Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Learning Grammar with Graffiti ; Unconventional Teacher Gives Language Students a Taste of Hebrew Culture

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Learning Grammar with Graffiti ; Unconventional Teacher Gives Language Students a Taste of Hebrew Culture

Article excerpt

Guy Sharett has moved his classroom outdoors, teaching students Hebrew using street signs, graffiti and posters as living texts ripe for translation.


The texts, written on metal grates, stone walls and neon signs, sometimes disappear from one class to the next. The themes are pluralism, economic justice and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- and grammar, always a little grammar thrown in.

Guy Sharett's Hebrew lessons are taught in a walking classroom, on the streets and alleys of Florentin, his neighborhood here, where new vocabulary words are mixed into an ever-changing curriculum.

"Get out from the TV, start to live," Mr. Sharett translated one scrawled Hebrew slogan at the start of class one recent evening, trailed by a dozen students thirsty to understand the life of the Tel Aviv street as much as the revived ancient language spoken on it.

He pulled out a little white board to break down the graffiti before him. The first part of the slogan, "Tzay mayhatelevizia," used the imperative -- get out -- while "tatchil lichayot," start to live, was in the future tense. "It sounds to us too pompous and too archaic," he explained, "so we just use the future."

A few minutes earlier, they had analyzed a sign exhorting dog owners not to permit their animals to relieve themselves near a certain building. Next, a picture of Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, with his famous mantra, "If you will it, it is no dream," twisted into "If you don't want, you don't need." Here, a verse by the street artist and poet Nitzan Mintz, repurposed for the current crisis of migrant workers from Africa flooding south Tel Aviv.

"They depend on a cultural knowledge that you don't necessarily have," said one of the students, Marcela Sulak, who has been here two years as director of the creative writing program at Bar-Ilan University. "He teaches you the tools so you can figure it out on your own. You're learning the Hebrew you need every single day by looking at the neighborhood."

The hourlong classes, which cost 50 shekels, or about $12, are organized on Facebook. They grew out of the protests last summer, when Mr. Sharett's traditional Hebrew students were mystified by the signs at the encampment along Rothschild Boulevard, so he started taking them -- and his little white board -- outside for lessons. After the protest tents came down, he decided to make the graffiti- pocked walls of his changing neighborhood the new syllabus.

"It's not only to teach language, it's also to teach the culture," Mr. Sharett explained. "Someone took a line from a song we all know and changed one word; it's very hard to understand that if you don't have someone local to explain, 'That's a take on. …

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