One day, when my son was four years old, he came home and announced that school was stupid and boring and that he didn’t want to go. For a while after this announcement, my husband and I encouraged Mikhael to keep going to nursery in the mornings. Some days one of us accompanied him, other days we watched him get on the bus in tears. We were perplexed by Mikhael’s distress, because for a year and a half he had been happy about leaving for class each day.
We certainly did not want to school to make Mikhael miserable: what kind of lesson would that be in the joy of learning? My husband was finishing his Ph.D. at the time; we took advantage of his What should we teach our child, how should we do it? flexibility and kept Mikhael home to the end of the year. And because of this decision, we were faced with a question we had never considered before: what should we teach our child, and how should we do it? We had left the what’s, and how’s of our daughter’s education in the hands of her excellent day school. Now that the responsibility for these questions lay with us, my husband and I had to think about ways to begin answering them. It was a fundamental shift of mindset: we had always assumed we would delegate educational decisions to trained professionals, and enrich our children’s lives around the edges. Now, we were it.
Of course, our son was only four, and his needs were modest, but the questions Mikhael forced us to examine started us on a journey that we are still on today. In embarking on our course of self-education, we looked in libraries and bookstores, but we also spoke to other parents. There were some who admonished us to continue forcing our son to go to school, that it was normal for children to be tearful about attending class and bored when they got there. After all, isn’t life mostly about doing things you don’t want to do? But we didn’t feel comfortable about taking that approach, and so looked to parents who had found other solutions.
There is a whole culture of parents who teach their children at home, we discovered, called homeschoolers. And there are Jews in almost every state in the U.S. who have chosen this path, as well as in Israel, Canada, Britain, Australia and Europe. There are several email lists linking these families, some geographically, and some denominationally based. Homeschooling parents, both online and in person, welcomed and supported us, offering to share books and equipment, or to spend time helping set up a teaching framework. The local group also invited me to participate in the many activities homeschoolers organized together.
So what did we do with Mikhael? We chose to begin by concentrating on his Torah learning. Although Bible stories and digests are popular with this age, I preferred the Torah itself – the most wonderful text, even for children. I started reading Bereishit, Genesis with him, translating it, talking about it, not in a complicated fashion, just concentrating on the plain meaning of the text. My husband had always felt that his Yeshiva education had been lacking in Nach, (the Prophets and Writings), and so he and Mikhael began Samuel together. And, in connection with this, they studied Maimonides on the Laws of Prophecy. We were relaxed about all this, and followed no particular timetable, but very soon Mikhael was urging us on, waking my husband at six in the morning, unable to wait to find out what was going to happen next with David, Saul and Jonathan.
We joined other Jewish homeschoolers in apple picking and concerts, and enjoyed the immense riches of cultural life in Washington, DC.
We have come to view ourselves as his primary educators
Mikhael went back to school the following year, and the year after that, too, but we did not stop our routines learning Torah or Jewish Law with him; we have come to view ourselves as his primary educators. Somewhere in the middle of Kindergarten, my husband and I began thinking about where to send Mikhael to First Grade. Looking around at the several choices available in our neighborhood, we were having trouble finding anything we thought would fit us both religiously and educationally. We wanted a warm, nurturing environment that would uphold strict religious standards yet encourage individual creativity in the learning process. There could be many ways of meeting these standards; my husband and I are not rigid about any particular material that has to be covered or the methodology for getting there. But my son does need the space to pursue an idea to its end; when he asks a difficult question, he needs be given the tools to find the answers himself. It became clear that we weren’t going to find an institution that was going to give Mikhael these opportunities in our area.
And so unexpectedly, we found ourselves looking at full-time homeschooling again, only this time for real. Nervous about the implications of our choice, my husband resisted for a long time. We interviewed at all the local schools, and even sent in a registration payment to one of them, but when it came to making the final decision, we found that for our situation and child, it wasn’t the right decision to send Mikhael to day school. Instead, we contacted the “Jewish Education Umbrella Group,” and discovered that to become legal homeschoolers we simply had to pay the $100 joining fee for the umbrella and to fill in the Assurance of Consent for Home Instruction form. The Coordinator of the Jewish Education group told us she visits once or twice a year to make sure we’re fulfilling our obligations under state law. There are no tests, no portfolio submissions. We are on our own.
