HaYidion Article in Summer, 2019 Issue

The umbrella organization for North American Jewish Day Schools, PRIZMAH, invited me to submit an article for their most recent educational journal.  The volume’s theme, ‘Deepening Talent,’ focuses on “cultivating growth and vitality for all its [school] stakeholders, from students to board members.”  My article, “Reimagining Modern Hebrew Instruction,” appears in the ‘Study and Reflection’ section, and mentions many of the precepts contained in my articles on this blog, with a focus on transforming Hebrew teacher and learner attitudes and outcomes.

Here’s the link to the journal:  https://www.prizmah.org/hayidion-digital/#/shelf/view/default

And here’s a direct link to my article on page 54: 

https://www.prizmah.org/hayidion-digital/#/reader/24790/744521

As always, I invite readers to reflect, question, challenge and engage.

Please leave a comment and/or contact me through the blog!

 

What The Avi Chai Hebrew Report Tells Us (And What It Doesn’t)

The long awaited Avi Chai Foundation Hebrew report, Hebrew For What? Hebrew at the Heart of Jewish Day Schools, was released this month, and is enjoying broad discussion and commentary among Hebrew educators and administrators.

While I read it closely and with great interest, I was left scratching my head, surprised both by its content, and by what failed to make its way into the hefty 64-page volume.

On this Pesach 5777, our season of fundamental questions, let’s start with the report’s Executive Summary, which, right off the bat, outlines some of my concerns.   As the summary opens, its researcher/authors lament the difficult and complex task of teaching Hebrew, due to the multiple purposes that the Hebrew curriculum serves (studying both classical sacred texts, and acquiring modern Hebrew communication skills) in a day school setting.  The authors seem to be seeking readers’ leniency by describing a nearly impossible feat, relating that Hebrew faculty is hard to find; instructional minutes are hard to come by; parental demands add stress; maintaining older students’ interest is challenging; and my personal favorite, the non-Romanized alphabet makes Hebrew harder to learn than other commonly taught world languages, such as Spanish and French.

Before we continue, I say we need to come to some common understanding about what it is we are trying to accomplish with Hebrew in the day school classroom, refine and articulate our goals regarding Hebrew instruction, and align our teaching with our goals.  I believe that a better handle on Second Languages Acquisition (SLA) research, which is, lamentably, all but absent from the Avi Chai report, will aid our grasp of the issues above, and how to address them.

Big Idea #1:  Humans acquire language one way only –  by understanding messages (Chomsky/Krashen).  If we want our students to acquire Hebrew for any purpose, sacred or secular, conversational or literary, then we must begin by delivering comprehensible input, aural/oral and written messages that they can understand and that are so compelling that they attend to them effortlessly and automatically.

The Avi Chai report researchers uncover a curious trend in their surveys.  The day school kids, they report, seem to be losing their Hebrew ability after fifth grade!   Interestingly, this deterioration of skill in not found elsewhere in the literature among students of other languages, nor is the Hebrew phenomenon explained in the report within any SLA framework.  So I offer these fundamental questions:

Could it be that after 5th grade, many Hebrew programs shift from a more experiential, conversational, compelling comprehensible input (CCI)-rich communicative model, to a high-stakes grammar and vocabulary-heavy memorize-and-test grind (unsupported by any SLA research)?

Could it be that after 5th grade, Hebrew is no longer used as the lingua franca of the classroom, but that upper level teachers talk (in English) about how Hebrew’s grammar and syntax, morphology and phonology work?  Such a focus on the surface of the language in lieu of language as a tool for communication is also unsupported by any of the best-practice research, and would come at the expense of CCI and its attendant student comfort and engagement.  As the amount of CCI, overall program interest and therefore quality decline, so do student outcomes.

Could it be that some programs abandon communicating in modern Hebrew altogether after 5th grade, instead shifting their limited instructional minutes to classical sacred texts – using mostly English?  This possibility would most certainly render the class less conducive to Hebrew language acquisition.

