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Judaic studies prof honored for outreach to student with disabilities

Date: Jan. 10, 2001
By: Marianne Kunnen-Jones
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Archive: General News

When Gila Naveh won UC's top teaching prize four years ago, she insisted that a good professor should be one part old sage, one part Scheherezade and one part superwoman. All three seem to have had a hand in a new award she just won, this time for her efforts to accommodate a student with a disability in her classroom.

Gila Naveh with students

The Leading Edge Award, presented for the first time by UC's Disability Services Office Advisory Committee, recognizes Naveh's efforts to adapt her teaching style to the needs of a blind student, Michael Leiterman. The 24-year-old lost 95 percent of his sight in infancy due to retina blastoma, a form of cancer. As a UC student, his remaining vision vanished after a series of unsuccessful surgeries.

The senior majoring in biology met Naveh, professor of Judaic Studies, when he enrolled in her summer 2000 class on the Literature of the Holocaust. The course requires students to watch several foreign films. Enter Scheherezade, the story-teller.

Professor Naveh narrated visual material to Leiterman and also took it upon herself to read aloud to him the subtitles of foreign films. In Naveh's case, that translation often didn't even require subtitles, because she is fluent in seven languages besides English: French, Greek, Hebrew, Romanian, Russian, Spanish and Yiddish.

"This may not seem like a heavy undertaking," notes Leiterman in his nomination letter for the Leading Edge Award. "But she would engage in this activity at least four hours during the course of the week," he said. Although some might say there is nothing "superwoman" about that commitment, Leiterman could argue otherwise. "Professor Naveh sat next to me for each film and whispered to me the translation and described it in depth. By the end of the movie, her voice would just be practically gone."

Continues Leiterman: "I think she's probably the best teacher I've had here on campus. Being a science guy and saying that about a literature course means a lot. She has been awesome in every capacity....Since my enrollment at the University of Cincinnati, I have never been fortunate enough to encounter such a wonderful, dedicated, intelligent individual who gave so much of herself freely, just to help a student with a disability," he said. Leiterman regards Naveh's teaching so highly, he signed up to take a fall 2000 course on Jewish American Fiction.

In addition to translating the films, Naveh sometimes read poetry to Leiterman or summarized chapters of novels whenever the Disability Services office could not provide such assistance.

According to Debra Merchant, UC Disability Services director, the Leading Edge Award will be given annually in recognition of the special efforts of faculty to accommodate students with disabilities. Students with disabilities are invited to submit their nominations for the award at the end of each quarter. This year's presentation to Professor Naveh exemplifies how minor adjustments in teaching or presentation of material can improve accessibility and enhance the entire classroom experience for students with disabilities, Merchant said.

All of Naveh's extra effort was intended to help Leiterman gain knowledge in a way that would not make him feel marginalized or left out, yet Naveh stresses that it's Leiterman who taught her something. Throughout her 22-year career as a teacher, she has always believed that professors should possess a willingness to learn from the students.

On the first day that Leiterman attended her class, she proved to be a fast learner. "I spent part of the class reading a poem, 'I Never Saw Another Butterfly,' by Pavel Friedman, a 9-year-old who died at Auschwitz after living at a children's concentration camp called Terezinstadt. I spent a lot of time talking about the imagery in the poem, the fragility of the butterfly and the yellowness. I thought I was doing a great job. Then Michael walked with me out of class and pointed out that he didn't fully understand what I had said, because he had never seen a butterfly," Naveh said.

As a result, Naveh insists, Leiterman helped her to become a wiser teacher. "He showed me a dimension I never thought about. He taught me how to enrich my teaching by appealing to other senses."

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