The Bilingual, Binational Kindergarten of
Wahat al-Salam / Neve Shalom
Presentation to Macadonian Educators (April 1998) by Aisheh Najjar, Kindergarten Director
At the age of twenty, shortly after I had come to live in the then tiny community of Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom (WAS/NS), I was asked to take on the responsibility of opening a nursery for the Palestinian and Jewish children who were beginning to grow up here. At the time, I had no certification or experience, and we hardly noticed that what we were attempting to do was in fact revolutionary: it was to be the first bilingual and binational educational framework in Israel. Only later, during the course of my work, did I obtain theoretical training. I attended the Kindergarten Seminary in Tel Aviv, and went to observe existing kindergarten frameworks in the Israeli and Palestinian sectors. Till today, after 17 years, I continue as the kindergarten teacher in WAS/NS. I have worked in partnership with several Jewish kindergarten teachers over this period.
The ideas that I bring in this article were therefore developed over many years of nurturing a rather unique educational experiment. They are not presented in any scientific or academic way, so please do not expect to find at the end a bibliography or references to research accomplished in the field.
As a kindergarten teacher my interest and determination to continue are inspired by the appreciation I receive from many sources: from enthusiastic parents, as well as from educators who visit from around the world. The fact that today there are attempts to establish bilingual or binational educational frameworks elsewhere, gives me great satisfaction, because it shows that what I began in the early 1980s was a natural and important development in education for peace through work with young children.
I rule over two kingdoms: the first is my family of four children (three girls and a boy). The second is the kindergarten of WAS/NS, which has an enrollment this year of 29 children (13 Palestinians and 16 Jews) aged from four to six. Eight children are from the Community, and the rest are from villages and towns in the vicinity. My Jewish partner in the work is Eliza, who commutes to the kindergarten each day from a nearby town. She has worked with me now for the last five years. We also have a young untrained assistant.
The kindergarten is bilingual and binational. I speak with all of the children in Arabic, and Eliza speaks to them in Hebrew. Some of the children also speak a third language which they have learned at home, in the case that one of their parents is a new immigrant to Israel.
I am responsible for imparting the Arab cultural content in the kindergarten, just as Eliza is responsible for the Jewish cultural content. This framework requires that the teacher will have a high-degree of self-confidence, as well as esteem and awareness of her own culture, if she is to impart it to the children. In addition, she must be capable of understanding and accepting the culture and social norms of the other group.
It is important that the kindergarten teachers of the two conflict groups will have equal levels of knowledge and experience, since they must be perceived as equal by the children and their parents.
Relations with Parents
The establishment of good relations with parents is of central importance to the work of any kindergarten teacher. Parents who send their children to a binational kindergarten often tend to be idealistic. They have chosen to send their children to this specific framework, with the aim that they will receive something they would not normally obtain in other kindergartens. They want their children to learn the other language and absorb humanistic values that will enable them to perceive the other people on a basis of equality. This is an intellectual decision on the part of the parents. Naturally, as soon as their children actually enter the binational kindergarten, emotions also begin to play a role. The parents may experience a lack of self-confidence and fear. They fear that the experience will "burden the children with difficulties" that they are unable to deal with. They fear that the child's national or religious identity may be confused upon exposure to that of the other children. The child participates in the celebration of festivals belonging to the other group, and may sing songs or speak in the other language at home. Some parents are proud and happy about this, whereas others experience suspicion and fear. We give legitimacy to this fear and ask that the parents will inform us of it. Yet sometimes it is difficult for them to do so, since they see it as contradictory to their perceived liberalism and their commitment to bring their child to this special kindergarten.
In the context of these natural fears, we have found it to very helpful to share with the parents what actually happens in the kindergarten. We explain to them the curriculum and daily program, as well as our educational objectives. Wherever possible, we involve them in activities, take advantage of any skills or interests they may have, and get them to participate in field trips, parties and other events.
Concepts and Educational Work
An important element of bilingual and bicultural education is the strengthening of the identities of the two groups. The kindergarten teachers impart and develop language skills - both the children?s mother tongue and the other language. To accomplish this, each teacher speaks to the children solely in her own language. This causes them to associate the use of this language with the speaker. We find the active method of learning language to be the most successful. The children acquire the other language through activities such as the singing of songs, play, sport, field trips, dance, etc. The children begin to understand the language first passively, by fulfilling tasks asked of them by the teacher, and later actively, by answering questions and conversing.
Cultural and linguistic differences can be harnessed as a source of cultural enrichment, rather than of conflict. The festivals of the three religions celebrated in our kindergarten become a rich resource of experiential knowledge, through the telling of stories, the performing of art activities, the singing of songs and the preparation of special foods.
In the binational kindergarten it is of central importance to relate to the two cultures as equal, and not to give one culture dominance over the other. Likewise, the two groups have different educational needs. Sometimes they need to work independently, in a uninational framework. A good example of this is the way we relate to national days, which are sensitive due to the conflict between the two groups. We are obliged to relate to these because it is the wish of the parents, although we know that children of this age level are incapable of properly understanding them. It is necessary to find ways of simplifying such issues in order that the children can relate to them.
Since the concept of a binational, bilingual kindergarten is so new, we must often face the question of whether our methods are really instrumental in achieving our desired objectives, or whether there are other methods that might be more effective. Some educators have voiced resistance to the concept of bilingual and binational education at the kindergarten level. Some of their claims may be justified; for instance, in the case of children with learning difficulties, this form of education can present a greater challenge. However, our experience shows that most children do well in this educational framework.
In order not to be weighed down by the doubts of educators or parents, I have found it useful to establish a supportive environment of parents, educators, and others who understand our working methods and can give useful feedback.
Because so much in her work remains untested, untried, and unformulated, the ideal teacher of a binational, bilingual kindergarten constantly investigates. She is always open to new learning and uses everything at hand as a resource. She involves her environment, parents and students in her educational activity. Her kindergarten is a laboratory where she is able to learn, study and evaluate new educational methods.
The Children's Educational System
Copyright 1999 by Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam.
All rights reserved. Revised: 17-Dec-2001 .