A glimpse into Kibbutz Education.
During the winter months of 2004, I explored education in Israel, a country that is comparable to the United States in many ways. Classrooms in both Israel and the United States display tremendous diversity regarding students' SES status, language, customs, religion, and political views. I wondered how Israeli teachers assimilate children from around the world into their classrooms. In addition, I wanted to learn how the Israeli education system helps these diverse populations become contributing members of soceity. Finally I wondered how teachers could effectively instruct a class with children from different national origins, languages, and customs. Examining Israeli schools firsthand could provide insight into how U.S. teachers might effectively confront these same issues. Along the way, of course, I simply wanted to experience how children learn in another country and, in the process, discover some unique approaches and methods that may benefit teachers in other countries.
The school I observed was associated with a kibbutz in western Galilee, in the northwestern region of Israel. Kibbutz communities initially were established as part of the pioneer movement to bring Jews from around the world to Israel. Strongly influenced by socialists in eastern Europe, the movement required kibbutz members to work for the mutual benefit of the entire community. Thus, all members worked and shared in the economic responsibilities and social benefits of the community (Rand, Ronen, & Reichenberg, 2000). At one time, children were placed in nursery groups of six and raised by a community caregiver. Children visited their biological parents for a limited time each evening and depended on the greater community for love and support. Today, kibbutz communities are still shared communities with a local governing body, but the degree of economic interdependence varies from one location to another. Children are raised as part of a more typical family unit, and a high value continues to be placed on mutual respect, cooperation, and shared responsibility.
Kibbutz schools participate in the national education system and follow the state-mandated curriculum, but teachers are highly influenced by kibbutz philosophy. According to Rand, Ronen, and Reichenberg (2000), "Because the kibbutz promotes a social and economic life based on values such as equality, social integration, and honesty, education is considered to be of paramount importance" (p. 298). This set of beliefs, in relation to education, also is influenced by the spiritual mentor of Israeli education, Janusz Korczak, a Polish medical doctor and educator at the time of the German invasion of Poland. In 1940, he started a school for Jewish orphans (primarily because of the Nazi extermination of Polish Jews), with a philosophy based on valuing all humans. Korczak (as cited in "Ghetto Fighter's House," 1983) wrote,
My aim is that in the Children's Home there should be no soft work or crude work, no clever or stupid work, no clean or dirty work. No work for nice young ladies or for the mob. In the Children's Home, there should be no purely physical and no purely mental workers. (p. 41)
Tragically, yet heroically, Korczak went to the gas chamber rather than save himself by abandoning the children. He is a true national hero to many Israeli educators, and his egalitarian philosophy directly influences the educational practices and personal relationships within Israeli schools.
Most studies of education view the system from an adult perspective. For example, the observer sits in the classroom and takes notes or surveys educators on specific issues. It is also typical to read accounts from the perspective of education authorities or administrators regarding a country's school practices. During this project, on the other hand, I sought to see the school as students experienced it and report the information through students' voices. As a participant observer, I could obtain a unique view of what was occurring in the school.
To this end, I took several steps. Eleven- and 12-year-old students from two classes were placed in small discussion groups by their teachers to answer six questions. They responded to inquiries related to instruction, such as, "How do you learn best?" or "What do teachers do to help you learn?" Other questions dealt with personal or interpersonal issues, such as, "What do you do when you feel upset emotionally?" or "How would you describe the relationships between people at this school?" The final set of questions addressed school environment issues by asking, "Where are the most pleasant places to learn?" and "Where are your favorite places in the school?" While the students discussed the questions, I circulated around the room clarifying key points and observing their interactions as they answered the questions. The student groups recorded their responses in Hebrew on chart paper and returned them to me for analysis.
