A New Approach to the Three R’s: Responsibility, Reciprocity, and Reflection


Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School

Judd Kruger Levingston 

Jewish day schools do an outstanding job of promoting the academic achievement of our students in the traditional three R's (in case anyone has forgotten, that's reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic). We know that our students' education would be incomplete if we didn't also include attention to their psycho-social and moral development. To meet this need, many Jewish day schools also have advisory and homeroom programs from kindergarten through high school. In these programs, time is filled with role-playing exercises and discussion about social responsibility, moral dilemmas, and ways in which students can become advocates for one another and for themselves.

The Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in the Philadelphia area, where I serve as director of Jewish Studies and teach 8th and 10th graders, is not unique in filling its ranks with a range of students. Some students excel at hiding their feelings; some appear to go through life always game and upbeat; and some wear their anxiety on their sleeves.  

We take pride in knowing that our guidance counselors are not the only ones who help students manage the ups and downs of adolescence. We also take pride in the fact that every student is known well by at least one adult, and usually by many more. One example of how this is carried out is through the meetings that the principal of our middle school, Susan Friedman, conducts with all incoming parents. Susan meets with these parents every summer and then, in September, shares her findings on a confidential basis with middle school teachers to ensure that the teachers are attuned to the emotional make-up of each student.

Barrack Hebrew Academy promotes our students' social and emotional development through a commitment to a same-grade advisory program in the middle school that brings students from each grade together within their grade. Students get to know a few of their grade-mates through informal conversations and through age-appropriate structured conversations about issues as varied as the changing landscape of adolescent friendships; cyber-bullying; learning to be an active "upstander" instead of a passive bystander; and bar and bat mitzvah etiquette. An advisory discussion, when structured by the teacher, readily offers opportunities for a deeper exploration of how empathy and careful management of our emotions can help us build a sense of an inclusive community.  

In the upper school, we bring together a cross section of students from grades 9 through 12 for cross-grade advisory groups, in an effort to build a sense of community across the years. Conversations about pairing up and relationships; academic honesty; school, athletics, work, extracurricular activities, and sleep balance; and behavior outside school allow students to develop a sense of emotional intelligence. For adolescents, this includes an appreciation for others who may be different or who may react to things differently and a willingness to understand their own emotions. Within the first few weeks of this new school year, students have already heard a guest speaker address the topics of stress and emotional depression.  

By promoting an appreciation for one another in middle- and upper-school advisory groups, we strive to create a 6th- through 12th-grade school-wide community in which reciprocity flourishes and students look out for one another, nurturing each other's feelings of membership in the community.  

In addition to helping our students develop a sense of emotional responsibility, we help them develop a sense of moral responsibility by having an honor code. The honor code includes six values agreed upon by a student-faculty committee: honor/kavod, honesty/yosher, humility/anavah, community/kehillah, fellowship/havrutah, and modesty/tzniut. A strong emotional intelligence has to include careful thought about honesty and good character. Through talks by guests, advisory-based case studies, and open-ended conversations, we hope that students come to see that there are many sides to qualities such as courage. It takes courage, for example, to go out for a sport or audition for a show when there are others who may be more talented, and it also takes courage to tell the truth even when it might be easier in the short run to let a moment pass and, in effect, hide. We are launching a student-faculty Derech Eretz Council this fall that will both educate students about honor-related issues and adjudicate such issues in the school.  

As a member of the Barrack school administrative team, I regularly ask if we could do more, and the good news is that yes, we have room for growth. We are developing a new approach to the Shaharit morning service that will help build students' skills as Jewish leaders. We don't want to lose sight of our students' emotional and spiritual development at the expense of skill development, so we also offer tefillah-based nature walks, siddur-based art projects, and poetry of spiritual reflection. Through structured opportunities for reflection, our students will develop their emotional lives together with their intellectual and social lives. Day schools demand much from their students, but they give much, as well, and opportunities abound for growth both in the old three R's and in the new ones, too.

Rabbi Judd Kruger Levingston, PhD, serves as director of Jewish Studies at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. He is a past principal of the Solomon Schechter High School of New York, and served as principal of the Ivry Prozdor High School of The Jewish Theological Seminary from 1993 to 1999. He received his rabbinical ordination at JTS ('93) and a master's degree ('92) and PhD ('02) from The Graduate School of JTS. Rabbi Levingston was a member of Cohort 1 of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS, and a member of Cohort IV of The Davidson School's Standards and Benchmarks Project. He is the author of Sowing the Seeds of Character: The Moral Education of Adolescents in Public and Private Schools (Praeger, 2009). He lives in Philadelphia with his family, and recently completed a term as vice president of education at that city's Germantown Jewish Centre.