The Ottawa Jewish Community School (OJCS) has become the first school in Canada to implement the Ulpan-Or method, an innovative, technology-based, interactive and immersive way of rapidly teaching conversational Hebrew to students.
Developed in Israel 20 years ago, Ulpan-Or teaches Hebrew as a second language through what’s called “rapid language acquisition.” Taught in both physical classrooms and online, the method is designed to help students learn and speak Hebrew quickly, as well as build their confidence and love of the language.
The program is geared to grades 6 to 8, but the school has started using it in Grade 5, because educators felt students were ready for it.
“Using laptops and iPads, our students have access to online materials that include video and audio files, electronic flash cards, e-books and an interactive newspaper, which is published in Israel,” said head of school Marlene Wolinsky. “This also gives us a connection to the news and events in Israel, helping our children form a connection to Israel.”
Noga Reiss has been teaching Hebrew at OJCS for a quarter century, but eagerly adopted the new method. The school previously used a traditional textbook-based, vocabulary-centred way of teaching.
“The students just love the program,” Reiss said. “It is all online, all accessible from both home and school.”
Reiss said she’s already seeing benefits.
“Students have various skill levels when it comes to learning a new language – some are visual learners while others are auditory learners. Ulpan-Or provides students with beginner lessons to the most advanced lessons,” she said. “The progress is instant. My students were able to speak Hebrew on their first day of school.”
A local philanthropist is helping to fund the initiative. “The opportunity arose through Barbara Crook. Based on her own experience with the program, which has been a fantastic learning experience for her, she wondered if OJCS would be interested in acquiring the program,” Wolinsky said.
Crook has been studying Hebrew for a decade through Ulpan-Or, both on trips to Israel and by telephone and Skype. She was impressed by how quickly it lets people actually begin to speak Hebrew. “After the first lesson, starting with nothing, I was able to walk out and speak with people a few words in Hebrew,” she said. “It wasn’t a lot, just ‘Hello, my name is,’ but it was very empowering,” she said.
OJCS enthusiastically accepted her offer to fund teacher training for the program. In August, Ulpan-Or vice-president Nachum Ganor, son of founders Orly and Yoel Ganor, travelled to Ottawa to train two of the school’s Hebrew-language teachers.
“One of the things that Nachum helped us understand was the importance of surrounding our students with the Hebrew language and really immersing them with opportunities to use the language in conversational ways,” Wolinsky said.
Part of the goal is to make learning Hebrew enjoyable. “We want it to be fun for students, and that’s why we use technology, because this is their language, this is their mother tongue nowadays,” Ganor said. “We want them to come to Israel and feel comfortable speaking Hebrew in the Israeli streets,” he said. “Of course, it will also be an opening for them Judaically.”
The students can relate easily to the material. “The students are learning words for everyday foods that we find in our grocery store… and they are encouraged to go out into the community and videotape themselves using the language in the grocery store. For example, two students will go to the store with an iPad and video themselves conversing about what they would be eating on Shabbat. Then they would replay the video in the classroom,” Wolinsky said.
“We hope to be the school in Canada to provide information to other schools and perhaps to train other teachers and schools as we become more experienced with the program,” Wolinsky said. “We see a tremendous leadership opportunity.”