Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A veritable feast!

As the Fulbright winds down, and the education community is on Pesach vacation, it's time for a gastronomic post!  Noa and Pam will blog about our visit to Ahmad Amer, a Fulbrighter from Kfar Qasem.  We ate unbelievable food! Noa's post for that meal.  Tonight we joined the throngs on Emek Refaim at Caffit.  All day long, people have been eating on Emek.  There is little Hebrew being spoken, but half the Jews East of the Mississippi must be in Israel right now....and they are all in our little neighborhood.  We ordered salad, matzo ball soup, sweet potato latkes, and a Pesach roll.  Then, we sat back and watched the hecticness of the season.  We have never seen hostesses (Pam will describe the fashion) working harder than we have seen anybody work.  The level of noise was similar to an NBA game.  Yet, food was prompt, gorgeous looking, and very tasty.  OK, Pam's soup is better, the matzo balls are fluffier.  The Pesach roll was.....better with butter!  Sweet potato latkes were delicious with the chive sour cream.  Noa's fresh apple juice was foamy and delicious. We had a terrific time laughing with the masses and cementing memories of our time here.

Many restaurants just close for the week.  Remodels are completed, work which might normally disrupt customers can be completed with no disruptions whatsoever.  Supermarkets cover up the "forbidden" Passover foods, and interestingly enough, Israelis finally obey instructions!  Nobody peeks behind the plastic!!  Even the gelato gets a makeover!  Our favorite flavors are on vacation this week....but we will have one more opportunity to try them on Monday night.

Definitely a fun time to be in Israel.....and with Easter coming up this weekend.....

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Experiential Education

Time to dedicate a blog post to Judy Teufel, art teacher extraordinaire and friend.  Judy taught kids to write "important stuff."  Didn't really matter if it appeared in nice, sentence form.  Much of what I have learned in Israel doesn't really fit a category, it was either observed or experienced.  So, in the spirit of Middle School Breakaway, Catlin Gabel's Experiential program for middle schoolers, here goes.....

Last week, a carpenter stopped by to see what could be done to seal windows and doors to try to keep the rain out.  While he was looking at the patio doors, I noticed a pistol sticking out of his waistband.  I've never worked with a handyman who carried a weapon before!  And, in a gesture seen only in Israel, on his way out, he touched the Mezzuzah outside our door. 

Those who follow Noa already know we travelled to the Golan Heights last weekend to visit the Hoter family.  We celebrated the most religious Shabbat I have ever participated in.  After leaving Jerusalem, we traveled east to the Dead Sea and Jericho.  We turned north at Jericho and found ourselves driving through a desert.  As we traveled north, the desert gave way to greenery.  We passed through the Border Police checkpoint and were out of the West Bank heading towards Beit She'an, often referred to as Israel's Pompeii.  Upon reaching Lake Kenneret (Sea of Galilee), we stopped for lunch at a delightful arts center.  We had the entire cafe to ourselves as we enjoyed the view, serenity, and good food.  It was an idyllic place filled with sunshine, birds, and flowers.

Back on the road, we stopped near Qazrin for a short walk before arriving at Alonei Habashan, the Moshave where Elaine and her family live.  Elaine is one of three Israeli recipients of the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching, essentially my counterpart in this program.  Shabbat cleaning was in full force.  People running everywhere, furniture up off the floor, food being prepared, etc.  We were guests, and invited to take showers!  In addition to our visit, Elaine's daughter, Michal was home for the first time in many months, daughter Orit had come home from Acco (Acre), and three other family friends were also spending Shabbat with the Hoters.  It was quite a crowd!  I wondered about space for all of us, since most Israelis homes are not that large.  We all fit quite comfortably.  Noa, Pam, and I stayed in Orit's room. 

Once showered, Elaine lit the Shabbat candles.  No big ceremony, nothing like I had experienced before.  I looked up and she was over at the mantle lighting the candles.  Then, it was off to Shul with Chaim (husband) and Avichai(youngest son.)  Zichron and Effi, Chaim's college buddies joined us.  At one point Chaim asked me if I could read Hebrew, I said yes, but I couldn't read it fast enough!  Some of the prayers sounded familiar, others were totally new to me.  I was just happy that most of the time, I knew where to turn the page and didn't have to wait for Chaim to show me.

