Thursday, August 30, 2012

the ups and downs

We had our siyum in Cupz and Cake. When I got up, both boys were dressed, and sitting quietly on the couch, reading, ready to go. The breakfast went well, till we got to the decadent desserts, which made everyone a bit too hyper and proved to be a bit too rich to finish.

8 yo wrote Rosh HaShana cards. He wrote on one card the whole "Leshana Tova..." in Hebrew, out of his own free will. When it came time to address the envelopes, it took him four tries to get it right. I am not talking perfection, I am talking that the post office would actually deliver the letter: on the right side, with the right amount of lines, legible, in the middle of the envelope. He did two today, I wonder if he will do more tomorrow or later. I wonder how many adults would give up after the first try. Or, maybe, not try at all.

6 yo cracked his first chapter book. It was Captain Underpants. I cringe. I cannot believe this book is in our house. I cannot believe that out of all other great books we have (Magic Tree House, abridged classics, etc), THIS is what he is interested in reading. But I think that it is written lightly, with 6 yo boy humor, and he occasionally stops to tell me a joke. He is comprehending and talking about what he is reading. Just before I am ready to shrug my shoulders, I see that he put it down and switched over to Artscroll's Children's Book of Yonah. Now I have no objections, and he is equally engaged.

8 yo cannot figure out a basic addition problem in math. I am at my wits' end. We finished the review of basic addition/subtraction. He understands everything he has to do, but he has no sense that the answer to "something minus seven is three" cannot be "four". I pull out an abacus to show him what it means. He tells me that he is embarrassed, but I do not see comprehension. I doubt myself. I doubt my approach to math. I wonder whether he just does not have number sense, whether all the math he does happens mindlessly, mechanically. I am worried that he will end up like most Americans, with so many years of math schooling, and no conception of what it all means. But then he sits down and designs a perfect paper airplane, with smooth, straight, far flight, and perfect balance. Then he tells me that he wants to learn how to design computer ads. Then he knows exactly who Neil Armstrong was. Then he spends the afternoon reading his history book. Then I see that there is nothing to despair over.

6yo screams about mental math problems. He has to count till seven, I know he knows how to count till seven. He believes that he can't. He threw his pencil, he got his pencil, he is writhing on the floor. I am calm. I am not calm any more. I tell him to go outside and cool off. He throws his pencil again. I tell him he lost his dessert. He finishes his mental problems. He melts down over trying to draw fish to illustrate one of the problems. The fish look like circles with squiggly tails. I can tell that he gave up on the fish. He eerily knows exactly how to illustrate all the problems, only they all have abstract circles in different groupings. I think of my husband, who claims that he cannot draw. I think about my father, he claimed the same thing. I think how yesterday 6 yo declared his 2 yo sister to be a great artist, based on her expressive doodles. I think how 2 yo has no problem doodling anything she wants, and then declaring that this is a house, and this is a person, and there is some green over there, all stripey.

After all the schoolwork is done, 6 yo enters the kitchen:
"Mommy, you are making me do all this work which wastes time!"
"What is it that you want to do?"
"I want to have time to play!"

After this, he proceeded to read Captain Underpants.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

10 tests of Avraham

I thought that asking 10 yo come up with his own list of 10 tests of Avraham would be a nice wrap-up of the parsha, and would force him to go back and review without me having much input. Well, while the research and the thought process was quite independent, the project was not. He asked if he can use printer paper--we usually recycle our project paper by using the other side of already printed pages or junk mail. I said, yes, figuring that he is motivated to produce neat project. His first step was to fold all the pages in half, like a book and then staple them like this:
In his defense, we have a mini-stapler which does not reach across a folded page, and it is a creative solution. My perfectionist side cringes deep inside. I always liked to use a ruler to draw a faint line, then trace the letters in pencil, then go over with the marker, then erase all pencil marks... This child is obviously more into substance than beauty.

Next, he started illustrating the tests. I told him they have to be in the chronological order, and that he has to list a source for each. He deadpanned that some are from the midrash, so there is no pasuk. Fair enough. However, he was recreating his list from memory, and by fourth page he realized that he skipped one. Now he was looking for the list he wrote yesterday. He could not find it. I reminded how putting everything away in its proper place helps. he still could not find it. I told him to check his notebook. Sure enough, he wrote the list inside, just did not remember. Now he had to fix his anachronistic test. He took a piece of paper and taped it over the wrong page. The feel of the book was no longer neat, but it did satisfy basic requirements. 

Next came listing the pesukim. He did find all the pesukim that he was illustrating, but, after writing out the first one, he settled for an abbreviation: pasuk's number, perek's number, parsha's number, sefer's number. This way, Akeidat Yitzhak became tet-cav bet-dalet-aleph. I am sure there is a job in cryptography waiting for him somewhere.

The real kicker came when he realized that he needs to illustrate the brit mila (circumcision). He threw his hands up in the air and said: What is it that I am supposed to draw? Avraham's (private parts)? His brother suggested drawing Avraham in a diaper; they have been to their share of circumcisions. 8 yo responded that Avraham was too old to be in a diaper. I held my breath, wondering what he will come up with. This is the result:
Very frum and proper, as you can see.

This reminded of an old joke: a guy needs to have his shoes fixed, so he sees a boot painted on the storefront and walks in. The owner says: I am not a shoemaker, I am a mohel. The guys asks, then why is there a shoe hanging on the sign? The owner responds, and what was I supposed to paint on the sign?

