Inspiring Students: Interview with Bari Nirenberg

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

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.

Lehavim in the Negev, Israel

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

Bari Nirenberg

Working with “Inside Hana’s Suitcase” and “Hana’s Suitcase”

“Inside Hana’s Suitcase” and “Hana’s Suitcase” 

update: Today, if you’re in Canada, tune in to CBC at 8:00 P.M.

Toronto filmmaker Larry Weinstein’s deeply affecting 2009 Holocaust documentary Inside Hana’s Suitcase (CBC, 8 p.m.) is meaningful and heartfelt, about one young girl’s experiences of the Holocaust, without stooping to condescension or cheap sentimentality.

To Reach out and Touch the Holocaust

Who's Who, Inside Hana's Suitcase

Back in November 2009, I posted about my brother’s film, Inside Hana’s Suitcase, being screened. Since then, the film has travelled to many festivals, including here in the Jerusalem Film Festival. The book Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine, translated into at least 44 languages, has continued to be read and enjoyed.

Now, it’s my turn to do something with this story. I’ve been maniacally working on a series of lessons for Hebrew-speaking English language learners. My goal is to awaken my students’ curiousity in the incredible story of how Fumiko Ishioka, head of the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center, was able to borrow a suitcase from the Auschwitz Museum and through her desire to teach Japanese children the story of the Holocaust, tracked down the owner of the suitcase and her brother.

This story circled the globe bringing new information to George Brady, alive and well in Toronto, Canada about his sister, Hana. He learned of her days in Terezin via drawings sent to him by Fumiko, and he learned that her suitcase had found its way to Tokyo. He also discovered how children around the world were eager to learn about Hana and his own history.

The story touches all who read it, and the film energizes it anew, in its dramatizations of the Brady family life in Czechoslovakia before WWII and the changes in life that came with the Nazi restrictions and deportations to Terezin.

I’m grappling with the following questions:

  • How can I make this story accessible to non-English speakers?
  • How can I present the story  in a way that arouses curiousity to know more?
  • How can I help non-English speakers understand the film, currently unavailable with sub-titles?

The process is exciting, especially since I am so very impressed with the original book and especially Larry’s film, Inside Hana’s Suitcase. Stay tuned. If anyone reading is interested, drop a comment!

– judih

Hana's drawing from Terezin – View the 30th conference keynote address by Richard Paul – View the 30th conference keynote address by Richard Paul.

“Education is a process of understanding who you are, as a member of the animal kingdom, as a species…”

But to be a human thinker is not necessarily to think well.

I’ve constructed false beliefs that are part of me…

Sometimes I think I’m speaking and defending an insight, when actually I’m defending a prejudice, a narrowness…”

Richard Paul speaks of the kind of student who knows that a mind can house insights as well as false beliefs but through critical thinking, knows enough to try to separate the two. Click onto the link to hear his talk (a little over 9 minutes)

Fanning Creativity in Children’s Minds – Arieh Schkolnik

yay!Parachute inspectionReadierGetting ReadyNitzenei Eshkol Public School kids watching Arieh\'s launchParachuting back to earth

Arieh Schkolnik is an effervescent enthusiast of many subjects. He delights in astronomy. He loves creativity. Lately, he is enjoying perfecting small rockets using water, plastic bottles and plastic bags and converting them into a watchable display of physics.

On May 29th, 2008, he brought a tank of compressed air and his latest manifestation of small launchable rocket to demonstrate to pupils of Nitzenei Eshkol Public School how it’s possible to convert a dream into a live take-off.

“Children, I had an idea and I tried many times. I had many failures, but I kept trying. About 3 times a month, on Saturdays, I take my ideas to the field in Kibbutz Nir Itzhak and I see if I’ve succeeded.

Finally, I came up with an idea. I found that a simple change in the shape of a bottle, one with a slanted top, could allow the exchange of gas and water that I’ve been hoping for. Now we will see a rocket blast off and have its parachute open  at the maximum height to take it back down to earth.”

I want you to watch. Last demonstration took me 4 times to succeed. Let’s see how it goes this time.”

Arieh filled his plastic bottle with water, folded the plastic parachute into place and inverted the bottle over the compressed air.

’10, 9, 8…’

The grade 6 kids were counting down, while I was aiming my camera at the launching pad.

Of course, I was out of sync with the blast-off, but I caught the faces of Arieh and the kids and the parachute gliding bottle as it floated back down.

Arieh also showed the kids how to measure the height by using trigonometry. (‘What’s that?” asked a kid. ‘Using triangles to calculate distances”, I answered, hoping that I correctly remembered. I used to love math, oops, what happened, I thought? Did life really get in the way of using the simple tools taught so many years ago?)

After 4 separate launches, two of which were totally successful, Arieh again encouraged the kids:

“Remember, school teaches you many things, but you can learn so much more by taking the tools and going out to learn things for yourself! And never give up. Persevere. It might not work the first time, but keep on going! You will be successful!”

Thank you, Arieh! Always a source of contagious enthusiasm. May our young children be filled with scientific curiousity to question what they’re taught and see if they can take it a step further. Creativity will open the minds of this generation, for the good of us all.

 -judih, May 30/08