After reviewing their answers, using student translators and through teacher assistance, I categorized the groups' responses by common themes and developed additional discussion points. I returned to the groups and asked follow-up questions and sought verification of the proposed themes. Of course, as students processed the themes and discussed issues that were raised, we had conversations about school events, and about their impressions of teachers, fellow students, and teaching practices; we also shared personal stories. These informal conversations, in many cases, added a rich texture by offering a deeper understanding of the students' daily lives. After discussing the students' and teachers' reactions, individual students volunteered to use a digital camera to codify the general responses by taking pictures that exemplified the groups' views. I also observed in the classrooms and talked with teachers and school personnel about what I was observing. The final phase of the project involved combining the comments and photographs into a PowerPoint essay on education at the kibbutz school. This presentation was shown to the teachers for their verification of the contents.
The Kibbutz School
I arranged for my visit through an acquaintance who teaches education courses at Oraniam University, a teacher training institution in the western Galilee region of Israel. Through contacts with school authorities, he obtained the necessary clearances and selected schools that represented aspects of Israeli education.
The kibbutz school in this study, like all Israeli schools, is guarded. Barbed wire surrounds the school grounds and an armed guard screens all visitors. Despite these dramatic and formidable measures, the atmosphere inside the school campus is relaxed and comfortable. The feeling on the school grounds, in the hallways, and in the classrooms is one of freedom rather than oppression. In fact, students have access to all areas of the school and move about more freely than students in a typical American school. For example, students come and go from classrooms without passes and with only casual permission, the open spaces are free of hall monitors, and few, if any, areas are out-of-bounds for students.
Rather than being housed in one large structure, the school resembles a campus-like format with a series of buildings; the layout is unique to this school. One group of buildings is devoted to special education. Students with special needs are mainstreamed into the regular classroom whenever possible, but additional education services also are provided. The second series of buildings is devoted to standard education programs for more typically developing students. These classrooms are for grades kindergarten through 6. The 5th- and 6th-grade classes contained 22 to 23 students in each room. Each building in the school contains two classrooms with students of different ages. For example, within one building, one classroom is for grade 5 and the other is for grade 6. The teachers function as a team and the two classes work cooperatively on many projects. Each teacher stays with her group for two years, rotating using two grade levels. Classroom teachers are primarily responsible for language arts, social studies, and mathematics instruction using activities that integrate subjects through teacher-designed units. Additional teachers teach such subjects as science, computer education, art, physical education, drama, English language, and music. These subjects are taught in other buildings on the campus. Classroom teachers and subject specialty teachers meet regularly to plan units that work around themes. In addition, all the buildings have a large hallway (frequently used as a gathering place for students) and a large and comfortable common area with couches and chairs.
The third cluster of buildings is devoted to educating children with autism. The middle of the campus holds facilities for the school's administration and library services, as well as a unique building--the "drama room." More will be said about this room later.
Although the campus is divided into separate sections for various educational needs and purposes, the staff makes an effort to bring members of the learning community together. For example, all faculty members meet once per week to plan units and address schoolwide issues. In addition, once a month, the entire school gathers to share activities and celebrate accomplishments. It is clear that working in a democratic and cooperative fashion is a high priority in this and the other Israeli schools I visited.
Other factors encourage this level of staff cooperation. First, teachers have less assigned instructional time per week than the average American teacher does. For example, an Israeli teacher is at school 24 hours per week if he or she is a parent, and 27 hours per week if he or she has no children. In addition, teachers have limited duties outside their classroom responsibilities. Typically, there are no school lunch programs; children bring their own sandwiches and snacks to eat. Eating is an ongoing process, with teachers and students "grazing" throughout the day. It is common to see a student with a pita sandwich in one hand while typing on the computer with the other hand.
School begins for students at 8:00 a.m. and ends at 2:30 p.m. Teachers have a much different schedule from their American counterparts, as they arrive according to their daily responsibilities. For example, a teacher may arrive at 10:00 a.m. on one day and be finished by 11:30 a.m. On another day, however, she may arrive at 8:00 a.m. and stay until 4:00 p.m. It is not unusual for a teacher to teach a morning class, go home, and return later in the day for a staff meeting. The closest parallel in the United States is a university assignment in which instructors arrive and go according to their daily responsibilities. This flexible schedule is typical for Israeli teachers.