Recommendations:  Create and defend an early start-long sequence modern Hebrew language program, rich in CCI, that broadens students’ linguistic foundation from year to year.  Insure that the content is compelling by incorporating student interests and ideas.  Integrate lots more reading into the program from an early age, with literacy materials connected to and based on the acquired aural/oral language.  Reading compounds language gains, and can be leveraged for the study of sacred texts.  The handicap of a non-Romanized alphabet can be overcome if students are exposed to appropriate reading materials over the long haul.  Protect the time dedicated to modern Hebrew instruction; it is different from sacred text study, and should not be substituted at the beginner-to-intermediate levels. Educate faculty, parents and students about your new (department-wide!) approach.  Demonstrate CCI lessons at go-to-school-night, which is sure to create a buzz.  Parents will be more likely to support you if their children are happy and successfully learning, and they understand the framework and what you’re trying to accomplish.

Watch student enthusiasm take off and soar, alongside acquisition.  While face to face modern Hebrew communication will grow proportionately with the amount of quality CCI, it will not keep pace with the complex concepts, parables, allegories and commentaries contained in the Hebrew sacred texts.  Either these will have to be adapted for beginner to intermediate Hebrew learners’ needs, or their study will have to take place in English, or in combination of Hebrew and English, whichever arrangement best meets the linguistic needs of the students.  We cannot hope to teach beginners’ basic modern Hebrew for daily communication, and Talmud Torah as it appears in its original form, on the same day.  It’s like reading a high school social studies textbook to a kindergartner!  We must adapt our Hebrew texts to meet the needs of our learners, insure our students are engaged and comfortable – NOT STRESSED OUT or made to feel inadequate.  A high affective filter can be a major obstacle to language acquisition, so we must be vigilant that we aren’t freaking out our kids, or they will tune out and turn off.  And researchers will conclude that they are ‘losing their Hebrew language,’ when it’s really the program, itself, that has lost its way.

If it’s not clear by now, I am advocating for two (or more) entirely separate classes: modern Hebrew, and ‘Judaics’/sacred texts.  Let’s treat modern Hebrew like the secular subject it is – like Spanish or French – and inform our instruction with both the tenets of Second Language Acquisition research and the intuitive strategies that have been embraced by thousands of world language teachers over the past 20+ years.  Of course we’ll apply and enjoy the strong modern Hebrew literacy skills our students develop over in their classical Judaics/Talmud & Torah classroom, where they’ll also benefit from the linguistic knowledge they’ve gained in modern Hebrew class (general vocabulary, familiar verb forms, prefixes, transition words, etc.)  The sounds and meanings are already in their heads!  By starting with language for meaning – modern Ivrit –  we will build capacity for the more intellectual pursuit of classical text analysis by prioritizing and insuring the development of comprehension, literacy skills, interest and confidence.

Big Idea #2:  Listening comprehension and reading, the receptive/input skills, precede writing and speaking, the productive/output skills (Read this blog post).

