Sowing the Seeds of Character

The Moral Education of Adolescents in Public and Private Schools

by Judd Kruger Levingston


Although adolescents roll their eyes at adult platitudes, they love to grapple with sticky moral issues, and they value teachers who nurture their growth as moral decision-makers. Instead of offering sermons, precepts, and prescriptions, educators can most effectively instill moral intelligence through example, critical thinking and role-playing exercises, and real-world applications outside the classroom.

Print Flyer
Cover image for Sowing the Seeds of Character

June 2009


Pages 172
Volumes 1
Size 6 1/8x9 1/4
Topics Current Events and Issues/Education

A rabbi and educator shows how moral education can be crafted to address each of the three main branches of the moral life: philosophy, civics, and ethics.

Sowing the Seeds of Character: The Moral Education of Adolescents in Public and Private Schools is a book for all teachers and parents. It rests on the premise that the moral education of students falls within the purview of schools, whether they assume responsibility for it or not. Regardless of the place of moral education in the formal curriculum, all teachers serve as moral exemplars to their students, for good or for ill. Teachers of science, social studies, history, and literature courses cannot help but inculcate moral sensibility and attitudes in their students by the ways in which they lead them to grapple with—or glide over—the moral implications of what they teach.

Judd Kruger Levingston draws many lessons and examples from his extensive research and teaching experience in Muslim, Jewish, Roman Catholic, public, Quaker, and Chinese schools. He argues that teachers should become proficient in directing role-playing simulations of moral decision-making as morally complex topics arise within the standard curriculum.


  • 15 illustrations
  • Ideas and examples for the classroom practice of moral education
  • Series foreword


  • Explains why there is no such thing as a "morally neutral" school and clarifies why moral education is not the same thing as religious education
  • Examines multi-cultural variations on moral education in Muslim, Roman Catholic Jewish, Chinese, public and private schools
  • Explores the role of play in moral development
  • Shows parents on how to pressure schools to include moral education without cutting into curricular requirements
Author Info

Judd Kruger Levingston is a rabbi and educator. He lives in Philadelphia where he teaches at a Jewish day school and at Temple University. He has taught and served as an administrator in a variety of middle and high schools, including an all-girls school, an all-boys school, a boarding school, Jewish day schools, and an Episcopalian school. He received his rabbinic ordination and doctorate in moral education from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and has undergraduate degrees from Harvard University and Beijing University.



"Rabbi and educator Levingston (Jewish studies, Barrack Hebrew Academy, and Temple U., Philadelphia) has taught and served as an administrator in a variety of middle and high schools, and holds a doctorate in moral education from the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York. He argues that moral education is not a luxury but rather a self-conscious and deliberate effort to teach young people about integrity, respect, care for oneself, care for the world, and principles of justice and freedom. Drawing on his own professional and personal experiences and from research in Muslim, Jewish, Roman Catholic, public, Quaker, and Chinese schools, he offers suggestions on how educators can incorporate moral education into the existing curriculum through their own examples, through critical thinking and role-playing exercises, and through real-world applications to peer interactions outside the classroom. For educators, policymakers, and parents."Reference & Research Book News

"A rabbi and educator, the author addresses the challenges of and techniques for conducting the moral education of adolescents, in public or private schools—recognizing that this is a fundamental part of their mission, whether conducted explicitly or only implicitly."Harvard Magazine

"In an era of standards and demoralizing statistics, Sowing the Seeds of Character is a thoughtful and serious reflection on those qualitative, interpersonal, environmental factors that are so often overlooked in self-studies and assessments. Drawing on his own diverse experience as an educator, Levingston collects data on intangibles - impressions of entering a school and the relationships that exist, observations of teaching styles and the ways teachers empower their students to engage difficult questions, and even-handed comparisons of individual and collective approaches to the question of identity - to discern where and how moral education is happening in schools. Weaving observations together, Levingston. . . offers a profound glimpse of the hidden curricula that shape schools. While the author develops new categories to describe schools' approaches to moral education and makes an original and compelling pitch to revisit the role of 'play' in developing character, the book's most valuable contribution is its modeling of substantive, hope-filled reflection on what it means to shape students not only as academics or members of a community but as citizens of an increasingly pluralistic world."Klingbrief

"...the volume is very accessible, easy to read, well organized, and peppered with the author's own experiences as a parent and educator. Highly recommended. General readers and all undergraduate students."Choice

"...exceptional...Clearly, Sowing the Seeds of Character is a particularly timely contribution in an era that is likely to measure school success by test scores. "Jewish Book World

"His choice to paint a portrait rather than prescribe a pedagogy enable his readers to use this book to ask their own questions and catalyze their own growth. Parents and educators who take a virtual tour through the schools and classrooms that Levingston describes will be motivated to take a fresh look at the nexus of transmission of values and personal meaning-making that is so crucial to the goal of Jewish education."Journal of Jewish Education

"Levingston's voice offers an important contribution to our society's public discourse about the nation's common civic society. With so many unhelpful contributions dominating the debates about the merits of everything from charter schools to homeschooling, Levingston's voice is welcomed as thoughtful, sensitive, and positive."Trinity Per Saecula


"Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, professor, rabbi, ethicist, and researcher, Judd Kruger Levingston surveys the modes of moral education practiced in a rich variety of pedagogical settings for adolescent students – regional and public schools; private secular schools; Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Quaker religious schools; and a Chinese speaking school. He shows how each kind of school guides its students by precept and example to apply moral understanding to their own lives, and points up the lessons that schools of divergent traditons may teach each other."—Joan F. Goodman
Professor, Graduate School of Education
University of Pennsylvania

"This is a must-read for anyone who cares about making teens good as well as knowledgeable. Levingston makes a compelling case for taking a fresh look at character education; his ethnographic research in public, independent, and religious high schools creates compelling portraits of schools and students with a range of moral outlooks. The book renews one's faith in the power of teachers to change lives."—Carol K. Ingall
Dr. Bernard Heller Professor of Jewish Education
Jewish Theological Seminary

"Sowing the Seeds of Character is a model of ethnographic research: the study is embedded with the field's research, rich in detailed observations, careful in analysis of data and, above all, highly readable. The author, Judd Levingston, brings to this work the insights of an experienced teachers and administrator, the wisdom of a parent and the craft of a skilled storyteller. The book is a treasure for anyone interested in moral education and character development."—Kevin Ryan
Director Emeritus
the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character

"Parents, teachers, community leaders – we're all sowing the seeds of character every day. Drawing on 25 years of experience working with children and schools, Judd Levingston inspires us to think carefully about our opportunity and responsibility. He lays out the range of moral perspectives from 'Authentic and Assured' to 'Constructing and Considering' in a way that emphasizes the strengths of each. He is an observant and trustworthy guide."—Bill Jackson
President and Founder of GreatSchools

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