Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Term 2, Week 1: Hebrew

We started off the term with a session focussing on Hebrew, to get back into the swing of things. We began with a discussion about why we should learn Hebrew, the main reasons being:

  • So you can read the Torah
  • So you communicate if you go to Israel
  • So you can go to any synagogue in the world and still understand the service
  • To carry on the tradition by using the same prayers as many generations before

At the beginning, they were convinced that you can only pray in Hebrew, so I challenged them on that and got them to reason it out. It occurred to them that Christians would have a problem if G-d didn’t understand English, and a parent suggested that a G-d who made the whole world and everything in it is likely to be able to understand more than one language! We digressed a bit into a conversation about creation and different ideas about how G-d went about making the world, before coming back to the idea of prayer. They were intrigued (and a few were frankly sceptical) when I suggested that you can just chat to G-d!

After this, I introduced the felt board, and we made our discovery about Jolly Phonics, which I've already blogged about.

From nothing more impressive than a total lack of inspiration, I’d come up with the idea of getting the kids to decorate a cardboard folder each for them to keep their homework and handouts in. As usual, though, the idea of free reign with paints, glue and stickers made the activity a hit, and I think they also liked the idea of something practical that they would be able to bring along each week.

When we were adding the labels with their names, I mentioned that in a few weeks’ time they would get a second label each for their Hebrew names. Most (or possibly all) of them had no idea they had such a thing, so we had fun telling them theirs and explaining the meanings and/or origins. As usual, it was good to have the parents there, because they could explain the family history behind several of the names. A couple of the children didn’t know theirs (or rather, their parents didn’t), hence putting off anything concrete based on Hebrew names until we’d had a chance to find out.

We finished off with the story of the uneducated man who prayed by reciting the Hebrew alphabet, explaining that “G-d knows what is in my heart, so I give him the letters and He will put them together into the right words for me”. Admittedly, I’ve heard that story interpreted as extolling the value of Hebrew over the vernacular for prayer, but I used it to illustrate that there’s no ‘right’ way to pray. They all left the session looking thoughtful, so I was satisfied.

You mean there's a plan?!

Since the Cheder is becoming one of my biggest loves, I’m going to try to keep a record on here of what we do. I already make notes about each session for my own reference, but this way there’s a small chance I might attract some comments or suggestions. And who knows, one day it might help someone trying to do a similar thing!

This is our second term, and we’ve settled down into eight regulars aged 4-11, plus parents. This term we’re alternating mornings and afternoons to make way for a fortnightly adult education class in the shul, but that’s turned out to be a blessing, because the slight overlap between the sessions means that the kids and the adults get to meet each other. There’s also a different dynamic and energy level in the afternoons, but I’m glad it’s only fortnightly or I’d lose my Sundays completely.

The kids have gelled into a proper group now, with a natural division into three older ones (all boys) and five younger (all girls). The oldest girl is really on the cusp, so she takes home both homeworks – the colouring sheets, which she actually wants to do, and what I call the ‘bar mitzvah course’, which she does a bit of each week with her dad, but socially she still seems to prefer being with the younger kids. At the moment I always teach the class together, but I try to give the boys (i.e. the older ones – it’s not gender-related!) a bit more responsibility from time to time, and I’m keeping an eye out for some special activities just for them so they don’t get too bored or feel held back by the little ones.

Most of the parents/grandparents stay for the session, though some of them occasionally pop out for half an hour now that their kids are settled enough not to mind. It gives them a chance to socialise with each other and with me, and to swap advice and ideas (especially around Christmas, I noticed, which is a bit of a dilemma for all the families).

It’s brilliant to have them all involved, on a practical level during the activities and clearing up, but also because they know their children so much better than I do and can give me good suggestions and advice simply from experience. Also, when they can see and hear exactly what the children are learning, they can – and do – reinforce it at home, and incorporate things that they particularly like into their family’s practice.

I think it’s good for parents and kids to do something together, and at least a few of the children learn significantly better when they don’t have to worry about when (or even, deep down, whether) their mum/dad is coming back. That’s not to say they’re particularly clingy, but they occasionally need the reassurance of knowing there’s someone there for them. Watching this has made me wonder what happens in school for children like that, whose moments of needing comfort and reassurance are left unaddressed until the end of the school day. It must affect their concentration, if nothing else.

