Thursday, December 27, 2012

on homeschool tantrums

I started writing this as a comment to a blog post i saw today, and it got so long I decided to make it into its own post.

I was once interviewed about homeschooling, and was asked about the negatives.  I said: it's little known that there are many more tantrums in homeschool.

It's a combination of a bunch of factors.  They aren't peer pressured to keep it together. They are used to having a say in the work that they do.  There is no superego of the teacher expecting them to behave in a civilized manner.  There is emotional safety in being home with the parent, so that when there are all sorts of emotional issues being activated with this particular assignment, there is the luxury of letting loose.

Despite all that, I have certainly wondered many a time if this was normal, and if a child this old ought to be behaving that way.  (And I vaguely remembered a friend of mine who homeschooled 5-10 yrs before me talking about how HER student also was prone to these emotional outbursts regularly.)  So although I accept these tantrums as part of homeschooling, I also have to walk a fine line between two possibilities:

On one hand, as a homeschooler, I do have the luxury of stopping what we are doing, changing the curriculum when there is a tremendous amount of complaining and tantrumming, setting aside schoolwork and helping my children through deep emotional upheavals and issues.

On the other hand, there is a concept of discipline, of perseverance, of being capable of sticking with something through to its completion, of not giving up when things are a little tough, of doing things we sometimes dislike or find difficult. 

In my personal experience, I have been finding that there are AMPLE opportunities for perseverance or for not giving up and for realizing that they have to do things they dislike.  I'm not so sure that schoolwork is my favorite forum for that lesson.

However.  I often go based on my gut on this one.  Sometimes I simply feel the work IS within their reach and it truly is not as torturous as they are shrieking it is.  Sometimes I simply feel it is good for them to do this.  Sometimes I feel like it's important for them to listen to me.  Sometimes I feel like it is worthwhile for them to complete this task.  Sometimes I feel like this is what is standing between them being a responsible and productive human being and them being an obnoxious, spoiled brat.

So usually I do what I feel.  And there have been times I've chosen wrong.  And there are probably times where I chose correctly, but doubted myself.  And probably times where I don't even realize I chose wrong.  My relationship with them is thousands upon thousands of these interactions, and as long as I remain thoughtful and flexible about it, I think it turns out okay.

Not to mention that if it really is too much for them, the tantrums go on day after day after day. 

Listen to your children.  Listen to your gut.  Look at the factors you are aware of.  Make a choice.  Either way doesn't matter much.  You can always choose differently next time.  You'll get more tries.  And both aspects are valuable in your child's education.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Observation about sibling rivalry

It's been a rather insane 2 weeks with power out from the hurricane.  One thing that we homeschoolers joke about is that we didn't have off from school.  After a couple of days, though, Chana went to sleep at her cousins' house and that was the last I saw of her until erev Shabbos.  But she did double chumash the next week.  For a while, we took a break from new pesukim.  The rashis and pesukim were too complicated and adding even one new one every day was getting overwhelming.  So we took a week to really pound those pesukim and rashis, and just started adding new pesukim yesterday.

Aside from noticing that the sibling rivalry ratchets up in response to my own stress level, I noticed something about how the boys fight.  I saw this happen quite a few times.  One boy does something to another.  Something aggressive or destructive (e.g., he breaks a train track that his brother is building).  The victim gets angry at the aggressor.  There is a sense of outrage and a sense that there was a wrong that needs to be righted.  Justice needs to be done.  The victim goes over and wallops the aggressor.  Usually one good wallop, but sometimes a few sharp *whap*s.  Then, it seems like the sense of outraged justice has been satisfied, and there is a sort of deflating.  The aggressor seems to agree that he deserved it, and although he grunts in pain, he doesn't attack back, which is a tacit acknowledgment that he deserved it.  Then they move on to something else.

It's fascinating that it doesn't escalate beyond that.  Initial act of aggression, cry of outrage on behalf of the victim, victim puffs up and belts aggressor, aggressor responds to pain but doesn't attack back, both settle down like two chickens with ruffled feathers clucking and then calming down.

  • it fascinates me that there seems to be an innate sense of justice operating here, and both parties agree.
  • it's interesting how it settles down and doesn't escalate.  And yet, there are definitely other types of sibling rivalry interactions where the violence does escalate.  I'm curious to observe what causes the escalation and in which situations it occurs.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

one aspect of "what homeschooling means to me"

i haven't done any chumash for a week.  chana's been doing chazara by herself and is all finished when i get home from work.  tomorrow we start the next parsha. 

aharon, who is 16 months, asked for milk this morning (ie he gestured until i opened the fridge, then he indicated the milk).  i poured him a little bit, which he drank himself.  he doesn't like me to hold the cup for him anymore.  then he wanted more.  then he wanted to carry the cup out of the kitchen.  drinks outside the kitchen for anyone under 2 is a soft limit for me (meaning i generally don't allow it but if you throw a really big temper tantrum and i'm already feeling frazzled there's a chance i might choose a spill over a nuclear meltdown of emotion).  so i took the cup away and he protested a bit, but i stood firm.  he didn't go off happily to play, so i asked him if he wanted cheerios.  he did, so i got a bowl.  as i was putting the cheerios into a bowl, he came over to me holding a plate he had taken from the pantry.

as i transferred some of the cheerios from the bowl onto the plate and put the plate on the ground so he could eat, i realized that this is part of unschooling.  i had an idea about how cheerios are to be eaten.  he presented me with an alternative idea.  instead of urging him to do it the "right" way or my way, i followed his lead.  i could see on his face, as he sat down to eat his cheerios that he had decided to put on the plate, that he was enjoying not only the cheerios, but the ideation of his theory that the cheerios can be eaten off the plate.

after a few minutes, he gestured to the bowl.  he picked up his plate of cheerios and poured them into the bowl. 

last week was parshas bereshis and this reminded me that adam was told "v'kivshuha" to conquer the world, to use our abstract capacity to master our environment and to make changes in it and to discover scientific principles and apply them, which leads to all sorts of creativity and technology.  and we also have shabbos, where we desist and put our creativity into perspective of Hashem's creation. 

i think for me, a lot of homeschooling is about giving my children the opportunity to have ideas and to try them out.  to have opinions on what they want to do and how they want to do it, and to have either the glorious satisfaction of it working as they imagined, or having it work out not as they imagined, or having something completely different and interesting happen.  i feel like this is one of the great enjoyments of being human, as well as it being part of our mission and design.  it starts early, as soon as babies start exploring, and i feel that being told to sit at a desk for the majority of the day and to do work that you haven't chosen and haven't felt a spark of desire to explore ends up quelling most people's innate curiosity and creativity.

we are creatures of will.  we have free will and we have choices, and most human beings are largely unaware of just how much free will we really have and how many choices there are.  when your childhood is full of days brimming with possibility and exploration and delightful "what shall i do today?"s, who knows what adulthood can be like?*

*everything i've ready by unschoolers who are now adults indicates that they are responsible and productive members of society. 

Friday, October 12, 2012


i came home from work today to see chana babysitting 3 boys and with the chumash open.  she was blitzing her way through rashi.  we finished bo.  we are going to do a week of chazara.  she wanted to start b'shalach, but i think she needs some review since some of those aliyas were loooooooong.

Friday, October 5, 2012

chol hamoed

chana has been initiating chumash, opening it herself, reviewing, asking me for a word here and there, chazering her rashis, asking me for a translation here and there, and then telling me it's time to sit down for new pesukim.  it is really nice when she decides to do it herself and i'm not the one who says, "we have to do chumash" "when do you want to do chumash."  i wasn't even particularly thinking we'd do it over succos.

today she reviewed the pasuk "a land flowing with milk and honey" and she remarked: "that's just drinks and toppings.  what about food?"

Thursday, September 27, 2012

how do you teach your child if you can't parent her?

today we got into an actual screaming match. 

i pride myself that my screaming matches with my pre-teen and teenage girls usually only have 2 exchanges before we de-escalate.  de-escalation is a huge tool in conflict resolution that we are fortunate to have many opportunities to practice :-D

sof kol sof, we both accused each other of being the first to raise her voice.  in truth, after analysis, i believe that she was speaking to me nastily 2x and then i raised my voice to actual "yelling" first.  then we bickered back and forth about who started. 

i asked if it would work for her, if when i began to feel upset that she was speaking "not nicely" to me, if i would very very nicely ask her to please speak to me in a nicer tone.  we shall see if that indeed can be implemented.  i find that i usually don't notice when i'm being spoken to obnoxiously until after i've reacted badly. 

anyway, i just want to say that i don't think that i fight with my pre-teen more because she's homeschooled.  it happens to be that this time the argument was over chumash. 

actual argument:

chana: 430 years?  really?  they weren't in mitzrayim for 430 yrs.
me: maybe it's counting from when yosef or yaakov went down.
chana: i don't understand.
me: maybe it's from when yosef or yaakov went down. 
chana (a bit obnoxiously): i don't understand what you're saying.
me: you remember yosef? and yaakov?  maybe it's from when they went down.
chana (a bit more obnoxiously): i don't understand what you're saying.
me (loudly, ie yelling): just listen to what i'm saying!

i believe at the time, elazar was also interrupting us many times.. something about blood coming from his toe..

chana devolved into tears, then the de-escalation, then the recriminations about who started, etc. then the offer of a resolution for next time, then you are all caught up.

but just because that argument was over chumash, doesn't mean that homeschooling causes more conflict.  on the way home, chana said, "i had a dream last night," and i said, "so did i!" and that got her upset.  she thought i was saying, "so what, everyone has dreams," when i was actually sharing with her that i, too, had an interesting dream last night.  then she didn't like the next 2 things i said.  then i told her i would be absolutely silent.  and that annoyed her too.  so there you go. 

if anything, homeschooling provides us with a lot of time to be together and develop our relationship and have a lot of nice interactions, so it's not all about conflict.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

like night and day

yesterday's rashi went just fine, in case you were wondering.  all 24 of them.  the ones i chose were not difficult.  a lot of it is mindset.  when she has to do more than she expects, she gets extremely upset.  i've noticed this before.  my method is usually to just gently power through.  i sometimes try to prepare her emotionally, but i haven't really seen that help.  there might be other techniques.  but it doesn't come up that often these days for me to apply strategic thought to the issue.