The Israeli Ministry of Education hires all of the nation's elementary teachers and controls school budgets (Facts About Israel, 1999). Because schools are controlled by the Ministry of Education, the curriculum is set by the central authority. This creates an element of equity regarding education opportunities in Israel. All elementary teachers are hired and paid through the Ministry of Education and all schools follow the same curriculum, with several key allowances for language, religion, and cultural differences. The Israeli school system is divided into four categories. The first category includes the State Religious Schools, which follow the state curriculum but add Jewish studies, Jewish traditions, and religious observance. Schools for Arabs and Druze form the second category. Druze is a specific religious group that is separate from both Muslim and Jewish religious beliefs and customs; its members speak Arabic and follow Arabic traditions. For these schools, teachers use Arabic as the primary language, but add to the curriculum Arab or Druze history, religion, and culture. Private Schools make up the third category, which follows various religious and international guidelines. The fourth category is the State School, which follows the state curriculum and is more secular in nature; most students in Israel attend such schools.
State schools follow the national curriculum and participate in a yearly theme, selected by the Ministry of Education, that is part of the curriculum for all Israeli schools. Because the same topic is studied across the nation, schools in a geographic region work together as a team. Thus, an Arabic school, a state school, and a state religious school may work together, studying a theme such as peace and justice, immigration, democracy, or ecology. Teachers from the various schools meet to design the project. Students and teachers share ideas, projects, and activities through face-to-face meetings, the Internet, and E-mail. In this way, specific populations may honor their religious and cultural standards, but work together and see themselves as contributing members of the same society. Although such projects are designed to unify a diverse society, acute division remains between ethnic and religious groups within the Israeli education system (Court, 2004).
The kibbutz school in this study was a state school and the teachers represented the diverse Israeli population. One teacher observed was a Sabra, a nativeborn Israeli. Because her own children were older, she worked 27 hours per week and was responsible for the 6th-grade students. Another teacher was born in Russia and she was married with two young children. She worked with her 5th-graders 24 hours a week. Both spoke Hebrew as their first language, but also were fluent in English. As is typical of most elementary teachers, they attended a college, a three-year degree institution within the jurisdiction of one of Israel's seven universities. Unlike their elementary colleagues, all secondary teachers, grades 9-12, have a four-year degree with a content specialty and are hired by local authorities.
Although the curriculum is mandated by national authorities, teachers retain control over their instructional methods. When asked what teachers do to help them learn, the students' answers indicated consistent participation in learning groups. The students endorsed group work, saying that the groups produce better work because members share ideas and hear a variety of perspectives. In support of their reported reliance on group work, I observed students, at this and other schools, working in groups throughout a typical day on a variety of activities. This arrangement makes them adept at working together and insightful about the formation of groups. For example, they stated that groups work best when organized in "thirds" (three members) and when each person has an assigned task, the latter attribute illustrating their preference for having a range of skills within their groups. Setting up groups in this way clearly represents an advantage for mainstreamed students who have academic limitations but possess other skills. One student added, "When we cooper ate, we learn at the same rate." Thus, the egalitarian philosophy of Janusz Korczak is operational in the kibbutz school.
The students' familiarity with group work cannot be overstated. It is the fundamental instructional strategy used in the rooms and is consistent with the overall goal of equality and democratic action. Group work also meshes with the national interest in melding citizens into a cohesive society. Israeli classes are cooperative cultures in which all members, teachers included, treat one another with respect and familiarity. One illustration of this attitude is the practice of using first names when talking with one another. This is true for teachers, administrators, and students, and was the general custom that I observed while in Israel. The use of first names did not translate into disrespect, and instead demonstrated familiarity and respect based on performance over artificial status.
Students and teachers clearly valued group work, but the students were also aware of its limitations. Several students noted that they also liked to work alone because "No one opposes your ideas" and "No one disturbs you." Most telling was the comment, "When we work alone we have fewer arguments." The last statement reveals another fundamental characteristic of Israeli students and teachers: they speak their minds. Verbal confrontation is an integral part of the education process. Students feel free to disagree with teachers, adults, peers, and even visitors from the United States. Honest and freewheeling conversations result, which leads to clearly stated points of view. Best of all, as the students said, "We argue a lot, but we come to agreement." In a diverse society, this is a valuable attribute because members operate as individuals who understand they must compromise and work together.
