As Good as It Can Get: Raising the Standards and Expanding the Scope of Hebrew Language Education

By Lauren Merkin and Shoshi Becker

The recent blog exchange on Hebrew language learning, launched in the wake of Arnee Winshall’s September 8th post, “Hebrew Language as a Communal Priority,” is a very welcome one. While the two specific issues discussed – the need for more Hebrew teachers and more time to teach – are critical to creating change, it is no less important to talk about the quality and relevance of Hebrew-language curriculum available to a new generation of learners. At iTaLAM we believe the starting point must be intensive, immersive Hebrew education at the elementary school level, when language acquisition is optimal and when young children are receptive to strengthening those connections with their heritage that can become the building blocks of their life-long Jewish identities.

With the generous, multi-year support of the AVI CHAI Foundation, funders such as the Gruss Foundation, and now an exciting $5 million multi-year R&D grant from the Azrieli Foundation, iTaLAM, a brand-new, digitally-based comprehensive Hebrew-language and Jewish heritage curriculum, is offering a wide-ranging tool for the 21st century Hebrew classroom that brings Hebrew education up to the standards of best practices within secular studies. And while iTaLAM’s current educational product, which adapts and blends the legacy materials of the well-known TaL AM curriculum with a new, engaging, highly interactive digital learning platform, is focused specifically on day schools – it is currently offered in 250 Jewish schools across 40 countries – it is poised for adaptation to other settings as well, including after-school and home learning.

The digitization of the TaL AM legacy program, which is credited with teaching Hebrew and Jewish Heritage to 300,000 Jewish children in Grades 1 – 5 over the last 25 years, has made it possible to incorporate a number of curricular enhancements that deepen and enrich the learning experience for young students while better preparing their teachers to engage with a curriculum that teaches Hebrew language as well as Jewish holidays, Shabbat, Torah, and Israel in Hebrew. It enables iTaLAM to match content with ideology, making it possible for every school to adapt materials for use across the religious spectrum and adapt it to the amount of time allocated by each school. Through a sophisticated Learning Management System, developed in Israel in cooperation with ed-tech leader Compedia, teachers encourage differentiated learning, enabling students to learn at their own pace, and teachers and principals have easy access to data that can guide them on trends, successes, challenges, and opportunities to improve learning. The ease of the program’s digital adaptability also strengthens the learning spiral for each student, ensuring that each student progresses sequentially. Since it was first piloted four years ago, iTaLAM is demonstrating exciting improvements in speaking, reading, reading comprehension, listening comprehension, and the students’ love of learning the language and Judaics.

Through iTaLAM’s educational units, students are learning Hebrew and heritage through stories, songs, games, and interactions with virtual Israeli peers, and engaging with great enthusiasm. “Our students are so engaged with the program that they voluntarily choose to continue using iTaLAM online programs at home, after school,” one teacher told us recently. “Some tell us they do the Hebrew language games with their parents. That seamless learning continuum from classroom to home greatly enhances their learning in so many ways.”

iTaLAM’s other major focus is teacher training. As we pilot and test our online and in-person training programs, requiring each iTaLAM teacher to engage in at least 40 hours of training for the first year, the teachers’ feedback has been invaluable since they, like the students, have to learn to work differently. They are expected to use iTaLAM for both small group and individual learning, and promote the individual learning of each student with the support of the Learning Management System. Because the program’s Judaic studies focus goes hand-in-hand with learning the language, the premise that students can forge a strong bond with their heritage while becoming highly competent in Hebrew language is an area in which our teachers count on, and receive, our ongoing mentoring and support through innovative, online learning as well as periodic regional training conferences across North America and elsewhere.

One of the great challenges all Jewish schools face today is the increasing lack of teachers who are fluent in Hebrew. iTaLAM training addresses this concern by offering different training tracks based on Hebrew level, including a “Hebrew Whisperer” track that receives additional and ongoing support.

There are indeed many challenges in reversing negative trends around the study of Hebrew language, as noted by other writers here. iTaLAM, thanks to generous philanthropic support, is helping to reshape the conversation around communal educational needs by developing and providing a top-tier, highly engaging educational product that is having impressive outcomes and moving Hebrew education toward widely-recognized standards of excellence.

Lauren Merkin is Chair of the iTaLAM Board. Shoshi Becker is the CEO of iTaLAM.org. For information on eligibility for 2019-2020 school subsidies to introduce the iTaLAM blended learning program, expand it to more grades or tracks, or provide scholarships for teacher training in iTaLAM schools, please visit our website: www.talam-italam.org