Monday, March 28, 2016

It's all in your head

We went shoe shopping in Walmart yesterday. We really needed to go to Costco to buy shmura matzah, but Costco was closed, so we ended up in Walmart. 11 yo needed shabbos shoes, 9 yo needed sandals, 6 yo needed shabbos shoes and sandals, and 3 yo needed sandals, too. While there I decided to stop by the food aisles and stock up on  Pesach ingredients, such as salt, sugar and baking soda. We passed the coffee and tea aisle and I grabbed instant coffee and a box of Bigelow tea. There I saw a box of Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime tea with chamomile. Since 9 yo likes tea (more the process of making tea and adding sugar and vanilla to it), I asked him whether he would like me to get for him some of this tea. I personally hate chamomile, so this is not something that I would be drinking. He said, yes, he would like it. We checked out.

This morning, while everyone was rushing and getting breakfast and getting underfoot, 9 yo took a long time to emerge from the bedroom. He resents Mondays like grownups do; and I am tired of being cheery about it. Once he got his breakfast, he asked about making his tea. I distractedly said yes. He said, as he was brewing it, that he might need another cup later on to calm down again. I was too busy trying to feed the baby, wipe snot off allergy-suffering 3 yo, and get some food into my system to pay much attention to what he was doing.

After breakfast, he davened and calmly prepares his chumash, same chumash that he threw a major fit over on Friday. He wrote down the words, politely asked me to help him with shorashim and asked to indicate which parts of speech he should be looking up. He did his chumash very smoothly and pleasantly. At the end he remarked how the tea is working and making him calm, almost sleepy.

I bit my tongue.

In the movie "Dumbo" the baby elephant cannot believe that he can fly unless he is holding onto a lucky feather. The feather is just a prop, but Dumbo does not believe in himself without an external crutch. Today, the tea was the crutch. The magical effect wore off right before lunch, when the violin lesson was cancelled and I asked boys to do some schoolwork on their own while I took a phone call. He had to do some math which required application of division. He knew how to do it, but he decided that they are asking him to do something else, something that he does not know how to do. Luckily, 11 yo stepped in and helped him, step-by-step. 9 yo rewarded his brother with a second cup of Sleepytime tea.

I don't want to knock the calming effects of chamomile, but I doubt that they are that pronounced. I also don't know how long the magic will keep on working. Please G-d, let it last at least the whole week.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Do we need testing in Judaics?

This week I came across the article regarding lack of standards and testing in Judaic learning. I read it with interest and then shuddered: the testing battle has come to the Jewish education and the educators are believing that more rigorous testing and standards will produce better prepared learners.

There are a few fallacies about learning that the article assumes.

Fallacy #1. Learning is linear.
This works very well for schools that have to keep track of a large number of students. Set up a curriculum, stick with it, slowly, yet steadily progress to more and more difficult material, and the knowledge and skills will follow. However, most students can attest to either being bored out of their minds when they already grasped necessary skill, yet the teacher is still spending time on it, or being lost when the material is not understood and the teacher does not spend enough time reinforcing. Most educators know that occasional detours are necessary to help those who are left behind, and enrichment material is needed for those who have mastered the skills.
Outside of the classroom, students tend to learn those areas that interest them. If an area will require a certain set of skills, as long as the fire and motivation is there, those skills can be acquired in an astonishingly short period of time. If this were not true, baalei teshuva would never be able to catch up in reading Hebrew, mastering Rashi, gemara learning. Moreover, many yeshivas and seminaries find that motivated students can master in a year what their peers spend six years learning in day schools.

Fallacy #2. Lack of skills at a college entry level is a reflection of insufficient day school education.
When I was entering Stern College for women from a small brand-new high school, I was assessed as to the level of my Judaic knowledge. Being a conscientious student, I tried my utmost to show the best that I could accomplish so that I would be placed in the higher level, more intellectually-stimulating classes. I overhead another woman, also coming from a small high school, planning on hiding her knowledge of Hebrew, so that she would get placed into lower, easier classes. Perhaps that is not the case for all students, but if one sees no value in furthering one's knowledge, and no use in their skills, then Judaic education has failed to impart a more important message than technical mastery.

