Gail Weinstein and Learner’s Lives
My first reaction was curiousity…a friend on the ETAI convening committee, knowing that I was quite busy doing my own workshops said, “Whatever you do or do not go to, don’t miss Gail!”
And then there was Gail’s video…lots of images, lots of memories…easily bringing me back to my childhood, when I struggled to understand my Little Nana’s Yiddish accent…got angry when my mother and aunts and Nana and great aunts and uncles would gibber away, and I wouldn’t understand a word. And the sense of loss, coming to Israel, hearing Yiddish from time-to-time, and knowing that my own connection to the Yiddish language was lost forever.
Most of you have already either attended Gail Weinstein’s workshops this past summer, or this winter, at the ETAI conferences, or at other forums…or you have read Gail’s article in the Winter ETAI journal. Having been one of the people that has started using Gail’s methods--and also having developed a warm friendship with her and her daughter--I thought it would be nice to share a personal side of Gail and her work here in Israel. Because that is what “Learner’s Lives” is all about!
So I asked Gail to take some time from her VERY busy schedule (getting back to teaching at San Francisco State University after a year’s sabbatical; “starting a new project, SHINE--Students Helping in the Naturalization of Elders, for which I will recruit and train 70 volunteers to work with elders who want to become citizens”; and of course, writing, writing writing!!!)
But first a few words about how this work transformed my view of my students and how we approach writing in these notedly weaker high school English classes…
As I read through my notes from Gail’s summer workshop, thought about our chats, and worked my way through Stories to Tell Our Children, I admit I was concerned. What did my Hebrew-speaking, Israeli teenagers have in common with these people who had made major upheavals in their lives and were struggling daily with the language, family, employment and cultural problems in America?
While I was paper-clipping exercises, and writing notes on how to change Gail’s exercises, my left-brain took over, and Learners’ Lives walked into my life!
Every fall, I do some creative writing with my twelfth grade three point students…trying to beat the clock of upcoming Bagrut preparation by getting some “real English” and learning in there. One of my favorite exercises has been to catch the students right after they have spent a week at Gadna. We talk about the differences between impressions and feelings, and I ask the students to write several sentences on their experiences.
When I gave the assignment, the students were animated and interested, as always, and I didn’t realize that I had the makings of a “learners’ lives” project, until I settled into my couch position at home to enjoy their writings. The cumulative effect of what my students wrote was overwhelming. I call the collection,
“And a Soldier I Will Be…”
“When I went to Gadna, I saw new things…I felt how it is to be in the army…I felt that I am not ready for the army. I think I will be more ready and I know what to expect now. I hope I will not fail.”
“I saw in the Gadna soldiers and guns and the military base. I felt like a soldier, happy and proud. I was impressed…”
“And like they say in Gadna, ‘time is holy’…the meal according to hours and even extinguishing lights at ten in the night. We had a commander who is a tough guy but in the last day he made a difference. The commander laughed with us. The day before we go home, we shoot bullets. I am very excited and this was scary. The food is disgusting, we don’t sleep well, but some day we will come back…”
“I saw myself in uniform and I felt happy…”
“I saw my friends with their uniforms…I fell that I miss home…I felt very tired…I think I will be a fighter and I will defend my country. I hope I will enjoy the army and I will be good.”
“I saw where the soldiers sleep. I felt like a soldier but I was tired. I think when I go to the army I won’t be afraid because I know what to do. I hope I will be a figter…I plan to be a good soldier…if I must, I will die a fighter.”
Of course, in order to turn this work into a collection of stories would require time that we didn’t have…but the seeds were planted. I understood exactly what learners could write about their lives, and more importantly, how to set the stage for their writing.
My next attempt occurred during a lull in tests and grade-giving, with my (to be 1 and 3 point) tenth grade. I shared a short and simple story about my childhood with them, and then we began talking about how they could capture important memories from their lives. At first, my students were stunned! They couldn’t find anything to write about; didn’t know how to write; were worried about being interesting. After lots of encouragement and discussion, the stories began emerging…
a tall, strapping, handsome boy began to relate how frightened he felt the first day he went to kindergarten, how he cried, how he didn’t want to let go of his mother’s hand, about his fears…
a happy, bright, charming boy talked about his childhood habit of running away from grown-ups, hiding under furniture, and why he wanted to aggravate everyone who was taller them him…
a shy, pretty, girl talked about the pain of leaving friends and school and moving to a new city, making new friends…
a serious, thoughtful student wrote about the chaos her grandfather caused in their family, after the death of his wife, by bringing his new girlfriend—soon to-be-wife—home…
and a very motivated, intelligent student began to share her story of her first love…
We are working on these stories individually, and as a collection—integrating computer skills in Word, Power Point and multi-media—and hope to build them into a web page so that we can share our experiences with other students.
I now have no doubt about what “Learner’s Lives” is all about…
ETNI News “on-line” interview with Gail Weinstein, creator of “Learner’s Lives”.
