Wednesday, September 21, 2022

The Difficulty with Tefila

Is it a good year for more intensive chinuch? Every year I wonder how Torah learning is going to play out. I want to continue the philosophy of them being able to choose to refuse. And I also want to make sure that we are being mechanech that we value Torah learning. Walking that line without forcing or pressuring or panicking is not easy. 

I don't keep track of their grades, but I think we are in middle school and early high school now. 

Since davening is a challenge for all of them, we decided to incentivize shul this year for Rosh Hashana. We made deals for them to come for the silent and repetition of mussaf. (Generally the majority of them sleep late in the morning and we have better luck with mincha/maariv than shacharis, both because of the ADHD length factor and the teenage late circadian rhythm factor). I was going to get them some fancy game like Mario Kart that they are reluctant to buy for themselves because of the expense. But they all end up preferring the matching amount in cash. We haggled through Shabbos lunch a couple of weeks ago, debating whether haggling about money on Shabbos was allowed (we decided it was like doing an auction at shul). I told them to negotiate an incentive that will make them feel excited to go to shul. Like they are earning something they're excited about and it's a worthwhile deal. I don't want them going to shul thinking they are getting the short end of the deal.

I also got them to agree to sit down with me for 7 minutes Mon-Thur so we can go through the mussaf Shemona Esrei together, so they have some idea of what they are saying, what the words mean and what the themes are.

Even 7 minutes has been a challenge, and reminds me why I unschool. (As one of them snarkily remarked about the daily 7 minutes: "We aren't unschooling anymore because I don't want to do this.") They are all close enough in age/ability that it's almost like a little classroom. They are all squirmy and reluctant.

One of them said, "Why can't I just read the English in shul?" I said you absolutely can. But without preparation, you aren't really going to understand the English. Even the English is complicated. Which we saw as we sat down to read it together.

I've been trying to give them a sense of the structure of the mussaf. It really is amazing how quickly they can get bored, how difficult it is go through the words, and how complex the phrases are.

I can really see why tefila is so arduous and meaningless for them. I hope at the end of these few weeks they'll have a sense of the themes and some of what they are saying. But they'd do better with a WAY simplified version. When I think of them struggling through the unfamiliar words and barely understanding what they are saying for hours, I can see why shul doesn't pull them.

I hope that spending the time preparing with them will be helpful in the long term and isn't too painful now. I'm keeping it short and I hope it will help them find it more meaningful. I don't know how much meaning they will find in shul this year. I hope as they mature they will eventually be able to find meaning in the long, complex prayers we say. I think studying them is essential to finding meaning in them. I'm trying to show them how much depth there is and how much there is to think about.

I was going to shorten the time because 7 minutes is a bit too long. But we are still in the middle of zichronos and there are only 2 sessions left. I don't know how much we will make through shofaros. I guess next year is another opportunity b'ezras Hashem.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

chinuch and al pi darko

I have wrestled with the question many times of what will make a child love Torah and love mitzvos and what will make a child reject and hate it. What will make a child grow up to attend shul and will those same actions (nudging, pushing) cause a future abhorrence.

The confusing thing seemed to me that if you ask people "what did your parents do that encouraged you to go to minyan" and if you ask people "what did your parents do that made you avoid minyan" you'll find an overlap. Sometimes the very same actions people say worked is exactly what other people say backfired. 

Well, I'm pretty sure no one ever said "They made it fun and exciting and I swore I'd never do it again." 

But I think you'll find divisiveness on "they were firm and pushed me to do it even though I objected" and equal divisiveness on "they let it go and were relaxed about it." (Though come to think of it, I'm not sure I ever heard an adult say "I dropped it because it didn't seem like it was a priority to my parents." I have heard others denounce parents and say "If you don't show your children it's a priority, they won't know and they won't do it.")

So I was all muddled about this for a while. It's especially confusing when I'm trying to decide if unschooling and trust the process is a good idea. Or if I'm abdicating responsibility and making a huge mistake.

But recently I've come to some conclusions. And it seems so obvious to me now, I wonder why I didn't always see it this way. 

My children have very different personalities. I've found it useful when thinking about this area to look through the lens of Gretchen Rubin's Four Tendencies which frames what types of habit forming strategies work for different types of people.

Looking at my children through the above lens has allowed me to really carefully craft their "obligations" or "good for them activities" (i.e. "mitzvos") through strategies that speak to their tendencies. While one of my children may love structure and love accomplishing, another will shut down completely if there is a whiff of obligation.

In addition to that, there is also neurodiversity and learning style, which greatly affects whether someone is the type who can sit in the beis medrash or even sit through shacharis. And then there is the early riser vs. the night owl in terms of who is physically going to be really struggling with morning minyan. 