Fallacy #3. Judaic studies can be compared to secular studies.
Math is the easiest subject to test objectively, so all the assessment and testing arguments tend to center on math analogy. There are clear advantages to being math-literate, and it is easy enough to test one's knowledge. However, to compare Torah learning to math does the former great disservice. More than one passionate educator has told me how Torah is our heritage; it is given to all Jews, and everyone has to strive to carve out a portion in it. Some will master Biblical Hebrew and learn it in depth with the commentaries. Some will have to read Chumash with translation. Some will find that Jewish history or philosophy is their passion, Some will love the intellectual rigor and back-and-forth of Gemara. Some will be taken with the poetry of HaRav Kook, or the logic of Rambam. To say that one is not meeting benchmarks in Torah learning is to cut one off from his heritage, from his portion of G-d's wisdom. There are many interpretations of Torah, cannot we allow one to tap into communing with the Divine on a track beyond Gemara? I have been told stories of students who failed davening because their lips were not moving fast enough. I have heard of students who are great at memorizing the material, spitting it back on the test, and then not being able to recall or apply any of their knowledge. By placing Judaics in the same category as secular studies, one lowers it to a subject to be conquered and put behind.

Fallacy #4. All day schools will benefit from the same benchmarks.
Where I live, there are three day schools: one is yeshivish, one is Modern Orthodox, and one is Chabad. Each one of them bills itself as a community school, so they are not rigid in their definitions. However, a yeshivish school would probably be interested in assessing Aramaic vocabulary and Gemara skills, a MO school would focus on mastery of modern Hebrew and Israel's history, and a Chabad school would lean towards knowledge of Chassidut. What will happen to the students when one system of assesment will be applied to all? Will they all bristle at the centralized planning instead of imparting their unique flavor to Judaism?

Fallacy #5. By high school graduation, the students must possess all the skills and the knowledge that they will need for the rest of their lives.
In America, we are obsessed with graduation. We make a big party, followed by infamous note burning of all the burdensome knowledge. Not only we graduate from high school, but we also graduate from middle school and even kindergarten. We love to celebrate the end. The Judaisms' view is the direct opposite. The Hebrew word לחנך means to educate. However, the same word also means to inaugurate. An inauguration is a process through which an object is designated for a specific use from this point on. An inauguration has a beginning, but no end. When we are truly educating students in Judaics, the message is that one can always grow in Torah learning, even if he does not have a specific set of skills yet. A high school student, while appearing very mature and set, is still quite early on in his quest of knowledge. The attitude towards learning that one carries out of his Jewish day school education is more important than the skills. If one believes that there is a whole wide world of learning waiting for him, one will not let a lack of skills in an area get in the way. However, if one is constantly assessed and held to the external standards, one might easily fall into the trap believing that once those standards are reached, there is no need to further learning.

Instead of promoting external standards, I humbly suggest pursuing initiatives which allow each student to explore material at his own pace. We need a Khan academy for Judaism. We need to support initiatives like  the Mercava and Sefaria. We need to invest in better apps and better infrastructure. We need to focus on building relationships between educators and students as a bedrock of מסורה transmission. But more than that, we need to teach all the parents and all the teachers that each student is unique and different and needs to be taught according to his needs.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Baalei teshuva on Pesach

Hey, rabbis!

Yeah, the ones who do kiruv. It is nice that you teach baalei teshuva how to be frum and even spend a few months (or years) inviting us into your home, until we get the mechanics down. It is nice that you stay in touch. It is also nice that you worry about who baalei teshuva are going to marry. Overwhelmingly, baalei teshuva will marry other baalei teshuva: common backgrounds, same kiruv institutions, similar idealism. It all works out, and once the chuppa is set up, and the sheitel and black hat buying is encouraged, it's rosily into the sunset, into happy observant ever after.

Then you drop baalei teshuva like a hot potato and move onto the next "project".

But when two baalei teshuva get married, you have two sets of non-observant in-laws. If lucky, there will be kosher dishes at parents' home and modicum of trust, respect, and understanding. If not, now the young couple is on their own.

Pesach is coming, and it is painfully obvious who are baalei teshuva, and who are not. No, it has nothing to do with observance. It has to do with what the holiday will be about. All those lucky to have frum parents flock back home. There are people out there with grown children who have never made a seder, never made Pesach, They always have two sets of parents to negotiate where to go for the first days, and where to go for the last. Oh, sure, it can be tricky to satisfy all, and I do not want to take away from your conflicts. But that is when everyone forgets about baalei teshuva. They have no parental house to go to for Pesach. Rather, they have a  parental house, but the struggle to convince parents to get rid of chametz, kasher everything, and then stick with the program for eight days is daunting, if not practically impossible. So they stay put and muddle through. Those kiruv rabbis conveniently get busy with their own families. But baalei teshuva are left behind.

