Improving Hebrew for all our students

Hebrew Class
  • Inside the Classroom
Dr. Sarah Levy, Director of Jewish Life & Learning
Hebrew Class

By Dr. Sarah Levy
Director of Jewish Life & Learning

Toward the end of October, we welcomed members of the Hebrew at the Center team. During their visit, they had the opportunity to meet with some parents and board members about our Hebrew program. We wanted to share some of the questions and answers that came out of those meetings related to the work we're doing to improve Hebrew for all of our students

What is Hebrew at the Center?

Hebrew at the Center (HATC) is an organization that aims to revolutionize the effectiveness of teaching and learning Hebrew in all educational settings. They have worked closely with numerous Jewish day schools around the country to improve their Hebrew programs. We, at Denver JDS, have been working closely with Tal Gale, senior program director, and Liat Kadosh, our lead advisor. We also are fortunate to work with Vered Goldstein and Hamutal Keinan as advisors who are working closely with our teachers. Tal, Liat, and Vered have been and will be working with our teachers on curriculum and pedagogy.

How does it work? Are we still going to be using Tal Am?

HATC is not a curriculum, and they do not suggest a specific curriculum to any school. Following the proficiency approach, they work closely with each school to develop a curriculum that best fits the needs of the students. The proficiency approach fosters skills in reading, writing, speaking, and listening comprehension, focusing on achieving a level of fluency that allows the students to function in the language. Through our work with HATC, we are moving away from Tal Am in the Lower Division, replacing it with more authentic materials that allow students to practice these skills in real-world situations. Our curricular work will be coupled with significant professional development for teachers.

What are you doing here during this visit?

The visit that we had in October served as a baseline assessment. We had three representatives from HATC (Tal, Liat, and Hamutal) with us for three days to gather information about our program. They spoke with students (elementary school, middle, and high school), parents, board members, teachers, and administration. They observed classes. They met individually with teachers, reviewed materials, and even led a couple of workshops. This visit and the findings of this visit will serve as a guide for our work together. 

My kids have gone to Denver JDS since kindergarten, and they still don’t speak Hebrew. How will things change?

This past year, we administered the Avant Hebrew assessment (a standardized assessment for foreign language that is aligned with the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language standards) for our second, fifth, eighth, and 11th graders, and the data from this assessment shows that speaking is the weakest skill among our students. The proficiency approach focuses heavily on oral language and fostering the skill of speaking at an early age and throughout a student’s learning of Hebrew, so that skill should strengthen through our work with HATC. 

I know the school is really focused on innovative education right now. How does this work fit in with that?

One of reasons we were drawn to working with Hebrew at the Center was the ability to create our own curriculum in order to make it relevant and meaningful to students and also provide the flexibility to better integrate Hebrew areas in with other content for authentic, interdisciplinary learning. Interdisciplinary learning is a focus of innovative education, and being able to include Hebrew in this way goes directly toward our innovative vision. 

This seems like it’s going to be great for our Hebrew program, but will it impact just the elementary school students or will my eighth grader benefit also?

Eighth graders (and all students in both divisions) are already being impacted. All K-12 teachers are engaged in ongoing coaching and mentoring through HATC in order to develop and refine curriculum and also to improve pedagogy. A change that we have already made for all classes, for example, is that Hebrew classes are taught almost exclusively in Hebrew. The best way for students to learn a foreign language is by constantly hearing that foreign language (receiving input), so our Hebrew teachers are committed to exposing students to high quality, developmentally/skill appropriate input during class. 

My child has learning needs and struggles with learning English, much less Hebrew. How will this impact him?

HATC has much experience with working with students of all levels and needs and is working closely with our teachers to better address the needs of all learners. In general, however, because the proficiency approach has focus on speaking and listening and doesn’t just emphasize reading and writing, it appeals to more students who learn in different ways. Additionally, with the authentic materials, simulations, and activities, it is more engaging and fun for students.

What about HIP (Hebrew Immersion Program - our 10th grade trip to Israel)? Are we doing anything to improve the Hebrew on that program?

HATC is not directly involved in HIP, but we have been working on our Hebrew program there also. We are working with new Hebrew teachers this year and and carrying the elements of the proficiency approach through to that program as well, taking full advantage of the students’ being in Israel and giving them opportunities to actually use their Hebrew. 

What is the process and timeline?

During the 2017-18 school year, we did some preliminary work with Hebrew at the Center, including an on-site visit. The 2018-19 school year marks year one of three of this full initiative. Each year will involve on-site visits, personalized webinars for teachers, one-on-one coaching and mentoring for teachers, and access to a variety of resources. Schools have shared that work with HATC to totally change a Hebrew program takes three to five years, so, while we have already begun to make changes, you will continue to see changes this year and for the next few years. At the end of our work with HATC, we will have a curriculum that is unique to Denver JDS and our teachers, created specifically with our students in mind. 

How are we paying for this?

We a very fortunate to have received a grant towards the end of this year from Rose Community Foundation to cover the expenses of our work with Hebrew at the Center and some other associated costs.

If you have additional questions about HATC and the work we are doing with our Hebrew department, please contact Director of Jewish Life and Leaning Dr. Sarah Levy at

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