Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Torah Home Education Conference 2016

My alarm beeped at 4:45am and I dragged myself out of bed.  We drove down and it took us about 3 hours.

I always look forward to the keynote address, and this year did not disappoint.  Yehudis Eagle, a homeschooler with decades of experience, spoke with the humor, modesty, and strength that I have come to associate with Torah home education.  I was so busy soaking it in that I unfortunately didn't take notes.  One point I remember is how she stressed how vital it is to have your child's input when crafting his or her schedule or learning plan.  And another point she made is that homeschooling is not under what our Sages have termed being "poresh from the tzibbur," separating from the Jewish community.  We are part of the Jewish community and there are many ways to make sure that we and our children view ourselves as part of the community.  When discussing the conflict we often have of knowing whether or not our child has a learning disability and when to push forward and when to give it more time, she reassured us that we can tell when our children are having learning difficulties.  She encouraged us to ask around, to gather information, to find resources.  She suggested offering the difficult subject (example: handwriting) every 6 months to a year, and if there was still tremendous resistance, to try again in a year or so.

I then went to the first session.  Homeschooling Reality vs. Fantasy by Ilana Gimpelevich.  I was really excited to hear this, especially because Ilana is a dear friend of mine, and I faithfully follow her blog, Breathing Space.
I couldn't stop laughing.  Ilana kept showing slides of how we imagine homeschooling is going to go, which she then contrasted with a slide of homeschooling reality.  I have been guilty of most of those fantasies.  (Except keeping chickens.  The only person I know personally who ever kept chickens is not a homeschooler.  And I did hatch chickens ten years ago, not at my own behest, when I was teaching someone else's children and she set up everything in my house.)  She talked about buying that expensive curriculum, about how the children will behave and want to learn and appreciate all the effort and amazing trips we plan for them.  She talked with wry wit about learning to read and overscheduling and feeding everyone. (One of my favorite lines: "Because who doesn't want their children to use a solder?!") She explained why even though we are home with the children ALL DAY we can't be on top of them and their messes or clean as they go.  She talked about flow and disrupting our flow and their flow and how the children are using the space of their home.  It was a talk that new homeschoolers could really appreciate, as she laid out all of the different illusions that we have about homeschooling, and a talk that I, a veteran homeschooler, could really relate to, remembering how I used to feel and how I still fall into those traps.  She talked about the importance of filling our own tanks.

For the first part of her talk, Ari went to hear the vendor talking about Mishna and Gemara learning, Bonayich.  Since I'm hopeful that will be his domain.  He said the boys are still not up to that.  He felt that Elazar is just barely on the cusp, in 3rd grade, and Elazar in particular is a few years behind "grade level expectation."  So we are still in "anticipatory mode" as far as official chinuch of the boys at this time.

The session I didn't get to hear was Teach Your Child How to Read by Elana Shalumov.  My kids are already reading and I'm a veteran.  Reading is one of the scariest prospects for new and prospective homeschoolers (I always tell the story about how for years after I taught my now 20yo how to read, I would look at her and marvel: "She can read! She can really read!  The homeschooling worked!") so it was great to have that included.

The next session I went to was Tamara Zuckerman.  I didn't hear the session by Linda Kane about helping all children succeed, which I think emphasized special needs homeschooling.

Tamara Zuckerman is from Canada and has 7 children.  She explained the complexities involved in homeschooling lots of ages.  She talked about how the morning tefilos ground her and review the fundamentals.  She inspired me to be more on top of making tefila a family activity rather than a personal activity that I try to snatch for myself before I engage with the family.  She talked about how her kids eat after 10am every day, and how she transitioned from a berating mentality of "We are getting started so late/We are lazy/I can't believe we aren't getting things done" to an embracing acceptance of "This is what works for our family/we will eat together, enjoy each other's company, and plan our day every day at this time."  I was surprised to learn that this scarf wearing princess was actually the matriarch of and participant in a serious rock climbing family.  She talked about how she partnered the children with each other to work together so that she could work one on one with a different child.

Two things that struck me while she was speaking.  Number one: Her husband does all limudei kodesh.  She is Montessori trained and does the secular studies.  So she was juggling all the children and the housework and the feeding, but not the full dual curriculum that a lot of Jewish Orthodox homeschoolers are struggling with.  Second: There is a rock climbing place 3 blocks from her house that her older children can walk to unaccompanied.  That is also huge--having the ability for the older kids to get out of the house while she is with the littles.  I was thinking that it is possible that in nearly every homeschool situation, there is going to be some type of "luck" like that which can hopefully give some "revach," some type of unusual benefit that is unique to your homeschool situation.

