As both an educator and a social worker, I am acutely aware of the responsibility of schools to not only prepare students academically for future success, but to also foster character development. In our increasingly hostile world, where hate speech is commonplace and students fear for their safety in the wake of shootings at schools, public places and houses of worship, isn’t it our responsibility, as educators, to mold our students into mensches? At Carmel Academy, we turn to our social-emotional learning curriculum to help shape the way we define and approach what it means to be a mensch. Through this learning, students cultivate the capacity to see differences in one another not as weaknesses, but as opportunities to help one another; and to be reflective of how they react to the environment around them. This is becoming increasingly important as we struggle to respond to the growing violence facing our world. In response to the most recent attack at his synagogue, the Chabad of Poway in San Diego, California, Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein acknowledged, “the way we react to darkness is with light. We need to go back to the basics and introduce [activities] in schools so that children from early childhood on could recognize that there is more good to the world, that they are valuable, that there is accountability, and that every human being is created in God’s image.”
At Carmel Academy, our two academic programs run side-by-side – our Core program, for neuro-typically developing students, and our PALS (Providing Alternative Learning Strategies) program, for students who have different learning needs. The students in both programs integrate throughout the day to provide maximum opportunities to live out our values of inclusion and practice the social-emotional learning that promotes our vision of menschlichkeit.
Exposure, however, cannot happen in isolation. Exposure without knowledge and understanding is insufficient. It is our job as educators to teach students about differences in a way that encourages connection and empathy. Without a deeper appreciation for differences, children may not learn how to relate lovingly to someone with a different skin color or religion. Without a deeper understanding, children may not be sensitive to or patient with a peer with a processing delay. This lack of understanding, or innocent ignorance, can be a cause for distance, hate and bullying. In my experience, I find that many anti-bullying programs teach our students what not to do, rather than deeply educating them around differences and pro-social behaviors that will reduce bullying and promote a culture of kindness and acceptance. This is a mistake.
At our school, we have found it useful to follow a program callled SOS: Social Skills in Our Schools, which was created and developed by Dr. Michelle Dunn, a pediatric neuropsychologist out of Montefiore Hospital.
One of the main tenets of the SOS program is to help students understand their own strengths and areas where they need to improve. After participating in the lessons, students recognize and appreciate how these attributes make them unique. For example, we explored the idea that lunch and recess are subjects just like any other. Some students possess the social skills that allow them to be successful during these subjects, while some struggle, as the noise level of the cafeteria or the vastness of the playground cause anxiety for them. One student then compared that level of anxiety to his own when he sees a long division problem, while another shared that he feels anxious when he is faced with reading a long chapter in his book. Acknowledging and sharing their own strengths and growth areas helps our students better understand each other, thus normalizing difference.
While ours has seen success with this program, it may not be the best fit for every school. Alternative models can include: partnering with community agencies that provide special needs/diversity training, providing professional development around differentiation, recognizing and praising students for being kind, organizing parent trainings, and making appreciation of differences and inclusion a part of the school culture. If we invest in teaching kindness and cultivating a spirit of generosity and understanding, we can help eradicate some of the darkness and bring a little more light into our classrooms and schools.
By Lisa Mendler
Lisa Mendler is the school social worker r at Carmel Academy in Greenwich, Connecticut. She holds a master’s in teaching from Relay Graduate School of Education and a master’s in social work from Hunter College School of Social Work. She lives in New Rochelle with her husband, Rabbi Zachary Sitkin, and her son, Avi.