In their new book, “Raising A+ Human Beings: Crafting a Jewish School Culture of Academic Excellence and AP Kindness,” Dr. Bruce Powell and Dr. Ron Wolfson explore the unique benefits of a learning environment fueled by Jewish values. I experienced the results firsthand, as a former student of de Toledo High School, which Dr. Powell created and ran. He and Dr. Wolfson, a professor of education at American Jewish University, collaborated to analyze de Toledo as a case study in Jewish education. The result is a customizable instruction manual on how organizations can replicate a “culture of wisdom and kindness,” combining academic achievement and personal growth. The two men will speak with Dr. Wendy Mogel on reimagining Jewish education April 6 at 6:30 ET via Zoom in a program sponsored by the Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center. My interview with the authors has been edited for length and clarity.
Forward: In the book, you assert that academic excellence is relative to where you’re starting from. In a large school, how do you how create a learning or working environment that’s specialized to each individual?
Bruce Powell: It’s easier said than done. “One mind at a time” comes from the notion of everybody’s created b’tzelem elohim [in the image of God]. Every person is of infinite importance. Every person has their unique gifts. Now our job is to find what are your unique gifts? That’s the hard part. Because there’s X number of people, and we don’t have the Human Genome Project for one’s brain. But if teachers are sensitized to that, they can identify where this person can excel quite a bit.
Ron Wolfson: The teachers that impacted your life during your educational career were what I would call relational teachers. Relationships between teachers and students begin with a teacher knowing their students, not just their past academic performance, but their stories. What their interests are, what their family life is like, who their friends are, and then they discover these gifts and use them to engage the students in the subject matter.
Forward: At the end of each chapter, you provide questions that guide people through how they can apply the lessons. Offering questions instead of just providing answers ties into your teaching philosophy, yes?
Ron Wolfson: We design this book to be a community read. The best use of this book is for any institution is to read it together, so everyone is on the same page, literally. That’s why we crafted questions for groups to think about. How do you take not just the best practices but the best principles? Even though most of the cases here are about a school, you could take the same principles and apply them to a synagogue, a Hillel, a federation, a camp. And the process of thinking about those questions together, we hope, will lead to excellent conversations about how each institution is crafting their own unique culture
Forward: Something I learned while reading the book was the term “The Grammar of Humility.” It’s one of the most important things I learned in high school. I learned to acknowledge the fact that I could be wrong and that everyone has opinions that should be valued. How do you teach The Grammar of Humility?
Bruce Powell: One must teach it by example, to model what a truly open mind looks like. Then there’s the direct way of teaching. My approach is not to attack. Instead say, “Tell me more about that. How do you come to that?” That method of inquiry and verbal discourse can be taught to students in a classroom. If you’re kind to someone, they’re going to trust you. If they trust you, they’re going to listen to what you say. Now you have a dialogue. You have a machloket b’shem shamayim — an argument in the name of heaven.
Ron Wolfson: Kindness begins with the humility of listening. The watchword of the Jewish people is Shema Israel. Listen, people of Israel. An A+ human being is somebody who’s a great listener, not just a great debater. It all begins with listening.
Forward: The book is about your five core values: being an A+ human being, taking AP kindness, building circles of friends, no lashon hara (evil speech), and striving for academic excellence. How did you select these five values?
Bruce Powell: Those five pieces were the beginning point for ninth graders. I chose them because I felt developmentally, as kids mature, those were the five things that a ninth grader could understand and integrate into their life. Then, as kids got older, we could dig more deeply into the notion of the b’tzelem elohim, machloket b’shem shamayim, and obligations of speech.
Ron Wolfson: You learn a culture through three mechanisms. The first is you can read about it, or you can hear a lecture from the Head of School. And that’s what your ninth graders did. Then you can observe it. To see how senior classmen are treating each other. The most important way to learn a culture is experiential participation. You’re thrown into the soup of school culture; you learn it from your kishkes.