Tuesday, May 28, 2013

the conference

I went to the Jewish Orthodox Homeschoolers' Conference. I drove up with the baby and another mom who is planning on homeschooling her kids. This was a very weird road trip. I drove all the way up to Baltimore and down, with a stopover in Richmond. We talked all the way up and down, and probably still can do more talking! I have not shared a room with someone whom I was not related to since college. In both locales we stayed in houses with triplets. Moreover, neither me, nor my friend left out kids in care of husbands and just took off, nor are we planning on doing it any time soon.

The conference itself was very interesting. I went last year with the kids, but I was in a very different place now. Last year I was just feeling my way, trying to find a balance, working on curriculum and looking forward to hear from the experts. This year it felt more like a reunion. I met so many people who came the previous year, and made some new connections. I was able to evaluate information based on how it fit my family's needs. I even met a few unschoolers. Last year I compared myself to everyone else. This year I felt no need to do so.

Two things really stood out at the conference: the binder and the feeling of unity. We were given totes which contained a binder full of resources. There were websites providing curriculum, directory of frum homeschoolers, sample lessons, select articles, posts and presentations and much more. I feel like I have been handed a resource book to lead me wherever the homeschooling happens to take me next.

Secondly, the unity was simply incredible. I was sitting in the same room with people from all over, and from all ends of the orthodox spectrum. Every one has their own methodology to homeschooling, yet everyone there took an obligation of educating their children seriously, and into their own hands, so to speak. The openness of conversations, the flow of ideas, the energy and dedication made it easy to talk to whomever happened to sit next to me.

I wished that I brought my kids along, they would have enjoyed interacting with other frum homeschooled kids. However, this year it was impossible, with the baby and all. My mantra lately has been: there is always next year.

Monday, May 20, 2013


I am sitting down to nurse, and that is "me" time. I have a chance to read quietly while sitting down for a few minutes. What should I pick? There is my brand-new Yeshaia, released by Artscroll. There is Prayer for the State and Prayer for the State of Israel, with sources and halachot. There is a memoir I got out from the library. There is Time and Discover. Finally, there is Good Housekeeping. What will I pick?

It is easy to go with a magazine; the quick nature of nursing, with interruptions, makes reading pleasurable little nuggets of information easier than following a chain of thought in a book. It is easy to go with an easy read. It is hard to pick Yeshaia. My Nach Yomi went on hiatus when I had the baby, but the real reason was the total unexpected nature of the book. There was not a story line, and I could not yet pick up a pattern to follow from perek to perek. Also, Judaica Press's Yeshaia was hard to read, both in language and in the dense commentary. I stumbled, and  the baby just led to whirlwind where daily learning came last. I did not have time!

Or did I?

I open the fridge searching for a snack. There is a Costco-sized bag of baby carrots. There are apples which require just a quick rinse. There is yogurt and cheese. And then there is toffee and cheesecake, leftover from Shavuos. Cheesecake is my weakness, I never met a cheesecake that did not call to me. What will I pick?
Everyday, we are surrounded by choices. Usually we know what is the right choice, but usually we can rationalize why the choice that is best for us (Yeshaia instead of a magazine, carrots over cheesecake) is not the choice that we are making. Just a few years ago, my grown-up sister confessed how strange it is to be that grown-up and be responsible for what you eat and how you spend your money. All of a sudden, nobody is telling you what to do. Yet we take kids, tell them what to do, send them to others who tell them what to do some more, and then, one day, expect them miraculously to develop this uncanny self-direction. We want THEM to choose baby carrots over cheesecake and Yeshaia over magazines. We want THEM to practice drums and do math problems for fun.

The boys restarted taekwondo. One day, I dropped them off a few minutes before their class and then shopped in nearby farmer's market. When I picked them up, I asked them about their class. 9 yo burst out crying; TV was on in the lounge, and since they were a few minutes early, they decided to watch for a bit. But then they watched and watched and watched and never went to their class. Then 9 yo started getting homesick and when I pulled up, he realized that he missed the class! I was speechless: how can you be dropped off for a class and not notice everyone else go in?! I decided that he has to write a letter of apology to the master, and we talked about it not happening again.