Now that the project is complete, I am looking at it and thinking: did it accomplish the goal I had in mind? Did he work independently? Yes. Did he review the perakim? Yes. Did he think back about these two parshiyot? Yes. So, despite it not being museum-quality, it fulfilled all educational objectives. And it was quite creative and resourceful.

I will end by directing you to this TED talk, on the subject of schools and creativity (thanks to my friend for bringing it to my attention):

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Chazak chazak venitchazek!

Today we finished Vayeira with 8 yo. That was not trivial, as it was 7 pesukim, but he wanted to do it. We even squeezed in one relevant Rashi. He drew Rivkah's family tree out of his own free will. He also surprised me by knowing what a concubine is. He asked about Pey separating two pesukim. For his final wrap-up project, I told him to make a poster or a book of the 10 trials of Avraham. I told him that there are different opinions as to what those trials were, so he can make his own list. He went right to it, the prospect of siyum at Krispy Kreme leading the way. I am not sure why Krispy Kreme produces such intense feelings of happiness, but in our house, with this particular child, it works like a magic pill.

6 yo asked when he will start on chumash. I will have to think about this one. Ideally, I would like to wait another year at least. The pros are: he will finish some Lashon HaTorah and be more familiar with the language structure, making it easier to break words apart. He will also accumulate more vocabulary, so there will be more familiar words in every pasuk. He will also (hopefully) mature some, and will be less likely to hurl a notebook or a chumash across the room when frustrated. Also, his writing skills will improve, so he will be able to write down new words and translations. The cons: he is excited about it now, and might not be so excited when the skills will catch up. He might get an idea that chumash is something to do much later, when he is much older, and he will feel that he is still not old enough to do it. I have to think about all these factors...and I also have to consider how much time I can spend with each kid doing chumash. I find it to be an intense one-on-one experience. So far, I managed to wing it without too much prep, but that will not always be so. I much rather wait for chumash to be about learning the pesukim and the meaning instead of fighting about it. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of days when chumash does not go well, 8 yo does not want to do it, and it is a heavy experience that we just do. However, I fell that overall, we have more pleasant experiences than negative ones, and he does get excited about discovering new twists in the story, translations leaping out, asking Rashi's questions and drawing his connections.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

100th post!

When I tentatively decided to blog about our homeschooling journey, I had no idea how long I will keep at it. I did not know if it will flop. I did not know whether it will be helpful or informative. I did not know whether it will provide for me a much-needed breathing space, vent board or reflective time.

What I took away from blogging was all of the above and much more.

100th post feels like a good occasion to reflect on where we have been and to set direction on where we are going. I started out, scared to teach my own 2nd grader, unsure of how it will work out, feeling that I need to do better than what he was getting in school. I felt that he was constantly told what to do and not to do, shunted from one thing to another, hurried along, and stifled. He was not miserable, but he was unhappy. I was unhappily parenting him, butting heads over bedtime and lunch and homework and another thing to clean up right now. Most of all, I felt that at the ripe old age of 7, he had no life. He had no time to engage in what was interesting him. He had no time to try out new things. He was not given time to figure things out on his own.

Now, I have had all three kids at home, continuously, for almost 7 months (except for one week of camp and one week of Israel). Today, looking at all of them, I can say that I feel that I made the right decision to homeschool all three.

By the child:

  • 8yo expresses many more emotions than he used to, including the negative ones. The beauty of it is that now we can talk about them, and he is learning how to deal with them. Consequently, even though he is more likely to get angry, he is also more likely to express affection. He is pursuing independent geography and history study, since these are the subjects that interest him. He helps around the house much more, and is taking on more and more responsibility. His horizons widened beyond his former circle of classmates.
  • 6 yo gets a ton of time to play his imagination games, run off his energy, and not be confined to a desk. He works in spurts, but now he can see the results of his work. He can still be very intense, but I know that his intensity is equally channeled to the good and to the bad. He is very kind, supportive and protective of his siblings. He will get all necessary skills at the right time, on his schedule. He takes his chores and responsibilities very seriously.
  • 2 yo is quite verbal, due to constant chatter with her brothers. While I do not formally teach her anything, she is very curious and picks up material which was not even meant for her. She asks a lot of "whys" and listens to the answers. She plays pretend and gets along with kids of all ages. She picked up some Hebrew words, some English letters and some numbers. She knows Al Netilat Yadaim by heart, the first paragraph of bentching, and some Shema. She knows her colors. She taught herself to cut and loves to color, doodle, and glue. She is into everything that her brothers are into. 

What I am giving them all is time and place to grow at their own rates, make mistakes in a forgiving environment, awaken their interests and passions, figure out their strengths and weaknesses. Homeschooling allows a child to discover themselves, and for the parent to see the many sides of their child. I do not think that my kids are brilliant, or disabled, or very different from an average child. I do not think that I am a parent who is somehow exceptional in any way. The only difference is that I try to hyperventilate about this grand experiment that I am performing quietly, that my kids would not be aware.