There's a reason why we have different expectations from different children. Some children are social and if their friends do it, they'll be inclined to do it. Some children are upholders and are pretty driven and motivated. Some children are just going to go the opposite direction if you push them. 

I just think a lot of this is personality and nature. I'm sure as parents we can do a lot of things to make things worse. But assuming we don't make things worse and can get out of the way, it seems like a lot of this comes down to personality. And that it's really important to factor personality into chinuch.

I know that an Eisav can be a Dovid HaMelech. But an Eisav is never going to be a Yaakov. As my children grow up, it just seems to me that for some children, gentle chinuch works beautifully. And for others, even Herculean efforts might be counter-productive and the best thing you can do is show love and support and shut up (which is a different but equally important Herculean effort). It seems the more I look at it, certain types of strategies are going to be a really bad idea for some kids and be at best indifferent for others. And other strategies will work really well--but it depends on the child's personality.

I'm reminded of Koheles perek 11:6

בַּבֹּ֙קֶר֙ זְרַ֣ע אֶת־זַרְעֶ֔ךָ וְלָעֶ֖רֶב אַל־תַּנַּ֣ח יָדֶ֑ךָ כִּי֩ אֵֽינְךָ֨ יוֹדֵ֜עַ אֵ֣י זֶ֤ה יִכְשָׁר֙ הֲזֶ֣ה אוֹ־זֶ֔ה וְאִם־שְׁנֵיהֶ֥ם כְּאֶחָ֖ד טוֹבִֽים׃

Chazal say have children or students both in your youth and in your old age. Because you have no idea what's going to work out. 

It's kind of comforting to have Chazal shrug and say, "It's a numbers game."

(I have a feeling that this post can be VASTLY misinterpreted so I reserve the right to clarify in the future.)

Thursday, December 23, 2021


A dear family friend asked me how I set goals. 

That's a loaded question, and maybe I'll write a few posts addressing different facets.

But one of the subquestions was about goals for my children. I've written before about educational goals but today I'm thinking about grown children. Two fifths of my children are grown.   

I don't have goals for my grown children. 

All I can have is goals for MY relationship with my children. Which is about how I'M going to behave. Not about them. 

My goals for that are pretty simple: 
  • That they enjoy spending time with me (which pretty much is about me keeping my mouth shut about their life choices and me being pleasant to them)

  • and that I don't dread seeing or hosting them because I've taken on food or housekeeping tasks that overwhelm me.

Monday, December 13, 2021

Learning Shemona Esrei

E's mostly fluent in shemona esrei now. So looking back, it took him about 2 months.  We are practicing 3x a week for 10 minutes, and if he finishes before time, he can stop early.

The last 2 paragraphs need a bit more fluency, but now we've started the other shemona esreis. Maariv, shacharis, mincha, for shabbos. The same 10 minutes 3x a week. Then on to musaf for Shabbos, musaf for rosh chodesh, musaf for Shabbos Rosh Chodesh, and shemona esrei for yontif. There's plenty to go.

In the meantime, I'd like to learn Torah with him. I think he'd enjoy thinking about ideas. But we'll hold off on that for now, and work on fluency.

The goal is for him to be able to finish shemona esrei with the tzibbur before they start chazaras hashatz.

Friday, November 26, 2021

What Happens When Unschoolers Are 'Behind'

There's something I always say about homeschool:

There's no behind in homeschool; there's only where your child is at.

In homeschool, we have the luxury of teaching the child on their level, at all times. We can advance at their pace. We can teach the same thing over and over. We can slow down. We can stop. We can let it go for months or years and pick it up when they are ready.

In general, a lot of homeschoolers play more in the younger years than their classmate counterparts do. It's not that hard to "catch up" later. Especially because one-on-one learning is so efficient.

In unschooling, where the parent doesn't teach the child, and instead, the child learns what they want when they want, there is often a fear that the child will grow up and blame the parent for not forcing them to learn. After all, learning is unpleasant but needs to be done, and you should have made me do it, even though I fought it. And now I'm an adult and I don't know what I need to know and it's all your fault.

(Sure, homeschoolers worry about this too. But believe me when I say the fear is a little more stark when you've actually actively not taught your children [unless they asked] as a philosophy.)

I've written about "You Should Have Taught me X" at length (and it's worth rereading).

The more experience I have as an unschooler and as a parent, the more I realize that the unschooling philosophy of education is a radically different method of educating and is going to look very different. That's why testing doesn't actually give very good information about where an unschooler is educationally. 

Like if most kids (hahahaha as if) learn in a straight line, i.e. the older they get, the more math and reading they know

An unschooler can look like nothing, looks like nothing, looks like nothing, then BAM growth

the y-axis could be "math or reading"

Like a bamboo plant. 
A Chinese bamboo tree takes five years to grow. It has to be watered and fertilized in the ground where it has been planted every day. It doesn't break through the ground for five years. After five years, once it breaks through the ground, it will grow 90 feet tall in five weeks!

