Today's blogpost was written by Caroline Flannery, a Yahel Social Change fellow living, learning and volunteering for 9-months in the city of Lod.
Last week, as part of my internship with The Abraham Initiatives, a nonprofit that promotes shared society and equality for Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel, I had the opportunity to go see one of their Education for a Shared Society initiatives in action. While TAI has several projects focused on mitigating the effects of Israel’s separated school system for Arab and Jewish children, the project that I visited was Shared Learning. TAI’s Shared Learning, based on the successful model used by Northern Ireland to break down the separate Catholic and Protestant schools, brings Jewish and Arab students together to learn. In the past, TAI experimented with different subjects such as, communications, Hebrew and Arabic and cinema. After evaluating which program produced the most impact, TAI decided to focus solely on language exchange, including English and Hebrew/Arabic, as it presents a bridge where Jewish and Arab students can meet on linguistically neutral ground. English language studies are a high priority in Israel, and TAI believes that if they can prove that this method is an effective way of teaching English, the Ministry of Education will adopt their model on a state level. In 2018, USAID allocated a 1 million dollar grant for this initiative, strengthening the development and credibility of the program.
The site visit I joined was at an Arab high school in Nazareth, with Jewish students being brought in from Nazareth Illit. Nazareth , most known for its biblical history, is an Arab city with a Muslim majority and Christian minority, while Nazareth Illit is Jewish city, overlooking Nazareth. . While these cities sit in close proximity, interaction between Jewish and Arab children from each city is not common.
I was able to observe two English classes at the school, and I had a very different experience in each one. This really gave me a full understanding of the program, and a glimpse at the different outcomes it can bring. When I first arrived, I was led into one room to observe the first part of the lesson, and would go to the second class later on. The classes were led by one Jewish and one Arab teacher. Before the Jewish children from Nazareth Illit arrived, the teachers from the Arab school had their students sit one at a table, so when the other students arrived they would have to sit next to each other. When the students from the Jewish school entered the room, the majority of the kids (from both schools) grew visibly uncomfortable. When the Jewish students sat down next to the Arab students they did not greet each other and were even avoiding eye contact. I even noticed two students tried to sneak themselves to the back of the room to avoid sitting with kids from the other school. Considering that this was the school’s fourth time meeting, I was surprised and disappointed to see that the students did not seem to be warming up to each other. I was even more disappointed when I noticed that the teachers didn’t attempt to get the children talking.
The class began by watching a short movie about a deaf boy who struggles to connect with people at his school because he feels different. This was followed by a discussion where they go over some new vocabulary terms like “accept”, “make a difference”, and “tolerate”. I was surprised to see that the teacher did nothing to get the students acquainted or comfortable with each other. While these vocabulary words were great and relevant to this class, the same handful of students seemed to be the only ones answering questions, and even they seemed hesitant to participate. I wondered if this was because of a fear of speaking in English, a fear of opening up in front of the other group of students, or a general lack of interest. The teacher was leading the class only speaking English and the curriculum of the course was at a very high-level, so it could very likely have just been the content. In this midst of these thoughts, I was taken out by my supervisor to go observe the class nextdoor. Walking into the new room, I instantly picked up on a different mood amongst the students. The teachers were getting the students started on a crossword puzzle, and encouraging them to work together to solve it. “Don’t be afraid to ask your partner for help,” one of the teachers said. The students looked comfortable and happy, the girls chatted quietly while helping each other complete their work, and the boys made jokes and laughed loudly. I noticed the teachers attentively walking around the room checking on the groups, making sure everyone was included and engaged. I thought about the striking difference in the atmosphere of the first class that I visited and this one. This class seemed to be a shining example of how shared learning lesson should look. The students were enjoying themselves, working together, and learning English!
