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Arabic, Hebrew Schoolteachers Trade Classroom, Cultural Knowledge at UCLA Language Workshop

For the first time, UCLA hosts a training workshop for teachers from Arabic- and Hebrew-language parochial schools. Iowa State U and LA-based organizers use a Russian class for five-year-olds as a model for teaching exclusively in the target language.

Arabic, Hebrew Schoolteachers Trade Classroom, Cultural Knowledge at UCLA Language Workshop

Arabic and Hebrew language teachers talk about introducing Middle Eastern musical instruments into their classrooms. From left: Ilham Zayat, Amal Dahir, Karen Richter, and Malka Miadovsky. (Photos by Jonathan Friedlander and Kevin Matthews)

By Kevin Matthews, Senior Writer

Both of us are here in the U.S. teaching a language that is not English. We are in the same boat.

[See related column by Bob Sipchen in the July 17, 2006, edition of the Los Angeles Times.]

As part of outreach efforts, the International Institute regularly assembles schoolteachers to talk about their classrooms and deepen their expertise. But there were some twists at a July 3–12, 2006, workshop at UCLA for foreign-language teachers–arranged and funded primarily by the National K-12 Foreign Language Resource Center (NFLRC) at Iowa State University.

For one, the workshop was the first to cater to the shared needs of teachers from metropolitan Los Angeles' Jewish and Arab Muslim communities, according to local organizers Aviva Kadosh of the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles and Kathryn Paul of the UCLA Center for World Languages. Of the 20 women participating in the K-8 workshop, nearly all foreign-born, 14 teach Hebrew and six teach Arabic in local day schools.

At their first meeting on July 3, the teachers assumed the roles of their own young students in a purposely noisy exercise designed to develop conversational skills in the language of instruction, whether Arabic or Hebrew.

"My name is ...," the exercise began. That's pronounced "shmee" in Hebrew, and "ismee" in Arabic. The similarity drew smiles.

Then, for another twist, came the Russian. Each day of the workshop's packed, full-time schedule featured a model kindergarten classroom conducted strictly in that fourth language, understood only by the visiting instructor and one Russian-born trainee. As the kids in the model class rapidly caught on, anyone could observe that it's possible to teach children strictly in a target language, even one not heard in their homes.

Following her participation as a Hebrew language specialist at a 2002 NFLRC workshop in Iowa–open to K-8 teachers of Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, and Japanese–Kadosh had discussed with Paul and others the idea of bringing Arabic and Hebrew day school teachers to a Los Angeles session. The location was a bow to the demands of family on teachers, Kadosh explains: the same participants might have learned even more from one another at shared dinners and dorm rooms in Iowa, where the NFLRC holds most of its summer training sessions.

Paul volunteered to find classroom space and staff support on UCLA's "neutral" ground, helping to distinguish the professional development workshop from interfaith events held in mosques or synagogues. UCLA Summer Sessions, the School of Public Policy, the International Institute, and the Center for Near Eastern Studies pitched in. While Kadosh signed up Hebrew teachers, Lina Kholaki of the Los Angeles–based Bureau of Islamic and Arabic Education recruited the Arabic teachers.

Swapped: E-Mails, Recipes, Pedagogy

Workshop participants knew before coming that they shared roots in one corner of the world and spoke closely related languages–Arabic being today, in its various dialects, the most widely used tongue in the Semitic linguistic branch that also includes Hebrew.

They also share a difficult job.

"I think we are facing the same problems, the same barriers in teaching. We and them," said Samia Nabhan, a Jordanian, on the first morning of the workshop. "Both of us are here in the U.S. teaching a language that is not English. We are in the same boat."

Nabhan and Hebrew teacher Hagit Arieli-Chai shook their heads in separate interviews when asked if they had been drawn to the workshop for the chance to learn about the other group. Like other workshops, this one was essentially about classrooms and children and how they acquire skills–tools and means. Teachers formed small groups based on their pupils' grade levels, and clearly respected one another's advice.

Few if any of the teachers had sat down with colleagues from the other faith, and certainly not to strategize on problems such as how to prevent American pupils from falling back on English in the classroom. During the ten-day workshop, they compared food, religious calendars, and pedagogical theories and tricks. At the final session on July 12, Cherice Montgomery, a Michigan State University doctoral student who led the training, asked participants to read passages in Arabic, Hebrew, and English on the theme of peace. The session fell on the first day of recent cross-border fighting, since escalated, between Hezbollah and the Israeli army. Israel was already in a major military operation in Gaza.

Ilham Zayat, a teacher of Arabic and the Koran from Lebanon, took the opportunity offered by the workshop to invite peers to speak on Judaism to her seventh and eighth graders. She has exchanged e-mails with Hebrew teachers and intends to visit their classes, too. Although she has taken some of her Arabic language students to sing and perform at churches and synagogues, she says, "If I know a Jewish person closely, and I can use it, that would be the best."

English Means You're in Trouble

On each day of the workshop, the 20 teachers sat in rows before Russian instructor Elena Farkas and the six five-year-old Angelenos recruited by Kadosh. (Finding willing kids of willing West Side parents for the ten-day crash course in Russian was the chief organizational challenge, Kadosh says.)

Farkas got the children to work with shapes, colors, and numbers. Russian words for the same concepts and for basic instructions appeared on walls and props. The teacher-trainees, several of whom were already employing similar techniques in immersive Arabic or Hebrew classrooms, talked about the difficulties of sticking by a no-English rule relaxed only for disciplinary problems and away from other students.

After the model class one day, Zayat and Ilana Ribak, a Hebrew teacher born in Russia, discussed the tight link between language and culture, making the point that to defend one is to defend the other. At Zayat's school, children of immigrants from various countries learn classical Arabic rather than one dialect or another. At Ribak's, Hebrew is viewed as a national language. Still, the challenges of serving immigrant families who are struggling to preserve their cultures remain the same. Any cross-cultural workshop helps, Zayat says, because it keeps you from thinking, "I'm the only one encountering these problems."