Monday, September 24, 2012

more whining about rashi

i'll leave it for you to decide who the subject of the title of this blog post is, me or chana :-P

we've been briskly moving along these last couple of weeks, with chana doing her chazara and new pesukim and rashis.  a few days we had to slow down because the pesukim were complicated, but then we hit a batch of simple ones.  so it's been business as usual and with very little input from me, so there wasn't anything to write.  chana's actually been deciding on her own to pick it up, so it hasn't even been on my head.  i hadn't even thought about chumash and she decides to do it (except today she has a friend over.  so i guess we'll do it this evening). 

then we blasted through that whole bunch of pesukim, and i picked a pen up and underlined a bunch of rashis.  i haven't counted them, but chana said it was 24 rashis.  i don't know if that includes the ones she is in the middle of doing already.  last night she went crazy about the amount.

she asked the usual questions: WHY? why do i need to do rashi?
you already told me i'm so good at it.  why do i have to do more?
why do i have to do so many?
i feel like you are doing this because you hate me! (ok, that's not a question)
why do i have to do this? i hate rashi and i hate chumash!

since none of these rashis were particularly complicated, but clearly all of them together were overwhelming, i began to question myself.  am i making her do too much?  is this going to make her hate chumash and rashi forever? 

i'm happy to say that i am finally an experienced homeschooler.  this has happened before, many times.  i've asked the questions and had these doubts and fears, many times. 

i think the answer is:


maybe i am pushing too hard.  maybe it is too much.  but maybe it's fine.  maybe pushing is what she needs. 

maybe i'm making a mistake.  maybe not doing it would be a mistake.

i have to just trust that this is a long term endeavor, and there is a lot of feedback (meaning if your child is complaining miserably, at length, over and over, you really ought to rethink how you're doing it).  nothing is written in stone.  you can always backtrack and try something new.  maybe you will do it wrong.  maybe you are doing it wrong.  odds are, you are trying harder and care more than anyone else in the world, because it's your child.  maybe you are pushing too hard or not enough.  what are the chances of getting everything just right?  do your best, be willing to be wrong, and trust in the longevity and freedom of homeschooling.

as far as practical, i think i may be erring on pushing chana too hard.  with sarah i erred on pushing her not enough.  there are and will be effects both ways.

i do, find, though, that if i continue to push chana too hard, the conflict lets me know that it's not a good idea.  a little discomfort and a little unwillingness i understand.  feeling like she's being tortured constantly is probably not beneficial.  (though that scene from the original karate kid comes to mind--where he's being put to work and put to work pointlessly and fruitlessly and frustratingly, until the epic moment when it all clicks and he understands the purpose and he has skills.)

we'll see how it goes today.

Friday, September 7, 2012

converting nagging worries into plans and efforts

it's the beginning of the school year.  that shouldn't make a difference, since we don't really do anything different during the summer.  but this year i started teaching a class in an outside school, so i'm gone every morning til 10am.  this doesn't really make a huge difference in our homeschool because we don't really do anything before 10am anyway, except that it takes me a while to reconnect with the little ones because they are expecting me around and i'm not (like jack doesn't like waking up and me not being there).  and aharon, who is a year old, is used to being with me every minute of the day.

but it has been feeling like there aren't enough hours in the day to do everything.  in the beginning days of homeschooling, i used to be nervous, so i never wanted to skip "learning."  but now, 1) when it comes down to it, i'm quicker to choose to prioritize our relationship and their long-term emotional well-being so i end up choosing to spend relaxed, enjoyable time with them instead of attempting to force them to work in a time-crunched situation which is going to blow up in our faces, 2) even if i skip a lot of learning times, over the course of years, there still ends up being a lot of time and 3) since we became more unschool-y, the kids are much more relaxed about skill work and flexible and inclined to work at odd hours.

case in point.  i told you that i pulled out sfasenu (or sfatenu, as we used to call it in elementary school, before i learned about the ashkenazic "ת" and plunged myself into the conflict of spoken vs religious hebrew) a few days ago.  i've been telling chana i'd like to start it.  she kept saying later and tomorrow.  yesterday we were planning to do it but there was trapeze from 4-8 (it was only 1.5 hrs but i had to pick sarah up from school, dinner, rush out, drive 45 min there and back) so I wasn't up for it we didn't get to it.  this morning, chana woke up at 7:30am by accident (thank you, sarah's alarm) and came down.  i was getting ready to leave for school, but i remembered we didn't do it yesterday.  so we sat down and she did the first story right there.  using the three-years-ahead-rule, i gave her the 3rd grade sfasenu.  she zipped through the story, understanding it, being able to figure out the couple of words or phrases that were new, and i asked her reading comp questions and asked her to answer me in hebrew, using the story.  so that went swimmingly.  i am (anti alfie kohn) using a bribe to make it more palatable.  i told her to pick the bribe, but she wants a dog, so that's not happening.  i'm hoping that she'll pick it up more often than not, and that she'll increase her ivrit ability, and that it will be pretty painless.  i'm not sure how this fits into unschooling philosophy (but i'm not about to get overly bogged down by a philosophy of homeschooling, unless you want to call it pragmatism, ie what is working for us).  i discussed with her that i think her ivrit needs some beefing up.  i acquired something towards that end.  i introduced her to it.  we'll see what happens next. 

and one night this week, everything was pretty quiet, and i said, "hey, want to learn about dovid hamelech?" and she said sure.  so we sat down and i gave her some background about moshe, then going into israel, then shoftim, and we reviewed that shmuel was chana's son, which reminded me that she really is the right age to go through some of the rosh hashana machzor and the torah reading and the haftoras, and then talked a bit about shaul and how the kingship was taken away and how he began to be jealous of dovid.  as i've mentioned before, chana always learns best when she's supposed to be upstairs in bed.  so i'll keep an eye out for those opportunities for navi.  i had the navi open for myself, but did it via storytelling (i did show her one thing in it, but offhand i can't remember what it was). 

also, i've mentioned this before, that i read, many years ago, that one should always stop teaching 5 minutes before the student is finished.  i made this mistake with chana during navi, and kept going even when she was getting distracted.  i should have stopped right then, but it had been going so well i couldn't accept the information she was giving me.  i asked if she wanted to keep going, and she said yes.  i should not have asked her; i should have just stopped.  she zoned out and was earnestly studying the back of a box of cereal.  we ended on a bit of a fractious note instead of me being friendly and saying, we'll stop here, and having her beg for more.

i made that same mistake with my class on the first day of school.  we had 2 minutes left to class, and i should have dismissed them early instead of saying who-knows-what and watching their eyes glaze over.

but overall, my angst last week about things i'd like to pick up the slack on led to me choosing certain activities, then keeping them in my pocket until relaxed opportunities came up. 

regarding navi, if you recall, i had an idea of doing unschooling navi towards the end of last year.  it's now about 4 or 5 months later and we've done navi twice.  you might think that this is not working out.  but i would disagree.  we have years for this.  every time we do it and it's pleasant, it builds on itself.  over the years, it will snowball, i think.  unschooling takes patience, my friends.  i myself am extremely excited to share dovid hamelech's stories.  i just have to wait for the best moments.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

nagging worries about judaic studies curriculum: listen to your gut

every once in a while, i start to feel nagging concerns.

- chana's hebrew writing is pretty poor; she always writes the same basic words (and still spells them incorrectly!) and isn't really making enough progress in it

- we've pretty much fallen down on the spoken hebrew

- do i want to work on more modern ivrit?  (yes, i do.  but when?  plus, it's not really unschooling.  so i'm throwing more things into the curriculum that i don't have time for and that she doesn't want to do)

- i would love to do navi stories.  why am i not finding time for navi?

those are the ones that are top of my list bothering me.  but now that i'm writing them down, here are a few more:

- she is less than a year away from bat mitzva, and we probably ought to do some targum tefila so she understands what she is saying in shemona esrei.  also, bentching.

