Mt. Lebanon High School students pair with Israelis for pandemic learning year
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Mt. Lebanon High School students pair with Israelis for pandemic learning year

"They have the same concerns, you know, school and parents and love.”

Mt. Lebanon high school teacher Julianne Slogick, Israeli teacher Orly Zaltman and Aya Ovadia from Partnership2Gether meet online to discuss a twinning program between the two teachers and their students. Photo provided by Orly Zaltman.
Mt. Lebanon high school teacher Julianne Slogick, Israeli teacher Orly Zaltman and Aya Ovadia from Partnership2Gether meet online to discuss a twinning program between the two teachers and their students. Photo provided by Orly Zaltman.

When Israeli teacher Orly Zaltman was offered the opportunity to partner with a high school classroom in America, she assumed the students would be Jewish.

But instead of being matched with a Jewish day school or Yeshiva, Zaltman’s students — 11th- and 12th-graders at the Ort Psagot High School in Karmiel, Israel — were partnered with the sophomores, juniors and seniors Julianne Slogick taught at Mt. Lebanon High School, a public school in the South Hills of Pittsburgh.

The pairing turned out to be “a very good idea,” said Zaltman, who had been tasked with presenting her school and Israel to a wider audience through social media and other programs. “It worked out even better because, when you talk with Jewish people, they’re already convinced of their feelings about Israel. This was an opportunity to show Israel to others.”

The partnership appealed to Slogick, Mt. Lebanon High School’s global studies program director and social studies department chair, as an opportunity to collaborate with a teacher who shared her values and interests in helping students build cross-cultural competencies.

“It turned out that that was exactly what this experience was for us,” Slogick said. “As much as it was about learning for the students and bringing the students together in exchanges, it was also, for me and Orly, a lot of learning as well, which is a beautiful thing.”

The classes met three times in April and May over Zoom and discussed the topic of gender equality.

“We wanted to have a conversation that we thought would be relatable to the students — something that would allow them to be more personal and allow them to express themselves with less academic context and provide an opportunity for them to engage,” Slogick said.

Zaltman found the lessons learned were universal, that “people are more similar than different,” she said. “I think that was the main conclusion. That they have the same concerns, you know, school and parents and love.”

Both teachers worked hard to ensure the students had time to carry on conversations, said Slogick, noting that her students appreciated the opportunity to speak with the Israeli students and learned what it takes to carry on dialogue, both organizationally and interpersonally in this type of exchange.

Of course, transatlantic communications often are fraught with challenges, even more so during a pandemic.

Sometimes there were technological glitches, Slogick said, and the seven-hour time difference was an obstacle. While Slogick’s students were able to meet during their regular school hours, Zaltman’s students had to come back to school for the sessions at 7 p.m. As a result, rather than a regular classroom lesson, the Israeli teacher had to find students interested in an extracurricular activity after a long day of classes.

More challenging for Zaltman were the difficulties of connecting with American students during the pandemic. While her class was meeting in-person, that wasn’t always the case for the Mt. Lebanon students, who were following a hybrid model where some students met in-person while others first had to connect virtually to their classroom before meeting with Zaltman’s students through Zoom.

One of the goals of the program, Slogick said, was to help the Israeli students improve their English proficiency. Zaltman noted that occasionally the American students would turn off their cameras, which prevented her students from seeing their facial expressions and reading their lips.

“Even though they turned off their cameras sometimes,” Zaltman said, “they talked a lot and joined the discussion and were interested in what was taking place.”

Slogick’s students learned how important it was to speak clearly and deliberately and to be thoughtful and reflective, she explained.

The two teachers have kept in touch and are investigating if, and how, they can continue the same type of program next year.
Zaltman said in Israel the program would most likely consist of many of the same student volunteers, but for Slogick it would be a new group of students.

The twinning experience was coordinated by Debbie Swartz, Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Israel and overseas planning associate, and Aya Ovadia, Partnership2Gether’s director in Israel.

Both teachers had reached out to their in-country representatives independently, interested in connecting with an overseas classroom, said Swartz.

After the schools were connected, Classrooms Without Borders, another community partner based in Pittsburgh, stepped in to assist with the educational piece of the program.

“I work on designing learning platforms for them to make a seamless experience,” explained Ellen Resnek, Classrooms Without Borders’ education programs and outreach manager.

Resnek helped the two schools iron out technological issues and introduced Flipgrid, a Google app, to facilitate the lessons. She also worked with the teachers to locate resources based on the topic they had chosen.

“They were looking at women as changemakers,” she said. “That was their unifying topic, but they talked about the #MeToo movement and its equivalent in Israel. I pulled together resources of women entrepreneurs as changemakers in business and industry and education.”

Although the program ended a few weeks before the most recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, both teachers think the experience helped their students understand the issue better.

“I think they saw that Israeli students are the same as they are,” Zaltman said.

“I think they probably learned that they have a lot more in common with their counterparts in Israel,” said Slogick. “They got the impression that their concerns and interests as teenagers are quite similar.”

The two teachers also bonded through the experience.

“Julianne wrote me [after the conflict began],” Zaltman said. “She was very worried about me and my family. She was concerned. It was very touching.”

Partnership2gether’s Ovadia said that while it might seem surprising that a school in Mt. Lebanon and one in Israel would create a partnership during a pandemic, in the end, the coronavirus might be responsible for the connection.

“I think they both wanted to connect to something bigger than the class where they usually teach,” she said. “We, as the partnership were very, very happy to help them.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at daverullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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