Therefore, for my goals, I plan on focusing what works:

  • focusing on crucial skills and not on knowledge
  • offering choices whenever possible ( the ones I can live with)
  • not sweating the small stuff
  • letting go of expectations
  • encouraging personal interests
  • allowing independence
  • building in lots of time
  • looking at the big picture

Here is to the next 100 posts and to another successful year!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

dinner is served

the meal
For a long time, I have been trying to get kids more into the kitchen and food prep. They help occasionally, they mix and pour, they set the table and clean up, they unload the dishwasher, but, somehow, this was not adding up to a coherent whole, namely, what it takes to prepare a meal. After 8 yo wrote out his ambitious cooking goal, and after one time too many when he refused to eat leftovers, I decided to take more drastic measures. On Sunday, as I was planning the menu for the week, I told 8 yo that he's responsible for Thursday's dinner. I asked him what he wanted to make. He said, hot dogs, hamburgers, latkes and baby carrots. I wrote it all in on the fridge. I find in general that having a week's menu posted cuts down on unpleasant surprises, both for the kids and me. I made sure that we had all necessary basics, but I did not defrost ground meat, just made sure that it is here. Sure enough, around 5, I told 8 yo that I am getting hungry and I am expecting his meal. He went to check the menu. He grabbed the hot dogs, but then he did not know where to open the package. He pulled out one of his children's cookbooks and looked up latkes recipe, with apple sauce. As soon as 6 yo heard about apple sauce, he went to the pantry, found two cups, and proceeded to offer it to 2 yo. Now I had three hungry kids clamoring for two apple sauce cups. Bottom line, 6 yo and 2 yo got them. 8 yo was in the throes of grating potatoes using food processor. I made him read all the steps and measurements, and to find all the ingredients. He decided that since he did not get any apple sauce, he will make his own, granted that the recipe is right there, in the cookbook.

carrot arrangement
 Overall, he did make the whole meal. 6 yo set the table. 8 yo arranged baby carrots in a fancy way, but I found out that he does not know where we keep our fleishig bowls. ( In the cupboard, of course, but he never paid attention where that would be). He peeled the apples for apple sauce, then mashed them with a fork. It was pretty good!

mashing the apple sauce
I am hoping to keep this cooking business going. The lesson of planning ahead, collecting the ingredients, dealing with cranky and hungry people, and savoring the final result is just too important.

Oh, and I hope to hear fewer complaints about leftovers.

Whats wrong with this picture? Answers.

 1. Look at that poor chicken. Look at its drumsticks. They are coming out of its shoulders. There are no wings! Who stole the wings? Who can bear to eat the mutant chicken? If you say that's the bottom, then that chicken must have been a cripple, hopping on its rear end, with legs sticking up straight into the air.

2. This is supposed to be a depiction of two witnesses observing the new moon, for the declaration of the new month. Well, I am sorry to say, but their testimony will be discounted , as that is the old (waning) moon. The new moon always faces the other way. There are very set phases of the moon, and one can tell where in the lunar month we are based on the phase. I guess that the illustrator did not actually look heavenward every month when he was saying kiddush levana. As an aside, my father OBM taught me to tell old and new moon apart. Old moon looks like letter C, as in the image. For Russian speakers, staraia starts with the same letter. New moon is the reverse, the curve of P, rojdennaia, in Russian.

If you have any more incorrect illustrations, I would love to see them.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

What's wrong with this picture?

I am all for illustrated children's books, and I do understand the concept of artistic liberty, but the point of illustration is to depict reality. In the past couple weeks, here are two illustrations that jumped out at me as being drawn from fancy, without checking for accuracy.
From kids' siddur, Shabbos table
From Parsha book, sighting of the new moon

Can you tell what's wrong with these pictures?

Sadly, I think I will have more to add to this category...

the art of bread making

Quick accomplishments, by the kid:

  • 2yo can recognize "Publix", both the logo and the word. She pointed it out on her body wash, a bag of flour, seltzer. (Now you know where I prefer to shop!) I gave her Chobani yogurt yesterday. While eating it, she told me that it has her name on it. She meant that it has Ch, just like the beginning of her name. She can also orally continue patterns: red, blue, red, blue, etc. She spent a lot of time making "birthday cake" with geoboard. And she is working hard on memorizing a few of her favorite books.
  • 6yo finally got the hang of tying his shoelaces. We tried last year, but it was an exercise in frustration. This time, the first time I showed him, he was able to tie them. His math is going smoothly, he wants more greater than/less than problems. He got his first notch in tae kwon do. He reads books to 2 yo, when he's in the mood. He is riding his bike.
  • 8yo wrote another ambitious plan for today, with 20-plus points. By late afternoon, he accomplished six. He wrote Chumash and math first, and those went well. Right now, he is reading his way through Yahadus textbook, based on Rambam's Sefer haMitzvot. He informed me that he reached his first mitzvah derabanan. 

I called boys to unload the dishwasher and set up the table for dinner. When they were not coming fast enough, I discovered that they were actually cleaning up a Pokemon game. They used to leave things like that for some hazy later, which never happened. We also ended up having most of our dinner meal in Hebrew. I didn't know how to say "string beans", but the kids knew orez (rice), dag (fish), mitz (juice), mayim (water). They also thought it was great fun, and kind of started it themselves.