But I digress.

My session plans have fallen into a rough pattern, which seems to work reasonably well. Our advertised starting time is half an hour before our de facto kick-off, partly to allow for Jewish Mean Time [an incurable inability to arrive anywhere on time – there’s no point fighting genetics, so the only thing to do is allow for it], but also to let people socialise and get used to where they are. I often get out some colouring pencils and paper in case the kids need inspiration, but recently it hasn’t been necessary. They run around, let off steam, have a drink of water, and talk to anyone who happens to stay still for long enough. Some of them make a beeline for the worktop where I set up my things and try to see what we’ll be doing that week; others come to tell me about things that have happened during the week, or show me pictures they’ve made and homework they’ve done. The older boys have also got the hang of how the furniture needs to be arranged and organise folding up chairs, moving tables, and fetching cushions.

We always sit on cushions on the floor rather than using chairs and tables. As I explained to them at the very first session, I would rather they wriggled when they need to, rather than spending 90% of their concentration on sitting still instead of on paying attention. Obviously there are times when they get a bit carried away, but if I let them have their fun for a minute or two they’re generally pretty amenable to stopping.

They choose where they sit – one ended up under a table this week, I suspect to see how I would react, but since she could see and hear perfectly well, I let her be. When we started in the main shul one week, they tried out a few different places before all cramming themselves onto the steps in front of the ark. I’m looking forward to seeing where they go next time we’re in there!

Once they’ve settled with Shalom Chaverim (na’im m’od version) and the greetings in Hebrew, I introduce the discussion topic for the day. I always have a detailed plan in case they really dry up, but usually the conversation takes off and they come up with stuff I’d never have thought of. The idea behind this is to get them thinking about why we do things, because if they’ve reasoned it out for themselves they’re more likely to remember it, and possibly want to try it out at home.

After the discussion has run its course, we do the craft activity for the day, which is related to the session topic. This is always done standing around the table, and the kids help to set up, so there’s plenty of moving around. The staple ideas are painting and cooking, but I try to come up with other things every so often for a change.

After we’ve all cleared up, we do the Hebrew reading practice. This is back on the cushions, but requires a certain amount of moving about for the Jolly Phonics actions and for the individual tasks. We finish off with a story, if there is one, and Shalom Chaverim (l’hitrayot version), and then they collect their homework on the way out. Someone always stays behind to help with the final clearing up, so it’s usually a good half hour after the official finishing time before everyone’s left, and means I’m not stuck doing it all on my own.

Next instalment: what we’ve done so far this term.

Shalom Chaverim

A lot of children in the UK learn this song in English, so it's a great one to teach them. In my primary school the whole school sang it to pupils who were leaving, and my brother's reception class were taught it entirely in Hebrew, so it was actually the first Hebrew I ever learned! It can be sung as a round, which I've done with a group of PGCE RE students, though I haven't tried it with the kids yet. Here are a couple of the English versions, followed by the Hebrew one* that I use in Cheder:

Shalom my friend, shalom my friend,
Shalom, shalom.
'Til we meet again, 'til we meet again,
Shalom, shalom.

Shalom my friend, may peace be with you,
Throughout your days.
In all that you do, may peace be with you,
Shalom, shalom.

שלום חברים, שלום חברים
שלום, שלום
נעים מאוד, נעים מאוד
שלום, שלום

שלום חברים, שלום חברים
שלום, שלום
להתראות, להתראות
שלום, שלום

Shalom khaverim, shalom khaverim,
Shalom, shalom.
Na'im m'od, na'im m'od, (pleased to meet/see you)
Shalom, shalom.
Shalom khaverim, shalom khaverim,
Shalom, shalom.
L'hitrayot, l'hitrayot, (see you again soon)
Shalom, shalom.
*I haven't worked out yet how to type vocalised Hebrew into Blogger. If you want a copy with the vowels, let me know and I'll email you the Word document. I also haven't worked out how to make the paragraph spacing do what I want, but it's too late in the evening to do anything about it now.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Teaching Hebrew with Velcro

When I started teaching Cheder last term, I jumped into the deep end and suddenly realised I had absolutely no idea how to go about teaching the kids to read Hebrew. A term later and after trying several different methods, we finally seem to have found a combination that works for these kids.

