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At Home With Hebrew

May 15, 2020

Renana Schneller poses for a portrait

Renana Schneller poses for a portrait
Photo by Gavin Schuster, Backpack student

Professor Renana Schneller has spent much of her life teaching the Hebrew language to students of all kinds. At the beginning of this spring semester, she rolled out a beginning online modern Hebrew course that is accessible to all Big Ten students and has become even more timely as all university classes have moved online for the rest of the semester.

The Big Idea

The idea first popped into Schneller’s head when she overheard a colleague say they were teaching a Hebrew class online. She thought, “Why not? I can do that too,” and began researching what it takes to make an online class successful and worth students’ time. 

Schneller sought out help from many areas in pedagogy including the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA), which gave her materials to understand what online teaching entails. She also received guidance and instruction from the Language Center, which helped her integrate technology into her learning, and LATIS, which she consulted for technological support. 

Next, Schneller needed to figure out the logistics of the class: how to set it up and where to record the online lessons. She needed to cover multiple modes of teaching in order to fulfill the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages’ (ACTFL) standards for modern language instruction. She must include an interpretive mode, a presentational mode, and an interpersonal mode. 

Hebrew Instruction in Action

Every Monday at 7:00 pm for one hour, Schneller and her students gathered as a traditional class would in order to practice their speaking and discussion skills. Before each class, Schneller gave the group a broad topic to think about in order to prepare for a discussion with their classmates. The class met using the program Zoom, which allows her to use real-time messaging and content sharing, and split the class into small groups and place them in breakout rooms to have discussions with one another. Schneller was initially worried that there wouldn’t be a feeling of a class environment since the students do not see each other much. But, she believes she has created an atmosphere for her students that is similar to a traditional classroom.

Outside of the weekly class meetings, Schneller has many tactics to make the course teachings more interesting and engaging. Each week, she recorded herself explaining the assigned readings and chapters from the coursebook. She would anticipate student questions about each topic and answered those questions in her recorded lessons as well. It’s important for Schneller’s students to listen to her recorded lessons as well as the audio files in the coursebook. Because the Hebrew she is teaching is the modern form of the language, hearing it and being able to comprehend it are extremely important.

Schneller says she wants her students “to feel at home with the Hebrew” when they listen to her lessons online. Because of this, soon, the class will be covering a chapter on food, and she plans on recording her opening her refrigerator at her home and showing her students what’s inside. She will ask them to send back the same from their own homes. Being authentic is an important factor when teaching a language, and Schneller hopes to achieve exactly that with her unique online teaching style. 

Why Hebrew is Important

In the near future, Schneller hopes to incorporate more interactive activities into her online curriculum that involve images and more visual engagement. The program, H5P, has activities such as interactive video quizzes and matching games. H5P would be integrated with Canvas, the current University of Minnesota course and teaching platform in order to make online learning more engaging and interesting for students. 

Schneller sees learning Hebrew as extremely important for anyone who is interested in current politics and events, archaeology and history, religion, or Israeli innovation. Currently, her class has 21 students enrolled, which is more than most other Less Commonly Taught Languages (LCTL) courses taught at the university. Soon, Schneller would like to expand the opportunity to take online Hebrew classes to intermediate and advanced Hebrew classes as well. 

This story was written by an undergraduate student in Backpack. Meet the team.