I keep reminding myself to take deep breaths and to look at the big picture. There is such a drive to get something accomplished NOW, that sometimes it is hard to realize that skills take a long time. I keep looking at all the things that were such a struggle for 6 yo last year, and now they are going much smoother. A child is like a loaf of bread: you cannot hurry up the dough to rise, nor you can bake it super-quickly. To get a good result, everything needs to take time.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

map expert

This morning, 8 yo crawls out of bed and announces that he wants to write his own schedule. I let him, curious to see what will make the cut. Here is what he came up with:

  1. Spelling
  2. cursive
  3. recess #1
  4. geography
  5. Yahadus
  6. lunch-recess
  7. lunch
  8. 1st class dismissed
At this point, I jumped in and showed what I had planned for today. He was mad, but added the following:

9. 2nd class starts
10. math
11 Lashon Hatorah
12. Pokemon
13. 2nd class dismissed
14. recess

I noted the lack of chumash, he said that he will do it at the very end. I suggested doing it first, but he wanted to do it last.

For once, I was prepared for geography. I printed out a fill-in-the-blank map from I told him to get started from memory and then look up the rest. This is what he filled in from memory:

filled in map of Africa
I cannot even check this, I don't know if they are all correct! This is what comes when you spend hours poring over the map, playing your version of Risk, playing world domination of Pokemons vs. Harpies, and just having fun with geography.

I am seriously thinking about letting them be.

Everything else went well, too, and he even did Chumash before Lashon HaTorah.

Monday, August 20, 2012


8yo's threat of the day: you know what happened to American colonies when they did not have any choices!

The boys had a wonderful sleepover at grandma's house. 2 yo enjoyed being the only child. I took her to the zoo, by herself. She told me which animals she wanted to see and, for once, her wishes were honored. She even bravely patted the goats. In the evening, she kept alternating between asking my husband and I to do things for her: bathe her, carry her to bed, put on pajamas, clip her nails, tuck her in.

In the morning, I ran some errands with her and then picked up the boys. My MIL sent a plate of Russian donuts (sirniki), which made a delicious lunch. After lunch I tried to get boys to do some schoolwork before we had to leave to tae kwon do. That's when the trouble started.

I decided to stick with the blocks approach, so I wrote few things down. 6 yo picked history of China. I read the next chapter from Story of the World. 8 yo came over to listen. We pulled out a map to see where the early Chinese lived: between Yellow and Yangzee rivers. 6 yo identified China on an unmarked map and found approximately the area of the rivers. Then I discovered that the boys stuck a bunch of flags on the map, and on the wrong countries, so now they were resticking them into correct places.

adventures,children,choices,destinies,Fotolia,futures,girls,highways,horizons,journeys,kids,looking ahead,paths,people,possibilities,roads,travelling,travels,youthsThey saw a video on the list, and asked for it. It was this: Yogati veLoMatzati. I thought for a while that they need some reinforcement that hard work always pays off, and it introduces them to a saying from the Gemara at the same time. (And I thank Chabad profusely for producing something so appealing and so important.) They watched it, 8 yo said that it is not making him feel any better, but I saw that it made him think. I am trying to figure out how to download the song so that we can listen to it in the car.

Then I asked boys to pick the next item off their list while I cleaned up the next mess 2 yo made. 8 yo threw a fit. He said that there is nothing on the list he wants to do, why does 6 yo get to do history and he only gets boring things. He will not do anything. I cannot make him. He said he does not have good choices and then used the line about colonies (I do not have to worry whether he knows and understands history!) By this point my patience was running paper-thin. I told both boys to get started on math. 6 yo got his binder and got to work. Overall, I find that they do not find throwing fits at the same time advantageous. One of them wants to remain on mommy's good side, and he decided that it's his turn. 8 yo sulked and kicked and slammed things. I said, very calmly now, that tae kwon do is at 3:30 and if the work is not done by then, we are not going. I also said that if this kind of behavior will continue, he can come, but he will have to sit out.

He calmed down enough to do his work. I went to battle 2 yo down for her nap: she does not like when I leave the room, so no matter how many cuddles I give her, as soon as she senses that I am going, she does a death grip on my neck and starts yelling. I usually have to leave and shut the door. Attachment parents, call the police! She calms down after a few minutes and takes a nap, but it does leave me even more on edge.

I looked more closely at the work that 8yo is struggling with and printed out 1st grade basic addition review. I hope that he will refresh his facts, feel good about completing so many pages, and will be able to continue. There is a dichotomy between how quickly he grasps the concepts and how slowly he commits to memory anything that requires effort. Back to " I tried and I did not succeed..."

6yo asked to take a nap, he complained that he is tired. I tucked him in. He popped out fifteen minutes later: "Mommy, I have a Torah question: what if the people did not understand what Noach was saying and that's why they did not get on the ark?" Quiet and solitude produce deep thoughts.

He was happy to finish his work (reviewing Lama). He speedily read and translated one page, crumpled about doing the second, agreed to do it only if he reads everything first and translates later, speedily read the second and translated it without asking for help. We finished 12th chapter. He seems to remember his reading and vocabulary. I am hoping that this is a confidence-builder here.

8 yo finished math and started on journaling; more dinosaurs and prehistoric creature facts. He said that he got to the second chapter. I stopped him to do spelling and chumash. He said he hates them both. Then he showed me how he spelled "were" correctly in his journal, I mentioned again "I tried, and I succeeded" and he said he likes spelling. He liked spelling even more after he got all his review words right. Then he did not like spelling so much when some of the new words came out wrong. The emotions change like clouds in the sky.

Then we tried squeezing in Chumash before tae kwon do and that was a complete disaster. He did not remember the words from last time, then he turned accusatory, that I am making him do all this hard work. Ugh... the fun things parents farm out to teachers.