Although group learning was a highly rated learning strategy, the students also appreciated their teachers' guidance. When queried about instructional methods, the most frequent responses related to teacher actions. In particular, they liked when the teachers explained topics in detail and took them deeper into the material than they anticipated. In this way, students gathered information from an experienced and educated adult, in addition to processing information at a student level.
One answer of special note related to "prework." Students said they learn a lot when they research a topic before they begin formal study. For example, students explore Web sites and other sources to learn about a topic. As a lead-in to more focused study, they share their discoveries and form inquiry questions that are incorporated into later lessons. In this way, students have preliminary knowledge about a topic, have engaged their minds about the subject, and have begun to establish personal learning goals. Much of this work is done using the Internet. Israel has been termed the "land of the book" (Israelis have the highest per capita consumption of written material in the world), but funds for books are scarce. As information available through traditional printed sources is limited, the Internet is a critical tool offering access to books, libraries, and Web sites around the world, and they use this source effectively. The comments on other ways to learn could have been given by students anywhere in the world. For example, they frequently mentioned appreciating field trips and learning through activities.
Clearly, students are the same all over the world, as indicated by a common complaint about homework. Students said they like to learn without having homework. They also appreciated teachers giving them time to complete work in class. In-class work they said, enabled them to clarify directions with the teachers and to discuss their work with peers. In this way, they were able to ask questions and solve problems knowing they were on the correct path.
As one might expect in a school stressing cooperation and mutual respect, students strongly endorsed a positive view of relations within the school. For example, one student exclaimed, "We treat one another well." Other students in the group nodded their heads in agreement. Students stated that younger children "love" older students because they protect and watch out for one another. Upper-grade students help younger children whenever possible. This feeling of cooperation was evident within the classrooms. It was common for one student to casually go over to a student who was apparently struggling with a task and volunteer to help. These positive actions indicate the affirming family atmosphere that pervades the school.
Supportive and cooperative relationships were the result of more than group work. For example, freedom of movement within the school enabled children of all ages to mix freely. It is typical for Israeli students, including those in the kibbutz school, to have free access to areas, such as the staff room, that would be off-limits to students in the United States. Students entered the staff room at will and appeared totally comfortable approaching a teacher to ask a question or make a comment. The students also praised the opportunities for social interactions. There were frequent parties for birthdays, recognition of accomplishments, and religious celebrations. For example, students and faculty gather once per month to celebrate accomplishments and share the results of school-related activities.
Architecturally, this school, like several I visited in Israel, facilitates interactions between students. The actual classroom layout would appear familiar to most American teachers. Bulletin boards are on the walls, desks and chairs fill the rooms, and chalkboards are at the front of the room. But it is also typical to have inviting common areas adjoining classrooms. These areas, containing couches and tables, are used throughout the day as gathering places to talk, dance, and relax. Hallways and common areas were used steadily during the day, in part because students appeared to move both within the room and in the hallways in a casual manner. Unlike many U.S. schools, where students leave rooms only with permission or at scheduled times, students appeared to come and go freely. In addition, classrooms and common areas were buzzing with conversation and action. The teachers and students moved comfortably around the room and several conversations might be going on simultaneously.
In describing their favorite meeting places, the students almost unanimously mentioned "the green fence," a metal fence that divided a grassy outdoor area from the basketball court. I saw nothing like it at the other schools I visited. The fence ran parallel to the class building; older children and young students from all areas of the school, both boys and girls, gathered informally along the fence to talk. Although unique to this campus, the fence was indicative of the casual and free way students had access to one another inside the barbed wire of the school compound.
Certainly, conditions that led to the positive atmosphere also existed at other schools I visited. One was the informality and lack of regimentation within the school. Rather than having an artificial barrier between members of the school community, enforced by arbitrary and unnecessary rules, the school appeared to function for both students and teachers. They had rules only when rules were necessary for safety and learning purposes. Freedom from unnecessary restrictions appeared to reduce the tension between adults and students that is commonly felt in U.S. schools. Second, students functioned so much in groups that helping and appreciating one another occurred naturally. Rather than feeling competitive with other students, they appeared to see cooperation and learning as their major goal. Third, students had access to one another in so many ways that they truly got to know other students and appreciate the many dimensions of their personalities.
