HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Transforming the Teaching and Learning of Hebrew Language

by Amy Bardack Issue: Hebrew Education
TOPICS : Hebrew Pedagogy

Six years ago, I designed a curricular initiative to change Hebrew language instruction at our school, Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston. We had been given the unusual opportunity of a very large financial gift to be used for the improvement of the educational program. I encouraged the school to make an investment in a full-scale K-8 redesign of our Hebrew program based on the proficiency approach.

Why Hebrew Proficiency?

I have long believed in the importance of Hebrew as the foundation of Judaic studies. Hebrew unlocks our sacred literature and cements our connection to Israel and to Jews throughout the world. Hebrew language literacy is the hallmark of a good Jewish day school education.

By external measures, our school was doing well with Hebrew instruction. Students were being placed in high Hebrew levels in Jewish high schools; our all-Hebrew musical was an impressive signature program for our eighth graders. The challenge in arguing for a Hebrew initiative lay in articulating a vision for how we could do better.

Articulating such a vision began with creating a shared sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo. We knew that students were functioning well within the framework of class materials, but there was room for improvement in actual use of language in a real life context. We knew we were not taking full advantage of the brain’s receptivity to language in kindergarten, our youngest grade level. Furthermore, teachers felt that a unified approach to the teaching of Hebrew was lacking and that they were teaching in isolation.

The approach that we decided to adopt was Proficiency, first developed for foreign language instruction by the U.S. military and later applied to Hebrew by Dr. Vardit Ringvald, a professor at nearby Brandeis University. The proficiency approach focuses on improving performance in all four language skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking) with the goal of functioning in real-life contexts. It is assessment based, and features clearly articulated goals, structured lesson plans, and authentic learning materials. The proficiency approach advocates building expertise in faculty: empowering teachers to design the units, rather than relying on a curriculum created by outsiders. We were fortunate to be able to contract with Dr. Ringvald as our consultant. Because Dr. Ringvald did not have experience with early elementary grades, we contracted with Dr. Gilda Oran, an expert in language learning and early childhood education, to work with us as well.

Creating Support from Stakeholders

In making a case for an investment in Hebrew curriculum design, I found it helpful to link this initiative to a concurrent English literacy initiative, balanced literacy. Literacy, whether in English or Hebrew, is fundamental to success in all academic areas. All fields of study and professions require strong communication and language skills. Furthermore, we are by nature a literacy-rich school because of our dual curriculum. I also identified certain features shared by Hebrew proficiency and balanced literacy in English. Both approaches stress the importance of collaboration among a faculty and developing a common vision of what characterizes good teaching. Both initiatives involved empowering teachers to design their own units under the guidance of coaches and consultants. Fundamental to both Hebrew proficiency and balanced literacy is a greater focus on skills and performance rather than content and the importance of using assessment to drive instruction.

Of course, there were challenges in making the case for investing in Hebrew proficiency. Unlike balanced literacy, our English initiative, Hebrew proficiency had been adopted by only one other Jewish day school. It had never been adopted below middle school. We would be the first school to apply the proficiency approach to Hebrew K-8, and therefore a degree of trust and a willingness to take a risk were necessary.

Moving Forward in Stages

In envisioning this multi-year initiative, we felt it was important to plan for a gradual implementation. Our school, which is on two campuses, had never had a K-8 curricular initiative before, and asking teachers to create a new curriculum was a tall order. Year one focused on making major change in just one grade level: kindergarten. We redesigned our kindergarten Hebrew program, creating a 40-minute per day Ivrit beIvrit lesson taught by a native speaker, focusing on oral language skills. The new K program featured units drawn from children’s immediate environment, use of authentic Israeli songs, stories, and games, and assessments woven into instruction. Teachers in grades 1-8 attended monthly professional development afterschool workshops to become familiar with the proficiency approach. They were learning about it, but were not yet asked to make any changes in their program or their teaching. In year one we conducted a baseline assessment of oral proficiency through the oral proficiency interview tool (OPI), videotaping every student in grades 2-8 speaking one-on-one with a trained facilitator. The OPIs provided data about how our students were currently functioning, and allowed us to set goals for improvement.

