Why Fix What Ain’t Broke? Striving for Excellence in Hebrew Education
What does it take to achieve excellence in Hebrew education? A willingness on behalf of the leaders and community to engage in a critical examination of an already successful program. At the Epstein School in Atlanta, we had developed a reputation as a school with a highly successful Hebrew immersion program. And yet, internally, we knew we could do better; there were gaps in achievement that we struggled to address, and we needed the perspective of an outside expert to help give us a bigger picture on the program’s goals and implementation. Many schools would question why we spent time and resources to fix what isn’t broken when there are so many demands on our plates. This article chronicles how we embarked on the journey to ensure our students receive the best immersion services we can provide. We came away with a profound sense of renewed commitment to our values, identity and mission statement.
Over many years, we developed a sophisticated approach to Hebrew language pedagogy based on intensive immersion. The approach, with its many ingredients, succeeded in raising students’ proficiency, as observed in the level attained by our graduates and by their comfort and fluency during school trips to Israel.
Key Ingredients for Excellence
Structural ingredients are not sufficient to provide excellence, but they are vital to an immersion program’s success. The pillars of our program ensure consistency and quality while maintaining common language among constituents, and today we can no longer envision a program lacking any of these key ingredients.
The commitment to Hebrew should be found in the mission statement, in marketing materials, in new staff training materials, and in daily conversations. Hebrew is a cornerstone of the program and attracts families because of the academic rigor it provides and how it informs students’ Judaism. This messaging requires training of prospective parents about the benefits of bilingualism from the latest brain-based research.
Hebrew is a part of every student’s day, regardless of the amount of support or enrichment he or she needs. Hebrew is introduced in the early childhood program, and duration lengthens until in grades 1-5 students spend half their day immersed in Hebrew. In middle school, students participate in Hebrew lessons differentiated by levels of performance, and may learn Tanakh and rabbinics in Hebrew based on their proficiency level.
Hiring native-level–certified teachers is essential for educating students toward language proficiency. Israeli teachers usually bring both a high skill level in language acquisition, and just as importantly for day schools, a cultural and spiritual connection to modern Israel. Through them, students experience how the language is used to describe a situation, express an opinion, sing, pray, celebrate, display emotion, struggle with strife and create new cultural artifacts to add to one’s heritage. Each year, countless hours and resources are devoted to arranging work visas and recruiting the best educators from Israel.
Professional development with experts in the field is costly and necessary to maintain high quality instructional practices. Many teachers go on to attain degrees in language acquisition to hone their skills. Directors who are experts can provide ongoing coaching, which is essential to teacher growth and success as they reflect on their practice. The school regularly holds in-service days with a sole focus on Hebrew, including guest speakers on how to differentiate for students with diagnosed language disorders.
While no one curriculum can meet all of the students’ needs, without a curriculum, a program becomes haphazard and piecemeal. Without a clear spiral in content, vocabulary or language goals, the program lacks a strong trajectory of learning and student growth. One has to acquire a repository of Hebrew books, magazines and other authentic online materials, and constantly gauge how these can be used to supplement curricula and to achieve linguistic ends. With Israel’s history of immigration, a centralized ministry of education, and successful models of integrating olim chadashim (new immigrants) from ulpan to the Israel Defense Forces through immersion, many materials developed in Israel can be made suitable for Hebrew students around the world.
Access to electronic devices is critical for young learners. They are able to access subscriptions and materials online, produce multimedia presentations of their work, and most importantly communicate in real time with native speakers. Whether Skyping with peers or listening to guest speakers in Israel, creating a true need for communication in the target language is an essential building block for proficiency. Technology is viewed as the tool for social learning.
Hebrew is seen and not just heard. Each room and avenue in the building is given a Hebrew name, all English signage is translated into Hebrew, and bulletin boards that serve as displays of student work show off both languages. The commitment to bilingualism should be felt the moment one steps foot in the school.
Each year in each grade, student milestone celebrations and performances are conducted in Hebrew, validating how much they learned throughout the year and how parent investment in an immersion program has benefitted their child. These public displays cement the community value of the centrality of the Hebrew to our identity.
A Critical Examination of Implementation
With the above eight structural ingredients firmly in place, the immersion program appeared to be thriving, with professionals from outside our school visiting specifically to study the program. Nonetheless, the staff and administration knew that the program could still be improved. We were concerned about the growing gap between students’ level of understanding (reading and listening) and their ability to produce language (writing and speaking). Being in a school culture devoted to change and ongoing improvement demanded we continuously evolve to find ways to raise the level of Hebrew in each division. The gap in student output led us to decide to invest additional time and resources into rethinking our goals for Hebrew, along with our curriculum and pedagogy. We hired outside experts to assess our program in terms of its vision, curriculum, instruction and student outcomes. Greg Duncan, founder and president of InterPrep, Inc. together with Tova Cohen, Emory University (ret.) and Marcia A. Spielberger, Santillana USA Publishing Company were selected for their background in language evaluation of schools and Hebrew expertise.
