Monday, May 27, 2013

Impressions Part II – Torah Home Ed Conference

conference swag!Oy, vey!  Vendors, Curriculum, Yay!

I’ve already posted about everything BUT the conference.  Turns out, there is just too much to say to put even the conference stuff into a single post.  So I’ll start with what seemed to me the biggest difference from previous years – limudei kodesh vendors and curriculum creators.

All the cravings I’ve had in the past years for booths and vendors and people talking up their materials, all my wildest curriculum-crazed dreams, came true - a little bit.   Not, probably, in the way they would have if I were Christian attending a Christian homeschool conference, in which case I’d have dozens of programs to choose from for every little subject (Bible-based handwriting, anybody?  Faith-based science or history curriculum?).  But, as I say, a little.

As an outsider, this seems to have been the year in which something tipped and suddenly, people are realizing that frum people are homeschooling (gasp! regardless of occasional silly articles that may appear).  Suddenly, even mainstream publications in the frum world are covering it favourably, and suddenly, a few small vendors are willing to speak and appear at the conference.   

And happily, unlike in the Christian world, where homeschooling is very broadly accepted already, it’s not just about “the more, the merrier”… it’s a matter of the more vendors, the more credibility the homeschooling community will ultimately have.

Here are a few vendors / educators who I felt were a tremendous asset:

RABBI YAAKOV HOROWITZ / Bright Beginnings

I was most thrilled by the inclusion of Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, a speaker and educator, and also the creator of the Bright Beginnings chumash workbook which we’ve been using since July of 2011.  Not only was he a vendor but he was a surprise last-minute speaker at the conference (though he was only given a half-hour timeslot and could have used twice that amount). 

He used his timeslot to introduce the system and methodology behind Bright Beginnings and to preview the brand-new Book 2, which continues in Parshas Lech Lecha right where Book 1 left off (I bought it after his talk).  As with Book 1, Bright Beginnings Book 2 looks colourful and includes the same assortment of cards etc that we have found in Book 1.  The book has a slightly less “easy” feel, in keeping with the fact that it’s for kids who are a little older. 

That said, it still looks fun, and in fact, a Shabbos-friendly review board game has been included with this book to make it even more interactive and non-threatening.  I would have been happier if the board game fit into the book somehow so it couldn’t get lost, but nothing’s perfect and I’m excited about starting this new chumash book right away.  Here are some sample images.  {Drat; forgot to take a shot of the cover, but you can kind of glimpse it in my first image up at the top.}

- game cards and vocabulary cards in the back of the book

bbchumash  bbchumash (2) bbchumash (3)

- workbook-type pages, at a slightly more advanced level:

 bbchumash (5)

- and, of course, the core of the book, which is roots-based, systematically broken-down, colour-coded Torah text.

bbchumash (6)

I have said it before, indeed, shouted it from the rooftops to everybody who would listen, but I’ll say it one more time:  Rabbi Horowitz is one of the good guys, saying stuff about education and child safety that we should all listen to.

Here are links to Rabbi Horowitz’s website (read it!) and to the Bright Beginnings program in specific.

RABBI DR. PINCHAS HAYMAN / V’shinantam

Another great inclusion was Rabbi Dr. Pinchas Hayman, an Israeli curriculum developer who spoke about teaching Torah she b’al peh (usually interpreted to mean Mishna and Gemara; all the Torah given on Har Sinai that wasn’t written down).  I wasn’t really interested in this subject at all, for a number of reasons, so I was surprised to find his talk not only riveting but, dare I say it, almost essential knowledge for any parent, homeschooling or otherwise.

Speaking on a nearly perfect Internet link from Israel, Rabbi Hayman explained that the mishna in Pirkei Avos usually given as the rationale for rushing kids into learning Mishna and Gemara at specific ages says, “ben chamesh l’mikra, ben eser l’mishna… ben chamesh esrei l’gemara.”  It’s usually translated as “five years old to read chumash, 10 years old to learn mishna, 15 years old to learn gemara.” 

But, Rabbi Hayman said, this was written hundreds of years before the mishna, let alone the gemara, were written down.  So these stages must (he said) refer to those types of learning skills, not the actual books themselves (since they didn’t exist yet).

He introduced his program for introducing mishna and gemara gradually, in a 4-stage, skills-based way, and reassured audience members (I know because it was my question!) that an adult need know only basic Hebrew to begin introducing the program.  There’s also a program specifically geared towards high schoolers and adults with no background in learning mishna and gemara. 

As Rabbi Hayman spoke, I began to realize that this is probably the program the older kids used in their first year of mishna at school.  I enjoyed what I saw of it back then, which was largely CD-based, and centred around understanding the chain of tradition that gives the mishna its authority.  More importantly, it looked like the kids were having fun with it.  I don’t have many specific memories, however, because it was a long time ago. 

Here are a few sample images from Rabbi Hayman’s materials in the V’shinantam program:

Caveat:  having looked at some of the materials while I was gathering these samples from his site, I have come to question whether these really are teachable by an adult without a strong Hebrew background.  Not that the resources are not helpful, but many of the words on the English materials are Hebrew and this would be daunting for someone who was just learning it themselves.  Don’t let that stop you from checking it out, though!

