Learning Hebrew interactively
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Learning Hebrew interactively

Local day schools use technology to bring language alive

Area day schools are taking advantage of interactive technologies to bring spoken Hebrew into the classroom in fresh, appealing ways.

First-graders at the Moriah School of Englewood are using a new computer-based Hebrew teaching program to supplement their language acquisition at a critical young age.

According to Faigy Ravitz, technology integration specialist for the Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education, the Tal Am CAL computer program was modeled on instructional software such as SuccessMaker, which allows each child to move at an individualized pace within an engaging interface.

“We at CIJE were inspired to facilitate the creation of a similar Hebrew language program that could revolutionize Jewish day schools’ Hebrew programs,” said Ravitz, who trained the four Moriah first-grade teachers to use the product devised in conjunction with Hebrew instruction materials producer Tal Am. It was piloted in several schools last year.

“CAL” is a play on words – it stands for “computer assisted learning,” and it is also the Hebrew word for “easy.” Using texts, songs, stories, music, and visual aids, it is meant to help teachers make Hebrew instruction easier.

The children use it twice a week in 25-minute segments, and eventually they will be able to log on from home whenever they like.

“This is a colorful, fun, interactive, and individualized program that each child uses with a password and headphones,” said Leah Levi, a Jewish studies teacher in her 28th year at Moriah. Each works at his or her own level and pace, and there are a lot of interactive games and songs in Hebrew. The kids are really enjoying it.”

The completed sessions are stored so that the teacher can track every user’s progress. The children even can record themselves speaking, and the teacher can listen to monitor how they are doing.

Levi said the program complements her already Hebrew-intensive classroom by catering to each student’s learning style without being competitive. “The kids are very eager to do it because they are competing against themselves and not the rest of the class.”

Moriah and other schools are also using live long-distance learning. Aliza Picard, a longtime Moriah teacher from Israel who returned to her homeland three years ago, has continued teaching fifth-graders in the Englewood school via videoconferencing four days a week.

A similar setup was piloted 12 years ago at the Torah Academy of Bergen County, a boys’ high school, by former assistant principal Rabbi Zvi Grumet. After making aliyah, Grumet continued teaching Bible to some classes for two years through videoconferencing. Based on that model, about 10 years ago he created the Lookstein LIVE program based at Bar-Ilan University.

Former Teaneck resident Susan Yammer is the educational coordinator for Lookstein LIVE, which is used by 10 American schools including Yavneh Academy and Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, as well as the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge. The four Israel-based teachers in the program teach Hebrew, Bible, Talmud, Mishnah and Israeli current events.

“It seems to fill a number of needs,” said Yammer, a former Yavneh classroom teacher. “Schools turn to us because of the Israel connection – the exciting notion that ‘Ki mitzion tetze Torah’ [‘For out of Zion comes Torah’] and for the pragmatic reason of finding a qualified, creative teacher during specific hours.”

She added that Yavneh decided to continue with the program for a second year after assessing its effectiveness in the participating children’s level of Hebrew speaking.

The three area schools using Lookstein LIVE all have the same teacher, Deena Kahane, who made aliyah from Teaneck in 2008. She had taught at Moriah and RYNJ. Though Lookstein LIVE faculty can serve as primary Hebrew classroom teachers, Kahane works with handpicked children for extracurricular enrichment in language and Bible. The sessions meet three times a week for 40 minutes each.

A few times a year, Kahane livestreams a Hebrew lesson for the entire fourth and fifth grades at Yavneh. Often these sessions are centered around the holidays in Israel. During Chanukah, she strolls through Jerusalem’s Old City with her webcam, showing the children the menorahs displayed outside doorways and talking about the holiday – in Hebrew, of course.

She has also “taken” the New Jersey schoolchildren to army swearing-in ceremonies at the Western Wall, explaining the oath the new recruits shout in unison, and why the ancient wall is an appropriately symbolic place for the ceremony. She’ll interview a few soldiers for the segment as well.

Kahane does not feel the physical distance prevents her from connecting with her students.

“At Yavneh I’m teaching two grades, so I have some of last year’s kids. A few were in Israel over the summer and came to visit me. In a sense, whenever I teach them they’re in my home. I try to convey an excitement about life in Israel. For example, if it’s raining I will devote a few minutes to explaining the significance of that. When Gilad Shalit was freed, I taught them a song written in his honor.”

Yammer says that as technology advances, so does the nature of Lookstein LIVE. “My job is to build this program,” she said. “More and more schools are contacting us because we have so many wonderfully qualified teachers here in Israel.”

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