Nancy Strichman
Spotlight on Civil Society

Co-teaching complexity

Arab and Jewish co-teachers with their kindergarden class, getting ready for 'Identity Day' celebrations at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Jerusalem School. Fall, 2017. Credit: Craig Stennett

Everything we study these days seems to become only more subtle, more nuanced. In my class with students from around the world, I find myself often returning to the same responses. It depends. It’s messy. It’s complicated. So much lacks simple solutions. But, still, absolutes are definitely an easier sell.

Whenever I get a little disheartened by all these complexities, I remind myself that I am trying to teach an essential skillset: the idea of being curious, staying open, and holding conflicting thoughts side by side. If I need more inspiration, I think about the Hand in Hand schoolteachers whom I have met over the years.

Children playing in the corridors of the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Jerusalem School. Fall, 2017

As co-teachers, they are together responsible for Jewish and Arab students in bilingual Hebrew and Arabic classrooms. And yes, this model is an exception to the norm. There are few opportunities like this in Israel, as the vast majority of kids, from kindergarten through 12th grade, study in separate Jewish and Arab public schools.

Jewish and Arab co- teachers with their class at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Jerusalem School. Sept. 2019, Courtesy of Pear Foundation. Photo Credit: Dave Brown

The Hand in Hand teachers are regularly tested on the art of teaching complexity. The political conflict swirling around us affects their classrooms in big and small ways. This was dramatically demonstrated five years ago this week, when Jewish extremists firebombed two first grade classrooms at the Hand in Hand campus in Jerusalem. Yet what is equally worth remembering from that frightening event is that the very next morning, less than twelve hours after the attack, every single student still showed up for class.

If we want to know what it is like to handle complexity, teach it, hold and contain it, we can learn from the educators at Hand in Hand schools. You can meet lots of individuals there who can show us how to raise kids who see all kinds of challenges, and still want to show up the next day to play soccer and learn math together.

President Reuven Rivlin and First Lady Nechama Rivlin (z”l) welcoming first graders to their residences following the arson attack. Fall, 2014

In the days following the arson attack, Hand in Hand was lifted up not only by its own community of teachers, parents, students and local partners, but also by the wider community that rallied around them. Dignitaries visited from near and far. The first graders were invited to hold class at President Reuven Rivlin’s residence. A solidarity march was quickly organized, with over 3,000 in attendance. And within two weeks, student representatives were invited to participate in the White House Hanukah candlelight ceremony with President Obama. All this showed that bilingual education, despite being a rarity in Israel, has taken on a symbolic importance– the idea that Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel learning together can contribute to building a better future here.

Pope Francis meeting students from Hand in Hand schools on his first visit to Israel. Spring, 2014

The students at the Hand in Hand schools have always been well aware of the volatile political climate in which they live, even if they would much rather be focusing on art projects, science class or school recess. Students become accustomed to complicated issues that are messy and lack simple answers.

Students participating in an art class at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem. Fall, 2015. Photo Credit: Debbie Hill

They are guided by their teachers to have age appropriate conversations, and over the years to build a skillset to do so. Every day, these Jewish, Christian and Muslim kids are learning that not only do each of them have different stories, holidays and traditions, but they have entirely different narratives of the same events.

Complexity itself becomes familiar. What also becomes routine is that after these class discussions, kids go on with their typical day – perhaps hanging out in the playground or working on a group project for music class.

It doesn’t mean that things are always easy. But maybe that’s the best part – no one is pretending that it is. Handling conflict is built into the curriculum. The Hand in Hand pedagogy is grounded in multiculturalism and the values of open communication, dialogue and mutual respect. Students are taught to navigate tough conversations about identity, values and narratives. Agreeing to disagree is okay. Recognizing that there are not always clear-cut explanations becomes a given.

All of the Hand in Hand teachers receive ongoing supervision and training and host their own facilitated discussions on these topics. And the efforts at Hand in Hand schools to build a sense of community – a community that can sustain itself even under duress – isn’t left only to the students and teachers. Parents, family members and activists form organized communities around each school, spending time together in activities such as dialogue groups, adult education programs, and field trips.

Weekly gathering for parents and children at the Hand in Hand School in Tel Aviv- Jaffa. Fall, 2017. Photo Credit: Craig Stennett

Our research on shared society organizations, including Hand in Hand, has shown, perhaps surprisingly, that it is not productive to avoid conflict. In fact, conflict is anticipated. Difficult conversations are often encouraged. Shared Arab-Jewish organizations that deliberately engage with tough issues tend to be the most effective. They establish coping mechanisms to better handle the inevitable crises and disagreements – both internal and external to the organization.

And what else do they take for granted? That meaningful dialogue, together with the possible challenges such dialogue may bring, can eventually lead to more shared understandings and common ground.

Kids playing soccer during school recess at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Jerusalem School. Fall, 2015. Courtesy of Pear Foundation. Photo Credit: Dave Brown

So what can we expect to see in the next five years regarding bilingual schools? We know Hand in Hand has a waiting list at each of their schools in Jerusalem, Haifa, Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Galilee, Kfar Kara and the Bet Berl campus. We know that parent groups are advocating to open new bilingual schools in additional locations around the country.

Two classmates at the Hand in Hand School in Kfar Kara. Fall, 2017. Photo Credit: Craig Stennett

We know the movement toward shared life education continues to grow, with school exchange programs and efforts such as the Hand in Hand network, as well as the bilingual school at Neve Shalom and the Hagar School in the South. The idea of bilingual education, once considered quite preposterous and unnecessary, is now considered a reasonable option.

But at the same time, we also know that others continue to violently oppose such efforts, believing that youth should not have the opportunity to learn how to navigate multiculturalism, and that they even go so far as to deny that there is diversity in Israeli society.

Still, you might ask me to give a more definitive answer – whether in five years, something as simple as Arab and Jewish kids studying algebra in a bilingual class will be viewed as dangerous, essential or something in between. You already know how I am going to respond. It depends. It’s messy. It’s complicated. And that I will have to get back to you on this.

One thing that I am certain of is that there is much to learn from the Hand in Hand bilingual school network and the dozens of shared society organizations around the country. They are teaching us how to be more nuanced and open, something that is especially needed these days. Their work is setting the tone for all of us. We should be taking careful notes.

Schoolchildren at the Hand in Hand School in Tel Aviv- Jaffa. Fall, 2017
About the Author
Dr. Nancy Strichman teaches graduate courses in evaluation and strategic thinking at the Hebrew University’s Glocal program, a masters degree in International Development. Her research has focused on civil society, specifically on shared society NGOs and gender equality in Israel. She lives in Tivon, Israel with her four children and her very patient husband.
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