Paul Monheimer reflects on Israel Fulbright research

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Last year I applied for a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching.  Much to my amazement, I was awarded a grant to study for a little over three months in Israel. On the application, I wrote a proposal for connecting students using graphic arts software to help overcome language barriers. How naïve I was. The first issue my mentor, Jay Hurvitz, pointed out was that I had hardly proposed a topic which could be researched. No problem, I countered. Being a mentor teacher in the United States, I was more than willing to look at how student teachers were being trained to teach with modern technological tools. In my mentoring, I had discovered that student teachers were proficient at using technology, but had little training in how to teach with technology.  I told Jay I was also interested in how veteran teachers were acquiring the new skills necessary to teach with emerging technology. 

I was not a researcher prior to this Fulbright Award. I teach children. I have done so successfully by most measures for nearly thirty years. Teaching is about building relationships. My students learn because of the relationship I have with them.  In order to learn about the state of technology in Israeli education, I began developing a personal learning network (PLN.) I created a blog that, according to Google Analytics, has received more than 700 visits.  Each visit lasted an average of 2:36. Clearly, people are reading what I have written. 

Actually doing research was my problem.  I was going to be in Israel for 102 days.  I spent a week getting acclimated.  95 days left.  Israeli universities have a semester break in February. Down to 80 days left.  K-12 students have a spring (Passover) break. That left 70 days for me to complete my research.  I learned a great deal while in Israel. Yet I am just now beginning to understand how little I know, and I will be teaching Catlin Gabel seventh graders in 14 days. As a wise Israeli fifth grade teacher reminds her students, “When you travel, you learn a lot about other cultures.  But, you learn more about yourself.”  What did I learn about the Israeli education system?  What did I learn about myself?

I was eager to begin my research into the Israeli school system, but I don’t read, speak, or write Hebrew very well. I needed to talk to people who spoke English, read articles in English, etc. But Hebrew is an important part of Israeli culture. It is one of the ties that bind people. Speak Hebrew and one is seen as an Israeli or at least trying to be part of the culture. Speak English and people might be tolerant or even translate, but I was still an outsider. Fortunately, I met many people who talked to me in English, newspapers such as Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post have online English editions, and both Google and Microsoft have passable translators. Technology became my lifeline. It kept me afloat, yet did not quite allow me to swim. I could translate Hebrew into English, verify my understanding with Israeli colleagues, and e-mail people on my laptop. I had a cell phone for person-to-person conversations and interviews. I learned that Israeli educators deal with many of the same issues facing American educators. Finding similarities eased my language anxiety a bit and allowed me to focus more on some of the differences.

Education in Israel is a complex enterprise. I divided my study between higher education folks and K-12 schools. Beyond this basic divide, there also are secular schools, religious schools, ultra-religious schools, and Arab schools. Funding and political power are unequal. While much funding is federal, schools are administered by municipalities, which means wealthier neighborhoods have schools with more resources, parental involvement, etc. There are areas where the school is the only building in a village with electricity. I visited one Bedouin school, near Be’er Sheva, where a generator the size of a camping trailer was providing the school with electricity. Residents, by contrast, relied on solar power, if they had electricity at all.
Israeli schools are faced with a wide spectrum of issues. Often, technology isn't a high priority. I wanted to talk about technology and how teachers were being trained in its use and using it with kids. But I kept reading about violence in schools, poorly paid teachers, high teacher turnover, lack of qualified teachers, curricular differences between religious, ultra-religious, and secular schools, and schools refusing to teach certain students.  Perhaps most importantly, education in Israel has to deal with security measures unlike any I have ever experienced as a teacher in America.  Every school in Israel is not only fenced, it has an armed guard at the gate. The guard won’t actually admit anybody, but will allow visitors to contact the office. Even when I visited schools as part of a team of Israeli educators, we still had to be admitted by someone who worked at the school, not the guard. Schoolchildren on field trips are accompanied by at least two armed guards the entire time. While no one mentioned the effect of security on kids and most Israelis take security precautions in stride, it has to affect the kids and the adults.   Learning about Israeli schools is, as the ogre, Shrek, says, “Like an onion.  Peel it back one layer at a time.”

