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English Teachers Go to Israel To Help Low-Income Kids, Learn a Lesson or Two

“Fell in love” is how a handful of teachers, largely from the United States and the United Kingdom, describe their first-time experience in Israel. That love is what has brought them back to the Holy Land summer after summer — not for vacation, but to educate hundreds of Israeli children, regardless of religion or socioeconomics.

TALMA, the Israel Program for Excellence in English, is in its second year. This year the program brought 80 teachers from the United States for a summer English program in umpteen public schools across four Israeli municipalities. Teachers from English-speaking countries are selected based on their education qualifications, as well as for their experience and interest in Israel. The United States is the largest cohort. For five weeks, the American teachers are placed in classrooms with an Israeli counterpart to co-teach English to low-income students in grades one through four. The project is a collaboration among Israel’s Ministry of Education, the Schusterman Family Foundation and the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, and seeks to expand to grades five and six next year.

TALMA’s mission is threefold, the program’s national director, Alon Futterman, said. For Israeli children, the program seeks to close social gaps by advancing their English-language abilities, regardless of financial background or religious affiliation. Existing summer camps in Israel are simply “over-glorified baby-sitting services” and not education-centric, Futterman noted. TALMA hopes to improve Israeli educators’ teaching by learning from their American co-teachers. For the American teachers, the program wants to expose them to the culture of Israel beyond what they know of the country as portrayed in the media.

“The teachers get to work with someone who’s doing what you’re doing, but in a different part of the world,” Futterman said. “You learn new techniques, new methods for classroom management, and you’re exposed to new ideas to take back to your own classroom during the school year.”

The program piloted in the summer of 2014 with 60 teachers outside Israel, largely recruited from Schusterman and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. This summer, 80 educators were selected from a pool of more than 500 applicants. In just two summers, TALMA students have shown substantial English-language progress, Futterman noted.

And following a visit to TALMA schools in July, Nir Barkat, the mayor of Jerusalem announced on Facebook that he hopes to expand the TALMA program tenfold next year. With 16 TALMA schools in Jerusalem and 55 in other municipalities this year, the program is slated for expansion.

In more populated or affluent Israeli municipalities, like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, students have more access to English—whether through formal school programs, private tutoring or opportunities to travel, noted Robyn Fialkow, a New York City educator who taught fifth-grade reading and writing in Brooklyn and is moving to a special education position on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Fialkow participated in TALMA’s pilot 2014 year. The opportunity gap for students in low-income communities is great, Fialkow said, and English opens many doors for higher education and careers that lead to “successful trajectories.” TALMA is an effort to bring equity to Israeli education.

But some of the teachers said that they themselves have learned the most from the program.

This marks the third summer that former Teach for America member Olivia Goldstein has been in Israel, and her second as a TALMA educator. During the year, she teaches preschool in Chicago to 3- to 5-year-olds, 100% of whom are English Language Learners with Spanish as their first language. Jewish by name but not by religion, Goldstein had a tough first few days of Birthright Israel: She couldn’t read Hebrew and didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t even read the signs at breakfast that labeled the food. Then she had a panic attack.

The rabbi on the trip taught her a meditation technique. “I just let it flow, and as I was going to all these places, and seeing all these things, I let go of what my standards of an American teacher are,” Goldstein said.

That “letting go” is just one of many lessons TALMA leaders seek to instill in their educators through exposure and programming in Israel. Goldstein’s learning didn’t end there. The first day of the program last year also marked the start of the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict. Parents were called up to the army, and children had to say goodbye.

“It’s hard, and we had to adjust to it in the classroom. That’s hard in the U.S., but for a kid you’ve known for three days, what do you say? They don’t understand you,” Goldstein said. “I was taken aback by how casual it seemed. This was their life.”

Sean Martin continues what he calls his “whirlwind romance” with Israel through his second year with TALMA. Martin has been a private Spanish tutor in Detroit for 10 years. He converted to Judaism several years ago, and also visited Israel for the first time on Birthright.

His conversion to Judaism started when he was spiritually lost and wandering for several years. “I was the problem child, the troublemaker,” Martin said. Until he stumbled onto a synagogue. Between Judaism and educators in his past who truly cared, Martin said, he was saved.

Ultimately, the TALMA experience has enabled educators to better their classroom-leading abilities back home. For Martin, the adversity he faced teaching through a war enabled him to persevere through educating even the most difficult students in Detroit. For Goldstein, her language barrier teaching Israelis only further informed her ability to teach her ELL students in Chicago: On returning to the States, she started employing techniques she found successful in Israel – like songs, and enticing students to practice English by promising to learn their respective native languages herself.

“Everything I knew about teaching changed last summer,” Martin said. “I saw a student give his dad a hug who had been called to reserve duty. Everything that I thought was different about this kid didn’t matter anymore… I realized that anything going on in my life all paled in comparison to what was going on with this kid, and he was still showing up to school to hang out with his friends and learn English.”

Like any new program, TALMA wasn’t perfect in its pilot year, Fialkow admits. She was missing an Israeli co-teacher in her classroom, but it also pushed her to interact more with her students on a deeper, more direct level by learning Hebrew from them as she taught them English.

“It felt like a cultural exchange rather than me delivering knowledge,” Fialkow said. “And a huge takeaway that transfers to my teaching in New York is how to be flexible and adapt to new situations. How to think about certain strategies helping ELLs, and more generally how to tap into my students’ native cultures and how to respond to student needs to create more effective instruction.”

It also instilled in her the importance of collaboration, Fialkow said. Despite being the sole teacher in her classroom for the better part of the program last summer, Fialkow said she made a habit of reaching out to other teachers in TALMA and working with Israeli teachers who know the school culture and could advise based on their expertise.

“I think it always starts with finding a connection between yourself and the students, and fostering that around the content,” Fialkow said. “I learned so much from them. Be humble and take a lifelong learning stance. I feel they took a lot away from me as well. I definitely feel teaching there has made me more able to understand different sorts of student populations, and to be open and willing to continue learning.”

That continued learning could also be extrapolated to improving the American education system, Fialkow said. Educators in the United States now teach for hours on end and spend hours creating lesson plans, but don’t maximize the use of resources in their communities or around the

‘My life paled in comparison to what was going on with this kid, and he was still showing up to school to hang out with his friends and learn English.’

country. TALMA was able to make those resources available to educators, and Fialkow says state education departments in the United States ought to enable teachers to go on local or national trips to explore rich cultural resources and connect with educators outside their communities.

Despite the cross-cultural reach of TALMA educators, one thing is persistently clear: A low-income community is a low-income community anywhere, and closing opportunity gaps for those communities requires overcoming the same barriers, culture and country regardless, Futterman said.

“There’s something special when you create an international community of educators made up of Israelis and those outside of Israel who have the same goal of education, closing social gaps and overcoming barriers — language, cultural — that you wouldn’t in other ways,” he said. “This is about making a change in the lives of Israeli children in low-income communities, and those beyond.”

Follow Emmeline Zhao on Twitter, @emmelinez


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