The 12-year-old boys sitting in the circle of students chatted comfortably, looking like any two classmates as they spoke about how writing helps them get in touch with their feelings.
The picture was deceptive, however.
Abdel Al-Karim and Noam Honig both live in Israel, but as Arab and Jewish youth, they never have the opportunity to meet, look one another in the eye and talk about their lives, much less delve into a deep discussion about the process of writing. But this day, spent as participants in the "Writers Matter" program, the brainchild of a La Salle University professor, was different.
"When I write something from the heart, I feel like I've gotten something off my chest, and it makes me very happy," said Al-Karim, from the village of Jawarish, part of the city of Ramle.
Honig, a Jewish Israeli from Cfar Uriah, agreed with him. "When I start to write, I realize there's a lot more going on with me than I'm aware of. If you ask me about my life, I'll say I get up, go to school, come home, watch TV, go to sleep, and then do it all over again. But when I write, other things come out -- like how I felt when my dog died. My mind and my thoughts go beyond my routine."
As the boys and their classmates exchanged their experiences throughout the year as participants in the writing program, the two teachers leading the session listened carefully. One, Ruti Ganzarsky, a blonde Jewish teacher, was clad in a sleeveless blouse while Arab teacher Naifa Altore was covered from head to toe topped with a headscarf. But the two women seamlessly worked together, guiding the discussion and asking questions, translating between Hebrew and Arabic when necessary.
Popping his head in the room to observe the goings-on, occasionally asking for his own translations into English, was the father of the "Writers Matter" program, Robert Vogel. It was a chance meeting a year ago between Vogel, a La Salle University education professor, and a colleague from Bethlehem, Samir Adwan, that brought the program from Philadelphia to the Middle East.
Vogel, a veteran member of the La Salle faculty, developed the program to help middle school children in inner-city Philadelphia with the dual goals of improving their writing skills and helping them improve their interpersonal skills. Vogel's research has found that the program not only improves writing but creates more confident and engaged learners, and helps reduce stereotypes and racial boundaries.
When Adwan, a Palestinian education professor from Bethlehem University active in educating for co-existence, heard Vogel describe the program during a visit in March 2011, he knew he wanted to bring it to the region. Adwan wasted no time in proposing a pilot program to Vogel for use in Israel and Palestinian areas.
"I just knew we had to do this here," Adwan said, as he watched the Jewish and Arab children busily engaged in their writing activities.
By the time the groups met one another, the children were already veteran writers; their teachers had been implementing "Writers Matter" in their classrooms since early in the school year. This gathering, held at the Neve Shalom school, a village of Jews and Arabs, was the pinnacle of their experience.
Standing in front of the students at the beginning of the day of the workshop, both men were clearly excited to see their vision transformed into the reality of a roomful of eager faces.
"You are part of an international program of many student writers," Vogel told them. "The most important aspect of this is your voice and your pen. Know that what you write is very important, and it is just as important as the fact that you are here together --writing together, talking together and beginning to understand each other."
The children were split up into three groups, with an equal number of Arab and Jewish students, a mixture of the three schools they came from -- the Arab school in Jawarish, a Jewish school in Hof HaSharon, and the unique mixed Jewish-Arab school at Neve Shalom, which was playing host.
Each of the three groups gathered in a circle. There were some awkward moments in the beginning, with some of the Arab girls appearing particularly shy. To break the ice, the day began with "getting-to-know-you" exercises. A charades-like game quickly led to an impromptu breakdancing session in the center of the circle. It was clear that the ice had melted.
Next, the students broke into groups to talk about themselves and quickly discovered that regardless of religion, teens all love shopping, playing sports and spending time on Facebook. Finally, the conversation was directed to writing, and they discussed the program they had completed in their home classrooms. Then they sat down to write together.
At the end of the day, they created a class "souvenir" of the event, large canvas umbrellas that they were told they could decorate as they pleased, in any language. Although there had been no overt talk of politics during the day, the umbrella was covered with messages of peace.
The comfort level that was established was most obvious during the recess period. As naturally as they would anywhere, the boys gravitated to one side of the schoolyard and began playing soccer. The girls mingled and chatted, checked out each other's cell phones and began exchanging numbers and names and "friending" one another on Facebook. Arabs and Jews were indistinguishable.
Eshel Kleinhaus, principal of the Hof HaSharon school, who accompanied his group of students, said the encounter had exceeded his expectations. "What was surprising was hearing from so many of the kids that they felt like this was the first time they were ever really asked about how they felt at this age. So much of the day, they are spoken to, and they are so rarely asked about how they feel."
Vogel said that this is a common reaction from educators. "They see how quickly the kids were willing to express thoughts about their lives, and they are stunned. They never realized how much the kids had to say and were willing to share with their peers. It opens their eyes."
The teachers, Arab and Jewish, described the rapport between the groups as "magical." The hesitation and fear that had existed among the children before the meeting evaporated immediately. "If there were no politics, no countries, life would be so much better," said teacher Calanit Lahana. "There were no political matters between these children, they just communicated normally."
Encouraging cooperation between the team of teachers involved was part of the program. "The teachers were committed and open to new ideas," observed Adwan. "I enjoyed seeing how easily they built their program, how they overcame any fears they may have had about working together. They offered each other collegial support."
Vogel has been a member of the La Salle faculty for 38 years training teachers in the areas of elementary, special and secondary education in Philadelphia and in more than 35 schools around the world. He said that he had been warned that, even with his vast experience, the Palestinian-Israeli situation would be too difficult and volatile for "Writers Matter".
He said with a chuckle, "At this point in my career, if something doesn't seem challenging and difficult to execute, frankly, it doesn't interest me."
Vogel was accompanied on this trip by five La Salle University students from his work/study program. After their day at Neve Shalom, the group spent two days in the West Bank, running similar workshops with two Palestinian schools that had also completed the "Writers Matter" program. On one of the days, they were joined by the Israeli Arab students from Ramle.
"During those second two days, when we were in the West Bank, most of the conversation and the writing of the students was about wanting freedom and other things that were lacking in their lives. It didn't come out in a harsh way against the Israeli government. It was the expression of young kids saying they want a chance in the world -- wanting to feel free to travel, wanting freedom for their parents -- some of their fathers have been in prison."
In Philadelphia, the children's writing has already resulted in a book, <em>Voices of Teens: Writers Matter. </em>Vogel has already laid the groundwork for translating the writing of the Israeli and Palestinian students, which he plans to publish in book form as well. And he's not finished with the Middle East. Now that its success is proven, he wants to return next year, and perhaps expand the program into more schools.
One goal he still hopes to accomplish is bringing Jewish Israeli and Palestinian students from the West Bank to write together. Vogel and Adwan made the attempt this time, but the politics and bureaucracy involved in moving large groups of school-age children across the checkpoints proved too daunting and they were unsuccessful.
"I was disappointed but I expected it to happen. The political situation is currently too explosive, and they weren't ready to do that," said Vogel. "I'm a realist and I'm taking one step at a time. We have our long-range co-existence goals that we work towards. But I know that if, nothing else, this program allowed a lot of Israeli and Palestinian kids to express themselves and for their inner voices to be heard. That alone is worth it."