Here is a link to Rabbi Hayman’s materials, the V’shinantam program (in Hebrew and English) and more:  Bonayich Educational ServicesClick here to download a sample of the V’shinantam program.

RABBI CHAIM B. ALEVSKY / Tools for Torah

http://www.toolsfortorah.com/Images/KidSiddurCover.gifA third vendor (in no particular order) was Rabbi Chaim B. Alevsky, of Tools for Torah.  He’s the voice behind Tefillah Trax, which I consider the best davening CD out there at the moment and reviewed two years ago over here.  You can preview the tunes at chabad.org over here, or click here to pay $10 and own the whole CD’s worth of music instantly.  Rabbi Alevsky also offers Bentsching Trax, Tishrei Tunes (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) and a Pesach Hits CD

If it’s true that a picture says a thousand words, then a song says a hundred thousand, and Rabbi Alevsky intuitively seems to know that kids learn best when they’re singing.  Though basic, the tunes on the CD are bouncy and joyful.  (When I told him my kids used to bounce up and down on the sofa as they listened, he said it wasn’t the first time he’s heard that.)

Rabbi Alevsky also had some of his own print materials available to buy at the conference, and others which were just sample copies.  graciously sent me packing with a copy of his Kids’ Siddur for my suitcase. 

I really like the layout and style of this Hebrew/transliterated siddur.  It seems ideally suited to parents working through it alongside their children, and having a teaching experience.  Transliterations are given, but many pages also include vocabulary-builders (basic words like melech/king and neshama/soul) so you can grow in knowledge together.

siddur (1)siddursiddur (2)

You’ll have to look through this siddur carefully to determine if it’s appropriate for you and your kids.  The davening is Chabad-style, which is slightly different in a few ways from what most people are used to, but the siddur is available in both Ashkenazic and Sephardic transliterations.  Click here for a free 28-page sample download.

To be honest, having put so much energy into creating materials for home education, I’m a sucker for any stuff that looks like it’s been assembled thoughtfully, with an eye to making life easier for parents who may not have the strongest Jewish background.  At one point, Robin Alberg, one of the speakers yesterday, asked who in the room was a baal teshuvah, and many, many hands went up.

Here is a link to sample pages and more information about the siddur and Rabbi Alevsky’s other books and materials:  ToolsforTorah.com.

This is of course an incomplete list, and there were quite a few more vendors hanging out during the very long lunch break, hawking their programs.  Which is great, because I feel like at this point, the more competition we have for excellent materials, the more our kids will benefit.

A FEW MORE THOUGHTS ON CURRICULUM:

I feel terrible leaving out Yael Resnick’s (co-founder, with her husband, Rabbi Yosef Resnick, of room613.org and founder of Natural Jewish Parenting) in-development conversational Hebrew program called Holistic Hebrew, “based on her unique, holistic approach to education.”  It looks great, but having only been given a few minutes with the material, I don’t feel I can say much except that I’m excited to see how it turns out.  I love the fact that the program has kids creating their own custom dictionary; as a parent of a kid who has to look up the same words over and over, every single time we use the Hebrew book, I think that would really help the knowledge “stick.”  It also seems to build very gradually, based around a few new words per lesson, which are printed on special cards.

One thing that’s special about her program is that it’s geared towards parents who don’t know Hebrew.  While other vendors all said their materials were teaching-parent-friendly, I feel like, in most cases, they make assumptions based on the lowest common denominator of classroom teachers, not parents, where all materials should assume a very low comfort level with Hebrew. 

Of course, some homeschoolers may have a yeshiva-type background; hopefully, more and more will as homeschooling becomes more mainstream and less of a “crazy BT” thing to do.  But the reality now seems to be that for most of us, things need to be spelled out pretty clearly to make sure we can share it competently with our children. 

Assumptions that professional kodesh educators make about what a person with “no Hebrew background” looks like are probably way beyond the capabilities of many teaching parents.

(I thought about this when Rabbi Horowitz pulled up a list from chinuch.org of the most common shorashim in the Chumash and saw that in the find print at the top, a parent/teacher is directed to keep this list in mind when they are “chozer the chumash with your yingelah” (“review the Torah with your boy”, presumably meaning a student).  Of course, this information wasn’t essential to understanding the list, but I speak from experience when I say that even just having scary words anywhere on the page is, well… scary.

Hopefully, as BT parents become less afraid to home-educate their kids in limudei kodesh, materials will become more and more friendly to them, and teachers’ guides will become available that will help them wade through these sometimes slightly murky waters.

My next and final conference-related post will talk about the speakers themselves, since they, too, were excellent!  (Though, of course, I’ll probably just end up saying, ‘you ought to have been there’… or recommending the recorded versions when they become available.)

(and while you’re waiting, for someone else’s perspective on the Torah Home Education Conference, please see Jessie Fishbein’s much shorter post here)

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