Monday, May 27, 2013

jewish homeschool conference

This Shabbos we went to the orthodox Jewish homeschool conference.  This was the 5th year they had it, and the first year we went.  The trip took us 6.5 hours from NY (traffic on Memorial Day  weekend).

We stayed by a lovely family who did not know us, set up by a volunteer who did not know us.  For those people who are considering homeschooling or are about to embark on homeschooling, I strongly recommend going to the conference.  I've been homeschooling for 14 or so years, so I wasn't feeling a need for support for my decision, but it was lovely seeing so many orthodox jewish homeschoolers.  I didn't get to speak to nearly as many people as I would have liked to.  Each family has their own story, their own journey, their own thoughts.  And yet everyone has an allegiance to Torah.

Rebecca Masinter, the keynote speaker, was so inspiring.  Like I said, I've been homeschooling for a long time, so I wasn't expecting the rush of joy and delight that swept over me as I heard her speak. Everything she said about our values, our long term goals, our Torah, our children, I felt: "yes, yes, YES!"  I guess I don't meet a lot of people whose values and goals resonate so strongly with my own.  Her speech had humor, wonderful examples and stories from her family, and was so beautifully peppered with pesukim and meforshim that I want to look up myself.  (I should have taken notes, because I remember there was a Malbim, possibly on tehilim but maybe it was r' hirsch on tehillim and malbim on mishlei?  i should have taken notes! I haven't read the notes in the binder from the conference--maybe they are in there.)

Backtracking a little, we didn't make the Friday night oneg.  I would have really liked to meet the Coxes.  I noticed numerous Cox nametags behind the scenes all day, making sure tech things were running smoothly.  There seemed to be older kids, and it's always interesting to see older homeschoolers to see how the grand homeschool experiment turns out ;-)
We traveled with our whole family to the conference.  This is a tough choice.  It's tough to find babysitting for 5, 3, and 2 yo rambunctious boys.  On the other hand, although I'm mostly managing to stay afloat with the boys, I find it difficult to do just about anything else.  It's tough to speak to people (over the course of Shabbos) when we really need to give attention to the boys.  And over Shabbos, we had 3 travelworn, overtired boys.  One of them gets especially destructive when he's tired, one of them cries loudly for hours and hours, and one of them just has tantrums (that's the easiest to cope with).  We learned that we must bring Mr. Clean's magic eraser everywhere we go.  So the oneg Friday night was out, the park meetup was difficult (though still worthwhile and lovely), and my husband and daughter went to the shaleshudis while the rest of us went home for bedtime.  I met one person who brought her mother along for babysitting.  That's a great thing to do, if you can!  My 5yo did fantastically in the babysitting for the conference.  He had a great time playing and playing and playing with Jewish boys and counselors.  My 3 and 2 yo had it tougher.  There was a really long lunch break where they both fell asleep on my husband.  So that worked out well.  And my younger daughter did babysitting so they had a familiar face.  I commented on the irony that there is childcare at the conference, when most homeschooled children are not used to being away from their mommies at all.  It was wonderful that childcare was an option, and even with the littles coming upstairs numerous times for some mommy fix, it was marvelous.

I went to Rabbi Hayman's session about skills based torah shebaal peh.  I enjoyed it very much.  Unfortunately, he thought he had 40 minutes more than he actually had, so we didn't get to see the 2nd half of his planned presentation, where he was going to walk us through some samples of how his method works.
He made numerous good points.  He said that 70% of kids who come to Israel to learn post-high school from the U.S. can't make a leining (in a gemara or in chumash/mefarshim).  He said that for a long time, gemara was for the elite 10-15%.  He made an excellent point that the mishna in pirkei avos "5 yo to mikra, 10 for mishna, 15 for gemara" was stated over 100 years before the mishna was written down, and obviously 500yrs before the gemara was written down.  So what exactly kind of learning was supposed to go on at those ages?  He had a theory (4 stages: reading learning, review or repetition based learning, learning fact statements of tannaitic literature, and then shakla v'tarya conceptual thinking) and a method of teaching skills based on that.  He also had a CD where a student can self learn the tanaim and amoraim and their relationships and histories.  He also offered a 20 hour training course in how to teach gemara skills.  He got me thinking about how I might go about teaching my boys aramaic.  I was sorry that I didn't get to see him demonstrate it.  The books were available to peruse, but I couldn't see specifically the method of teaching the skills.

