see difficult moments, whether academic or social, as opportunities for growth. At Gann, our students learn to identify the conflicting values in these situations and how the choices they face will impact their growth. For example, several students recently had money stolen from their backpacks. CLN groups were working on the middah of kavod (honor) at this time and discussed how the theft hurt the sense of how students honored one another at the school. In response to having her money stolen, one of our students looked at her own behira points around honor. She revealed that she often asked other students for the answers to homework and now realizes that her actions diminish her own and her teacher’s honor. She resolved to make a conscious choice to increase honor and stop copying other people’s work.

There is one area in which I believe a Mussar approach can significantly add to the current academic discourse about developing perseverance. In Mussar, it is important for the language about character traits not only inform work with students, but also be the common language and practice of the school. At Gann Academy, we decided that, if we wanted this language, culture, and practice to impact our entire school, we needed to start with the adults in the building, especially the school’s senior leadership team. For the past two years our management team has been learning Mussar together, combining this ancient wisdom with contemporary leadership challenges like time management, trust and work overload. When our leaders model purposeful decision-making using the language and practices of Mussar, they encourage others to use the same tools and language. Before enrolling any students in CLN, a cohort of 9th grade faculty and advisors went through the program themselves, so they too could bring the language and practices of Mussar to their lessons and one-on-one interactions with students. Mussar’s deep roots in Jewish culture and practical application to everyday challenges in school life make it an ideal vehicle for culture change at all levels of our school.

I look forward to more interplay between what we know from centuries of Mussar practice about character development and what we are learning from the most contemporary educational research. The old and the new should join together for the sake of our students’ growth.

Watch below to learn more from Rabbi Marc Baker and Rabbi David Jaffe how CLN is impacting Gann Academy from senior leadership to students.

Rabbi Marc Baker is the Head of School at Gann Academy in Waltham, MA. He received his BA in Religious Studies from Yale University, MA in Jewish Education from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Rabbinic Ordination from Rabbi Daniel Landes of the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem. Marc lives in Brookline, MA with his wife and four children.

Rabbi David Jaffe is the Mashgiach Ruchani/Spiritual Advisor at Gann Academy where he created and runs the Chanoch LaNa’ar initiative. He is also the Founder and Dean of the Kirva Institute. His teaching, organizing, writing and consulting explore the intersection of moral-spiritual development and ethical action in the world. He is currently working on a book about the inner-life and social activism to be published in 2013.