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June 23, 2017 3:23 pm

Teachers From Four Countries and Across Religious Spectrum Gather for Israel Education Workshop Focusing on ‘History, Not Narrative’

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Participants in last year’s workshop. Photo: Center for Israel Education via Facebook.

Pre-collegiate teachers from four countries and across religious denominations will gather Sunday to learn how to educate students about Israel, an organizer of the one-week program told The Algemeiner on Thursday.

The 16th annual “Educator Workshop on Modern Israel” will bring together in Atlanta, Georgia Jewish and non-Jewish educators who want to figure out how to teach students about the complicated topic with a focus on “history, not narrative,” explained Rich Walter, an associate director at the Center for Israel Education, which runs the program together with Emory University’s Institute for the Study of Modern Israel.

“We find that schools are either shying away from teaching about Israel or they teach it as a most basic, simplistic level,” said Walter. “We want to show that Israel education can be incredibly sophisticated and multidimensional.”

Walter said the program’s non-doctrinal approach and its refusal to assert any political positions has attracted a diverse range of participants.

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“This year, we have [attendees] representing seven Orthodox schools, four Conservative, one Sephardi school from Mexico City, a Chabad school and several non-denominational institutions,” said Walter. “Our starting point is Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish State, but other than that…”

Most participants come from some Jewish education background, be it a day school, yeshiva or a synagogue’s Hebrew school, but the workshop has also attracted mainstream social studies and history teachers who feel themselves at a loss on how to approach Israel.

“We once has a teacher from a community college in rural North Carolina, who teaches non-Jewish students about the Holocaust, and came because she wanted to know how to expand her lessons,” said Walter.

Last year, the workshop was overhauled to offer a more individualized experience for attendees, with each participant selecting a “content track” and an “instructional track.”

“For the content track, they choose an area they want to deepen and sharpen their knowledge in,” said Walter. “In the afternoons, they select an instructional session where they have the opportunity to model effective pedagogy techniques, geared toward the age and setting they teach in.”

Content topics include state building, culture and society, politics and the conflict, with a focus placed in all disciplines on utilizing primary and unconventional source materials.  For a culture class, that could mean reading memoirs from early immigrants and listening to classic Israeli songs.

Walter said the program insists the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “should never be the starting point.”

“First of all, we believe Israel education should start from the earliest ages and it is not educationally appropriate to begin with the conflict,” he stated. “We also think that learning shouldn’t start from a point of contention.”

Furthermore, the workshop gives educators a unique opportunity to network and discuss best practices and challenges with colleagues from across North and Central America.

Tangible changes teachers enact after attending the workshop may be hard to gauge, but anecdotal testimony includes a kindergarten teacher who revamped her holidays-centric curriculum to include Israeli culture, and a cohort of Montreal educators who returned from a workshop program in which they replicated the First Zionist Congress to create Israeli political simulations that became major local events that brought together seven schools, over 500 students and members of the local community.

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