Building a Network for Israel Education
Good teachers are true creators, creators who turn every classroom lesson into a work of art. But like many artists, many teachers do not love to share their “creative secrets.” They prefer to guard them within the classroom walls, and only rarely are they willing to break boundaries and engage colleagues from other institutions.
For this reason we created Reshet.il, a network of Jewish day schools in Latin America focused on Israel education, whose work would take place by and large online. We knew that Israel will always play a central role in the mission and vision of Jewish schools in this region. However, after a critical review of the curricula and activities in this area, we concluded that the prevailing approach was outdated and not attuned to the current picture in Israel.
The goal of Reshet.il was to empower teachers with resources to succeed in their classroom work by connecting students with contemporary Israel, drawing parallels between history and today, between culture and creativity, while also showing the dilemmas that confront Israeli society and influence Jews in the Diaspora. Reshet.il relied on virtual education as one of its outstanding characteristics. Participating schools constitute a shining example of an active educational network whose members learn together, evaluate pedagogical issues and exchange ideas and projects focused on Israel. From 2004 to 2009, Reshet.il succeeded in revitalizing Israel education, deepening the study of Israel and bringing it up to date, overcoming school compartmentalization through establishing trust and collaboration, and looking at Israel from interdisciplinary perspectives.
In 2009 school administrators involved in the program decided to examine the contents of Israel education within the framework of the network, in the process compiling a list of relevant topics that would be taught systematically in every classroom. The expectation was to exploit the hidden potential of the network through the development of didactic material that would form the basis of a shared curriculum for Israel education.
Initial trials led us to create a bottom-up strategy, with two guiding principles. First, a team of teachers in each school would develop its own materials. Second, the information that had already been collected on contemporary Israel would inform the desired content; that is, the material that had become familiar through Reshet.il would be expanded and attuned to the needs of students of different ages. The central insight was that the individual product of each school would become the collective product available for use in all schools in the network.
Out of these efforts emerged Project Shituf (collaboration). In 2010, most of the schools involved with Reshet.il entered into this new venture, which required great investment both personal and financial, teams of teachers that would represent the school and create materials, and the unlimited support of administrators who put their faith in the project. Within the project’s framework, each school had to choose a subject to develop a unit on for a particular age group.
Fine in theory, but how to go about it in practice? For all that teachers are knowledgeable in their subjects and infinitely devoted to their work, are they sufficiently talented to produce educational materials at the desired level of quality? Our solution was to match the teacher teams with two experts, one a scholar of Israel, the other a master of educational methodology who was local to the school and available to provide personal guidance.
But what happens when teacher teams exist in Montevideo, Mexico City and Sao Paolo while their guide lives in Jerusalem, Haifa or Buenos Aires? All of the instructional sessions needed to take place virtually through email, Skype or Wiziq. It was not easy to get everyone up to speed, but the participants all met the challenge.
However, despite the fact that the Internet was the natural vehicle of communication, we decided that face-to-face meetings were essential. People need to converse, seek advice, exchange opinions, study together. Therefore, representatives from all the schools met annually in Argentina to present their work. The three-day conferences, conducted entirely in Hebrew, enabled the teachers to comprehend the scope of the shared work involved. They returned to their home bases full of inspiration and ideas for implementing their own units and for including the units of all the teams once the project would be finished.
We decided that each and every unit would go through an intensive process of editing, correcting, linguistic examination, translation and graphic production. Only after this yearlong process would the complete curriculum be uploaded to Reshet.il for use in participating schools.
Indeed, the original plan became reality. Teams from fourteen schools wrote units that dealt with various subjects concerning Israeli society, culture, land, technology, science and folklore. Topics include: Jewish communities and their customs, Israeli television, technological innovation, settlement in the Galilee and the Negev, minorities in Israeli society, ecology and environmental quality, the kibbutz movement then and now. All units come with a teacher’s guide and student handbook. We managed to produce 27 units on Israel education from third to eighth grade, which were entered on the Reshet.il website in the three languages of instruction used in our schools: Hebrew, Spanish and Portuguese.
The essential challenges, at the end of the day, managed to be transformed into some of the project’s crowning accomplishments. The teachers sometimes found it difficult to meet the program’s high academic expectations; they and their Israeli mentors invested much time and energy in their online meetings trying to fulfill the project’s requirements. Ever-present turnover created instability among the teacher teams; some of the teachers trained dropped out of the project, creating difficulty to complete the work as planned. The crowded school schedule made it hard to maintain focus on the project; teacher’s had trouble devoting themselves to this new goal while carrying dozens of other demands on their shoulders.
Finally, we discovered that it was impossible to move such an ambitious project forward without the services of a network weaver. His role was to build institutional and communicative capacity that would enable the flow of information and cross-pollination, to construct frameworks for mentorship and learning among participants, to assist the decision-making process during the stages of the curriculum’s creation and implementation, and to put in place a process of evaluation that would inform the program’s execution. The weaver’s role was to set up procedures that would enable the network to survive even after he left the project. Much to our regret, reality proved that without the presence of someone who encourages and unites the different players, the network would weaken and even vanish.
Without doubt, the ability to support local teachers and to empower them to write curriculum and produce quality educational material was pivotal. Also critical was the opportunity to introduce revolutionary change in Internet use for purposes of mentorship, enrichment and professional development. The “great monster” that the computer represented to a portion of the teachers turned into a friendly tool useful in expanding information, advice and connections with experts and colleagues worldwide.
We adhered to an ambitious schedule full of targets and requirements new to Latin American education: serious, high-level planning, evaluations, follow-up and consistent documentation throughout the process. We all hope that this learning will penetrate into other disciplines, and that the new tools acquired will serve the schools in other educational frameworks.
The project turned into a community-wide mission. Many schools took advantage of the project’s innovative quality to engage parents in the educational experience—through blogs, digital newspapers and exhibitions. School teams and administrators filled out program evaluations—on the Internet, of course!—reflecting their experience with the process of planning and implementing the units. Pictures and videos were uploaded to the program web page, and teachers were invited to comment on them. Administrators established professional development days so that teachers responsible for creating new material could present the project before all their colleagues, not just Jewish studies professionals. Israel thus attained an important place in the entire school community.
Lastly, we discovered that meaningful collaboration among different organizations, with unique contributions from each school, is not mission impossible. Schools were required first to implement the units that they developed, then each year to choose at least one unit developed at another school in the network. They presented reports describing their experience using units written by their colleagues at other schools. Some decided to consult with the unit’s authors and even teach the unit simultaneously at their respective schools.
In conclusion, we demonstrated that in the high-pressure, individualistic world of education today, the power of collaborative work is alive and well. Far-flung school administrators in Latin America did not hesitate to adopt steps requiring full exposure and transparency. Teachers from various sorts of schools actively took part in shared learning, creating and teaching of material developed by themselves and their colleagues. The dream that Jewish day schools in Latin America will possess an inspiring curriculum in Israel education is closer than ever, and we proved that the dream can come to life: Im tirzu, ein zo aggadah.♦
Gaby Kleiman is the creator and director of Reshet.il and Project Shituf, both run under the auspices of the Jewish Agency. To contact her, or gain guest access to the site, she can be reached at [email protected].