HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Between Catch-Up and Intimidation: Teaching the Alef Bet to High School Freshmen

by Miriam Harpaz Issue: Hebrew Education
TOPICS : Hebrew Pedagogy

Named after the famous Rabbi Akiva, who began his Jewish education at age 40, Akiva is Solomon Schechter School of Westchester’s program for entering ninth grade students who have not previously been in day school.

The teachers must strive to put the students at ease, helping them build their confidence while teaching them as much and as quickly as possible. They must be experts in both Ivrit and TLC.

When an upper school was added to the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester ten years ago, we created a track for entering students lacking a day school background. The Akiva program would allow the new-to-day-school students to be mainstreamed in their general studies, while providing them with their own independent track for Hebrew, Tanakh and rabbinics, as well as special support to feel comfortable in tefillah alongside their peers, most of whom take navigating the siddur and davening from the amud for granted. The overall goal was and has remained for these students to learn as much Hebrew as possible, and develop as much skill in text study as possible, in the limited window of four years of high school, while benefiting from the overall avirah (atmosphere) of day school.

The Akiva program has brought with it many successes and benefits, but also its fair share of challenges, disappointments and frustrations. One of the greatest benefits is the infusion of excitement Akiva students bring to the school as a whole. While they represent no more than ten percent of a given grade in our school, everything is new for these students, and their enthusiasm is often inspirational for their more jaded day-school-since-kindergarten peers.

The flip side of everything being new is that the Akiva experience can be daunting for students and overwhelming for their teachers as they struggle to determine what works and what doesn’t in teaching Hebrew to this unique student population. For us, this has been a process of trial and error, but we have learned as much from our failures as from our successes and we are excited to share what we have learned.

First and foremost, we learned to validate what students are feeling and to not take anything for granted. Students often arrive to the Akiva ulpan Hebrew class experiencing a significant amount of anxiety. They might feel vulnerable and inadequate, having to start from the Alef Bet as high school freshmen. In essence, they are learning to read and write a completely new language, which has no roots in the romance languages with which they are familiar, but which their new day school peers mastered in elementary school. Validating these emotions does not make them go away, but it does help. Before we realized the importance of addressing these anxieties directly, students expressed that they felt we didn’t “understand what they were going through” and we risked losing their trust, and even their participation in the program.

By the same token, we have also learned from our mistakes not to limit Akiva students’ exposure simply in the name of sensitivity to this potential anxiety. In order to begin to learn Hebrew successfully, Akiva students must learn to read and write Hebrew from right to left, to simultaneously decode print and script writing, to build their conversational vocabulary, and to do all of this very quickly. There is a temptation to go much more slowly, but we learned that a slower approach is self-defeating because students feel that they aren’t making meaningful progress and naturally question the value of the program.

Instead, we have learned that Akiva students need to feel encouraged on a regular basis by the material that they are able to learn and master, without feeling discouraged by expectations that are either too demanding or too limited. Expectations that are too demanding may lead some to feel that “catching up” in Hebrew will be impossibly difficult. Expectations that are too limited may cause students to feel that progress is too slow, and the path to Hebrew acquisition too long, and therefore not worth it.

In hindsight, it may seem obvious that Akiva students need this precisely tuned approach, but this wasn’t intuitively evident. On the one hand, there is an instinct to cram as much Hebrew into the students’ four years of high school as possible. On the other hand, the potential intimidation factor can lead to an instinct to go very slowly in introducing Hebrew to Akiva students. It took several years to be able to identify these instinctual influences on our teaching of Akiva Hebrew and to recognize that they were sometimes at odds with our backward-designed goals. As a result, students who went through the Akiva program at its inception probably benefited less than our current students.

Striking this balance between sensitivity to the students’ unique context and a demanding approach to learning Hebrew for the first time can be a tall order. All the same, the teacher must strive to put the students at ease, helping them build their confidence while teaching them as much and as quickly as possible. It goes without saying that our Akiva teachers must be experts in both Ivrit and TLC.

We have also come to realize over time that teaching Akiva Hebrew can be difficult even for teachers who have experienced great success in mainstream Hebrew. Simply put, not every teacher should be an Akiva teacher, and it takes special training and extra support from the department chair to help Akiva teachers balance these unique demands and their students’ particular emotional landscape.

