HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Ensuring our Students Become Mensches

by Jennifer L. Friedman Issue: Taking Measure

In Jewish day schools, we are blessed to have Torah and core Jewish values as our guides for behavioral standards. At Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit, we promote values that include acting with derekh eretz, performing acts of tikkun olam, and instilling our lives with kedushah. Over the course of the education from preschool through eighth grade, we constantly articulate our goal of molding our students into mensches. We work toward this goal in all aspects of the school day, whether in a Tanakh class, a social work lesson in the classroom, or in a cooperative assignment in language arts. As part of this elaborate program in menschlichkeit, in the past year we began to assess students in this area, both to measure their progress and to determine whether the school overall is meeting its goals.

So, what is a mensch? Merriam-Webster’s definition is “a person of integrity and honor.” A more Jewish definition is “literally ‘man,’ an honorable, decent, stand-up person, as in, ‘I don’t care who you marry, as long as he’s a mensch!’” (myjewishlearning.com). Because personality attributes are qualitative constructs, they cannot be measured directly. Therefore, we must identify a number of variables of which a mensch is comprised.

This year at Hillel, we have enhanced our teaching and measurement of menschlichkeit in several ways in order to maintain best practice in the social-emotional field. The first step was to precisely define and delineate the skills and behaviors that comprise being a Hillel mensch. Our MENSCH behaviors are as follows: Making a difference; Empathy for others; Nice words and actions; Sharing and collaborating; Courage to do the right thing; and Helping others in need. Now that we have a working definition, the specific actions must be described and taught explicitly in order to be executed. In this way, we can make our behavioral expectations as clear and rigorous as our academic expectations. Additionally, in order to measure the presence of these behaviors, we must know exactly what we are looking for. To this end, we have concretized the overt actions that characterize each of the behaviors.

Thus, along with the new MENSCH posters that clearly display the definition in every classroom, we also have a matrix poster of what menschlichkeit looks like in various areas of the school, such as the miznon (cafeteria), bathrooms and hallways. For example, students who are in the hallway or mercaz (heart of the school) demonstrating Making a difference in our community will keep the floor clean, smile and greet others, say slichah or excuse me, and put furniture back where it belongs. A student who is displaying Empathy for others in the hallway will help others when they need assistance.

From years of research on child development and learning (Bandura, Aggression: A Social Learning Analysis) we know that “behaviors are taught, modeled, and then approximated until they are replicated.” Because of the explicitness of the mensch expectations, we are able to teach, promote, and measure these behaviors much more effectively. We also use positive reinforcement by giving students “mensch cards,” on which teachers circle the specific behavior that they observed.

There is a consciousness about students’ intentions; they are not acting like a mensch just to earn the card. All through the week, students put their earned mensch cards into a bin in the main office, and every Friday there is a “Got ya, caught ya, being a mensch” drawing for two to four randomly chosen students in each division to win a sweet Shabbat treat. This has been a very effective behavioral reinforcer, as students are consistently vying to earn as many cards as they can each week and are thoroughly excited as a hush falls over the entire school in order to hear the lucky winners’ names over the loudspeaker. The subsequent cheers of support from the students’ classmates and the list of names outside of the office are certainly secondary reinforcers as well.

In order to ensure that students are increasingly learning and demonstrating menschlichkeit, we must consistently assess their progress on the spectrum of these defined behaviors. Although assessment was typically thought of as measuring discrete bits of knowledge or dichotomous constructs, it can also be applied to qualitative constructs, such as personal characteristics (Boyle, Saklofske and Matthews, Measures of Personality and Social Psychological Constructs). We are able to use the behavior matrix as an assessment rubric, just as one would measure progress in an academic area. We assess students formatively while monitoring their progress, as well as summatively, as the teachers use this rubric for assigning a mark in derekh eretz on students’ trimester report cards.

At this point, having just completed the first year of this program, the derekh eretz grade is the only menschlichkeit data on record. As we continue to build and improve both our behavioral and academic systems of assessment and data collection, we will be able to store and analyze this data more effectively. In January 2016, we will be upgrading our student information system and housing all of our data in one user-friendly domain. Our teachers will have access to current and past behavioral data, progress and interventions.

As with data gleaned from any assessment, we act upon the information to best meet each student’s individual needs. In this way, we can again activate the same support structure for those who are struggling in the area of menschlichkeit that we would if a student was not yet meeting academic standards. We use our system of monthly “student concerns” meetings as checkpoints, and our social workers are in touch with each teacher in order to assist students who may be developing mensch skills more slowly. They teach classroom lessons in all grades, facilitate small groups for more directed interventions, and they support individualized needs in one-to-one sessions as well. We are also able to analyze the mensch data on a broader scale, and we can make comparisons of progress between classrooms, whole grade levels, and look at the school’s functioning in its entirety. As we know, students develop skills on different timelines, and like learning any new concept, learning to be a mensch is no different.

Since the implementation of this enhanced mensch program, we have seen a significant decline in discipline referrals and a significant increase in conscious, purposeful menschlichkeit all around our school. Our parents are also on board and have been taught to reinforce these behaviors at home using the same language that we use at school. This wrap-around model is the best way to achieve our goals for our students and create a culture of menschlichkeit in the school. Staying true to our motto, “Mind and Soul, Better Together,” we will continue to foster these skills and use assessment to guide us.

Jennifer L. Friedman PhD is the dean of student learning and educational psychologist at the Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit. jfriedman@hillelday.org

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