Using big bold strokes, Tamara Freilich, a 22-year-old teaching intern from Washington, D.C., writes the letter "I" on the blackboard.
"Who can name a word that begins with this letter?" she asks her fourth-graders at the Ussishkin elementary school in Netanya.
"Ikea!" a girl in the front row yells out. "Good job," responds Freilich, as the girl jumps out of her chair and high-fives her classmates. Ignoring what might be considered unacceptable behavior in an American school, Freilich moves on. "Anyone else?" she asks.
"Igloo," volunteers another student. "That's right," says Freilich, "but we don't pronounce it 'eegloo' - we say 'igloo' with a soft 'i.'"
A few minutes remain until the bell rings, announcing the end of class, but some of the children are clearly losing focus. One boy gets out of his seat and starts walking around the room. Another flicks his classmate on the back of the neck and pretends to be paying attention to the teacher when the classmate turns around. Those students still participating have by now largely forgotten the rule about raising their hand, but Freilich carries on unperturbed, pausing only once to say "shhhhh."
"Actually, I'd expected much worse," she remarks, summing up her first month on the job, after the bell rings and her charges are dismissed. A graduate of Emory University with a degree in political science, Freilich is one of 170 participants this year in the Israel Teaching Fellows program, run by Masa Israel Journey - a joint initiative of the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency. The program, which provides Jewish college graduates an opportunity to teach English in low-income communities, is overseen by the Education Ministry. Launched as a pilot a year ago with 68 participants teaching English in five cities, it was expanded this year to seven cities, with the number of participants more than doubling.
The majority of this year's participants have degrees in areas relevant to education, with 17 of them holding graduate degrees. Most are women, and they range in age from 21 to 29. They teach English in 85 schools scattered around Netanya, Petah Tikva, Rehovot, Rishon Letzion, Ramle, Lod, Ashdod and Be'er Sheva. Those teaching in the latter two southern cities were evacuated temporarily during the recent flare-up across the border with Gaza. The plan is to expand the program next year to Beit She'an.
The interns teach a minimum of 20 hours a week while working on other volunteer projects in their respective communities. In most cases, they team-teach in pairs, and in some cases, even in groups of three.
Freilich's co-teacher is 25-year-old Matt Miller, from northern California, who graduated with a degree in classics from UCLA. Clearly making an effort to be diplomatic, Miller notes, "The kids here in Israel seem to feel freer about moving around in the classroom."