Arab students build a language bridge with Hebrew

Academic achievements strained by geo-political situation improve with student-counselor initiative program.

Rafat Kabha school certificate 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Barta’a Junior High School))
Rafat Kabha school certificate 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Barta’a Junior High School))
A little over a year ago, after noticing that students were experiencing difficulties in Hebrew, educators at a Wadi Ara school for Arab students decided to take matters into their own hands and launch an initiative aimed at improving and strengthening the Hebrew language among students.
“We did a study and found we had a problem when it came to achievements in Hebrew and it was reflected in how the students spoke very quietly, the accent wasn’t right and it was difficult for them to deal with the language,” principal of Barta’a Junior High School, Raed Kabha told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
As Kabha and one of the school’s teachers and head of the language department Rammzi Kabaha looked into what could be causing the problem, they found that it had very much to do with the complex geographical and political situation of the village.
Barta’a is a town that straddles the Green Line and the Wadi Ara region.
Western Barta’a is under Israeli rule and is part of the Haifa District, while eastern Barta’a, in the West Bank, is part of the Palestinian Authority.
Residents on the Israeli side hold Israeli identity cards and are Arab- Israelis.
On the Palestinian side, most residents have Palestinian cards, but a significant percentage also possess Israeli IDs.
To receive Israeli citizenship, many Palestinian men from eastern Barta’a married Arab-Israeli women from the western part of town. Some of their children, who have Israeli identity cards, go to school at Barta’a Junior High School, in western Barta’a.
“Many of these families moved from the Palestinian side to the Israeli side so that their children will study within Israel and will remain with an Israeli ID,” Kabha explained.
“A third of the students at school are [the] offspring of mixed marriages between both sides of the village.”
At the school, where studies are conducted in Arabic and follow the curriculum of the Israeli Education Ministry, Hebrew is the second official language, taught from the first grade.
Kabha and Kabaha noticed that the children’s motivation to learn Hebrew was very low, mostly due to the negative connotations they associated with it, being residents of a village which literally embodies the Israeli-Palestinian divide.
“They view the language as an enemy language, as an occupation language,” Kabha said,” They also have no parental support or help with it.”
“In terms of ideology and values, the kids are very much divided,” Kabaha added, “They feel like the don’t belong anywhere.”
“The kid lives the divide, he sees the reality of the checkpoints on a daily basis,” he continued, “One the one hand they see the developed country of Israel and want to learn the language, but their environment is not supportive.”
To solve the issue, the two educators approached the Fund for Innovative Teaching which aims at empowering teachers in Israel while fostering creativity and innovation in education by providing financial grants to develop creative ideas that can be implemented within the education system.
With the help of the Fund, Kabaha, who teaches in the seventh, eighth and ninth grades at Barta’a Junior High School, initiated a student counselor program. This consists of some of the best Hebrew learners in the classroom helping the weaker students by tutoring them and practicing Hebrew conversation with them for about two hours a week.
“They do it on a voluntary basis,” Kabaha explained. “We asked them who was willing to help others in Hebrew and they divided into teams and they can choose whose team they want to be on, we are not forcing them.”
Kahaba stressed that learning with classmates makes students feel more comfortable and less embarrassed when practicing Hebrew.
In addition, the school is also working to present the language to the students in a more positive light. It exposes them to the values common to Israelis and Palestinians, discusses tolerance and coexistence and organizes visits to Jewish schools. Barta’a students get to interact with native Hebrew speakers by engaging in various activities including art and drama.
The school also regularly convenes parents to meetings in order to ensure that they support the children’s learning at home.
“Slowly, slowly, they are getting better,” Kahaba told the Post, “it’s like they broke the obstacle of fear of speaking Hebrew.”
He added that many of the students have started talking about studying in Israeli universities when they finish high school, something that until now had never been considered an option for them. Most of Barta’a students go on to study at universities in the West Bank or in neighboring countries such as Jordan.
“It’s very emotional to see them dare to speak,” Kabaha said, “even if they make mistakes, it doesn’t matter, they speak, they start seeing Hebrew as an important official language.”
“We have opened a door for them to adjust to Israeli society,” he added.
Kabaha and Kabha’s initiative, which they hope to expand in the future, is one of 40 original projects annually selected by the Fund for Innovative Teaching, which receives about 400 applications a year.
Executive director of the fund, Yosefa Dar, explained that the grants are given for innovative activities and initiatives created in response to a problem in the classroom.
“This method encourages teachers to diagnose learning or social difficulties in classes and develop original initiatives designed to improve learning and increase curiosity and motivation among students,” Dar told the Post.
The Fund for Innovative Teaching works in partnership with the Education Ministry and receives donations from philanthropic foundations, including the Beracha Foundation.