Miriam Harary used to scour New York City bookstores in search of Hebrew textbooks for her students at Hillel High School in Ocean, N.J.Until recently, Hebrew language instruction at Hillel, like dozens of other Jewish day schools, depended largely on the initiative of individual teachers. Yet even the most ambitious instructors often were discouraged by the lack of formal curricula and age-appropriate materials for teaching modern Hebrew to teens.
The situation changed radically two years ago when Hillel, a coed Orthodox academy, instituted NETA, a burgeoning Hebrew curriculum that some educators say is revolutionizing the way the language is taught to Jewish middle- and high-school students. And when area students head back to school in September, a growing number of them will use a rigorous, new Hebrew language curriculum, which has emerged as an antidote to the more laissez faire teaching methods so prevalent at Jewish day schools. NETA, Harary said, has brought an engaging method to the madness of Hebrew language instruction. Designed for grades 7 through 12, the mix of unconventional materials excerpted in its 24 textbooks includes Hebrew verses by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai; lyrics by Israeli folksinger Chava Alberstein; passages from Genesis; artwork by the Surrealist painter Salvador Dali; dialogues that include Hebrew slang; and short stories by Israel’s Generation Y literary sensation Etgar Keret.“My students, they’re really connecting to it,” said Harary, who has taught Hebrew at Hillel High for 17 years. “They can’t believe they’re learning art, they’re learning science, they’re learning Bible in Hebrew.
”Perhaps most important, the program has enhanced her students’ comfort level with the spoken language.“It’s like NETA released their tongue,” she said.NETA, now being used in 55 day and supplementary schools, and other models teaching modern Hebrew, was the subject of several sessions at the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education conference held last week at St. John’s University in Queens.Hebrew language pedagogy, experts agree, has become a standout issue in recent years, in large part because it had been neglected — often taught by novice teachers with insufficient materials, at schools where only a minimal amount of time was devoted to Hebrew study and virtually no curriculum oversight — for more than a generation.
The lack of suitable teachers and texts, and too little time devoted to language study spawned a sharp downward spiral: disinterest, minimal advancement, lowered expectations and frustration. While more day school graduates were spending a post-high school year at a yeshiva or university in Israel, fewer of them found themselves able to converse proficiently when they arrived.“Here they were spending 12 years at a Jewish day school, and then they’d go to Israel and not be able to converse,” said Rabbi Mordechai Besser, principal at the pre-kindergarten to eighth-grade Manhattan Day School, which adopted NETA two years ago. “Pretty unbelievable.”
Rabbi Besser said that in an effort to “triage” the overwhelming amount of work thrust on youngsters attending schools with dual general and Judaic studies curricula, Hebrew language instruction was among the first subjects to be sidelined. As a result, he said, “Hebrew language is dying in day schools.”At Jewish day schools, Hebrew language instruction is inconsistent at best, said Ruth Wisse, a trustee of The Avi Chai Foundation, which has devoted $4.8 million to develop and sustain NETA. (The acronym comes from the Hebrew words that mean “youth for the good of Hebrew”; neta in Hebrew means “sapling.”)“Here and there you had gifted teachers,” said Wisse, professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard University. “We found that there was no holistic curriculum that took you from one level to the next. There were no attractive materials that involved students through their own interests and built upon their imaginations and abilities. … We felt the standards for Hebrew had not been set high enough.”
NETA, launched in 13 schools five years ago, is a pluralistic curriculum that groups students according to their level of Hebrew language proficiency. It emphasizes equally speaking, listening, writing and reading comprehension.The tests are not the perfunctory fill-in-the-blank or multiple-choice varieties. They require students to answer questions and complete exercises upon listening to CDs from the curriculum.Created by Hilla Kobliner, who has taught Hebrew for more than 35 years to overseas students at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, NETA is based on the notion that developing a love for Hebrew is a natural outgrowth of mastering the language.“Once a student knows Hebrew,” Kobliner told educators at the CAJE conference, “they’re in love with it and they’re in love with Israel.”Talya Presser, who in September will be an eighth-grader at Manhattan Day School, said NETA made learning Hebrew more enjoyable and her grades in the subject have improved by proxy.“With NETA, it’s not like we were learning grammar or vocabulary directly,” said Talya, 13, who transferred a year ago from Ramaz, which does not use NETA. “We were learning grammar or vocabulary through different subjects … like women’s rights in foreign countries.”Talya also said that NETA makes learning Hebrew more systematic.
