Speaking Her Language


‘Kol hatkhalot kashot,” Carmit Federman says — Hebrew for “All beginnings are difficult.”

Federman, a new Jewish studies teacher at Hannah Senesh Community Day School in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, is all too familiar with difficult beginnings. It is late September, just two weeks into the school year, and her new teaching style already is sparking parent complaints.

She is teaching her second-graders Hebrew with an immersion technique — when the silver-and-blue cardboard sign hung in her classroom is turned to “Ivrit,” she speaks only in Hebrew. Federman, 34, encourages the children to do the same. But many of them find it stressful and confusing not to understand everything. And several parents are coming up to Federman after school or sending in letters with the children, suggesting that she ease up a little.

The criticisms sting because, while she also teaches Bible and holidays, Hebrew is one of Federman’s greatest passions. She spent her childhood in Petach Tikvah listening to her Yemenite immigrant father craft elaborate wordplays in Hebrew. As a student at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, she fell in love with her American husband, Joe, while tutoring him in her native language. And Federman’s master’s thesis at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is on Hebrew language acquisition.

Backed by Hannah Senesh’s Judaic studies principal, Riva Suberi, Federman stands her ground with the immersion method. Confident that the children will pick up Hebrew quickly, she speaks to concerned parents individually, talks to the children and sends out a letter, in English, explaining the approach.

“I told them they don’t have to understand everything,” Federman says in an interview. “The whole idea is to pick up clues from the context.”

Interestingly, the most vociferous complaints come from the parents of the strongest students, many of whom are especially good at Hebrew.

“It’s kind of typical that a kid who always knows everything and is aware of everything going on suddenly feels anxiety when he doesn’t understand everything,” she says.

Fortunately for Federman, her explanations seem to deflect the anxiety, and the complaints soon abate.

A week after the letters go out to parents, as the air outside grows cooler and colorful student artwork joins Federman’s carefully arranged wall displays, the children already seem more at ease in Hebrew.

Most already have mastered key classroom phrases in Hebrew like “I want a sticker” and “I want to go to the bathroom.”

“Carmit, how do you say tissue in Hebrew?” calls out Molly, a girl whose decorative headband keeps knocking off her yarmulke. “I need a tissue.”

“Tissue? Zeh tee-shoo,” Federman replies, realizing the word is the same in Hebrew and English.

Hebrew class that day gets off to a somewhat tedious start, as the children sit around the table and read aloud simple, repetitive words and sentences like “Father comes home” and “Mother comes home.”

It’s an exercise Federman dislikes more than the children. She had been hoping the students’ Hebrew-reading skills would be a bit smoother when she started, but has discovered most still need practice in the basic phonetics.

The Hebrew book — called “Madregot,” or “Steps” — is also not Federman’s favorite. The pictures are old-fashioned and in black and white, with only some orange spot coloring to brighten them up. And some of the exercises run counter to Federman’s ideology about language acquisition — urging students to translate sentences into English, for example.

Nonetheless, it is one of the better Hebrew instruction series on the market for children, Federman says, because it offers materials all through elementary school, ones in which each book builds on the lessons taught in the previous one.

Federman supplements the book as much as possible with more interesting activities. Today, to help the children remember the vocabulary in the chapter and prepare them for an upcoming Hebrew story, she has them play a memory game she created.

Children take turns flipping cards — some with illustrations of items, like a ball, a picture and candles, and others with the Hebrew word for the items. The object is to match the word with the picture and to remember where the needed card lies.

It’s a big hit. The 10 children (Federman and her co-teacher, Jenifer Avery, generally split the 20-student class in half so they can teach each lesson in small sections) crowd around the table, oohing and aahing to be selected for a turn.

“Only those who request in Hebrew,” Federman reminds them, in Hebrew.

“I want to play after her,” they call out, in Hebrew, stretching so their raised hands will be noticed.

One boy, when he flips over the card bearing a picture of a flag, squirms like a participant on a game show. “I know where degel is, oh my God, oh my God!” he yells out, mixing Hebrew and English.

During a prep period that afternoon, as Federman tries for an upcoming Simchat Torah project to fashion a Barbie-doll-sized Torah scroll from felt, Popsicle sticks and Velcro, she says she was pleased with the lesson. In particular, she is excited the children spontaneously used the Hebrew word for “after,” something she had taught them just that morning as they were discussing the order of days on the Hebrew calendar.

By early November, when the children’s puffy jackets and mittens overflow from their small wooden cubbies, the children are speaking more Hebrew than even Federman had anticipated.

“They’re using Hebrew even when they’re not in Hebrew class,” Federman says proudly, adding that Hannah Senesh is her first teaching experience in which the children are enthused about speaking Hebrew.

The children understand the classroom vocabulary now and frequently interrupt Federman during class to ask for new Hebrew words. When the topic of family members comes up, Tamar wants to know how to say “divorced,” so she can announce in Hebrew that her parents are divorced.

Federman generally is tolerant of students interrupting and calling out, but keeping order in the class, she acknowledges that day during recess, is not among her strengths.

“I’m improving in classroom management skills, but I’m not at the point where I should be and it’s hard because we always hear the other class,” Federman says, noting that she and Avery have adjacent rooms separated by a doorway but no door.

“They’re all bright kids, but sometimes it’s hard for them to concentrate,” Federman says, as the children run and skip noisily around the small schoolyard.

This 7-year-old community day school is in a temporary location — a former factory — and has no playground or gym. The alley-like schoolyard, though its walls are brightly painted, is cramped and has no play facilities. The children don’t seem to mind, however, and appear to enjoy the opportunity to run, be loud and play with jump ropes.

Every few minutes, some children approach Federman to mediate a dispute, mostly revolving around one claiming another hurt him or her — and the other child claiming it was an accident.

Such conflicts come up often during class time as well, adding to Federman’s desire to acquire classroom management tips.

For example, that morning Federman’s efforts to have the children study Bible in chevruta — the traditional Jewish technique of learning with a partner — resulted in a lengthy argument and pouting session when one girl insulted her partner by erasing her answer.

Nonetheless, despite the arguments, the noise and the precarious tipping of chairs, the children generally appear excited about what they learn with Federman, whether it is discussing the story of Creation, practicing Hebrew or reviewing the Torah portion about Jacob and Esau.

That’s a nice reward for Federman’s hard work. With two children at home, including a 5-month-old son, she is constantly struggling to balance the never-ending work demands with her family’s needs.

“Teaching is a profession in which you can always do more,” she says. “The vacations are great, but when you work, you work really hard.”

For Federman, that means staying up late at night after her children have gone to bed, crafting lesson plans, grading papers and neatly lettering and illustrating materials like the vocabulary memory game.

In the morning, she has to tear herself away from her smiling baby son (her daughter goes to school with her).

“I feel like I’m missing the good hours with him,” Federman says, noting that the morning is when her son is most alert and cheerful. By the end of the day when she gets home he is often tired and cranky.

Nonetheless, teaching has perks that go beyond the satisfaction of educating: Federman’s students punctuate the days with quite a bit of inadvertent humor.

For example, on this November afternoon, Ben wants to know where the Garden of Eden was (“Was it in Canada or Texas?” he asks). Later, when Federman asks the children if they remember what kind of soup Jacob offers Esau in exchange for his birthright (red lentil), Margo guesses “Matzah ball?”