- i've really fallen down on the tenses in ivrit, especially present and future (we did past, but she probably needs more)

i think there are a couple of reasons for this.  i'm busy.  the littles take up lots of time.  chana is busy with what she likes doing all day.  it isn't until after 9pm that we settle down to do work.  or even talk.  (during the day, we have about 1.5 hrs that we block off to do chumash and rashi, and she comes over to me and i come over to her many many times during the day to tell each other things and share things and for me to see what interesting things she's working on or for her to tell me something funny that happened, but that's not deep conversation or really spending time together, it's more ad hoc).  and frankly, by 9pm i'm frazzled and fried.

anyway, i just wanted to share what i do, as a homeschooler, when these feelings start to crowd my mind.

first, i smile to myself as i remember that there is no pressure.  remember we are thinking in terms of months or years, so nothing is urgent.  there is plenty of time to make any changes (three-years-ahead-rule).

then, i think that if i'm feeling like there are some gaps in her education, i should listen to my gut.  that doesn't mean i should necessarily change what i'm doing.  but if i'm feeling like i'm not paying attention to certain subjects that i feel might be necessary for my child's future, or are important and not getting the time, maybe it's time to rethink my priorities or make a plan for how to incorporate them.

just because they are nagging me doesn't mean it's urgent.  i take a few days, weeks, or months to simmer it.  i think about how important they are and how or if i want to add them in.

the last couple of evenings, i looked into different ivrit curricula.  as usual, i either wasn't impressed, or they didn't suit my specific needs, or i wasn't able to look at them closely enough.  which reminded me why i homeschool.  because this way i get to tailor the work precisely to the needs of the particular student and calibrate it to her skills, level, and my educational goals.  yippee yay.  i consulted my friend at the board of jewish ed.

as i'm writing this, though, i'm feeling that although i have a nagging sense of her ivrit being lacking and needing work, my heart is pulling me towards navi.  navi is so wonderful and so interesting.  why oh why am i not doing it?

hmm.  maybe i should do elazar and chana together?  or maybe 6 yrs apart is too much discrepancy for me to tailor it to their specific emotions and intellects?  or maybe a group navi story once a week would be awesome?

this summer, one shaleshudis, we were all sitting around the table and ari and i started discussing the facts of egla arufa.  then we said: what are the questions--go! and they shot off questions one after the other.  then i summarized what i vaguely remembered learning that addressed the questions, keeping it on target and short.  it was a lot of fun.  maybe i can do something like that for navi.  i really really really would like to do navi.

but if i say i really want to do it, but i don't do it, then do i really want it strongly enough?  time will tell.

oh, and a final thought--if i'm worrying about this stuff, i can pat myself on my back because chumash and rashi are going swimmingly :-D

unschooling gemara

In case you were wondering, chana finished all her rashis last night.  But we went to the bronx zoo today, so we didn't do chumash yet.  It's almost 8pm and nobody's in bed yet...

Anyway, back to the unschooling question.   The recent daf yomi siyum has engendered the question: how come so many adults LOVE dafyomi and so many people talk about how wonderful it is and how it's changed their lives and are so excited to do it, when so many teenagers in school hate gemara?

I read an interesting article on that today.

Though off the top of my head, I can think of two differences:

1) One hour of daf yomi a day instead of 1.5 hours of chevrusa and 1.5 hrs of shiur.
2) Being an adult instead of being a kid.

Despite that, there are a few good points in this article:

How To Teach Gemara by Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed

That means that the Yeshiva High School and Junior High School rabbis must take the time for introspection. Perhaps it is those who teach the teachers how to plan their lessons who need ask themselves – how can it be that Gemara study can attract ordinary, working Jews so strongly, and  get them to sit together and study after a long work day, but that many young students in yeshiva high schools have admitted that they do not like to study Gemara?

These youngsters are not at fault, the methods with which they are taught are at fault. Instead of learning Gemara as Oral law, concentrating on the content and only using the text for review and recall -  teachers spend their time on word study, on syntax – and very little time on the content and its presentation.

If they would teach the content first, orally, and read the text afterwards, the sessions would be alive and interesting. This way, they would also cover much more ground, their students would feel good about it, and know that they are being filled with spiritual riches.
 I note that this is the method I've been thinking about regarding unschooling: focusing orally on the content and less focus, at least initially, on the word study and syntax.  He mentions that the flow of gemara was written down in a way to preserve its character as Oral Law.  It is like a discussion, with arguments, citing pesukim and other sources, and going back and forth, with lots of topics coming up on the way.

Monday, September 3, 2012

against unschooling judaics

today was one of those days that makes me think that unschooling is not the answer.  we spent a week by my parents and chana asked if she could have a vacation from chumash (according to unschooling philosophy, if the child needs a "vacation" then we're approaching it wrong..).  i acceded. 

so today we got back into it.  i asked her if she wanted to do it now or later.  she chose now and finished up what she was doing.  she chose to chazer shlishi (i let her choose which aliya), and did it herself, asking for 2 words.  then we went over the beginning of revii together.  (she started doing it herself, but soon needed me to sit next to her and provide word translation and also general phrase translation.)  after barely remembering the new pesukim from last time (probably because it had been so long since we did them and she didn't have any review of them at all soon after she learned them) and the new pasuk being complicated, i told her to just do those 2 pesukim again and we wouldn't do any more.  2 pesukim (or really just one new one) is rather sparse compared to how much she usually covers. 

one thing i have to watch out for is that if she gets too emotionally overloaded during pshat, she doesn't have mental energy left for rashi.  and we've been doing a LOT of rashi. 

so even before we started she was getting whelmed.  (i was going to say overwhelmed, but i must admit that she's come a long way in mastering herself, and while she was whelmed, she wasn't overwhelmed.)

i said, coaxingly, "just do as much as you can do."  and she insightfully said, "that means just keep going til i finish it all!" i laughed because that's true, and that lightened the atmosphere.

so she was doing rashi, but complaining about it, but doing a really great job.  she was kvetching, but she was right at that point in education where i could see she was stretching, but not being pushed too hard.  exactly what good education is supposed to be.  exactly what is emotionally satisfying for the child. 

it turned out, about halfway through (i can't remember how long--probably about 20 min of intense reading and translating where she can usually do 40+ min), i judged that she really was hitting an emotional limit.  so we stopped, and either we'll pick it up tonight if it's quiet (hahahahahaha though a girl can dream) or tomorrow.

i feel like she's really making great strides in skills. 

i think about how all the rest of our lives is seamless, pleasant and relaxed (and chumash is, too) but she dislikes chumash and wishes she didn't have to do it, and i wonder if unschooling would provide that joy towards learning.  but i also love the day in day out learning and the gaining of skills and knowledge. 

this is why, even though i love unschooling and it calls me, i also do not feel compelled to promote it.  for parents who like structure and for kids who respond to it, structured schooling that still pays attention to the individuality of the child (and most homeschoolers, no matter how structured, do come to that, because the individualized attention demands it) is wonderful.

then again, the older i get, the less i feel compelled to promote anything.  you do what you want and i'll do what i want.  just don't kill me or legislate against me.  and we shall reap the consequences of our choices.  but i digress.  i just wanted to say that when you can hit that "sweet spot" in structure, where the child is being stretched but not painfully, structured education is a glory to behold.

Friday, August 17, 2012

chumash unschooling beginning methodology

As i discussed here, I used to go through the R' Winder Lashon HaTorah books and then begin chumash once the child had a sense of prefixes and suffixes.  I hope to possibly unschool the R' Winder books (though that might be a bit of a challenge, but the kids always enjoyed them and to a large degree Chana did unschool them because I basically let her go at her pace and she often requested to do it), but there is a good chance that Elazar will start being interested in the pesukim before he has made significant inroads in R' Winder.  I have been interested in leining for a long time (years), and I began to really study it when I noticed that Elazar responds to tunes. 

So if Elazar should ask me to read him some chumash, I will open up to the first pasuk, lein it with him a couple of times, and explain it.  I'll do that either for as long as he is interested, or until he has a basic grasp of the pasuk.

This is different from how I taught chumash in the past, where I focused on them translating, figuring the best way to learn it is by doing it.  (This also provoked many complaints and tears).  So now, I'm going to just tell him the information, keep it pleasant, and (theoretically) have confidence that when he wants the skills, he will concentrate on them and acquire them.

bullies2buddies experimentation

Last post I described an intriguing theory to manage sibling rivalry and my concerns about it. 

A few months ago, Jack was sitting on Aharon and beating him up, and Aharon was screaming (Jack 2, Aharon crawling).  My usual policy when that happened was to merely lift Jack off of Aharon.  Don't blame, don't expect self control, do separate.

Testing the theory that the boys love each other, and although Jack is clearly under the grip of aggressive desire, he doesn't truly want to hurt Aharon and will respond to his distress, I let the cries get worse and didn't move him.

Jack watched me, puzzled, sitting on Aharon, not getting off of him, and clearly wondering why I wasn't stopping him.  Aharon cried.

I waited more.  Jack didn't get off.  Aharon cried louder.  I couldn't take it and I moved Jack.


This week, Jack (2.5) started bothering Aharon (14mo).  Jack pushed Aharon.  Aharon cried.  Jack kind of glanced at me, waiting for me to show some sort of disagreement with that decision or to comfort Aharon, which is what I would often do.  I looked away (feeling kind of sick).  Then Aharon went over and pushed Jack!  Hoo, boy, I thought.  Bad idea.  Then Jack started crying.  Then Jack pushed Aharon.  And Aharon smacked Jack.  And they were fighting and crying.  I was pretty uncomfortable.  The yelling was getting pretty loud.  Then it hit a pretty intense point, and they both backed away from each other, crying pretty badly.  I was profoundly uncomfortable.  Then they stopped crying and started playing with each other.  I blinked.


Elazar was on the beach, drawing a big circle with Xs in it for buried treasure.  Jack kept on deliberately stepping into the circle and on the Xs.  Elazar said, "Jack, stop."  "Jack, stop."  "Jack, stop!"  "Jack, STOP!!"  Jack was doing it on purpose to provoke him.  My wont was to step in and move Jack away.  Don't blame, don't expect self control, do separate.

