It’s Not Greek (or Hebrew) to These Brooklyn Students

Home Brooklyn Life It’s Not Greek (or Hebrew) to These Brooklyn Students

[simpleviewer gallery_id=”177″]“I would rather live one hour of freedom than 40 years of enslaved life. That is what the poem says.” Ari Weekts, an African American third grader from Brooklyn, stands solemnly in front of the class board and translates into English with a steady voice one of the most famous poems of the Greek revolutionary war.

His eyes are serious as he reads the Greek letters. “It was written by Rigas Feraios,” he says with a shy smile, as he cites the 18th century Greek political thinker.  When he finishes translating, he runs off to join his classmates for some practice in Greek writing.

Alpha, beta, gamma – for these 8-year-old Brooklynites the Greek alphabet is not just a series of bizarre symbols used in physics; they are actual letters that make sense in the use of the Greek language. As for “Greek life”, to them it will come to mean much more than a college fraternity system. “Greek life” will mean a holistic submersion into Greek language, history and culture for this diverse student community of all races and ethnicities. The school combines the classical study of Greek and Latin with a core curriculum in English on other subjects.

This is not some secluded school directed solely to the Greek community. It is a New York public elementary school, one of 159 New York City charter schools, 61 of which are in Brooklyn. Surprisingly, only 25 percent of the Hellenic school’s students are Greek. The majority of the students are a diverse mosaic of origins and races, with African American and Hispanic being an important part. Just eight years after it was founded, the Hellenic Classical Charter School in South Slope, Brooklyn, already receives around 500 applications each year for 50 available Kindergarten seats.  As a public school, it does not charge tuition. It is one of two language-based charter schools in Brooklyn.  The other, the Hebrew Language Academy in Midwood offers an immersion program in Hebrew.  Like the Hellenic School, the academy is flooded with applications.  Eight years ago, the school opened with 111 students for 125 spots. Every year, 550 students apply for 75 available kindergarten seats.

The idea seems to be catching on: a Hebrew Language Academy charter school has been authorized to open in Harlem this coming August and another three are coming soon to Washington D.C. and in California.

“You go to Europe and many people speak two, three or even four different languages. Here the general perception is more like ‘you need to learn our language,” says Danette Jagla, 41, an African-American cake decorator from Bay Ridge who sends her 9-year-old son to the Hellenic school. “When I first heard of the Hellenic Classical Charter School I thought, ‘If my son gets in, he will have it all lined up for his SAT.’” Her 9-year-old son is now in fourth grade and already speaks conversational Greek.

Although Greek is not a widely spoken language, like English or Spanish, it does have an element of universality, says Joy Petrakos, director of operations of the school. “An important number of English words have a Greek root. Also, Greek words are used in science, math and physics. So, being immersed in the Greek language from a very young age helps students in future exams, such as the SAT,” says Petrakos.

Each class is assigned a Greek teacher that teaches one period of pure Greek instruction per day. In each grade, children are separated into three sections – advanced, intermediate and beginner – according to their abilities in Greek, so that every student can work according to their own capacities.

When students get to the sixth grade, they start learning Latin as well, says Petrakos. “By the time they get to high school and college, they are ahead of the game,” she adds. “Our graduates come back and tell us, ‘I was stuck on a hard question in an exam and could not figure out the right answer. Then the Greek word came to my mind and suddenly it all made sense.’ These stories are increasingly common,” says Petrakos.

Yet, learning another language at an early age is sometimes perceived as too difficult an endeavor. If speaking good English in itself is a hard task, many parents might reasonably ask, how can a child be expected to learn another language at such a young age?

“In reality, the younger the age, the easier it is for a child to learn a foreign language,” says Cynthia Molos, 42, whose two children, aged seven and nine, attend first and fourth grade respectively in the Hellenic Classical Charter School.

Multilingualism is a core characteristic of Molos’s family. She is fluent in Spanish herself, as her parents are Cuban, and she is married to a Greek man who came to the U.S. when he was two years old. Her children speak English, Greek and basic Spanish.

However, when she took a parental course in Greek, Molos felt she “got lost.” This course in reading and writing in Greek is offered by the school to parents, so that they are able to oversee their children’s homework. “The reading and writing in a different alphabet is hard for an adult, because you are used to writing in a certain way all your life. But when a child learns it, it feels easier and natural,” says Molos.

In fact, the more languages a child speaks, says specialized speech therapist Elisabeth Cros, the easier it gets to become better in each one of them,. Cros works with bilingual or trilingual children aged three to ten at the Ecole International de New York, a French-American bilingual school in Manhattan. Her role is to help children correct mistakes in the way they pronounce and write in English, French and Spanish by utilizing knowledge in one language to improve another.

“To be able to speak and write, you first need to hear the language properly. So my job is to familiarize students with the phonological systems and tell them ‘this sound belongs to Spanish, that one to English and that one to French,’” says Cros.

For instance, English and Spanish speakers have trouble spelling the French nasal vowels, a type of vowel that doesn’t exist in English and Spanish. So, a way to determine the correct spelling of a French word with nasal vowels is to find the same word in another language, says Cross.

“For example, children confuse the spelling of the word vent, which means wind in French. The pronunciation of the word could indicate an a, an e, or an i, the three nasal vowels. But if they use the Spanish word for wind, viento, they can figure out that the correct spelling is with an e,” says Cros. Similar techniques can be implemented by students of all ages, for much more complicated words, says Cros.

To help combine the instruction of two different languages, the Hebrew Language Academy charter school in Midwood, has implemented a co-teaching model. Every classroom is assigned a Hebrew teacher and a general studies teacher, who plan the lesson together and deliver it both in English and in Hebrew.

The program seems to be popular; the school has grown since it opened four years ago. It started with just two grades, kindergarten and first-grade, and has been adding one grade per year ever since. It currently offers kindergarten to fourth grade and has 392 students, only 15 percent of whom are of Israeli origin.

When asked what percentage of the students are Jewish, Laura Silver, head of the school, responds that, “we don’t know because, frankly, we don’t even ask.” The reason is that it is important to make a distinction, between a Jewish school and a secular public school that teaches Hebrew language and culture, says Silver,. “We have to be scrupulous so that there is not even the perception that this curriculum is about Jewish people. We don’t teach prayers or ritualistic issues. We study cultures and what people in these cultures do,” she adds.

An illustrative example is the celebration of the Jewish New Year. Students at the HLA charter school study what people in different parts of the world do to celebrate the New Year, says Silver. But they don’t learn the Jewish prayers for the New Year nor do they participate in the relevant Jewish rituals. “We just studied the Chinese New Year customs in Hebrew,” she points out.

Sharon Cohen, a 41-year-old mother of three, was fascinated when her youngest daughter, who is in 4th grade, was required to study Ethiopian culture and folk tales in Hebrew. “She studies music, drama, poetry, even math and science in Hebrew. As a result, my youngest daughter – with just one hour of pure Hebrew instruction per day – has a better command of the language than my older daughters who are in junior high and in high school and who take four hours of Hebrew per day in a Yeshiva,” Cohen points out.

She attributes this difference to the fact that her younger daughter gets to experience the language instead of just learn how to conjugate verbs or how to read Bible excerpts in old Hebrew. “It is a question of quality rather than quantity,” she concludes.

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