Among other benefits, familiarity with this basic tenet of SLA research helps manage student, parent, teacher, administrator (and researcher) expectations. Students require copious amounts of CCI before they are able to produce the target language at the discourse level.  “A flood of input for a trickle of output,” according to linguistics Professor Wynn Wong.  And yet, according to the Avi Chai report researchers,
           “At a few, although not all, of the schools we visited, we observed classes in which students’ speaking proficiency was evidently poorer in the higher grades than in lower ones.  While elementary school students responded in Hebrew to their teachers’ promptings, and seemed able to express themselves quite fluently in Israeli-accented Hebrew, by the time they reached the higher grades students struggled to express themselves. They groped to find the vocabulary to convey their thoughts.  Even where the rule in class was to speak only in Hebrew, students would often opt to find the right phrase in English before reverting to Hebrew.” (p. 29)
Could it be that the elementary teacher-prompted responses required only a perfunctory one word or short answer, demonstrating the students’ listening comprehension, whereas the upper school request demanded Hebrew speaking above the students’ level of acquisition, and at the discourse level?  Is the latter task reasonable, and does it reflect understanding of the SLA research?  Rather than bemoaning their students’ low interpersonal Hebrew proficiency, teachers (and researchers) must instead learn how students acquire, appreciate the natural stages of language emergence (not forced output), discern what kind of production is typical for the amount of CCI they’ve received, and ascertain how to continuously engage students in a Hebrew language-rich atmosphere.  Expectations are lower in the lower school, but then, suddenly, at the higher levels, students are expected to make a developmental leap, even as the quantity and quality of language input is diminished.
Recommendations:  Teachers and researchers are encouraged to master the theoretical underpinnings of SLA as well as the pedagogy that aligns with it, to get a better grasp of appropriate expectations for language output.  Continued high quality CCI, the driver of language acquisition, is as important as ever in the upper grades.
Big Ideas #3 & #4:  When the classroom messages are compelling, listening and engagement are greater; By personalizing and customizing comprehensible messages through class-elicited scenes, stories and images, interest skyrockets, and we optimize the input.
It’s hard to tell from the Avi Chai report just how interesting (or not) the general content of modern Hebrew classes is (at the places they studied), though stakeholders’ complaints seem to suggest a general disinterest in Hebrew class particularly at the upper levels.  Either the content or the instruction (or both) are souring students’ attitude.
What can we do about it?
Recommendation:  We need to take a sober look at our content.  Many schools embrace a pre-fabricated all inclusive curriculum that blends modern Hebrew with Judaics and prayerbook Hebrew, killing many proverbial birds with a single stone.  But they are, regrettably, also killing student (and teacher) interest and engagement, because the set curriculum is…OK I’ll say it:  mind-numbingly boring.   Set curricula often ‘covers’ static and humorless topics about which the students are not interested or passionate; nor do many of the themes incorporate the highest frequency words for greatest linguistic coverage.
So how can we insure that all students will be interested and remain engaged in the banter of our daily classes?  By involving them in the creation of the content!  By including their hobbies and passions in class stories and conversations!  By surveying their interests, and intentionally inserting this personalized information into the ‘curriculum!’  By, once knowing our students well, finding stories, video clips, commercials, poetry and songs, etc. that appeal to our group!   Once we accept that modern Hebrew is separate from Judaics/sacred texts, we are free to converse on an endless array of fiction/real topics, so long as our messages are compelling and comprehensible, and contribute to an ever-widening linguistic foundation.  By starting with student interest rather than imposing a prefab or teacher-driven curriculum, we guarantee broader relevance and authenticity, we build a community where individuals feel known and recognized, and we engage in pleasant conversation, in which all students have a foothold.
We democratize the language classroom!
Whew.  Perhaps those are enough big ideas to chew on for one blog post.
The Avi Chai report sheds light on stakeholders’ negative attitudes about Hebrew instruction, informing the quagmire in which we find ourselves.  I contend (with no blame) that often vague and contradictory instructional goals, poor and/or spotty Hebrew language teacher training, limited support and quality materials, all uninformed by SLA research, have landed us in this predicament.
The good news is, we can address our dire situation immediately and to great effect.  If my own teaching experiment is any indication, stakeholders are all eager to learn a better way.  The light and humorous beginners’ Hebrew scenes and stories are a welcome respite from the drudgery of grammar paradigms and vocabulary lists, nonsense words both spoken and copied into מחברות (notebooks).  Teachers, students and parents all report renewed enthusiasm for Comprehensible Hebrew, and kids look forward to class.
Recommendations:  Let’s re-think what we’re doing – but through the lens of Second Language Acquisition research.  Acquiring language isn’t like learning chemistry or social studies.  It’s an unconscious process.  It’s driven by compelling, comprehensible input.  Let’s rebuild our community’s confidence in Hebrew instruction as a worthwhile endeavor by demonstrating success after success.  What constitutes that success?  Our students will have a joyful experience in effective Hebrew classes; they will feel capable and successful at acquiring, comprehending and utilizing Hebrew, and they will embrace it as their own.