This time I let it continue.  Finally, Elazar, exasperated, gave Jack a *thunk* on the chest.  "Jack, STOP!"  Jack stopped immediately.


Aharon was playing duplo.  Elazar started building a tower taller than himself.  Ordinarily, my policy is that the child who is building builds in a location that is blocked off from the destroyer, so the destroyer has no access.  Don't blame, don't expect self control, do separate.  However, the destroyer was playing first, so it wouldn't be fair to pull him out of the room.  Even with some legos, he'd still feel upset.  Naturally, he went over and knocked down Elazar's tower.  Elazar was upset.  "Aharon knocked down my tower!  I'm so angry at him!  Aharon, I'm angry at you!  I'm so angry!"  Even all of this verbalization was not sufficient to cool his anger, and although I could see him striving to control himself, it burst out and he thumped Aharon on the chest: "Aharon!" *thunk* "Do NOT break my tower!"  As soon as he hit him, justice was restored in his mind, and the anger drained out of him and he went to rebuild.  Aharon began crying hard and came over to me, muttering and he hit me.  (Either he was passing on the aggression or he was telling me what happened.)  He muttered more and hit me again.

I was in a lot of conflict about this.  Clearly Elazar tries verbal communication first.  Clearly, Elazar feels better once he's hurt the person who has hurt him--but is that something I want to teach my children?  The animalistic law of the jungle?  If someone hurts you, then hurt him back?  Then you'll feel better?  I sat there, holding a crying Aharon, feeling conflicted.

Elazar looked up.  He said, "Aharon!" and he did a silly jump and flip so that Aharon would laugh, which he did.  He coaxed Aharon over and gave him a hug, and patted him, and said, "Don't break my tower, ok?" and Aharon said, "Ya."


So I think I will try to continue observing with this and see what happens.  I'll keep you posted!

PS.  As I was walking today, Jack and Aharon were in the umbrella stroller (Aharon sits and Jack stands behind him), and Jack started rat-a-tat-ing on Aharon's head, and Aharon started mildly complaining.  According to the theory, am I supposed to just leave that alone?  See if it gets bad, if Jack will back off?  I opted for my usual: "Gentle, Jack, gentle."  Jack started rubbing him gently, and I praised him.  I don't know if I would have left it alone, if they would have ended up fine.  But I also don't know how they would learn to be gentle if it isn't taught.  Would it come naturally?  

bullies2buddies and sibling rivalry

For the first 11 years that I was a parent, I had two children 5.5 years apart.  It wasn't no effort to raise them, but I did not deal with the classic "sibling rivalry."  People talked about their kids fighting, and I had no experience.  Periodically they argued or fought or annoyed each other, but it was basically nothing.  Then I was blessed with 3 children in under 4 years.  I still haven't had that much sibling rivalry to deal with until now.  Part of it may have to do with the fact that the older two did tandem nursing, which people say helps cut down the sibling rivalry.  A huge piece of it is the personality of my middle son, who by nature is peaceful and obliging.

So I read Siblings Without Rivalry by Faber and Mazlish.  And I've been using Playful Parenting techniques by Larry Cohen, which I am sorry I didn't know about when the girls were little.  When I see aggression brewing, I sweep the aggressor into wrestling or some type of fighting play, and it works miracles.

But as far as an ideology regarding sibling rivalry, I've been thinking for a while about bullies2buddies principles.  I read about it a couple of years ago, before I had 3 children close in age, so it was still pretty theoretical.  Some of the concepts (from my faulty memory) include:

  • Hitting that doesn't draw blood or leave a mark is not really "hurting" between two people of about equal power.  It is actually a pretty effective way for them to navigate conflicts.
  • Children don't usually want to badly hurt each other, and if left to their own devices, the majority of the time they will respond fairly quickly to a cry of true distress and back off immediately.  On the contrary, when adults get involved, it leads to children ignoring each other's signals and focusing more on the authority's cues and getting parental attention.
  • It is useful to distinguish between bothering and annoying and hurting
Overall, he urges a policy of general non-involvement, on the theory that the great majority of what is going on is not true hurting that leaves marks or does damage, and on the theory that siblings generally love each other and will be responsive to a true cry of distress and will back off, and on the theory that they will thunk each other a few times and that is an acceptable way for them to work out their conflict.

I find this extremely logical.  There are a few points that cause me great discomfort:

  1. What if it isn't quite so benign and one sibling is torturing the other.  Shouldn't that be stopped?  Isn't that damaging to the psyche of the one being tortured?  
  2. Is encouraging/not stopping hitting and other mild forms of aggression something we want to teach our children?  Isn't growing up a lot about being able to control impulses, especially aggressive impulses?  Is this counter chinuch?  Do I really want to imply by my non-involvement that it's OK to hit?
Despite these hesitations, I am very intrigued by the theory and I have been eager to test it out.  The trouble with testing it out is that if i sometimes get involved and sometimes don't get involved, I am not sure if I am exacerbating the situation.

My next post will describe some situations where I tried it out.

Monday, August 13, 2012

what if we only did chumash when it was an optimal time?

in case anyone was wondering, chana is up to shlishi in bo and so far we have done 12 rashis.  elazar mostly forgets to wear his kippah and i mostly forget to remind him.  he's very busy playing outside.  our conversations have been including more halacha and parsha and hashkafa, but he hasn't asked to learn inside.

i was discussing with my friend channie about the conflict of doing chumash when it isn't really a good time, and then being less than patient and relaxed because it's not a good time (like before we have to go out, or when the little ones are awake).  the other option is to only do it when it's a good time, but that sort of ends up being... well, close to never.  for example, we've done 2 navi stories this summer.  if that gives you a feel (which is what i always worry unschooling will turn out to be--basically no skills). 

(though i must interject that the theory is that at a certain point, they become motivated, and then BOOM they work hard at it.)

anyway, we were wondering is there any happy medium?  we don't feel like we can wait until it's convenient, because it rarely is a good time.  but if we do it when it's a terrible time, that is a recipe for conflict and anger and negativity.  and even if we skip it when it's a terrible time, well, we might be skipping it 4x a week..

i've learned by now that certain things should be avoided at all costs with chana.  do not do chumash while she is hungry.  do not do chumash when we have to leave the house soon.  do not get all blame-y that we haven't finished yet when someone wakes up from a nap in the middle of chumash (i obnoxiously still have trouble with that one, but luckily, chana calls me on it, so i'm improving).  chana is pretty good about doing it the night before or the night after or double the next day if we aren't going to make it.  it's just that I find it exhausting to do it at night like that.

channie suggested doing it when it's not a good time, but being super nice with lots of love and hugs and play.  naturally, although i wholeheartedly agree, i've found that in practice, it is difficult to dredge up love and hugs and playfulness when you are feeling on edge because you are being torn in different directions.

but i feel it really negatively impacts giving over a love for learning when i am teaching with gritted teeth and impatience and radiating stress and wanting to be done and, horror of horrors, exuding disappointment that she didn't remember something or couldn't translate something. 

so, in looking for a happy medium, i'm thinking about the following solution.  during times when things are really busy, i don't want to skip chumash because i want to convey that it is a priority-והגית בו יומם ולילה--that we immerse ourselves in it daily.  but precisely during those times when i'm feeling a time crunch, i'm going to try to set aside only 15 minutes for chumash.  and during that 15 minutes, i'm going to have only 2 goals. 1. to do a "mashehu" of chumash.  a smallest amount.  2. to have it be an enjoyable learning experience.

will i be able to do this?  we shall see.  if it doesn't work, then i'll do what i always do: look at what happened, look at what i did, look at the result, reevaluate, form a new approach, and try again.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

what kind of person is chinuch trying to produce?

This article came to my attention, discussing certain problems with the current day school yeshiva education and calling for overhaul. 

If you are homeschooling or thinking about homeschooling, it's likely you already have taken the matter into your own hands to some degree.  I cite this article because I really like how R' Dov Lipman expresses the goals and ideals of a Jewish education. 

He writes (my bold):
My friend related how just that morning during Shacharit he was thinking about how “off target” we are as he watched rabbis barking at children to stand during “vayevareich Dovid” and the “vihu rachum,” part of Tachanun at a youth minyan. He was not suggesting we shouldn’t find ways to encourage our children to stand when our custom dictates standing during prayers. But the degree to which the kids were being scolded for not standing struck a chord that led him to reflect upon what we teach as important and what is not important.

I have seen in both myself and in others a way of criticizing students that reflects an unconscious set of values that we might not want to be teaching our children.  Frequently it is by facial expression, tone, or the degree of negativity for a minor issue.  This gives me a lot to think about.

He also writes (and I realized that I hope that, if I take my child's education into my own hands, that maybe I can work more towards some of these answers being "Yes"):
Let’s take a step back and see where the average yeshiva high school boy stands upon graduation from high school. Is he fluent in Hebrew? No. Can he prepare a Gemara on his own? No. Does he enjoy studying Gemara? No. Does he know Tanach? No. Does he enjoy davening? No. Does he understand basic Jewish philosophy about God, the purpose of creation, and why we do the things we do? No. Does he stand head and shoulders above the rest of society in terms of his dedication to acts of loving-kindness and basic human decency? No.
I may or may not have these goals for my own children.  But it gives me a good place to start, a good checklist to think about.  You are educating your child for roughly a decade; what do you want to do with that time?

