HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Context Makes Hebrew Relevant in Ecuador

by Priscila Alvarado and Miriam Cohen Issue: Hebrew Education
TOPICS : Hebrew Pedagogy

Learning a second language, and even more a third one, represents a challenge for both learners and teachers. For teachers, one of the most demanding tasks is to find ways to engage students in the learning of the language; in other words, to find ways to make it meaningful and relevant to them. In the context of Hebrew learning in a Spanish-speaking community, where students have very little exposure to it, this task represents an even more complex challenge. Therefore, the question remains: How do we make Hebrew a meaningful and relevant language in a community where it is not the first or even the second language of instruction?

For us at Colegio Alberto Einstein in Quito, Ecuador, founded in 1974 by members of the local Jewish community, a school that teaches Hebrew as its third language after Spanish and English, the answer has been context. By context we mean the possibility for children to link relevant life experiences with learning ones at school. Our goal has been that our students not only learn a language, but also understand the importance of it in the perpetuation of our culture.

Much research has been made regarding the importance of context in learning and the possibility to link real life problems with school projects. As Lev Vygotsky proposed more than 20 years ago, students should be allowed to explore complex ideas and engage in what socio-cultural theorists describe as “performance before competence” in order to learn. In the language context this implies giving the learner the possibility to engage in conversations and projects even before mastering specific grammatical rules.

This is a paradigm we have embraced in our school and that has acquired a meaningful dimension under the framework of the three International Baccalaureate (IB) Programs: the Primary Years Program (PYP), the Middle Years Program (MYP) and the Diploma Program (DP). These programs have a common ground: they place the learner in the center of the learning process and bring a coherent sequence to students’ school experience. The features that form the basis for all three programs include:

  • the broad nature of study, including more than one language
  • the flexibility of each program’s curriculum model, enabling teachers to respond to local requirements and interests
  • the diversity and flexibility of pedagogical approaches

In this article we will explore what happens in the elementary section of our school under the umbrella of the Primary Years Program.

From pre-K to sixth grade, students explore six transdisciplinary themes: Who We Are, Sharing the Planet, Where We Are in Place and Time, How We Organize Ourselves, How the World Works and How We Express Ourselves. Each transdisciplinary theme allows them to engage in real life projects through well planned units of inquiry where students have to research issues and problems that are relevant in both a local and a global context, understand their causes and offer possible solutions to them. These units of inquiry, require a collaborative effort among teachers of all subjects, including Hebrew. Together, teachers plan engaging learning experiences around common concepts that can be explored from different perspectives through the different subjects such as science, social studies, math, English, Spanish, Jewish culture, the arts and physical education.

A recent project that took place in fifth grade offers a good example to illustrate the process. The teachers decided that one of the units of inquiry in this grade was going to explore Our Natural Resources and How to Take Care of Them. Part of the unit involved exploring the importance of recycling. It was a very appropriate unit considering our school is an eco-school and promotes conscientiousness in the use of resources among our students. The concepts chosen were: change (How are resources changing?), causation (What could happen if we don’t take care of our resources?) and responsibility (What is our responsibility in the taking care of our planet?).

As part of this unit, the Hebrew students learned about recycling projects in Israel as well as in other Hebrew schools in Latin America. They explored the concept of responsibility in this class while at the same time learning pertinent Hebrew vocabulary. Students made posters to explain the most relevant features of recycling; they included personal insights on the issue and delivered speeches to present their final products.

In other words, what we do during our units of inquiry in the Hebrew class is to include the three dimensions of language learning simultaneously: learning the language, when students listen and use the language in their everyday activities; learning about the language, as students explore the sounds of language—for example, the sound of “zayin” during their recycling activities where the word “lemachzer” רזחמל (to recycle) appeared; and learning through language, when students use it as a tool to reflect on a theme, concept or issue—in our example, responsibility related to recycling.

At this point it is important to clarify that Hebrew classes at Colegio Einstein are quite heterogeneous. In one single class it is easy to find a native speaker as well as a student that is just starting to learn the basics of the language. The role of the teacher, therefore, turns to be a crucial one since it is the teacher who needs to support students learning at their different levels of expertise. Teachers have to provide the appropriate scaffolding every child needs in order to understand the chosen concept and to participate in the activities she proposes as part of the unit. Such scaffolding includes body language, accompanying actions, gestures, peer support, and pictures, among others. Again, children are required to perform before becoming competent in the language. The units of inquiry allow them to make connections across disciplines, to see the world as whole and not in separated pieces that make no sense by themselves. Ultimately, the units of inquiry allow children to relate what they learn at school with their lives.

The progress in the acquisition of the language has been remarkable. In the past, our students had a basic level of Hebrew by the time they graduated high school. Today, after four years working with the PYP, our upper elementary students are able to communicate in Hebrew, understand instructions, hold basic conversations, and write short stories about themselves as well as about the units they have been studying, abilities that before the PYP were mastered only when getting to twelfth grade. For us, it is clear that they can use the language because they understand it has a purpose and that it is not just to pass a test and get good grades. They feel knowledgeable and proud of their performance; they have developed a sense of efficacy that promotes intrinsic motivation.

Making Hebrew a relevant language in a community where it is not the first language of instruction is not only possible but also desirable. The context provided to support instruction helps children to generate connections with a language that, in this scenario, transmits a meaningful message and at the same time enriches the learning environment through the cultural insights it offers. ♦

Priscila Alvarado is Elementary Principal at Colegio Alberto Einstein in Quito, Ecuador. She can be reached at palvarado@einstein.k12.ec.

Miriam Cohen is a Hebrew teacher at Colegio Alberto Einstein in Quito, Ecuador. She can be reached at mcohen@einstein.k12.ec.

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