Thursday, August 13, 2009

From Language Teacher to Student

Okay, I have to start with a title disclaimer- of course, all teachers are students (well, all good teachers) in the sense that we keep on learning. I'm constantly discovering more and more, often at the bidding of my students or my curriculum. But, in the formal, titled, roles, I have made the great SWITCH!

I like the idea that I'm learning to learn, that my gauge is that I know more today than I did yesterday. I'm not checking off credits for a degree or jumping through hoops to appease a teacher, a program or a school. I am a learner in the freest, most natural sense. My goal is to acquire as much language as possible in order to provide ample foundation in establishing myself in Israel. In less stuffy terms, play with the language, hang out with people, and point to things and ask friends, acquaintances and total strangers to identify them in Hebrew for me.

Towards the end of the previous school year when I was discussing my transition with some of my then students, one commented, "Geez, I feel sorry for your teacher!" I laughed, but now I'm kinda wondering what she meant by that comment. Was she worried that I'd overwhelm the class with my energy, or try to teach it myself? Was it just a meaningless sideways remark? But I must admit, as a rather opinionated language teacher with a decade of instructional experience (I love saying that- here it is again- I've taught a combination of Spanish/ French for the past ten years- Five of which have been in a classroom and five summers in Concordia Language Villages, and a couple of years one-on-one tutoring at the college level... just in case you wondered how I got a decade of experience in) So, where was I? Oh yes, opinionated (read critical) with a very defined sense of the most effective instructional methods.

I happened to be in the absolutely lowest level of Hebrew possible (I'm quite proud of my accomplishment, thank you). The great part about being the bottom of the barrel is that everyone knows more than I do and can be pestered with questions. I'm actually quite happy that another former Concordia Language Village staff member is here (and thus, we have similar language passions, nerdy love for grammatical details, and instructional philosophies) and he happens to be an expert in Hebrew grammar (bonus!). As another student told me just this evening, being in the lowest level I get to learn the most... or rather, I have the most I have to learn! At this moment, 4 weeks into the 5 month program, I'm thinking that doing a subsequent 5 month block would be the most beneficial. (Aka, if I don't have a solid hold on Hebrew when I walk into my own classroom next year the students will eat me alive!)

So, I have to say, despite what my own students would think, I'm a very nice student to have in the classroom. I still remember my 10th grade Spanish teacher taking me aside and telling me share the airtime with the rest of the students. (I was just so excited to have finally busted through my language failing trends, thanks to Concordia- I didn't really mean to have diarrhea of the mouth... but at least I was spewing Spanish!) Needless to say, I let the other students speak and content myself with writing ridiculously long sentences in Hebrew in my notebook. (Although today the teacher had to ask me to stop explaining additional grammar concepts to my neighbor so that we could both rejoin the class... )

As far as teaching pedagogy, I agree with a lot of what takes place in our classroom. (Which is nice, because as a student, I don't get to direct the class... alas) We have two teachers who alternate days. I had to laugh to myself because one has such a similar teacher style to mine- the same hand gestures, questing style, and way of over-enunciating words- that it was almost like watching myself teach. I understand too, the emphasis on verbs, in lieu of nouns, and general sentence structure. (Although, I must admit, at this point I have a pitifully small vocabulary.) At the same time, I have to wonder at the choice of vocabulary taught. I can tell people where I'm from, what I used to do, and where I study and where I'm going-- but I can't ask for directions or understand the answer. (Since obviously, every single person I meet will be exclusively interested the information I can share with my autobiographical skills but I won't actually want to know how to get anywhere and will never get lost.) If I could make one change to the curriculum, I would throw a directions unit in sometime soon (like now).

The goal is that by this time next year I can have diarrhea of the mouth in four languages- now won't that be fun!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Transitioning to Home


Last night (yes, on a school night) I went with two people close to my age (really, this is where the differences start) to an international art festival and music concert held in downtown Jerusalem. I was smashed and bopping in a space of modern stage and stadium places on old Jerusalem stone, surrounded with other Israelis singing along to Yehudit Ravits onstage. Life in Bangladesh is one filled with population density, but the experience couldn't have been more different. Bangladeshi crowds were primarily men dressed in lungi or tailored pants with very few families around. Women could be seen on the street primarily as beggars or walking in large flocks of colorful salwar kameez and saris when the textile factories changed shifts. Last night, I switched places, instead of being stared at unrepentantly, it was me who could barely tear my eyes away- so many dads carrying and playing with their small children, families with strollers, more observant individuals bouncing and singing along with their less observant copatriots. From mini skirts to ground-length flowing skirts to pants, to head scarves, to kippas to bare heads- all at an art festival celebrating diversity and creativity and enjoying the beautiful Jerusalem summer nights.

My heart sings here.

Somewhere near the end of my time in Bangladesh, I realized that I had become more guarded with my emotions, myself and my attachments. Too few were the occasions where I felt the giddiness gurgling up and exploding into laughter. The two years there held plenty of beautiful moments and wonderful friendships, and I do miss my students so much... dancing and laughing and singing with them... But it's not the same inherent giddiness that characterizes how I feel in my new home.

And my soul rejoices.

Last Thursday after classes I hopped on a bus to צפת (Tzfat/ Sefed) and headed up north to spend time with the wonderful friends I met over the past two years at Livnot. I watched the dry flat land turn into rolling green mountains (or hills if you've seen the himalayas). I spent my time walking through the beautiful old city, so much of which has been dug out, repaired and made inhabitable by decades of Livnot volunteers. I was so happy I though the sun was shinning from my insides out...

So many moments... walking down those twisting stone walkways and coming upon a couple of musicians playing in the shade of a tree for a group of young soldiers... the sounds of shabbat where car engines are replaced with the sounds of children and the buildings seem expel all their inhabitants outside, dressed elegantly to welcome the Sabbath bride... Watching the sun set over the rolling mountain tops and singing kabbalah shabbat and dancing on the Livnot balcony- quite possibly my favorite place and time on earth.

I sit here in my dorm-like room writing and thinking of how pitiful the words are in their vain attempt to encompass my experiences. I could write pages about each moment- from exploring the beautiful quarters of the walled Old City in Jerusalem, to walking through the park to discover figs, olives and pommegrantes growing calmly and gracefully along side the promenade with a spectacular view of Jerusalem and the Dome of the Rock The freedom of being able to jump on a bus and go to any corner of the country - which I plan on doing again next weekend to see friends in Tel Aviv.

And everywhere I go, I meet more people, amazing open people, who give me their numbers and tell me to invite myself over (it's the Israeli way) and actually mean it. I have more invitations for Shabbat than I can make in any reasonable period of time. Everyone tell me that I'm welcome here- in Hebrew, in French, in Spanish and in English.

Last weekend I was sitting on the stone benches of a plaza in Tzfat next to a dear friend and I realized... I get to live here, in the same country, and allow our friendship to develop over years and years and be in the same space... For people who grew up in the same place, you have childhood friends, who live stationary lives and have known and lived near their friends for extended periods of time... this is not an amazing thought. But the longest time I've even been able to live near any one friend is four years, not counting summers. And I'm so amazed at the idea.

I've spent my afternoon bugging students with more advanced levels of hebrew (aka everyone) for extra help and explanations and now I should actually settle down and do the homework assigned in class- as opposed to the homework I assign myself. *sigh* language teachers, I tell you.