Tuesday, September 24, 2013

“What the world needs now are good Jewish educators” --A Holiday Reminiscence

As the season of holidays culminates with Simchat Torah this week, I cannot help but reminisce about my days in "Junior Congregation" with master educator, Leo Reich, z"l, who untangled the mystery of the Hebrew prayers and made the synagogue experience come to life in vivid technicolor. 

His dedicated leadership and obvious love of both subject and student created a strong foundation upon which I am building my own career in Jewish Education. During one of our last conversations, Mr. Reich emphasized that the world needs good, committed, Jewish educators.  His words ring in the background of my thoughts whenever I contemplate my choice of profession.

Mr. Reich was everyone’s adopted father, grandfather, and friend in the Baltimore Jewish community.  As principal of the Hebrew school and director of children’s programming for the Ner Tamid Greenspring Valley Synagogue, his soft-spoken, compelling personality drew children from all over the neighborhood specifically to hear his stories and participate in Junior Congregation.  “Uncle Leo” made each one of us feel important as members of the Jewish community and took even the most troublesome youngsters under his wing.

He also made the prayers come alive.  

Every week, Mr. Reich would conduct a search for the biggest, brightest “Ashrei smile” and give the winner a boost to show off his or her grin.  He would tell us to touch our dress clothes before we said the blessing “Malbish Arumim” (...who clothes the naked) and close our eyes to appreciate the blessing of sight before reciting “Pokeach Ivrim” (...who gives sight to the blind).  

Prayer had meaning that connected directly with my life--it encouraged me to consider gifts I never really noticed before: the ability to stand up straight, to be free and not imprisoned, to place my feet on steady, dry land.  And with Mr. Reich pointing out the meaning of a different phrase within the liturgy every Shabbat, prayer was not an exercise in rote memorization.  

We children never rushed to leave, knowing as we did that the service would be followed by sugar cookies and stories that we would treasure for years to come.  My favorite stories are those from Mr. Reich’s own army days, in which he shared memories of trying to keep Kosher while serving in a wartime army and tales of the people he met while peeling potatoes during KP duty, people whose lives he surely touched.   

Looking at Mr. Reich’s legacy, I would venture to say that the good Jewish educators the world needs are people like him, whose dedication to the calling and compassion for every person are so deeply felt by everyone nearby.

The field of education is unique in that it requires the engagement of both head and heart, intellect and emotion, and Jewish education is no exception.  The teacher’s job is to inspire and motivate the learner to further investigation and growth.  It requires sensitivity to the students' feelings and a knack for knowing when to push them to a new level of understanding and when to remain a patient and constant support.

More than personnel, it’s personality that will make the biggest difference in students’ lives, affecting the way they experience and remember the material. It is up to us, as educators, to prepare them with both the tools and the desire to continue learning even after they leave our care.  

Amy Fechter is Founder and Curriculum Strategist at Strategic Hebrew, Inc., which is creating a dynamic new approach to Hebrew language instruction through activity-based learning.  Many of the guiding principles of the *Strategic* approach derive from Leo Reich's compelling example of how to engage and inspire a commitment to Jewish learning and Hebrew language.  

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Strategic Hebrew Leaders' Fellowship

This August, a group of talented high school students formed the first cohort of the Strategic Hebrew Leaders Fellowship.  For five days, they toured NYC attractions speaking only in Hebrew and learning about language acquisition.

The fellows came from Long Island, New Rochelle, Connecticut and as far away as Maryland to participate in this cutting edge program that encouraged them to develop strategies for improving Hebrew skills in an immersion environment.  All are leaders in their own school communities and are committed to the goal of revitalizing Hebrew language in fun settings.  

During the week, the fellows learned how to plan lessons for teaching Hebrew as a second language through sports events, museum tours and interactive games.  They became quite resourceful about using their knowledge base to express increasingly complex ideas and can now quickly assess each situation to determine what they already know and what additional tools are necessary.   As they return to school this fall, we hope their performance in all subjects will benefit from the language strategies and cognitive skills they acquired during this week. 

We were very pleased to watch the fellows gain confidence in speaking Hebrew throughout the fellowship and are proud of their dedication and commitment to making the program a success. 

Here is a brief recap of our week and what the fellows had to say about their experiences:

DAY ONE: Getting Acquainted
Ice breakers in Central Park
How do you say Gelato in Hebrew? 
 "I was proud that I could understand most of what people said to me." 

"I learned it is important to try... and to make mistakes."

DAY TWO: Movement and Daily Life
בעיטה... סיבוב... 1...2...3..
Dancing in the Park
"I learned that it helps to keep repeating new words throughout the day." 

"I learned how to say chills and goosebumps."

The ladies are at home to receive visitors... at the Merchant House Museum. 

"To learn a new language, you have to be relaxed." 

"I got used to speaking in Hebrew and not answering in English." 

"I liked the opportunity to be a tour guide at the museum." 

DAY THREE: Communication and Identity

We have a match!
Hmn... how can I explain this in Hebrew?
 "The drawing game forced me to be specific in my descriptions... or find other words to make myself understood."

"I liked speaking in Hebrew because I used new words."

Photo Scavenger Hunt in Conservatory Garden.  We have a winner!

Tracing our roots at the Jewish Museum

"It was a treat to hear a whole tour in Hebrew.  I learned lots of words I didn't know before."

"One strategy I used was listening for the context.  Then I could figure out what the main idea was." 

"It was my goal to speak more Hebrew today and I'm proud that I managed for almost the whole day."

DAY FOUR: Nature and Adaptability

Guided tour of the penguin exhibit by one of our own fellows!

The petting zoo was a rousing success.

"At the zoo, I learned how to describe animals and the names of animals I didn't know before. "

"I learned that it is important for a teacher to be flexible... and that language learning can happen anywhere."

DAY FIVE: Sustainability and Summary

Our tour of Spanish Portuguese
Synagogue was easy to understand
and a fun way to learn about Jewish
Book club in Rockerfeller Center...
Harry Potter, A Little Prince, Peter Pan,
The Wizard of Oz... what strategies
do we need to understand these classics?
"Today was a great way to sum up the program in an interactive way (especially when we ordered in Hebrew--it allowed us to see how applicable Hebrew speaking is, even where we'd least expect to use it (in a restaurant))"

And a few general reflections:

"I learned that it is better to be immersed in a language than to just study it."

"I liked the opportunity to be physically active while practicing and learning Hebrew in a fun and relaxed way."

"I learned to speak creatively in order to get my point across!"

"I learned more words in this fun, interactive way.  It's easier to remember the words because you want to learn it, not because you're in a classroom setting." 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

How to Transform a Hebrew "Class" into an "Experience" (Strategic Principle #3)

On the anniversary of our launch one year ago, we are pleased to share a few of the successful innovations that make our classes 'strategic.' This is the third of 3 valuable tips for making Hebrew classes relevant, engaging and memorable.



3) APPLICATION: Learned skills are directly applied to interactive situations.

This applies to all facets of language acquisition: listening, speaking, reading and writing. Students gain knowledge and skill in order to reach a higher goal. 

What does this mean in practice?  
Here is a run-down of how each aspect of language is influenced by direct application to real life situations--the experiential approach. 

Speaking: Students use the target language to elicit a response--ask a question, receive an item, etc.   Instructors guide and assist, but ultimately, the student repeats the sentence in its entirety and is rewarded by receipt of the desired item.  

Listening: Instructions for participating in the activity are given in target language.  Students develop strategies for understanding in order to take part in the activity.   Vocabulary is introduced in context and students learn to differentiate sounds of familiar words and hear how they are used in a sentence.

Writing: Students take notes (in Hebrew characters) to keep an accessible record of what they have learned in their own handwriting, using their own systems.  Writing is purposeful, with a goal of student record keeping.  As an added bonus, writing is one indicator of language ability and can help instructors assess student progress.  

Reading: Reading skills allow students to refer to vocabulary lists and other notes when communicating ideas.  This model encourages students to pay attention to what they read; every interaction with text is infused with meaning.  Students read purposefully, with comprehension, and put their newly gained knowledge and vocabulary to use in other contexts.  

What these innovations really mean is that students learn language skills not as an end to themselves but as a means to achieving a goal.  

We need to encourage students to decode text... so that they can use what they read, not simply 'get through it.'   We need to expand our writing goals for students beyond "fill in the blank" exercises and our objective in spoken language should be more than memorization and repetition of vocabulary.  

By showing students how they can rely on each of these skills in practical application, we help motivate them to continue working toward a recognizable and achievable goal of language acquisition. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

How to Transform a Hebrew "Class" into an "Experience" (Strategic Principle #2)

On the anniversary of our launch one year ago, we are pleased to share a few of the successful innovations that make our classes 'strategic.' This is the second of 3 valuable tips for making Hebrew classes relevant, engaging and memorable.

2) LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION!  Class setup is uniquely un-classroom like.  


To take a lesson from the old adage, setting is very important. Memory scientists note that the teaching environment has a tremendous impact on whether the information will be accessible at a future time. Test taking strategists recommend that students study in the testing room if possible, so that they are more comfortable recalling their studies in pressurized surroundings.

If our mission is to help Americans gain the skills to speak Hebrew in meaningful situations, then we need to give them every opportunity to practice in a meaningful environment.  

In other words, take the class out of the classroom and learn Hebrew ON LOCATION so students can recall the vocabulary they learn next time they find themselves in a similar situation!

What does this mean for the Hebrew classes themselves?

1) Lessons are not desk and blackboard centered.  
The location of the lesson matches it's content. For example, a cooking class will take place in a kitchen, basketball class on a basketball court, and a dining class around a dinner table or inside a restaurant.

2) Location enhances motivation!
Students are excited to be on the rooftop playground, in the park or gym or supermarket. Looking around, they don't see usual evidence of school and they feel an activity is imminent. Of course, knowing that the access point to that activity is Hebrew, they pay greater attention to the introductory language lesson so they can use the new vocabulary and grammar tools to participate.

3) What about reading and writing?
A portable board or poster serves as a reference point for the language concept of the day, with vocabulary listed in Hebrew (no transliteration). Students are encouraged to use writing as a tool for recording vocabulary in their own notebooks throughout the class period, at any time they have something to record (more on this writing strategy in Strategic Principle #3)!  

Bottom line? Despite taking place in a non-traditional Hebrew classroom environment, the surroundings are print-rich and directly related to the theme of the class. All of these innovations reinforce the language and learning goals for the class and motivate students to give themselves up to the experience of learning Hebrew.

Strategic Hebrew lessons take place on basketball courts and playgrounds, in kitchens and restaurants.  The location is chosen to be conducive to the activity and students are so focused on the topic that they are fully engaged even in a lobby or other public space. View images of our classes on our website www.StrategicHebrew.com. Video footage is available on our facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/StrategicHebrew

Thursday, June 20, 2013

How to Transform a Hebrew “Class” into an “Experience” (Strategic Principle #1)

On the anniversary of our launch one year ago, we are pleased to share a few of the successful innovations that make our classes 'strategic.' This is the first of 3 valuable tips for making Hebrew classes relevant, engaging and memorable.

1) MOTIVATION: Students know what they are signing up to learn... and they want to be there!


Whether the topic is basketball, cooking, sports, shopping, or art, students arrive with an expectation that they will get to do something they enjoy.  This intrinsic motivation will encourage them to pay attention to new vocabulary so they can use it to participate.  

During the Cooking Module at JJP, students were introduced to the terms water, sugar, lemon and mint at the beginning of our Limonana (mint lemonade) meeting.  Next, these ingredients were provided, along with cups and spoons, so students could mix the drink to their taste.  The catch?  Students had to request every item IN HEBREW!  

Student Response (journal entries):
"We made Limonana. It felt like heaven because it was a mixture of lemon juice, sugar, water... and mint. Being a person at a counter felt like a real experience in a real shop!"  
--5th Grade, Strategic Hebrew Conversation Center II at JJP

"You get to run around and then cook and eat. We learn Hebrew letters, words, verbs, nouns, adjectives, how to order and cook and have fun!"  
--4th Grade, Strategic Hebrew Conversation Center I at JJP

"Today I learned more Hebrew numbers.  We all played basketball in rotations.  If felt good to be active!"
--7th Grade, Mercaz Sicha at CRS

"Today I learned many new [Hebrew] words. I also played basketball.... I expanded my basketball vocabulary because I learned more root words.... I learned to say 'I like___,' 'I want___,' and 'I can___." In this program I was able to begin my Hebrew understanding through basketball and learn a lot of Hebrew words that will help me."  
--7th Grade, Mercaz Sicha at CRS

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Lesson From Sinai: Hebrew is not beyond our reach!

During a recent discussion about the holiday of Shavuot (“Festival of Weeks” which celebrates the giving of the Torah), I asked a group of 3 and 4 year-olds why they thought the Torah was revealed on a mountain.  The students thought for a moment and then offered a variety of answers that centered around the same theme: “the Torah is so special, it needs to be kept in a safe place where we can’t touch it.”

This response is consistent with the students’ life experiences--think about the breakable artifacts preserved on high shelves and used only for ceremonial purposes.  We often do the same with bits of knowledge that feel too challenging for our comprehension (Physics for Poets, anyone?).

But that is not true of the Torah, or truth be told, the Hebrew language.  There is a beautiful collection of verses in Deuteronomy (30:11-14) that speak to this theme.  Moses gives some of his last guidance to the entire gathering of the Jewish people before his death:

“...לא בשמים היא... ולא מעבר לים” It is not in the Heavens... and it is not across the sea...

Moses wants to dispel the notion of keeping the Torah on a pedestal.  He urges the Jewish people to take ownership of it, use it until it becomes a part of them, despite any number of difficulties in observance, differences of opinion, linguistic challenges and other perceived roadblocks.

“...כי קרוב עליך הדבר מאוד, בפיך ובלבבך לעשותו”  It is very close to you, in your hearts and in your mouths to do it.  

Moses’s strategy here is brilliant; he focuses on accessibility by breaking down barriers through language:

The word is close to you”

The text uses the word “davar,” often translated as “thing,” but really means “word” (as in “dvar Torah”--lit: words of Torah).  Strictly speaking, Moses tells the people to use words to bring the Torah close, to express love and take it into hearts through their mouths.

Any language learner notices the significance of word choice, and in this case, the text speaks particularly strongly in favor of Hebrew knowledge.  Though one does not need to know Hebrew in order to study the Bible, an awareness of the language adds many layers of nuance to the text.

American Hebrew learners can take encouragement from this idea that Hebrew is not beyond our reach.  The more we engage ourselves with it’s use, the more we will appreciate it’s richness and depth.  The first step is to create opportunities to explore and practice our skills.  If we keep the words in our hearts and in our mouths, surely, we will gain greater appreciation for this beautiful language.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The argument for speaking Hebrew in America

The biggest recurring question I faced in founding Strategic Hebrew, Inc. was “why?” 

Why Hebrew?  What is the purpose of learning Hebrew in America?  What if I never go to Israel?  Anyway, most Israelis speak English…

Ultimately, I was being asked to define the value proposition of the Hebrew language to Jewish people living outside of Israel.  I believe there are many reasons to learn to speak Hebrew that are much more culturally and personally significant than ordering falafel on Ben Yehudah Street.   

For example, there are numerous studies that describe the cognitive benefits of learning a second language, such as mental agility, creative problem solving, defense against aging, etc.  These benefits apply to all second languages, so why choose Hebrew?  Is Hebrew more significant to American Jews than Spanish or French?  Absolutely, and here’s why...
The bottom line:  Tradition.  Heritage.  Jewish connectivity and peoplehood.
Language learning incorporates the four skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing.  Stronger Hebrew language ability leads to greater comprehension skills, which in turn grant access to original texts, such as the Hebrew bible, the Passover Haggadah, and various traditions of prayer.  Understanding the text makes the bar/bat mitzvah and synagogue experience infinitely more meaningful for everyone concerned.
Raising the bar for conversational fluency also allows speakers to connect with fellow Jews throughout the world and dovetails directly with enhanced comprehension of Hebrew texts.  Through learning to speak Hebrew, even those living outside of Israel can find a deeper meaning in our daily life and common heritage.

