Saturday, November 26, 2011

Ashalim: We Are All Children

I stepped off the bus and through a bright yellow gate that led to a sunny, colorful courtyard. To my left there were patches of magenta and purple flowers and to my right, beyond the fragmented stone walk I saw half a tire waiting to be jumped on, some bright pink creaky swings, a large plastic truck with oversized wheels, and a cute little table covered with piles of cookies and juice. Through the window of the carefully painted plaster walls I could hear the unmistakable chatter and hum of little voices, happily playing and shouting. As I stepped over the slightly raised frame of the one room building’s door I was greeted by more delighted screams and a quick blur of pink sweatpants chased by a light brown ponytail clipped up by a blue plastic bow. Once all of us had gathered, the thirty or so children broke into such a delightful and cheery song that smiles instantly sprung up in rapid succession throughout our circle of onlookers. They were singing us a greeting and welcome, complete with careful hand motions and tushy shakes. As one little guy twirled his hand in the air on cue he crashed into the chocolate skinned child to his side, causing his little black hat to fall to the floor. With little pudgy hands he quickly swept the embroidered velvet back onto his head and grinned as he spun around. The chocolate skinned child’s smile shone back as they grabbed each other’s shoulders and swayed to the rhythm of the song.  After the song ended to a thunderous applause the children scattered around the room, choosing to either paint, play house, work with clay, eat breakfast, color, or put together a puzzle. A small group were ushered into an adjacent room where they invented their very own life-size game board and began to practice their literacy skills.

The magic of this visit is that I could have been describing either one of the two vibrant, progressive kindergarten programs I had the privilege to visit last week as part of a Next Gen Young Professionals trip organized by JDC. One of the sites was a PACT (Parents and Children Together) room, JDC’s Ethiopian Immigrant program focusing on early childhood education. The other was an ECHAD (Early Childhood Achievement and Development) room, a similar JDC program that focuses on Arab Israeli youth. 

In both these initiatives the goal is one in the same: to provide the best possible academic foundation for EVERY Israeli child. I walked around each room, marveling at displays of creative learning all around. There were interactive centers, paintings and literacy projects on the wall, baskets and baskets of foam, tissue paper, marbles, beads, ribbons, stencils, cones, dice, tops, paper dolls, yearn, buttons, and clay. Learning through music and dance, literacy through song. Hand motions and patterns, firm but very warm educators. In both places I could tell the focus was the child, from their emotions to cultural development to number sense to phonics skills--it was all there. Regardless of language, religion, race, or culture—every child is precious and deserves the same opportunities to grow and blossom. And through these initiatives, whole communities have the chance for a better future because of the education their children are getting. A child is a child is a child, and these wonderful programs are proof of the gains that can be made when one considers the potential of each smiling face.

A morning song from Arab-Israeli Kindergarteners.
A morning song from Ethiopian and Israeli Kindergarteners.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

My First Hebrew Homework

We had to answer a question based on Yossel Birstein's short story "Two Meetings." Below is what I wrote. (Anyone who wants can copy and paste it into google translate and get a rough idea of what I said):

שיעורי בית: מצב שהזמן נעצר

לפני כמה שנים הסבתה שלי הייתה מאד חולה. זה כבר האמשיך שבע שנים. באתי לישראל כדי להיות איתה. ידענו שזה הסוף. כל המשפחה ישב בשקט. חיכינו. אצלנו במשפחה, סבתה שלנו תמיד ידאה בדיוק מה כולם צריכו. היא לא היתה מודעת מספיק כדי לעזור. ישבתי עם סבה בפנים הבית העצוב, השקט, המחכה...ופשוט הייתי. וחיכיתי. בשביל מה? בשביל מתי? פשוט חיכיתי.

בעוד שבוע ידעתי שאני הייתי חייבת לחזור הביתה לעבודה חדשה. ידעתי שאם היא תמות, אני לא תוכל לחזור. בלילה לפני הטיסה חזרתי להטבונן בה עוד פעם אחת. כאשר אמרתי לה שאני אוהבת אתה, כל כך רציתי שהיא תגיב. ידעתי שזה יהיה לשווא. ניגשתי, ליטפתי את פניה, ולחשתי שאני אהבת אתה. שהיא תמיד תהיה בלבי. התחלתי להתרחק, דמעות מצטברות בעיני. היא החזיקה אתם במשך כמה דקות. הרגשתי לרגע היא באמת היתה נוכחת. היא היתה מחזיקה לי את היד חזק, חזק אל לבה. זו היתה הדרך שלה לעשות את זה בפעם האחרונה. במהלך רגע, הזמן עמד מלכת.

בשבוע הבא, היא נפטרה. אני שומרת את הרגע הזה איתי לנצח.

Ashalim: A Safe Haven

The Ma’aleh Room is supposed to be a safe haven for children who are on the sidelines of life. It is supposed to be a place of comfort and belonging, support, uplifting energy, and slow but steady success. The structure is such that each child comes at their designated time to work with a designated staff member who is there just for them, and who will listen to, mentor, tutor, and enrich. Today the director of the room was absent and instead I found myself in a free-for-all of kids wandering in and out at all hours of the day with no one to corroborate their schedules, no knowledge of which volunteers were supposed to be working with who, and who was even supposed to be in the program at all. The worst part is that today, though exacerbated, was not unique.

