‘Interaction’ Helping Ethiopian Students Thrive


Petach Tikva, Israel — When you enter the Netzach Yisrael elementary school in this working-class town in the center of the country,

the first thing you notice is the quiet.

In contrast to the vast majority of notoriously rowdy Israeli schools, there are no noisy students aimlessly roaming the halls of Netzach Yisrael during class time. Walk into any classroom and the children are focused, not fidgety.

Three years ago, Netzach Yisrael joined a program run by the Israel Center for Educational Innovation (ICEI), in partnership with the Ministry of Education, the municipality of Petach Tikvah and the Steering Center for Ethiopian Immigrants in the Education System, which promotes literacy in schools with high numbers of Ethiopian-Israeli students. And the partnership is beginning to bear fruit.

As a group, Ethiopian students perform at the very bottom of standardized tests, said Don Futterman, ICEI’s director as well as Israel program director for the Moriah Fund, which helps fund the center. Most come from low socioeconomic backgrounds and, in many cases, their parents can’t help them with schoolwork because they don’t read Hebrew or even, in many cases, Amharic, the official national language of Ethiopia.

Anchored in the prize-winning Reading and Writing Project developed at Teacher’s College at Columbia University, the Israel-based program has brought sweeping changes to the 17 schools, and 3,000 students, taking part in it.

While the desire to educate and, in so doing, narrow the gaps between Ethiopian immigrants and other Israelis both in school and in life is the impetus behind the program, non-Ethiopian classmates benefit as well.

Every one of Netzach Yisrael’s 250 students participates in the program, which encourages children to read and write at every opportunity.

In the classroom of Bruria Brayman, an energetic fourth-grade homeroom teacher, the colorful walls are filled with vocabulary words and suggested questions and “prompts” that help her students write factual and personal essays.

Like every other ICEI-backed classroom, Brayman’s boasts a library of hundreds of books categorized by number. The higher the number, the more advanced the reader.

Students progress at their own pace, with the help of their teacher and the school’s literacy coach.

When Brayman asked her students to sit on a rug at the back of the spacious classroom, they left their desks — which are organized in cozy clusters — without being asked twice. Once they were settled, Brayman, a religious woman in a modest wig and funky stockings, began to read from a book of fables.

The lively way she read could have made a phone book sound interesting, and the kids listened attentively.

When she had finished reading, Brayman asked the students to break into pairs and discuss the story in order to write a review, either positive or negative.

“If there’s anyone who didn’t understand the instructions, come and I’ll explain them,” she said reassuringly.

In the pilot math class for second graders, most of the students answered questions in a workbook while four students in need of extra help clustered around the teacher’s desk, an ICEI gift, shaped like a horseshoe

A few minutes later the teacher asked the workbook students how they had solved an addition problem.

One by one, the students walked to the head of the class, where they confidently revealed their methods (there were several, including one that involved counting dots).

At the end of each presentation the seated students gave the presenter a round of applause.

Standing in the back of the classroom, Haviva Lahav, the school’s principal, said that from the time the ICEI program was introduced, the teachers have “talked less and done more.”

Lahav said the program requires teachers to focus on one specific teaching point and explicitly explain to their students what they are about to learn. Teachers are encouraged to talk with, rather than to, their students.

Children who miss the point of a lesson are encouraged to seek clarifications.

Lahav said the program’s model is the polar opposite of frontal teaching.

In other schools, “kids sit five or more hours a day and the teachers are truly listening to the kids only a fraction of that time.”

In contrast, the ICEI program “is built on interaction,” Lahav said. “The children have discussion partners, or buddies, and they’re asked to speak to their partner and to report what he or she said.”

The model enables the children “to be heard and to listen and relay what others say.”

Futterman said the students are taught how to write “persuasive” and “personal” essays,” and to write several drafts until the students and teachers are satisfied with the results.

Parents are invited to an end-of-year event that showcases these essays.

Parental involvement, especially from the Ethiopian community, is a key component of the project.

“In Ethiopia, the responsibility for education is placed solely on the teachers,” explained Nega Alene, ICEI’s Ethiopian community development supervisor. “In Israel, they say, ‘You are the father. Let’s work together.’”

To forge this bond, the Ethiopian parents are asked to attend 10 meetings where educators provide them with the tools to work with their children at home.

“They don’t need to know how to read to ask their children about the books they’re reading,” Alene said. “And the interaction strengthens the parents’ standing in the eyes of the children.”

In many Ethiopian-Israeli families, the process of immigrating to a westernized country — where uneducated Ethiopian adults find it difficult to provide for their children — has weakened the parents’ traditional role of authority.

Brayman said she is a “big believer in the process” because the children become adept learners “and that boosts their self-esteem.” The structure and clear messages conveyed “help them become much more independent” and less demanding.

“This frees me up to work with the children who need more help,” she said, “and the model extends to other subjects throughout the day.”

The students are much more calm, even at the end of the school day, Brayman said, “because they know what’s expected of them.”

Uri Adigo, a sixth-grader, said the program means that there’s some order in the school. “We don’t have a balagan [sense of confusion].” The fact that schoolbags must be kept outside the classroom means “we learn to have all our supplies ready and to be responsible. We also learn to give each other space and to listen.”

It’s easier to focus now, Adigo said, “and that’s a good thing.”