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!

 

Starting The Year #3: Scripted Circling & PQA

As teachers new to Comprehensible Input strategies get their feet wet in the classroom, it’s often helpful to imagine a beginners conversation and script the language use, insuring that the novice-level students don’t get overwhelmed by too many new sounds and words coming in.  As teachers gain experience implementing the strategies, they may be able to deliver Hebrew language more improvisationally.  But to start, it’s nice to have a road map!  Feel free to print and highlight the questions (listed in Hebrew without English how-to commentary at bottom of blog  post!), and use them as a loose script, until your own Circling & PQA become more automatic and effortless!

Let’s say that in the interest of laying in the highest frequency Hebrew verbs in order to build a practical foundation in Hebrew, you decide to interview and survey your students about their preferred ice cream flavor, focusing primarily on the verb, אוהב/ אוהבת.

This slide is from my Intro To T/CI presentation on the blog, here.

A series of affirmations, negations, compare & contrast, counting and summarizing questions may ensue, as follows:

T= Teacher; S = Student; Ss = students; C= (whole) Class

NB:  All of the parts of the initial statement will be clarified through gesturing, Pause-Point-Slow, sketching, establishing meaning, and ongoing comprehension checks, as discussed and modeled in parts #1 & #2 of this Starting The Year blog post series.

כיתה,  אני אוהבת גלידת ׳מוס טרקס.׳

Teacher comes close to next student to interview and addresses him/her by name, looking at her and ‘teaching to the eyes’:

T:  זיוה, את אוהבת גלידת ‘מוס טרקס?’

Zivah gestures a thumbs down.

T to Zivah:  

?אהההה, את לא אוהבת גלידת ‘מוס טרקס?’  

?כיתה, אני אוהבת גלידת ׳מוס טרקס.׳  זיוה לא אוהבת גלידת ‘מוס טרקס, נכון זיוה

The word, ?נכון is a rejoinder.  If not already posted because it hasn’t emerged yet, then establish its meaning by writing it on the board, underlining it, and writing it’s English translation below, Correct?  -in a contrasting color.  Pause-Point-Slow every time you use it, until students demonstrate acquisition by recognizing/using it independently.  This may take several sessions.

.זיוה:  נכון

Teacher acknowledges Zivah’s comprehension with a high five or fist-bump (‘יש!’) and moves to the next student, or summarizes/contrasts the 2 opinions:

T:  .’אני אוהבת גלידת ‘מוס טרקס.’  זיוה לא אוהבת גלידת ‘מוס טרקס

Depending on grade/age and decoding ability, you may decide to leave these as 2 separate (if choppy & short) sentences, for now. Once the incoming message is more effortlessly and automatically understood, you may wish to introduce the conjunction, ‘but’ in context, so simply establish its meaning and restate:

‘.כיתה, אני אוהבת גלידת ‘מוס טרקס’ אבל זיוה לא אוהבת גלידת ‘מוס טרקס

T:  ?זיוה, איזה גלידה את אוהבת

Teacher asks with great interest, continuing to gesture, Pause-Point-Slow, and support the conversational language with non-verbal cues.  If the student can’t produce a flavor, offer a few cognate flavor choices, as in:

T:  ?זיוה, את אוהבת גלידת בננה, או את אוהבת גלידת וניל

Teacher may do a comprehension check here:  “What do you think גלידת בננה is?”  “What do you think גלידת וניל means?” Acknowledge student comprehension with warmth, smiles, a fist bump (יש!).  Though they hopefully don’t feel it, our students’ brains are working hard to understand!

T:  !כיתה!  זיוה אוהבת גלידת שוקולד מנטה  

At that moment you hear a ‘buzz’ in the classroom as other students concur with or differ from Zivah’s choice.  You follow the energy and go right to someone you heard who likes or doesn’t like  .גלידת שוקולד מנטה  

T:  !רגע, רגע, רגע

You gesture the Israeli !רגע with one hand, and establish meaning, orally and/or on the board.  You walk over to Tammy.

T:  ?טמי, את אוהבת גלידת שוקולד מנטה

Tammy shakes her head ‘yes,’ or says, “yes,” or maybe even, “כן.”