A small glimpse into what commenced:

N. and I are calmly peering over a recipe in English for Chocolate Coconut Balls. We are crushing the milk biscuits into a fine powder when D. and M. burst into the room, D. sharply throwing an open marker against M.’s chest and each of them retaliating by rushing around the room, forcefully overturning each chair as they go. Of course, N. can no longer concentrate on our English lesson and decides to join them by picking up a pair of scissors and waving it dangerously around. D. and M. stop short when they notice the chocolate.

“Nu, we want to join too?” D. and M. complain in a winy chorus. “What are you making, you whore?” 

I summon my most serious teacher voice (as much as I can muster with a Hebrew vocabulary severely lacking in authoritative commands) and tell them that they may join, but only if they remember that they agreed to treat each other with respect and to pay attention to the lesson. Let’s just say that by the end I found myself rolling balls by myself, surrounded by dusty mountains of spilled cocoa and biscuit crumbs, carelessly torn wrappers, and wads of wet chocolate mix flung onto chairs and tables. When the group came running back from their trip to wash their hands in the bathroom instead of helping me clean up they decided to have a staple gun feud.

And so the day continued.

“What’s that growth on your back, you nerd? Oh, it’s your head, haha!” As H. and I were trying to study for her upcoming English exam by playing a vocabulary game with a deck of cards.

“Aiy! You took me completely by surprise!” L. screamed right into my ear as M. triumphantly pulled her chair out from under her. The vocabulary matching game we were playing ended right then and there.

Bang! All heads turned to see N. thrusting a stack of chairs under the door handle. Bang! Bang! Bang! “Let me in, you creep! I’m going to come to your house and take you by the throat!”

All of them rolling on the floor with laughter as M. waved a long, thin piece of purple clay back and forth in a choice spot that I will leave to your imaginations.

By the end, I left the newly chilled chocolate balls and a supportive note on the table hoping that the boys would eventually show up to celebrate the culmination of their English lesson. I waited for them for half an hour and finally gave up, sulkily saying good-bye to the shnat sherut (year of service) volunteers who were piled together on the sofa watching a video on Utube, and grumpily throwing on my sweater.

After sneaking into a piano room in the Music Community Center next door to the school and writing music with my eyes closed for a good two hours I felt generally better and headed back towards home. On my way, I sat eating my turkey cucumber sandwich and staring out the bus window. The view outside on the windy drive back down from the hills of Gilo is quite breathtaking. Explosions of bright purple, orange, and yellow flowers dotting an otherwise white, rolling landscape. Colorful lines of clothes drying in the light breeze. Trees popping with all kinds of citrus fruits and children chasing each other with flying kites.

I got off the bus to pick up orzo, hazelnuts, and arugula for tomorrow's Shabbat meal and to collect my favorite yellow sweater from the dry cleaners, hoping that the mysterious stains I found on it had been battled out. Everywhere I went people greeted me with a helpful smile and an early Shabbat Shalom. It was a chilly day but the sky was a deep cobalt and the sun was peeking out in warm sprays along the sidewalk. I could smell lemons on the trees and freshly baked bread as I passed and slowly felt the day wash off as I quietly made my way back home. I took a shower and came up with a game plan. And over a steaming bowl of butternut ginger squash soup and some pilfered orzo from tomorrow night's meal, I wrote an e-mail to the director of the program.

Right now, I feel that despite all of our wonderful intentions, the Ma'aleh room's function in reality is the opposite of our lofty goals. Instead of an inviting, comforting space, it is a tornado of curses, punches, running, and too little productivity here and there. Instead of a place to uplift and enrich it has become a hiding place and excuse for not going to class. Instead of banding together a group of children with similar needs and histories who can support and understand each other, it is a forum for threats and disparaging comments. While I haven’t been there since the very very beginning, I’m pretty sure that there was no true introduction. I am going to suggest that we hold a weekly community meeting in the mornings with all of the participants of Ma’aleh to function as a forum for suggestions, opinions, and constructive thinking. 

To begin, I want to hold a formal meeting that establishes norms, introduces the program, and lays out expectations for both the teachers, tutors, volunteers, and pupils alike. I believe that if we take some time to sit together as a group and go over our overall goals and what I used to call giving out “glows and grows” we will not only come closer together as a group but also be able to include everyone in the process. I want to create boundaries and a new environment conducive to the peaceful, warm, inviting safe haven we are supposed to be. I want the children to take ownership of this space and to understand that their success is directly aligned with the effort they put into it. This begins with the formation of a peaceful learning environment. I will suggest that we sit in a circle, make a chart of our ideas, and work together as a community to create the experience we both deserve and need.

In coming up with a solution I have renewed hopes. I sit here thinking about the potential that exists and I am instantly reinvigorated. After all, the only way we can go from here is up.