One person asked during the q&a how to build some time for herself when she has a 5, 3, and 1yo (I'm sure I got the ages wrong) and she feels "done" by 2PM?  The insightful answer that Tamara Zuckerman gave is that the one who asked the question already knows the answer: she needs to build some quiet time into her day at 1:45PM.  Be it enforcing quiet time with the kids (hahahahahaha) or hiring a babysitter for a couple of hours.  (This fits in with the book I read over Shabbos, Essentialism by Greg McKeown, which I'll write about if I get to it.)

Then lunch, which gave us plenty of time to network and chat. This conference was less attended than on previous years.

After lunch was one of the highlights of the day, and actually both my daughter and son-in-law (whom I coaxed to the conference)'s favorite speaker, Rebecca Masinter. She spoke about the kodesh quandary: skills or love of learning? This is the point at which I actually started taking notes. She said that in a subject like math, it's okay to push the skills and your child will know them and if your child ends up disliking the subject and not looking at it again when they are grown up, then fine. That is not the case with Torah. We want them to feel connected to it and love it. But we also want them to have the skills. She suggested we keep both these priorities in mind and be aware that sometimes there is tension between the two priorities. She emphasized that there are actually many, many subjects in Torah and even if they are not the "standard" order or subjects, look to find a sefer or subject that your child will relate to, even if it is not what is normally done.
It is important to separate your insecurities from what your child needs, and to be able to tell the difference and to make decisions based on what your child needs, not because you are freaking out that they need to progress or cover more. She listed many techniques she has used (while warning us that it doesn't mean she necessarily does them often or regularly, just that she has found them good). Maybe your child wants to learn with friends, and you can make a class. Timelines, copy work from Mishlei or Tehilim or Pirkei Avos, look up quotes that come up from literature or just in day to day life that are from Tanach and show your kids that these quotes are from our Torah. Make the chumash and Tanach and siddur your children's friend. Teach from it, know it, use it, hold it, be comfortable with those seforim. For resistant learners, less is more--do fewer pesukim. Let them take their time. Write only 3 words a day. Use easier workbooks--let the workbooks reinforce what they already know, instead of having them struggle through them.

Connect your children to the community, connect them to a Rav. Let them call and visit the Rabbi with their shailas. She emphasized the parents' role in mesora as educator of our children. Even if we feel we don't have so much Torah knowledge, we are the parent and it is our role in mesorah to teach our children. Don't be afraid to embrace the role of teacher, don't feel you have to approach Torah as a peer to your child just because you don't know so much Torah. You are psychologically their teacher in the mesorah.

Overall, I came away with a lot of practical tips and a sense of comfort that I'm not alone in fretting about my children's chinuch, and a sense of encouragement that homeschool chinuch is valuable and important and doable.

I missed the sessions on transitioning from school to homeschool and an eclectic approach to homeschooling.

Next was the homeschool kids panel, which is just about my favorite part of the conference. We can ask the homeschoolers anything and have them answer. (Our main questions which we all dance around: Will we screw you up and will you be miserable and unhappy and uneducated if we decide to homeschool? and Do you have any friends?) It's always a treat to see how poised these kids are and to hear their thoughts on homeschooling. Some of the themes that were in the answers were how much the children enjoy having so much time to pursue their interests; how much the children enjoy having input in what they learn; how they find what they are learning either extremely practical or extremely interesting. As someone who has attended more than one conference, I found it extremely interesting to see how the children answer the questions differently as they grow and mature. I also like to see veteran children and children new to the homeschool conference answer questions about academics, socialization, their passions, and their emotional development.

question: What do you wish would be different about homeschool?
answer: There should be more homeschoolers.

question: Do you think that homeschooling has contributed to your middos and personal growth?
answer: I think it has nothing to do with homeschooling; it has to do with parenting... Well, I guess parents have a lot more hours to parent if you are homeschooling.

Then Yael Aldrich, our wonderful conference coordinator, reminded us that homeschooling was the original way of being and that the yeshiva system was created when people felt they were no longer equipped to teach their own children. She said our new way of doing things is actually going back to the old way of doing things.
It was great seeing friends I've made at previous conferences and actually kept in touch with, and nice speaking with new people.

