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Hebrew Through Movement

            This year at the synagogue school we are trying out a new way of teaching Hebrew, called Hebrew Through Movement (HTM). The idea behind HTM, and James J. Asher’s Total Physical Response before it, is to try to follow the process by which infants acquire their first language. The examples Asher gives are: parents will say “take the bottle” and then put the bottle in the baby’s hand, or they’ll say “wave bye bye” and then model how to wave a hand. The child then responds physically, rather than verbally, with a long silent period before words are spoken out loud.

I watched a ton of videos on how to teach Hebrew through Movement, and I read the background articles exploring the whys and wherefores, and I studied the official curriculum multiple times to create my lesson plans, but I still wasn’t sure if it would work in real life. I even tried to practice with the dogs ahead of time, but they were not especially enthusiastic. Cricket resented having to follow any command at all, and Ellie was constantly in a distracted (squirrel!) frame of mind, and I was worried that their reactions were a harbinger of things to come.

“Who me?”

            So, I was nervous on the first day of synagogue school, when I would have to try out HTM on actual children. I modeled stand up and sit down, while saying the commands in Hebrew, and then I asked for volunteers to try the actions with me, but no one raised a hand. I took a deep breath and smiled and asked one of my teenage teacher’s aides to do the actions with me instead, so the kids could see someone else following along and not falling on her face. The kids started to follow along, anxiously. Part of the problem was the mask muffling my voice, and part was that we’re in a social hall instead of a classroom this year to allow for social distancing, which also creates an echo, but most of the issue was stage fright with their new teacher. Me.

            One girl in the back of the room told me straight out that she wouldn’t be participating, and I told her that was fine, because I always accept No as an answer. I want synagogue school to be fun, but more importantly, since we don’t have tests or homework or grades, I don’t really have the leverage to convince someone to participate if they don’t want to, and I refuse to yell or shame someone into going along.

            Gradually, I added the commands for walk, and stop, and the kids decided that stop meant stop exactly where you are, even if one foot is up in the air and you are about to fall over. When the giggling started I knew we were onto something. Within a few more minutes everyone was participating, including the girl in the back who definitely didn’t want to participate, and it had become a game, and fun!

            When we went outside for a mask break a while later, we did another session of Hebrew through Movement, adding the commands for run and spin to our repertoire. We added balletic arms to our spins, and funny faces to our walks, and each time I said the Hebrew word for run the kids acted like they’d been shot out of a cannon.

“Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!”

            The only downside was that, with all of the standing and sitting and walking and stopping and running and spinning, my body started to rebel and I got very close to throwing up a few times, despite filling my thermos with gingerale before I left home. When I finally left the building for the day, I felt like I’d been run over by a truck.

            But still, it was so much fun!

            By week three I was getting into trouble for the noise level, because the kids really like to shriek while they are running, and then they fall on the floor and giggle hysterically, but it’s such a joy to see them having fun that I’m reluctant to tell them to keep the noise down.

            When I realized that my remote students were having trouble participating (even for our in-person day we still have some kids who zoom into class), I planned some doll-participation exercises, and suddenly stuffed animals were launching into the air, spinning themselves dizzy. I don’t think the kids even noticed that they were learning Hebrew, because they were so busy putting face masks on their Sloths and Teddy Bears and action figures, and racing around their bedrooms.

“I didn’t do anything.”

            Eventually we’ll move on to more complex sentences, like, walk slowly to the door, or run to the window and touch your head, or point at the Rabbi, laugh, bark, and run away, but for now we’re still on simple commands.

            I would love to invest in cushioned Hazmat suits, with helmets, for the in-person students, or better yet, full bubble wrap for each kid, and sound proofing for the walls so we can make as much noise as we want, but that’s a little bit beyond our budget, and some of the parents might object. Party poopers.

“Harrumph.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

74 responses »

  1. Finally: kinesthetic teaching!

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  2. What a great idea! I think you’re definitely on to something!

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  3. That sounds like great fun! Also reminds me of how my aunt taught English as a Second Language to naturalizing citizens. She loved it.

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  4. So the girl who definitely would not be participating did, actually, participate. Yay! Score one for the new teacher! Way to go, Rachel!

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  5. Finding joy in learning. Bravo, Rachel!

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  6. As a fellow teacher I love this post and applaud you on so many levels. 1st for embracing a new teaching methodology in the year 2020. 2nd for introducing it in such a way even reluctant participants can’t help but join in. 3rd for creatively engaging your virtual students. Sounds like your students are off to running start with their Hebrew. Rachel, you truly are a natural educator.

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  7. I want to come to your class! What a wonderful and delightful teaching method, this is simply terrific… and the best way to learn, yea you and those lucky kids!

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  8. We need dozens of Rachel Mankowitz clones — at least one for every school on the planet.

    Seriously. You sound like the best teacher ever!

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  9. That sounds awesome! I should suggest that theory to the Indonesian teacher at the kids’ school. What a fun and engaging way to learn.