When I cooled off a bit, I saw that this was a chance for a perfect lesson in self-regulation. Nobody has to tell them when to go to class and when to turn off TV. If the consequence is missing one class and being a bit embarrassed in front of their teacher, that's the risk I am willing to take. They have to make a choice to be on time, not me always prodding them along.

I am viewing this unschooling opportunity as a perfect chance to work on self-regulation and self-control. At the same time, I am forced to figure out what am I doing. Am I being as virtuous as I would like to believe I am? Do I self-regulate because it is good for me? Am I making good choices?

Today I stuck with Yeshaia.

Sunday, May 12, 2013


Here is a small sampling of what we did this past week:
7 yo hanging by his knees and holding on to his ankles.  Over the past year, both boys got pretty strong and fearless. They also both were able to do the monkey bars, something they could not do last year.
3 yo watching an elephant while her brothers were in a homeschool class. She easilty hung out there for 20 minutes, just watching. Then we spnt 20 minutes with the lions. All different groups around us came and left, and she just watched the animals. 
Watching a stone get polished.
Rock Land created by 9 yo. Each stone represented something: red ones were lava, blue was sea with shark teeth as a stand-in for shark fins,  a geode was holding up a lonely tree.

building a relationship

I have to leaf my way through Kedoshim now. How did we end up from Toldot in Kedoshim? 

Yesterday 9 yo came up with an idea for a large party, with balloons and cake, and he was planning to sponsor it from his own money. I stayed quiet, thinking that it is just a way to waste some money. Today he brought it up again during breakfast. This time I asked him why he wanted to do it. He said for happiness. I asked him whether these things would bring him happiness. He said, no, that's what it says in Ketuvim. I asked him to clarify. He paraphrased Kohelet that gold and silver do not bring happiness, only learning Torah. So I suggested that he do just that. I thought this would be a good launch into Vayeitze, and even brought up with first pasuk, but he had other plans. He announced that he wants to learn Kedoshim. I was stumped and asked him why. He said that it is the shortest parsha and it has the most mitzvot. I think he did did cost/benefit analysis and, in his mind, this produces the most bang for his learning buck. I wanted to start after breakfast, but he wanted to wait till tomorrow since today is Sunday and he felt it would be wrong to do schoolwork on Sunday. This is not the kind of logic I enjoyed hearing. I said that we learn Torah every day, but he lost interest at that point and I was not going to push. We will see what tomorrow brings.

Despite his desire not to do schoolwork on Sunday, the boys did do some work, unschooling style. We went to the Gem and Mineral Show. The kids had to fill out cards to enter for a door prize with their name, address, phone number, e-mail and school. Both of them stumbled through our long last name. 9 yo persevered and filled his card out, but 7 yo got stuck when it came time to write down the phone number. I know that he knows it, he dialed me before, but he absolutely got frustrated and could not recall it. Moreover, he did not even want to recall it and forfeited his card. 

At the show, the boys saw a demonstration of soapstone carving, polishing and faceting stones and of different sands. They made their own sand slides by cutting a window in a business card, putting a piece of tape across, and spreading sand on top. The slides were viewed under the microscope. Here 7 yo did not mind labeling his slide by writing where the sand came from.

Then we saw a dealer selling wire trees with stones and crystals as leaves. 7 yo really wanted one. This dealer was also selling kits for making your own tree with instructions, and all the supplies. 7 yo first gathered up stones and wire, then he chose a base and glue to hold it together. Now I asked him whether buying the kit was cheaper, or all the supplies separately? He looked and calculated. He had to add 7 to 8. Here is how he did it: if you take 5 from 7 and 5 from 8, that's ten, and you are left with 2 from 7 and 3 from eight, so you add them up and get 5 and 10 plus 5 is 15. My head was spinning. Then he added 2.50 and another 2.50, got 20, and figured out that buying a kit is cheaper than loose supplies. 

9 yo got a grab-bag , and a few separate trinkets. When we got home, 9 yo went about organizing his rock collection and making a Rock Land. 7 yo opened his kit, read the instructions, got the ruler to measure out the correct length of wire, and started on his tree. We stopped only when we glued it to the base and now the glue had to dry for a few hours.

I am thinking how important it is to have a relationship with a child before you can teach them anything and expect them to listen to you, and how much of my time is spent listening to them. They tell me absurdities, they tantrum at me, and they tell me so much of what I much rather not hear, but they feel safe telling it to me.  This past week, just about every night when I was tucking 9 yo in bed, he would say: "One more thing...", his lip would quiver, and something intensely private would come out, whether a worry, a wish, or a feeling. Is this learning? Is this teaching? Is this parenting? It is the building of trust, the building of a relationship.