He also writes (and again, I'm turning it around to look at the positive embodiments of these qualities):
our average students are not steeped in Torah knowledge, not skilled in reading classic texts and prayers, not excited about Judaism, and not prepared to be morally and ethically superior to the low common denominator of surrounding society 

 He expresses his ideal graduates:
ultimately producing young men who are comfortable reading our texts and prayers, inspired to want to study and pray, enthused regarding their Judaism, prepared to enter the world as the most moral, ethical, respectful, and upstanding members of society
Having a sense of what my priorities and goals are as a homeschooler helps me with the larger decisions of curriculum development, where I put my educational energy, what I choose to emphasize, and what we learn.  But it also helps in the millions of small reactions and decisions I make every day.  When my child doesn't remember a word.  When my child wants to tell me her dream before we start Chumash.

When I'm crabby and irritated and have more things happening than I have attention for, how I react to my children teaches them more about Torah and about my true values than anything else.  Maybe the more clarity I have about my goals, the easier these split-second and largely unconscious reactions/decisions will become.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

unschooling chumash

I get quirkier and quirkier the longer I do this.  Or maybe it would be more accurate to say I get more principle-based, and less fear-based.  Homeschooling is a big step.  It's scary.  You are putting yourself in charge of your child's education, and if you screw up there is nobody to blame but yourself.  You can't blame the school; this is on your head.  How are your children possibly going to end up normal if you do something so weird?  How are they going to survive without [insert fabulous sounding thing that school has or does here].

As the years go by, and the kids grow up, and turn into fabulous human beings that you like and respect and admire, you begin to feel more confident.  I was an excellent student in school.  I worked hard and was very tense before tests.  I find great joy when my children learn lishma, for its own sake, and have no idea what it means to meaninglessly and temporarily cram information into their minds.  (That was probably Sarah's biggest academic adjustment to school, and she continues to feel its absurdity.)  I get a sense that these are people's lives I'm dealing with here, and their relationship to knowledge and learning and life and joy.  So all that social worry about keeping up with a false academic construct that I largely disagree with sort of fades into the background, and I feel more confident following our own academic path, and experimenting with different learning theories, and following the child's lead.

My last post sparked the question of am I planning to finish teaching the aleph beis before we begin chumash?  Or is the plan that he will pick it up as we go along?

Let me first explain the method I used to use for chumash.  This method, that I worked out myself, was already a somewhat radical departure from what most day school yeshivas do.  It took me a little while to feel confident in my methodology, and to feel secure that my child wouldn't be terribly "behind." 

We began with aleph beis.  I used flashcards for first print, then script.  When the child can read both Hebrew and English, we began R' Winder's series of Lashon Hatorah.  We do this for as many years as it takes until the child is comfortable dissecting prefixes and suffixes.  With Sarah, we started chumash in 4th grade.  With Chana, well into 3rd.  (This is as opposed to schools, who standardly start in 2nd grade.)  We did go through parsha pretty thoroughly up until then.  But I was nervous about starting chumash..**dramatic drumroll** one year late.  Obviously, once you get into the trenches of homeschooling, one year over the course of a lifetime of learning is no biggie, and often makes sense (see the three-years-ahead-rule).  But it was nervewracking.  It proved to make great logical sense, as we dove right in and translation was fairly simple.  But like I said, nervewracking.

I also go pasuk by pasuk, and have them translate every single pasuk.  We don't skip around.  We go straight from beginning to end.  We only do pshat, and rashis that are pshat oriented.   Very occasionally I will do a rashi that cites a midrash, and we ask the questions on it.  With Sarah we did chamisha chumshei torah by the end of 8th grade.  We had to rush because she wanted to go to high school.  I don't know if she got the bekius I would have liked, but I wanted her to have read every pasuk.

And now I'm about to get even more not mainstream.  It's not like I deliberately swim out of the stream.  Other things simply make more sense.

So here is how I envision our unschooling experiment playing out.  I may decide that I'm not willing to risk a lack of skills, or reality may wind up being very different than what I envision.  (If you would have asked me, the August before Chana went into first grade and Sarah went into 6th grade, I would have shown you a beautifully crafted spreadsheet of our weekly schedule which, it turned out, bore no similarity to what actually happened.)  Okay, rephrase: Here is how I currently envision our unschooling playing out:

I figure I will be teaching content on request.  I hear from other unschooled bachurim that eventually, closer to bar mitzva, he will likely become motivated to learn to read/daven and will then pick it up.  In the meantime, I hope that he will learn facts in the areas of chumash, rashi, halacha, mishna, etc.  Eventually, perhaps, he might be motivated to learn how to read and translate them inside.  I guess I'm a little foggy on how that will play out (I have high hopes for the artscroll app).  But for now, it seems like teaching him content without teaching him skills until he asks is perfectly adequate for a 5 year old.  So to answer, I will begin chumash before he can read Hebrew.  If I am assuming that reading Hebrew will take place between the age of 6 and 12, I am hoping that there will be significant enjoyable content that he will learn before he learns to read.

Monday, July 30, 2012

ben chamesh l'mikra

elazar asked me a few weeks back why i spoke to him in hebrew.  i took chana's chumash and opened it and asked him what language it is.  he said hebrew.  (he knows at least half of the aleph beis).  i said, "that's why i speak to you in hebrew! so you'll be able to understand the torah!"  and he got very excited and said, "i can understand the torah?" and i said, "i hope you'll be able to understand a lot of the words, and whatever you don't, we'll teach you."  that was the end of that and it went as well as i had hoped.  neither sarah nor chana was that excited that they would understand the torah, though they definitely appreciated that me speaking to them in hebrew would help.  i think that elazar seeing chana and me being "amelim b'torah" so to speak, poring over it for long stretches, made it appealing to him.  (i didn't learn as many hours with sarah, and chana didn't observe what sarah did as much as elazar observes what chana does.)  even jack heard my rabbi giving shiur over the phone last week and noticed he was speaking about aharon and that he mentioned rashi numerous times.  jack (age 2 1/2) got pretty excited hearing about rashi.

since elazar turned 5 twenty days ago, a remarkable transformation has occurred.  i am, as i often am, marvelously delighted with the deep insight of chazal.  as we were strolling outside, and elazar was walking next to me, i realized that he is mature enough to wear a kipah.  i said to him that i think it might be time to start wearing a kipah when he is outside, if he's up for that.  he knows his friends (homeschooling neighbors--yep, i hit the jackpot) wear yarmulkes, and his daddy does, and all grown up (male) jews that he knows.  he agreed, and he asked why do we wear yarmulkes.  did hashem say to?  i said, no, hashem did not tell us to.*  i vaguely remembered (hopefully accurately ;) that it's a minhag not to walk 4 amos without a headcovering to remind us that hashem is "above" us.  so i said that it is to help us remember that hashem is above us.  he got all excited, "hashem is in the SKY?" oops.  "nope.  um, higher."  "outer space?"  yes, classic, i know.  i still remember when we were in a plane soaring above the clouds and 5yo sarah turned to me and asked if we were going to see hashem.  i said, "when i said 'above us,' i meant more powerful than we are and in charge of us."  he likes powers and being the boss so that spoke to him.

anyway, in my usual unschooling/lazy/halfhearted-chinuch way, i let the matter drop.  elazar, though, came home and dug up his yarmulke that a family friend had bought him last year.  he brought it to my parents' house for shabbos.  he wore it outside at least half the time.  this morning he put a hat on before leaving the house to play.  when we were going out again, he remembered his hat and dashed in to get it.

i was pretty impressed that he was remembering and following through, and i said, "i think you might be ready to start learning torah."  he gave me such a gleeful grin.

well, folks, here it begins.  the grand unschooling experiment?  what will i do?  how will it go?  will i end up deciding that pushing the skills is more important?

i love his excitement and delight and anticipation.  is it realistic that this will be his attitude?  or does it make sense that he will have to put in some grunt work to acquire those skills?  (does the grunt work have to be painful?  i think about those rebbes that i hear about, who make learning the vocab and the translation enjoyable..)

how will i start?  what will i do?

he planned to go play some more and then start learning torah later this afternoon.  do i wait for him to ask? ("purist" unschooling)  do i suggest it when there is a quiet moment?  do i just read and translate it?  do i tell it as a story?  do i make any attempt whatsoever for teaching it to him so he'll remember it (ie review it with him)?

i'll do a little thinking, a little planning, and dive in and see where my intuition takes me.  i count on observing his reaction and then i make adjustments. 

i told him the story of dovid and goliath the other day (i told you, he likes the little guy having power, so i figured that would appeal, and it did) as a bedtime story.  the next day, we google imaged suits of armor and slingshots.

i guess he is ready.  i had planned on letting him play for another 2 years, and not start chinuch except very informally, following the dictates of the gemara (or 6 or 7).  but i see that his intellectual spark has ignited.  so here...we... gooooooooooooooooooo....

