Setting the Stage for Hebrew Learning

The classic conversation has repeated itself in one faculty room after another. The Hebrew teacher turns to her colleague from the math department. “You are so lucky. The kids don’t give you any trouble. They know that learning math is important. I wish they thought Hebrew was that important.”

Anyone who has taught or observed a math class, especially one with struggling students, knows that teaching geometry is no picnic. But the fundamental point is still valid. In most of our schools, Hebrew holds less cultural capital than math, science and even Judaics. As a result, many students enter class less open, and sometimes downright resistant, to learning Hebrew. This challenge is exacerbated as students enter adolescence and are naturally more focused on building a culturally meaningful identity. By contrast, when English is taught as a second language in countries such as Israel, the status of English as a privileged language in films, TV and other media paves the way for teachers.

In a recent article in the Journal of Jewish Education (“Hebrew Education in the United States: Historical Perspectives and Future Directions”), Sharon Avni has chronicled the way our approach to Hebrew teaching has evolved over the last 100 years. Both her analysis and anecdotally collected experiences support the conclusion that success or failure in Hebrew learning is not just about what happens inside the classroom. Highly trained teachers and excellent curricula are the vital basis for success, and in fact provide the foundation for what we will suggest below. (I am, in fact, a strong believer in excellent curricula and teacher training. For this reason I currently work at CET - Center for Educational Technology, an Israeli nonprofit whose projects include the Bishvil Ha-Ivrit [Neta], Yesh Va’Yesh and Ivrit b’Click Hebrew curricula.) These alone, however, are not sufficient.

How can we inspire our children to open their minds to Hebrew learning?

The solution begins with a recognition among school leaders that what happens in Hebrew class cannot stay in Hebrew class. Because of the challenges inherent in second language acquisition, and because of the specific challenges surrounding a less privileged language, success in Hebrew requires a schoolwide approach.

This approach needs to begin with the recognition of a fundamental premise. As Vygotsky taught us many years ago, language is not simply how we communicate. Language is the matter of thought. Language shapes how we see, process and interact with the world around us.

The corollary to this premise is that language and culture can become almost inseparable. This is particularly true in the case of Modern Hebrew, a language endemic to only one country and as a result all the more deeply intertwined with Israeli culture. If we want to open our children’s minds to Hebrew learning, we need to elevate the status of Hebrew and Israeli culture within our schools. This is not a simple task. Our students are surrounded by English and North American culture throughout their daily lives. The uphill battle cannot be fought solely by Hebrew teachers; it requires the collaboration of school leadership to create an explicit and thought-out plan.

While Hebrew is indeed tied to Israeli culture, that culture is by no means monochromatic. As a result, before school leaders launch a plan to elevate Hebrew-Israeli culture, they need to think carefully about what strains of Israeli culture are an appropriate match for their community. Having made this choice, they can get to work.

While by no means the only approach, an effective plan should consider the following.

Ever wonder why so many schools hold science fairs? Contrary to popular opinion, it is not because principals have an innate affinity for baking soda-induced volcanic explosions. Rather, schools understand that excellence in science is a key selling point for their communities. This is not to say that science is not intrinsically important, or that fairs are merely a marketing tool, but rather to note that communal perception often influences which aspects of student learning we choose to publicly exhibit.

Fortunately, the reverse can also be true. What we choose to exhibit publicly can influence community perception. Many schools already post Hebrew and Israeli decorations, including art, news and other postings, throughout their facilities. Creating a physical environment that emphasizes the centrality of Hebrew culture can have a subtle but important impact on student perception.

More important than decoration, however, is how we treat student work. Here we are fortunate that the considerations of effective pedagogy and communal perception point us in the same direction (which, we know, is all too often not the case). Many of our schools have been experimenting with and implementing a project-based learning approach integrated within or in place of regular courses. Research and field experiences point to authenticity as one of the central requirements for effective project-based learning. This includes authentic materials, choice of topic and work patterns. It also includes an authentic reason or goal for the project. Schools at the cutting edge of PBL, such as High Tech High, generate this authentic goal by ensuring that an exhibition of learning forms the capstone experience of major projects.