Shoring up Our Modern Hebrew Programs (Part 2)

You can read Part 1, “Why We Need To Legitimize Modern Hebrew,” here.

Since Hebrew programs offered in seven area public high schools are experiencing a crisis of enrollment and qualified/certified Hebrew teachers, the community response, with its best intentions, has been to advocate for saving their programs at school board meetings.

The more I explore, though, the clearer it becomes that Hebrew teacher and student shortages are a symptom of a bigger dilemma that no amount of clamoring will resolve.  If we’re able to save a high school Hebrew program from the chopping block for one more year, this temporary solution will only delay the next crisis, and the program will soon end up at-risk again.  Why are we having these Hebrew program stability issues?

screen-shot-2016-11-22-at-10-10-35-pm

THE CRITIQUE:    Because from what I’ve seen and heard so far, the quality & consistency of these high school Hebrew offerings varies widely.  And these variations aren’t unique to public high school Hebrew programs; they are, unfortunately, ubiquitous.

Some high school programs relegate the fundamental input job to a Hebrew online computer course.  Some rely on a dry, grammar-heavy & outmoded text book.  Some are so stretched and strained that they don’t allow a teaching setup that meets the needs of individual students and levels; still others focus on Israeli culture and Jewish identity (delivered in English), punting on their stated goal: Hebrew language proficiency.  Many teachers dedicate their precious instructional minutes to teaching Hebrew linguistics – grammatical and syntactical features of the language, with a heavy emphasis on accuracy over meaning – at the expense of copious Hebrew input to build acquisition for real communication.  Most don’t scaffold the language enough for the novice to comprehend messages, or map meaning of individual words.  The strongest tool in the Second Language Acquisition box, READING, isn’t leveraged effectively.  No Hebrew curriculum that I know of focuses on students acquiring a corpus of the highest frequency words, to afford greatest coverage.  This last strategy eluded me for the first two decades of my Spanish teaching career 😳 !

THE PROPOSED SOLUTION:  With the kind of material and community support we have at our disposal, we can, no doubt! shore up our Hebrew offerings.  Not just the public high school programs, but all our programs.  We want the highest quality early start – long sequence learning (acquiring), so let’s start thinking about coordinating the entire progression.  Let’s create pre-K to 8th grade programs so effective and enjoyable that a considerable number of students will elect to continue taking Modern Hebrew in high school, and beyond!  It’s not too great or too difficult a goal to fathom or accomplish.  It will take energy and will, but, speaking from my experience, it’s definitely doable! 

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Here’s my first draft Road Map to Improving Modern Hebrew Instruction:

A.  TRAIN/RE-TRAIN TEACHERS:

I was a veteran Spanish language teacher for nearly 20 years before I retooled my teaching with Comprehensible Input (T/CI).  I attended workshops, got support from my administration and department colleagues (we all retrained together), and tinkered in my classroom.  I read, watched demonstration videos, went to conferences, was coached by master teachers, and participated in two Professional Learning Communities (PLCs).  I also visited CI-based classrooms for the best training of all – live observation and debriefing with the teacher.  All these teacher-to-teacher experiences knit me into a network of inspired and inspiring colleagues, from whom I continue to learn.

I propose an 8-10 hour (total) beginners’ workshop (3-5 hours per day?) with sessions in Rationale (Second Language Acquisition) and Comprehensible Input strategies, coached skills practice, and resource assessment & development, for all stakeholders – teachers, administrators, Hebrew camp counselors & directors, etc.  Such groundwork will get us ‘all on the same page,’ ready to dive into CI strategies in our classrooms/learning environments.  (Read about the 8-hour Hebrew teacher training I led this summer.)

