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.

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