A positive emotional climate clearly was indicated in the responses students gave to inquiries about coping with emotional distress. Students' answers described their interdependence, such as, "We go to [see] friends" or "We go to the green fence to talk with friends." Others said they go to the staff room to see a teacher or to the common area adjacent to the classroom. All these are places where other people are readily accessible. When I posed the same question to U.S. students, they commonly replied that they go to the restroom to be alone. Israeli students also mentioned being alone, but gave this response with much less frequency than their American counterparts. It appeared that the architecture, informality, and physical freedom in the school provided the foundation for a positive school atmosphere based on mutual caring.
I asked the students about their favorite places in the school and where they liked to learn. They most often cited the home classroom as where they like to learn, saying the classroom was familiar and the routines were understood. They also described it as a "happy place" where they dance, listen to music, and talk with friends. The students also appreciated other areas, such as the library--an important place in Israeli schools. The library at the kibbutz school was divided into two distinct, but equally pleasant, areas. The first area, described as the place to read, had large windows overlooking a pastoral setting of trees and flower beds. Students liked this area because it was quiet and they could be left alone with their thoughts. These were important factors in a school where students have little privacy or isolated time. The students described the second library section, a separate room, as "a place to learn." This space housed information books (primarily in Hebrew) and computers; a teacher assistant was available to help students with research efforts.
Computers are important tools in Israeli classrooms and students have classes in computer use. One assignment in these classes requires students to use the Internet to research a self-selected topic. They use the information they gather to create PowerPoint presentations, which are shown to other students. Students enjoyed this activity and appreciated having the computer to print out their work.
Another popular place at school that the students frequently mentioned was the art room, noteworthy because it was there they learned artistic techniques from the teacher they could use to create their own art objects. This school's physical education facility gave it a singular advantage over other schools. Adjacent to the school, a large, well-equipped facility was used for community sports teams and activities as well as the school's physical education program.
The most intriguing location in the school was the drama room, a place much-loved by students. A specially qualified teacher taught drama in a building allocated solely for this class. Students enthusiastically invited me to come with them to the drama room and I eagerly anticipated an interesting theater performance. What I discovered was a class devoted to emotional release.
Entering the drama class, I was surprised by the appearance of the classroom. Instead of a stage and chairs, I found a bounty of discarded hats, sweaters, shirts, vests, pants, wigs, and costume apparel covering the floor and hanging on coat hooks. Several moveable coat racks were in the room, and these were draped with large pieces of discarded room curtains. The only furniture was several folding chairs and a small desk that held a CD player. Students entered the room before the teacher arrived, and they immediately began playing CDs loudly and dividing the room into areas by using the coat racks and overstuffed pillows. Students put on hats, wigs, pants, etc., and started to cluster into small groups to talk and act out characters of their own choosing. The teacher entered and found a place off to the side of the room where she could watch. With the exception of one animated exchange with a boy, she never spoke to any of the students during the class period. It should be noted that when I asked if I could observe, she replied that it was up to the children. They quickly told her it was fine. During the observation, I asked a student about a poster on the wall; he explained it was a list of their rights.
At the end of the hour, the children noted the time; they removed their costumes and returned to their home classroom. Intrigued, I asked students and their classroom teachers about the drama class. They replied that it was a place to relax and act out personal issues. One boy said, "It's a place where we can pretend to be anything we want, so we can just be ourselves." Trained in psychodrama, the drama teacher's responsibility was to help children act out their emotions. I have never encountered an equivalent class in the United States.
The students mentioned other important places, such as the computer room, where they gained information and played Internet games. The girls mentioned the home classroom as a particularly favorite location, because they loved to dance and listen to music during break periods. It is worth noting that the locale appeared to be much less the issue than did the interactions they had at those places. This is, once more, an indication of how important positive relations were to the students. Whether they mentioned classrooms, green fences, the water fountain, or the hallways, the common theme was that groups of students could meet there. One noted exception, "the pagoda," an open, wooden structure located in a grove of trees away from the class buildings, was a place for individuals or small groups to relax or be alone to think.