It doesn't matter how many years one has been observant. It doesn't matter that Pesach comes every year, and, somehow, kitchens get converted, food gets made, and it all passes. Every year, there is the great divide between those who have family to flock to, and those who do not.

If your family makes Pesach, invite a a baalei teshuva family, the ones with many kids, the ones whose observance you don't doubt, the ones who do not need kiruv. Nobody else will.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Manic Wednesday

I knew today was going to be insane. I forgot that I will have to drive the kids to preschool in the morning. That means getting the baby dressed and fed by 8:30, getting myself ready at the same time, helping 6 yo and 3 yo pack their lunches (they decided that they want to pack them) and shoving everyone out the door. The total driving takes an hour in the morning, so I am not back till 9:30. At 10, we leave for the coop. The baby falls asleep on the way back home. Her nap schedule is changing, and she is not so little any more to fall asleep in the car any time I drive. However, she is asleep and I transfer her into the house for a half an hour nap.

I get my lunch in order, and discover that boys did not pack theirs. They scramble for something, and I overlook that there is probably not enough food, and no fresh growing things were harmed in lunch packing. I sit 11 yo down to do chumash. As I was walking out the door this morning, he asked me whether Moshe glimpsed more of Hashem, or Yehezkel. I tell him that Yakov also saw Hashem "face to face" and there is an idea that a maidservant at the Red Sea saw more of Hashem than Yehezkel. (He knows that Hashem does not have a body, so it is not a physical revelation we are talking about.) I tell him that he can look up these places and see if he can order them somehow according to the fullness of revelation. But he did not do it, and I was not there to look them up with him. Instead, he prepared new pesukim, but I want him to do a Rashi on when exactly Moshe was setting up his mysterious personal tent of meeting. He sees the size of that Rashi and rolls not only his eyes, but his whole body. I admit, I am a bit intimidated by the length even with English translation, but I decided that we will diagram it into a timeline, and it will help in ordering the rest of the events. So he pulls himself together and reads. He can translate the whole thing. I diagram every new fact and time frame that we encounter. By the time we are done, it is 10:04. The baby wakes up, 9 yo informs me that we did not get to his chumash and he did prepare it, and 11 yo whines that we never did get to new pesukim, ugh. I grab the baby, grab a change of clothes, grab a few extra diapers, grab my lunch and get out the door.

We get to the coop on time. I nurse the baby. The boys are in their lego robotics class. They are loving it. In fact, when the class is over, they often linger well into the twenty minute break. Finally, they come out. I am pushing baby on the swings, and she is cooing and giggling away. I think how 3 yo hated swings, held on for his dear life. I think how he needed PT to walk and I was told that he had bad trunk control. I worry about this baby not crawling properly on her knees, she scoots on her behind or slides on her belly. But she must have decent trunk control. Or maybe she is fearless? Either way, it would be nice not to have worry about another late walker. While I am pushing her, the boys come to demonstrate the back flip off the swing that their friend taught them. It looks smooth, but it must be terrifying. They practice to do it together.

back flip off the swing

Their second class is on bridge structures. A lot of kids are absent, so the boys get out early. I ask 9 yo whether he would be able to do his prepared chumash with me off my phone (Beta Midrash app). he says that he can do it after lunch. Meanwhile I bump into a mom friend from the other location of the coop. We chat a bit, and then she asks me about 9 yo's behavioral issues. I tell her how I feel very done, defeated. She throws around a few suggestions, tells me to read, we commiserate over hard kids. "Have you prayed about it? Have you had him pray about it?" I stop, whirling. I am supposed to be davening about this kid. I barely get through brachot most mornings, hoping that nobody produces a poopy diaper and cuts my two minutes of organized prayer short. I do ask Hashem every day to help me not yell at my kids, but that has not been very successful. However, while I have taught 9 yo to daven and even told him where to insert his personal requests, I never thought to tell him to daven regarding his behavior.