After an hour or so, services were over.  We met outside Shul.  Pam and Noa had been sequestered in the women's section (one of many reasons, we won't become orthodox anytime soon.)  Then it was time to eat and experience Yemenite culture close up and personal.  Turns out Chaim and his buddies are all Yemenites.  The Shabbat evening had such joy in it that Pam and I were soon laughing, humming, and attempting to sing all the while enjoying what we THOUGHT was the Shabbat meal......turns out it was only the first course!  The experience was dizzying.  Food everywhere....and very good food, too!  Chaim chanting blessings at the appropriate times, Effi and Orit singing the entire time.  Others joining in when they weren't eating or talking. After more than three hours of celebrating, the Monheimer's, who were falling asleep went to bed.  Fortunately, we had quite accidentally left our lights in the correct position or else we were going to have to sleep with the lights on!  No turning lights on or off during Shabbat.  Lights in common areas are on timers so we had light and hot water in the morning, etc.

Saturday morning, we had a light breakfast of sweet cakes and breads.  Zichron and we had both brought goodies from the same bakery in Jerusalem.  We discovered both Zichron and Effi lived and worked withing meters of our apartment!  The world is truly small.  We strolled around the Moshav while others attended prayers.  Then, it was time for lunch....which was nearly as elaborate as dinner the evening before!  Effi continued with what seemed like non-stop singing, Zichron and I engaged in a fascinating conversation about which electronics could be used on Shabbat and which couldn't and why the rules were needed.  After lunch, we strolled up the hill to an old Israeli bunker and admired the view into Syria.  The border reminds me of the German border in the days of two Germanys.  We observed no obvious weapons, but it was also clear they weren't very far away.  After returning to the Hoter's, it was finally time for the Shabbat nap! 

Of course, after our nap, it was time to celebrate the end of Shabbat guessed it, eat AGAIN!  Dinner was a mix of leftovers and freshly prepared new dishes.  After a quick hike on Sunday back to the Syrian border to take pictures (no photos on Shabbat), we headed back to Jerusalem.  Oh, I almost forgot....Pam, Noa, and I are now officially Yemenite.  We passed the two tests (secret, sorry.)  Sunday, it was time to say our goodbyes and head back to Jerusalem.  Experiential Education part two coming up....Pam and I don't think we will ever celebrate Shabbat the old way again!  We understand why Jews look forward to it, and why, if we could go back in time, being Yemenite is the way to go!  Thank you Chaim, Elaine, Effi, Zichron, Avigal, Michal, Orit, and Avichai for being such patient, wonderful teachers!  The flower?  Golan Iris, only blooms in the early spring.  The Israeli equivalent of trillium.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Exploring alternatives

This has been quite a week.  Monday, I joined a group of educators in Be'er Sheva (pronounced "bear" not "beer") who were visiting Bedouin schools.  Israel and the Bedouins have a special relationship.  Israel would like them to settle down, become less nomadic, and has built communities (think townships) for the Bedouins.  Some Bedouins have embraced this idea, others prefer to live in the manner their people have always lived.  To reach the first school, we drove about 5 miles out of Be'er Sheva and found ourselves on a brand new road with newly created roundabouts driving through what can only be described as a township in the South African model.  When we reached the school, I was struck by the fact that we just walked in.  There was apparently neither armed guard nor locked gate.  We just walked in, said hi to the kids playing, asked directions to the main entrance, and headed into the school.  Very different than every other Israeli school I've been in.  We walked into the male faculty room.  Later, we spoke with the principal who has a male assistant.  Clearly, there are cultural norms in these school which are different from other Israeli schools.  This must make some types of communication difficult, if not impossible.  This elementary school was an "experimental" school.  The Ministry of Education allows schools to "experiment" with lots of different areas of learning.  Experiments are funded for five years, then evaluated for success or no success (failure is really not an option.)  Successful schools are those whose students score at the same level as "non-experimental" schools in subjects such as language and math.  They then receive more funding to replicate their model and train other teachers/schools.  Almustabel (the future in Arabic) is right on the edge of the desert.  Students study every aspect of desert life, plants, soil, animals, birds, etc. in conjunction with Bedouin culture.  These kids collect tons of data.  I have already contacted Scott Bowler at Catlin Gabel to see if he wants to trade Northwest data with the science teacher at Almustabel.  The science guy (pictured here) lives in an unincorporated Bedouin village with no electricity.  He tethers his laptop to his cell phone and powers the whole internet connection with a USB modem run on solar power.  The biggest speed bump for this school right now is teacher retention.  It must be difficult to run an experimental school with high teacher turnover.  I don't envy Abdullah, the principal.

