Tuesday, April 30, 2013


There is a bag of mulch sitting on my front lawn. It is about 15 feet away from a mailbox where a tomato plant is growing. I put down weed barrier, planted the tomato, but did not get around to spreading mulch on top. This bag is sitting there for the past two weeks. The weeds are poking through the sides of the weed barrier. I gaze at them guiltily every time I drive anywhere. I simply do not have time to spread this mulch around.

According to my 7 yo, today was a great day. I concur: no tantrums, no major fights. What did we do?

I had a dental cleaning, but before I left, I asked boys what they would like to put down on the schedule today. They both surprised me. 9 yo chose spelling, which we have not done since the birth of the baby, Story of the World and art. I added in Chumash without any resistance. 7 yo chose art (draw a Pokemon step-by-step) and Story of the World. I asked him whether we can just finish up math and he agreed to that, too.

When I came back, the boys finished davening and were building with Legos. 3 to asked for Barney, so I set her up and called up the boys to work. They both started with art and drew two Pokemon while I nursed. Then 7 yo got frustrated with drawing and brought some library books to read. We read about Aztecs ( You Wouldn't Want to Be An Aztec Sacrifice!) and about Roman geese. 9 yo joined us to listen.

Then 7 yo surprised me: he brought First Language Lessons for the Well-Trained Mind and asked how come we are not doing this and could we do this today instead of math? I agreed. It is easy since the lesson is scripted. We did the first two. He already memorized the poem and got what is a noun. Moreover, then he felt good that he finished all his schoolwork super-quick.

I was just rereading The Well-Trained Mind and that was making me jittery. The assumption behind a lot of work recommended there is that a child will not naturally choose to do hard things, but needs to be led to them and pushed, for his own good. Basically, spare the rod, spoil the child. It is on the opposite extreme of unschooling, where the premise is that a child will pick his own schoolwork in areas which hold his interest and learn it deeply.

I am conflicted about all of this.

9 yo finished the perek in Toldot. This was also his initiative: he wanted to finish the perek today and review everything tomorrow. He also had one page left in his chumahs notebook, so, all of a sudden, he is writing out all the words, to finish it up. I think he did 8 pesukim today.

Serendipitously, we were learning how Eisav was plotting to kill Yaakov at the same time as we read about Romulus killing Remus. I drew the parallel and said how Eisav is Edom, which is Rome. We also spoke a bit about the personalities of brothers. Now this is what I love about homeschooling: these connections arise because I know what he is learning in other subjects.

After lunch, we tackled spelling. 9 yo was taking a mid-level test and did not do so well on it. Moreover, he misspelled the words from the same rule families that he misspelled last time, two months ago. We will have to work a bit on that.

Once we finished, we loaded the bikes onto our new bike rack and drove to the park. That's when 7 yo remarked that he is having a great day. Then we had salami sandwiches for dinner, and again he gushed about how good of a day this is. Finally, when I tucked the boys in, yet again he brought it up. I am just so relieved to see this kid happy and believing in himself that he can get his schoolwork done quickly.

People come before things. That bag of mulch will have to wait.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Arbor day

9 yo plants a tree
Today we went to a local college to participate in Arbor day. The kids watched swans, geese and ducks, planted some trees, climbed a magnolia, met other homeschoolers. 9 yo sidled to a professor of botany and spoke to her class. We walked around a lake. I kept wishing that the college I went to had such a pretty campus. 

We listened to Shabbos zemirot on the way there and back.
magnolia climbing

When we got home, after lunch, it was math time. Since 7yo know it was the only "schoolwork", he did not object. He even made some comments about how easy it was. 

Them everyone showered. The drum lesson was interesting: 7 yo did well, and got his next assignment, 9 yo got frustrated and the teacher cut his lesson short. We have a whole month till the next lesson, and I will watch his practice.

I think having one assignment is where we have no frustration, and the rest of our day should be occupied with life and field trips. I am much happier this way, too.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

mostly unschooling today

Today's school:
  • soring legos by size and kind
  • davening
  • trip to the wastewater treatment plant
  • lunch with friends
  • trampoline
  • making hot chocolate with 3 and 7 yo
  • making potato-yucca kugel with 3 yo
  • chumash with 9 yo
  • drum practice for both boys
  • step-by-step drawing of Pokemon: Snivy
  • picking up in all the rooms
  • parsha reading on the couch for a good-night story

Ok, not a lot of formal schoolwork here. Some very happy kids, though. 9 yo did feel that it is unfair that he HAS to do chumash and HAS to write out one word from 10 pesukim. We are in the middle of Yitzhak giving brachot to his sons. Whenever 9 yo has a question about p'shat, he automatically looks up Rashi. He has been doing about 5 pesukim a day now, and really translating on his own. Over the course of this year, his skills improved quite a bit.

