Bari Nirenberg is a teacher and counselor in the Negev region. She recently worked with her students on a unit studying the Paralympics. Greatly moved by her students’ responses, Bari has generously shared her experience with us.
Interview with Bari Nirenberg
Judih: Hi Bari. Could you introduce yourself?
Bari: I am originally from New York, but I have been in Israel since 1988 and I’ve been teaching English at Makif Alef in Beer Sheva since 1989. In my many years of teaching, I teach grades 7 through 12 and I have taught all levels, but for the past few years I’ve been teaching mainly gifted students. I am the mother of three. My daughter recently finished her army service, I have a son in the army and my youngest son is in high school. I have an MA in TESOL from Teachers College – Columbia University. In addition to teaching, I am also a regional counselor, I teach an in-service course on the new literature program and I mark bagrut exams. My non-professional interests include reading and doing triathlons (slowly…).
J: Have you always been an English teacher?
B: Yes, I studied to be a teacher and it’s what I’ve been my entire adult life.
J: Where do you live?
B: I live in Lehavim, about 12 kilometers north of Beer Sheva. Lehavim is a fairly small community, apparently best-known for its train station, “Lehavim-Rahat”. The station is located in Lehavim, but the nearby Bedouin city of Rahat shares the name of the station with us.
J: Do you think that your environment influences your choices in teaching?
B: Not really, but my interests do occasionally influence my choices. Many of my gifted students are not particularly interested in (or good at) sports, so in the classroom, I try to emphasize the importance of a healthy body. I make an effort to talk about things that they are not necessarily familiar with in order to broaden their horizons.
J: Could you tell me about your recent teaching unit?
B:I started off the school year in all of my classes with a unit on the Paralympics. In the 10th and 11th grades, this was actually a project. My inspiration for the unit was a presentation by the British Council which I saw at the ETAI conference in Beer Sheva at the end of the last school year.
I started off the unit using two sets of pictures from the British Council presentation. The first set shows what appear to be normal, able-bodied athletes. I asked the students to describe the people in the pictures. The second set was the same people, but it also showed their disabilities. In all of my classes, the students were very surprised by what they saw. This led to a discussion about “disabled” athletes and then about the Paralympics, which were due to start that week.
The 8th and 9th grade classes then read a text on the Paralympics. In the 10th and 11th grade classes, I gave out guidelines for a project. First of all, I sent them to the Samsung site for the Paralympics, where there were three inspirational video clips. They watched these at home and then talked about them in the following lesson. For the project, they had to choose a sport in the Paralympics, talk about the history of the sport and explain the classification for that sport (how disabled athletes are put into the different categories according to their disability). Then they had to choose an athlete (one athlete for groups of three, two athletes for groups of four) and find out more about him or her. In addition, they had to follow their chosen athlete’s progress in the Paralympics. This was to be presented as a written project and also orally in class. There was also creative work — the students were asked to create a poster inviting the public to the medal event in their chosen sport. The poster was to include a picture or pictures plus the date and venue of the event (they had to find this information online).
The project was successful beyond my wildest dreams. On the first day, the students told me what an interesting topic I had chosen and they were very excited to start working. I should note that most of them had never even heard of the Paralympics before. They did all of the work in class — some brought in printed-out sources from the Internet and others used their smartphones to view their sources. The groups in both classes worked independently, calling me over only to when they needed help finding something or didn’t understand something they’d read. They worked so well that a few of the groups actually finished the work earlier than planned (I had allotted 8 to 10 class hours for the project after the initial lesson). The students got particularly excited about the athletes they had chosen and some of them gave me daily reports on their athlete’s progress.
The first group to present orally had chosen the sport of wheelchair tennis and Noam Gershony was the athlete that they researched. Note that they had chosen both the sport and their athlete before the games had even started, so when Gershony won a gold medal for Israel, they were very excited. As part of their presentation, they showed a slide show with pictures of Noam Gershony, starting with a picture of him as a pilot before his accident in 2006. For the background music, they chose the Beatles song “Blackbird“:
“…Take these broken wings and learn to fly,
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise.”
That was about the time I started to tear up. They later told me that they’d chosen the song because of the words that they thought were so fitting. At the end of the presentation, they showed a clip from Channel 1 in which Gershony was awarded his medal and Hatikva was played. While listening to the national anthem, Gershony started crying (not just tearing up, but actually sobbing, head in hands — I didn’t realize how hard he had cried until I saw the entire clip). I had to try hard not to cry myself and I could see some of the students getting teary-eyed.
In addition to the moving video and pictures, the three girls who did this project also talked about how much of an inspiration Noam Gershony is to them, how they now know that they can do anything they put their minds to. They called him an Israeli “hero”, not because of his achievements in sport, but because of his sacrifice for his country.
The most important thing I learned from doing this project is that when students are interested in a topic, they will also be motivated. My students really put their all into this because they wanted to know more. It also helped that the topic was current and that they could watch the events unfold as they were working. I think that “relevance” is the key word here.
J: Was this response to a project exceptional?
B: I’ve had students put a lot of work into a project before, but I’ve never seen them get as personally involved as they did in this one. This was definitely one of the most moving and most satisfying teaching experiences I’ve ever had.
J: Thanks so much for sharing your brilliant project and your students’ responses.
Do you have any future projects in mind?
B: I don’t have anything specific in mind at the moment, but hopefully I will be able to find something else that really makes my students want to learn.
J: Thank you, Bari