You report back to the class, taking care to gesture, pause, and chunk the phrases:

T:   .כיתה, זיוה אוהבת גלידת שוקולד מנטה, אבל אני לא אוהבת גלידת שוקולד מנטה

 וטמי אוהבת גלידת שוקולד מנטה

C:  .הוווווו

T:  ?  (Point to self)  ?ואני כיתה?  אני אוהבת גלידת שוקולד מנטה    

?’או אני אוהבת גלידת ‘מוס טרקס

C:  Moose Tracks.

T:   (Expectant pause) ?…נכון, כיתה, נכון.  אני אוהבת גלידת ‘מוס טרקס,’ זיוה אוהבת

C:  Mint Chocolate!

T:  כן, זה נכון!  זיוה אוהבת גלידת שוקולד מנטה,  וטמי גם אוהבת גלידת שוקולד מנטה

C:  !כן

T:  What do you think גם means?  

T:  נכון, גם means ‘also.’

גם זיוה אוהבת גלידת שוקולד מנטה, וגם טמי אוהבת גלידת שוקולד מנטה!

C:  הוווווו!

T:  ?דניס, גם את אוהבת גלידת שוקולד מנטה

 D:  .לא

T: ‘?דניס, את אוהבת גלידת ‘מוס טראקס

D:   לא

T:  ?כיתה!   דניס לא אוהבת גלידת ‘מוס טראקס’ וגם לא אוהבת גלידת שוקולד מנטה! הםםםםםםם, דניס את אוהבת גלידת בננה? 

At this point (or before!) you may wish to take out a cheat sheet of cognate or borrowed word ice cream flavors from the Israeli ice cream shop menu linked in the previous blog post:

http://www.glidabeersheva.com/%D7%98%D7%A2%D7%9E%D7%99%D7%9D/

D:  Salted Carmel.

T: ?או- לה- לה, דניס אוהבת גלידת קרמל!  נכון, דניס? את אוהבת גלידת קרמל

D:  כן.

T:  !כיתה, דניס אוהבת גלידת קרמל   

At any natural point the teacher can add an additional rejoinder when she learns new, (EXCITING!) information, as in:

T:  ! מקסים!  כיתה, דניס אוהבת גלידת קרמל!  דניס, זה מקסים

Teacher establishes meaning, writing the Hebrew rejoinder word, underlines it, and in a contrasting color, writes the English word ‘Awesome!’  below it, pausing and pointing every time it comes up in conversation.

Other rejoinders that may work nicely here – but not all at once – use, then post for future use:

   !יופי!         פנטסטי!      סבבה!         מצויין

The class carries on as the teacher works her way from student to student, in an unpredictable pattern.  While it’s preferable to make sure everyone is interviewed during a single class period, she takes her time, questioning-negating-affirming-comparing:

Comparing students’ preference with each other;

Comparing a student’s preference with her own;

Counting how many prefer a particular flavor (if that happens);

Peppering the banter with rejoinders;

Insuring that she ‘hits her targets’ by including the verb chunk every time -either לא/ אוהב/ת  or, if you are starting to branch off the conversation to talk about which flavors have/contain chocolate, then the addition of the verb form יש.  (No, it’s not really a verb but it functions as a verb in terms of meaning, and is super hi-frequency!)

T:  ?כיתה, יש לגלידת קרמל שוקולד

C: No.  (Don’t worry that their response isn’t in Hebrew!  We are ascertaining whether they understand the question.)

T:  .נכון. אין לגלידת קרמל שוקולד. קרמל זה לא שוקולד, ושוקולד זה לא קרמל

Comprehension check.  Possibly write the sentence on the board, depending on decoding skill, and comb through it, establishing meaning as you go.

יש and אין  are on one of your hi-frequency posters and subsequently find their place on your Word Wall.

By the end of the class you should be able to surmise everyone’s preferred flavor, and they, each others.’  Depending on the number of Ss, this whole process may take upwards of 20 minutes.  We are trying to draw out an engaging conversation, and keep it interesting; we are NOT trying to hurry through in order to extract or list the information.  It’s the compelling topic, the repetitions in context, the variations within a narrow set of language, punctuated by rejoinders, fist bumps, smiles and celebration that make this surveying activity so effective in building foundational language.