Most parents who embark on the homeschooling path are not trained in education, but that does not deter them from teaching their children. There are many approaches to homeschooling. Firstly, there are the formal schoolers, who decide the material they’re going to cover, decide on a timeframe, and develop schedules to fit it all in. Many parents new to homeschooling favor this approach, and my husband is one of them. He needs to be certain he is covering the proper material to ensure our son’s smooth re-entry into day school whenever that may become necessary. To that end we have drawn up a timetable with fifteen-minute intervals that encompasses all of our States requirements, as well as a full Jewish-studies curriculum - about 15 subjects in all. Included in the timetable are visits to the park, snacks, excursions focused on volunteer projects and helping others, and food preparation. It’s an ambitious program.
Other homeschoolers prefer a theme-based approach: they choose a topic that will occupy the child/family for a certain period, and then explore all the disciplines that intersect with the topic. For example, a music theme could include the physics of sound waves; the anatomy of the ear; history of musical expression; various ethnic musics; the laws of music during times in the Jewish calendar when we refrain from listening and playing music, and the music of the various holidays. The advantage of a theme-based program is that it allows children to explore a subject from all angles, both deeply and widely, and see the world in a holistic fashion, rather than as a series of discrete areas of knowledge.
At the other end of the spectrum are the “unschoolers,” who follow the child’s interests wherever they may go. These educators believe that life is full of learning opportunities, and that if we allow children to pursue answers to their own questions, they will learn everything they need to know. In many ways, the Passover Seder is a model in this philosophy: the parent provides all the cues to the child, prompting her or him to ask questions, and the manner in which the child responds to the stimuli will determine nature of the dialogue that takes place throughout the Seder night. For unschoolers, the parents’ job is to provide the stimulus, and then give children the skills they need to find answers to their questions.
Not only do we cover Torah studies and reading and Jewish law and math, we also have to play tag and take bike-rides
School has started in our family. On the first day, my daughter went off in the carpool, while Mikhael slept, since there was no need to wake him. But as soon as he was ready to learn, he drove us at full throttle. Not only do we cover Torah studies and reading and Jewish law and math, we also have to play tag and take bike-rides. “The best thing about homeschool,” my son announced, “is that you can sit on the teacher’s lap when he reads you a story.” And there are lots of hugs in there too.
By six o’clock on that first day of homeschool, my husband and I were tired, but Mikhael wanted to continue. So he and my daughter sat at the desk and did “homework” together. She is also part of his education, reading to him and correcting his arithmetic.
Twice a week my son gets together with the other homeschoolers in the area for play. This gives the homeschooling parent a regular afternoon off, and the boys have each others’ company. Many people ask if I’m worried that Mikhael is going to miss the social aspects of day school, but I am not. All of life is about social interaction, whether in synagogue, at the park, in the bakery, or the library. One mother told me she decided to educate her children at home because, “I loved the way [homeschooled children] could interact with each other and could articulate their feelings and thoughts. They never had hang-ups that they couldn’t speak to an adult or a five year old. I was impressed with their self-confidence, they seemed to be very secure people.”
One thing I’ve learned from the homeschooling network is that people move in and out of educating their children this way. It’s not a religion; it is a choice based on the needs of a child at a certain time and place. My husband and I have committed ourselves to teach Mikhael at home this year; after that we’ll renegotiate. We believe that our daughter may never be a good homeschooling candidate; she thrives on peer pressure to perform well academically. It’s a year by year, child by child decision. In this way, it becomes one of the many options available to Jewish parents deciding how to fulfill the Biblical commandment, “And you shall teach them to your children, and you shall talk about them. When you sit in your house and when you go on your way, when you lie down and when you get up.” If you ask Mikhael what his school hours are, he will tell you “twenty-four/seven.” At least thus far, he seems to have learned the message of the Shema.