We barely made it to tae kwon do. 6 yo decided to sit out today, and I was so frazzled that I did not pursue the reasons why. 8 yo did great, got another notch on his belt, for achieving kicks, and was shining like a new penny. When we got back, he completed the chumash, unloaded the dishwasher, and went to play Pokemon cards with his brother.

Looking at the day now, with hindsight, I think the boys probably did not get enough sleep and that's the reason behind crankiness/sleepiness. Kick myself for the umpteenth time: no productive school takes place on such days. I made a bad choice trying to pursue my new theory, and 8 yo made a bad choice by not listening to me. Nobody won.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

blocks of time

From the past week, one pattern became clear, at least with 8 yo: whichever subject he's involved in, he wants to be doing it for a longer period of time than I have allocated. If he is doing handwriting, he wants to do a few pages, not just one. If he is writing in his journal, he wants to write till he's done, not for traditional 15 minutes ( he probably needs those 15 minutes just to compose his thoughts and get creative juices flowing). If he's doing math, he needs however long it will take. If he's reading history, he wants to finish the book... well, that would take a whole day.

So I am thinking about switching him to more of a block schedule. Instead of assigning 6-8 different areas to do each day, I am planning on assigning 2-3, but letting him do a week's worth in that time. For now, it will be my responsibility to make sure that over the course of the week, we touched on a variety of skills, but my ultimate goal is for him to monitor his own progress.

And progress takes a long time.

Skill acquisition takes a long time. Learning something new takes a long time. Adjusting into a new routine, getting used to schoolwork, integrating informal learning with formal learning-- all of these require time and patience, both from me and from the kids.

I am also strongly thinking about following their lead, their interests and their strengths for now. They have the best concentration when they are engaged in what they want to be doing, and they feel good about themselves when they succeed in those areas. They do not need my chiding or cheerleading, they are their own worst critics and enthusiasts.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

who created man with wisdom...

When Stalin came to power in the Soviet Union, Yiddish was outlawed. Why? Because in Yiddish the toilet paper is "asher yotzar papir", or "asher yotzar paper". Asher Yotzar means "who created" and is the beginning of the blessing made after one relieves himself. The reason for the blessing is to acknowledge that the body is working properly: everything that needs to stay open is open and anything that needs to be closed stays closed. Now, taking time a few times a day to marvel at how G-d keeps your body functioning can bring a lot of meaning. Or not. But Stalin knew that if even lowly toilet paper will be reminding Jews that there is G-d and not Stalin who is in charge of their bodily functions, then Yiddish could not be a secular language despite whatever the enlightened Jews were trying to tell him.

Today I wanted to go over the text of Asher Yatzar with 6 yo. He has been saying it for years, and he knows the gist of this one, but I wanted more details. I decided to browse online and came upon this website:

It has a nice printable poster of Asher Yatzar, with translation and transliteration and visual reminders and holiness-inducing reminders. Many of you probably have this in your homes, next to the bathrooms. (If not, here it is, print and use and thank G-d for your functioning body!) What I found to be amusing was that there  are minor differences in the text. Some have to do with order, some have to do with adding or subtracting words. The meaning is still the same, and the idea is, too. But isn't it a bit funny that Jews among themselves cannot agree what should come first: the opening or the closing of body orifices, and whether it is important to say that you cannot survive "even for one hour"? Or whether you cannot survive only or survive and stand before G-d?

Being grateful for a functioning body is such a basic idea, so why are we all sectarian about it? Why isn't there one standard text?

On the same subject, we were doing third pasuk in perek 22 in Vayeira with 8 yo. He asked me about who are the two servants who walked with Avraham. Before I answered, he decided to look in Rashi and got his answer. Then he asked: why two? I said that the rest of Rashi has the answer. I had to help him translate it. He asked me, what does it mean to take care of his openings at a distance? I did not give it to him, but hinted. I also explained how they do not have bathrooms in the desert, so one had to go find a private sand dune and distance himself. He liked this Rashi.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

First day of school

I decided to start early, so today was the first day. The chagim are in a month, and I want to be able to take off some days for errands and cooking. My sister is getting married after Succot, and that means at least a week off. I think this earlier start gives me peace of mind to take off more when I need to.

It is funny to proclaim today the first day of school. The kids have been learning all summer long. They have been reading, going on hikes, doing projects, holding discussions, asking questions. Why is today different from all other days? Before you say, well, TODAY you did formal school work, yesterday 8 yo surprised me. I sent him to get his siddur and to daven, he came out with HWT script book, opened it up and started to teach himself script! He got through two letters before I reminded him that it is time to daven.

Yesterday, I had someone come and help me organize our homeschooling space, hence the reason we started on a Tuesday, not Monday. We homeschoolers can afford to be flexible like that. We put all art supplies in the sunroom instead of having them spread out all over the house. Almost all, I should say. I decided to keep Moon Dough and paint out of reach, as well as extra rolls of tape and glue. While we were doing this, a lot of supplies and crafts which were hiding came out. 6 yo picked up a weaving board, the one for potholders and decided to make one. Now, he tried before. Usually, he strung it in one direction, then got confused with weaving the cross ribbons, then got frustrated and then his brother would come and "rescue" his project, with him abandoning all craftsmanship. This time, he stuck with it and got it. He worked under-over with his fingers, and was ready to finish the edge, but it was time to go to tae kwon do ( which was cancelled, but we only found out once we got there). When we got home, I showed him how to finish the edge and he did three sides, with the last side slipping off and requiring some help. Overall, he did take ownership of his project.