Years two and three involved active curriculum development by every Hebrew teacher in grades one through eight. Teachers met three times per month in grade level teams with Dr. Ringvald and/or Dr. Oran, articulating learning objectives, creating units, finding materials, and pilot teaching. During this phase, results were becoming noticeable. First grade teachers found that they were able to move further with their students because of the grounding they had received in kindergarten. Parents began to notice increased Hebrew facility in their children. Teachers appreciated having release time during the day to build curriculum collaboratively, and were beginning to see their students more engaged in their learning. Teachers who had expressed interest were trained in administering oral proficiency interviews (OPIs).

Years four and five involved a transition from outside consultants to in-house coaches. There were no trained Hebrew coaches to hire from the outside (again, unlike English literacy), so we needed to train our own. Mentored by Vardit, the coaches worked directly with teachers refining units, observing and giving feedback on lessons, finding materials, and designing assessments. The coaches sought to institutionalize the proficiency approach by creating a system for training new teachers, and documenting the curriculum. Periodic afterschool seminars with Vardit for all teachers kept the professional learning going.

In year six and beyond, seminars with Vardit came to a close. Coaches continue to work with teachers and to develop what is needed to continue to improve curriculum and instruction. This year we piloted our own reading program for first grade, built upon the vocabulary acquired in kindergarten and on current research in the teaching of Hebrew reading. The upper grades are developing writing assessments (WPTs) to complement the OPIs. Future areas of growth will be increasing the use of technology in the classroom, in order to allow a wider breadth of authentic materials and learning activities to enrich the units.

Features of the Proficiency Approach

Natural Hebrew: Teachers speak to students in natural, idiomatic Hebrew beginning in kindergarten. We do not restrict our vocabulary, grammar, or syntax to what has already been taught explicitly. Rather, we provide students with plenty of input in the language, so that the unconscious process of language acquisition can grow, along with more direct instruction.

Authentic Materials: The materials we use in our curriculum come from authentic Israeli sources. In the early grades, students learn from Israeli children’s books, poems, and songs. In the later grades, material is broadened to include Israeli blogs, Internet sites, video clips, and advertisements.

Student-Centered: Every lesson provides opportunities for students to interact with each other in Hebrew. The approach is centered on the learner rather than the instructor.

Assessment-based: Learning activities are designed to give feedback to the teacher on the students’ performance. Formative assessment is woven into the lesson plans, and teachers use the assessment results to inform instruction.

Where We Are Now

Hebrew proficiency is now integrated into our school. OPI results continue to show improvement in student learning. Parents continue to report spontaneous use of Hebrew at home, and increased facility with Hebrew during our eighth grade trip to Israel. Teachers have become excited about this approach. “I have been teaching for thirty years, and now I am at the height of my creativity,” exclaimed one veteran teacher. Another commented: “My students used to write by rote and required a lot of guidance. Now they understand the language, and the writing just flows.” Others have remarked that the students seem much more engaged because they are more interested in the material. While the curriculum is documented, the work of Hebrew proficiency is never done. Each year we will continue to monitor student progress, stay abreast of current research in the field, and adapt our program accordingly.

Advice for Other Schools

For schools interested in embarking on curriculum development in Hebrew, I suggest the following lessons learned:

Start Small: It is helpful to start with the area that needs the most improvement, and for which the improvements will be have a significant impact. Perhaps it is one particular grade, or a skill area, such as speaking, that will benefit most from the change. Investing time and resources towards one discrete area will allow your school to test the waters to see if the approach is worthwhile. By concentrating on one area in which you anticipate success, you will likely build positive response among your key constituents. It may also be that, because of limited resources, your school cannot commit to more than one grade level or one particular skill area. The proficiency approach can have a positive impact on student learning at a small scale, even if it is not a school-wide, comprehensive initiative.

Take a Long View: Creating lasting change in schools is a slow process. Create a plan for three to five years, allowing time for positive buzz to spread and for reluctant teachers to get on board. Be prepared that school-wide change can take as long as seven years. Celebrate successes along the way, and praise the early “pioneers” for their work.

Invest in your Teachers: Hebrew proficiency is predicated on the belief that empowering teachers to create curriculum is the most effective strategy for curricular change. Invest in professional development workshops for teachers to develop common language on what good teaching looks like. Create release time for teachers during the school day so that they can work together developing units when they have optimal energy, rather than at 4:00 pm. Above all, build the mindset that teachers are professionals who, with knowledge of their students and of their learning outcomes, can build curriculum. ♦

Rabbi Amy Bardack is Lower School Judaic Director at Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston in Newton, Massachusetts. She can be reached at amy.bardack@ssdsboston.org.

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