This May, 3,500 Jewish and Arab fourth-graders from Israel’s northern district will gather in the Hula Valley for singing and friendly art competitions capping an extracurricular program called Yes to Birds. [Israeli] President Shimon Peres will be on hand to award prizes, along with the ministers of education and environment.
“The idea was an educational cooperation between Arab and Jewish students to learn the story of birds and biodiversity in Israel,” says Dr. Yossi Leshem, director of the International Center for the Study of Bird Migration (ICSBM) at Latrun and senior lecturer in the department of zoology at Tel Aviv University. Leshem launched the project in the 2009-2010 school year to coincide with the United Nations’ International Year of Biodiversity.
Supported by an anonymous overseas donor, the pilot was dubbed the Blackbird Project after one of the most common schoolyard birds. Teachers at six Arab and six Jewish schools received a bilingual curriculum written in collaboration with 19 experts chosen by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), Tel Aviv University and ICSBM “to forge connections between schools and the environment in which we live, connecting to nature, the birds and the people around us.”
In addition to promoting environmental literacy, the curriculum was intended to “constitute a platform for dialogue and the building of links between the Arab and Jewish sectors.”
Leshem explains that in the course of his multifaceted work, particularly a project to put barn owl and kestrel nesting boxes on farms to provide natural pest control, he has forged strong ties with Palestinian and Jordanian counterparts. “But we also wanted to include Israeli Arabs” in bird-centered initiatives, he says. Why fourth-graders? They’re old enough to grasp the subject matter but not yet bogged down by exams and papers.