A light bulb goes off in my head. "Thank you, I really have not thought about that."
"Oh, that's funny. I'm an atheist. But if it would help..."
And then we spend a few minutes chatting how prayer is about gathering your thoughts and reflections and getting clarity in formulating the requests. Did I mention how much I love my coop?

I do catch 9 yo later. "Chumash time?" He sits down next to me and we do his three review pesukim and three new pesukim. He gets worried for a moment that he cannot do them without his binder where he writes new words, but then changes his mind and goes through without a hitch. We are at Dina's rape and not exactly easy material that I want to be covering in the park. He might not even understand what exactly happened to Dina. He notices that after famously being called Leah's daughter, by the time Chamor gets to her, she is Yacov's daughter. Rashi does not comment. 9 yo also thought that Dina was pining for Chamor, so we had to set that straight. But he is done and gone.

At 2 pm, we get in the car to go and pick up 6 yo and 3 yo from preschool. 3 yo needs more diapers. He is not potty-trained yet, and he is at the stage where he wants underwear, but will have nothing to do with a toilet. I much rather deal with diapers than wiping up messes that he made and then tried to clean up on his own. Must remember to send more diapers to school.

bubbles in the museum
I drive the kids to the natural history museum that we rejoined last week. We have picture day at taekwondo, but that does not start till 4, and I do not want to go home for half an hour and then battle the traffic. The museum is just a few minutes away from the dojang, and 3 yo and 6 yo have not been there when we went last week. At 3:15, the parking lot is emptying out. We have the whole place to ourselves, even though there are still two hours till closing. The younger kids do not remember this place at all. I think 3 yo was not even born last time we were members. They ooh and aah over the dinosaur skeletons in the lobby. I warn the kids that we will only be here for an hour, but we will come back another time. Meanwhile, the baby has a dirty diaper and needs to nurse. I find a nursing room and leave 3 yo with the older kids, bur he decides that he wants to be with me, so he runs away, screaming. Then, as I am changing the baby, he runs out, looking for the boys. I sigh and finish the diaper change. 3 yo comes back since he did not find them. I need to nurse and I am in what is technically a nursing room. There is no bathroom, just a rocking chair, a changing table, and a locking door. There are some books and puzzles. I lock the door and sit down to nurse. 3 yo melts down, he does not want to be confined. I talk to him how he wants to get out so badly. I suggest looking at books or the puzzles. He tells me how everything is yucky, but he calms down.

I have mixed feelings about these nursing rooms. It is surely nice that museum provides them. They have nursing mothers in mind, and this one does not have a toilet in it, so it is designated exclusively for nursing. When 6 yo was nursing, I would give such set-up unconditional thumbs up. Yet now I feel that it is almost wrong to tuck nursing mothers away, in another room, far from the exhibits and the rest of the family. I nurse in public with a cover-up and if we really want to encourage breastfeeding, why are we putting moms away? Besides. that room did not have good ventilation, and it stunk of dirty diapers, my baby's included. Then I had to go and find an actual bathroom to wash my hands... somebody thought of this room as a PR gimmick, not as a service.

My kids delight in the museum. I thought it would be a bit boring for the boys, but they are eating it up. I get to stand back and watch all four of the older ones engage in their own ways. These outings are what we do the best. But I have to hustle everyone out since we still need to get to taekwondo and get pictures taken.

waiting for taekwondo picture
I almost chose not to go this year. We only did this once in the past, and I don't want to spend the money on the pictures. But now that I am doing taekwondo too, I want a picture of myself with the boys. Who knows how long I will keep it up? It can all change due to scheduling conflicts, but we can pull it off this year. I tell 6 yo that she will be in charge of her sister while we are getting photographed. What I did not account for was the slow-moving line. We spend time waiting. I take the baby out and let her crawl. She grabs boys' kipas off their heads. 3 yo is running around in circles. I keep on hoping that our turn will come soon. Finally, we get posed and photographed. I told the boys that we are only buying one group shot, not the individual poses. They are disappointed, but not too badly. Then we wait on second line, to select the images and the background. I talked boys out of the flaming background as being too busy. We agreed on something with a tiger in the back. My understated self cringes. Finally, we have to pick the best image. I look at myself: slouching, double chin, tired eyes. I do not look good. I do not look fierce, I do not look like I have this covered, like we are having fun. The boys look nice in almost every shot. I gently steer them towards the least tired-looking image. The baby is screeching and complete strangers are handing her toys that she tossed overboard. Meanwhile 6 yo is protecting her brother from another kid who keeps coming up and doing monster hands in their faces. I hustle everyone out to the car and drive home.