After the first worksheet the students were given a break and went into the halls to eat. Despite their ability to work together in the classroom, as soon as they got into the hallway they separated themselves, surrounding themselves with peers from their own schools. Although I was disappointed to watch this, I reminded myself that it is normal! Of course 8th graders want to socialize with their own friends. Kids want to feel comfort and familiarity, and change does not happen in an hour. As I walked around taking pictures, students asked me where I was from and got excited when I told them that I was from America. The lines between the Jewish and Arab kids began to blur as they crowded in to talk with me. The Jewish and Arab kids had identical reactions when I told them that I was from New York but am now living in Lod as a volunteer. “Why would you leave New York for Lod,” they gasped. “It is my dream to visit New York,” one of the Arab students said. “It is also my dream,” a Jewish student added. As many differences as these kids think that they have, they still have so much in common.
The second half of the lesson was spent creating sentences in American Sign Language. The students sat in groups of four or five, and had to make their own sentences, and then perform it for the rest of the class. As I watched the groups work, I grew more and more impressed with the whole program. The curriculum was perfectly designed to get the students working together, practicing their English vocabulary, and with an approach that empowered them to use creativity and express themselves. It felt really special to be an outsider looking in at the progress being made inside the classroom. While talking with one of the teachers about the troubles and triumphs of the program, she told me how sometimes parents won’t let their students participate in the shared learning, and sometimes the students themselves don’t want to go. Then she pointed to one girl laughing and demonstrating letters in ASL to the rest of her group. “This one didn’t want to come- but look at her now,” she said. “She’s having a great time”. One group had a majority of Arab girls, and at some point they started talking amongst themselves in Arabic, leaving out the Jewish girl in their group who did not speak Arabic. One of the teachers noticed and came over, instructing them to only speak in English. They apologized and listened to the teachers instruction, instantly speaking in English and including the other girl. Unrelated to the coexistence aspect of the shared learning class, I was blown away with the level of English that these students seemed to have. Working as an English teacher in Lod, I could really appreciate their willingness to speak in English, make mistakes, and constructively correct each other’s mistakes. The students performed their sentences beautifully, with one group performing the sentence, “I love to make a difference”. I wonder if they knew how symbolic that sentence was.
The teachers from the first class I observed had split the lesson up between themselves. The first teacher was from the Jewish school, and I doubt it was a coincidence that the majority of the students participating in that room were also from the Jewish school. Occasionally the Arab teacher stepped in to translate things that her students didn’t understand, but other than that she stood off to the side of the room. This compared with the flow between the two teachers in the other room made it obvious that the teaching method is essential to the class dynamic. The same lesson plan taught by different educators could have completely different results. In the second room the teachers spoke to the class together, consistently switching off, keeping all the students included and engaged, and it was obvious that the students were directly mirroring the teacher’s chemistry.
Before these encounters took place, teachers attended a three day intensive training seminar in Beer Sheba. This training required teachers leaving their homes and jobs to work on their relationships with each other, as well as prepare them with the tools needed to deal with leading a Shared Learning classroom. In one exercise, the group was shown pictures that exemplified the national identity of the other group- for example, a photo from the Holocaust and a photo from the Nakba. In the following discussion, teachers began to open up about delicate issues, some Jewish teachers saying that they are fearful when they hear the Arabic language, and some Arab teachers expressing that they have a hard time connecting to the symbols of the Jewish State.The Shared Learning class can be a challenge not only for the students, but for the teachers as well, and considering how powerful the role of the teacher in the classroom is, these workshops are crucial.
The level of separation between Arabs and Jews in Israel was something that took me by surprise when I first moved here. Although I live in a mixed-city, almost every educational and recreational space is separated for cultural, religious, or linguistic reasons. Going to the park in my town, I will find Arab and Jewish kids playing, but never together. Instead of learning about each other through personal relationships and communication, they only know the stereotypes that they hear through family or in the media, perpetuating fears and negative attitudes towards each other. In my opinion, the way to begin to remedy this problem is by breaking down the structural divide that stems from separate school systems. The Shared Learning Initiative at the Abraham Initiatives does this by giving children the space to create relationships and defy stereotypes, creating the path to a shared society. This site visit stands out as one of the most memorable experiences that I have had in my volunteer experience in Israel. The successful learning and teamwork between Arabs and Jews in the classroom was a beautiful thing to witness and gave me a glimmer of hope for shared society in Israel.