Bedouin school a class above the rest with English-language successes

Teacher and students score success on the English exam at a Bedouin school.

ORT Kseifa Abu Rabe’a’s high school English teacher and English coordinator, Dr. Maha Alawdat, and some of her five-point English matriculation students (photo credit: JUDITH SUDILOVSKY)
ORT Kseifa Abu Rabe’a’s high school English teacher and English coordinator, Dr. Maha Alawdat, and some of her five-point English matriculation students
(photo credit: JUDITH SUDILOVSKY)
Many of the 26 English students in Dr. Maha Alawdat’s class at the ORT Kseifa Abu Rabe’s High School secretly hated her when they began studying with her three years ago.
Only one of the students was set to study for the four-point English matriculation exam – the second highest level; all the others had been slated for the three point exam. One student could not even speak basic English.
No one expected them to take the rigorous five point exam.
No one, that is, except Alawdat.
“At the beginning we hated Dr. Maha. She made us study hard and we were not ready to learn. We were not ready to study and have quizzes every week,” Nasayem Abu Ayadeh, 18, from the unrecognized village of Drijat admits now with a big grin, as she sits opposite Alawdat along with some of her other classmates. Abu Ayadeh entered the class as a three-point, possibly a four- point, student.
It is easy for the students to laugh now at how much they had disliked their teacher.
Their entire class – the class which was expected to have only a few four-point students at the most – passed the five-point matriculation exam in English. It is the first time an entire class of students in the Bedouin sector, which was meant for three and four points, has qualified for the five-point English matriculation exam certificate.
“They put me in a class going for three and four points, but I wanted to take the five-point exam. Every lesson she told us that we can do it; even if some of us didn’t think we could, she convinced us,” says Abu Ayadeh, who will be studying education at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba and plans on coming back to teach English in one of the area’s Bedouin schools. “If we are going to go to college, we need the language. Everything is in English. I am sure I can do more. I can give more.”
In the 2016-2017 school year, 19 students from the school passed the five-point English matriculation exam. In 2018, that number tripled to 60 students, which, in addition to Alawdat’s entire class, included students in two other English classes that followed her plan when she was the English coordinator at the school.
“I do not envy our English teachers,” says school principal Naif Abu Rabe’a, who himself grew up in the nearby unrecognized village of the Abu Rabe’a tribe and is a graduate of the school. He and his five siblings all went on to academic and professional careers thanks to a strong desire to study and get ahead, despite the restrictive conditions they lived in. But even they received three-point English matriculation exams and needed to go to pre-university studies to bring up their level. He still lives in the Abu Rabe’a tribe village, where the children can now study under easier conditions, partially because of solar panels that provide electricity. “In other towns the teachers can give an assignment and the students can work on the Internet. Here the teachers have to do all the work in the school.”
Founded in 1969, the school was the first school in the Bedouin sector in the Negev with 16 students. Today there are 1,114 students, with almost 85 percent of the school’s student body coming from the unrecognized Bedouin villages scattered around the Negev desert outside the town of Kseifa. Some have to ride 50 kilometers in Ministry of Education-supplied buses to reach the school. They live in tin shack homes, with no running water or electricity. In the sunnier season they are able to use the solar panels to help with electricity supply but in the winter these panels are of little help.
There are two other high schools in Kseifa, with a total of 35 high schools for the Bedouin sector in the Negev.
Without a standard electricity connection in their homes, the students don’t have the luxury of studying late into the night, especially in the winter.
 “I was studying only during the day, especially in the winter when the solar system doesn’t work,” says Mayar Abu Rabe’a, 18, of Kseifa who will be studying nursing at Ben-Gurion University.
“The situation is not easy if they do not have Internet and they don’t have telephone lines or electricity. You can’t compare the [significance] of receiving a five-point English matriculation in an Arab school in the Galilee or as a Jewish student to [the accomplishment of] receiving it here,” the principal says. “Bringing students who were meant to study for the three-point exam to four points is something, but bringing a whole class to the five-point exam…I just get goose pimples thinking about what they have achieved.”
Part of the success is due to the special English Language Center “ELC” at the school, donated by the Clore Institute and the British Council with the initiative of Alawdat, now in its 12th year. In the ELC room, students are immersed in English-language learning with computers, quiet study areas and a small lending library. It is the only such room in the Bedouin sector and one of 10 in all of Israel.