* note part of chinuch: distinction between d'oraisa, d'rabanan, and minhag.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Rashi: the movie

chana finished camp last week.  while she was in camp, we were doing chumash every friday and monday in the car to and from visiting my parents.  we would do chazara of one aliya, some new pesukim, and rashi.  this would take roughly an hour or more.  i found it pretty disjointed to do it so infrequently.  it was hard to remember what we had done last time.  but i wanted to keep up with the skills.

now we've slipped right back in to our routine.  today we began shvi'i of va'era.  chana was browsing the "on demand" options of the DVR, and she happened across the "shalom network."  that was pretty exciting.  even more exciting, she found a movie called "Rashi."  we decided to watch it the next day.

it turns out it was an animation movie based on R' Berel Wein's writings, giving a historical perspective.  chana, being extremely knowledgeable in animation, observed the art and how it was done.  we both enjoyed watching it together, pausing frequently for me to fill her in on historical details or for her to ask a question.  we started it after 10pm, and it was an hour.  i was tired but chana kept pushing for us to watch more. 

it was very special because she got a sense of why i emphasize rashi so much. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

going through a phase

I am blessed with a bunch of kids.   At any given moment, some are easy and some are giving me a run for my money and making me question everything I thought I knew about parenting.  As I keep reading on twitter: "Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children; now I have six children, and no theories." ~ John Wilmot

I have noticed, though, that every time a child gets into a "difficult" phase, it takes me a little while to realize it.  For years and years I was surprised every time it happened again.  They would stop tantruming and become more amenable for a while and I apparently had an idea that that was their new way of being.  Until it isn't anymore.

One thing about parenting for well over a decade is that these ebbs and flows aren't as surprising to me as they used to be.  I'm beginning to learn to enjoy the pleasant interludes and mentally roll up my sleeves and give that extra effort and attention when they are calling out for it.

Basically, I use the rule of thumb of: am I getting annoyed at this child on a regular basis or are the two of us getting into more conflict than usual.  If yes, that means we have exited "pleasant phase" and entered "needy phase."  (I usually don't catch it for the first week or two of "needy phase" and instead feel a general stress about my life or unconscious dread of interacting with that child until i realize what is going on.)  So the first rule of the game is to make sure I'm giving that child extra one-on-one attention.  More playful parenting, more conversation, more focused attention. 

I also use that time to think more deeply about this child's overall development.  What qualities am I seeing?  What would I like to see develop?  Am I pushing too hard?  Not enough?  Have I screwed up?  Is it time to tweak how I'm doing things?  What is this child's nature and am I providing the proper soil and environment for this particular nature?

Is it "just a phase?"  Will the kid outgrow it?  Maybe.  Sometimes you don't need to do anything and the time passes and they become more of a mentsch. 

But maybe this time of extra intensity, extra stubbornness, extra assertion-of-the-self-in-a-way-that-annoys-me needs that extra love and attention.  I think of it as a soothing balm that helps them navigate whatever conflicts they are working through.  It's never a bad idea to put some effort into reconnecting emotionally.  When I feel irritated, I take that as an indication it's time to put in that effort.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

the "three years ahead" rule

As you may or may not know, we've gravitated largely towards unschooling over the years.  That means we don't use workbooks.  I have a few lying around, and the children are free to pick them up and do them whenever they want, which they occasionally do.  I'm not sure if that justifies keeping them around using up valuable shelf space. 

A while ago I started using the "three years ahead" rule.  As I've mentioned before, when considering education, I don't think about weeks or months.  I think about years.  After all, if all goes well, you have years in homeschool, and you have the luxury to let things go for a while and in 6th grade you can wake up and realize your child has terrible penmanship and take a few months and, with his agreement that his handwriting is illegible and it might be useful to him if people can read a note he might want to leave for them, help him practice as a 12 year old with mature understanding and the ability to apply himself instead of having tortured his 1st grade, wiggly, wanting-to-play-in-the-dirt-instead self.  (Yeah, yeah learning to write incorrectly and it sticks in your brain that way and is hard to correct etc etc.  You are of course free to educate your children how you want.  That's why homeschooling is awesome.  Do it your way!)

So I was remembering from my childhood, how when I was in 4th grade, first grade workbooks were SO EASY.  And when I was in 6th grade, third grade workbooks were SO EASY.   And I believe for 12th graders, 8th grade workbooks are pretty easy.

This led me to a somewhat radical conclusion.  Why not just wait the three years, and let it be easy?  (Or better yet, wait the 10 years.)  If I just decided to wait until 6th grade to take a look at the 3rd grade curriculum, I would find, without having done anything at all, that my children already knew the majority, if not all, of it.  (This didn't quite apply to math, and for many years, I did not unschool math.  Now, however, I have been unschooling math for a year and a half.  I'll let you know how it goes.)  I'm mainly talking about Language Arts workbooks, reading comprehension workbooks, even Social Studies and Science workbooks.  (Although they might not learn the particular information in the Social Studies and Science books, they would have learned other science and other historical facts, about subjects that interested them.)

So this became my rule of thumb.  Anything that they would breeze through in three years, I wouldn't bother them with now.  Better to spend that time playing or doing whatever it is they are interested in doing.  Then, three years later, they can zip through it and it's SO EASY.  Or maybe they'll already know it.

You can afford it.  You'll still be teaching them in three years.  And it's much more efficient and pleasant.

Friday, June 29, 2012


so chana's been in camp for 2 days now (comments from all her fellow campers, practically universally: "wow, you're homeschooled?  that's so awesome! (pause)  do you have friends?").  i've actually missed doing chumash with her.  which got me started on thinking about the parts i dread vs the parts i miss.  why do i (sometimes) dread it and what do i miss about it?

i miss spending an hour+ with her, giving her my concentrated attention.  i miss hearing about all the little things she's thinking about.  i miss her perspective on a rashi that i think is pshat and she asks a penetrating question that makes me realize although rashi may superficially seem like pshat, it isn't quite.  i miss watching her zip through translation and see how far she's come in her skills.  i miss learning torah with my daughter.

i don't miss her frustration and her anger when she is having trouble translating it and i feel like she can do it and she yells at me that she CANT find the shoresh and then, oh, it's amad.
on the other hand, navigating these conflicts makes me a more patient person (i have seen tremendous progress in myself how i handle this with chana from all the practice i got with sarah ;) and it's great practice for both of us to engage in the art of de-escalating conflict.  looking back, in addition to the usual pre-teen conflicts, i can point to chumash as a solid block of time that went on for months where we both got frustrated and had to learn to back off and regroup and re-attempt to communicate and both have things to work on and compromise and change behaviors and still have frustration and do it all over again.

(which does make me think about unschooling and the tantalizing promise that there won't be so much conflict around learning torah, and isn't torah supposed to be pleasant?  or maybe skills are drudgery and this is the way it goes? **cue jessie whining about how she's not sure about unschooling benefits vs skilldrilling benefits**)

anyway, i'm going to try to do chumash in the car with chana on the way up to my parents today.

but about my navi project.  as is frequent in homeschooling, i had an idea and it took on a fantasy life of its own about how we'd do navi every night and she'd love it.  ok, stop laughing.  true unschooling would be where she'd be interested and i would facilitate her learning.  but there is also an element of unschooling where "v'dibarta bam b'shivtecha b'veisecha," torah is constantly on my mind and we talk about it.  i then go back to the pesach seder and i hear many of my rebbeim echoing in my head: a pesach seder doesn't just happen without the parent thinking a great deal about where the child is at and what type of learning they'd find interesting.  from the kids' perspective, interesting things are happening and then they ask questions and then learning naturally emerges.  but from the parents' end, you need to think about what sort of things will trigger the questions and what approach you want to take to answer those questions.

so back to Summer of Navi.  i'd like it to be that when chana remembers doing navi, it was Really Interesting.  (hehe, jane austen capitalization for emphasis.)

tip #1
ask a child if s/he wants to learn when it's past his or her bedtime.

chana babysat for us last night when we went out to dinner (yay summer date nights! i look forward to that all year).  part of the charm of babysitting is that she can stay awake until we get home.  so around 10:30, just when i was thinking of telling her to go to bed, i asked her if she wanted to do navi.  i figured it was late and she wouldn't want to.  but she said yes.

we chilled on the couch and did the story of ehud.  i gave her the background of shoftim (the cycle of sinning, enemy, calling out to hashem, shofet) and she immediately said that many of us are not keeping torah now but we don't have an enemy.  i said we are in galus and she countered by saying we have israel.  (i did not bring up the midrash "revach tasimu ben eder l'eder" as she's only 11.)
anyway, she enjoyed it and next up is yericho.

i think in unschooling, one of the things that is nervewracking is that the classical way of doing things is very regular.  you do it every day or every week or a few times a week.  you drill and drill.  you plug away, day in and day out, year after year.
and in unschooling, things happen more in bursts.  or there is a lot of fallow time and productive waves.  there is a sudden burst of interest and it's very exciting.  then nothing for days or weeks.  and then it's exciting again.  everything you pursue is fueled by your interest.  your motivation carries you into it and through it.

so perhaps i should not be surprised that navi is not happening regularly, and focus on it's enjoyability factor plus that there is genuine learning going on.