Next class might begin by inserting the collected favorite flavor info into a graphic organizer, in this case perhaps a bar graph with flavors as column titles, and student names sorted into each column.  This visual anchor allows us to reconfirm as we build the graph, review, count, sort, compare, and, on the literacy side, decode low stress/hi success names of students and flavors. 

For more on using visual anchors read my previous post, Starting the Year #2:  Extending CI While Staying In Bounds.

For a copy of the Hebrew only ice cream survey Personalized Questions & Answers (PQA) and Circling script in this article, but without the English ‘How-to’ commentary, click here.

Starting the Year #2: Extending CI While Staying In Bounds

For Part 1 of this post on student surveys and PQA, click here.

How can we get lots of repetition on hi-frequency language, so that the students develop a practical Hebrew foundation?  Here are some ideas for after you take an oral survey of student interest, such as ‘Which ice cream do you love?’  (See an extensive Hebrew menu of  ice cream flavors here.)

Layer on a Visual Anchor:

When we casually ask the same question to each class member and orally collect personalized survey information, massaging it into a compelling conversation, we can later insert this new-found information into a graphic organizer.  This allows us to focus on a visual anchor as we review the community’s preferences, and since we’re doing it with a new visual, it feels fresh and novel.

Simple visual aids may include:  

  • A labeled T-chart
  • a bar graph
  • a tally chart
  • a simple list

We can easily draw this on the white board at the front of the room.  We can get fancy, adding colorful artwork, borders, graphics, etc.

Then, we review and discuss (same or next class) based on that class-specific visual.  No extra work for teacher – we build the graphic in real time or after the initial conversation.  We may need to think through what we’ll want the info graphic to look like, and prepare, print or draw a template.

We may also choose to create a paper template, so that each student can track the data as it’s collected – but wait to do this until after the students demonstrate a secure foundation in basic Hebrew – several hours/months into the school year.

By the end of this session of circling, interviewing and asking details using repetitive language, comparing and contrasting preferences, restating and re-telling in slightly different phrasing (“They love; they do not love”), and presenting the data visually in a graphic organizer, you’ll be ready to add some new questions to the mix.

How many students love Tutti-Frutti?  

How many girls love ice cream that has chocolate?

NB:  Make sure the ?כמה interrogative poster from my Hebrew Corpus Word Wall is posted for Pause-Point-Slow.

Another easy visual way to anchor a survey discussion is via a slideshow – in this case various internet images of different ice cream flavors.  (Requires projector and screen).  Simply narrate your way through the slides, asking questions and making comments as you flip through.

Experiment with different formats, beginning with those that seem easiest for you to execute, allowing you and the class to remain comprehensible and interesting.

Literacy Extensions:

*To practice writing their names while creating a simple bar graph, have each student write/copy his/her Hebrew name  (from a prepared slide or chart) on a sticky note and ‘vote’ in the appropriate survey column. (In this case the column titles will be preferred flavors of ice cream.)

*Create a brief reading on the board in real time by writing sentences from the discussion and model reading them aloud.  Ask students to join in if they want, otherwise visually track the words as you read.

*Write up a ‘class story’ – a series of patterned statements based on the conversation –  and a sentence about each student -and read it to the class.  

Kids of many ages (not just the youngest!) love to illustrate their class story page – experiment with giving a few minutes/crayons to do this – the resulting ‘book’ is a lot more inviting to read.

Writing/Dictation:

*Point to written class list of students’ names – this is good to have on chart paper for all to see and decode throughout the year. 

Do target language dictations on dry erase boards, (lowers anxiety), one sentence at a time.  We want sound and meaning already in their heads when they come to a writing/reading task.  Let’s say we want to dictate these 3 sentences:


1.  Alisa loves Moose Tracks ice cream.      .עליזה אוהבת גלידת מוס טרקס

2.  Talia has an allergy to chocolate.            .לטליה יש אלרגיה לשוקולד

3.  Gavriel loves Mint Chip.              .גבריאל אוהב גלידת שוקולד מנטה  

The purpose of dictation, for our setting:

  • Associating sound and meaning to the letters/ written word
  • Hebrew cursive letter formation (muscle memory)
  • Building student confidence

Follow the dictation protocol below, keeping dictated sentences short and simple to guarantee student success.  

