What prompts schools to offer alternative enrichment classes?
Ha’aretz (Israel), Nov. 29, 2002
By Efrat Shalom
Morning at the Shazar high school in Tel Aviv. The students are waiting for the teacher to turn on the cassette player next to the blackboard. It is turned on and quiet music fills the room. The students close their eyes and begin to meditate under the guidance of their teacher. When she completes the session, the students take out their notebooks and pens. The school day has begun.
Teachers at the Shazar school can have meditation sessions with their students during the day also – after recess and toward the end of the day. The goal, according to the principal Sara Yisraeli, is to “make the school into an island of sanity. The moment the students leave the school grounds they absorb what is happening in their families, in society and in the country, so we need a ritual that will make them start their school day relaxed and calm.” Apart from meditation, students at Shazar are also offered Tai Chi, reflexology and shiatsu, which are given between math and English class.
Israeli schools are not immune to the effects of the security situation, the economic crisis and the deep rifts in Israeli society. There is growing restlessness among the students and the level of violence continues to rise. School principals, who feel helpless in the face of this reality and are seeking immediate solutions, are finding more and more marketing brochures on their office desks, offering enrichment programs “for improving the atmosphere of calm at school.”
Side by side with the traditional enrichment programs, many programs offer content that is defined as “alternative.” Dozens of kindergartens, elementary and high schools now offer yoga, Feng Shui, personal awareness and meditations, martial arts (such as Tai Chi, Chi Kong and Capoeira) and natural healing techniques (such as shiatsu, Reiki and reflexology).
A paradise for charlatans
Dr. Rachel Erhard, who heads the faculty of Educational Counseling at Tel Aviv University (TAU) and the research and development unit of the psychological and counseling services of the Education Ministry, says many marketers have discovered the potential in the schools and “a school must therefore consider very carefully if every program offered is appropriate and suitable.
“Many of the programs offered are false magic, and principals decide to run them because of the distress caused by the increasing violence and the parents’ demands to improve the atmosphere in the schools. Sometimes principals choose the first person to present their wares, without doing a thorough check and ascertaining their suitability to the unique needs of the school.”
Dr. Amatzia Weisel of the School of Education at TAU cautions that the educational qualifications of the programs’ directors must be examined. “It is important to check if a program’s director is authorized to teach,” he says, “in order to avoid a situation in which charlatans, followers of the New Testament and missionaries who are convinced that they have `seen the light’ come into a school and introduce spiritual ideas. That is not the school’s purpose.”
Even a thorough examination of a teacher’s qualifications is not always enough because in the absence of legislation that determines the qualifications of alternative therapists, the field is wide open to charlatans.
Five junior high schools and high schools in the north of the country (in Kibbutz Yifat, Upper Nazareth, Carmiel and two schools in Ma’alot) have chosen to integrate enrichment days into their curricula. The classes are taught by Tirtsa Fox, a special education teacher and Reiki therapist. Fox says that the goal of the holistic activities she markets to educational institutions is to prevent violence and promote health awareness.
At the schools Fox leads workshops in self-awareness, Chi Kong, Kung Fu and shamanism (healing according to American Indian traditions). In order to create the desired atmosphere for meditation, which opens every workshop, the classroom is darkened, the desks and chairs are moved aside, mattresses are put on the floor, candles spread around the room and relaxing music is played. The teaching staff at the schools usually participates in the workshops too.
Third grade pupils at the Nature school in Tel Aviv have been participating in Reiki classes since last year. Reiki is a healing method based on the transfer of energy via the palms of the hands. Not all the parents, however, welcomed the integration of alternative healing into the school’s curriculum, which is based on a conception that advocates science studies. Children whose parents were not interested in the Reiki classes could enroll in other enrichment courses.
Sarah Koch, the school’s principal, says the Reiki classes do not replace classes in science, nature or the environment, which take up most of the school hours. “We are still within the science framework that gives children a long school day, in which we teach intellectual content,” explains Koch. “Even so, we wanted to give the children a break from science studies, and to enable them to learn how to relax in these difficult times.”
Sometimes the administration of a school refrains from involving the parents’ committee in the decision to include alternative programs in the curriculum. Fox says the reason for this stems from the fear that the parents will oppose these programs and will try to cancel them. Weisel explains that the general public does not accept this world of spiritual values. This is particularly true regarding alternative healing methods. “The school is not the place for therapy,” he says. “In order to emphasize education that involves both the physical and emotional, we could teach art subjects that have emotional aspects, without spiritual philosophy. The state schools are certainly not the place for introducing outlooks that emphasize values on which there is no consensus.”
Prof. Naama Sabar Ben-Yehoshua of the School of Education at TAU says the education system should meet the needs of the students through enrichment subjects that have been checked and whose efficacy has been empirically proved. “Instead of alternative medicine classes,” she says, “children could be taught the basics of a healthy lifestyle. It has been claimed that the martial arts instill values such as discipline, responsibility and the importance of maintaining a framework – but instead of them children could be taught how to nurture and raise animals. It has been unequivocally proved that this field leads to the acquisition of these values. Furthermore, it teaches children to give and provides them with a positive answer to emotional needs.”
A Karev program for involvement in education, a project financed by the Education Ministry, which operates in 110 communities in Israel, offers schools a varied basket of enrichment classes that includes the reinforcement of essential skills. Thus, for example, the program offers classes in developing mathematical thought through games and learning English through experiencing it. Unlike the alternative programs, it is reasonable to assume that such an initiative would be welcomed by most parents, and would also save them substantial expenses on private tutors.
Even so, the Karev program operating in 55 kindergartens and 40 schools offers an hour or two per week of alternative enrichment integrated into the curriculum. The director general of the program, Nissim Matalon, feels there is great value in opening the world of emotions and personal awareness for the children. “To me, strengthening the area of experiences, social sensitivity and self-confidence is no less important that realizing the academic intellect,” says Matalon. “Only an education system that is aware of the importance of both formal education and emotional education will lead the student to self-fulfillment.”
Educators note that every fashionable trend that takes hold in Israeli society eventually reaches the schools. Following the popularity of the telenovelas on Israeli television, for example, some schools now offer Spanish lessons as part of their enrichment programs. Matalon says every enrichment program includes modern trends in Israeli society. “In music classes, for example, the teachers play South American or Afro-American music, which the students know from MTV,” he says. “There is nothing bad about this, provided the quality of the education is good and there is a responsible framework.”
The Karev program has recently been running a project (in two schools in Gadera and two schools in Ashdod) called “Tnua L’Sheket” (Movement for Quiet). The project includes classes in yoga, movement, guided visualization and Reiki. Erhard feels many of the programs are not suitable for children of such a young age. “There are fields that are not appropriate for the children’s emotional and developmental stage. Although I have no proven answer as to the suitability of meditation to the emotional and physical development of seven-year-olds, it is clear children in second grade are not as capable of thinking in abstract and spiritual concepts as adults in their fifties,” she says. “These programs are not relevant to the language and the content of the children’s world. They are fundamentally unsound, because just as the content of compulsory studies is adapted to the pupil’s stage of development, so should the enrichment programs.