3 yo refuses to be buckled by his brothers and complains about burritos that are for dinner. Waze would not work to direct us home in the fastest way possible. It is 5:30 and the baby is not happy. We pull in and I get into my frenzy mode for everyone to unload the car and carry in more that one little item. I always seem to have my hands literally full with the baby, cups, bags, and keys. I always leave something in the house that belongs in the car and vise versa. We get in and I start dinner: defrosted burritos go on the frying pan,  defrosted corn on the cob goes in the pot, leftover coleslaw to round it off. If I would be any more organized, I would be freaking Marth Stewart. Nobody eats soup except for the baby, 3 yo, and me. 3 yo melts down because his burrito unrolled and the insides spilled out. I cannot help him, since I am seated across the table, feeding the baby. 11 yo asks some deep and meaningful questions about the nature of school and why isn't everyone homeschooled. I try to respond, but it is impossible to keep the conversation going.

My husband is on call overnight, so I am on my own. The baby throws dinner off her high chair tray. I have a Smirnoff Ice and immediately feel my face flushing. It happened with wine before, but I assumed that it was sulfites. I cannot be allergic to alcohol, can I? 6 yo cannot find "Wizard of Oz" that we are reading for a good night story. 3 yo's singing siddur does not work. "It needs new batteries!" I ask for a miniature screwdriver, but it does not fit. The baby does not settle down easily. By the time I finish washing up the dishes and sit down on the couch, it occurs that we did not do new pesukim or the megilah today. 11 yo: "You look tired." I feel tired.

And the crazy part is, this day does not strike me as out of the ordinary. Why am I masterminding this craziness?

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

songs on the radio

"Mommy, can you turn on Star 94?" Where we live, this is the cool radio station, playing top 40 hits. It's more like same ten songs over and over again, but I have to point it out for my boys to notice. They did not discover it on their own; it is one of my radio presets. I do not listen to it often on my own, I seem to prefer the sound of 80s and 90s. Those will be oldies very soon, but I pretend that I am back in high school or college, and still young and hip.

My boys ask for Star 94. I cannot be a hypocrite, listening to this music myself, but keeping it away from them, so depending on the situation, I will turn it on. We do a lot of driving to taekwondo when it is just me and the boys, no younger siblings requesting "baby song CDs". A song comes on. The boys crack up. Me: "Is it "Stitches"?" Boys: "No it's the other one, "I can't feel my face when I'm with you"." They know that I object to both of those songs. They ask me why, and I tell them how I think love should not require numb faces or stitches post-kissing. I ask them what they think falling in love feels like. They are still young, no crushes that I know of. 11 yo describes a scene from the end of "Inside Out". I smile, it is so innocent and sweet. He hits on the awkwardness and blushing. I tell them which other songs about love I do not object to: "Sugar" by Maroon5, "We Found Love Right Where We Are".

It hit me now, even though I object to it, I am speaking their language. I am in tune to what they are listening to. I can discuss it, and voice my reservations. I can state my opinions about love and point out which songs describe love that is worth aspiring to.

I remember realizing as a child that all songs were either about falling in love, or breaking up. (Patriotic songs are about love, too, love for a country or ideals. Religious songs were not on my radar, although they are about love of G-d and G-dly world). I also remember not having these discussions with my parents. My father listening to the radio playing "American Pie", me, dancing along, my mother entering, asking him to turn it off, it is too loud.

My husband hooks up his phone in the kitchen to a small radio stereo, playing Youtube playlists. By the end of the day I am in auditory overload, from all the kids screaming, from being talked to all day long, especially by my verbose oldest. I ask him to turn it off. "Mommy does not like music". No, Mommy needs her quiet so that thoughts can line up at least once a day.

But it is different there in the car, in the middle of the morning. I should be downloading shiurim onto the iPod, giving these kids some Torah, some learning. I could be checking out more audio books from the library. I ought to be exposing them to classical music. But I am rushing out of the house with the baby who has to be woken up to be dropped off at the babysitter. After she is dropped off, I get a request for Star 94. I can finally breathe, and I give in. They roll their eyes when every station plays the same latest song. I nod, and we exchange those brief remarks about the songs.

We are learning to keep communication channels open, and if music assists us, so be it.