Before starting, briefly discuss behavioral expectations regarding dry erase board/materials use.

For example:

We respect these materials, insuring that they can be used again and again by:

  • not tapping, scratching, doodling, throwing, etc.
  • demonstrating we understand my instructions

Back to the task: 

Students write the one sentence they hear on lined side of dry erase board.  

Hebrew alphabet poster -block and manuscript letters -at front of room.

Teacher repeats the sentence aloud as requested.

Teacher circulates and notices non-standard inventive spelling/letter formation.  It’s OK!  Spelling emerges over time from reading.  It probably won’t be accurate to start.  Resist your impulse to correct student work!

After students have attempted to write it, teacher models/writes correct sentence in large cursive print on the board.  Students are noticing how you form your letters, so write big, slowly and clearly here.  We give them a minute to compare their version with yours, noticing differences, then students copy the correct version below their initial attempt.  Afterwards they may erase, or if they want and there’s room, go on to another dictated comprehensible sentence.  

Briefly point out ‘final letters’ in Hebrew, or other surface features.  

Students look at the 2 versions, then erase or continue same protocol for next sentence.

See my related blog post:  http://cmovan.edublogs.org/2016/09/22/demystifying-hebrew-literacy-part-1/

Practice Hebrew classroom survival phrases by having students follow your commands:

  • pick up/put down boards/markers
  • uncap/close markers
  • write/ erase

By laying in these instructions, you insure that you can conduct subsequent dictation activities entirely in Hebrew.  All repeated class routines, such as materials distribution and collection, are worthy of laying in in the target language, since they will come up over and over again.  Materials management is a great way to provide concrete language and allow students to demonstrate their understanding with a performance task.

Read about Classroom Hebrew survival phrases here:

http://cmovan.edublogs.org/2017/03/21/survival-for-the-comprehensible-hebrew-classroom/

and find my Classroom Survival Expressions when you scroll down on the Hebrew Corpus.

Teach, write, establish meaning and point to the Hebrew words, “Please repeat/Again” so that students can self-advocate whenever necessary.

I recommend not sacrificing more than 5-7 minutes at the end of CI class time for dictation.  It serves as a brain break & alternative literacy activity, and to help develop recognition of the letters and their formation, but focus on your primary goal of driving acquisition by providing a flood of compelling, comprehensible input. 

Everything I learned about Dictation, before trying it and tweaking it in my own elementary classroom, I learned from master CI French instructor, Ben Slavic.  See his Dicteé protocol, here.

Summary Of T/CI-Aligned Practices:

All this personalized surveying at the beginning of the school year and throughout, serves several crucial purposes in the Comprehensible Input framework:

  1. Provides lots of connected, compelling, tailored Comprehensible Input at the discourse level
  2. Provides massed exposure through repetition of hi-frequency practical language
  3. Slowly builds students’ stamina for processing conversational /discourse-level Ivrit
  4. Builds a community that is warm & playful, where each individual feels known and therefore safe
  5. Establishes class norms and behaviors, by pointing them out/modeling norms if/when there are infractions
  6. Sends a strong message that in this class, we communicate primarily in Hebrew – that you understand – to build our Hebrew skills

Caveat On Survey Questions:

We want interesting info without being too personal or potentially sensitive (asking abt parents if there is divorce; asking about a pet when someone’s dog just died, etc.)

SOME SAFE TOPICS FOR INTEREST SURVEYS:

(Advise older students that only vetted and appropriate topics will be included in this class)

-Favorite ice cream flavor ‘Which ice cream do you love?’, fruit, etc.

-Favorite childhood picture book

-Do you have a pet/ pet name – non pet owners can pick a dream pet (including fantasy pets – here we offer cognates like dragon, flamingo, gorilla, etc.)

-TV – possibilities are endless but must be appropriate – train your Ss to suggest only ideas appropriate for a the setting – no violence, romance, swearing, etc.

