Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Back to School

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 6 September 1999

I would imagine that having your oldest child start elementary school brings back alot of memories for most parents. I often find myself comparing the way things are done in my daughter's school to the things I remember about my own school days. I don't know how many differences are simply due to the passage of time (such as the prevalence of computers in school today), the fact that this time I am on the other side of the backpack, or cultural differences between Israel and America.

In Israel, the school year always begins on September 1st, and finishes on June 30th. Kids are in school from 8 am until 1 pm, later on some days as the kids get older. On Fridays (the eve of the Jewish Sabbath) they get out at noon. There is now an effort underway to extend the regular school day for all kids until 3 pm, but I don't know if or when that will happen. Kids go to school six days a week, from Sunday through Friday.

At my daughter's school, the grounds are surrounded by a chain link fence, much as my elementary school in California was. Unlike at my school, an armed guard sits at the front gate, and patrols the grounds regularly. This is something you get used to rather quickly in Israel, as there are armed guards at the entrances to shopping malls, supermarkets and many office buildings, as well.

In my daughter's grammar school there are four first grade classes, four second grade classes, and three each of third through sixth. Each year more kids move into the neighborhood (which is still being built) and the school gets more and more crowded. Last year they added one classroom, and another new classroom is under construction right now. But soon they will run out of places to tack on an addition, and parents are very concerned about what will happen next.

There is no auditorium in this particular school, though others have them. Our school is next door to the neighborhood community center, however, and shares that facility's gymnasium in the event of school assemblies, concerts, physical education lessons and the like. There is no cafeteria...all kids bring their lunches and eat at their tables in the classroom during the long recess at ten in the morning. This ten o'clock meal (aruchat eser) is traditional in Israel.

Last year, when my daughter started first grade, I was shocked to learn that in addition to learning reading, writing and arithmetic with her main teacher, she would be taking classes in geometry, art, music, creative writing, road safety, nature, sport and several other topics - each with a different teacher. Her schedule was more complicated than the schedule I had in junior high school! In fact, most parents buy their child a special chart to keep track of the daily schedule. On these charts, each school day is broken up into one-hour segments, with a space for the child to write in the corresponding subject.

In second grade, the students begin learning Torah (the Pentateuch, or first five books of the bible) as part of their regular curriculum, even in the secular (non-religous) public schools. To this day, my husband and his brothers remember names, stories, and even quotes from the bible. This odd (to me) combination of religious knowledge and secular behavior is a striking feature of the Israeli experience. In addition, by third grade (usually) children begin learning a second language - English. In this country of immigrants, many languages abound: Arabic, Russian, Amharic (Ethiopian), French, Spanish...But it is English which is a required subject in grammar school. I didn't begin learning a second language until I was in high school. Sometimes the things these children are expected to learn and master amaze me. It seems quite a demanding environment for the students.

On the other side of this equation are the teachers. One of the things that bothers me the most about my daughter's school is that, as the children arrive in the morning, there are no teachers visible. They are gathered in the teacher's lounge where they sit and drink coffee. They often arrive in the classrooms five to ten minutes after the bell has rung, coffee mug in hand. Perhaps it is my faulty memory, but I seem to recall my teachers sitting at their desks at the front of the classroom, greeting each student as he or she arrived. In general, the teachers seem to me to have a lax attitude about their role in supervising the children. When a child behaves badly, he or she is sent from the room, but not to the principal's office. Instead, he or she is left free to roam the school grounds - or even run off if he or she can find a way to do so.

When I question the teachers about these issues, they shrug and tell me that the children must learn to regulate their own behavior, and to "be brave." The teachers seem to have the attitude that too much supervision will make children weak and dependent. It seems to me that this is an excuse for their own laziness, but it does fit in with what I have seen of the Israeli attitude about the need to be strong and self-reliant.

I struggle daily with the issues of what I see in the school and what I remember from my childhood, trying to decide what is best, what is "right" for my children. I sometimes wonder what it would be like if my kids went to school in America, instead of here. For one thing, there wouldn't be the need for two parents who are licensed to carry guns to accompany every class field trip in the event of a terrorist incident. But in the end, I believe the advantages of raising my children here outweigh the negatives. After all, things in America are not the same today as they were when I was in school.

(c) Amy Samin

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