I missed the raffles and closing speeches because it's a long drive back to NY. I'm still happily using the mug I won last year.

I'm a Jewish homeschooler.  What's your superpower?

Like in all homeschool things, let not the perfect be the enemy of the good. There is a lot I missed and a lot of great points and deep thoughts and words of encouragement. If you are thinking about Torah home education or are in the beginning stages, or are a veteran for many years, it's a great experience to meet likeminded homeschoolers who care about Torah education.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

to unschool or not to unschool

Chana came over to me yesterday: "Where's my graphing calculator?"

I dug it out and handed it to her.  (Fine, I told her exactly where to find it and she couldn't and then I went to exactly where I told her and handed it to her.)

Later I asked her, "Are you helping random online friends with their homework?"


She's willing to find her calculator and look things up online to either refresh her memory or to learn things in math she doesn't know.  Unschooling FTW

As Chana mentioned to me later, "I said, 'I don't know how to do that but hold on, I'll learn it and teach it to you.' "  This is the unschooling mentality.  This is why we don't worry about what they do or do not cover when young.  Because the concept is that when it is interesting or useful, it can be easily learned.

But I actually came here to discuss Jack (6).

Jack has been making great progress in his Hebrew reading.  When he asked for a tablet, in addition to paying for it himself, I traded that for the first few months of owning it, he would read Hebrew per hour that he played while he was paying it off.  When he finished paying it off, he was happy to stop reading.

He has been doing so well I was starting to fantasize about teaching him a curriculum.  R' Winder workbook, starting chumash, learning Torah everyday...
As these visions of sugarplums danced in my head, Jack, it turns out, does not want to pursue reading at this time.

He said he doesn't enjoy it and doesn't want to do it.

I was in a dilemma.  He sits and focuses really well.  I could probably induce him (despite Alfie Kohn's admonishments) and maybe he could achieve lots of skills and information.  I began to wonder, should I unschool him?  Or should I try to teach him?

Is unschooling a "bedieved" situation, where I truly prefer to teach a child if he is capable of sitting and focusing?  Or is unschooling an ideal, something wonderful that brings joy to learning and is fun and efficient?

Let me state here that I was never an unschooler by idealism.  I fell into it because Chana has an unusually anti-authoritarian personality and I learned more about unschooling as I realized that was the name for what we were doing.  I found many benefits and joys from it.  But generally it's a scary way to go and it felt risky in a lot of ways (though for her and Elazar, it actually felt riskier to take the more standard route.  As someone once said to me about Elazar when I mentioned he is ADHD, "You are so brave to homeschool!" And I replied, "Actually, I think it would take more bravery to send him to school").  So with a kid like Jack, who will flourish in homeschool because of his cautious personality, but would do very well sitting for hours a day and being taught, is unschooling an ideal?

Let me interrupt here to say that I've been writing this blog post all day.  At one point, driving Chana home from class, she asked me what I wrote about Jack.  I mentioned my dilemma about unschooling him or not unschooling him.

Chana was disturbed.  She said I am being unfair.  Unschooling is such an amazing and fun experience and I am depriving him of that just because he has the ability to sit and learn.

Even before my conversation with her, I had already decided to continue unschooling at this time.  The philosophy of unschooling maintains that there is no real need for Jack to labor over his Hebrew reading, because when he wants to do it, it will come quickly and easily for him.  (Or if not easily, he will be motivated to struggle through it.)  I am still, of course, petrified about Chumash and Gemara skills.  But time will tell.  I look forward to seeing how this plays out.

First do no harm

I've noticed a bit of a shift in my parenting attitude.  When my oldest cried, I was always trying to do what I could to stop the crying.  Crying was bad (or at least, it felt "bad" to me, and I think we are biologically programmed to react that way and that contributes to the preservation of the species) and I just wanted to make it "better."

I'm sure a lot of experiences and influences contributed to me viewing crying as opportunities to help my children exercise certain muscles.  Muscles like "accepting that things don't go as I want" or "feeling the full depth of my pain" or "experiencing pain while someone who loves me conveys to me that it is okay."

- I remember being petrified when pregnant with my second child that I just don't know how to cope with all that crying and realizing I don't have to try to stop the baby from crying, I can just hold her as she cries and that's okay and it will pass, be it in hours or when she finally gets old enough to talk.

- I remember grieving my mid-trimester pregnancy losses and seeing how grief was waves and waves of anguish, and I had to be kind to myself and allow myself to ride the waves of grief as they came, like the different cries of the shofar.  And I noticed my toddler also wailed like that and needed the same thing from me.  That people aren't allowed to be sad and they need to be allowed to be sad.

