Flipping Hebrew: A New Approach to an Ancient Language at Westminster

But if you are to tell what the Bible does say, you must be able to read the Bible for yourself. And you cannot read the Bible for yourself unless you know the languages in which it was written . . . If, then, the students of our seminary can read the Bible not merely in translations, but as it was given by the Holy Spirit to the church, then they are prepared to deal intelligently with the question what the Bible means.

–J. Gresham Machen, 1929

There’s a story about Hebrew at Westminster in the early 1970s. In the middle of a particularly grueling lesson, a student stands up and starts packing his bags. As the other Hebrew students realize what is happening, they caution him—deferment will not protect him from the draft if he drops out of seminary. The student doesn’t stop. “Vietnam can’t be worse than this.” he says. Then he walks out the door.

That level of frustration seems a world away in the relaxed atmosphere of a Hebrew class on a recent Monday morning. But there are not many ways that Libbie Groves’s Hebrew classroom resembles the typically austere idea of a seminary classroom. Here a state-of-the-art camera-projector sits alongside homemade laminated posters illustrating the basics of Hebrew. Students complete vocab assignments with an app called ­­­Anki but also make frequent use of traditional chalkboards in class. It is a sensible synthesis of the best of the new and old—an effective blend of tactile and efficient means to train modern minds with an ancient tongue.

“We remodeled the entire curriculum . . . We razed everything else and started from scratch.”

Libbie begins the class with prayer then passes out a short quiz on work students have been assigned to complete outside of class. All electronics are put away. The emphasis is on activity. There is no room for distractions.

After the quiz, the class splits into groups of four (as the hour progresses, Libbie frequently changes the group sizes to avoid stagnant group dynamics). One member of each group is assigned as the teacher, and they’re charged with explaining some basic principles of the Hebrew language to others in the group.

Next is singing. This is Day Two of the class, so Libbie walks them through the words slowly, pointing out the characters on the screen. Then the class begins to string together a surprisingly coherent verse.

The next group task is to sound out words. There is a hubbub of discussion and debate as students point out characters and scratch their heads. Some reference the posters hung along the back wall. Libbie walks among the groups, checking in on who needs help.

Libbie calls on pairs to talk through their answers. Libbie points out a mysterious character and there is some debate over how to determine if ‘the Shewa is silent.”

What is perhaps most striking is that we are 40 minutes into a notoriously difficult subject and no one is disengaged, hidden away in the corner or glazed over. There are students who have clearly taken to the language more quickly than others, but even the quietest students are fixed on the chalkboard, listening intently

In the last section of class, Libbie speaks uninterruptedly in Hebrew. She says a word and students point in a new direction or at an item in the room. She uses dolls to distinguish gender and between children and adults, sitting and standing. No English is used. Just plenty of repetition and vocalization.

Even for someone entirely ignorant of Hebrew, the class is engaging. First, there is a fairly jaw-dropping realization that there are students from all around the world, native speakers of a handful of different primary languages, learning Hebrew in the same classroom. But they are not learning artificial Hebrew phrases out of a textbook. From the very earliest stages of coursework, students are reading and vocalizing the Word of God in the original tongue. This might seem like an obvious way to structure a course dedicated to producing experts in the Bible, but it is just one of a host of changes Libbie and her team felt were overdue in the Hebrew program’s methodology.

On a recent afternoon, Libbie graciously sat down to talk about the genesis of the new Hebrew course model. Reflecting on the new shape of her Hebrew class, Libbie explains these changes as rising from a period of serious reflection on how people learn something so foreign.

“We’re structuring the course to build success…We wanted them to read real scripture from day one.”

What has a typical Hebrew course at Westminster looked like in the past?

“I took Hebrew here exactly 40 years ago. In terms of schedule, it hadn’t changed a lot until this Summer. There would be new material on Monday and Wednesday, which the students would review on Friday. It was a great model, but it was mostly someone talking, and then trying to get a little bit of practice in there someplace. There might be 5, maybe 10 minutes of practice.

“For the instructor, the focus was on delivering content. Then there was a little focused practice on that item. Hardly ever an oral component. It used to be maybe 90% of class time was content delivery. We were never finding enough time to do the hard stuff—where you’re out in ‘the wild’ of the text of Scripture, and can you identify this? Do you know what to do with it?”