Hebrew lessons become infinitely more powerful when they are combined with meaningful interactions.  A thirsty person will learn the words to ask for water, while a child who wants to play sports will figure out how to ask the teacher for permission.  When the motivation is strong enough, we learn the words necessary to meet our needs, and with this foundation, our growing vocabularies enliven text wherever we encounter it.
If our communal goal is to learn Hebrew for synagogue participation and text study, why stop with reading exercises and basic Hebrew decoding?  Why not reap all the benefits of having learned a second language, particularly one that connects us so strongly to our collective past and future?  Let’s put our time to good use and learn to speak in Hebrew… what do we have to lose when there is so much to gain?  

Amy Fechter is Founder and Curriculum Strategist at Strategic Hebrew, Inc. A NY State certified teacher with a Master's Degree in literacy from Bank Street College, she has extensively studied language acquisition in both theory and practice. The 'Strategic' approach is the result of more than a decade of successful development and implementation of constructivist language instruction for students nursery through adult.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

What's 'Strategic' about Hebrew?

"Strategic Hebrew" is a novel approach to language instruction that incorporates critical thinking, individual motivation and proactive participation in the language learning process.  More than just a Hebrew class, each program is a complete language experience unto itself.  Rather than envisioning students as simple vessels that passively (or with a great deal of struggle and memorization) absorb components of a language, we give them an active role in their own language (and personal) development.  

The name “Strategic Hebrew” is a conflation of several ideas that relate to the use of strategies in Hebrew language learning.  Here is a brief explanation of each:

Strategic Instruction: Teaching focuses on roots, grammar patterns and recurring vocabulary that form the building blocks of the Hebrew language.  
As students learn to appreciate the beauty and structure of the language, they become better prepared to glean meaningful information from the Hebrew.  This approach encourages students to think critically about the language and how to dissect its many parts.  It engages the intellect to a higher degree than straight memory drills or verb conjugation because students take an active role in building their own understanding for meaningful results.

Strategic Thinking: Students develop and apply strategies for interpretation, vocabulary recall, reading, writing and other communicative needs.
By shifting the focus of lessons to emphasize development of strategies, students are equipped with tools to continue building their language skills outside of class.  Moreover, these strategies can be applied to every area of a student's life, where they manifest as skills for life and learning.  Strategies do not substitute for basic, empirical knowledge of vocabulary and grammar skills, but they are an excellent starting point for deeper language study and help students become proactive participant in their own language learning process.  

Strategic Planning: Curricular design considers students’ life situations; lessons meet the students where they are most motivated to learn.  
Classes that focus on material geared to match students’ interests and intellect are more likely to gain their attention than repetition and memorization of unrelated material.  Showing students how the language lessons can apply to their daily lives, whether by the immediate gratification of asking for and receiving ice cream or by recognizing that they can understand the Hebrew prayers on an empirical level, will help them develop a deeper love and appreciation for the language, and therefore a heightened desire to learn it by participating more attentively in lessons.

The "Strategic Hebrew" method acknowledges that teaching a language is tantamount to teaching a whole person; one must take into account students’ interests, desires, intellect, and ability to apply and transfer skills from one arena to another.  The more a student is encouraged to take the reigns of his/her own learning process, the more determined s/he will be to succeed and the more pride s/he will feel in each accomplishment.

Amy Fechter is Founder and Curriculum Strategist at Strategic Hebrew, Inc. A NY State certified teacher with a Master's Degree in literacy from Bank Street College, she has extensively studied language acquisition in both theory and practice. The 'Strategic' approach is the result of more than a decade of successful development and implementation of constructivist language instruction for students nursery through adult.