The room, says Alawdat, is “heaven for the students.”
The second half of the successful equation, in addition to Abu Rabe’a’s support, is Alawdat’s unwavering dedication and belief that her students are capable of completing five points in English.
“What will the students do without English?” she asks. “English is the international language. They can work anywhere. Five points is their ticket to the world. Their parents saw their accomplishments and are willing to push them to go to university. There are no excuses. Sixty students getting five points is a huge success for our school.”
Whereas not so long ago most of the teachers in the school came from northern Israel, the area in the center of the country known as “the Triangle” or Jerusalem or the Jewish sector, today half of them are locals. And that makes a difference in the confidence of the Bedouin parents, especially those from the unrecognized villages, in the teachers, notes Alawdat. Interestingly, she says, the majority of the students coming from the unrecognized villages are girls who are intent on getting a better education.
Some of her own former students have come back to teach at the school, she adds.
Alawdat, whose mother is a Palestinian from Hebron and father a Bedouin from Kseifa, spent four years in the US at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, completing her PhD degree on a Fulbright scholarship in Composition and TESOL (Teaching English as a Second Language), the only Bedouin to achieve such a degree. When she returned in 2015 she had a mission: to improve the level of English teaching at her school.
“I told my students that in my class there were no three-pointers. I discussed it with them and told them the starting point was four or five points. I told them there were no free lunches. I told them they were five pointers and had to go for the five points. Nobody left,” she says.
Sometimes she was afraid she was pushing her students too hard but nevertheless she did not relent, she says.
Mohammed Abu Hammad, 18, from the unrecognized village of Drejat, stepped into her class almost without being able to speak a word of English.
“His English was so weak he would hardly participate in class,” says Alawdat.
Even passing the three point matriculation exam seemed daunting to him, says Abu Hammad, but with the entire class aiming for the five-point test, he didn’t want to be left behind.
“Before I was very bad in English. Zero,” says Abu Hammad, whose father is a cook and his mother does not work outside of the home. “When I came to this school, the first one to help me and stand by me was Dr. Maha. She said, ‘You can do it. You have to believe in yourself.’ Every week she gave me a story to work on.”
His favorite was “The Monkey’s Paw,” a 1902 short story written by W.W. Jacobs about the enormous consequences people must pay for interfering with fate. He also enjoyed “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini and the 1947 play by Arthur Miller, “All My Sons.
“Now I feel good about what I have done,” he says, a few short weeks before he is about to embark on the biggest challenge of his young life. He will be leaving behind his family and village to study medicine in Romania, thanks to his five-point English matriculation without which he would not have been able to be accepted into the program.
In addition to teaching through literature, Alawdat encouraged her students with motivational iEARN projects such as the Book and Movie Club, Girl Rising, and Heritage and Tradition to connect them to students in other countries through writing and discussing relevant topics in a closed forum.
 “Good motivated English teachers are rare, and some teachers find it hard to teach literature and deal with literary pieces; some teachers don’t believe in their students. I believe in my students. You have to believe in them and motivate them at every opportunity to practice their English. When they have a teacher who believes in them, they put in the effort. With good planning it can be done,” says Alawdat.
Nawras Abu Rabe'a, 18, of Kseifa, who wants to study pharmacology and open a pharmacy in her village, already knew she would not accept anything less of herself than the five points in English.
“Five points is better. When I graduated, I was very proud of myself. I have something valuable and it is very nice,” she says.
Thrilled with their accomplishments, Alawdat says she already misses her class. She knows she may not be able to get another full class to pass the five-point exam, she says, but she knows they are capable and she is ready to meet the challenge.
Some of the students, like Azhar Abu Rabe’a, 18, from the city of Arad and Mona Al-Kurshan, 18, from Tel Arad, are the first people in their families – and in the case of Al-Kurshan also in her whole tribe – to pass the five-point English matriculation exam.
“I was very sad to be put in a three to four point class. Now we are very proud of ourselves. My younger sister is in the 11th grade and now she is also studying for the five points,” says Abu Rabe’a, whose father works in the Beersheba mall. She will be studying nursing in Ashkelon. “My parents love that I will be a nurse.”
“My father is so proud of me,” says Al- Kurshan, who has set the bar high for her six younger siblings. “He tells me I have to succeed.”