Monday, June 25, 2012

how much does a 5th/6th grader cover?

let's see, we started shmos on may 15.  we started va'era the day after she went to great adventure, june 19.  we did 36 rashis in shmos, that she can read, with nekudos, and with knowing the general meaning when she reads the hebrew (she doesn't 100% know all the words exactly).  so it was about 3 wks to learn shmos plus a week of chazara.

chana has been complaining a lot about rashi recently.  maybe i'm working her too hard.  it seems like she is capable, though.  she also mentions that she dislikes it.

as always, i wonder if i would get better results waiting until high school and taking only 3 years to build up the skills instead of 12.   i was having a minor bout of anxiety about not teaching her math.  and what if she goes through high school with NO MATH. 
(until i calmed down and realized she would a. have no math except for that which she needs to figure out her financial affairs, which is fairly extensive or b. she would learn math when she got interested.)

anyway, it's been busy and we have not done any more navi.  one of the things i worry about with unschooling, too.  though the summer has barely even begun.  no need to worry yet.  i would let at least a few years go by before worry is warranted.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

navi day 1

so today chana came home from a full day of work.  yup, she's working.  what else are homeschooled kids supposed to do?  we're going to the circus tomorrow so she can't work.  disappointing.  she was upset that she came home at 8:50, which was only 10 min til bedtime.  i told her she can stay up and chillax (heehee, i love that word) and i went out for a walk.  when i got home at 10, she told me she was going to sleep in a few minutes (we did double chumash yesterday when we found out she had an early call time this morning).  i asked her to say shemona esrei.  (by the way, in case you are wondering, she says the entire shemona esrei every night and has gotten fluent enough to say it in 6 minutes, which is the time it takes me to say it if i have kavana.  she still says it sitting down, and she still does not know what she is saying.)

then i decided it would be a great night to begin operation: navi.

so i asked her if she wanted a story from navi.  she was kind of reluctant, so i said, ok, never mind.  she decided she did want one. 

now one of the things that happens in chumash, and i wonder if it happens to all homeschoolers, is that when i officially sit down with my child and concentrate attention on her in the guise of doing schoolwork, she has extracted her attention from whatever it is she is doing all the rest of the day and suddenly realizes that she has my attention.  so she has many, many things to tell me.  all sorts of feelings and thoughts. 

sometimes i think that it is foolish to distract her from talking about what is in her heart for the secondary accomplishment of feeding her some information or skills, and that this blossoming of our relationship and of her communication is what homeschooling is all about.

anyway, on a night like tonight, when the littles are asleep and ari and sarah aren't home, and i have nothing to do but follow her lead, it's easy to do chumash or navi when she pauses, and for me to pause to hear what she has to say when she begins to talk.

i decided to start with ehud.  to do that i gave a little background of shoftim.  as i anticipated, she didn't know who was in charge after moshe.  she guessed his son? (she was quite surprised that it wasn't.) aharon?  she didn't know yehoshua (we are still in the beginning of shmos).

so i opened to ehud and said that eglon conquered yericho.  then i realized she didn't know the story of yericho.  we will perhaps do that next.  and she said her mind kept wandering.  which is how she gets when she's very tired and we try to learn.  we talked about his withered hand.  i wondered about google imaging it, but i figured that would probably be uncomfortable.  (actually, i just did and there aren't any good images.  ah, there we go: hand disfigurement.  maybe i'll show her tomorrow if she seems interested.)  her mind kept wandering.  so i said, ok, we'll pick it up tomorrow.  his withered hand is important to the story.  that got her all excited and she started begging.

a long time ago i read a chinuch newsletter, and the author quoted a gadol who said, "you should stop learning five minutes before the child is done."  i thought that was very deep.  because you want to leave the child wanting more, not leave the child wishing it was over and that s/he wanted to stop 5 minutes ago.  but it's tricky--how do you know before the child is finished?  it's something to think about.

anyway, begging for more is definitely an ideal way to stop, because it leaves her eager for the next time.  i didn't give in, and hopefully she'll be excited next time.

so in summary, i picked a story that i remember positively from my elementary school days.  i started at a time when i was extremely relaxed and had absolutely nothing else going on.  i went in with zero agenda except that she enjoy herself.  i stopped fairly quickly.  i think she enjoyed it and is excited for more. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

summer plans and navi

chumash is chugging along.  chana is planning to go to daycamp this summer.  she'd like to go to sleepaway camp, but it's expensive.  perhaps if she ends up being homeschooled for high school, we'll send her to sleepaway camp.  i know a lot of homeschoolers (myself included ;) get a little itchy about the socialization question.  but i can tell you, it's not the ability to socialize that is a problem.  and it's not the opportunity to socialize.  what does become problematic is 1. close intimate friends and 2. a large social group. 

as 6th grade approaches, there are a lot of social/physical/emotional changes going on for girls (and presumably for boys, but i have no idea yet).  girls who were friends for years switch allegiances and interests. 

i'm hoping chana will meet some local girls this summer.  she's old enough to walk to their houses by herself on shabbos.  it will be luck of the draw if she clicks with any girls and becomes close friends with them.  both she and sarah went to local daycamp at various points.  they had absolutely no trouble integrating, socializing, and making friends.  but they never clicked with anyone enough to keep the relationship going.

anyway, in past summers when chana chose not to go to camp, we kept our schedule the same as during the rest of the year, including chumash.  but she will probably not have enough time to devote to chumash.  though i would not like to drop it completely.  i have to figure out how to do chumash over the summer.

but a project i would really like to pick up is navi.  i really think chana would enjoy it.  however, i tried getting the little midrash says and it was both too difficult and too boring for her.  she didn't enjoy reading it.  i think she needs it to be more personalized.  i need to tell the story on exactly her level, and choose which stories to tell. 

this is going to take some preparation.  you may or may not know that i'm not a "prep" type homeschooler.  i sit down and whatever happens, happens.  but i think regarding navi, like the pesach seder, a little thought about

- where my child is at
- what approach would be enjoyable
- what specifically i'm going to teach and how

will go a long way.  i particularly would like to attempt an "unschooling" approach here, as a prototype for the future with the boys.  i don't have to worry about skills, because chana is getting skills via chumash.  i just want to make this really enjoyable.  i want her to love it.  i wonder if i'll be able to do that.  i'm imagining that i've been hired to teach a course.  that the child will remember and love for the rest of her life.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

the day has come

surely most days will not be like this.  but this morning, chana is going to see a show with her bubby.  so last night we agreed that chumash would be 10am.  she woke up early so she would have time to do what she likes to do before chumash.  at 9:55, of her own volition, she went to eat so she wouldn't be hungry for chumash.  then we started.

we started with chazara.  we have been doing chazara of one aliya per day, plus chazara of some of the pesukim of the aliyah we are in the middle of.  naturally, as we were about to get started, aharon woke up.  i told chana to please do the aliyah on her own.  she is at the point where she mostly knows it and felt comfortable running through it by herself!

then, even better, i told her to please review the rashis by reading them in hebrew aloud if she feels comfortable.  since she is at the point where if she doesn't know each word, but she overall knows the meaning of the rashi, that's good enough, she felt comfortable doing that for all but the more recent rashis.

when i came down, she was just finishing up.  then we reviewed the new rashis and did a little review of the end of shishi, and she whizzed through the rest of the pesukim til the end of the aliyah.  granted, these were pretty easy pesukim.  but she did them all with almost no help. 

it's really nice to see how much she's grown in her skills.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

on homeschool tantrums

An example of why talking to other people is so important.  I dropped by a friend's house on Shabbos.  While I was there, I took the opportunity to ask her husband his thoughts on a question Chana had on Rashi.  In the course of conversation, he asked if Chana enjoys learning.  I paused.  She enjoys the thinking, she enjoys the questions, she enjoys parts of it.  But overall?  I don't think she enjoys it.  I think she finds it something to get through, something she dislikes.  Something she tolerates.  That gave him pause.  He told me about his son, who is in school, who really enjoys gaining the skills.  His son doesn't find it painful to acquire the chumash skills.  He is enjoying it.  Is it his son's nature?  No, he thought that the Rebbes make it fun for the kids.  He suggested two possible and related reasons.  1.  These Rebbes focus all of their educational energy on imparting skills.  It is their craft.  They hone this ability and their main goal is to make learning skills pleasant and achievable.  Whereas I am trying to do a whole bunch of things, one of which is teaching skills, and that is only a small subsection of my concept of "learning."  2. These Rebbes are EXCITED about teaching skills.  They love it.  They look forward to it.  They enjoy it.  They think it is wonderful.  They live for it.  Whereas I... I dread it.  I view it as a necessary evil.  Something to get through in order to get to the real "meat and potatoes" of learning.  Obviously, this attitude gets transferred to Chana.

This gave me plenty to think about (in addition to the last few weeks, as I have been ruminating about the boys' future chinuch).  I often find that having a conversation with someone can really open my mind to a whole new angle.

But homeschoolers, let's admit.  Our kids tantrum more than kids at school tantrum.  I rarely hear about an elementary aged child who tantrums about work in school.  The combination of social embarrassment, peer pressure, and being used to doing things they dislike make it an unusual occurrence.  Whereas homeschoolers are quite vocal about work they don't want to do.  If it's painful and they don't see the benefit, they will complain.  Loudly.  Often.  Since you are the mom, and a safe person, it can and does degenerate into tantrums (youtube: don music sesame street).  There are no peers around to cause embarrassment.  As a student, your opinion about the work you are doing is taken into consideration.

Supposedly unschooling eliminates most of that.  Though it still petrifies me to throw myself into that route.  However, I have a lot to think about regarding making skills work exciting and fun.  And thoughts are crystallizing..