Where did this idea for a ‘flipped course’ come from?

“My daughter told me about the idea of the flipped classroom, and that got me rethinking Westminster’s typical Hebrew course. As soon as I learned about this model I wanted to apply it to Hebrew. A year ago last Spring we tried flipping one lesson of Hebrew II, and it was huge success.

“What used to happen in class, that initial exposure to content, now happens in what Robert Talbert calls the ‘individual space’ (outside of class). This opens up time in the classroom to work on the harder stuff. And now there’s a coach there and other teammates to do it together.

“As we began to discuss doing this on a larger scale, the administrators and faculty were really encouraging. Chun Lai, Dave Garner and Jonathan Brack were all very helpful. I was given a sabbatical to prepare, and Iain Duguid even offered to cover my classes so I could take my sabbatical. I had a great team as well: Dan Schwartz, and Jana Safley. And of course we couldn’t have tried it without the students, who were such good sports!”

So what’s changed in your Hebrew course?

“With the help of Dan Schwartz, we remodeled the entire curriculum. We took our Hebrew I and II content and put them on videos. We razed everything else and started from scratch. Redid vocab. Everything.

“It used to be that the textbook chose the vocab. Now we’re doing everything in frequency order. We blew the vocab to smithereens and started again. Dan put all the cards on Anki. The digital flash cards use an algorithm to focus on the words you’re struggling with and need to spend more time with. Each word has three cards (Hebrew to English, English to Hebrew, and an audio sample), and on each card Dan included custom notes about grammar, frequency of use, semantic range, etc. Using it this summer showed it to be supremely effective.

Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel Willingham has been a helpful resource from cognitive science. The principle is active learning rather than passive. We want to encourage productivity (i.e. the students produce something) rather than just receptivity. For instance, we put students into small group labs and they have to teach fellow students about adjectives. This is how students come to a real mastery of the language. One group was entirely made up of Chinese speakers, so they taught each other Hebrew entirely in Chinese.”

Vocalization and even performance have become an exciting component of the coursework. Libbie tries to work skits into each course level. First the instructors will act through a text and the following day the students will do so. Eventually students write Bible stories into skits themselves and perform them in Hebrew. “It’s one thing to recognize what’s happening in a text,” Libbie says, “it’s another altogether to be able to create that. It’s like training for a race by running in heavy boots.”

“The exam was more challenging, but they did incredibly well”

How do you think these changes affect student learning?

“As much as possible everything is cumulative. You don’t have the option of studying only participles. You don’t have the option to ‘short term cram’. In some ways the course work is even more thorough than before. We try to structure things in increments. By a certain point in the course we will want them to be able to do X. So we start here, and add this… and by the time we get to that point in the term, they’ve been practicing everything leading up to X the whole time. When they reach the final exam, they’ve already covered things multiple times.

“By the time this pilot course ended, some students were doing sight reading for recreation. They even wrote us a card entirely in Hebrew. It was two and a half pages long!

“We’re structuring the course to build success. Because it’s incremental and you’re practicing each stage, that builds confidence. We also wanted them to have real scripture from day one. Unlike previous models, because they have worked with so much Scripture, they’re just not intimidated when they sit down to translate a large chunk of it..”

So, is it working?

“In my ten years here the intensives have been so brutal. Just raw exhaustion. Students function on so little sleep. I have so much respect for them. But it was brutal.

“This summer it didn’t feel like that. Part of this, I think, is the schedule. It used to be three and a half hours a day, four days a week with 14 class meetings. Now it’s 18 classes of 2 hours each. I think it helps to spread it out, and we’re hearing from students that they aren’t as stressed.

“In terms of results, our final exam is different than it used to be. I used to write the exams with more than 50% coming from the book of Judges that we had gone over with a fine-toothed comb in class. The new exam in August was 100% sight translation with some parsing questions pulled out. At 4 AM day of the exam I got up and thought ‘Shoot! I made this too hard.’ They had worked so hard and I hated the thought of them walking out discouraged. But I looked at it again and thought, ‘Actually, I really think they can do this,’ and there was not time to write a new exam, so I just prayed a whole lot for them. And they all hit it out of the park!  The exam was more challenging, but they did incredibly well!”

Will the flipped course become the new norm?

“It’s still experimental, but I’m a believer. Hebrew 1 and 2 will definitely be staying with the flipped model.”