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  10. Wow, what a success. I can think of nothing more rewarding than hearing the kids being boisterous and making too much noise. Bravo to you all.

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  11. That sounds like so much fun! Hurrah!

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  12. That’s a fascinating approach. And it makes all the sense in the world.

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  13. I’m an adult and I wanted to play along! What a great way to make learning fun!

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  14. It does sound like an excellent way to teach a language. They should try that with other languages too.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  15. Sounds wonderful! It reminded me of my Hebrew class in seminary, which a local rabbi co-led. He taught us a song about a cow and had us all mooing.

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  16. Great idea! what a fun way to learn!

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  17. Interesting. I kinda think this could be applied to adult learners of a second language. It’s easier to associate. Plus adults need more hands on vs textbook learning anyway from what I’ve read.

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  18. This sounds like way more fun than one would expect a Hebrew class to be. So awesome that you were able to engage the kids this way!
    Also, I love the pic of the dog shooting into the snow and then flopped over exhausted. So cute!

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  19. Wonderful, Rachel! Mazel tov!!!

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  20. Wonderful Rachel! Learning should be fun and it seems you’ve cracked it!

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  21. That sounds great! I’m glad you and the kids are having fun 🙂

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  22. If you start a similar class for adults you could serve tea and coffee and name the class Hebrew & She Brew. I’ll show myself to the door now.

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  23. I am now a Catholic, but when I first converted I was baffled by the constant physical movements required by a Mass attendee. Stand, sit, kneel, repeat. Over time I realized that the combination of the movements with the words really connected things in a deeply felt sense. I now know instinctively when to do what. I also remembered jump rope rhymes which stick with me, 60 years on, as they combined words and jumping. I am glad you are getting the experience with the kids.

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  24. Bravo! Sounds as if you were a great success! ❤

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  25. I realize this idea isn’t right for this moment in time, but I had some success teaching using cootie catchers/fortune tellers. (Those folded paper contraptions girls play with in grade school.). I would put numbers on one layer and colors on another and animals on another. As kids learn the words, they could make simple sentences using the words they picked.

    Congratulations on such a successful semester!

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    • I so wanted to do a craft project with cootie catchers when we went virtual last spring, because I love the on-the-noseness of cooties right now, but I couldn’t think of a way to relate it to my lesson plan. Now I have an excuse to try again!

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  26. That sounds like such a great way to teach a language. I might even enjoy learning a new one if it was done that way. Sounds like you are an EXCELLENT teacher.

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  27. What a fabulous idea and how satisfying for you that the children all engaged in the lessons. Not only did you managed to include all of your students, but they are learning as well. When I trained as a teacher, many years ago, our focus was totally on teaching and not on learning. In fact the word learning wasn’t even mentioned. It was as if it was an incidental by-product that occured either becuase of or in some cases in spite of what the teachers did. So please continue to let them make a lot of noise, to challenge you and themselves and to shout their ideas and most importantly to learn Hebrew in a way that will remain with them always.

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  28. It sounds like the dogs would have fun learning the commands as well.

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  29. Love the way you let the experience evolve into a game, which really encouraged engagement. And great photos!

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  30. I was having such a good time reading this till you mentioned the hazmat suits. It’s such a different attitude there, I hate that you’re living in so much fear. But I’m really glad the kids are having so much fun learning!

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  31. Rachel, hello,

    I’m sorry I haven’t responded in a while. Announcements of your posts are relegated to a place in my Gmail where frankly I’ve let them (all) pile up during what has been a time of not feeling well combined with concomitant lethargy. I hope you and the puppies are well. I enjoy the photographs of the one (Cricket?) leaping away and the image with the platypus, ’cause it’s unusual making friends with a platypus.

    So during the pandemic you’re innovating as an educator. This is so impressive! And you’re succeeding. Even more impressive! Really, finding a way to have physically moving interaction with the subject matter is terrific. I’m so glad the response affirms the approach. I’m an educator, too, by the way and appreciate engagement as a criterion for lasting learning.

    In spite of the elephant in the room that at least most of us are talking about, I hope you’re having a good autumn (my favorite time of year, cool and colorful). I hear you, wanting your charges to wear hazmat suits or (and!) bubble wrap. I think your concerns for safety are sound. I hope, I pray, that you and everyone near remain healthy.

    Shalom (as in peace and wholeness),

    Christopher

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    • Thank you! My nephew used to have a huge plastic ball that he could step into, like a suit, and he’d roll across the lawn (it took a lot to keep him from rolling into the street!), and I keep thinking we should get some of those for schools, even just for recess. The kids are giving up so much for coronavirus, I just want them to have some good surprises too.

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  32. This is the first I’ve heard of this method; I think I’m going to incorporate this into my language studies! I’m so glad your students enjoyed the lesson!

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  33. A fun post and images Rachel so much positivity and fun shines through and whilst learning all pluses 🙂

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  34. Love the flying dog pic!

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