My point is that since unschoolers learn when they want to or when they feel they need to, they can often go for years without what society deems basic scholastic competency. (Or they work around it.)

But it's a mistake to think that they are "behind." They are actually perfectly aligned with the unschooling educational philosophy. Which says that the time to learn is when the child (person) wants to or feels motivated to because they need it for something they want. This could happen after childhood, once the person is an adult. 

I once heard my son explain: "Oh, you see, the way it works for us is that we learn it when we want to."

Unschooled children are never "behind." They are simply in a pre-state of "not knowing YET." And the happy state of "When I want to know it, I'll figure it out."

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Testing Unschoolers

The pandemic was during a testing year for us, homeschool-wise. NY state has pretty strict reporting and testing laws, compared to, say, NJ, where you just let them know you're homeschooling and they don't ask what you're teaching or how it's going.

Despite the strictness, NYS still has laws that are considerate of unschooling. You aren't required to test until 5th grade. That means if your children haven't learned to read by age 10 or so (which is normal for unschoolers), that's not a problem. (Even in those cases, there are approved testers and tests that can work with that.)

With the pandemic, we haven't had to test in 2 years. So we haven't yet had to engage with the academic standards "the state" thinks children that age "should" have. 

This year, Jack, who is born in one of those "can go either way" months, decided maybe he wanted to be in the younger grade. When he was 5, he was reading, so I popped him to first grade. But in camp he chose to be in the younger grade, and now he wasn't sure which way to go. So I submitted that he'd be repeating the grade.

They asked me why.

So we decided to test Jack and see where he is. If he gets his 33rd percentile of his grade level, then we can keep him as is. If not, that is justification, and we'll hold him back. (You can still get under 33rd percentile and remain at grade level, but that's a different topic.)

A few observations about testing:

  • Jack didn't really know fractions before this test. So we took an hour and I taught them to him, and he understood it pretty quickly, even though he needs some practice doing them. As an unschooler, I think it's kind of silly and feel with a child like Jack, who is mathematical, then he can wait until he wants to learn it and it will be quick. (He wanted to learn it when he discovered fractions were on the test. But in terms of long term life skills, he'll probably really learn fractions when he needs them, later, and this was just more playing around and seeing a bit about how they work.)

  • My niece saw him taking the test and said, "I hope you don't fail!" Jack looked puzzled, like he had no idea what she was talking about.
    I realized that there is no failure in homeschool. There is no stress about failure, no thinking about failure, no worry about failure. It's just not on the radar. To Jack, testing is something we do for legal reasons and it gives no actual information on his true academic process nor progress, nor his value as a student or person. It got me thinking about all the times in school I worried about failing, how often I had that sick feeling during a test or after a test. And about children worrying about failing. 
    In homeschool, if you get the answer wrong or don't understand something, it just means you do it again until you do understand it or acquire the skill.

  • For the first section of the test, I peeked a bit at Jack's answers as he wrote them. I estimate he got about half of them correct.
    When he finished, I asked him if it felt like it was suitable for his grade level or not. Was it very difficult? Super easy? He said it felt appropriate for where he was. It wasn't so easy but it wasn't very hard. He said, "I think I did well."
    My college aged child remarked, when I relayed this to her, that in LIFE, getting 50% of something right with no preparation is considered "doing well."

  • I noticed a big difference in myself and my attitude regarding testing. I've been homeschooling for about 25 years now, and experience makes a huge difference in confidence and in philosophy. I remember so clearly worrying about every answer my kids got wrong and how, afterwards, I made a point of going over the question so that they'd have that so-important information about comma usage or decimals.
    But as I was looking over Jack's shoulder, watching him get the answer wrong, I kept thinking, "Meh, he'll have naturally learned that by the time he's an adult." or "No big deal, he can easily learn that when he wants."

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Learning Shemona Esrei

 E is a year post bar mitzva and he's been learning shemona esrei on his own time. That means that when he is fluent with a bracha, he moves on to the next bracha. On the regular day shemona esrei he is up to birkas haminim. 

He wants a phone because he's getting to the age where people are exchanging phone numbers and he can't keep up with them without a number. I said earn it by learning weekday, shabbos shacharis and mincha shemona esrei, yomtov shacharis and mincha shemona esrei, and shabbos musaf shemona esrei. He said no thank you.

I said right now we are working on your reading 3x a week for 4 minutes a time. How about we work on shemona esrei. And how about making it 8 minutes. He agreed.

Right now it takes him 8 minutes to read from V'lamalshinim to Modim.

He said he's tempted to take medication and learn how to read it all in a couple of months. I said if he wants to, that's an option.

He said Nah.