HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Empowering Middle School Students to Take Ownership of Their Hebrew Learning

by Eti Zehavi Issue: Hebrew Education
TOPICS : Hebrew Pedagogy

was thrilled to learn I would be teaching Hebrew in the middle school this year. Although I taught middle school students in the past, it’s been ten years since I welcomed a group of adolescents into my class.

On top of the age developmental challenges, I had to teach a subject which was not considered useful in helping the students solve real life problems. In their words: “It’s not cool to do well in Hebrew.”

Soon, I realized that these sixth graders were not the enthusiastic, cooperative, and approachable learners they had been in fourth and fifth grade. Every day brought a new challenge in my relationships with them. Students mostly checked my sense of fairness; they became more argumentative and judgmental. “It’s not fair!” was exclaimed repeatedly in my class: “It’s not fair! You give too much homework”; “it’s not fair! I was supposed to get an A+, not a B.” In addition, I noticed that they were entirely occupied by personal social concerns and their peers were a source for standards and models.

On top of the age developmental challenges, I had to teach a subject which was not considered useful in helping the students solve real life problems. In their words: “It’s not cool to do well in Hebrew.”

In spite of the fact that I faced so many challenges early in the year, I was committed to doing my best in order to turn this experience into a successful and productive one for all.

Building the curriculum around the characteristics of middle grade students

I began by asking myself a few questions: What characterizes middle school students? What interests them? How do I make the curriculum relevant to their everyday experiences? How could I convince them that speaking Hebrew is useful and will play an important role in their Jewish life? I was overwhelmed with all these thoughts, knowing that time worked against me. I didn’t want my students to give up on Hebrew. Yet, I had a set curriculum that included a textbook, grammar book and a chapter book for guided reading. Should I neglect these materials and start searching for a new curriculum?

Utilizing the materials I had, I decided to focus on the chapter book Nissim Veniflaot by Israeli poet Leah Goldberg (a story about a group of adolescents who founded a circus based on their own talents, and a monkey that was found in the neighborhood). I engaged the students by letting them dramatize episodes from the book and by encouraging them to be as creative as they could be using props and costumes. Although this approach was good and it seemed to engage the students, I felt that something was missing. From teaching them in younger grades, I knew I could get them more involved and passionate about the program.

The turning point came the day the students were asked on a test to write a story using the new vocabulary they just learned. Each one of them took the time to write the best story they could. The stories I received were fascinating and mainly reflected on each one’s personality. I liked their stories and was impressed with their ability to write so nicely. The topics ranged from sharing their hectic morning before school, to helping people in need, to the elephant that was different from the other elephants in the zoo.

The next day, I came to class excited and cheerful; I shared with the students all the stories. I read them one by one, complimenting the work of every student. I told them that I loved the stories and I wanted to share them with my colleagues and their parents. The students were so proud of their achievement and really wanted to seize the moment.

They all said, “Why can’t we now act out the stories?”

“But there are thirteen students in the class. Are we going to have thirteen skits?” I asked.

They replied, “We will discuss it among us and decide which skit we will perform.”

From that moment on the class was conducted without me. I watched as my students enthusiastically paired up, spread their stories on the tables, read the stories to each other and decided which story would be acted out. Then each group found a spot to discuss the details of the process. The students worked on their skits for a week. During the week I was just observing, helping with Hebrew grammar and vocabulary, and giving advice. Then, when the students were ready, I brought a video camera and filmed their performances. The room was abuzz. All the students were extremely excited, they all wanted to speak correctly and look good, especially in front of the camera.

When we saw that we had stories and video clips, the students decided that the next step was to make their own storybook. Soon enough, we found ourselves sitting in the computer lab typing our stories. In the following weeks the students continued to write more stories using the new vocabulary. They continued to act out their stories and type them out. The students felt so good about their accomplishments and tried hard to implement correctly all the new vocabulary and grammar that they learned. They wanted to impress their classmates more than they wanted to impress me. They enjoyed when their peers listened attentively to their stories and later became a character in a story they wrote.

It was amazing and extremely satisfying to see how students become so passionate about learning when they take an active part in the learning process.

Through the stories I learned about my students’ thoughts, likes and feelings. I definitely got to know them better and was able to build the curriculum around their world and needs. In addition, my grammar units came out of their writing. Students were more motivated to learn from their own mistakes.

We are now deep in the middle of sixth grade. My students are engaged in the learning process, are very proud of their achievements and, most of all, don’t say, “It’s not fair!” anymore.

That is the story of how my sixth graders took ownership of their Hebrew learning process and became my partners in building their curriculum. ♦

Eti Zehavi is Hebrew Studies Coordinator at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto, California. She can be reached at ezehavi@hausner.com.

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Hebrew Education

What are the goals of Hebrew in day schools? Do we teach it primarily to access religious texts or to speak in Tel Aviv? What are we achieving today, and what can we realistically strive to achieve? Contributors believe in the capacity of day schools to teach Hebrew and present methods and tools for achieving high goals in Hebrew.

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