ETNI News: How did you make your first connection to bring Learner's Lives to Israel?
Gail: I was invited to give a plenary at ETAI by Valerie Jakar, who knew of me from my work at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia more than a decade ago. The invitation arrived by e-mail in March or April. When Valerie asked if coming to Israel was a possibility, I remember responding YES!!!! before we had discussed any specifics.
ETNI News: What were your expectations before you came? How did your experience live up to them?
Gail: On a personal level, I felt
it was an invitation from heaven. I had never been to Israel, and I couldn't
think of a place I'd rather visit and learn about. On a professional
level, frankly, I was a bit concerned, because my own work had focused
on adult immigrants in the United States. I didn't know how the ideas
and models I'd been working on would translate to an EFL
My experiences on both the personal and
professional levels exceeded all reasonable wishes! My daughter was
welcomed in a way that made a new country comfortable--Valerie Jakar, Shai
Aran, and Ellen Serfaty, were among those who made my daughter feel that
she was coming to a familiar and
I also fell in love with the Old City of Jerusalem, taking walking tours at every available crack in my schedule.
On a professional level, the experience far surpassed anything I could have imagined. Teachers were spirited, imaginative, creative, and quickly took the seeds of the model and explored how it would work for their own classrooms and how it could connect them with classrooms beyond their own.
It was at the first workshop in July that
one teacher (I think her name was Dominique) talked about using the model
to connect Arabic-speaking children and Hebrew speaking children over the
internet. I began to learn from teachers about the issues that they
felt children in their classes would want to
ETNI News: What was the key message from your work that you hoped to bring to us initially, and in follow-up visits? Has your message changed? Your vision? Your perspectives?
Gail: When I arrived, my key
message was that classrooms could (and should!) be places where learners
discuss the things that matter most to them, and that with a few tools,
we can harness the energy of that exchange for language learning at the
same time. Making learners' disappointments, wishes and
After spending time with my colleagues
in Israel, I began to think more about the potential of English as a language
that is no one's "home turf", but rather a linguistic meeting ground for
people who don't ordinarily talk to one another. I was captivated
by the potential that you all saw in this
ETNI News: What was your motivation to come back this winter to work with teachers at ETAI and around the country?
Gail: I was motivated by your collective enthusiasm, by the e-mail I received from many of you, and by the excitement of seeing where this collective endeavor would lead us.
ETNI News: What progress do you think that you made on your last tour, this winter?
On my last tour, I had an opportunity to meet with teachers at David Yellin Teachers College in Jerusalem, Kaye Teachers Training College in Beersheba, the Open University in Tel Aviv, the Arab Teachers Training Seminary in Haifa, and the Achva Academic College in Beer Tuvia. I got a better sense of the possibilities for creating "communities of learners" among teachers, who also need support in doing new things in new ways. I also heard more from colleagues on how they might bring this model to life in an Israeli context.
ETNI News: What are your future plans for developing Learner's Lives in Israel?
Gail: This depends largely,
of course, on the desires and wishes of my wonderful colleagues in Israel,
and where they want to take this. Some of the ideas that we
have discussed so far include the creation of a book like Stories
If my colleagues in Israel are interested,
I would like very much to be a partner in supporting the process in any
way I can.
ETNI News: How has your work with us during the last year affected yours--and your daughter's--lives?
Gail: I suspect that Israel will
slowly be woven into the fabric of our lives. The experience has made me
want to learn Hebrew--and it also has led me to want to study Arabic!
Hannah already knows more Hebrew than I do (makes me feel like an immigrant
parent). Israel is a place where we can learn together about
who we are, and where we have come from. She knows
ETNI News: What are some of your favorite memories about your work here?
Gail: I am always moved by
the specific stories of teachers who take the chance and try this in their
own classrooms. I appreciated the chance to discuss project-based learning
with teachers in a living room chat--the kind of intimate setting where
ideas can really be explored and gestated. I was
ETNI News: It is Winter 2000...what will we see as the "Israeli version" of Learner's Lives?
Gail: I am imagining communities of English learners who can't wait to get to school, who work madly to tell their stories and to understand the stories of others, and who know that their experiences link them in some fundamental way to other human beings outside of their familiar circle.
I imagine communities of teachers who can't wait to get to work, who meet with one another in faculty rooms and living rooms to share what their students have said and who create together a blueprint for other teachers in the region who want to go down this road. They will be the pioneers and their experiences will be extraordinarily valuable. I'd like to see these teachers at the International TESOL convention, telling the world about what they've done and how they've done it!
Gail's books, Stories to Tell our Children and Collaborations, levels 1-5 (literacy- intermediate), published by Heinle and Heinle are available for perusing at ACC and USIA in Tel Aviv.
or order from:
Heinle and Heinle, Inc.
Special thanks to USIS for supporting Gail’s
work in Israel!!