Beer Sheva Volunteering, Week 1

This blog post is from Leah Topper, one of the participants on this year’s Repair the World Onward Israel Yahel summer program in Beer Sheva. 17 college students from all over the US are living, learning and volunteering in Beer Sheva for 6 weeks. Here, Leah talks about her first week of volunteering. The original blog post can be found here. The group also has a blog here.

I have a weekly schedule for my volunteering placements. On Sunday and Wednesday, I work with groups of students in Tel Sheva and Be’er Sheva in English groups. On Monday and Wednesday, I work in the office of Ma’an and teach English to students in Rahat.

I am working at Ma’an, a non-profit organization that serves the Bedouin population of Israel by supporting Bedouin women and advocating for their rights. They provide many services to this minority population in Israel, and we (me plus three other girls on my trip) are helping them by working in their office and by teaching English to three different Bedouin groups. We create our own lesson plans and fun activities for each group, and we have modified and improved our approach to the lessons each time we have a new session. We are not professional English teachers, so we are learning as we go!

In Tel Sheva, a 30 minute bus ride from Be’er Sheva, we teach a group of girls who are 15 and 16 years old. This week, there were about 8 girls. Most of them could speak in complete sentences when prompted, and all of them could read English very well. While their knowledge of English impressed me, the dynamics of this group interested me more (and here resides the sociologist in me). One of the girls was very advanced in English and spoke more fluently and more rapidly than average for this group. She was proud of herself and most of the girls seemed impressed by her language skills. On the other end of the spectrum, one of the younger girls was shy and did not feel comfortable speaking in English. She was overwhelmed by the entire situation and looked very uncomfortable in the large group setting. This broad range of language abilities is something we must definitely acknowledge and accommodate in the structure of our lessons.

Yahel volunteers working with local youth
Yahel volunteers working with local youth

In Rahat, the largest Bedouin city in Israel, we teach English to a group of 10-15 boys and girls who are 12 and 13 years old.  These kids do not know English as well as the girls in Tel Sheva, but they were just as enthusiastic to learn! The age of this group is also very fun—they’re at that age where they like to sing, play games, and run around. They also are convinced that the opposite gender has cooties. We talked about and played games that included numbers, colors, and articles of clothing, and by the end of Tuesday, they had taught me their favorite hand games and play songs. I know a new version of the Hokey Pokey!

It’s difficult to teach English—what can we realistically accomplish in just four weeks? Do we teach as much as possible in our four weeks with them or do we teach less information and play more games with the information we teach? (My personal opinion aligns with the latter choice, by the way.) What’s the goal of these lessons? What is a practical outcome? In another month, will they remember anything we taught them? These questions have directed my approach to this volunteering experience, and as of now, I think that the goal of these English lessons has to do more with the relationships we build with these kids and less with what we actually teach them. Sure, they are really enjoying learning new words and saying things in English, but I think they also enjoy our company and interacting with us, whether or not these interactions take place solely in English. They might not remember the English words for all the body parts 10 weeks from now, but they will remember their experiences with us and the fun we had together.

Bonus list! This is my first experience teaching English to non-native speakers, and there are a few things I’ve noticed throughout this week that I’d like to record:

  1. I normally speak English in a very fast pace. It’s super hard to slow down.
  2. English makes no sense, y’all. Spelling? Pronunciation of words?
  3. Arabic speakers find the words “twelve,” “shoes,” and “pink” (they like to pronounce it “bink”) hard to pronounce.
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