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I finally understand you

It's one thing to pay attention in class to the teacher's Hebrew; it's quite another to chitchat with Israeli friends at snacktime
First grade students sit in a classroom on their first day of school at the Borohov school in Givatayim, September 1, 2017. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90)
First grade students sit in a classroom on their first day of school at the Borohov school in Givatayim, September 1, 2017. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90)

Nine years ago, we picked up our family of eight and made aliyah. But it was not until I began an intensive Israeli leadership program earlier this year that I fully appreciated just how challenging school was for my kids during those first years.

I direct an educational non-profit called Hidden Sparks, which provides coaching and training for teachers to better support the range of struggling learners in typical classrooms. This is why experiencing what it feels like to be handicapped — by having to function at a high level in my non-dominant language and using all the strategies I could muster — has been especially illuminating for me. I share my experiences and thoughts in the hopes that it will be helpful to other parents, as well as to teachers with new immigrants or children with any sort of learning disability in their classroom.

My experience and journey began last summer, with a group interview for acceptance into an intensive Israeli leadership development program for educators.

We were about 20 interviewees in the room and we each had to introduce a particular topic. As the facilitators gave out paper for interviewees to jot down notes, I noticed that I was the only one with prepared notecards (which I had already reviewed with my kids to ensure that I was using words and tenses correctly). We took turns introducing our topics. Not wanting to call too much attention to my new immigrant language deficit, I only glanced at my cards, and was thankful that I made it through without a hitch. The group was then charged with a task as the facilitators watched how we engaged. I remember strategizing in the moment about which role I was equipped for. Had the conversation been in English I would have wanted to be a “convener” or “summarizer” — finding the patterns and commonalities of everyone’s contributions. But because I didn’t consider myself nuanced or fluent enough in Hebrew nor did I trust myself to accurately summarize what others had said, I calculated that I would have to find a new role and leave the role of convener to someone else.

Next we were all handed a Hebrew text to read and be prepared to discuss. Thankfully, we were given a coffee break to quickly read it through. As everyone else hit the coffee and snack table to socialize, I quietly did a bee line to the stairwell with my Google Translate app, and managed to triage paragraphs to quickly get through the article.

Fast forward a few months and I am gratefully sitting in a room with 30 senior educational leaders from across the country in the Maoz-Advot leadership program. From 8:30 am until 7:00 pm several days a month we are engaged in listening to speakers, considering implications for Israeli education, debriefing, researching, and socializing. It’s an intense program which demands one’s full attention. Phones are put away until a break.

So I attend. Not at 60% or even 90%. My brain feels like it’s supercharging at 150%, and I can’t afford to miss a word. The words I don’t know I have to figure out from context or plug into Google Translate (I’m the one exception who has been allowed to use my phone for this). Occasionally, if I’m really stumped, like I was with a recent slang word which doesn’t yet appear in Translate, I’ll interrupt a fellow participant to ask.

As the only native English speaker, I estimate that I’m working at least five times as hard as anyone else in that room. First I’m listening and trying to understand the discourse. Then I’m translating it for myself to take notes in English. Then to speak up — and it’s a highly interactive setting which demands participation — I have to think about what I want to say and how to say it (making sure I have the correct words to amply express myself and the correct grammar and tenses so that I sound remotely intelligent and don’t leave other participants wondering why I’m there). Then I have to connect it to what has been said, continue listening while remembering and suspending what I want to say (active working memory), and make sure to jump in, into the fast paced give-and-take that characterizes Israeli dialogue, before we move on to the next subject. Since my command of Hebrew is less sophisticated and my Hebrew word bank naturally more limited, I have to think about saying what I wish to say with the words I know, which sometimes results in keeping my sentences and thoughts shorter and struggling with how to express nuance. As a result, I often wonder if I’m adequately expressing what I wish to convey or if the filtered comments emerge far more simplistically.

Because of my line of work, I think about what it would be like to experience what I went through if I were a child who had recently moved from another country, or a child with a language disability. I am struck by all the strategies at every step of the way that I have had to employ just to keep pace, and how difficult this would be for children without the skills, strategies and awareness that I have access to.

I can now fully appreciate how sitting through seven-hour days on high mental alert would be draining. Attending with that kind of prolonged concentration is not only exhausting but requires immense attention, mental energy and focus. I had the benefit of being motivated and interested in the topic, but imagine a child with a language (or other) disability sitting through hour after hour struggling to learn material that may be less-than riveting, and is often not presented in an engaging format. For a child with fairly typical attention struggles, the task of attending for that long in a new language would be almost impossible without becoming distracted.

Occasionally, it could take minutes to figure out a word from context. If that happened in class, a child might miss the entire point and would then be lost. Once he or she got off track, it’s a short trip to zoning out and daydreaming, and some children begin to act out due to boredom, all of which can compound the initial difficulty. In my native language, if I spaced out I could expect to reconnect at some point. In a new language it’s that much harder. There’s also less incentive. When we understand the content, that reinforces our sense of mastery and we develop internal motivation to stay connected. For a child who has difficulty following the content, their expectation for success is lower and that impacts their internal motivation.

If I were a child struggling with any of these challenges and had a teacher who understood how hard I was trying and helped introduce the right supports, school would be far easier and more compassionate. However, if I had a teacher who did not appreciate or understand my learning struggles or offer appropriate supports to help me, and I turned to my neighbor for help, I might risk both of us getting into trouble. Or if I got lost in a discussion because I didn’t understand something, a teacher might misinterpret that as disinterest.

