What Trilingual Jewish Day Schools Can Teach Us About Hebrew Fluency

Editors Note: When we created edJEWcon as a hub for the exploration of 21st century literacies, there was a heavy emphasis on “technology” – and probably rightly so. However, we always knew that second-language acquisition was a critical 21st century skill and with my change in context, I am happy to kick off a conversation I am keenly interested in with all my hats…

[Parts of this blog have been edited and/or copied from my latest post from my website.]

I recall a day I spent a couple of years back when serving as Executive Director of the Schechter Day School Network at the Solomon Schechter Academy in Montreal and being dazzled by the students (and staff) who seamlessly moved from French to English to Hebrew.  We (most Jewish day schools) can barely manage Hebrew fluency and here was a school that managed both Hebrew and French?

I also recall many conversations with my colleagues and many of the creators of Hebrew-langauge curricula for Jewish day schools during my time at Schechter and at Prizmah where our challenges and frustrations were shared openly, but remain unresolved.  [This one had materials, but lacked second-language pedagogy.  This one was cost prohibitive. Etc.]  I had imagined at the time due to my visit to Montreal and many conversations with my colleague Claire Sumerlus at Robbins Hebrew Academy (Toronto) that perhaps Canadian Jewish day schools with their addition (in many cases) of French might have something of the secret sauce for language acquisition that could unlock the mystery and provide wisdom to the field.  I had not imagined that I would soon be the head of one such Canadian Jewish day school!

Well, here I am!

A month or so in as Head of the Ottawa Jewish Community School where we have both Hebrew and French and I can report transparently that if there is a “secret sauce” for language acquisition…I have not found it yet.  What I have found is an opportunity…

For my school’s context, here is what I recently shared with our parents:

As OJCS families know (hopefully!), our French program goes deeper beginning in Grade Four with our “Core” students continuing to have a differentiated French language period and our “Extended” students adding on a second subject – Social Studies – with French as the language of instruction, thus providing an “extended” exposure to French.  [Please note that I am purposely not launching the significant conversation-to-come about French immersion in this blog post, but that I am not ignorant of its pressing nature.] When it comes to our Hebrew program, however, we use the same “Core” and “Extended” terms, but with different meanings (I presume not only to confuse me).  In Hebrew we have been using “core” and “extended” only to describe level, not contact time.  That’s where the pilot comes in.

 

With extraordinary gratitude to two of our master Hebrew Teachers, Ada Aizenberg and Rachel Kugler – both of whom gracefully and enthusiastically accepted a rather late-in-the-game adjustment to their teaching portfolios to take this pilot on – OJCS “Extended” Hebrew students in Grades 4-5 will, like “Extended” French, have one period of high-level Hebrew instruction and a second subject – Judaics – with Hebrew as the language of instruction, thus providing an “extended” exposure to Hebrew.

 

Does this solve Hebrew fluency at OJCS?  Nope!

Does this clarify the Jewish mission/vision of OJCS?  Nope!

Will there be unintended consequences – both good and bad?  Yup!

 

This is a pilot – an opportunity to try something new and to learn from it.  We absolutely think it is a step in the right direction to enhance Hebrew fluency at OJCS.  We absolutely think it will contribute to the larger conversations coming.  We are absolutely thrilled about it and hope you are too.  And if you are an OJCS parent of a child going into Grades 4-5 and have questions, concerns, feedback, etc., I look forward to those conversations most of all.

I am eagerly looking forward to the beginning of conversations with…

…our school’s French, English and Hebrew instructors around common practice.

…my colleagues at other trilingual schools – particularly here in Canada – to see what we can learn…and what we can share.

…my friends at Prizmah to see what support they can provide fellow-travelers on the road to greater Hebrew and third-language fluency.

…foundations, programs and curriculum partners with an eye towards raising the bar.

I know there are other trilingual schools and I cannot wait to connect, visit and learn from and with them. If, in my ignorance, I am leaving out obvious places to connect, well…that’s why I am blogging this out – please educate me!  I am excited and hopeful that what I learn is of use, not just to my school, but to the larger conversation of Hebrew fluency in North American Jewish day schools.  And anyone who is interested in joining me/us on this journey, please connect with me either through this blog, edJEWcon or my school.

Brukhim Ha’Ba-im.  Bienvenue.  Welcome.

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About Jon Mitzmacher

Dr. Jon Mitzmacher is the Head of the Ottawa Jewish Community School and co-founder of edJEWcon.  He was most recently the VP of Innovation for Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.  He is the former Executive Director of the Schechter Day School Network.  He is also the former head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, a K-8 Solomon Schechter, located in Jacksonville, FL, and part of the Jacksonville Jewish Center.  He was the founding head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas.  Jon has worked in all aspects of Jewish Education from camping to congregations and everything in between.

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