I had an incredible time at the Jewish homeschooling conference. Until last year, I resisted going, because I'm happy with our homeschooling decision, happy with our homeschooling, and a veteran homeschooler.
But I forgot how much chizuk it brings me.
Caveat: The meager points that I remember are but a fraction of the fantastic things that were said.
It was great to see Yael Aldrich again. I only met her for the first time last year, but her positive energy and sense of humor is a delight to be around.
I really really loved last year's keynote speaker. It was an incredibly moving and inspiring experience for me to hear someone talk and agree with everything she said about hashkafa (worldview) and education! I was not disappointed this year, either. Nechama Cox was funny, real, and encouraging as she spoke about her homeschooling experience and about homeschooling in general. She had some great cartoons that enhanced her speech and had me laughing out loud. My favorite was the one where the child figured out fractions 2 minutes after the mother dropped dead from frustration/exhaustion. She talked about reasons people homeschool, about challenges, about camp, socialization, about having other people teaching our children.. She talked about being with our children during the best hours of the day, instead of rushing in the morning or exhausted in the evening. I thoroughly enjoyed it and soaked in inspiration and chizuk.
The first session I had a real conflict. I wanted to go hear R' Prero talk about chinuch. I like that the conference always makes an effort to have sessions that delve into the meat and potatoes of Judaic Studies. Many homeschoolers are intimidated by the chinuch aspect. I have three boys on deck for chinuch, so I very much wanted to hear that session. I heard afterwards that his session was excellent. However, I couldn't pass up the chance to hear Avivah Werner speak. She skyped in from Israel. And wow. I couldn't wait to learn from someone who has been homeschooling for that many years and has that many children. And it was wonderful. She spoke about how the image that people present (and that we feel intimidated by) is not truly what is going on in people's homes. She said when she has people at 8pm and her children are in bed and her house is neat, that is not the same thing as when you drop in unexpectedly and everyone is around and living their day. She spoke about expectations and how we hurt ourselves (and our children) with them. She amusingly told us about how she planned to have everything all organized and calm before this speech, and what actually ended up happening. She spoke about taking care of ourselves. She spoke about how when we feel resentful and say to our children, "You want this and you want that and I've been doing and doing and I haven't even had a chance to go to the bathroom or eat breakfast yet!" our children might say to us, "So Mommy, go to the bathroom and eat. Just be nice!" That they would rather have us take care of our needs and speak nicely to them, then sacrifice and ignore our needs to the point where we are grouchy and resentful. She also made many other wise, wonderful, and deep points.
The next session I chose not to hear Yael Resnick because I heard her speak last year. Marie Rosenthal spoke about Limudei Kodesh. She was also excellent and inspiring. (Do I keep saying inspiring?) She spoke about our first priority being to instill a love for Torah and mitzvos, to be proud to be a Jew and keep the Torah. Then she broke down chinuch into three categories: the love for being Jewish, the content of chinuch, and the skills of chinuch. And how we have to think through our goals of chinuch, and think through what content we want our children to have, and what are the best ways to do that. And what are our goals of skills, and what are the best ways to do that. She explained when looking at different curricula, how there are underlying hashkafos (chassidus vs litvak, midrashic vs pshat, what age to begin learning gemara, etc) that are all considered legitimate orthodox Jewish educational approaches, and how once you've thought through your goals, you will find it easier to go through all the different materials out there that can satisfy your personal family chinuch needs and goals. Marie is also a veteran homeschooler and her anecdotes were funny and educational. Then she opened the floor for questions, and I had my own opinions of answers, and I was extremely interested to hear how she answered the questions. She made the point that hiring a young 19 year old yeshiva bachur to tutor navi stories by acting them out with the kids via action figures is a lot cheaper than hiring a rebbe. One person said that her son loved mishna but wasn't enjoying Chumash. I would have been inclined to say so let him learn as much mishna as he wants. But she very intelligently told the woman to change the approach she was taking to Chumash so that her son would enjoy it more by making it more analytical and question oriented. It got me thinking about how both my girls really disliked Chumash and how perhaps I haven't been giving enough time to that enjoyable analytical approach. Another woman asked about her reluctant learner and should she push him or should she leave it alone. Again, I am inclined to suggest leaving it alone, but Marie suggested something that she called "skills 'lite,'" which means continue the curriculum but do it very very slowly. So you are covering about half or even less than you intended. So it is not overwhelming but there is still forward progress. Her answers gave me a lot of food for thought.
After lunch was the teen panel. We (Sarah and I) went to the conference mainly because Sarah was on the teen panel. Also on the teen panel were two of Nechama Cox's children (she was the keynote speaker), her 12th grade son and 8th grade daughter. And Yehudis Eagle's 6th grader. I was blown away by the panel. True, my daughter was one of them, so I am biased. But I was completely charmed by the other panelists as well. They were poised. They were intelligent. They were amusing. They were everything you hope your children will become when you decide to homeschool. I loved how each one answered the questions differently. It was particularly fascinating to hear how the two Cox siblings answered the same questions differently. When he spoke of sleepaway camp, he mentioned that he had to adjust to the oddity of a lot of rules designed for keeping tabs on people. His sister spoke about how wonderful it was for making friends and how much she looks forward to it. The funniest question to me was when someone asked the teens if there was anything they wished their parents had done differently, when I (personally) realized they were asking: was there anything your parents did that was so egregious that they screwed up so badly that you thought it was a horrible idea and had a really difficult time recovering from it? I think we homeschooling parents are so petrified of the responsibility, we want to know if our grown children will be able to recover from our mistakes (I think the answer was that you don't have to worry so much!). Another question was: Since your parents are special people, wouldn't you have basically turned out the same if you hadn't been homeschooled? I think Toyam Cox eloquently answered that the sheer amount of hours spent with his parents, soaking in and learning from their special qualities, cannot be underestimated.
In the homeschooling husband's perspective (which I snuck into), some important points were: If you don't fully agree with the homeschooling decision, and a problem or an issue comes up, it's not a solution to say, "So send them to school." Try to brainstorm within the framework of the decision you made to give it a chance, or you are constantly undermining it. Another point: when your husband walks in from a long day at work is not the time to pounce on him with all your stresses and complaints. Yael Aldrich's husband told about how when he was in charge of making Shabbos and having all the kids and homeschooling while his wife was away, he got a much clearer understanding of what she was coping with. Also discussed was the breakdown of responsibilities in the household, childcare, teaching, and housework, and how to manage participating in their children's education when they have full time jobs. I wish my husband would have been there, since I think he has a lot to contribute to these discussions. The panelists were excellent and it was great to hear their perspectives, as well as to hear from many fathers in the room. I don't often get to hear what men think about homeschooling.
I didn't go to the sessions on preschool homeschooling, or special educatation, or technology, or workbox education. I particularly regret missing Yehudis Eagle's speech, especially as I have a middle schooler, but mostly because I want to hear anything she has to say since she has such vast experience and perspective.
The experts panel was also wonderful. I think for me the most impactful point that was made there was when someone asked how long the academic part of the school day takes. The most structured and academically intense option was... for 12th grade: four hours (!!!). Everyone agreed that a first grader can easily get through all the work in maximum 1.5 hours.