When I was 3 or 4 years old and learning to read, one of the techniques my mum used was to make a simple word from alphabet fridge magnets, and then get me to change it into another word (cat into bat into bag, for instance). This was a great way to keep me occupied in the kitchen while she did washing up or cooking, and it made me more aware of the sounds of words and letters. In Cheder, I have a board covered with felt and cut-out Hebrew letters with velcro stickers on the back (took me an afternoon to make). We start with some group practice in sounding out words, to remind them of what we’ve done before, and to keep reinforcing the skills so they’ll learn to work out for themselves how to pronounce unfamiliar words.

While we were doing group work with the felt board for the first time, the youngest child (aged 4) started doing the actions she had learned from the Jolly Phonics system. With help from her and her parents, we’ve adopted this, and found that it adapts particularly well to Hebrew, which is a phonetic language anyway (unlike English, of course, which seems to be one of the objections sometimes raised to using the JP method here). The movements add a kinesthetic dimension to the children’s learning, act as a general learning aid, and always make them laugh! We’ve adapted a few of the signs (e.g. hands over ears for the silent letter aleph), but generally it’s fine as it is.

When we’ve done some group work and introduced the new letters and/or vowels for the week (how many depends on how well I feel they’ve absorbed what we’ve done so far), each child gets a turn at the board, changing one or two things in the existing word to make the one I ask for. Even the very shyest seem to enjoy this, which surprised me. As the group is so small, they can chat amongst themselves while this is happening without being too distracting, so the child at the board isn’t the focus of undivided attention and pressure. They can have as much time as they need, and if necessary I help them to reason out what they need to do. We seem to have managed to create an atmosphere where they’re comfortable about taking their time, thinking things through, and then having a go; I’m not sure how this has happened, but I’m very pleased that it has.

All of this takes about 15 minutes per week; long enough to make an impact, but (so far) not so long that it becomes boring. To reinforce things during the week, the younger ones get colouring-in sheets for the letters we’ve learned, and the older ones get a few pages of worksheets from a Hebrew reading course I’m writing for them. I ask them to do 10 or 15 minutes a few times a week, and to do just as much as they can; if they have a bad week, I don’t make a big fuss about it. They work through them at their own pace and bring them back very proudly the following week for me to look through what they’ve done. We usually do this during the socialising bit at the beginning of the session, so each of them gets some one-to-one time with me and a chance to go over anything they’re stuck on.

The older kids’ homework sheets teach them to write block Hebrew (as opposed to the cursive form of modern Israeli Hebrew, which looks very different). The younger ones’ colouring-in sheets have the different ways each letter can be written, and I’m encouraging them to try drawing pictures incorporating some of the shapes, with some beautiful (if occasionally illegible!) results.

We’ve done Hebrew reading three weeks out of four this term (last week was an exception – more on that later), and so far they’ve nailed aleph, bet, vet, gimel, dalet, heh, vav and zayin, and the vowels kamats, patakh and khiriq. Next week we’ll definitely do khet, which they’ll enjoy – they love doing the ‘kh’ sound! – and tet, and possibly introduce a new vowel, tseire, which we’ll practice for a week or two before adding another.

As far as speaking Hebrew goes, I think it's important to give the kids a sense that it's a living language, so I'm slowly teaching them some basic phrases. We start and end every session with the song Shalom Chaverim (Shalom my Friend), which settles them and gives them a framework - the few times I've missed it out, the change in behaviour and focus has been noticeable.

I adapted the song slightly for the beginning, changing "l'hitrayot" (until we meet again / see you soon) into "na'im m'od" (nice to meet/see you), and we use the original for the end. They can all sing it fluently now, and it's taught them the Hebrew for "hello/goodbye" (both "shalom"), "nice to meet/see you" and "see you soon". Immediately after we've finished singing it, I greet each of the children individually in Hebrew, asking how they are, and they're all reasonably comfortable now with the reply "tov, todah" (fine, thank you). Next week we'll add another phrase, possibly "what's your name?", which will tie in well with the topic for the week.