Dr. Gereboff's Head Notes
A few weeks ago, I walked into a fifth grade Hebrew class and one of the students asked me “What are we doing today?” The question was unusual because it was asked conversationally in Hebrew – with correct grammar, syntax and accent. Just a year ago, I would not have expected the question in perfect Hebrew nor would I have expected a student to engage me in a conversation in Hebrew.
This story is a result of the Shalom Ivrit initiative that we have engaged in for the past three years. This initiative has included intensive professional development and coaching in second language learning and assessment for our Hebrew language staff, a rewriting of our expected outcomes and grade level standards, a commitment to an immersive approach focused on language production and in increase in the use of Hebrew language throughout the school. This year, we also initiated a standardized assessment in Hebrew language to gauge school-wide progress.
From time to time, parents ask, “why the emphasis on Hebrew?...shouldn’t we consider teaching another more widely spoken language?” We do offer Spanish as an elective in the middle school, and there are several profound reasons for teaching Hebrew in the younger grades. The two most obvious reasons resonate instinctively for some of our families. Hebrew mastery connects students to the soul of Jewish history, culture and tradition; and Hebrew is the international and cross-generational Jewish language.
Not everyone finds these arguments persuasive. Yet there are other compelling reasons that have less to do with Jewish life and more to do with 21st century learning. There is substantial research about the efficacy of learning any second language – there are benefits in cognitive development, problem solving, executive functioning, and creative thinking.
There is also substantive research claiming that the more complex languages (such as those with very different alphabets and syntax) like Hebrew offer more cognitive benefits than learning a language closer to one’s mother tongue. Additionally, children who master a complex language well are highly receptive to acquiring multi-lingual proficiency in the years to come.
Our school is part of a very small, but growing number of schools across the country that are promoting research based second language learning for young children.
Children who study an additional language in elementary school perform well in divergent, creative and higher order thinking. Knowing more than one language ultimately opens up more opportunities in the global marketplace.
Jewish day schools have historically taught a second language, with a focus on synagogue literacy skills. While our students will have synagogue literacy skills, our teaching of Hebrew is based on best practices recommended by the American Council of the Teaching of Foreign Languages with a focus on speaking and comprehension. Our goal is for our graduates to attain proficiency at a level that will allow graduates to converse with Israeli peers in simple conversations. From the conversations that are blossoming in every grade across the school, we are well on our way to achieving this goal.
I learned this week that a few of our current eighth grade students have made arrangements to continue their Hebrew for credit in their public high schools next year. That too is a positive outcome of the Shalom Ivrit initiative.
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