So today was the first day of something or other. I made pancakes for breakfast ( to assure cheerful mood in kids) and we are going out for dinner ( to assure cheerful mood in mommy). After breakfast, we davened, but not before I almost made them unload a dirty dishwasher. 8 yo went first, after his davening, I called him over , opened up my planner and asked him what are his goals for the year. This is his list:

  • science: experiments, chemistry, density, physics, explosions, make your own experiments, electricity, anatomy, wildlife, being able to identify all animals and plants
  • history: early civilizations, ancient China, American history
  • surviving in the wild, camping
  • computer: typing, email, downloading and installing games
  • chess and checkers, Monopoly
  • opening a bank account
  • technology: mechanics, build your own train without instructions
  • cooking: make anything in any cookbook

Pretty ambitious, huh? I should keep on looking at this list any time I think he is lacking motivation.

Then, after 6 yo davened, I asked him the same.This is his list:

  • science: atoms, molecules, elements
  • geography: the world, China, Africa
  • chess: learn good moves

I think he overheard his brother, which is a pity. I think I will wait a week and sit him down somewhere separately, to pick his brain.

I wrote up plans for each boy. In hindsight, 8 yo wanted to spend much more time on each activity than I allocated, so I found myself telling him to drop what he was doing and move on to something else. I will have to rethink this. My goal is to be able to assign him certain things and then let him complete them on his own, just bringing it back to me to check periodically. I am aware that it might not happen this year or the next.

Here is what we actually got done with 8 yo: color in a political map of Africa, label different countries, do Rosetta Stone, cover another letter in script, write in his journal about dinosaurs, do Math Mammoth, do spelling with Spelling Power, review first two pesukim in 22nd perek of Vayeira and Rashi on "take your son", review Rashi script.

Surprises: he can add two digit numbers, but is still flimsy with addition facts up to ten ( grrr), he remembered the Rashi word for word from many months ago, he did not want to review but plunge right into the middle of the perek even though he did no remember some words, he much rather write about dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures than anything else, listing facts rather than descriptions, he is very eager to do script and write everything in script, he remembers all of Rashi's letters but forgot how to write Hebrew script.

Here is what we did with 6 yo: HWT print, reviewed frog jump capitals and he wrote his name, remembering to use lower case. We started Tefila Workbook, with the first words of every bracha, understanding from Baruch till Bemitzvotav. Math Mammoth kindergarden review of counting and number writing. Rosetta Stone and Yesh lanu Lama. Unofficially, he played with the scale and geoboards. He asked me, how do they teach math? I showed him how to make squares, triangles, rectangles, rhombus. I taught him quadrilateral and pentagon and octagon. He also stitched together a puppet.

Surprises: his handwriting has improved much more and he has more stamina, he even kept saying how all writing today was easy. He claimed  not to know the meaning of a single word in a bracha, except for Hashem, so I had to go much slower than I planned. He did not complain about Rosetta Stone. He completely melted down at Lama, so I decided to start all the way at the beginning of the books, to review reading skills and vocabulary. He did first five units quite speedily, so hopefully it will come back to him.

I was asked what am I doing with 2 yo while I am teaching the boys. Here is what she did: davened, hung out on the couch, sat at the table while the boys were writing, opened up base ten blocks and built with them, painted watercolor on the kitchen table while the boys did more writing, ate lunch with the boys, started on a puppet with 6 yo (he finished his, she did about half, never would have thought that she could do it, but there it is, she can sew through prepunched holes), napped.

It is 3 pm, we are done and ready to enjoy and nice quiet lazy summer afternoon.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

wish list for the next school year

When you get married, you register for things so that people know what you want (really expensive china). When you are pregnant, you register for things, so that people know what you want (that really cute bassinet which you will use to store burp cloths as the baby will be snoozing on your chest). When you start a new school year, you get a supply list from the teacher and buy fifteen pairs of scissors which will magically vanish by the end of the school year.

I went to Target last week and bought bare-bones supplies for next year:
  • ruled paper (loose-leaf binders work for us)
  • graph paper ( per request of 8 yo)
  • dividers for binders
  • ruler
  • planner for me ( to pretend that I am keeping track of it all)
  • composition notebooks for boys' journaling (and I suspect they might remain empty)
  • two folders with prongs ( to keep math work)
  • watercolors (2 yo request)
  • tape, glue, erasers--for some reason, these items are always getting used up or lost

This is what I bought or am buying online:
  • Handwriting Without Tears: script for 8 yo ( his request, I am not sure it is necessary to learn script any more) and printing reinforcement for 6 yo. I also got their journal for 6 yo, maybe this year he will feel confident enough to start writing
  • What Your Third Grade Needs to Know (for me as a loose guide, but 8 yo to read stories and social studies)
  • Math Mammoth (hopefully it will be a thinking kind of curriculum, with neat tricks along the way)
  • many Jewish books: Pirkei Avot, Yonah, cartoons (Dovid Ben Yishai, Rashi. Elishama and Ephraim Leave Mitzrayim, The Children of Shushan fight Haman), books about mishkan and Beit HaMikdash
  • many Jewish CDs: 613 Torah Ave on parsha and tefila, Story Tyme with rabbi Juravel for Pesach and Succot, some DVDs ( BeGan Shel Dudu)

I am planning to utilize the library to supplement. We take out lots of science books, social studies, literature, picture books, arts and crafts. We also get CDs and occasional DVD out, usually an educational one.

