Enriching The Israeli Curriculum
Wed, 08/14/2013
Israel Correspondent
Israeli school children try out some of the activities on the Kita bePita educational website. Photo courtesy Kita bePita
Israeli school children try out some of the activities on the Kita bePita educational website. Photo courtesy Kita bePita

Jerusalem — Some people get their best ideas in the shower. Orit Elgavi-Hershler, an educator with a doctorate in brain science,

came up with the idea for a website full of fun educational projects while undergoing radiation for breast cancer.

“I’d recently finished a Ph.D., gotten a managerial/teaching position in a college, was hugging my 6-month-old baby and was thinking what my next steps would be, when I got diagnosed with breast cancer at 37,” Elgavi-Hershler, now 39, recalled at her home in Jerusalem.  

“When I was done with chemo and still in radiation I decided that I wanted to give back to society. That’s how the idea for the website, Kita baPita [Hebrew for “Classroom in a Pita”] was born, in the underground radiation corridor at Hadassah Hospital.”

Launched in January 2012, the Hebrew-language website (http://kitabapita.wordpress.com/author/kitabapita/) has became a favorite destination for Israeli teachers in search of interesting stand-alone projects not included in Israel’s notoriously dry curricula and textbooks. 

In June 2013 the site received 30,000 hits from teachers seeking end-of-year projects for their antsy pupils. 

Kita baPita: Classroom Enrichment Materials offers activities in science, math, art, language, social studies and geography. Experiments, puzzles, brainteasers, games, cartoons and videos are broken down by grade level. 

“The standard curriculum is narrow, offers very few real challenges to the kids and does its best to kill kids’ imaginations and natural curiosity,” said Elgavi-Hershler, an infectiously upbeat mother of four who immigrated to Israel from Holland right after high school.   

“Although standardization is important, it is a shame that no additional topics that can get kids ‘fired up’ are included.”

Israeli teaching is often so frontal, she said, that when she asked a classroom of good students, “What do you think causes this phenomenon?” they replied, “What, do you want us to write what we think?!”

Educators and parents have long bemoaned the education system’s emphasis on exam preparation over innovation, and note that when teachers want to do anything beyond what’s offered in the standard books, “they don’t get the right support,” Elgavi-Hershler said. 

“When I turned to the teachers to ask them what would help them, they gave me a very similar answer — a website with educational activities based on knowledge, expertise and ideas from outside the classroom.”

Despite the many excellent online teaching resources available today, many Israeli teachers — especially religious ones — can’t access them either because they don’t know how to find them on the Internet or because of the language barrier.

“Israel’s not like the U.S, where so many teachers have blogs and so many others use it,” Elgavi-Hershler said. “I think American teachers are more Internet-savvy, and most of the content is in English.”

She is has been shocked by some of the lessons taught by primary school teachers.

One teacher she recalled created sundials with her students, allowing them to write the numbers all around the middle pole, like a clock.

“The problem, of course, is that the shadow of a sundial doesn’t make a full circle around the pole because the sun never ever makes a full circle in the sky — only a half circle. It comes up in the east, moves through the south, and sets in the west. I also heard about a teacher who claimed dinosaurs became extinct due to the Big Bang, and another teacher who maintained that all the stars in our night sky are planets that reflect the light of our sun,” Elgavi-Hershler said with good-humored exasperation. 

The website, in contrast, relies on expert volunteer contributors, including an American expert in fractals, an Australian astronomer and lots of Israelis — “people like a math Ph.D. student who sends fantastic stuff, a rabbi, a brain scientist, an artist, a puppeteer, a political scientist and many, many more.”

The activities that Kita baPita promotes are often tied to the Jewish and Gregorian calendars. For Pi Day (in March), it instructed teachers to hold a memory contest to see which student could remember Pi to the farthest decimal. To further emphasize the importance of Pi, which is used to measure circular objects, it recommended that students bring round edibles like pizzas and cakes to school.

A Chanukah activity requiring adult supervision shows kids how to place a pin through the middle of a Chanukah candle, and then straddle the pin across the backs of two inverted drinking glasses; when wicks at both ends of the candle are lit, students watch as the wax melts unevenly, causing the candle to see-saw.

The math section for second-to-fourth-graders instructs youngsters how to create a fun letter-substitution coding wheel using round sheets of paper and a pushpin.

Another project, with lots of good explanatory photos, teaches first- to sixth-graders, their teachers and parents, how to make puzzles out of popsicle sticks.

On the site’s Facebook page, Miri Gamlieli, a teacher, wrote that before returning to teaching following her maternity leave, “I consulted your website and found an infinite number of activities.”

Elgavi-Hershler said she modeled her website “not on any one model, but basically on the Internet itself. It boggled my mind that if you’re a proficient Internet user, you can find good educational activities on almost anything, but you have to know where to look.

“I set out to create a kind of eclectic smorgasbord of high-quality stuff in Hebrew, with the help of all these amazing experts.” A year-and-half later, “I already had people telling me this model would work very well in the States, too.”

While attending a conference, Elgavi-Hershler said, she asked a world-renowned brain scientist how long it would take him to think of a really high quality, original, insightful classroom activity on the brain. His answer: five minutes.

“Imagine if every expert invested those five minutes of his or her time in creating something that teachers and kids in classrooms could use?” she said excitedly. 

For her efforts, Elgavi-Hershler was recently awarded a prestigious fellowship to the Mandel Leadership Institute, beginning this fall.

Her goal is to expand Kita baPita and to reach out to a wider audience in both Hebrew and English.  Given that her current budget “is zero, I need a bigger budget,” she acknowledged. 

“One goal of the website is to inspire kids to do and become whatever they want, and so I want to show them role models. So I’m also thinking about cool ideas. For example, getting kids to interview the participating experts, then put the videos on the web.”

Elgavi-Hershler said the website has become a mission.  

“I’ve been involved in education all my life — as a teacher, and later as a parent. That’s who I am,” she said. 

editor@jewishweek.org