A good mentor tries to develop independence in his charge, and Jay was an excellent mentor. He accomplished four major tasks with me. Jay helped me become independent as a traveler. Israel has a terrific bus system, but it took a number of trips before I felt comfortable. I am now able to travel to any part of Israel to meet educators, visit schools and colleges, and return to Jerusalem safely. Jay introduced me to a few educators who are doing unbelievable work in the field of education technology.  Sometimes he attended these meetings, other times I met with people on my own. I joined Israeli educator forums, which required more Google/Bing translation work, and I have been a contributor to these forums since my arrival. One of my suggestions is currently being tried out on Edureshet, a Ning group of technology-using educators. Jay also introduced me to a group of college instructors who were learning how to use technology in their courses. My skills as a technology director and technology-using teacher came in handy, as I was able to participate in class even though my Hebrew was not up to the level it needed to be to participate fully. More than once, after I made a comment, someone would remark, “Oh, so you understand Hebrew.” I didn’t and still don’t, but I understand what is on a screen and have been a presenter often enough to correctly guess what was going on. Lastly, under Jay’s guidance, I attended conferences at Mofet, a unique Israeli institution. Meeting colleagues of all stripes at these conferences was a highlight of my time in Israel, and I look forward to keeping in touch with many of the fine educators I met. While I know Jay did his best to broaden the circle of people with whom I met, and even though he knows, in one way or another, many educators active in the education technology field, my exposure to these people was inevitably influenced by his circle of friends and acquaintances.

More than anything else, I treasured the time I had to read, think, and write. I have followed a few blogs for a number of years, but my blogroll has now grown substantially. Speaking with Israeli colleagues and observing teachers in their classrooms piqued my interest in areas of technology to which I had not previously paid much attention, including ways to incorporate Facebook, Diigo, and other social networking sites, Google forms, and submitting assignments via Moodle. School visits caused me to reflect on my own teaching methods and curriculum. Reading what others wrote on the subject and commenting on posts connected me to educators not just in Israel, but the entire world. I’m not sure where I will find the time to continue all of the reading, but I suspect I will find ways to keep up, or I will join the legions of tech folks who have way too much to read. Thinking about my own teaching, how I approach learning, how I incorporate programs such as All Kinds of Minds, how I utilize the rich resources available to today’s students and teachers, and which skills I want kids to have when they leave my class are all areas I have been lucky enough to explore during my Israel Fulbright.  I have shared some of these thoughts in my 33 blog posts. 

Now that I am preparing to return to the US, what have I learned about the topics I wanted to explore?  There are some Israeli schools engaged in global sharing projects. Perhaps Catlin Gabel will join the growing list of schools participating in global sharing when I return. Some of the software I wanted to share does not “accept” Hebrew input. I have an ongoing correspondence with three software companies encouraging them to tweak their programs to accept Hebrew characters. According to the Israelis, it should be no problem. 

There is an ongoing program in Israel, the Athena Fund, whose stated goal is to address the current poor state of the education system, wherein a gap of digital understanding exists between teachers and students, teachers showing fear of computers and not using them for the purpose of teaching and communicating, and their general status in the eyes of their students is at its lowest. The Fund's main project is "a laptop for every teacher."

The Athena Fund aims to complete its work by 2012. From my limited observations, most Israeli schools have a long way to go. Israeli student teachers are not part of the Athena Fund program. This is unfortunate because, if they were, they might be ready to teach with technology when they began their own teaching careers. Instead, they become part of the program only after completion of their training. If I could make one recommendation it would be to give every teaching candidate a laptop at the beginning of their training. Teacher training is stuttering. Early adopting teachers are moving ahead, but many teachers are simply hoping, “this, too, shall pass." What few in the education community are talking about is that Israeli kids already bring cell phones to school and the phones are creating the same problems as cell phones in schools do in the US – distraction of peers through inappropriate use, ringing during school time, class distinctions between students who have “cool” phones and those who do not, etc. There are so many “turf battles” being waged in the education sector that it is difficult for all the folks involved to move in the same direction. 

Cutting-edge teaching is always inspiring! I visited schools where creative teachers were involved in innovative programs. I observed students in middle schools where each family had purchased a laptop for their child to use, conduct research, create tables in a word processor and upload the document to Moodle, all in a 45-minute period. I met teachers whose students were creating audio files to go with their stories, which they then used as part of an English lesson.  I brainstormed with teachers who were setting up a program to get parents more involved in their local school by having parents and children learn together about using computers. I learned more about the importance of social networking in education than I can possibly recount. This is, of course, a two-edged sword. Students enjoy social networking because they use the tools all the time, they are familiar with them, and they don’t seem like “real work.” But teachers need to help students understand the responsibilities involved in using social networking sites in classes. This includes focusing on school projects, not just updating status, checking on friends, etc. The issues surrounding “proper use” of social networking are not limited to Israeli or American schools/students.  Increasingly, corporations are either filtering or intensively monitoring what employees are doing/viewing/ while connected to the corporate network. 

Teaching is about making connections. I have done that during the past three months in Israel. Current technology will allow me to stay in touch with the educators and students I have met here. As a Fulbright Distinguished Teacher, I have learned new ways of looking at my teaching, improved my teaching, and I have been fortunate enough to have begun working with others to collectively improve education in both the United States and Israel. As Brian Jones stated after he and his partner had just completed the first around-the-world balloon flight, “I am an ordinary person to whom something extraordinary has happened.”