Imagine if in addition to the annual science fair each spring, our schools held an exhibition of Hebrew learning? This exhibition would not be a place to display poster boards that parents created the night before. Nor is it the old “Yom Ivrit,” isolated to one day a year. Rather, this would be the culmination of weeks or months of student work. The exhibition itself would provide an opportunity for students to demonstrate their mastery over the material, to teach an audience of parents, and to showcase the products of their learning.

The impact such an exhibition can exert on student and parent perception of the importance of Hebrew is significant. The event would visibly elevate the status of Hebrew learning across the community. Moreover, artifacts from the event can be kept on permanent display throughout the school. At High Tech High, student-led tours typically highlight such artifacts to illuminate the school’s culture of learning for visitors.

At the same time as it generates greater cultural capital for Hebrew, a sophisticated PBL unit presents an opportunity for students to connect not only with vocabulary and language but also with its underlying culture. Project topics should be chosen from aspects of Hebrew/Israeli culture that resonate powerfully with students, and a strong Hebrew curriculum will facilitate and provide a basis for this kind of school-based expansion. This type of topic, which can span from social issues to sports, technology, education or cuisine, each approached through the PBL lenses of creative exploration and thoughtful analysis, will offer students an opportunity to build their own perspectives on and connection with Israeli culture. The exhibition and permanent display of their work can then serve to integrate these new perspectives further within the school and student culture.

In addition to showcasing student work, schools must generate other opportunities for students to demonstrate Hebrew mastery, thus creating authentic reasons for students to learn and use Hebrew. Here each school must understand what its community is ready for, and often these opportunities must be scaffolded or introduced in steps.

Consider some of the following: an annual high school Hebrew play, produced with as much fanfare as the traditional English play; student council elections where all candidates must deliver campaign speeches in Hebrew; a Hebrew debate society that holds events in front of a schoolwide audience; or an Israel action/current events club that conducts all of its meetings and presentations in Hebrew. Each of these provides an opportunity for authentic usage of Hebrew and meaningful connection to Hebrew and Israeli culture. None of them will directly involve all students, but each of them will elevate the prominence of Hebrew across the school community.

In addition to programming ideas, we must think more creatively about how we deploy our human resources. Ensuring that we have excellent Hebrew teachers in the classroom, and that these teachers receive ongoing professional development, is a basic foundation for our efforts. However, as we suggested when it came to programming, here too we must look past what happens within the four walls of the classroom.

Day school faculty typically include a variety of Israeli staff members: teachers who have permanently relocated to North America, shlichim, and young shlichim such as bnot sherut or shinshinim. Often, we do not utilize those who are teachers beyond their classrooms. And while we do tend to involve young shlichim in our experiential programming efforts, these are often relegated to the days or slots set aside specifically for “Israel programming,” such as Yom Ha’atzmaut.

Instead, we need to consider allowing these faculty members to impact the day-to-day life of our schools. There are numerous subtle ways in which this can take place, all of which begin with school leaders inviting these faculty to think about school culture rather than about discrete programs. Principals who establish weekly meetings with their Israeli faculty as a “school culture committee” of sorts will quickly discover appropriate aspects of Israeli culture that can be brought to bear within their school community. These may range from school décor, to the sound of the bells, to the way that teachers and students greet one another. By definition these will be innovations that native North American educators are less likely to come up with on our own, and they will likely feel foreign. However, if nurtured and applied carefully, they can help us create a community that incorporates and prizes Hebrew/Israeli culture, thus paving the way for effective Hebrew learning.

Not every one of these interventions will be appropriate for every school, and no school should apply all of them at once. However, if we want to improve Hebrew learning in our schools, we must understand that the struggle cannot be relegated to the hours of Hebrew class or pursued by Hebrew teachers alone. Rather, as school leaders we must catalyze the change that will pave the way for our students to learn and to love our national language.

Rabbi Dr. Barry Kislowicz
Jewish Inspiration
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning