Approximately 20 years ago a group of four families founded a small community in the hills between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Their revolutionary idea was to create a place where Jews and Arabs could live together in harmony, raising their children to respect each other and speak each others language. They called their community Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam or Oasis of Peace. The idea inspired others who built homes in the community and a few years later they were able to open their own local school. By 1990 parents of children in other nearby towns became interested in the school and the enrollment was open to outsiders. Today the number of children has grown to over 250, with an equal mix of Jews and Arabs. Besides the 36 local children, students come from Lod, Ramle, Jerusalem, as well as 20 other Jewish and Arab communities, some a 40 minute drive away.
Located in a beautiful rural setting, the school is one of the most relaxed and happiest places of learning that I have seen. The school is run by two co-principals, and Arab and a Jew. Their laid back demeanor and warm relationship with the students sets a tone that is evident in all of the classes. The children call both principals by their first names and feel comfortable in their presence. The school teaches children from kindergarten through sixth grade. They hope to add seventh and eighth grade in a few years and the long-term dream is to add a high school.
Bilingual education begins in kindergarten. When I visited, the room and the playground were full of fun, open-ended activity with the children using their native languages with each other. Everything in the classroom was labeled in Hebrew and Arabic. Computer games in both languages were available for the children to use. There was no heavy academic emphasis, merely an atmosphere of fun and harmonious interaction among the students and with the teacher.
Once the children are in first grade, the teaching structure changes. Children have a home room with two teachers, one Arab and the other Jewish. They speak to the children in their native language. During the day there are different levels of language classes in Hebrew and Arabic, with children assigned to a group based on their ability. I visited a second grade advanced Hebrew class. Like in the kindergarten, everything was labeled in Hebrew and Arabic. One thing that was especially interesting was the transliteration of Arabic words into Hebrew letters so that Jewish children who cannot read Arabic script could learn the Arabic word. The children all seemed attentive and were having fun practicing the language.
The Arab and Jewish children are also separated for math (since Arabic numbers are written right to left), science, and the study of religious books (the Torah and the Koran). The other classes (current events, physical education, civics, art, and drama) are taught to Arab and Jewish children together. The language of instruction is that of the teacher. They often translate key words, but the idea is that the class will be almost entirely in one language.
By third grade the language ability of the students has increased substantially so that only one homeroom teacher greets them every day and that teacher only speaks in his or her native language. By fifth grade, even science and history are taught in only one language. Third grade is also when children start learning another language, English. This is a language that is new for all the children, so Arabs and Jews learn together in this class. One thing that was especially nice about the school was the special language classroom. Expecting the see a room full of tapes or computers, I found all kinds of props used for dramatic play, lots of open space, and a little stage. The idea is that when children come into the language room, they should only speak the language that they are practicing. As soon as they saw us, a group of three girls jumped up on the stage, put on some costumes, and performed a little English play that they were working on. Just as in all of the classrooms, this room was full of excitement and fun.
One thing that makes this school different from one that merely teaches language is the strong emphasis on learning about the culture of the other group. The principal mentioned that this may be one of the big obstacles that the Galil School will face when it adds third grade next year. For instance, this year in the classes from third to sixth grade, there were very meaningful discussions on Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day. The classes separated into Jewish and Arab groups, with the Jews discussing the meaning of independence, and the Arabs discussing Nakba Day (the catastrophe) which marks the time when the Jewish state was formed and many Arab lost their houses and fled the country. After their separate discussions, the students met together and discussed their different feelings. Even though the discussions were frank and sometimes acrimonious, the children helped each other understand each others viewpoint. Posters were displayed in the hall in which children drew pictures of how the two different people could get along with each other in one land.
This school was certainly the best that I have seen while in Israel. The teaching methods are superb and their goal of true language/cultural bilingualism seems to be within reach. You can read more about this unique school by visiting their web site.
Return to Mr. Shivers Kindergarten Page.