I hope to organize and lead broader Hebrew trainings this academic year, aimed at any Hebrew language teachers/levels and attended by all aforementioned stakeholders, as the basic principles (for absolute beginners through intermediate level students of any age) are the same.  It would be wonderful to bring different area institutions together to host a regional training, thereby building teacher and administrator networks!

Once we are all enlightened on how the brain acquires language, and we can discern which strategies we need to dump, keep or add, we’ll be ready to…

B.  ORGANIZE FOR ONGOING SUPPORT:

This step is part & parcel to training, and helps insure shared vision, consistency, and a common language experience for our students, as well as resources & materials for teachers.   As we train, we group Hebrew teachers by the grade/level they teach, to build networks of colleagues across the area/country/world:
screen-shot-2016-11-24-at-8-57-47-am*Elementary Pre-K to 2nd grade &  3rd to 5th grade sub-groups

*Middle school to junior high, 6th-8th grade

*High school & adult learners

(We can combine above groupings for many aspects of training.)

Next we form and/or participate in online users’ groups (i.e., moreTPRS Yahoo! group, Facebook ifltntprsciteaching, shared Google docs, more blogs and such,) so that teachers can support each other, sharing documents, questions and reflections in user-friendly, archive-able and searchable platforms.  A YouTube channel of Hebrew teacher demonstration videos could be a tremendous resource!  I’m happy to start building a repository on my blog, but let’s hope we bust out and need a different ‘file cabinet,’ because my blog can’t handle the volume!

Broad, effective, ongoing training, plus support and mentorship, will set us on the path toward reclaiming real Hebrew proficiency-oriented classrooms.  My (day-job) grades 1-8 World Language department was able to completely shift our teaching, and re-invigorate our classrooms, in a matter of months!  Most of us felt the earth move, as our students leaned in, and our administrators/evaluators basked in the positive feedback streaming in from their parents.  Best of all, with such enjoyable strategies as collaborative story-asking, dramatization, and drawing, our teachers were eager to improve our CI delivery skills, experiment with different formats, and mine students’ ideas and preferences while building scenes and stories together.  Now, work is more fun for all of us, and we email and text each other regularly, sharing funny incidents and ideas from our classroom story-spinning. (After the Big Cubs Win, my students seeded the idea, and we collaborated on a Spanish re-telling of the ‘Three Bears,’ called, ‘The 3 Chicago Cubs,’ aka, ‘Los Tres Cachorros de Chicago.’)

Ongoing support also means regularly sending our teachers to training (meetings, workshops, conferences) for sessions in additional CI strategies, networking and coaching.  Our field is dynamic and exciting!  Some sessions may focus on integrating video or electronic text activities (i.e., Textivate), others on incorporating authentic literature, art and music; still others may focus on working with pre- and emergent literacy learners.

