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.