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Birds and the English Teacher
by Naomi Epstein

When I registered recently for a bird watching course, the secretary handed me a form to fill out. "Ask for a Gmul" she advised. It sounded simple enough until I began to fill out the form. I quickly discovered that the two main questions on this form were:
  1. What exactly do you teach?
  2. In what way will this course contribute to your teaching?
Since I teach English to deaf and hard of hearing students, explaining how taking a bird watching course would enhance my skills as a teacher was not a straightforward question!

First of all, there's the "rational explanation". As a teacher of the hearing impaired, expanding the pupils' general knowledge is always the goal of my lessons, whatever it is I'm teaching. These pupils often have striking gaps in their world knowledge, as their opportunities for incidental learning are severely limited. This is no small obstacle when dealing with unseen passages, particularly in high-school. Some of my pupils have never heard of "a fair", they don't realize "Texas" is the name of a state, they have never heard of "NASA" and don't know they have tonsils in their throat (its not almonds they ate that got stuck there…). As a teacher I try to enrich my own knowledge in a variety of fields so that I can enrich my lessons.

Although you may never have come across an unseen reading passage dealing with the mating habits of Cranes, bird watching in Israel is closely linked to geo-political issues in the world. Israel is located on the main migratory path between Europe and Africa and about 500 million birds cross our skies twice a year. Events that happen elsewhere are reflected here. For instance, the number of Cormorants that began coming to Israel rose dramatically after the fall of the Soviet Union and the first Gulf War. Disappearing agricultural areas in Africa (because of industrialization or war) has caused some birds to spend the winter here, instead of going on to Africa. Closer to home, listening to an explanation regarding the decision to drain the Hula swamp, then restore it, create a nature reserve and begin feeding the cranes, highlights many aspects of the economic and political history of our country. In fact, no aspect of nature can be discussed for long without relating to the interaction between nature and mankind.

The "emotional explanation" was the driving force behind my decision to register for the bird watching course. Once a month, on a standard, regular, unremarkable weekday, I don't go to school, check exams, go to the supermarket or look at the laundry. In fact, I'm unavailable from 6:30 a.m till 9:00 p.m. You can find me standing wide eyed with wonder in a Eucalyptus grove near Kiryat Bialik with approx. 6000 Kites (birds of prey) circling overhead, preparing for their nightly roost on the trees. Or I might be admiring the delicate movements of the flamingos at "The Salt Pools" in Atlit. Then there's the long eared owl perched in the tree at noon that I never would have seen on my own since it is so cleverly camouflaged. Or perhaps you'll find me awed by the pristine white of a flock of 200 pelicans landing on the lake at the Hula reserve.

I come home physically exhausted from these outings, but feel exhilarated. The feeling of exhilaration and the excitement about the beauty of the world quite literally not far from our homes I take into the classroom with me. And while pupils may behave in the same manner, my reactions have changed. For me, bird watching is food for the soul.

And what about the "Gmul"? Well, since I had to fill out the form before I actually started the course (being a novice bird watcher), I only wrote the "rational explanation". I still don't know if the Ministry of Education thought that a bird watching course was a suitable one for an English teacher. In any case, I certainly recommend it!

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