Learning in authentic contexts: Streetwise Hebrew

Friday, we participated in Guy Sharett’s Graffiti Tour of the Florentin neighborhood of Tel Aviv as I told you in a previous post.  It was a vivid lesson of what a difference it makes, in terms of engagement and retention, when learning takes place in an authentic context.  During the hour and half tour, we (14 of us, mostly young, British, Hungarian, Moroccan, American) learned about the history of the neighborhood, some hot button political issues, cultural icons, changes in the Hebrew language, verb forms and conjugations, Hebrew pluralization of plural words in other languages (jeans plural is jeanszim), and many new vocabulary words, all by reading signs and graffiti art and listening to and watching Guy extract every ounce of potential learning from them!  Guy uses a small white board to teach along the way and he gave each of us a little notebook (pinkas in Hebrew) and a pen and he encouraged us to write down new words.  (Sound familiar?  Just what we do with Lior, our tutor.)  Here he is at the beginning of the tour using his white board.

If you went to Hebrew School in the 50’s and 60’s as I did, you may have painful memories of your teacher standing with his back to the class, endlessly and painfully conjugating verbs on the blackboard (this was before whiteboards), while students like my dear friend Lynn made fun of the teacher behind his back.  Guy is NOT your old Hebrew School teacher and he doesn’t turn his back to his students!

It is entirely different when you’re reading a flyer about a lost dog and your teacher takes the opportunity to have you translate the sign and teach you different verb constructions from the same root as lost- for instance to commit suicide- and to teach you that when you put “which” in front of a present tense verb, it’s preferable to use “the” instead, as the author of the flyer did.  When learning in context, it sticks!

The Florentin neighborhood was settled by Jews from Salonika Greece and although it is being gentrified and is popular with artists and designers, it is still also a neighborhood of immigrants and poverty.  The graffiti explosion in Florentin is amazing.  Some is purely street art, some political, some satirical, some comical, and some whimsical.  Here are some examples. (By the way, if you click on any of the pictures in my blog, they will enlarge and will be easier to see.)

This graffiti art is called Mount Roshmore- a play on words because Rosh (as opposed to Rush) means head in Hebrew- and it portrays famous past leaders of Israel instead of America – David Ben Gurion,  Yitzhak Rabin, Golda Meir, and Menachem Begin.  Cleverly done.

This one portrays the image of the frightened little boy with his hands in the air from an iconic photograph taken in the Warsaw Ghetto – a poignant and powerful symbol of the Holocaust.  The writing in Hebrew and in English says Don’t Deport Me.   One of Israel’s hot button, human rights issues right now is the right-wing government’s desire to deport the children of  African refugees and migrant workers, many of whom have lived here most or all of their lives, speaking Hebrew and considering themselves Israeli while Jewish immigrants are welcome anytime from anywhere.  How can a government built on the ashes of the Holocaust consider committing such an injustice?  All that in one small piece of graffiti.

The section of Florentin that is old one-story buildings is now mostly workshops and because the government plans to tear it all down, they tolerate open use of the walls there for graffiti and they are graffiti filled and fascinating to see .  Here’s Guy and Chuck’s back in front of one such wall.

One more example, especially for my favorite Zionist, Rachel.

This is a portrait of Herzl, the founder of Zionism. One of his most famous lines about the future establishment of a Jewish state in Israel is “If you will it (want), it is no dream.” Under his portrait here, it says “if you don’t want to, you don’t have to.”  We all laughed.

If you’ve got a basic knowledge of Hebrew, I highly recommend one of Guy’s tours next time you’re in Israel.  He does a shopping-cooking one, a watching and discussing Israel’s version of American Idol, and a tour of the historic Trumpeldor Cemetery.  All examples of learning the language and culture in authentic contexts.

As a teacher, my own most successful moments were when I gave my students (whether first graders or graduate students) authentic assignments.  They ranged from:

How much carpet and how much baseboard trim do you need to buy for the playroom you’re renovating if it’s 18 feet long and 10 feet wide? (Do you remember in elementary school being asked to find the perimeter and area of a box with specified length and width?  How boring and who does that for its own sake in the real world?)

to:

You have been asked by your principal to lead a committee to choose a new mathematics textbook series.  What are your criteria for selection?  Who will you involve and why?  What are your school’s goals for teaching and learning mathematics and how will you know if a series will enable you to meet those goals? (The alternative might be a multiple choice exam about textbook selection and curriculum.  Ho-hum.)

Sitting with Lior on our rooftop deck and talking about what we’ve done here (for instance my hair salon adventure) or how we practice Judaism is another form of learning in authentic context.  I can proudly say we are now beginning to use and hear and understand the usage of many of the words Lior has taught us- yes!

If it’s not too late when Chuck and I return from a late Saturday night stroll on Dizengoff Street, I plan to do another post on Israelis we’ve encountered.  Such fun.

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