“There’s a guideline now,” she said. “Before we were taught day-to-day and didn’t exactly know what was coming up. Now we have the whole [textbook], so now we know.”Harary said her students are equally enthusiastic about the program, adding that last year a student wrote her an unsolicited letter, in Hebrew, praising the new curriculum.“Thanks to the new NETA Hebrew curriculum, we have stories and essays that interest us as teenagers,” the student wrote. “ … The book is filled with songs, pictures and interesting stories, very much the opposite of previous years. The stories draw the interest even of mediocre students in my class.”According to experts, the post-World War II generation in America placed more emphasis on Hebrew language instruction because they were enamored with Hebrew as a working language.
“A generation of Eastern European [immigrants] felt very idealistic about their mission to impart the language,” said Judy Morag, a Hebrew scholar, and arts and language group director at the Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT and SAT II subject tests — including the Hebrew language exam — among various college and graduate school entrance exams.
NETA is one of several new initiatives aimed at raising the bar on teaching modern Hebrew. Another notable program is Tal Am, an elementary school curriculum that integrates Hebrew language arts and the Hebrew language teaching of Judaic studies.Tal Am, which follows the lives of 12 fictional youngsters from various Jewish backgrounds and types of families, is in various stages of developing and piloting for grades 2-6. It has been used, however, in a growing number of first-grade classrooms over the past 15 years.
Backers of the curriculum — including Avi Chai, which has earmarked about $2 million to the program — ultimately see it replacing the 20-year-old Tal Sela program, which focuses exclusively on Hebrew language arts in grades 2-6. Tal Am creators are looking into whether the program could serve as a predecessor to NETA.Other innovative programs include “Nitzanim” and “Chaverim b’Ivrit,” a series of Hebrew language grade-school textbooks that attempt to increase the scope and structure of the teaching of modern Hebrew; and the Ivriyon Immersion Program, a summer course sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary for Jewish studies teachers wishing to further their Hebrew proficiency.Schools wishing to adopt NETA are required to teach Hebrew a minimum of 180 minutes per week and adhere to the steady pace to ensure student progress. Teachers must attend a mandatory 10-day NETA introductory workshop administered by Hebrew College in Boston and agree to be observed every three weeks by a NETA mentor, usually a master Hebrew teacher.“
At the workshop, some teachers were saying, ‘We’ve taught for so many years, we don’t need to be supervised,’ ” Harary said. “But even those teachers by the end of the 10 days saw the light.
”In addition, educators may elect to participate in NETA’s optional Certificate Program in Hebrew Language Education, a longer comprehensive summer program in which Hebrew teachers take classes such as “Linguistics, History and Literature of the Hebrew Language,” “Teaching Jewish and Israeli Texts” and “Special Needs Learning and Differences.”Ariella Steinreich, 16, an 11th-grader at the Orthodox Maayanot High School of Girls in Teaneck, N.J., said that students, as well as teachers, need a NETA introductory course.“It’s very hard to study for NETA exams,” said Ariella, whose school implemented NETA two years ago. “It’s not like you can just memorize vocabulary. You really have to grasp what’s being said [on the testing CDs]. The tests don’t come directly from the book. You need to apply what you learned in class and from the book, and that really throws some people off.“Maybe the year before it’s introduced,” she said, “they should explain what NETA is all about and how to succeed in it. For so many people, it’s such a drastic change.”