Hebrew Learning in American Public Schools: Growing the Teacher Pipeline to Build the Field

August 18, 2019

Colorful Hebrew Alphabet

In our previous article Hebrew Learning in American Public Schools: An Under-the-Radar Educational Experience and Resource, we discussed our assessment of the state of the field of Hebrew language instruction in public schools, shared in Mapping Hebrew Education in Public Schools: A Resource for Jewish Educators, a project funded by the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE). We found that, overall, there are signs of growth in this area and that we are at a pivotal moment in the trajectory of these programs.

Indeed, for Hebrew study in public schools to continue its growth long term, there are a series of questions that need to be considered:

  • How can more students be brought into the Hebrew language learning pipeline at an earlier age?
    • One of the best ways to ensure a high school program’s ongoing vitality is to offer Hebrew in the middle school. If students start a non-Hebrew world language in middle school, it is more difficult to recruit them to Hebrew in 9th grade because they are already on a track in the other language. Starting in middle school also offers the advantage of being able to cover more Hebrew content, as teachers will have an additional year or two to teach the language. Finally, offering Hebrew at the middle school level provides an option to reach students who may be preparing for their bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies, attending sleepaway camps, or graduating from elementary Hebrew charter or Jewish day schools. Public school classes can be seen as a part and parcel of the formal and informal Jewish opportunities and a way of doing additional outreach.
  • How can we develop a pipeline of professional Hebrew teachers?
    • To date, there have been two main sources of Hebrew teachers in public schools: Israelis who chose to live in the United States and turn to Hebrew teaching as a career option, and Israelis living in in the United States on a temporary basis who plan to return to Israel after several years. There is a third option to consider: children of Israeli-Americans who grew up and were educated in the United States. These second-generation American Israelis have Hebrew proficiency and also know the norms and culture of the American classroom. This hybridity represents what public schools are looking for in their language teachers. It is worthy to think about how to identify, recruit and incentivize Israeli-American youth interested in going into the field of education to consider a career in Hebrew teaching, especially because teachers at traditional public schools in our study spoke favorably about the financial benefits of working at public schools. At the same time, it is worthwhile to think about how to incentive day school graduates with strong Hebrew backgrounds to consider a career in Hebrew teaching in the public school context.
  • How can learning Hebrew become a form of capital for high school students?
    • Currently, Advanced Placement (AP) Hebrew is not offered. Having an AP Hebrew option could potentially be used as a recruiting tool or a motivator to continue through high school because it is a credential on a student’s high school transcript. Additionally, students with AP Hebrew credit can be prospective recruits for advanced Hebrew classes at colleges and universities. In addition to AP courses, some schools offer the Seal of Biliteracy or have a Hebrew Honor Society, with ceremonies and awards. These programs offer credentials for students to put on their high school applications.
  • What is the role of Jewish institutions in public school Hebrew programs?
    • Most public schools with Hebrew programs are completely removed from Jewish educational and communal organizations. One exception is in Chicago. The Jewish United Fund / Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago (JUF) works on pipeline issues, and is focused on increasing awareness about these programs and helping to target potential students in youth programs. At the same time, The iCenter provides educational resources and faculty in–service workshops to the middle and high school Hebrew teachers in the greater Chicago area. Together, these organizations, along with representatives of synagogues and the JCC, as well as individual lay members of the Jewish community, support programming activities, such as Israel Day and Israel Independence Day, which bring students from the various schools together. Teachers at these schools cited these contributions as central to their programs’ vitality and their own professional growth. Looking at Chicago as a model, we need to explore how Jewish communal institutions can provide institutional, organizational, and pedagogical support to Hebrew teachers working in the public schools.
  • How can Hebrew teachers either working in small teams or individually share resources and form a pedagogical community?
    • There is an urgent need for a central database or online platform in which Hebrew teachers can share their ideas and interact with one another. Teachers overwhelmingly feel a need to be part of a community; this is even more acute for newer teachers who struggle to figure out what to teach, how to assess, and where to get appropriate material. Having a repository would also serve as an archive for when veteran teachers leave the field or decide to retire; it would enable their ideas and resources to be passed down and made accessible to the next generation of teachers.
  • How can more Hebrew teachers be certified to teach in public schools?
    • A central problem is the lack of certification credentials, without which a Hebrew teacher cannot be employed in a traditional public school and in some charter schools, depending on the state. However, certification requirements are complicated and vary by state; determining these requirements independently is daunting, expensive, time-consuming, and confusing. What role can the Jewish community take in helping prospective public school teachers learn what the process is, which schools provide certification, and how to connect to certification programs? Can we work with universities with established schools of education to develop (online) certification programs for Hebrew pedagogy? How can the Jewish community incentivize Hebrew teachers to get certified and ensure a highly qualified teacher is in the Hebrew classroom? What is the role of the Council for Hebrew Language and Culture in North America in facilitating the certification process for Hebrew teachers in public schools? Currently, Hebrew professional development networks are not part of the mainstream academic community of less-commonly-taught languages in K-12.

We offer our findings and suggestions in order to initiate a substantive conversation about the future of Hebrew education in the United States, and help us all consider what a robust and high-quality public school Hebrew education can be. We hope this report sparks curiosity and galvanizes interest among those committed to fostering Hebrew proficiency for American youth.

Sharon Avni is Associate Professor of Language and Literacy in the Department of Academic Literacy and Linguistics at BMCC (CUNY). Avital Karpman is Associate Clinical Professor of Hebrew and Director of the Hebrew Program at the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the University of Maryland, College Park. The study, Mapping Hebrew Education in Public Schools: A Resource for Jewish Educators, was funded by a CASJE small grant. Proposals for the next cycle of CASJE small grants are being accepted now. View the RFP here.