I am still trying to figure out this whole unschooling thing. I mind need to read up a bit on it. I might decide that some things are non-negotiable, like davening and chumash, and some can happen any time. 

Oh, and no tantrums from 7 yo. Some bouncing around, but no resistance. Even when he was working on his drawing and not understanding exactly where to draw the next part, he just stuck with it, even though his frustration was rising.

What would a whole week without tantrums be like?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

unschooling and happiness

Today we had a visit with pediatrician for the older boys. This was their annual visit, and we happened not to need to go to the doctor this whole year. Chuck it up to not being exposed to other kids' germs, or my kids spending so much time digging in dirt or just plain old luck. Either way, this was it.

Last year, when I went, I spoke to the doctor about getting 7 yo evaluated for his behavioral outbursts. I was given a questionnaire, and told to think about it. It was one of those ADD/ADHD forms. I looked over it. He would not pass it. Ironically, I would not pass it, too. Hm... and I was supposedly a normal person, who can function well.

This year, since I felt that we did not progress much, I spoke up again. All of this was done out of kids' earshot, and I am grateful to have a sensitive pediatrician. Basically, she told me also not to rush into evaluations, as they are pricey, and once you have a diagnosis, then what? I am not planning on medicating. He is also basically on grade level, despite his great hate of schoolwork. He reads way above his level. He gets along fine with friends and siblings. She suggested finding a special ed teacher, and just having him set up for a session of two, to see what kind of strategies we can come up with to deal with his issues.

Basically, I know that something is off with him. What I do not know is: how off is it? I am left with those basic two issues: do I spend energy pursuing and putting my finger on what is off, and trying to get him to fit into the normal standards, or do I learn how to work with him, so he can still function and be happy despite being different?

Today this video came up. It is speaking about my child. I know what makes him tick, and it is not penciling in the circles or writing descriptions. Today he wanted Story of the World, science and art. For science, he picked out his own experiment, gathered the supplies, copied a picture, glued it on and performed an optical illusion. For art, we watched a step-by-step tutorial on how to draw a Pichu. This is not easy, as he was struggling to make an oval, and he really has hard time with all these fine motor, spatial perception skills. For Story of the World, we read part of the chapter which talks about Native Americans. He retold me the tale of the Rabbit and the Sun. Now he is drumming. He decided to try out drumming with his brother last week, and, to my surprise, he is eager to practice and practice some more.

What if I stop with math and English and Judaics? What if I wait till he asks? What if I trust him to pick those things which make him happy? Basically, what if I just unschool him?

But what about my other son? He needs structure, so he can chafe against it. I tried unschooling right after the baby was born, but he always wanted to know what's on the agenda. He asked me every day. He was almost joyful when we went back to the daily schedule.

Follow my sons' dreams or follow the society? Hope that he does not come to me one day and ask me why he was not taught a given thing? Teach him "like everyone else" and mold him into a shape that I know he will not fit? Maybe nobody else will notice how badly he doesn't fit. Keep him happy by letting him be?

Unschoolers, how do you do it?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

it gets better

I was supposed to meet an astronaut today. This was supposed to be once-in-a-lifetime chance. An astronaut, a female astronaut who worked on Space Station was meeting with the public at a local museum. The catch? The timing was 6:30 to 8:30.

Dinnertime. Bedtime. Cranky time.

And my husband was not able to be home.

And none of the babysitters were available.

I told the boys about the astronaut. I told them we could meet her if they got their schoolwork done early and without fuss and I got all the cooking out of the way. They agreed. I started plotting for a crazy evening.

But this morning started badly and then it all went downhill from there. One boy blatantly ignored his work, another stomped off to his room for the second (or is it fifth?) day in a row because it is all too hard and he DOESN'T HAVE to do it and he DOES NOT KNOW A THING!

I did not nag them. I took 3 yo and a baby for a walk around the block. The boys did not want to come. I took a deep breath and finished my shabbos cooking. 9 yo drew up a crazy animal with survival gear for the desert. This was not on the agenda. 7 yo said that he needs help with EVERYTHING, then threw his pencil again.

I took another deep breath.

Nursed, made lunch, put chicken in the oven.

As the day went on, there went my chance to meet the astronaut.