-Least/favorite – restaurant; chores; vegetables 

-(Least)/favorite book/movie; or character (or any art form)

-(Least)/favorite place to hang out (specific) other than school

-(Least)/favorite music type/song/artist

-Dream vacation – where (specific)?

-Is your room neat or messy?  ?החדר שלך מסודר או יש בלאגן

-Secret talent

-Secret fear (all secrets can be invented – this is Hebrew class – where anything is possible!)

Again, we the teacher are very interested in our students’ answers, we are teaching to the eyes, spinning the conversation out of the (sometimes fantasy) ‘facts’ we are collecting – comparing and contrasting – extending the language and getting lots of repetition; recording the info visually and/or in writing – via info graphic and/or a class story.

Here is another survey questionairre you may be able to use – click on “See Inside” above the graphic.

https://teachables.scholastic.com/teachables/books/Student-Interest-Survey-9780439303026_028.html

Whew.  A lot to think about at first.  How much language?  When to establish meaning by writing on the board?  How often to circle, and which parts?  (Go for the verb-containing chunk!)  You will try it, and it will get easier.  Like the language itself, you’ll begin to acquire some practices with automaticity, freeing up your brain space for other concerns.  Your skills will grow!!  The main thing is to get started, give it a try, and watch your students bask and thrive in a warm pool of compelling, comprehensible input!

*Terry Waltz, PhD.  See Hebrew ‘Super 7’ verbs here – scroll down to page 15.

Starting The Year #1: Build A Solid Foundation With PQA

Where to begin?

Starting the year in a proficiency-oriented Hebrew classroom, where we aim to soak our students in compelling and comprehensible messages, can seem like a daunting task, particularly for teachers new to the strategies, and students who haven’t really heard a lot of connected Hebrew-for-communication before.  With any luck, this series of posts will serve as ‘Golden Rails’ to follow, on this first exciting leg of your Teaching with Comprehensible Input (T/CI) journey.

Personalization & Circling Through Surveying

First, select a compelling topic of interest

Criteria:  

  1. Is it developmentally appropriate & compelling for the age group, and topically appropriate for the setting?  
  2. Is it simple, concrete, and can you support it with visuals – gestures, dramatization, sketches, images, props, etc.?

Say I decided to comprehensibly circle the survey question,  “Which ice cream do you love?”  ?איזה גלידה את אוהבת

I might:  

  • Point to the interrogative poster, ?איזה pausing after I say the word
  • Pretend to hold and lick my (imaginary) ice cream cone
  • Draw a sketch of an ice cream cone and an arrow pointing to the scoop – soon after I say the word and gesture its meaning
  • Write the word  גלידה  with the English translation words, ‘ice cream’ clearly below it, in a contrasting color
  • Slowly pause and point, indicating the ‘Super 7’* hi-frequency verb, אוהב/אוהבת  
  • Gesture the ‘love/s’ verb by forming a heart shape with my hands near my heart
  • Check for comprehension, by repeating the Hebrew question, then asking a student, “What am I asking?”

Let’s assume that during the course of my conversation, surveying student after student, I get lots of repetition of similar sentences that contain ‘love’ and it’s negation, ‘doesn’t/don’t love.’

Say I learned from this initial survey question that:

•Tova loves Mint Chocolate Chip

•Gavriel loves Rocky Road

•Alisa loves Moose Tracks, etc.

I can include my own opinion on ice cream, thereby inserting the אני pronoun and voice, as in,

אני לא אוהבת גלידת שוקולד מנטה’

As I ask each of my students’ preferred flavor, I compare and contrast loves and dislikes as I move about the room.

‘Tova, you love Mint Chocolate, but you don’t love Rocky Road?  Class, who loves Rocky Road?   I really love Moose Tracks…and you, Gavriel, do you love Mint…?’  

If I wanted, I could offer cognate flavor choices in advance, writing them on the board and pausing/pointing each time.  

Otherwise, I write down the flavors in Hebrew or English (names of ice cream are not the goal of the lesson, but do offer opportunities for success in decoding.)  

RESOURCE:  Familiarize yourself with many borrowed name flavors written in Hebrew with this Hebrew ice cream menu

These are only a few of the many flavors on the menu!