 C.  RECRUIT HEBREW-SPEAKING TEACHERS:
Since this is a grass-roots teacher movement, it’s highly unlikely that Hebrew candidates would be trained in T/CI strategies, as university prep programs aren’t teaching them yet!  (See this open letter to university World Language departments from SLA expert Dr. Bill VanPatten, pleading for upper level language instructors who are well-versed in Second Language Acquisition Theory).
But as long as teachers have an open mind and are willing to learn,  יאללה!! (Let’s go!)
 We MUST assertively recruit Hebrew teachers (including from universities) and train them in CI strategies, as well as retrain current teachers, who will, if they’re anything like the thousands of other WL teachers I meet at regional and (inter)national conferences every year, feel energized, and, finally, effective and successful in their Hebrew classrooms.  This first cohort of Hebrew T/CI teachers will enthusiastically spread the word to potential Hebrew colleagues.  This is precisely what happened in my department.  We continue to mentor, model lessons, and host observers – both newbies and veterans –  willing and wanting to shift their instructional strategies and improve their students’ proficiency.
This recommendation addresses the effectiveness of appropriately trained Hebrew teachers, but not the hardship in finding and hiring qualified, credentialed candidates.  One obstacle to hiring qualified Hebrew teachers is the difficulty in passing English language exams for native Hebrew candidates.  Clearly we must also recruit native English speakers and bilingual Hebrew candidates, and not only Hebrew dominant teachers, in order to expand the Hebrew teacher corps.
D.  INCREASE THE NUMBER OF HIGH SCHOOL HEBREW STUDENTS:
 To address the irregular flow of students into the high school Hebrew pipeline, we need to create an expectation in the Hebrew supplementary school, by:
*Exploiting & creating opportunities, beginning in the early years, to promote our public high school Hebrew programs.  To do this we must integrate a powerful and consistent message early on, and, of course, have a great program worthy of endorsing, to kids and parents alike;
*Ensuring parents hear our well-planned high school Hebrew presentations; inviting current high school Hebrew student testimonials for 8th graders, when it’s most critical – before January of 8th grade, when kids elect their high school language;
*Preparing our supplementary school students for high school Hebrew 2.  We do this through excellent & optimized programming and instruction from Pre-K to 8th, and coordination with the high school, for a smooth transition.  Entering at Hebrew level 2 insures that Hebrew doesn’t feel inferior to the Spanish/French option.
There you have it:  My first draft Road Map to Improving Modern Hebrew Instruction.
The single, most powerful step to improving the quality, reputation and outcomes of our Hebrew programs is teacher (re-) training.
If you are interested in reimagining your Hebrew offering and starting down the path toward Hebrew proficiency for your students, please contact me and let’s plan a training in your area!

An Open Invitation

screen-shot-2016-11-17-at-11-47-16-amI sent this letter of invitation below, explaining my Hebrew educational reform project to family, friends, acquaintances, teachers, administrators, and organizations.  If you know anyone interested in improving the Hebrew learning (acquiring) experience and outcomes for students of all ages, please read and forward this letter!

I hope to get more teachers and decision-makers to explore and subscribe to my blog, become familiar with the tenets of Second Language Acquisition theory, read about Teaching with Comprehensible Input, engage in enlightening conversations, and seek (re-)training for our Hebrew teachers.  Once I have a group of interested ‘stake-holders,’ I’d love to organize a conference and/or workshops to present and train, like I did at my temple this summer.  For more on my temple training, start reading here.

I also plan to submit proposals to present at Jewish educator conferences, and, if accepted, seek sponsorship to attend and share my work.  I am aware of the NewCAJE conference in San Francisco in August – please email me with information on other relevant conferences!screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-10-38-46-amHere’s the letter to circulate, and thanks in advance for helping get the word out on improving Hebrew instruction:

October, 2016

Dear Friends,

This summer, I embarked on a new project that I want to share with you.  In a nutshell, I am reimagining Modern Hebrew language instruction.  I believe my vision is timely, and doable with community support.

With the goal of improving our kids’ Hebrew learning experience, I received a grant through the Community Foundation for Jewish Education (CFJE), which allowed me to start training Hebrew teachers in teaching with comprehensible input (T/CI).  Comprehensible Input (CI) refers to brain-friendly language instruction that is understandable to the learner, and focuses on meaning and interest.  Aimed at beginning-through-intermediate-level students, classes are conducted almost exclusively in conversational Hebrew.  T/CI is engaging, fun and effective, employing collaborative ‘story spinning,’ improvisation and acting, and exploits Hebrew’s most practical, high- frequency words.  

I’ve started a blog to share my instructional resources and reflections at cmovan.edublogs.org.     I invite you to follow and join the conversation by posting responses and questions!   Also, please forward this letter to as many friends, acquaintances and contacts you may know who are involved or interested in Hebrew instruction, whether they are affiliated with temple-based supplementary school, day school, ulpan, university or adult conversational classes. This list may include rabbis, classroom teachers, educational directors, administrators and students, etc.   

I hope to foster enlightening discussions around Modern Hebrew language instruction, through this platform, wherever my readers reside, and whatever native language they speak.

