The positive impact of mentoring relationships on young people is widely known, yet many programs do not use this proven strategy to increase academic achievement, success, and identity development. Jewish service-learning (JSL) programs provide an ideal environment for successful mentoring by employing adults who embody a clear cultural understanding of the student, a style of authentic caring, and attention to transformative learning.
In a JSL setting, mentors can provide youth with safe, authentic relationships in contexts that teach Jewish cultural norms and practices and information that are vital to success in school, life, and Jewish communal involvement. Jewish mentors can create an environment conducive for transformative learning where the student can experience dramatic shifts in the way they see themselves and world. The best mentors will be skilled facilitators able to debrief, lead a discussion and reflection, and draw out key learnings for all students.
The positive impact of mentoring relationships on young people is widely known, and yet many schools and extracurricular programs do not use this proven strategy to increase academic achievement, success, and identity development. A plethora of research provides evidence on the benefits of mentoring relationships, including student connections with nonparent adults such as community leaders, religious clergy, program coordinators, and consistent volunteers.
Jewish service-learning (JSL) programs provide an ideal environment for successful mentoring because they employ adults who embody a clear cultural understanding of the student, a style of authentic caring, and an attention to transformative learning. In a JSL setting, mentors can provide youth with safe, authentic relationships in contexts that teach Jewish cultural norms, practices, and information that are vital to success in school, life, and Jewish communal involvement. By avoiding the pitfalls of some mentoring programs – low-quality mentor training, poor follow-up, a lack of metric tracking – JSL programs can offer high-quality mentoring opportunities using well-trained mentors.
Positive Jewish role models are especially critical for the success of JSL programming. In general, mentors provide cues in academic, moral, and social adaptation Suárez-Orozco et al. 2004). Jewish mentors model Jewish cultural activities and norms and can create a conducive environment for transformative learning whereby students can experience dramatic shifts in the way they see themselves and the world.
Young peoples’ sense of self can be profoundly influenced by role models in a culturally relevant setting. To enhance transformative learning, a community-based, culturally relevant setting is recommended because community-based educators are typically better able to use relevant modalities and draw on the specific traditions and values that are a part of our culture.
In addition to cultural similarities, the way that mentors interact with students is critical to creating a successful mentoring experience. Schools are often structured around a concept described as aesthetic caring, in which the focus is on things, ideas, and a “narrow, instrumentalist logic” (Noddings, 1984). Instead, research shows that educators must shift to “centering students’ learning around a moral ethic of caring that nurtures and values relationships,” thereby providing learners with authentic caring (Noddings, 1984). Authentic caring means embracing students as individuals in a nurturing, mutually respectful relationship that considers the context of their life circumstances. Young people are able to distinguish between adults who provide aesthetic versus authentic care. Therefore, high-quality JSL programs create opportunities for mentors to learn about and embody an authentic caring style.
Dialogue between the student and mentor is also a key to successful mentoring. Elements such as trust, friendship, and support are necessary for reflection and rational discourse (Taylor, 2000). To encourage dialogue, mentors can use a variety of techniques, including visioning exercises, critical questioning, problem-posing (Freire, 1970), role-playing, simulations, journal writing, and life histories (Cranton, 1996, 2002). A successful JSL program provides training and support for its mentors so they can master these techniques.
An effective mentoring relationship also contributes to students’ sense of self. Mentors can facilitate identity development by providing safe yet challenging situations in the form of team activities, leadership challenges, boundary breaking, and collaborative and autonomous programs; these activities are enriched by a diverse mix of participants. These approaches can be used to “encourage exploration of alternative personal perspectives and critical reflection,” and they combine action and reflection to guide the student’s sense of self (Mezirow, 1995). The best mentors are trained facilitators able to debrief and lead a discussion and reflection about the activity to draw out its key learnings for all students.
Creating learning opportunities for which students feel responsible for content and direction is another way to strengthen a JSL program. Mentors who turn the platform over to their students and “foster group ownership and individual agency….promot[e] value-laden course content…. [and] recognize[e] the interrelationship of critical reflection and affective learning” are especially proven (Mezirow, 1995). As with all the elements described earlier, ownership of the program can be interwoven into the entire program and achieve results in conjunction with other growth. Mentors must prioritize this ownership strategy, at times allowing students to make mistakes and then focusing on learning from them during the reflection process.
Mentor relationships can be particularly powerful through JSL because culture provides a unique lens through which students can relate to their mentors. The most effective mentorships, and therefore the ones that give the most benefit to the student, are those in which the mentor has clearly thought and employed the basic concepts outlined in this article. The successful mentor is trained in best practices in approach and communication, respectful of the students’ personal background and situation, and cognizant of the transformative power of Jewish service-learning.