If your class already has solid letter/sound recognition of the Hebrew alphabet, then you may choose, if possible, to project this ice cream menu and decode it together as a class at the end of the oral surveying phase, (skip over the non-cognate flavors – they won’t have meaning) or print it out.  Alternatively, copy only the direct cognate flavors onto chart paper, making your own more limited but comprehensible menu.

Back to my students and their flavors:

I notice that all three of the above students love ice cream with chocolate in it.  “Ahhh, Tova likes Mint Chip, Gavriel likes Rocky Road and Alisa likes Moose Tracks…they all have chocolate!” – I write the word for ‘has’ in both languages to establish meaning.  I gesture ‘has’  by cupping my open hands side by side as if I’m scooping up water.  I insure comprehension by telling the students that this is my gesture for יש /have/has.

I encourage the students to use the gestures, too, every time they hear the word.

Then I ask the class and/or individual student for confirmation:  

“Class, does Mint Chip ice cream have chocolate?”

“Avi, does Rocky Road ice cream have chocolate?” 

“Ya’akov, does Moose Tracks ice cream have chocolate?”

“Class, does Banana ice cream have chocolate?”  

I can ask about as many flavors that were mentioned in class as I want – following the demonstrated group interest and energy in the room.

Now, I have used two important hi-frequency verbs in context, ‘love/s’ and ‘have/has’ with their negations, ‘doesn’t love,’ and ‘doesn’t have.’  I am gesturing, pausing/pointing and spot-checking for comprehension as I extend a conversation based on the information I’ve collected.  I’m noticing trends in ice cream preference, comparing & contrasting, grouping, counting, and confirming, all within this narrow set of language in use.  

I am staying ‘in bounds.’

I make sure to ask a full question each time;  that way the verb-containing chunks (love/s; has/have) are always repeated.  I gesture the heart shape for ‘loves’ and my hand cupping  ‘have/has’ gesture, whenever the words arise. 

‘Tova loves Mint Chip, yes, Tova?  You love…? Class, she loves Mint Chip but she doesn’t love…Banana?  Tova, do you love Banana?

Class she does love Mint Chip….’

I check for comprehension regularly.  What does ‘יש’ mean?“  “What does this (heart gesture) mean?” 

“What does, גבריאל לא אוהב גלידת בננה  mean?”  

Then I move on to a different student, Ester, and ask her what kind of ice cream Tova likes; ask someone else to confirm Alisa’s favorite ice cream, etc. In this way I am constantly recycling the language, checking to make sure the information was understood, and extending the conversation to include more participants.  All the while we are communicating and learning about each other as we build our light-hearted community.

I continue comparing and contrasting students and their favorite ice cream until I’ve surveyed everyone in class.  I may introduce the connecting words, ‘but,’ and ‘also/too’ as in, ‘I like Moose Tracks ice cream, but Ya’akov loves lemon ice cream.’  Or, ‘Ya’akov loves lemon ice cream and Smadar loves it, too.’

Rule of thumb:  If it feels automatic and effortless for the students to understand, then you are in the Sweet Spot.  Resist the temptation to pile on more new language.  Wait ’til next time.  And these new words will have to undergo the full treatment:

-Using them in context

-Writing them on the board with translation, to establish meaning

Pause-point-slow
-Use a gesture / image / prop

-Comprehension check

Some students like fruity flavors.  I ask Talia if she (also) likes Moose Tracks.  I establish meaning of the word ‘also,’ pausing and pointing to it on the board with each subsequent use, and doing comprehension checks intermittently.  She exclaims (in English – no worries) that she’s ‘allergic to chocolate.’  !היא אלרגית לשוקולד

Hurray! a direct cognate.  I walk over and tell Tova, Gavriel and Alisa the news – each separately, that Talia doesn’t like their specific ice cream – because she’s allergic (If you choose to use it, establish meaning of ‘because’ on the board in both languages).

How long the oral survey/classroom banter carries on depends on your growing skill in maintaining interest and understanding.  We try to reach all the kids in the class in one session, so pace yourself accordingly!

In the next Starting the Year post, learn how to be repetitive without seeming repetitious as you circle your way through PQA….Or is it repetitious without seeming repetitive?  

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.

Ways and Means

Beginning of the School Year Logistics

Here’s our Hebrew & Religious School schedule:screen-shot-2016-09-13-at-11-13-07-pm

Wednesdays, 4:15 – 6:00pm

Sundays, 9:00 – 12:10 (of which the last hour, 11:10 – 12:10 is dedicated to Hebrew instruction)

Wednesday, September 7 is opening day.   The 3rd-4th grade group (29 kids total), hereafter referred to as Group A, will come see me right away, from 4:20-4:50, then return to their classroom with their teacher for liturgical Hebrew & religious studies.  Then Group B (53 kids, grades 5, 6, and 7)*, who started with liturgical Hebrew/religious studies in their classroom, will visit me from 4:55-5:25.  Eventually, (say, after 2 or 3 sessions?) the 30-minute Hebrew slots will increase to 45 minutes, with each group getting around 15 minutes of literacy extension after the 30 minutes of oral work.  This will eventually fill the Wednesday session.

It will take some coordinated practice (and wrangling) to get everyone settled for a punctual startup and transition between groups.

Class Lists/Hebrew Names:

I have asked the school office for class lists by grade, in the form of a 3-column table, with each student’s full English name in the first column, his/her Hebrew first name in the center (hand-written is fine), and then an empty column to the right.  This will serve as a excellent template for some early personalization and (onscreen?) class survey activities, allowing us to get to know each other as we build our playful community.

We’re also ordering name tags – the reusable vinyl sleeve kind on a lanyard – and will have kids wear their Hebrew name (written in cursive Hebrew) while attending class, until we all learn each others’ Hebrew names.  These will be collected and stored in the Hebrew Room.  If a student doesn’t have a family-given Hebrew name, I believe assigning one is a good idea.  Why?  It’s a great way to:  Establish/reinforce that this is a Hebrew-speaking zone; Practice decoding (the names) in Hebrew – very high interest!;  and introduce common Hebrew/Israeli names, which are part of Israeli culture.  Click here for a list of popular Israeli Hebrew names.

Classroom Environment:

Before opening day, I’ll set up my teaching space, making sure that it’s inviting and appealing, but also posting some of the most basic language I know I’ll need right away.  To start, I’ll probably only hang a few question words, (‘Who?’ ‘What?’ and ‘Where?’) from my printable mini-poster collection of hi-frequency verbs and interrogatives, the Hebrew Word Wall 2016.  (The Word Wall can also be found on the Novice Hebrew Corpus page.)  The walls will start relatively bare, but they’ll grow increasingly text-rich as more Hebrew is acquired and needed in context.  I don’t want to overwhelm the kids with a bunch of words they don’t know yet!  I’ll also make sure the large dry-erase whiteboard & markers are in place, and that my props are sorted in bins for easy access.

I wear a wireless headset microphone when I teach (move over, JLo)- indispensable for those of us who teach multiple daily classes using Comprehensible Input.  It really spares our voices!

My laptop computer will be connected to the overhead projector, and can toggle with the document camera to project images from paper and computer, plus videos etc. onscreen.

We’ll have a chair for each student, arranged in a horseshoe or herringbone configuration (not sure – haven’t worked in that space yet.)  No desks or tables.  This set-up frees up space for dramatization and movement, and affords general flexibility, plus writing will mostly be done on dry-erase lap boards, which can also be used as lap tables when kids write in their notebooks.

I’ll post a separate article/s on writing once we get rolling, and will also upload photos of my new Hebrew classroom digs.

I plan to upload links to video footage of our classes with reflection/commentary after class.  As soon as we figure out the tech requirements to do so, I’ll create a space on this blog where you’ll be able to view and comment on our novice Hebrew classes, both Group A (the 3rd-4th grade group) and Group B (the 5th – 7th graders.)

Please feel free to post questions about my before-opening-day prep or anything else on the blog, or email me at cmovanhebrew@gmail.com!

*ADDENDUM:  With over 50 kids, the 5th through 7th grade group is waaaaay too big and unwieldy to teach all together.  To address this challenge, I will break out the 5th grade group and teach them separately.  So I’ll teach 3x 30-minute sections on Wednesdays, and 3x 20-minute sections on Sundays.  Also, to save time, Hebrew teachers will distribute and collect their students’ name tags and store them in plastic baggies in their classrooms.

Our First Hebrew T/CI Training: Day 4

screen-shot-2016-09-14-at-1-14-58-pmOn Day 4 (our final session) we tried to nail down some logistics, though since we’re rolling out an entirely new program, we will have to tweak it as we go.  Some of our challenges are good ones – space is tight, classrooms are full, and we don’t have any spare rooms to dedicate to Hebrew instruction.  We’ve already got a workaround as our awesome cantor and 6th grade teacher, Marla, has offered up her (largest) classroom as the dedicated Hebrew room and she will teach in a smaller classroom.  Marla says she’s so excited about this new direction for Hebrew instruction that she’s willing to do whatever it takes to make it work!!

Here are some other adjustments we’re making to accommodate the new Hebrew program – though nothing is set in stone.

  1.  I will teach/model Modern Hebrew lessons on Wednesday afternoons and Sunday mornings until…I don’t need to anymore, because the classroom teachers are confident & solid in their T/CI skills.  At that point, I will coach and mentor!   We will divide the 5 grades (3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th) into 2 large sub-groups.  I will teach the 3rd-4ths together, and then the 5th through 7ths.*  Each combined group will get around 30 minutes of story spinning/oral language, followed by another 20-30 minutes of literacy extension.  As more scheduling details are available, I will post them to the blog.
  2. Teachers will teach liturgical Hebrew (prayers, etc.) and holidays, etc. when their students are not with me.
  3. While it’s scary to start without any text/book in hand, I’ll model how we gather information about the kids’ and class’ interests, hobbies & lives, and start to weave this info into our story spinning and later, into reading & writing.   I may do the same story/structures with both groups, scaling it up or down as necessary.
  4. Reading/literacy will start slowly.  Some teachers are concerned that their students really don’t know how to read/decode Hebrew letters/words well yet, especially in grades 3/4.  Not to worry!  Students will get several hours of aural input before being invited to read extended texts.
  5. We will video-record each class and with parent permission, post these class videos to my blog for teacher reference/training and for absent students.  I hope to write & post reflections about (some of) the recorded classes.
  6. We (teachers & Lori, our education director) will have regular feedback & planning meetings (monthly?) after class, to be determined.

I then walked the teachers through this blog so that they could independently refer back to my core documents and our 8 hours of learning together.

Finally, to reflect on the training experience, the teachers responded to these questions:

“What strikes you about these learning strategies, and how do you think your students will respond?”

Here are some of the teacher comments:

“I’m so glad the focus will be on high-frequency (HF) words.  The textbooks don’t really focus on them, and they’re [textbooks] really all over the place with the language.”

“I can see this as being very engaging and enjoyable for the kids.”

“I like that we’re connecting the oral sounds to physical movement with TPR (Total Physical Response).  The repetition of the hi-frequency verbs will embed meaning into their brains.”

“I’m very excited about this.  In the past we went very fast and we tried to do too much!  Now we’re going to take a step back and really make sure we’re doing it in repetitive chunks and make sure everyone understands what they hear and read.  This will really improve the reading quickly!”

“This approach will help them tie everything they’ve learned together…they’ll finally be able to understand it.”

“I can see how it’ll work well with the 4th graders, but I’m interested to see it with the 7th graders because they’re notoriously jaded!”screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-10-48-12-pm

“I feel very energized.  This is going to be a lot of fun to teach!  I feel like a lot of these practices are intuitive and I feel like I’ve tried some of them over the past few years, but I’m excited to watch and learn this fall so that I can get more comfortable with it.”

Well.  My first Hebrew Through Comprehensible Input training is behind me, and the challenges and thrills of teaching Hebrew lie ahead.  Opening Day is Wednesday, September 7.  Stay tuned!

*I’m teaching 3 groups:  3-4; 5th; and 6-7th.  The original 5th-7th group had over 50 kids – too big.