Molding minds in Mediterranean

TALMA teachers in Israel
TALMA teachers in Israel

A group of 70 American teachers have returned from a month-long trip in Israel where they taught English to 2,500 underprivileged Israeli children through the summer educational program, TALMA.

“TALMA creates three unique experiences that make this program so special: an opportunity for the Israeli child to advance their English studies, a peer learning experience for the Israeli teachers to learn from their American partners about teaching methods and classroom management skills,” said Alon Futterman, TALMA CEO. “And an experience for the teachers coming from outside of Israel that get the opportunity to deepen their connection to Israel through their profession and make real social change in low-income communities.”

The organization is operated through the Ministry of Education and the Steinhardt Family Foundation in Israel, and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation in the United States.

This year’s program placed teachers in Migdal Ha’emek, Upper Nazareth, the Jezreel Valley and Jerusalem. Before they boarded the plane bound for Ben- Gurion airport, there were preparations to make through webinars, video series and meetings with program directors in major cities.

“There was an emphasis [during the preparation] that we were all teachers, and there was trust and reliance on that fact,” said Rachel Gang, 26, of Baltimore.

Once they landed in Israel, they spent Shabbat in Tel Aviv, and got to know one and other before traveling to their schools to meet their Israeli counterparts.

“Then all of a sudden, I was standing in front of a room full of 35 students who spoke little to no English,” said Adam Browning, 27, who lives in Washington. “They wanted to know everything about us — our families, if we were Jewish and when we were moving to Israel.”

At one point, Browning was asked what football team he supports. He initially answered the New York Giants before realizing the kids weren’t referring to American football. What made the first day even more overwhelming were the differences between an Israeli and American classroom.

“In the Israeli school system, [the classrooms are] more relaxed. It’s not as disciplined and structured as American classrooms,” said Sarah Goldenberg, 26, who also lives in Washington.

One of the key points of TALMA is to give Israeli and American teachers a chance to share their skills and experience. Gang sees the interaction between teachers and students as one of the biggest differences between the Americans and Israelis.

“As American teachers, I think one of the biggest tools [we use] for behavior management is positive praise,” said Gang. “Israeli teachers rely more on authoritative presence.”

Browning described the Israeli classrooms as having children up and about, shouting answers and yelling out questions. When the bell rings for recess, personal space “goes out the window” as the students sprint out the door.

“In a way, we shelter our children, prevent the mistakes from happening, walk silently in single file and expect the learning to happen from the teaching,” said Browning. “In Israel, kids are allowed to be kids. They are encouraged to fall and get back up.  That mentality seems to resonate through the entire nation of Israel.”

By the end of the trip, the Americans saw the fruits of their labor. The Israeli students had the confidence to speak English with the American instructors; if they were unsure of a word they were more likely to work through it instead of running to an Israeli instructor. The classrooms themselves were decorated in work, written in English, that students had completed.

“One thing that was universal was a desire to learn,” said Gang. “I think as students, Israeli students possessed a natural curiosity and desire to learn both new words in English and American culture.”

While the Israeli students walk away with a better understanding of English, the American instructors have come back with a new set of skills and perspectives on teaching.

“I went there thinking I would be teaching them English and I walked away learning how students in Israel learn,” said Goldenberg. “It helped me improve as a teacher and provided me new skills and knowledge that I can use in D.C.”

Aside from growing his professional repertoire, Browning enjoyed meeting the people of Israel behind the headlines.

“I was able to see a side of Israel that I sometime forget exists when focusing on the media surrounding the American/Israeli relations: the average citizen,” said Browing. “I was able to interact with the children, play games, teach English and learn Hebrew in the classroom. I would encourage anyone to experience this side of Israel for themselves.”

Justin Katz is a reporter at Baltimore Jewish Times, WJW’s sister publication.

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