My family and I are now at the end of the second of our three months in Israel. Having taught kindergarten and preschool for over twenty years, I thought that it was time to visit classrooms in different environments around the world so that I could learn something from the way other cultures teach young children. Since my classroom in Oregon has many Hispanic children with the need to use and teach Spanish on a regular basis, I was especially interested in how other countries deal with children who do not speak the dominant language. Are they placed in regular classes with the hope that they will pickup the official language, are they given help, or are they taught in a bilingual classroom in which the childs language is taught along with the countrys main language? I found all of these approaches in Israel.
Hebrew Speaking Elementary School
For my nine year old, the local school provided a Hebrew speaking classroom with an hour or so of tutorial help every week. The teacher allows him to work on some math and English worksheets that he brought from home when the class is studying Hebrew (for Hebrew speakers). But most of the time he is trying to grasp what the teacher is saying and trying to learn with the others. He is not used to having teachers yell at him and the other children and he is often shocked at the constant fights that the boys have with little or no intervention from the staff. So, he is confronting cultural shocks and a language gulf - experiences similar to a Spanish speaking child in a classroom in the United States.
Notices come home on a regular basis written completely in Hebrew. Sometimes I take the time to translate it, other times it seems like too much trouble. Sometimes I know what the words literally mean, but I dont know the practical application. When it seems important and we have no idea what the teacher is talking about in the notice, we ask a neighbor. This is also what Hispanic parents in the US probably do. This is a good reason for schools to try to provide translations of their notices if they want the parents to follow the instructions. When I started translating my notices into Spanish, I usually got better cooperation from the Hispanic parents than the others because they were finally able to understand what was going on at their childs school.
High School Ulpan
Elementary age kids may have to learn Hebrew pretty much on their own, but the educators in Israel know that this wont work with high school children. Instead of throwing these children into classes with the Hebrew speaking children, the school system provides an ulpan or intensive language instruction in a separate environment for several months. Every morning my 14 year old daughter walks to her school where she learns with other high school age kids from all over the world. She has already become friends with several girls from Russia and South America. The hope is that by the time the program ends, the students will be able to join the regular classrooms (and they will start school with friends that they have made).
Could a true bilingual program exist in a country where people arrive speaking so many different languages? It seems like a necessity for people to learn one common language so that everyone can communicate with each other. However, in addition to the native Hebrew speakers, Israel has a large Arabic speaking population. There are two separate school systems, each teaching its students in its own language. Both offer foreign language courses around the fourth grade, but this language can be English or French, not necessarily the other main language. During the last few years, there has been an attempt to change this by a few pioneering groups, starting with the youngest children.
Like the elementary schools in Israel, the preschools for Jewish and Arab children are separate with little interaction between the children or their parents. In Jerusalem this situation was changed with the opening in the early 1980s of a preschool program in the International YMCA building, located in the western part of the city, close to Jewish and Arab neighborhoods. The building was constructed in 1933 and dedicated to the spiritual and physical development of boys and girls, men and women, without regard to religion, race or nationality. This was a very powerful statement during the thirties and it remains so today. With its beautiful landscaping, comfortable sitting areas and pleasant staff that speak Hebrew, Arabic and English, it was the perfect setting for interchange between the two cultures.
The preschool follows the schedule of the Jewish school system, open Sunday through Friday and closing for the Jewish holidays. Children are admitted when they are 18 months old and parents can select either an all-Jewish or all-Arab classroom, or a mixed class. The school encourages the parents and children in the mixed classes to meet and work together with understanding and patience. In the mixed classes, Jewish, Christian, and Moslem holidays are celebrated.
I visited a 4-5 year old class about two weeks before the Jewish holiday of Passover. When I arrived the children were seated in a circle, while one of the two teachers read parts of the Haggadah, the story of the exodus from Egypt. Afterwards she asked them questions about the story and then they sang a song about the plagues, with groups of children acting out different plagues (frogs, lice, darkness, etc.) The Arab teacher was also sitting on the circle and she helped keep the children quiet while the other teacher talked. Afterwards all of the children moved to tables where they ate a 10:00 snack of pita, tomatoes, cucumbers, and humus.
