Values + Social and Emotional Learning = Powerful Jewish Learning

By Nancy Parkes and Dr. Jeffrey Kress

What do Jewish educators have on their plates these days? In the socio-affective arena, educators have gotten helpings of identity (or engagement) education, values (middot) education, mindfulness, positive psychology (thriving, flourishing), education for civil discourse, whole-child education, character education, and moral education. Of course, the plate also holds education around Bible, Israel, Hebrew, Tefillah (Prayer), Chaggim, (Holidays) and Shabbat. There must be space for current events and, sadly, reactions to traumatic events. Educators need to make sure that the meal comes infused with inclusion of a diverse range of learners. Day school educators get all this served alongside curriculum integration, general studies, special events, and Shabbatonim. Supplemental school educators receive a helping of family education and community events, to be accomplished within limited contact hours, and even fewer hours for professional learning.

No wonder many educators are feeling like they’ve just eaten Thanksgiving dinner: Everything looked so yummy, I had to take a taste. Now I’m stuffed and can barely move. If I eat anything else I might explode, and I am only moderately certain that I can digest what I did eat!!

But what can be done? The list does not include any “fat” to trim away (though we do acknowledge the overlap among some topics). We are wary, though, about having plates piled so high. Educators face innovation fatigue and wonder about their site’s real priorities. They don’t have the time to gain the experienced-based expertise that allows initiatives to take root. They may feel put-upon (that new ideas are “being stuffed down my throat”). Perhaps most significantly, learners may experience their education as fragmented, lacking the through-lines that allow them to place themselves within a meaningful narrative of learning.

We argue that much can be gained from organizing and consolidating efforts around common values and social and emotional learning (SEL). Despite the various articulated goals of Jewish education, there seems to be a consensus that regardless of the setting or denomination, we hope our students’ learning leads to the living of a meaningful life with deep connections to others, and an understanding that their actions can have a profound impact in this world. Judaism’s teachings focus on the development and growth of the self, how we connect with community, and how we conduct ourselves in the world. This focus, though longstanding, has gained momentum with exciting, emerging initiatives around thriving, shleimut (wholeness), flourishing, or reaching one’s full human potential.

We recommend starting with a small number of core values to guide all work within any setting, creating a “through-line” of Jewish values and character development. This does not mean the introduction of yet another item on the plate; rather these values can be integrated into already existing curricula regardless of content matter.

Core values can be drawn from the language of mussar (e.g., Achrayut/responsibility) or other Jewish sources (e.g., treating people as created b’tzelem Elohim/in the image of God). How many values? Which ones? It is important for leaders, together with other constituents, to answer these for their own settings. The core values should be flexible enough to apply to multiple within a range of content areas and also to the daily experience of the students.

Regardless of which are chosen, it will take more than learning about values to achieve the desired outcomes. Here, an approach to social and emotional learning (SEL) is helpful. SEL is an educational process that provides the framework for the teaching of these competencies. According to CASEL, 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.”

Social and emotional (SE) competencies form the foundation for the enactment of values. Achrayut? Kavod/respect? B’tzelem Elohim? Each will require the application of communication skills, self-regulation, emotional awareness, problem solving, and positive motivation and goal orientation. As an educational process and framework, SEL supports the development of these skills. The interplay among cognitive, social, and emotional development is integral to any approach used to teach Jewish values and character development. For example, in Everyday Holiness, Morinis, quotes a Mussar master, Rabbi Eliyanhu Lopian who defined Mussar as “making the heart feel what the intellect understands.” Emotions play a key role in not only our learning, but also in how we internalize that learning so that we live it. According to Scheindlin (2013) “the development of emotional sensitivity is indispensable for moral education …as well as in the education for spiritual and religious life.”

Core values and focal SE competencies can become a common, integrative framework for all learning; they can be reinforced in any and all subject areas across the curriculum. They can provide focus to broad and difficult topics (e.g., How do we emphasize our values and competencies through what we teach, and how we teach, in tefillah, Israel, general studies, etc.?). They could provide a filter for taking on or adapting new initiatives (To what extent does it support our values and competence framework? How might new ideas be integrated into our ongoing approach?). They can provide a structure for classroom management so that teachers can spend their time doing what they love to do: teach.

Our learners are not the only beneficiaries. Values and SE competencies are as valuable to adults, too, and can become a topic for educator growth. Parents can support these values and competencies outside of the school setting. Additionally, a value- and SE competency-infused educational approach would result in a sense of community and care among and between educators and learners.

A values + SEL framework can be the foundation, the educational process, to teach and practice the necessary skills to live the values our students are learning, and in the process, also understand that Judaism provides the blueprint to thrive, flourish, feel whole, and be on a path to achieving their full human potential.

Nancy Parkes teaches in the William Davidson School of Education at JTS, and is an educational consultant and founder of JTeachNOW.

Jeffrey S. Kress, Dr. Bernard Heller Chair in Jewish Education, is Director of Research at the Leadership Commons of the William Davidson School of Education.