Here is the actual wish list:
  • globe
  • political map of the world
  • map of the US
  • map of Israel (without funny cutouts)
  • electric pencil sharpener
  • origami paper
  • molecular modeling kit
  • 3-D puzzle of the Beit hamikdash
  • timeline paper
  • science kits: weather, acid rain, water quality, etc.

  • Round and Round the Jewish Year Volume 4
  • One Special Prayer
  • Seven Special Weeks
  • Rabeinu Shmuel HaNagid
  • How Things Work
  • biographies of composers and artists


We went to the library on Friday, I asked 6 yo to pick out five books. I thought he grabbed first five books that he saw. Well, so far one was about a boy who wanted to become an aeronaut and made a flying bicycle. We read that he had "more gumption than a gopher" and were looking up "gumption" in the dictionary. (Last week we were looking up "indomitable" from tae kwon do, he tends to pick words which are nor present in the illustrated dictionary, but he liked finding the right letter, then the next letter, etc. I am glad he does not mind asking about the words he does not know and looking them up). There was also the phrase "disaster struck" and I had to explain what that meant. Finally, he asked "how mistakes are the pathway to perfection"? I think we are having good time with reading comprehension, even without any formal curriculum.

The other book is "Delilah" by John Marciano. On the surface, it is a book about the unlikely friendship between a farmer and a sheep, but, as I was reading it, I realized it's the perfect book about homeschooling/unschooling. It is a book about being different, blazing your own path, doing what you feel is right instead of being told what to do. And it is a book about enjoying life and having fun. Check it out in your library.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Nach Yomi

There is a concept of Daf Yomi: you learn a page of gemara a day, every day, through every tractate and area. People all over the world learn the same page on the same day. Like this, one finishes the entire gemara over the course of 7 and a half years. The benefit: one is familiar with the entire gemara, not just "popular" or easy areas.

But there is another benefit/drawback: in order for this to work, one needs to commit a certain amount of time every day to learning. No holidays, no sick days, no celebrations, day in and day out, one has to find time to set aside to learn. From what I heard, catching up is hard, if not virtually impossible. This requires a huge commitment and a huge amount of discipline.

I was at an impasse with 8 yo about drums. He likes drumming. He picked up a few rhythms, made up his own, likes banging around, likes combining sounds. He hates practice. He hates sitting the right way, holding the drumsticks the right way, playing the same rhythm twenty times, counting out loud. He wants to get it, and get it fast. He gets frustrated. We spoke about it, we made plans, promises, trades. I wavered: maybe he is not ready, but maybe he is ready and he just needs to put in some effort and then he will come to enjoy all of it.

Then I thought about it: he does not see people work hard at something. He does not see grown-ups taking on commitments, failing, trying again, getting frustrated. I thought about what would be a grown-up equivalent of practice which would pay off, but would require a commitment.

I decided to do Nach Yomi. Previously, I read Yehoshua and Shoftim(Judges), studied Shmuel I and II and a bit of Melachim I, but the rest is quite murky. Oh, sure, I come to shul and hear haftorah (the readings from the Prophets and Writings, corresponding to the weekly portion) and all the megilot, but what about the rest? What about the context? What about the rest of Iyov, not just that he lost everything, spoke to some friends, and then gained everything back?

In one of the recent articles, a point was made that if all the copies of the book of Havakuk would disappear from all the yeshivot, nobody would notice. My husband countered that Havakuk is read as a haftorah somewhere... not sure if it's true, but the point still stands: how well do I know the rest of the Nach to know what am I missing?

So I decided to embark on a personal Nach Yomi. The rules are simple: one perek (chapter) of Nach per day, starting with Yehoshua. I am reading it in English, Artscroll edition, with translated commentaries. It takes me anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes. The only rule is that I have to do it EVERY DAY. And this part is the hardest, there are so many more other things to do. It is Friday night and I spent the whole day cooking and teaching parsha to kids. It is a weeknight, my husband is on call, the kids are finally in bed and I much rather read some light magazine.

But I decided to commit to this. I know that I will benefit in much larger way that I can even imagine now. I know that my kids are asking when will I finish Yehoshua and what will I do for a siyum (completion party). I know that as we are reading about Moshe commanding Yehoshua how to conquer the land, I get to explore how it actually took place.

Most importantly, I am getting to experience a bit of the same frustration that my son is dealing with. Most importantly, I get to show him how hard work pays off.

Monday, August 6, 2012

the gift of time

Do you know the biggest problem teachers face in their classroom? Classroom management. This means that a teacher has to figure out how to meaningfully engage x amount of students for x amount of time while transmitting x amount of information. The teacher usually has just one shot to transmit this information, and so, all different techniques are devised so that the transmission is optimal. The teacher is told not to talk till he has everyone's attention, be very precise in his message, be well-prepared and know his material cold, focus on lecturing while saving the questions for later, lest the students get distracted. And at the end, there is a quiz/test/homework to see what has been retained.

All of this makes perfect sense... if you are dealing with ideal scenario. But what if the students just came in from recess where they beat another team at kickball and all they can think about is the next game? What if there is a fire drill in the middle of the class and the lesson time is curtailed? What if the teacher gets asked a question to which he does not have an answer, or, as he is explaining the material, he himself realizes that something does not make sense? Finally, what if everything went smoothly on the surface, but the test/quiz/homework does not produce high results?

