This May, 3,500 Jewish and Arab fourth-graders from Israel’s northern district will gather in the Hula Valley for singing and friendly art competitions capping an extracurricular program called Yes to Birds. President Shimon Peres will be on hand to award prizes, along with the ministers of education and environment.
“The idea was an educational cooperation between Arab and Jewish students to learn the story of birds and biodiversity in Israel,” says Dr. Yossi Leshem, director of the International Center for the Study of Bird Migration (ICSBM) at Latrun and senior lecturer in the department of zoology at Tel Aviv University. Leshem launched the project in the 2009-2010 school year to coincide with the United Nations’ International Year of Biodiversity.
Supported by an anonymous overseas donor, the pilot was dubbed the Blackbird Project after one of the most common schoolyard birds. Teachers at six Arab and six Jewish schools received a bilingual curriculum written in collaboration with 19 experts chosen by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), Tel Aviv University and ICSBM “to forge connections between schools and the environment in which we live, connecting to nature, the birds and the people around us.”
Bird-based links between cultures
In addition to promoting environmental literacy, the curriculum was intended to “constitute a platform for dialogue and the building of links between the Arab and Jewish sectors.”
Leshem explains that in the course of his multifaceted work, particularly a project to put barn owl and kestrel nesting boxes on farms to provide natural pest control, he has forged strong ties with Palestinian and Jordanian counterparts. “But we also wanted to include Israeli Arabs” in bird-centered initiatives, he says.
Why fourth-graders? They’re old enough to grasp the subject matter but not yet bogged down by exams and papers.
Proving to be a hit with the initial 330 students, Project Blackbird was expanded to 96 schools this school year, more than half of them in Arab, Druze or Circassian towns, and rebranded Yes to Birds (Ken L’Tzippur; in Hebrew). The ICSBM and the Education Ministry’s Northern District each supplemented the budget to make it happen.
Bilingual lesson plans
Yes to Birds provides written and audiovisual material for a dozen 90-minute sessions concerning “birds in our backyard”; migration; barn owl and kestrel biological pest control; the endangered griffon vulture; and animals of the Bible and Koran. Each topic includes theoretical and practical activities to be done with teachers of science, music and art.
“One of the goals is to get the kids out of the classroom and develop their scientific skills in the field, using the bird as the case study for teaching biodiversity and sustainability,” says Orna Gemmer, the SPNI coordinator for Yes to Birds.
“Teachers tell us that sometimes children who aren’t vocal inside the classroom are speaking up outside. Both the teachers and the children are happy because the kids are gaining necessary skills and having fun while doing it.”
Each participating science teacher is encouraged to establish an optional bird-watching club as well.
A grant from the CRB Foundation provides for experienced mentors to train the teachers and work with the class on specific activities in the curriculum.
“We work in cooperation with many different ‘green’ organizations such as Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael-Jewish National Fund,” says Gemmer. The participating schools also joined in the early 2011 national count of backyard birds.
“The biggest benefit of Yes to Birds is that it gets the pupils more familiar with the habitat they live in, and that leads them to be more caring of it and to live in harmony with it,” says Gemmer.
Leshem hopes to spread the project next year to schools throughout Israel, and perhaps beyond: “In the future, we might get Jewish schools to communicate about birds with classes in twinned Jewish communities in the United States.”
Birds on the campaign trail
Northern District Education Ministry Director Dr. Orna Simhon tells ISRAEL21c that Yes to Birds aims to educate the pupils in a way that encourages them to be active and involved, “to do something positive for our environment and its creatures, and to teach their families to do the same.”
At the end of this month, after learning a bit about each of the 540 species in Israel, the participating class in every school will run a community-wide campaign to pick an official regional bird to be announced at the May festival. Students’ and teachers’ families, as well as all local citizens, will be welcome to vote from a slate of nominees chosen by the kids.
“We will invite the mayors of each municipality and regional council to oversee the voting, so it will also provide a lesson in democracy,” says Leshem, whose main objective is to engage the kids with nature.
Leshem was largely responsible for getting the nation behind an election for Israel’s national bird in 2008 (the hoopoe won the crown). He says that among the voters were one million schoolchildren and soldiers. “Doing this through our young people is the best way of getting them involved in learning more about birds, to understand the problems and to care about nature at a later age,” he says.