- I remember seeing my children stomping in anger and demanding things and me thinking, "This child is a spoiled brat."  And realizing that this is actually an opportunity for them to not get what they want and internalize the experience of being told No with kindness and patience and firmness.

And now when my children cry and I am fortunate to not be overloaded emotionally, mentally, or physically (hahahaha no seriously) then I can actually view these situations as parenting opportunities.  Just like I view conflict with my pre-adolescents and teens as opportunities to model and to practice relationship skills when I'm not too furious.

So Jack (6) has a middah (character trait) that I've noticed for a while that concerns me.  It came to my attention a couple of years ago with him getting fixated on a package of lollipops that I finally agreed to buy him for Succos but I bought it 3 days before and for those 3 days, he couldn't tolerate not having them.  He was young and couldn't think that he would get it soon (though this is the same kid who saved up money for over a year to buy a DS when he was 3).  He just got very focused on the unfairness of it and ("unfair" being a code word for "not what I want") and kept proclaiming that if I won't give him that, then he deserves something else, and he suggested various things.  This went on for days.  The fixation disturbed me, the incredible length of time disturbed me, and the notion that it will only be okay if something he deems of equal value is given to him disturbed me.

My latest parenting approach to these kinds of things can be described as: Chill out, see how it goes, try not to make it worse.  (I have unfortunately discovered that so many of my reactions simply do make things worse, and "First do no harm" keeps my hands full.)

So today when Elazar asked to go with the neighbors to the candy store, and Jack remembered that Elazar had gotten to go last time the neighbors took someone (they have room for one person), and Jack fixated on this, I realized it was a great opportunity to ride the wave of the fixation, to feel the pain, to not change the situation.  I was there for him, I was compassionate, I was firm that he wasn't going.  He shortly moved on to his coping mechanism, which is to suggest other things that he felt would satisfy him and would be equivalent.  Fine, so he should be able to buy a game for his tablet.  I said no.  Fine, so he gets my computer.  I didn't answer him the first few times because that's absurd.  But when he persisted I said no.  Fine, so he hit and kicked me.  I asked him if he wanted to wrestle.  I can't remember exactly how the morning played out.  But a few times he came back, upset about it, and we went through his disappointment, him trying to change things, me staying firm.  He's older now than a few years ago and his rational faculty is more developed; he doesn't get as stuck in his upset-ness as he used to from 2-5.  And he's out playing now.

I'm grateful to homeschooling that my first grader has this time to go through this emotional experience.  I'm not rushed and we don't have to be anywhere or do anything else.  Ten years ago it was stressful for me to choose emotional development over academic education.  I often worry about academic achievement. (Probably unnecessarily.  See how I can't even commit and I say "probably"?)  But this morning it is clear.

Monday, May 9, 2016

sometimes i really don't have the guts to unschool

Yesterday was busy and today was busy.  Yesterday I prioritized "me" time and went to a friend to watch a TV show and spent only 15 minutes reviewing one rashi and ramban inside, and one ramban outside.  And today it's almost 8pm and I decided to given Aharon a bath (for some reason I have a really hard time getting my kids to bathe.  In the winter it's not as urgent as now that it is spring and that darling little boy sweat from a hard day of playing has to be cleaned at the end of the day.  I have to really push them and actually run the tub and hunt them down and herd them in and bathe them separately so they don't get wild) and I'm tired.  So I don't know when Chana was planning to work with me today.  But Elazar and I got home from parkour at 1, then Chana went to school at 2:45 and came home at 4:30, and recuperated from that until 6:30 Japanese, and that's the end of the day.  I want to curl up in bed with a book, but there is bedtime to get through.  Jack is still running around outside with friends (yay, daylight savings time).

My anxiety about Chana not working every day is warring with the unschooling philosophy that she will pick it up again when she is interested.  And she will be excited to read and do Bio when she is missing it and wants to learn again.  And she will learn it more easily, more efficiently, and with greater energy and pleasure.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Reading on grade level

So this year (3rd grade) Elazar finally made that breakthrough in reading insofar as I felt comfortable that he joined the world of literacy.  But he was not interested in reading books.  Occasionally, on Shabbos, when it was bedtime and he was desperate, he would read a Dr. Seuss level book.  It didn't really seem that reading was seriously kicking in.  But he did read every day on the computer and seemed to be able to read whatever he wanted to.  So in terms of reading being practical and enjoyable for him, he was satisfied with his reading level.

