Issue 4
February 1999

Editorial Staff: 
David Lloyd
Gail Mann 
Ellen Serfaty 
Ann Shlapobersky
Renee Wahl


Gail Weinstein  and Learner’s Lives

by Ellen Hoffenberg-Serfaty 

“What a relief from all the Bagrut-type exercises”.  That was my reaction a few months after listening to Gail Weinstein’s presentation at the Summer ETAI conference, and participating in her workshop.  

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
context, and how teachers of children would respond to material that was developed for adults.  I was concerned about working in a context about which I knew so little.  I knew I'd have to depend on the teachers to teach me about the children, about the context and about the issues that Israelis
are facing.

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
comfortable place with wonderful children to play with and adults to look out for her.  I was struck with the warmth and enthusiasm of my colleagues.

 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
dreams central to our work keeps it interesting for us, and can make the process transforming for them, as they reflect in a community on their changing lives.

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
model for creating links among people who surely can benefit from seeing their common humanity with others who are around them but not accessible to them.  

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
To Tell Our Children.  In place of the stories of adult immigrants to the U.S., the book would contain the narratives of both Hebrew-speaking and Arabic speaking children in Israel or in the region.  This could provide the model from which other teachers are trained to develop learner-centered
materials and methods in their classrooms.  A second idea is to explore more fully the potential for collaborations among teachers who are committed to creating direct (including electronic) connections between children who don't ordinarily talk with one another.  

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
something about the Chinese side of her story, and now we will learn together about the Jewish side.    The seeds have been planted.

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
especially moved by the enthusiasm of my Arab colleagues and teacher trainees.  It makes me want to learn much more about the diversity in Israel, and how this model can be used to lower the barriers and heal what can be healed.  

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:
ITP Europe 
Berkshire House 
168-173 High Holborn, 
London, WC1V7AA, United Kingdom   
Tel: 44 (0) 171-497-4016     Fax: 44 (0) 171-497-1426

Heinle and Heinle, Inc.
20 Park Plaza 14th Fl
Boston, MA  02116 USA
800 237-0053

Special thanks to USIS for supporting Gail’s work in Israel!!