When Working to Teach Hebrew Language Effectively Inspires Collaboration

img_2410By Zvi Weiss with Rabbi Laurie Hahn Tapper

[Welcome to the first article in our “effective collaboration” series, written by alumni of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at The Jewish Theological Seminary. We believe that the power of leadership grows when we work across denominations and boundaries toward a common purpose. With that in mind, we recently launched The Leadership Commons, which is a project of The Davidson School dedicated to building educational leadership that works together to create a vibrant Jewish future.]

At Jewish community day schools, it is not uncommon to hear parents marvel at the Hebrew that emanates from the mouths of their kindergarten and first grade children, especially as they learn songs and begin to read and write. Then the students graduate the eighth grade, and we see a shift: often a sense of disappointment in the Hebrew skills students show (or lack thereof). Put another way, after nine years of math, many of our students have conquered algebra and geometry. After nine years of language arts, most students are reading Shakespeare and writing persuasive essays. Yet after nine years of Hebrew, reflecting some 60,000 hours of language instruction at minimum, many of our students can barely order ice cream in the language. (G’lida b’vakasha?)

At Yavneh Day School, it became clear that if Hebrew is to be a value, we need a paradigm shift. This shift must reflect what we know today about language acquisition, brain development, and 21st-century learning skills. Several understandings are guiding our change journey:

  • We know now that adults tend to overestimate our younger students’ reliance on hearing spoken language for comprehension. Much of their understanding in communication relies on context, tone, facial expression, and body language. As such, younger students are more open to comprehending a foreign language than one might think.
  • Ongoing exposure to a second language across multiple subjects enables neural connections to be made within and across hemispheres of the brain, across languages and subjects, encouraging deeper learning.
  • For Hebrew education to have optimal impact on our students, it needs to be immersive, purposeful, and relevant.

We determined then that the most obvious limitation to success was time. Best practice dictates that immersion should happen consistently for at least four hours a day. It is not unusual for more traditional schools to offer four hours a day of Jewish and Hebrew studies, which might be taught mostly in Hebrew. In a community day school setting like ours, the demands of the secular curriculum are often such that four hours of Hebrew instruction is difficult to achieve.

Then, our first breakthrough: many of our Hebrew-language teachers hold general studies credentials from Israel. In addition, many of our American Jewish general studies teachers are knowledgeable about Judaism, possess analytic text skills, and understand the culture of American Judaism in which the students are growing up. We discovered that we had more resources than we thought to achieve our goals. The challenge was finding the right way to allocate those resources. We determined that we needed a structural shift to increase the time interacting with the language and to provide opportunities to create relevance.

And so … we leveraged the trained talents and abilities of these teachers and created collaborative teams of qualified Hebrew- and English-speaking teachers who could partner on all lesson planning and co-teach all subjects. We could maximize our teachers’ talents and enable a true dual-immersion program throughout the day. Through this collaboration with teachers who have a stronger relationship with the language, as well as aspects of Israeli culture, we could provide a much richer Jewish studies experience to our students.

Once our collaborative teams were created, all of our Hebrew teachers underwent training in Singapore Math and Number Talks alongside their English-speaking counterparts. Today, each English-speaking teacher who teaches math employs teaching concepts of language-based thinking. The Hebrew teachers can do the same, thus reinforcing and bringing greater understanding of both math AND new areas of relevance for Hebrew language in their lives. Both sets of teachers also study Jewish texts and pedagogy, and we are exploring opportunities for joint learning about literacy. Similar learning experiences might be paralleled in social studies and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) projects, as well as within the context of social-emotional curricula.

New teacher collaborations are focusing on creating parallel language arts activities in both languages. In upper elementary and middle school we have engaged in similar trainings and co-teaching models between Jewish and general studies teachers. We are still strategizing how to best incorporate Hebrew in these grades.

This is still very much a work in progress. To achieve maximum effectiveness in this collaboration, we know that we need to build in as much time as we can for co-reflection and co-planning of lessons. It is challenging for Hebrew teachers who are used to interjecting English when students are struggling to refrain from falling back on old habits. Communication between the teachers of the different languages during class time is tricky and happens through glances, gestures, and an occasional whisper outside of the students’ hearing range.

But successes of this collaboration are all around us. Observing a kindergarten class the other day, we witnessed a teacher reviewing basic addition concepts in English with one group at the whiteboard, while her Hebrew-speaking partner teacher was facilitating another group of students in building number sentences in Hebrew using yellow and red cubes – encouraging her students to note the sums created by a variety of patterns of the cubes – all in Hebrew. This was part of the math lesson, not a direct Hebrew lesson per se, and the students related to it as such. The teacher wasn’t directly teaching colors, and she was not focusing on teaching counting. The children were not only picking up grammar and vocabulary; they were being taught how to think in Hebrew.

Neuroscience teaches us that this ability to process concepts in a second language serves to create a deeper understanding of the mathematical concept, a benefit that even those parents who are most skeptical of the value of Hebrew education can appreciate. Articulating our goal as teaching our students to think in Hebrew is the necessary paradigm shift. The structural paradigm shift in schedule and staffing enables the collaboration necessary to reach this educational goal.

We are only at the beginning of our grand experiment. We look forward to continuing to build on this unique and perhaps risky collaborative approach, which leverages the talents of our faculty and optimizes the learning opportunities for our students. I hope that other schools across the country join us as we think about how to create a lens through which our students own all of their learning in ways that will build a generation that is secure in its identity, and strong in its knowledge. Beyond the ability to order ice cream, we hope our students are able to be confidently creative and think in both English and Hebrew, and our faculty, as diverse as they are, should be able to work, collaborate, and innovate together for the betterment of our school’s mission.

Zvi Weiss is the Head of School at Yavneh Day School in Los Gatos, California. He participated in Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) Cohort 9 at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education.

Rabbi Laurie Hahn Tapper is School Rabbi and Director of Jewish Studies and Curriculum Integration at Yavneh Day School. She holds a rabbinical degree from The Jewish Theological Seminary and is an alumna of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education.