The past few nights, he's been calling out in bed, "I'm up to page 32!"  "I'm up to page 56!"  I didn't realize he was able to read books that long.  Today he asked me to request a book on the back cover of the book he is reading, Franny K. Stein.  I looked up the reading level of that book.  It's 3.7.  Or grade 2-5.  So looks like he's on track.  I read that kids who are unschooled who learn to read later than the usual first grade do end up quickly reading on grade level.  Looks like that is the case here.  It was a few months from when he started reading sentences to when he started reading books, and eventually he picked up a book on grade level that interested him.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Seder 2016

How were the sedarim this year?  I don't have that much to tell.  It was neither a great year nor an awful year.

We were not home for the sedarim.  We were with family at family friends.  That meant that the seder did not go according to our schedule.

While we were waiting for the seder to start, I took a bag of marshmallows and one of the boys asked why I took out marshmallows.  That served as our "karpas," an activity which doesn't belong in the normal way of things that triggers a question.  And Ari began telling the story to all the children, and I tossed out marshmallows for questions and answers.  So the first night Ari got to tell the story even before the seder began.  Once the seder started, Elazar (8) played chess with his friend.  I think Aharon fell asleep peacefully on the couch (which was the best thing I could hope for, that he would go without a massive tantrum or crying beforehand or during).  Jack (6) sat next to me and focused and paid attention the entire seder.  He didn't know exactly what was going on but he was happy to keep the place in the hagada with me.  He fell asleep in his chair during Hallel.  I handed Elazar matza when he got hungry, had him wash and read the bracha of hamotzi and al achilas matza.  He at maror with the rest of us and ate a sandwich.

Probably the funniest part was when we did "matza zu she'anu ochlim al shum ma?" "This matza that we eat--why?" And I said, "Elazar, you know why we eat matza!"  Because the boys have all been asking why do we eat matza, why can't we eat chometz.  And Elazar said, "Because when the Jews left Mitzrayim, their dough was left in the bread machine overnight and it didn't rise..."

It was nice in the sense that the boys were all thinking about the seder the days after it.  They came in to snuggle in the morning and they all had questions about Pesach and the halachos and the story.  So it ended up being fodder for discussion, which is part of the goal of the experience, I think.

Now Chana (14).  I think she fell through the cracks a bit.  Ari thought that I was handling it and for some reason he never quite sat down with her to tell her the story either night.  Obviously, she knows the story already.  In fact, before she stopped going to Chumash class, she was studying that section so she probably would have had some interesting things to contribute.  I don't know if he felt that she already graduated into the people who already know the story.

We had discussed before the seder about the Sforno's approach about Pharoah actually gaining his free will by having his heart hardened enough to refuse to listen without fear of the consequences (as opposed to the classic Rambam approach that Hashem took away Pharoah's free will and didn't allow him to set the Jews free).  And the purchase of R' Baruch Chait's Hagaddah was a great choice for her because she was very intrigued by the drawings.  (That reminds me, I would like to get an explanation for the midrash that the jew and mitzri both drank from the same place and one drank water and one drank blood.)

She also had drawn a picture before the seder when I asked her to envision how the story would look in anime.  ("Where Moshe is the awkward hero that turns bada$$ with the help of Gd," she told me.  And Aharon is the sidekick.)

(Note that Pharoah's posture gives a pretty clear explanation of leaning at the seder!)

But other than that, she sat at the seder, pretty uninterested, mostly waiting for it to be over.  Every time I tried to engage her by asking her a question or making an observation, she looked at me like she didn't comprehend what I was saying.  She said her brain couldn't process what I was saying.  She had no energy to think about the story, to engage emotionally or mentally with the seder.  It was discouraging.

I vaguely remember 14 not being a great seder year for Sarah.  At 13 or 14, we talked about the story for as long as she could tolerate (maybe 10 minutes?) and then zipped through the entire hagaddah because she wanted it to be over.  So this was similar, minus the ten minutes of discussion.  Which was sad, because that would have been nice, but on the other hand, she had been engaged in the free will aspect and relating to it artistically leading up to that night.  And she did very much like the art in the hagaddah.

So I look forward to hopefully one day engaging with Chana mentally about the story, because I think there are so many aspects which could be interesting to her psychologically and theologically.  L'shana haba b'Yerushalayim!