The ironic contradiction of this school was the peace and calm felt in the midst of a country caught in turmoil and with armed guards protecting the school. These children live with a day-to-day threat of being murdered as they go about the business of being children; nevertheless, the system helps them feel secure, loved, and worthwhile. In the weeks I spent in the schools, no child ever mentioned being afraid or feeling vengeful towards others. This is truly an accomplishment in a country torn by strife. Procedures put in place by this kibbutz community may, in some form, be emulated by U.S. educators who are wrestling with a diverse and troubled student population.
Education Issues and Personal Comments
Reform efforts are ongoing to improve the Israeli education system, as in the United States. One group, Citizens for the Promotion of Education in Israel (2004), released a list of recommendations for improving Israeli schools. Some of their recommendations may sound familiar to teachers in the United States. For example, the committee stated that teachers' salaries should be financially competitive with other fields. The decades-long national conflict has created a shortage of funds for education. As in many countries, controlling costs has meant keeping teachers' salaries low, especially at the elementary level. Elementary teachers have lower salaries than their secondary level colleagues, and the disparity is rationalized through the reduced education requirements for elementary teachers and their flexible teaching assignments.
Under the reform plan, all teachers would have at least a four-year degree, with a combination of credits for academic and pedagogical knowledge. In conjunction with higher pay and more uniform training, work hours would be increased and a more consistent daily schedule developed for all teachers. Such an arrangement would make teachers more available for students and improve their professional level. Currently, elementary teachers are certified and hired through the Ministry of Education. Apparently, this has made teacher certification and hiring practices subject to political pressure. Under the revisions, certification would become the responsibility of universities. Anew body, the National Authority for Education, would assume responsibility for establishing and monitoring the core curriculum, again making the content less susceptible to political pressure. Other suggestions are similar to those in discussions about reforming U.S. schools, such as the establishment of monetary incentives for high-achieving schools and increased pay for teachers whose students improve their standardized test scores.
Whether or not the changes recommended by the Citizens for the Promotion of Education in Israel would bring about a desired effect on Israeli schools remains to be decided. Israelis will have to determine if altering the system towards more content knowledge, accountability, and uniformity is worth the potential cost of reducing the familial atmosphere of the schools and moving away from the ideals of Janusz Korczak.
As a final note, this article discusses a study conducted at one kibbutz school. Although I visited other schools, this is one school's story and may not be indicative of all Israeli schools. Nevertheless, the experiences of these teachers and students may be instructive for U.S. teachers who wish to gain insight into how cooperative classroom practices may improve interpersonal relations and enfranchise students to see themselves as contributing members of the general society.
Citizens for the Promotion of Education in Israel. (2004, February 1). Harretz Daily Newspaper, p. D8.
Court, D. (2004). Education in a troubled democracy: Voices from Israel. Curriculum Inquiry, 34(1), 47-69. Facts about Israel. (1999). Jerusalem, Israel: Ahva Press.
Ghetto Fighters' House & Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House. (1983). Janusz Korczak: The ghetto years 1939-1942. Tel Aviv, Israel: Author.
Rand, Y., Ronen, M., & Reichenberg, R. (2000). Educational dynamics in Israel: Retrospective and future-oriented philosophies, pedagogical and interactive processes. In K. Masurek, M. A. Winzer, & C. Majorek (Eds.), Education in a global society (pp. 287-300). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Citizens' Rights in the Drama Room
1. You have the right to be happy.
2. No one may laugh at you or hurt your feelings.
3. You have the right to be yourself.
4. No one can treat you in a hurtful way because you are black or white, fat or thin, tall or short, boy or girl.
5. You have the right to be safe in this room--no one can hurt, push, kick, punch, or yell at you.
6. You are safe and always welcome in this room.
Carl Walley is Professor, College of Education, Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio.
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|Date:||Jun 22, 2005|
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