By laying off the formal schoolwork, by letting them be, I am allowing space for their imperfections. I am making space for a relationship to grow. One of my private frustrations growing up was that I kept getting good grades, but I felt that nobody cared about them. I thought that I should be praised for my academic success, but my parents seemed apathetic to it. To them, it was business as usual; I was supposed to get good grades. Now, thinking back, I was expecting an extra dose of love in return for my success. Oh, how cruel! I do not remember any of the material which I supposedly learned so well, but I remember the feelings. That makes it easier for me to say that content of my children's learning almost does not matter, as long as they feel loved, supported and encouraged in their endeavors.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Happy, happy, happy

Today both boys declared to be a great day.

I picked up the kids from their sleepover by 9:30. On the way over, I listened to a shiur about Jewish people receiving the Torah, which was not over by the time I got to my in-laws. I continued from the spot where I stopped once we were driving over to the chiropractor. 3 yo protested quite loudly, I think she could not follow. The boys did not seem too eager to listen, either. Moreover, they did not really want to go to the chiropractor. 
test spin
We got there late, and the kids were not interested in the books I packed up. 9 yo asked if he could lay down on the roller bed, and the other kids wanted to do it, too. Then we went to Hobby Lobby. Originally I was planning on buying plaster of Paris for 9 yo and letting the kids look around and choose whichever crafts and supplies, within a budget. 9 yo did not find plaster of Paris and the kids put a few random crafts in the cart. I got more acrylic paint for me and went looking for watercolors and specialty paper. I figured that since the kids are sketching Pokemon and 9 yo enjoyed blending our cheapo watercolors, they might benefit from slightly higher quality products. While I was looking, the boys stumbled onto a craft aisle with solar panel cars. They both found kits which they liked: 6 in 1 kit for 9 yo and transformer for 7 yo. They themselves decided that they will dump the other crafts from the cart and keep just these. The prices were a bit higher than what I expected, and I probably could have shopped around online and found them cheaper, but I decided just to get them. The age range was also 10 and up and I anticipated having to help them quite a bit.
Assembling their cars

When we got home, the boys went straight to their kits. I had to make a phone call ( ironically, to a veteran unschooling friend, since I am quaking in my boots here!), so the kids were left to their own devices. Well, they did get stuck and needed help, but they followed the directions and progressed quite far in their assembly. Overall, they worked on these models from 1:30 till 5, when it was dinner, and then for another hour till bedtime. We all just had fun with them, and, to tell the truth, this is what I wish I could spend my time doing. 
Waiting for the sun to come out
During dinner, I got a call that another homeschooling family will be joining us for Shabbos. This casually brought up the topic of Shavuos, more related to food than to Judaism, yet, we digressed into why we eat milchig and 9 yo remembered about Moshe adding a day and postponing Shavuos. Then he quoted a line that he heard from a shiur this morning... basically, he was listening! I added a few more ideas that I heard before I picked them up. 7 yo piped in that he wants clay to make Har Sinai. We also discussed what exactly the Jews heard while on Har Sinai and why we count up instead of down.

It is funny, since I was complaining to my friend how Torah learning does not happen spontaneously here, unlike secular subjects.

Monday, May 6, 2013

what did they do all day?

  • launching cars to see which one goes farthest
  • finding out what happens when milk is added to water, and then adding in oil, peanut butter, pepper,curry, dish soap, consomme, mixing it up and predicting what will separate 
  • printing out and coloring a map of Greece
  • adding Aleinu to davening
  • watching Magic School Bus Bakes a Cake
  • reading
  • playing with Mighty Mind tiles
  • launching Lego guys and testing their helmets
  • going to Publix: finding coupons, checking out groceries, bringing groceries home, putting away
  • launching cars down the steps
  • tracing sand letters
  • stick-fighting in the backyard
  • sharpening sticks for arrows
  • checking on the pit
  • cleaning off muddy shoes: washing the dirt off, using detergent, finding out that warm water works best
  • watching surveyors on our block
  • counting how many minutes and seconds till taekwondo
  • taekwondo
  • going on a sleepover at grandma's and packing their own bags
7 yo asked what happens when milk and water are mixed, and immediately found out. Then he just HAD to add oil, and soap, and peanut butter, and spices...
If I want to put it into subjects, we had literature, math, science, social studies, phys. ed, home ec., tefila. But  is there really any need to do so?