In the few short weeks I’ve been teaching Hebrew classes to 3rd through 7thgraders at my temple, the response has been overwhelmingly positive from kids, parents, teachers and the community.  I’ll continue to model teacher lessons, until our faculty feels sufficiently confident to take over.  I will also coach and mentor our faculty throughout the year.

I hope to train additional groups of Hebrew teachers who are interested in learning to teach with comprehensible input in the coming months, hopefully in a workshop or conference setting.

Thanks in advance for your support in helping me spread the word, and feel free to contact me directly at this special email address:  cmovanhebrew@gmail.com.

 

Sincerely,

Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg

Comprehensible Hebrew, כמובן

cmovan.edublogs.org

cmovanhebrew@gmail.com

Why We Need to Legitimize Modern Hebrew (Part 1)

We need to legitimize Modern Hebrew and then advocate the heck out of teaching it, the sooner the better.

Maybe this should have been my very first ‘cornerstone’ blogpost, but as a Jew, Hebrew speaker and lover of language, I needed no convincing of the value of improving and supporting Hebrew instruction.

screen-shot-2016-11-10-at-12-35-53-amPlus, I really wasn’t aware of the turmoil swirling around the Hebrew programs in my own back yard!

There are urgent issues particular to Modern Hebrew in the Diaspora that are worthy of our attention.  One such challenge regarding Hebrew’s legitimacy is, does it qualify as a World Language?

This is an important question as it establishes a raisons d’être for Modern Hebrew instruction in and beyond the supplementary (synagogue-based) or Jewish day-school setting, for example, in public high school World Language Departments.  (Where I live, several public high schools offer Modern Hebrew; my son is a student in one of them.)

I first heard this concern about Hebrew’s legitimacy as a World Language (like Spanish, French or Mandarin), from a dear friend and champion of my recent foray into Hebrew instructional reform.  Her beef is that Modern Hebrew is the national language of only one small country, Israel.  Furthermore, she argues, you don’t really need Hebrew there, as so many Israelis are fluent in English.  International diplomacy and business could survive without it, she claims; not so with the other more widely-spoken languages.screen-shot-2016-11-09-at-10-07-34-pm

Well, here’s my take.  Yes, Modern Hebrew most definitely is a World Language, though technically it’s only the national language of Israel.  (See:  ACTFL position on ‘What Is A World Language?’)  It’s a special case, though, since it’s widely studied and spoken by (mostly) Jews in the Diaspora, plus the many Israelis who travel and live across the four corners of the earth.  Professor Wikipedia claims there are over 9 million Hebrew speakers worldwide, with over 5 million residing in Israel.    Modern Hebrew lives in rich, robust, and widely appreciated literature, song, poetry, film, and journalism.  Perhaps interest in it and devotion to it propel Hebrew to World Language status, despite it’s limited geographical imperative.  The opposite is also true; if interest in and devotion to Hebrew flags, so will its status in the minds of potential teachers and their students.  We’ve observed this inverse corollary on Chicago’s North Shore over the past few years, as several of the public high school Hebrew programs face cuts due to a dearth of certified Hebrew teachers, and insufficient numbers of interested Hebrew students.

screen-shot-2016-11-10-at-12-12-34-amLamentably, it looks as though Evanston Township High School, the first public high school in the area to offer Hebrew, may phase out its almost 50-year-old Hebrew program at the end of this academic year.  (Read article here.)

The reasons for the decline of its pioneer program and others are numerous, including, for teachers:

*Onerous English language exams for teacher certification are discouraging to potential native-Hebrew candidates;

*Hebrew teaching positions are often part-time (no benefits) and/or require travel between schools due to low enrollment, making the positions less appealing;

*Hebrew teachers are singletons in their buildings or districts, with no opportunity for collegial support or collaboration;

