Pedagogy

Teaching Yiddish Through Performance

Hannah Pollin-Galay

בערל און ביילעס חנוכּה נס

After-school enrichment classes for children can be deadly to teach. The students are tired and hungry, and there are no disciplinary consequences or grades to keep some semblance of order. Students might drop out at any point. What does it take to make Yiddish succeed in this scenario?

This question preoccupied me for three years when I taught Yiddish to elementary school students in Tel Aviv, in collaboration with Beit Leyvik Yiddish Cultural Center and Tel Nordau Elementary School. One of the main strategies I developed—which worked in a great many ways—was to focus on film and theater projects.

Advantages

In addition to giving participants an end goal to look forward to, a sense of responsibility in committing to a certain role, and pride upon completion, I believe that creative performance in the target language can actually have cognitive and pedagogical advantages:

  1. It involves meaningful language use: communication as opposed to isolated, non-contextualized drilling.
  2. Participants use their bodies as they speak, incorporating the advantages associated with a technique called Total Physical Response teaching (TPR). 1 1 Blaine Ray and Contee Seely, Fluency through TPR storytelling: Achieving real language acquisition in school. Command Performance Language Institute, 1998; John Connor, “8 Creative Engagement and Inclusion in the Modern Foreign Language Classroom.” Inclusive Language Education and Digital Technology 30 (2013): 143. See also http://www.tpr-world.com/Merchant2/merchant.mvc?Sc…
  3. It affords an opportunity to introduce students to the Yiddish theater and film tradition. They learn about Yiddish culture through emulation and creative output.

Disadvantages

In an ideal world, I would have enough time and energy to spiral around each vocabulary cluster in the screenplay or script, making it an active part of the students’ vocabulary before the performance. 2 2 Martin, Marilyn A. “The application of spiraling to the teaching of grammar.”TESOL quarterly (1978): 151-161.
This was not always the case. Sometimes I simply had to teach kids their lines through translation, sentence by sentence. Students remember their lines—sometimes years later—but do not learn how to actively use the vocabulary and grammar in other contexts. If time allowed, I would rectify this problem by:

  1. Presenting the plot of the film or play first in the form of an oral story, and then working on vocabulary, characters’ names, etc.
  2. Narrating individual scenes (like a Yiddish voice-over) while the students act them out.
  3. Having students improvise their lines based on the situations in which their characters find themselves.
  4. Making signs, props, and programs in Yiddish, so that the students have to practice writing out the relevant vocabulary as well.
  5. Having students speak (and write if they are older) summaries of each scene and possibly share them with the audience.

Process:

  1. Writing/adapting a script. In other projects with this group, I started with authentic texts like Di tsvey kuni lemel, Der dibuk, and Yakhne dvoshe. But the film above was made from a screenplay I wrote. My aim was to create a film for Hanukkah that would interest the age group (third- and fourth-graders) and have a good role for each participant. In writing it, I tried to keep the vocabulary and grammar as close as possible to what the students had been taught. I personalized the lines to each child’s skill level.
  2. Learning lines and rehearsing. For about three weeks, I divided the class into three groups. One group would work on the set (i.e. painting the giant dreidel, making the shop sign). One group worked with me, learning the text; and the last group drilled each other on lines in pairs. In some cases I made tapes of the children’s lines to take home and practice throughout the week. I also called students at home and did individual run-throughs over the phone. For another two weeks or so, I kept these rotations going, but instead we focused on blocking, acting, and other skills.
  3. Filming. Here again, dividing up into groups was crucial. Students prepared their scenes, while the camerawoman and I shot a scene with a group that was ready. Only one scene could be shot per class meeting.
  4. Editing and event preparation. I worked with a professional editor, because this was in cinema central Tel Aviv, but one could also enlist a parent from the class—or with older students, one of the participants—to do the editing. To keep the learning going in the two weeks of editing, I had students prepare for the screening. They used Yiddish to make posters, flyers, and programs. They also learned Hanukkah songs to perform before the film.
  5. Screening event. The concept of the class was to interest the whole community in Yiddish culture and language, with the enrolled participants as ambassadors. With this in mind, my colleagues and I used the films and theater performances to throw big intergenerational screening events at Beit Leyvik, inviting the young-at-heart members of the Yiddish Writers Union along with the school families. In addition to moving us closer to our noble goals of community involvement, the screening also attracted more children to sign up for Yiddish classes the next year.

The film was shot in the heart of Tel Aviv, in the Beit Leyvik library and on its roof, and in the Dov Hoz courtyard in 2008.

MLA STYLE
Pollin-Galay, Hannah. “Teaching Yiddish Through Performance.” In geveb, August 2015: https://ingeveb.org/pedagogy/teaching-yiddish-through-performance.
CHICAGO STYLE
Pollin-Galay, Hannah. “Teaching Yiddish Through Performance.” In geveb (August 2015): Accessed Jul 22, 2017.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hannah Pollin-Galay

Hannah Pollin-Galay is currently Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of English Literature at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and is Faculty Research Fellow at the university’s Institute for Holocaust, Genocide and Memory Studies.