One thing that was especially noticeable to me was that almost all teacher-directed activity was in Hebrew. All of the children spoke Hebrew to the teacher who was giving the presentation on the circle. During the snack the children sat in mixed groups and seemed to be mostly speaking Hebrew, except for a few that sat with the Arab teacher and spoke with her in Arabic
Later in the day I spoke with the director of the school and she explained that Hebrew is easily picked up by the Arab children since the language is heard and used everywhere in the city. For the Jewish children, Arabic is heard much less and they usually only learn a few words or phrases before they leave the preschool. So the school seems to be a very effective means of teaching Hebrew to the Arabic children, but much less so in teaching Arabic to the Jewish children.
However, in speaking with parents this does not seem to be a major concern. What is working well is the mixing of the two groups, the sharing of cultures, and the friendships established among the children and the parents. While most Arabs and Jews in Israel lives separate lives with only minimal intervention, the preschoolers at the YMCA school are becoming friends, visiting each others houses and sharing celebrations.
The Galil School: a bilingual approach in elementary school
While the YMCA preschool has existed for almost two decades, parents in Jerusalem have been without a mixed class once their children enter elementary school. Two years ago a group of educators formed the Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel and opened the Galil School, a first grade class within the large Misgav public school in the Galilee. This year a second grade class was opened. They plan to add a grade each year until they have a complete elementary school and their own building. Next year the center plans to open a Jerusalem branch of the school in the Talpiot or Baka neighborhood. I rode with a small group of parents who were going up to the Galil School to meet with the teachers and observe the classrooms. Many of these parents now had children in the YMCA preschool and were hoping that the new school would meet their needs. The small van was full of Arab and Jewish parents speaking in Hebrew, then Arabic. The ride took us through the desert next to Jordan and then into the beautiful fields of kibbutzim in the Beit Shean valley, and finally into the Galilee - an area inhabited by Jews and Arabs in separate villages.
We were first greeted by a parent of a child in second grade. She said that during the first year the parents and children had stayed in their separate groups and it had been somewhat frustrating. However, by second grade, friendships were starting to be made and children were having birthday celebrations together and occasionally visiting each other in their houses. Unlike Jerusalem, the Arab and Jewish children live in separate towns, so it involves a much greater effort for the children to meet after school. Many parents have lived for decades in their small town, never or rarely visiting a town of the other culture.
Unlike the YMCA, the Galil School has changed its schedule to adapt to the needs of the two groups. The school is only open 5 days a week (from Sunday to Thursday). Special arts classes are offered on Fridays for the Jewish children and on Saturdays for the Arab children. The principal told me that they should close on Sundays for the small number of Christian Arabs that they have, but then the school would only be open four days a week and it would be very difficult to maintain an academic schedule during that limited amount of time. In addition, the school closes for the religious holidays of both groups, however the number of days off for each holiday is less than in a regular public school. All of this takes a major commitment of time and patience on the part of the parents and the teachers, but everyone involved seems dedicated to making it work.
During my morning at the school, I was able to visit both classrooms (first and second grade). Both classes were model classes, with children working harmoniously in small groups with teachers providing help when needed. Children were working on art projects, math problems, and writing projects. The classrooms were full of labels in Arabic and Hebrew as well as work by the children. Two computers had word processing programs in both languages, and two children were using them to write stories. One boy was writing a story about himself in Arabic, while another was playing with the story of the four children in the Haggadah, the story read during the seder for the first night of Passover. The teachers said that by second grade there was considerable use of the second language by both groups. As good examples for the children, the Arab teacher was fluent in both languages and the Jewish teacher could speak and understand Arabic.
The Galil School seems to be succeeding in bringing the cultures together and sharing the languages. The key is a very dedicated group of teachers and parents who want the program to work and are teaching the importance of the program to the children. Hopefully, the program that the center establishes next year in Jerusalem will be able to do the same, expanding on the solid base laid by the YMCA preschool.
Inquires about the school can be directed to Lee Gordon.
The training and the inspiration for the Galil School came from a small community established approximately twenty years ago called Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam. Today the village has grown to around 42 families and the school itself has 253 students. Read on to find out what I discovered there.
Return to Mr. Shivers Kindergarten Page.