Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Special Dispatch from Israel #2

Our lovely Israeli correspondent has graced us with another tale of dastardly do-gooders in the land of milk and honey (and arsim).

I just finished the most amazing ten days at a English language immersion camp program for 15-17 year olds, called K’dam (“before”) Atidim. Atidim is an army initiative which selects the top 20% of Israeli teens to attend university on an army scholarship before their mandatory service. This way they earn a degree first and then enter the army as professional soldiers in the field of their choice, including engineering, medicine, technology, etc.

One of the controversies of the Atidim program is that by educational standards, the top 20% of Israeli society resides mostly in the central region of Israel, where schools are touted as being of a higher quality than schools in the peripheral region because of higher socioeconomic standards. Atidim responded to this troubling issue by creating programs for youth from the peripheral regions, to give them the opportunity to be part of that 20%. K’dam Atidim English Camp is one of those programs.

Atidim chooses its pre-army program candidates based on a variety of factors, including their Bagrut scores (Bagrut is the Israeli version of the SAT, a matriculation test taken at the end of high school). An English test makes up one section of the Bagrut. In many of the peripheral regions, English programs are often substandard. While students receive an average of four hours of English a week at regular school, it has been calculated that the average student only gets about twenty minutes of individual attention each week. Our ten-day summer camp, with an average of eight hours of English work per day, is comparable to around a year and a half of schooling.

Camp was held in the Ben-Shemen youth village near Ramla, about 30 minutes from Jerusalem, a boarding school during the school year. In addition to our program there were several other groups at the village including international students, orthodox Jews in a study program, summer camp groups full of small children, and boarding school participants staying to work over the summer. The area is breathtaking: nature surrounds you, and while it’s one of the hottest areas in Israel, the camp environment created by the pool, soccer field and young adults everywhere creates a fun and inviting atmosphere.

On opening day, kids arrived and were divided into seven groups. They came from the northernmost tip of Israel to Eilat in the south, from Druze villages to Ethiopian neighborhoods. Many of the kids were too shy to speak English at first, and were resistant to opening their mouths. It was often a struggle to get them to participate, and some took to skipping class, or dropping out of the program altogether in order to avoid the frustration. We began with a group of 107 participants, and after four were kicked out for drinking and another seven chose to go home, we ended the camp with 96 smiling, tearful Israeli teens.

The multiculturalism of the camp is one of the most beneficial aspects. In addition to learning English, they interact with other groups in Israeli society that they don’t usually encounter, creating bonds that help break down stereotypes accumulated in outside life.

Israel is a relatively new country, formed by waves of immigration from all over the world. Older groups have had time to establish themselves, and the most successful generally live in the more expensive regions of central Israel. This area can often feel like a melting pot; tourism and international attention have led to these citizens becoming representative of what the “true Israeli” look like. Relative newcomers such as Ethiopians and Russians are often still putting down roots, and are not yet considered a part of the mainstream. Our campers represented these groups, and so we created activities focusing on aspects of identity: their families’ origins and the traditions they maintain. We encouraged the kids to develop pride in their ethnic customs as a means of developing their confidence and self-esteem. My group of eleven kids came from Ashkelon, Kiryat-Gat, Eilat, Ramla and Be’er Sheva. Their family origins included Ethiopia, Azerbaijan, Yugoslavia, Kazakhstan, Kurdistan, Poland, Russia, Hungary and Uruguay.

Camp activities included several hours of classroom activities each day, swimming, the creation of a camp newspaper, discussions on politics, identity, tourism, travel, traditions, and their futures, all conducted entirely in English. We took day trips to Mini-Israel and Jerusalem, where we visited the Itzchak Rabin Center, Independence Park, a theme ride called the Time Elevator, and the Bezalel Art Museum, where one camper under my watch accidentally backed into and broke a large ceramic sculpture. Oops…

The camp had its ups and downs: kids were kicked out for drinking, several were sent to the hospital for accidents ranging from sprained shoulders to dog bites. Days began at 7:00 AM when we pounded on campers doors, demanding they wake up and come to breakfast, and ended at midnight with us chasing kids around camp, yelling that it was after lights out, and no they weren’t sleepwalking, thirsty, returning something to their friend, talking to their girlfriend/dad/guidance counselor, etc.

As camp dragged on, progress seemed slow, and of course life was frustrating. I was only sleeping around six to seven hours a night, and during the day I had to be constantly upbeat, teaching English classes, or chasing kids from one place to another. I looked forward to the end, and hoped that all of my English teaching efforts would somehow pay off.

On the last day of camp we took our final test, and I was shocked to see the marked improvement. They could write! They knew past tense vs. present! They could use the word “encourage” in a sentence! Many of these kids had adamantly refused to say a word to me in English at the beginning of camp, and now they were writing essays! It was incredible. At our mini-graduation ceremony they received a bag with the K'dam-Atidim logo on it, a graduation certificate and a note from me. Then we all sat down and I spoke to them in Hebrew for the first time.

One of the biggest tricks we played is that no counselor could speak a word of Hebrew to the campers at any point. In fact we pretended not to know Hebrew so that they would feel pressure to speak English. Kids were confused, they wondered what countries we were from, and throughout the ten days they took bets on who could actually speak Hebrew. The staff, which included native Israelis, egged them on, claimed total ignorance, feigned confusion whenever Hebrew was spoken. At the end we all spoke Hebrew, and the kids went nuts…they loved it.

As I wrapped things up in class, the kids presented me with an enormous thank you gift they had all purchased together, and I began to understand what a great opportunity this camp offers. Where else would kids buy candies and gifts for someone who made them wake up early, work all day, go to sleep before they wanted to, pressure them, quiet them, etc? Only in a place where everyone understands how important their individual successes are to their own futures. Where they breathe a sigh of relief and accomplishment on the final day, and begin to beg for more time.

The final ceremony was fantastic. After a slideshow set to the song “I Believe,” by R. Kelly, some of the Druze girls performed a traditional dance, we heard from an Ethiopian boy who moved to Israel three years ago, claiming that in Ethiopia learning was not encouraged, and this camp was the first time he saw kids not only learning, but helping one another. As they exited the hall, tears of pride running down their cheeks, they came to hug me goodbye, and ran to catch their buses home. Bags were dragged across gravel as kids desperately exchanged notes, and took final pictures. And then suddenly, camp was quiet. The kids were gone, and the counselors had to move on as well. I’m still in recovery, and with constant letters from former campers filling my inbox, I’m still glowing from these last ten days.

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