“No, it’s impossible.” That was my position, and that of many other educators, when asked about the efficacy of teaching Hebrew language in part-time Jewish educational settings of two sessions or less a week. But our tune has changed, thanks to the groundbreaking work of Dr. Lifsa Schachter and the pioneers who joined her in introducing Hebrew Through Movement (HTM) to children who attend “Hebrew School.” While some educational programs have been using this Hebrew language model for 4-6 years, most across the country are still in the early stages of implementing the curriculum for their students.
At this point in time, the model adopted by most part-time Jewish educational programs includes:
It’s the latter point that is key to the use of Hebrew Through Movement in part-time Jewish educational settings, for a program that never moves its students beyond the Foundational Units loses the power of HTM for incredible and exciting Hebrew Jewish learning. Students who “play” with key words in prayers, blessings, rituals and songs, and then sing, recite or read the related Hebrew, have incredible ah-ha! moments as they realize they now understand a previously unintelligible language.
Many of those using Hebrew Through Movement have hired specialists to rotate into classrooms on a regular basis. This allows for consistent scheduling, coherent teaching across the school, and the ability for the specialists to hone their craft. When a rotating specialist is used, most directors encourage classroom teachers to participate with the students in Hebrew Through Movement. The classroom teachers who learn basic Hebrew vocabulary and commands along with their students, are thus able to expand Hebrew learning beyond the 15 minutes formally scheduled, i.e., as students take out materials, line up by the door, or benefit from a quick burst of activity in between lesson segments. Alternatively, other educational programs hire enough teachers with sufficient Hebrew language background to teach Hebrew Through Movement in their own classrooms. While the Hebrew Through Movement website offers a fair amount of information about the teaching of HTM, the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland’s online seminar develops the specifically needed teaching skills to develop student success.
And why introduce Hebrew Through Movement? For decades, Jewish educators have struggled to teach Hebrew in our part-time educational settings. Because we didn’t have enough time to teach Hebrew language AND prayer skills, we often focused on the latter, assuming all would be well. Teachers would generally start with print and move to sound – “this shape is a Mem and it has the sound of M – remember what it looks like and what it sounds like, but don’t confuse it with a Tet.” We’d teach that m’odekha means “with all your might” – an out-of-context word isolated from a grammatically complex prayer (V’ahavta). With this approach, many of our students felt duped after 4-5 years of Hebrew – the learning was hard, and often little was retained. Why do our children they struggle so much, retain so little, and (not surprisingly) bolt from our programs as quickly as possible after Bar or Bat Mitzvah?
One reason is because we have been teaching Hebrew “backwards.”
Our native language is learned in a progression from sound-to-print – babies hear words and sentences, begin to react to the conversations directed toward them, eventually begin to speak, and years later learn to read print. The sounds of language “in our ears” help beginning (and even advanced) readers learn to sound out and self-correct. As Jewish educators, we assumed that if our students had already learned to read in one language, we could jump over foundational language learning and just teach print (“this is the Mem”). Thus, “print-to-sound.”
But by introducing Hebrew Through Movement, and spending a number of years providing an enriched approach to language, teachers have a chance of shifting children’s connection to Hebrew AND their ability to actually “read” (i.e., with meaning, albeit with a controlled vocabulary) as compared to “decode” (no understanding). A strong focus on prayer recitation, bringing the sounds of Hebrew prayers into our children’s heads and hearts each time they join together for learning, complements Hebrew Through Movement in creating a sound-to-print progression.
And what else would help us move beyond “the impossible?” We can shift our learning of Hebrew decoding, delaying to fifth grade or beyond to allow for more time with Hebrew Through Movement and prayer recitation. The new approach to teaching the Alef-Bet and decoding/reading, Let’s Learn Hebrew Side-by-Side, builds on the Hebrew that children know just by living as Jews (Rosh Hashanah, mazel tov, Bar Mitzvah, etc) and from their Hebrew Through Movement lessons.
Change is not easy, but our children are ready for an approach to Hebrew learning that builds on principles of language learning in use for years by French, Spanish, Russian and Chinese language specialists… never mind the learning “structures” that moms and dads of young babies have tapped into for millennia.
It’s time, and no, teaching Hebrew language in our part-time settings is not impossible anymore!
Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz, Jewish Education Center of Cleveland
Online seminar registration information, as well as the free HTM curriculum,
are on the homepage: http://www.HebrewThroughMovement.org
This blog will be updated by those supporting Hebrew Through Movement in a variety of ways. It might even be you!