*Since they don’t yet exist, teachers can’t rely on Hebrew-specific teaching standards, proficiency guidelines, and articulated curricula (from level to level) to guide and buttress their program. (Existing curricula/textbooks don’t reflect SLA research, are uninspired and unappealing;)

screen-shot-2016-11-13-at-8-30-08-amscreen-shot-2016-11-13-at-8-30-34-am*Since they don’t yet exist, teachers can’t rely on Hebrew-specific teaching support networks,  for coordination of Hebrew pedagogy and instruction;

*Since they don’t yet exist, teachers can’t rely on Hebrew-specific or (to the best of my knowledge) electronic resources such as listservs (like the moreTPRS yahoo users’ group, or, say, a Hebrew teachers’ Facebook group), blogs, PLCs, or teacher demonstration videos (See my exemplar here!)  Mine is the only Hebrew-as-a-foreign-language teachers’ resource blog I know of so far.

*Teachers receive inadequate (or NO) training in Second Language Acquisition theory and have few, if any, professional development opportunities (workshops, conferences, peer observations, etc.) to network and learn Hebrew best-practice instructional strategies.

* Teacher preparation for Hebrew instruction at the university level is outmoded/substandard;

*Teachers are discouraged by unremarkable student outcomes and near flat progress, after an inordinate amount of time and energy invested.

Sounds dismal, I know, but read on and don’t be dismayed.

For students, here are some of the high school Hebrew hurdles:screen-shot-2016-11-09-at-10-31-56-pm

*Most junior high school students (here and in many suburban districts) have already taken two years of World Language (often Spanish or French) by the time they enter high school, enabling incoming freshman to place into level 2 language classes.  It’s hard to pass up this accelerated status, and parents often encourage their kids to ‘continue with what you’ve already started,’ rather than switch to Hebrew;

*It takes devotion to Hebrew, the willingness to step down a level, as well as to step away from your peers, to elect Hebrew 1 as a freshman (Hebrew 2 in some cases, depending on supplementary Hebrew school programming or receiving teacher’s differing expectations);

*Many students perceive Hebrew as more difficult than, say, Spanish or French, because of its non-Romanized alphabet.  This lowers their expectations for progress and proficiency;
*Many students are advised and/or believe that the more widely spoken languages (i.e., Spanish, French, Mandarin) are more practical for the job market.

*Students’ prior experience with Hebrew is tedious, boring and unproductive;

*Students are discouraged by their unremarkable outcomes and near flat progress, after an inordinate amount of time and energy invested.
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So what can we do to staunch the flow of at-risk high school Hebrew programs and reinvigorate ALL our programs?  I don’t believe that merely reminding 8th graders of their high school Hebrew option, or inviting them on an unforgettable Israel trip are the answer, though both of these measures may help our cause.  Instead, I believe,

THERE’S NO SUBSTITUTE FOR EXCELLENT INSTRUCTION.

Exceptional, pedagogically sound, engaging, early start-long sequence Hebrew language programs delivered by highly trained, competent, passionate and networked teachers will save the day.  

How will this seemingly simplistic approach address the many and diverse challenges delineated above?   Let me count the ways!  (And yes, ‘How to go about it’ will be the subject of my next loooong blog post!)

With a little bit of soul searching and earnest examination of the lessons learned so far, we can drastically improve our Hebrew offerings and outcomes, thereby boosting the appeal of teaching and learning (acquiring) Modern Hebrew, for teachers and students alike.

GREAT TEACHING INSPIRES GREAT LEARNING…

INSPIRES GREAT TEACHING.

Imagine a pre-K through 7th/8th grade supplementary Hebrew program of such caliber that our kids could readily place into Hebrew 2 (or beyond?!?) in 9th grade, as in the case of French & Spanish….Once we address these considerable challenges by creating coordinated, effective, well documented and ENJOYABLE programs, we’ll undoubtedly have the interested and engaged Hebrew students and an enthusiastic network of teachers to fill them.  It will constitute another Hebrew revival to make Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of Modern Hebrew, proud, if only we follow his advice:

“We have to unshackle the feet of Hebrew speakers…. If not, our language will never have a complete life.”