It just hit me on Friday, and it's surprising that it took me this long, after all my teaching/homeschooling experiences. I was teaching parsha to the boys. I was using the easel to illustrate. Both boys were here and engaged, asking questions. 8 yo got a binder and drew his own illustrations. Both boys called out the Ten Commandments. Then we got on the subject of zachor/shamor. (Briefly: there is a discrepancy between what it says in the Ten Commandments in Shemot and in Devarim, one place says to remember Shabbos, another to keep it.) 6 yo immediately piped in: "zachor veshamor bedibur echad" from Lecha Dodi. He has been going to shul with my husband on Friday nights and listening. I asked him if he knew what it meant and he did not. I told the boys that it's funny that they know the answer without knowing the question. I explained that Hashem said both words at the same time and tried to get boys to both say one each, to make it sound like it. 6 yo got frustrated and left, kicking. He laid down on the floor in the adjacent room. I kept on teaching parsha to 8 yo as if nothing happened.

During Friday night dinner, we ask parsha questions. Usually 8 yo knows everything, and 6 yo sometimes participates, sometimes does not. This week, he was on the roll. He knew a lot, named 9 of the Ten Commandments, answered about Shema, etc. Obviously even though he was not in the same room, doing his own thing, he was listening. He was learning. 

I realized that in order to teach, I do not need an attentive student. I just need an interested one. I also realized that parsha comes up every year, and whichever points the kids will not pick up this year, they will pick up next. Or they will pick up Chumash and look it up themselves. Or they will hear it in shul when they are older. Or they will pick it up from other conversations. I do not have to squeeze everything in efficiently right now. I have the gift of time.

The gift of time also means that I do not have to know everything. I can answer that I do not know, look it up, and come back to it. I can correct myself. I can tweak my answers. I am allowed to experiment and make mistakes. I am allowed to be human. I am allowed to take a day off from teaching and nothing will happen. We will make it up sometime.

I don't know why all of this did not hit me sooner. Now there is no need to demand excellence, just effort. If there is no effort, then the time is not right. Come back to it when they are interested and things will go smoothly.


I told all of this to my mother, and she told me about my sister, who was taking English language courses back in Moldova. As a middle-schooler, she was deemed too young to sit by herself with college-age kids ( college started at 16, but still), so my mother had to sit with her. This was after a full day of school, so she tended to climb under her desk to play. However, as my mother remarked, whenever a teacher asked her a question, she would pop up to answer, and he let her be and learn like that.

Oh, and she turned out OK. She has a PhD and is working on a post-doc.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

How do I love Torah, it is always the object of my discussion

Sweetwater Creek State Park
Today we went on another hike with the group. This hike was more strenuous than the previous one. It required some climbing over boulders and fallen trees and some descents using nearby trees as supports. Needless to say, my kids had great time. The boys waded a bit and stayed with the group, while 2yo and I poked behind. The river had some beautiful rapids and vistas. The boys walked with kindred spirits eager to climb every rock and get their feet wet.
Kings of the hill

 There were a ton of itty-bitty frogs hopping everywhere and 6yo made it his mission to catch them. I observed how he squatted, patiently waited, and then, with stork-like precision, seized it between his fingers. (None of the frogs were harmed, they all hopped away). One of the frogs literally jumped into his hand. Since he is not afraid of them, he takes liberties which leave most of us queasy. I was thinking, Steve Irvin kind of liberties.

This is a different frog, also released. Altogether, he caught 5, and touched one lizard.
This lizard was spotted by me, and was left untouched.

2yo investigating a flower

this is the trail

After this very exciting hike, we had lunch and walked over to the visitors' center. It had some artifacts from the old mill and some stuffed animals. The building had a living roof which the boys wanted to see. Over there, for the first time, I saw hummingbirds. Now, for most people, they are not that exciting, but I grew up thinking of them as exotic species. I knew they live here, and 8 yo saw them before, but I was just awed how they looked like giant insects and yet behaved so differently. 2 yo was a bit scared of them, even though we kept telling her that they are not bugs, so we had to leave.

In the afternoon, we headed home for an hour break between the hike and taekwondo. There I saw that a friend posted about this great site, I checked it out and found all sorts of useful things: meforshim with nekudot, maps of Israel and songs. I played one song about the articles in the Mishkan, and another about mesorah. Now that one 8 yo asked me about, and I explained again. When we got to zugot ( pairs), he asked me who they are, and then he pulled out Pirkei Avot to look them up. I just sat there, wondering how much more confident I could be about judaic unschooling if my kids were fluent in Hebrew.

The boys got their new taekwondo uniforms and were taught how to tie their belts. They both told me that they liked their class. I am glad that we have a month to wait and see.

When we got home, I gave each a hanger for their uniform and sent them to shower. The plan was to head out to our local shul for siyum hashas celebration. 8 yo decided to put on Shabbos clothes, and 6 yo followed. My husband came home and 8 yo excitedly told him about his new uniform. Then he added that we might need to ask a rabbi whether it needs tzitzit, since it is a four-cornered garment, with each corner splitting separately from another. My husband took a look and saw that the corners were cut off, so it does not need tzitzit, but I was just glowing with nachas: he is thinking in a halachik way and applying it to the surrounding world!

Now the boys are at the siyum, 2yo is snoozing, and I have a uniquely quiet house while it is still light outside...