Some terms — like the Yiddish word mensch — express concepts or ideas so well that those terms achieve widespread usage beyond their languages of origin.
Here in Pittsburgh, the Mensch Project, a joint venture between a Jewish day school and a research psychologist from a Catholic university, aims to teach local students that good behavior translates well into any language.
When Community Day School approached her in search of a curriculum designed to teach, encourage and reward good behavior, Kara McGoey, an associate professor of school psychology in the Duquesne University School of Education’s Department of Counseling, had never even heard the word mensch before.
“Positive behavior support is my background, but I didn’t know anything about Jewish laws and traditions,” said McGoey. “I came in knowing one part, and they came in knowing another and it really created a partnership.”
Three years later, McGoey’s curriculum is fully in use — with a distinctly Jewish attitude — at Community Day School as the Mensch Project. While the reward for good behavior is reward in and of itself, the Mensch Project strives to catch CDS students in the act of doing good, and reward them for it with mensch cards.
“The first week,” said Avi Munro, head of school at CDS, “we noticed a difference in hallway decorum and manners because the kids knew we’d be looking for those things.”
And because doing good isn’t just about the person who acts, the awarding of a mensch card is treated as a community achievement among the school’s 12 intergrade level tribes. Biweekly, the tribe with the most collective mensch cards has the opportunity to earn special privileges, like dress-down days. Munro said that CDS students were well behaved before the program, but that they’ve become even more so since.
“This was the first time that I partnered with a school to do this that I attempted to modify the system to match their system and cultures,” said McGoey.
McGoey and her graduate students visit the school each week to meet and consult with teachers and support students and collect data.
According to Munro, while the program is ostensibly staff-led and staff-created, the partnership with Duquesne allows CDS to collect, maintain and manage data from the program to a degree that would be otherwise impossible.
“If a teacher wants a kid observed, [the graduate students] are very skilled at doing that,” Munro said.
With the system thriving at CDS, McGoey says that she’ll look to implement it in other schools. And thanks to her partnership with CDS, she now has a better idea of how to do it.
“What I hope to continue doing is tailoring the positive behavior support to the culture of the school,” said McGoey. “I always thought that it could be done and should be done, but now I know that it can be done.”
(Matthew Wein can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.)