I found this one of the most valuable aspects of the conference.  Although I myself have decent skills and i'm an intuitive educator, many people feel very much at sea and very nervous about teaching Judaic studies skills.  To offer what basically amounts to a teacher's training program option is a wonderful thing.  Additionally, the vendor section (which was open during lunch) was extremely useful.  If you know me, you know I don't use workbooks.  But for those who would like a curriculum and guidance, there were a lot of options and things to look at.

I went to Yael Resnick's session.  She gave many useful examples of how to make learning part of life.  She introduced her "in the works" method for teaching ivrit.  She said she is looking for beta testers, which is a wonderful opportunity for people who are looking to try out a fun way to get their children to speak ivrit.
I've heard of her husband's website and it was great to see her in person.

Then we went to the moderated shmooze, which really only had time for everyone to introduce themselves.  I loved hearing about all the different situations.

After lunch, I got to hear Robin Alberg talking about mother meltdown.  I cracked up numerous times during her presentation.  I was happy to hear her make the important point about depression, and dark thoughts.  And to impress how strongly physical health should be a priority.  The second half of her speech was devoted to a discussion of practical solutions to the challenges that beset homeschool moms, like how to handle the laundry.  Frankly, I'm still not sure how she manages to do everything she does AND teach her kids.  But her main point was to keep searching and trying different things until you find what works for you.

We left after my presentation, and even leaving that early we got home after 10pm.

My speech was at the same time as Yael Aldrich's, and I was very sorry to not hear her speak.  She spoke about the classical model of education, which is very structured and a method that many homeschoolers use.  It calls for teaching topics 3 times, at a young age, at an intermediate age, and at a young adult age, all through a specific "classical" lens, spiraling out and increasing depth and understanding with each phase.  I hope to listen to it online and see how she explains how to do that with limudei kodesh.  She is warm and friendly, and currently lives in Japan, and immediately extended a generous invitation to send Chana there when I mentioned how fascinated Chana is with Japan.  Perhaps we can save up and send her in a few years time.  What a marvelous opportunity, to have my daughter go to a foreign country and know that there is a family to take care of her there!

I had a great time speaking.  This was the very first time I spoke about homeschooling or unschooling, and I simply did not have nearly enough time to make the points I wanted to make.  Afterwards, my mind was racing with all the things I wish I would have said.  (Luckily, I have a blog.)  I also did not have enough time for questions and answers, and I was feeling rushed and did not have the time to devote to properly and thoroughly answer the questions.  Also, I feel like I never really addressed the main issue: Is unschooling limudei kodesh an oxymoron?  Is having an agenda about what you want your child to learn (ie Torah) antithetical to the theory of unschooling, which is essentially letting go of a preconceived idea of what or how children should learn and instead see what emerges.


  1. It was great meeting you, and I'm sorry I didn't get to go hear your talk (I promised Yael, not knowing you guys were concurrent, but even so... classical is very close to my own heart!). I think I was nodding, laughing etc right along with you, with Rebecca Masinter and Robin Alberg, and indeed, Rabbi Hayman's take on learning Torah she b'al peh seemed fascinating. Perhaps our paths will cross again IRL; otherwise, I'll keep on blogging and checking out yours! :-)

  2. p.s. I spoke last year and everybody said it was good but I have no idea what I said or whether I stuck to my assigned topic or answered the questions I set out to answer ahead of time. I think we have to trust that just, speaking out of experience, the answers our listeners need will flow forth like nevuah. :-D

    (forgot also to mention that it was great seeing your family in action... you guys seem very "together" in so many great ways)