After lunch, we joined a caravan of cars travelling off-road to a brand new school in an unincorporated area.  Remember, those areas have little, no roads, no power, problematic water distribution, etc.  Suddenly, we drove around a dune and were face to face with a lovely two story pastel colored school.  The first thing I noticed was a loud hum.  The entire school is powered by a generator the size of a small recreational vehicle.  Once inside, I thought I was back in Oregon.  Bright pictures on the walls, no hum (thick walls!), lots of color, the whole place looked just like an American school.  We met with school staff to discuss an ongoing project involving teaching Bedouin parents how to use computers.  Hurdles to overcome in this program include separating moms and dads (they didn't even want to join together to celebrate their completion of the course!), stopping in the middle of the meeting to pray, and, most importantly, the fact that many more families want to be included than the school has either teachers or space for.  I asked if families were tracked after the course to see how they put the computer knowledge to use, but, I'm not sure I understood the answer.  It was a tiring, long day, and as I was returning to Jerusalem (on an Egged bus that was overheating), the bus driver switched from talk radio to oldies music.  I smiled and sat back to Aretha Franklin's RESPECT.  That is what the Bedouins really want.  Many serve in the military.  They just want cultural respect from their country....Israel.

Tuesday, I accompanied a university instructor visiting a student teacher who was completing a practicum at a nearby special ed school.  The best part about the visit was I didn't have to take a bus!  I could have walked to the school, but, of course, I met the instructorfive minutes walk from our apartment and we drove the final 5 minutes to the school.  This special ed school appeared to be boys only.  It was a tough audience in a tough school (doors in this school are locked not to keep the world out, but to keep the students in.)  I asked the instructor how the student-teacher came to be placed in the school.  Turns out she asked to work with this population.  After the lesson, I offered suggestions about English sites which the student teacher might find useful.  She is still acquiring the skills she needs to be an effective teacher, but, she already has a very important quality.....she is passionate about the welfare of her students.  All in all, a fascinating couple of days in schools which are way outside the Israeli educational mainstream.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Can Teachers be Taught to Teach Better?

By now many of you have read Elizabeth Green's article in the current New York Times Magazine, Can Teachers Be Taught to Teach Better?  Already, one of my Israeli friends has asked if I have read the article.  Now, I don't know how early Reuven gets up, but I was reading the article when his e-mail arrived!  The article is already the second most shared article in the NY Times.  For some unexplainable reason, an article on vacationing in Tuscany is rated higher.....sigh.

Green, through her interviews with some very smart people raises excellent points, alludes to many of the historical reasons great teachers have not been successfully replicated, and fails to address qualities which effective teachers possess.  Part of the reason I came to Israel was to try to discover why so many American student teachers had difficulties during their practica, and why so many were no longer teaching five years after being hired.  Israel faces many of the same problems.  Ah, but back to Green...America sets one of the lowest (being charitable here) bars for prospective teachers.  To become a doctor, one needs to complete an undergraduate program, take the MCAT exam, be admitted to med school (no small feat), and complete a rigorous course of study.  Lawyers have a similar path.  But, to get into a teacher prep program, there is no testing hurdle and admittance is not an issue for most people.  Green makes a clear case for the need for this profession with no hurdles.  In her bar graph analysis, she points out there are slightly under one million lawyers in America, but nearly four million teachers.  There is simply no time to set rigorous standards for admitting students to teacher prep programs.  There is a dire need of replacement teachers.