I also saw that 9 yo wrote an elaborate list of science things he wanted to do ( paleontology, periodic table, nature hike, make a model of dinosaur), but he did not do any of them. I brought his attention that he did not get to his to-do list despite having a whole day. Now I think that maybe, just maybe, he is not as science-inclined as he wants us to believe. Or maybe simply not focused.

7 yo started with this: "I hate schoolwork, especially math. Can I just launch my cars and measure which one goes the farthest?" And that's exactly what he did.

No tantrums today!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

unschooling thoughts

Friday, we unschooled. Same for Shabbos and today. I did not say anything till tonight, just watched what the kids did. Now, in my sleep-deprived post-baby brain fog, I have not been keeping a careful log of all the activities kids engaged in, but I saw enough to give me confidence that they will learn and work on their own without a script.

The boys have been digging a pit in the backyard. They finally found a digging spot where they are not blocking a walking path, not a danger to others, and are not destroying landscaping. They dug this pit with full-size shovels. It is about 3 feet deep. It is alternatively a clubhouse, a hideout and an underground succah. They used it to make mud bricks. Yesterday it poured the whole day. Today they told me how the pit was flooded and they made ditches to drain some of the water. They are scheming and plotting, planning to make a roof and install sponge-like floor to absorb the moisture.

Since yesterday was so rainy, they did not go anywhere. My husband got called up to a delivery in the middle, so we were definitely staying put. They took a bunch of rubber bands and spent hours sling shooting them. The trick was to avoid snapping your fingers. After a couple hours, they all got pretty good.
All three playing with train tracks and building blocks

They read quite a bit.

My friend gave me sandy Montessori letters and 3 yo, upon seeing them, took them out and wanted to know what they are. I named each letter as she brought it to me. I showed her how to trace one with her finger, and then she did a bunch on her own. She found a letter that her name starts with, "p" for Publix, letters for her brothers' names and a few others.

The boys watched a few more tutorials on how to draw various Pokemon. They are aware now which sites give the best directions.

They caught a katydid and made a habitat for it. I was adamant that the boys release it before it dies. 7 yo casually asked how long they live. I suggested looking it up online. He said that it won't help since we don't know how old it is.

I found my letter!
7 yo used abacus to figure out how often Yovel year comes up. He knew it comes after seven cycles of Shemittah, but he did not know what that would be. He counted out the beads. I showed which beads would be shemitta and which are yovel.

The boys did their usual chores: dishwasher, laundry, set the table for shabbos, etc. 

9 yo finished 1000-piece puzzle of the periodic table. He has been working on it on and off for the past two weeks. He chose the puzzle himself in Costco, and assembled it all. I don't think he has done anything larger than 100 pieces, and this was not easy, as it was all writing. 

We learned about Nasca and their line art from Story of the World. The activity that was suggested was to draw with white crayon on white paper and then paint watercolor on top. This way you are drawing "blind", like Nasca, who, due to the scale, could not see what they were creating. When I suggested it to the boys weeks ago, there were no takers. Today, 9 yo decided that he will paint his Pokemon just like that.

For working on word and number puzzles,
the best vantage point is on top of the table
So we will be unschooling till the end of May. I will watch and assess. I am worried about Judaics, as we are nowhere nearly as immersed in that learning. I am worried about writing, as neither boy writes much, and not spontaneously. I am not worried about reading, math and science; these come up all the time, and are so easy to tie into each other. I am not worried about social studies or phys.ed: the boys do those all the time.

I am awaiting tomorrow to see what they boys will do. 9 yo is planning on science since we do not do enough of that, in his opinion.

I am also realizing that by unschooling I am "freeing" my own time. Instead of being a slave driver, I can do whatever needs to be done around the house, run errands, do museum and park outings, and not worry whether we are missing on some formal learning that we should be doing instead. A unschooling friend told me that all K-12 curriculum could be self-taught by a motivated high school student in 18 months. As she said, it is worth the risk. I know the world will not end if we fall one month behind.