My approach to Modern Hebrew instruction is closely related to the notions regarding music performance and education, which I explored through my doctoral research. In both cases, certain basic skills need to be acquired and practiced continuously; furthermore, the technical instruction is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. Music performance education aims at making students into musicians who can interpret and perform music, but much of the work in studios concentrates on technique. In a similar vein, in language learning programs the attainment of skills seems to become the primary aim, but this emphasis may lead to losing sight of the larger context in which language operates. Understanding the goals of a language-learning program is not less important than knowing the techniques in which knowledge and skills can be taught. In this statement, I will discuss the different aspects of my Hebrew teaching, and how these fit within an educational philosophy that looks at language as means of understanding the world.
Michigan State offers four courses in Modern Hebrew in two levels; these courses are spent mostly accumulating skills in speaking, reading, writing, and listening comprehension. These core skills must be covered as the student body in Hebrew classes is diverse in terms of cultural and language background. While proficiency exams are offered, the beginner-level classes have students with no background in the language and others with background acquired through Jewish day schools, high school classes, or Sunday school. Still others are semi-native speakers but lack reading and writing skills. Though I teach these classes from Alef, this diversity presents continuous challenges in dealing with learned mistakes and interacting with students at different levels. I provide quick-paced instruction, but still allow students time to practice their new skills in and outside class. Students learn skills in context as much as possible, and grammar underlies vocabulary. I encourage students to interact with each other, challenge one another, and solve problems and exercises together in small groups. As instruction progresses and students accumulate skills, I introduce authentic materials such as poetry and short stories, songs and video clips, and invite students to comprehend and analyze these materials.
As a Modern Hebrew instructor, I strive to balance high expectations for excellence with giving all students opportunities to succeed. Thus, beyond establishing high performance benchmarks, I also spend time making sure that all students in the class learn and grow. My initial training approached Hebrew instruction in complete immersion. In this approach, instructors would only speak Hebrew with the students, even outside of class. Although I am not arguing against immersion, in my interpretation – like most other strict methods – immersion works mostly for those students who are inclined to learning this way, and many students are left behind. Beyond teaching the language in class and offering additional assistance during office hours, I spend time with struggling students on developing their learning strategies. I believe that the difference between successful and unsuccessful language learning depends heavily on students’ ability to develop strategies, rather than just raw talent. To explain these strategies I use English, and therefore, I developed and applied a moderate approach to language immersion. Thus, I go beyond “correct language instruction” to an approach that is more student-centered, while achieving a high standard of learning.
Academic practicality and knowledge transfer construct the outlook I bring to the Modern Hebrew curriculum. I believe that knowledge of foreign languages should allow students to bring perspectives from different countries and cultures to other contexts in their education. Though a few of my students may take Modern Hebrew as a step towards living, studying, or emigrating to Israel, most of them will remain in the United States or live in other countries. For these students, developing their ability to read news, find academic articles from Israeli sources, and access other materials in Hebrew will allow them to understand the world from different perspectives, and to bring these perspectives to their fellow students and other classes. This is why past basic language skills, it is essential that students develop comprehension and presentation skills that go beyond textbook exercises.
I encourage students to bring different perspectives to the Hebrew classroom. Students taking intermediate Hebrew in classes, and advanced Hebrew in independent studies come from diverse backgrounds, different fields of study, represent different political views, and have a variety of life experiences. Therefore, I encourage them to explore their interests by developing individual and small group projects within overarching themes. Students in these classes engage in brainstorming activities, ask questions, and devise methods by which they can investigate these questions. We do most of this work in Hebrew. My role in these projects moves from directly instructing the students on certain grammatical or linguistic issues to that of a facilitator, providing background, context, and language assistance to help students in their investigations. Through these classes, students not only increase their skills in the language, but they also develop a specialized vocabulary that revolves around their interests. Some students have taken what they learned from their project and shared their findings in other classes. A few of my students who have reached the end of the three-year program, went to Israel on an exchange and took regular classes taught in Hebrew at Israeli universities. I have also used this approach to design seminars on global issues from local perspectives, which encourage students who have a strong proficiency in a foreign language to engage in inquiry in a target country, using their accumulated language skills and gain a unique perspective to that they can share with their peers.
The flow of learning — from skills to application and from exercises to interpretation — is in my view the core of good education, in language learning and in music performance. In these areas, it is important not to lose sight of the aims of allowing students to interact with the world by using the skills and the knowledge that they accumulate. Using Hebrew affords students access to materials otherwise inaccessible to them, which allows them to gain and create novel experiences for themselves and others. Again, the connections between language and music become clear, as both can be conducive to this kind of growth. The role of the teacher also grows from direct instruction of rules and basic techniques to facilitation and support of increasingly independent interpretation and learning.