The first step was to initiate a comprehensive Hebrew audit with the team assembled by the school as third party consultants, looking at the full scope of the school, including over 530 students, three divisions (early childhood to middle school), over 50 teachers, school leaders and parents. Experts observed classes, interviewed students and school constituents, and presented data with recommendations for the school.
Beyond receiving validation for the high level our students reach, the audit prompted us to engage in collaborative conversations about the essence of our program: to what end do our students learn Hebrew, and how should we maximize the learning of the language? We uncovered that for some time our divisions had been operating with differing assumptions.
The elementary division has been teaching a blend of modern and biblical Hebrew, with a strong emphasis on using language as the vehicle through which students could access all content (modern and biblical Jewish texts, holidays, Israeli history, etc.) while using a very structured whole language spiral curriculum. The middle school division has been teaching Hebrew language periods with modern content (Israeli modern culture through authentic texts, movies, articles, poems and songs) as the vehicle for learning the modern spoken language, while using the proficiency approach. Ancient Jewish texts are taught in the middle school as separate periods from Hebrew language, in Tanakh and rabbinics, depending on the level of Hebrew of the student. Both divisions passionately believe each was fostering our students’ Jewish identity and connection to Israel.
The more we talked about it, the clearer it became: our division leadership needed to meet in the middle and establish common expectations and goals for a balanced Hebrew program in all divisions, meaning a program that has an equal focus on student language skills (listening, reading, writing and speaking) and on mastery of Jewish content which will require Hebrew of the modern state, Hebrew of the Torah and Hebrew of rabbinic commentary. Principals, directors of curriculum, learning coordinators and teachers met regularly to talk about the differences between the divisions and the means to bridge student experiences so that the transition from elementary to middle school would become seamless. We do not yet know if we are setting the bar too high, or if our lofty goals are attainable, and we may find in a few years that we need to compromise in one area to bolster another. We do know that we will be making an informed decision using common language of assessment.
Middle School has been training teachers in proficiency assessment benchmarks for a number of years, through Hebrew at the Center. Trained and certified staff administered the Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) and video recorded students in 5th through 8th grade to keep a running log of each individual’s progress. In Elementary School, students kept and added to a portfolio of select samples of their creative writing and projects in “Tikiyat HaZikaron” (their memory file), together with VoiceThread recordings, which follow them from year to year and determine their learning experience. So while both divisions were using longitudinal data to monitor and assess student progress, we were not using the same terminology to objectively qualify each student’s level of proficiency. Hence, using common language around assessment to drive the elementary and middle school work became the focus of the current initiative.
This involves the retraining and ongoing coaching of teachers to look at student work with a different lens, to listen to student speech critically, and to provide even more opportunities for students to use the language in a real world setting. A language lab was established to promote and formatively assess student performance, and a third party was once again engaged to summatively assess students in 3rd, 5th and 8th grade using online standardized assessment tools from Avant with proficiency guidelines. The more data that was collected, the more informed teachers became about immediate next steps in the classrooms to differentiate instruction, address gaps and move each student forward.
As a result of the Hebrew audit, we are now in year three of a schoolwide improvement plan, with clearly articulated and measurable goals for proficiency and for Judaic content enhancement. So does the question of Hebrew as the means or the end have an impact on daily practice? Does the emphasis on skills vs. content make a difference? Indeed, the fact that we are having these discussions at a high level, using research and data to help guide our practice, points to the fact that we are pushing the field forward. When the discussion takes place with stakeholders, leaders, budget decision-makers, curriculum writers, teachers, parents and students around the same table, the community reasserts its commitment to the philosophy and mission statement, profile of a graduate, use of time and professional development.
In addition, the community draws the connections among Hebrew, nationhood, shared Jewish experiences, connection to Israel, heritage, text study, current events and so much more. The language shapes student identity in such profound ways. Underlying any initiative must be a burning sense that excellence isn’t something attained, but rather something for which you continuously strive.
We found the process of opening our school doors to outside evaluators extremely beneficial, and strongly recommend that other schools committed to Hebrew excellence engage in a similar process to pinpoint how to best impact the next generation of learners. Although the prospect can be intimidating and admittedly place the school in a state of vulnerability, the message to the community of transparency, commitment to Hebrew, and engagement in continual improvement far outweighs the fear or what might be revealed in an audit. The battle for Hebrew language is alive and well in Jewish education, whether it be committing to key ingredients, exploring assessment techniques or restating the philosophical underpinnings of Hebrew education.
Dr. Tal Grinfas-David is principal of the elementary school at the Epstein School in Atlanta. Tal.David@epsteinatlanta.org
Idit BenDavid is Hebrew and Jewish studies director of curriculum in the elementary school. Idit.BenDavid@epsteinatlanta.org
Liat Kadosh is Hebrew director of curriculum in the middle school. Liat.Kadosh@epsteinatlanta.org