The boys did finish their work. 7 yo took exactly 15 minutes to do all his math, but he sulked about it for hours. 9 yo took five minutes to write up 15 mitzvot from Kedoshim, but he fumed and refused to do it for half an hour. 9 yo knew all the words in the new pesukim in Chumash and even reminded me to review yesterday's pesukim, but he fought for fifteen minutes with 3 yo about who gets to sit next to me in the crack of the couch.

I bit my lip till dinner. Then 9 yo violently protested that I wrote up fish-n-chips, but served shabbos leftovers. I said that not everything goes as planned, such as this astronaut thing. Then they looked at me, wild-eyed. Oh, they forgot. They would have behaved and done everything quickly and could we please still go?

It was 6. No, we were not going.

In another life I would have a magic wand to make everything better. Its name would be au pair. She would be young, giggly, and willing to drive my kids anywhere at the drop of a hat, take them to the park, on hikes, run out to the store to get milk and eggs, read stories, give baths, hold the baby.

In another life my kids would be infallible, too, so I would not need an au pair.

In another life I would get a second chance to meet this astronaut.

But I only have this life. And this life is bound to get better. As Shania said, it can only go up from here.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

nominate a post

I received a request to submit a post for the upcoming homeschooling conference in Baltimore. It would be distributed to the attendees to encourage them in their homeschooling. This is where I will ask for input from you, dear readers: which post or posts should I submit? Please use the comment section.

Thank you!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

what it takes to survive

This past Sunday was Yom HaShoa. No, I did not do any special activity with the kids, in fact, I am still struggling how to weave Holocaust into our conversations.

What I saw was this article about an extended family of Ukranian Jews surviving while hiding out in a cave. Their story is atypical in that a whole family was intact. The article addresses what the conditions were like in the cave and the evidence found by an expedition many years later of their amazing survival.

What struck me was the last part of the article where a professional caver answers the questions about his search:

Do you think that people today could survive like the families did?
Modern-day people who sit at a computer all day? I would say no for two reasons. First of all, these were hands-on people. They were carpenters and merchants who had to provide for themselves, especially during the occupation. They also grew up knowing the history of the caves in the area and that ancient people lived in them, so they knew it could be done. Secondly, the Stermer grandmother taught her family not to trust authority. At one point, before they fled to the caves, all Jews were told to meet in town and register. The grandmother decided they were not going to go. The family worried but they obeyed the grandmother. That day, in five separate towns, the Germans rounded up thousands of Jews and many were never seen again—it had been a trap. I think people today often don't give themselves the right to question authority.

If, G-d forbid, something like this was to happen again, are we training our kids to survive?

I am thinking about how my kids spent hours exploring our fairly overgrown backyard. The know every nook and cranny of it, they know what it is like to get their hands dirty, to dig with a shovel, to carry rocks, to tie down bushes to make tents. Moreover, they have been carrying all of these activities by themselves while their peers have been obediently sitting at their desks, keeping their hands and notebooks clean, listening to authority, learning how not to speak out of turn and trust adults no matter what.

Years ago, one of the Christian homeschooling curriculum that I encountered emphasized obedience as a good trait. I asked another parent if this is a midda (a character trait) that we cultivate as Jews. She said, no.   Oh, it would be so easy if these kids just listened and obeyed! We are a stiff-necked people, we are stubborn, we question authority. Yesterday, my oldest went a little rant about whether G-d exists and his proof is that he has been asking for Nintendo DS in Shema Koleinu and never got one. If we were Catholic, I was supposed to bop him on the head and say: "Silly! How dare you question the existence of G-d?" But, being Jewish, I explained how everything around him could not be pure coincidence and there must be a Creator who is in charge of the world.

Why so many Jews perished in Holocaust? Why they listened and trusted the powers in charge? Why they did not lift their heads from Talmud pages and university journals and fought for their lives? We say "never again", but why are we relying on others to ensure our survival instead of cultivating this resilience and stubbornness?

Sunday, April 7, 2013

staying alive, staying alive...

that's the motto for now

four kids are a lot

four kids are a lot when your reference is two kids, and a clean house, and both parents at work, and kids in school

four kids keep me counting them up every time we go out: am I missing one? They do not run away, they are good kids, but there is that feeling that I am forgetting someone

We are all adjusting here. I am making space in my heart and physical space in the house for another one. The older kids are making changes for another brother.

I am giving it six months to get any semblance of life. This might not be generous enough, but, by keeping the expectations low, it is easier to function rather than expecting perfect functioning from the start.

forgive the rambling here, it might be easier to read sometime in the middle of the night, when you are bleary-eyed

hang in there

this, too, shall pass