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

why are we doing so much rashi?

we had the nice experience of doing the rashi on "call him and he'll eat bread," as a reference to marriage, and chana remembered the rashi about potifar putting yosef in charge of everything except his "bread."
it's nice when she remembers an old rashi and makes a connection.

chana also got overloaded in the middle of the rashis and started complaining.  she asked why we are doing rashis that are obvious from the pshat.  i started to answer her, then stopped.  then she said, a bit rudely, 'you won't even answer me.'  and i thought to myself that it is my opinion that what i teach should be defensible.  meaning i should be able to lucidly explain to my 10yo why we are learning something.  and if i can't, maybe i should rethink it.

i said, "i want you to have a lot of practice reading and translating rashi, so i pick ones that have easy meanings so that we can work on you getting better and reading and translating."  and she muttered some more about how she doesn't want to learn to read rashi.  and i said it's for future in case she will want rashi skills.

i've been ruminating a lot about love of learning.  i'm still ruminating.  i love homeschooling because there is so much time for rumination about how you want to run things, and so little red tape for change if you think it's called for.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Unschooling and Limudei Kodesh (Judaic studies)

My son is 4, almost 5.  He is perfectly happily being creative with markers and scissors and has been for the last few weeks.  He's working on his English letters.  He had been interested in the aleph beis for a while, but his attention turned.  I began to think, what would happen if I let him unschool everything, completely?  (I've been wondering this for a while ;)

From the two unschooled yeshiva bachurim I've spoken to, as boys approach their bar mitzvas, they begin to show an interest in learning to read Hebrew.  So theoretically, he will eventually learn to read.  I feel fairly comfortable that my husband will be able to tantalize my boys with some learning, so they will probably pick up halacha and some mishna and eventually gemara.  (And I'm very excited about the Artscroll gemara app... My husband and I were discussing how we are planning to handle learning on Shabbos for the years they are reliant on the app until they [hopefully] gain skills.. but I'm getting ahead of myself, as I sometimes do when I think about homeschooling).

But I was thinking about how Chazal say that when a child learns to speak, you teach him Shema (or maybe I read that in the Mishna Berura?).  Or when he is 5, he starts chumash (or 6 or 7), or when he is 10 mishna (That's a mishna in Pirkei Avos, at the end of chapter 5).  This is not the unschooling spirit.  And although unschooling speaks to me as an educational philosophy, I also respect Chazal's understanding of human nature and when a person is capable of making certain cognitive steps, the kind required for each different type of learning.  While I feel comfortable that unschooling would not be in contradiction with my husband's obligation to teach his sons or make sure they are taught, I wonder about approaching chinuch differently than Chazal recommend.

I have been thinking a lot about this point.  My thoughts make me nervous.  I hesitate.

I just took a break before I write down my thoughts to do some more procrastination, because I'm afraid to flesh this out research.  I was looking for the statement that when the child learns to speak, you teach them to say shema and "Torah tziva lanu Moshe."  Ah, Rambam, Hil. Talmud Torah 1:6: From when is his father obligated to teach him Torah? When he begins to speak, he teaches him *Torah tziva lanu Moshe* (Moshe commanded us the Law, an inheritance of the congregation of Yaakov) and *Shma Yisrael* and then he teaches him a few verses until he is 6 or 7, all according to his ability. Then he brings him to a teacher. 

This is probably from the gemara, then.  Because I was perusing some of the Rambam's halachos (2:2-3)
ב  מכניסין את התינוקות להתלמד כבן שש כבן שבע, לפי כוח הבן ובניין גופו; ופחות מבן שש, אין מכניסין אותו.  ומכה אותן המלמד, להטיל עליהן אימה.  ואינו מכה אותן מכת אויב, מוסר אכזרי; לפיכך לא יכה אותן בשוטים ולא במקלות, אלא ברצועה קטנה.
ג  ויושב ומלמדן כל היום כולו, ומקצת מן הלילה--כדי לחנכן ללמוד ביום, ובלילה.  ולא ייבטלו התינוקות כלל, חוץ מערבי שבתות וערבי ימים טובים בסוף היום, ובימים טובים; אבל בשבת, אין קורין לכתחילה, אבל שונין לראשון.  ואין מבטלין התינוקות, ואפילו לבניין בית המקדש.

You bring the children (lit. "babies) to be taught at around age 6 or 7, according to the strength of the child and his physical constitution, and under age 6, you don't bring him.  (Then there is some advice as to what type of corporal punishment should and shouldn't be used.)
And he sits and they are taught all the entire day, and some of the night--in order to teach them to learn during the day and the night.  And they shouldn't take off (lit. "be mevatel" i.e., waste or make idle) except for erev Shabbos and erev yom tov at the end of the day, and on yom tov; but on Shabbos (*i'm not sure of the translation of exactly what the children learn on Shabbos--pls help).. and you don't give the children off, not even to build the Beis Hamikdash.

Strong words, and they seem to be seriously against unschooling.  The sheer number of hours for a 6 or 7 year old child is daunting.  When do they play?  When do they be children?  (Note, though, how old these children are when they start school!  Presumably they have been running around and playing until age 6 or 7, which is basically unheard of in today's school system.)

So this gave me some hesitation.  And then I found the gemara that this is based on (I took this from a fascinating article on Jewish Sudbury Valley School  (Democratic School) by Rachel Cohen Yeshurun):

Remember the name Yehoshua ben Gamla for praise. Were it not for him, the Torah would have been forgotten by Israel. It used to be that fathers would teach their children, and those children without fathers would not learn Torah. Schools were then set up in Jerusalem based on an interpretation of the verse: 'Torah comes from Zion and the word of G-d from Jerusalem'. But still, those with fathers would bring them up, and those without fathers would not go up. He enacted that local authorities should install teachers of children in every district and town and they should bring in children of ages six and seven to be taught by these teachers.

Rav said to Rav Shmuel Bar Shilat: Do not accept children until the age of six. Then stuff the child with Torah, as you would fatten an ox. If you hit a child for disciplinary purposes, hit him only with a shoelace. If he studies, he studies, if he does not, let him remain in the company of his friends. (Baba Batra 21a) To the words 'let him remain in the company of his friends" Rashi adds "and eventually he will pay attention to the lesson".

So it would seem that this method was enacted b'dieved, after father-to-son learning was no longer optimal.  Then there is the gemara in Avoda Zara 19a:  A person does not learn Torah except from the place his heart desires.  Rebbi finished teaching a Sefer to his son Shimon and to Levi. Levi wanted to learn Mishlei next, and Shimon wanted to learn Tehilim. They forced Levi to agree. As soon as Rebbi expounded "Ki Im b'Toras Hash-m Cheftzo" as above, Levi said 'you have given me permission to leave.'

So now that I have a few sources under my belt, let me attempt to formulate my opinion about unschooling from a Torah perspective.


There is the raging debate about how important skills are in a society that has google and wikipedia at its fingertips.  My personal opinion is that knowing facts is basically unnecessary, and if I were at a job interview and the interviewer asked me a fact question, I would whip out my smartphone (ok, I admit I don't have a smartphone) and look it up.  However, as a homeschooler, I have thus far made it a point to (pleasantly) drill the multiplication tables into my kids until they are fluent.  I feel similarly about skills (i.e., somewhat conflicted and contradictory ;).  I think, despite the plethora of translations, it is preferable for my kids if they are comfortable with the Hebrew (and Aramaic).  However, if I raise a generation of lamdanim who use a wide range of websites and translations while they excitedly look things up and think about and analyze chumash and gemara, I'm going to call that a win. (Stay tuned for my learning goals for the boys.)

Therefore, it is with hesitation, that I posit that maybe the recommendations of 5 for mikra, 10 for mishna, 15 for gemara refer to cognitive developmental phases (with some leeway, as the gemara says 6 or 7) and not to the age where they need to begin to acquire the skills necessary to read them (and I point out that gemara was written in the vernacular of the time).  So following those guidelines, we will plan to introduce those subjects at those ages.  However, it might be possible to not drill and not push the skills until the child is interested in acquiring those skills.  

(I fully respect that many people vociferously disagree and feel that imparting the skills is vital, and imparting them at a young age is vital.  This is a philosophical point of debate between unschoolers and other educators in general.  Remember, the beauty of homeschool is that YOU get to do what YOU want.)

Further, with the current technological availability of text and translation, it seems like more than ever we are not forced to spend hours focusing on that.  Just as before the printing press, MUCH focus and MANY hours were spent on memorization, and that has currently faded in importance (much to the dismay of those people who felt that memorization is good for the brain and that it is extremely useful to have large amounts of text memorized in the case of lack of availability, all of which I agree with in theory).  So, too, perhaps the hours and hours of drudgery that we spend learning to make a laining will become less in vogue as every school age child has the translation of torah and gemara at his or her fingertips.  And perhaps the skills that will be taught (as I maybe plan to teach my children) is to start with the sefer in pure original, and then use whatever resources at their disposal to understand it.

Again, translation is never as good as original.  And a person who is seriously involved in learning will need the skills.  I have noted before that the average yeshiva day school students spends 1st-12th grade banging his or her head against text, is frequently still unable to make a laining, and then goes to Israel for a year or two and learns skills there.  I say, unschool, have fun, skip the drudgery, and pick it up over the course of two years when you are older--IF you've been motivated to do so.  

Another issue that I wondered about is the Rambam's assertion that the children should learn the entire day and some of the night.  Maybe serious Torah study requires that many hours.  Is this really the standard for all children?  Even the less inclined??

He does give a reason: to teach them to learn in both day and night.  I think of the words of Shema, that certainly apply to unschooling: 

And you shall love Hashem your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart.  And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up.