As a student, if I seemed distracted I would hope the teacher would have the empathy to not call on me or to give me a “heads up” before calling on me so that I could be prepared. The social humiliation of being called on and not knowing the answer, especially for a child who is already conscious of being different, would be especially painful. I hope teachers are amply sensitive to this. The results they gain through showing kindness, compassion and supporting a student will be more far more effective.

A big part of our program is small group discussion. In the initial meetings we created group norms, and I was impressed and pleased that “active listening” was on the list. Following an engaging presentation, we were to debrief the presentation in small groups and go around the circle. However, the facilitator advised us, there would not be enough time to hear from everyone. We proceeded to share and the “active listening norm” was on trial. A few of us waited our turn patiently but some began to dominate the group. Back and forth they argued their point, seemingly unaware that others had not yet spoken. To be part of this dialogue I had to cut in, speak quickly and want to participate. As I waited, aware of the passing time, I decided it just wasn’t that important for me to weigh in on this particular point.

As an adult, I was able to evaluate the value of speaking at this time and I recognized that there were different cultural norms at play here and not to take it personally. Most importantly, my self-esteem would not be impacted by participation. However, had I been a child in class with a similar situation, where almost everyone else had spoken and there was no room for me, I might have internalized that my voice wasn’t important. There is so much a teacher can and should do to nurture a supportive classroom community where all voices are heard and valued. No child should ever be made to feel that he or she is not a valued member of the class community and that his or her voice is not important.

Interestingly, in the debrief towards the end of the day, a fellow participant said to me, “That debrief was so refreshing. I felt we were using a lot of active listening.” “How interesting you should say that,” I replied, “I felt just the opposite. Given where I come from, I felt that there wasn’t enough equity of voice, or awareness of how some were monopolizing the conversation.” Even our perceptions of the event were different! Understanding and adjusting to a new culture and its group norms and values are both part of the learning curve. Parents and teachers can help children understand this.

By far, the most deceptively challenging segment of all, however, is the small talk and banter at meals. These conversations are fast-paced, and involve humor, sarcasm, and references and allusions to current events, cultural awareness, politics, and more. So much is about what remains unsaid — the synapses that are not spelled out. To jump into conversation you have to be fast and nimble. You have to know what is being talked about and be able to understand the references. And you have to get the jokes. According to Dr. Mel Levine, the well-known learning expert, humor and social language are the highest levels of language. To understand humor you have to have the ability to distinguish between the literal and the abstract, and to understand nuance, sarcasm, and social cues.

For a child from another country who does not speak the language fluently or does not understand the references, or for a child struggling with a learning disability, the unstructured times like recess or lunch can be especially challenging and can cause a child with any handicap to feel more challenged or isolated.

So what’s my message? To parents, it’s mixed. Appreciate that your kids are spending entire days in school just trying to keep their heads above water. Help them realize that you know what they’re going through, and celebrate their courage every day. Advocate for them in school so they get the support they need. Get into the trenches and learn with them. Your kids will appreciate it, and they will feel supported. For new olim parents, also lovingly push them and model that kind of commitment and grit by speaking Hebrew. As Americans we tend to cluster in our own communities after surviving such a life- changing upheaval. Break your teeth with them by reading in Hebrew, talking in Hebrew, and watching TV programs together. Show them that you’re also trying to improve. My kids are immensely proud of my language leaps and they tell me that they admire my determination to speak, even with mistakes.

For teachers, there’s a lot we can do to help struggling learners in our classrooms — be they olim or children with another handicap. First, we can be aware of the hurdles they are overcoming on a daily basis and appreciate how hard they are working. Second, we can recognize that many learning differences exist in typical classrooms, and we can plan our lessons and set up our classrooms to include more differentiated learning and instructional supports. Research has shown that everyone benefits from these steps. Third, we can nurture classroom communities that value kindness and caring and celebrate differences by modeling that for our students. We can find opportunities for new olim to talk about where they came from, look for the hobbies and strengths in all of our students, and make an extra effort to find opportunities for everyone to shine, especially those who don’t excel academically. Every student deserves to feel appreciated and valued. Finally, we can make our classrooms safe for trial and error — and model mistakes, so that students learn how to accept mistakes (their own and others’) with understanding, and, perhaps most importantly, the grit to move on.

As for me, I have grown by leaps and bounds, and feel privileged to be part of a group of caring and smart educators who value diversity — and even find my American accent charming. But I also now have a word wall hanging in my home with the daily dose of new (to me) Hebrew words, and have added Israeli news and programs to my elliptical workout routine. I am not under any illusions that this year-long program will be a cake-walk: I’ll still summon all of those strategies in our sessions every month, and I might still crash at the end of the day to Netflix. But with each passing month it gets much easier. Perhaps as a result of sharing my experiences, a few more parents and teachers might appreciate the daily courage and tenacity that it takes for olim, or children with learning disabilities, to get through school. Awareness and understanding are the first steps.

About the Author
Debbie co-founded and directs Hidden Sparks a coaching and teacher training program serving day schools in the US and schools in Israel to help schools better address the range of learners in classrooms, particularly the struggling learners. She is currently a fellow in the Maoz-Advot educational leadership program. She and her husband, Ben Zion, made aliyah in 2009 and are the proud parents of 6 children.
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