By Tal Grinfas-David
Science teachers in Los Angeles incorporate Israel in thoughtful ways throughout their curriculum. A Denver teacher’s entire classroom approach changes after she experiences a lesson on water resources in Israel. A formerly floundering community program in Detroit draws dozens of students and their parents, thanks to excitement over in-depth teaching about Israel and the creativity of a T-shirt contest.
Those are just a few examples of the systemic transformation day schools are bringing to Israel education two years into the Center for Israel Education’s Day School Initiative (DSI), with the generous support of the Legacy Heritage Fund. As CIE begins its third year of coaching and intensive support of eight schools across North America, measurable successes are benefiting educators and learners of all ages.
All eight schools have introduced or significantly expanded dedicated Israel courses. In addition, teachers have introduced Israel units in every grade level or are working to do so. To accomplish these goals, schools had to creatively schedule, hire and train before determining student curricula.
Best practices require systemwide changes, prioritizing time and allocating funds, and this work can’t be done by teachers alone.
Anecdotally, we are learning about cultural transformations taking place in schools and communities. Several schools have voiced their excitement over the collaboration among teachers and the positive culture within school spilling over into other areas.
In the process of “gutting everything and starting over” on a curriculum integrating Judaics and general studies, teachers are even finding small opportunities to add Israel, such as by playing Israeli music during recess, said the initiative’s coordinator at a Los Angeles school.
“We are definitely moving away from ‘Israel is a perfect country’ to ‘We love Israel, but let’s open it up and really see the history and what’s going on,’” she said. “We do have to help students learn to love Israel … but also know the facts and know what’s happened and have the history.”
Science teachers in Los Angeles are designing units that compare and contrast drip irrigation with hydroponics and traditional methods of irrigation at their school’s community garden.
A Denver teacher who experienced a lesson on water resources in Israel now lectures less and instead has students regularly work at educational stations to help them make choices about what and how they learn.
While learning about voting and democratic elections in Israel, fourth- to seventh-graders in Detroit designed Israel-themed T-shirt logos and voted on which best represented what they learned about Israel.
The research company Demographic Perspectives reviewed the DSI to help CIE learn more about how to best serve schools in their quest to boost Israel education in their specific settings.
A key finding in the research suggests that “innovative learning” and “use of unbiased and neutral materials” are important, and one initiative participant praised the program for “focusing on content, not advocacy.”
But most impactful, the research company found, is that the “DSI provided more information on how to effect change and inspire people to teach Israel differently.”
CIE helped create enduring change by customizing the professional development to the target audiences, whether they were Israeli or American, Jewish or not, veteran educators or new to the field, teaching Judaics or general studies. One teacher said: “We received hands-on activities that we could use in the classroom, ways to engage students with the material and connections with other teachers through the website.”
We know that teaching a subject as charged as Israel can be daunting for teachers, so much of the work we do together empowers them to engage in difficult conversations. One teacher said: “As a result of my CIE connection, I was stronger and more self-assured in teaching and sharing this information with students, peers, administrators and parents.”
What have we learned? A number of components contribute to long-term, sustained growth and success.
First, Israel education can’t take place in isolation; it should be the product of collaboration of all the educators in the school with the full support of the administration to alter systems as needed.
Second, Israel education should be thoughtfully woven into students’ experiences throughout the year at every age level and in every subject area, not just celebrated on holidays or memorials.
Third, working with parents and stakeholders to understand the school’s rationale and approach to teaching Israel in apolitical ways supports and extends the learning beyond the classroom.
Fourth, onboarding new employees and providing safe learning spaces for all promote informed discourse and explorations of nuance and complexity without leaving anyone behind.
Finally, documenting the Israel curriculum taught throughout the school enables critical oversight of quality, depth and the progression of sophistication as students age, as well as the creation of a road map for ongoing improvements.
As we embark on the last year of the Day School Initiative, we are poised to make a lasting impact on communities, which now have the tools, knowledge and resources to continue the work for years to come.
Tal Grinfas-David, an expert on curriculum development and a former day school principal, is the day school education specialist for the Center for Israel Education. For more information on the Day School Initiative, visit israeled.org/day-school.