Green writes that first-year teachers in America are expected to face classrooms of more than 30 children with no mentoring, professional follow-up, or other tools to help them become effective teachers.  Other countries, notably Singapore (that bastion of top-notch mathematics scores every country aspires to) and Germany (with one of the most rigid, prescribed education systems in the world); have figured out how to draw their best and brightest students into education, how to train them, and how to retain them.  Perhaps the American reformers mentioned in the Times article should interview Singaporean and German teachers/administrators, bring those ideas back to American schools of education, and, then track teachers trained under those systems. 

One concept emphasized in Green's article is the idea that effective American teachers allow students time to think about their answers/thinking.  This is important to help kids develop thinking skills.  The term Green avoids to describe this is currently called meta-cognition, thinking about one's thinking.  Effective teachers not only know the correct answer to a problem/question, they are also able to think through every "wrong" method kids throw at them.  In some cases, math facts for example, the "wrong" answers might be known in advance.  In other instances, history for example, there might be "wrong" answers the teacher could not know in advance, but will still have to deal with when they arise.  I have never yet had to tell a class, "I need to think about this a bit, let's continue the discussion tomorrow."  But, I know that someday I will face that situation.

Then there is the issue of how kids learn.  Over the past ten years, thanks to MRIs and other brain pictures, teachers now know more than ever before how kids learn, how they retain information, and how they are able to recall, review, synthesize, analyze, and evaluate information.  The problem is that we know this generally.  Kids don't come to class with their brain pictures in hand.  It would be terrific if they did.  Teachers would understand much more about how individual children learn.  Green's article and the accompanying comments (at this writing most add to the discussion) are a good basis for discussion or as the Slate Political Gabfest folks say, good cocktail chatter.  If only I attended cocktail parties....

Monday, March 1, 2010

Learner or Teacher?

Today was Purim in Jerusalem.  For those who have been to Carnival in Rio.....never mind, I can tell this comparison is not going to go well.  On the other hand, Jerusalem could use a few really good samba clubs.  For the cultural side of Purim, read Pam's and Noa's blogs.  They offer terrific Purim perspectives.

While riding the bus home, I observed a situation in which the adult was trying to be the teacher, but ended up being the learner.  Today's blog is dedicated to Margie Boule, longtime Oregonian columnist and master storyteller who wrote her final column today.  A couple of stops after I boarded, a family with two kids got on the bus.  Mom, dad, and two boys, both dressed up as pirates.  I don't recall pirates in the Purim story, but that doesn't seem to matter today.  We have seen as many pirates as we have Esthers.  Both boys stopped just after passing the driver.  Their parents nearly fell over them, the mom told the younger boy to move to a group of open seats much further back.  The dad told the older boy to head that direction, too.  Now, Israeli buses are designed low to the ground and about two seats back is a "hump" which is really the front wheel well.  There is a pole in the middle of it for folks to grab and most adults stand at that point.  Most kids (and teenagers) climb up on the wheel well and wrap their legs around the pole.  It gives them a great vantage point as they can see the entire length of the bus.  The older boy "told" his father he was not going to sit in a seat, but wanted to "play" pirate by sitting up on the wheel well.  The father's tone became somewhat agitated as he sternly told the boy to move to a seat further back.  The boy raised his voice and whined that he didn't want to do that.  Exasperated, the father moved to the open seat in the middle of the bus.  The boy climbed up on the wheel well, plastic six shooter in a holster, and pirate sword still in hand.  "This is why the Israeli school system has such issues with pupil respect for adult authority," I thought as I chuckled at the boy's rebellious behavior.  Never afraid to wade in again, the father told the boy, quite harshly, to keep his sword pointed down.  Bill Cosby's famous comedy routine came to mind.  "There are only two injuries in childhood...break your neck and poke your eye out."  The young man decided this was something he could live with and the plastic, dull blade disappeared behind the seat in front of him.  His old man could still teach him a thing or two.  At this point the boy yelled back to his mother, "Look at me, I'm a pirate" (or something like that....remember, the whole conversation was in Hebrew!)  Mom responded positively and the boy's affect changed noticeably.  He sat up straighter, looked ever like a pirate, and kept his sword pointed down the entire ride.  Sometimes one is the learner, sometimes one is the teacher.  What a wonderful metaphor for schools, teachers, students, new tools, and learning.  "I like Purim," I thought as I got off the bus and walked home.