When students realize that they are able to learn and make progress in a relatively short period of time, they get excited, which in turn inspires them to keep up their efforts. The Akiva teacher must be a bit of a cheerleader and even a salesman, not only teaching Hebrew but showing the students that the task of learning Hebrew is going to be fun and full of surprises! This is no doubt true about all teaching in all subjects, but it is especially true for Akiva students. They have three more subjects on their plates than they did as eighth graders in public school, and that they need to see quick, positive results to reassure them that they made the right decision to take on the challenge of day school.

We found that the common denominator of entering day school in ninth grade didn’t make students any more homogeneous than their mainstreamed peers.

One other major lesson we learned had to with the heterogeneity of the Akiva classroom. We came to realize that by creating an Akiva track we had not eliminated the need for differentiation. Some students learn best through repetition, others need some vocalization (vowels) in order to read, and still others find reading and speaking relatively easy but need extra time to develop their writing skills. We found that the common denominator of entering day school in ninth grade didn’t make students in an Akiva classroom any more homogeneous than their mainstreamed peers.

Akiva ulpan classes begin with students learning accessible, introductory material including oral introductions, while building their vocabulary with basic words and adding words that sound the same in English (such as television, telephone, banana). By the end of the first class, students are able to say their names, ask for their classmates’ names, and identify themselves as students and tell each other where they live. When they realize they can do this, they are thrilled! As the course evolves, classes continue to follow this model of quickly building and reinforcing basic skills.

In terms of curriculum, we don’t yet have a formal written curriculum, although we are moving in that direction. For the time being, we have the developed lessons that bridge curricular materials designed for newcomers to Hebrew with other materials in conversational Hebrew more appropriate for older students. This unique pairing is called for based on the fact that the students must start at the beginning, given that most know little more than the Alef Bet, if that, when they begin. By the same token, at this age, to be successful they must achieve at least a modest level of conversational ability.

Overall, by the end of tenth grade the average Akiva students has a vocabulary of about 240 words that they have completely mastered and can use independently in all four areas of language acquisition (reading, writing, conversing, and listening), as well as a growing vocabulary of additional words that they understand and often use in conversation. Students can conjugate verbs in the present and past tense, and can read short stories and answer questions about the stories in Hebrew. Given that the students started from alef, this progress is a great accomplishment. However, given how much we would like them to learn, it is also fair to say that this is a bit disappointing. For the time being, these are instructional goals that we have found to be realistic. As we continue to refine and develop the Akiva program, there is reason to believe that we will be more successful at helping students acquire greater mastery in the future.

While it is possible for Akiva students to gain a sound footing in Hebrew, and for particularly motivated and high-achieving students to be mainstreamed successfully in the rabbinics and Tanakh tracks, this has not been possible in Hebrew.

This ties in to what has probably been the greatest disappointment of the Akiva program, and the largest shift in program design since its inception. When it was inaugurated, Akiva was seen as a two-year mechinah program that would prepare students to be mainstreamed for junior and senior years. That has proven impossible for most students. While it is possible for Akiva students to gain a sound footing in Hebrew, and for particularly motivated and high-achieving students to be mainstreamed successfully in the rabbinics and Tanakh tracks, this has not been possible in Hebrew. As a result, the Akiva program has shifted to a program that continues throughout all four years of high school for all but the most exceptional students.

In their own words: Akiva students write about their experiences

Coming to school, I was nervous about being able to keep up with Hebrew. In the beginning it was difficult to adjust to the new language, but as the class progressed I was surprised at what I learned in such a short time.

My teacher started us off from the beginning which was great…. Today, six months after class started, I feel confident that I have learned so much in such a short time, that I know Hebrew will be ok for me.

At first I felt lost and I was behind, but soon enough I caught up and now I feel confident when it comes to Hebrew. The beginning was slow, and I was scared, but now I feel I know almost as much as the other kids.” ♦

Miriam Harpaz is a veteran Hebrew teacher at Schechter Westchester. She can be reached at mharpaz@solomon-schechter.com.

Rabbi Harry Pell is Schechter Westchester’s Rabbi in Residence. He can be reached at hpell@solomon-schechter.com.

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