TALMA: A Summer of Pride, Learning and Gratitude

TALMA-grad[This summer, 59 REALITY participants and Detroit Federation young adult members were invited to be part of the inaugural TALMA program. In partnership with Schusterman and the Steinhardt Foundation, Israel’s Ministry of Education started TALMA in order to offer students a rigorous and fun summer learning opportunity to improve their skills in English. The REALITY group joined forces with 55 Israeli educators to teach in 14 schools throughout Nazareth Illit and Migdal Ha’emek in northern Israel.

Dan Adler is a REALITY Leadership 2013 participant and currently works as a sixth grade science teacher at UP Academy Leonard in Lawrence, MA. His remarks given at the close of the TALMA summer program are presented here.]

Good afternoon. My name is Dan Adler. I am a sixth grade science teacher in Lawrence, Massachusetts, just outside Boston, and I taught fourth and fifth graders at the Ha’ari school in Migdal Ha’Emek this summer during the TALMA program. First, I want to thank the ministry of education for hosting us today. It is an honor to be here.

Today, as my colleagues and I prepare to leave Israel and return to the United States, my dominant emotion is pride. I believe that my colleagues and I served our students well, and that we leave them both more proficient in English and enriched by the connections we shared.

However, this is only a small part of the TALMA story. The larger story captures the fact that this summer forced American teachers, our students and Israel as a whole to face numerous challenges. It is our collective success at persevering through those challenges that marks this TALMA summer program as a success.

I am not ashamed to admit now that I underestimated the challenges I would face teaching English this summer. Back home, as a science teacher, my ability to light dollar bills on fire and use microscopes are huge advantages. With some thought, I might have realized I’d need different skills here.

The Ha’ari school, while welcoming and full of kind people, is not my school back in Massachusetts. Every day I faced a language barrier, a foreign culture and the dozens of tiny re-adjustments and course corrections that happen naturally during the first year of a program.

More profoundly, on our first night in Israel, we learned that three young men, Naftali Frankel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrach, had been found dead in a field near Hebron. Over the weeks that followed, tensions and violence escalated. We found ourselves checking CNN and Ha’aretz daily to follow the events down South, and sending daily updates to family that we were safe and sound.

I will never forget the day we moved my Ha’ari students to a classroom closer to the school’s shelter, due to fears of rocket fire in retaliation for air strikes. At the time, my students were trying to paint posters about peace and ending war. I felt angry at the threat to my students, and I found myself wondering how learning could happen, let alone safety, in the face of rocket fire and the deaths of young IDF soldiers.

However, I underestimated the resilience of this country and its people. Despite my fears and concerns, life in Israel moved forward. The Israelis around me – our teaching mentors, the hotel staff, our principal and school staff – all kept greeting us with the same cheerful “Boker Tov” each morning. Over the last few weeks, Israelis told us jokes, taught us to make chicken poyka and invited us into their homes for lunch. And my students kept coming to school. Even tired and grumpy after staying up late to watch Mundiale, our students kept coming to school.

Like Israel and its people, my colleagues and I learned to persevere as well and to adapt in the face of uncertainty. I found and cherished the elements of school life that go beyond international boundaries, such as high fives, recess football games and singing One Direction songs. When language alone failed, we used our bodies to illustrate words, sang more songs and played more games of King Says and Pictionary. When saying “Good job!” wasn’t clear enough, I smiled bigger and gave out more Spongebob Squarepants stickers.

Slowly but surely, my students showed me how much they were learning. Elad, who many days struggled to sit still, read me a two-page story about a birthday party. Lital and Naama created a PowerPoint presentation to show off their outfits, explaining every item with English sentences such as, “I am wearing purple pants.” Matan, who often struggled to work with the rest of his class, joined his classmates in a final presentation of the Skeleton Dance, even if he did stand at the back.

On the final day of school, in front of his classmates and their parents, a student of mine named Sergey asked to speak. This is a student who, on my first day at Ha’ari, introduced himself by explaining, “My name is Sergey and my parents did not want me.” I later learned he had been abandoned by his parents in Russia and was living in Migdal Ha’Emek with his grandfather. Sergey ended up arriving early at school nearly every day, helping weaker students when they struggled with English and even singing a solo during our city-wide song competition. When inspectors came to visit our classroom, it was Sergey who showed off his ability to use “I have” and “He has” to explain his family, prompting celebration from the inspector and an even bigger smile from me.

Sergey rose and thanked myself and my co-teachers for coming to Ha’ari. He explained that where he had felt uncomfortable speaking in English, he was now excited to show off all of his vocabulary and new sentences. He concluded by saying that while the English summer program had been small, only a few short weeks, it felt very big to him.

Sergey’s words were kind, but there was no way for him to know that he was describing not only his learning, but mine as well. In three short weeks, I have felt myself grow so much. For every English word I taught, I learned something about bridging our two different cultures. When I taught students how to use verbs, I learned new and more profound ways to communicate. And for every poem we read, I learned more about adapting to new circumstances and persevering through even the most daunting challenges.

So, as I prepare to leave, pride is not a strong enough word to explain what I feel today. I am proud of what my students accomplished and I go home to the United States satisfied that my colleagues and I did good work here. But I also return home enriched and strengthened by my time in Israel and a stronger and more resilient person for the challenges I have learned to overcome.

Thank you for the opportunity to come here to Israel and teach your children, and also for giving me the opportunity to become a stronger teacher and person. Sergey can thank me all he wants, but I owe him, his classmates and this country just as much thanks and more. Thank you.

cross-posted on the Schusterman Foundation blog