First of all, one of my biggest happy impressions – as always, when speaking to homeschoolers in the US – was, thank goodness I live in Canada! While other people talk about curriculum and reporting and consulting and government interference and accountability, I basically sit back and close my eyes and wait for all that boring stuff to be over.
In case you are in the U.S., let me explain what we had to do, in terms of accountability and paperwork, when we decided to homeschool our two youngest children: we decided to homeschool them. Period. The law here is a bit blurry and opinions are divided on whether it’s necessary to file a Notice of Intent to Homeschool if your kids have never been in school. Anyway, we never have, for the younger kids (both older kids have been officially “homeschooled” at one time or another, as this is required to take certain Ministry-funded high school correspondence courses).
But that’s not really a conference thing, just me walking through the crowd feeling like a bit of an alien during certain parts of the discussions.
What I really want to talk about are the sessions I attended. As always when there are sessions, you have to choose and there is always going to be one choice you don’t get to go to.
Here are the sessions I attended with a one-line summary of each. Keep in mind that, since Naomi Rivka refused to go to the childcare, she was sitting next to me for each one. That made me a bit uncomfortable, mostly worrying that SHE was going to be uncomfortable, but also – a little bit – worrying that she’d hear phrases like “Mommy Meltdown” or “caring and patience” and have some kind of “aha” moment where she’d realize that any bad days we might experience around here were actually kind of unacceptable.
But anyway. Here’s where we went:
9:15 - Educating for Eternity: Clarifying our Vision and Passing it on to our Children Rebecca Masinter
I wish I’d taken notes, but I didn’t. I’d say this was the most general and yet the greatest chizuk of the entire weekend. She’s a gorgeous person, in so many ways; a second-generation homeschooler, and a speaker with such purity of vision and clarity of speech that it’s impossible to listen to her and not come away charged with a passion to be Jewish! And frum! And homeschool! And adore absolutely every single moment of your kids’ lives! I hope she doesn’t read this and realize I remember almost no specifics…
10:05 - Skills-Based Homeschooling in Torah Sheba'al Peh - Principles and Practice Rabbi Dr. Pinchas Hayman
This was an easy call because the alternative was a session on “Getting Started.” Still, teaching Mishna and Talmud to my kids? Not a topic I thought I’d be interested in at all… and BOY, was I wrong. I’ve already written a bit about Dr. Hayman’s “V’shinantam” program. But it’s worth repeating what I felt was the most important take-away:
While a mishna in Pirkei Avos is 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,” the intention of the mishna itself is not what most people think. It’s usually translated as “five years old to read chumash, 10 years old to learn mishna, 15 years old to learn gemara.” But Pirkei Avos was written hundreds of years before the mishna, let alone the gemara, were written down as we know them today. So these three stages must (he said) refer to those types of learning skills, not the actual books themselves (since they didn’t exist yet).
In my opinion, these skill levels correspond very well to the three stages of the trivium as taught in Classical education, but that was my own brain interjecting thoughts, not something he actually said. Unfortunately, he was under the impression that he had a whole extra half-hour to speak, so he didn’t get to show some of the practicalities of his program.
10:55 -Learning as a Way of Life; Life as a Way of Learning Yael Resnick
Skipped a session on record keeping (see above, I’m Canadian!) to attend this one. And yay, a speaker actually talking about subjects other than kodesh! She talked about how to use a relaxed, holistic, kind of unschooly approach to incorporate learning into many areas of our kids’ lives. I found myself nodding and nodding and nodding – feeling almost like the congregation in a black gospel church - “Amen, Sistah!” She spent most of her talk introducing her new conversational Hebrew program, Holistic Hebrew, which I mentioned briefly in my earlier post. We were supposed to have a chance to try it out among ourselves, but unfortunately, ran out of time. I took the materials home and would like to try it with the kids.
11:45 – Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, Bright Beginnings
Missed “Hash It Out - A Moderated Shmooze” and “Homeschooling in Maryland: Laws and Other Guidance“ to go hear Rabbi Horowitz; as I told a friend at the conference, I’d go to hear him read the phone book. Whatever he’s saying, it’s going to be good, and this session didn’t disappoint. He talked about his methodology for teaching Chumash, but more importantly, talked about the importance of teaching it systematically, in a way that makes sense. Many schools don’t do this because it’s easier and quicker just to get started. But laying the groundwork through rigourous training in roots and prefixes / suffixes will help kids feel like Chumash learning is within their grasp… which can have tremendous payoff later on down the line where they are more likely to feel at home in Torah learning. He also introduced the new second volume in the Bright Beginnings Chumash workbook series, which I bought from his wife during the lunch break. Unfortunately, his session was only half an hour and was hampered by a few technical difficulties.
12:15 – Lunch
Lunch was… LONG. Two and a half hours long. Perhaps a bit long? Maybe I should have been socializing during that time, but I had Naomi Rivka with me and this was her most restless time of day, just hanging about. And okay, I felt very limited in what I could say to people and talk about with her listening. I guess I could have just listened. :-)
The truth is, I also spent a lot of time during lunch standing around plugging my book, giving out business cards and otherwise trying to sell myself. It was kind of fun and gave me the focus and questions I needed to put together a basic FAQ for the book. That said, maybe they weren’t displayed as well, but fewer people seemed interested in the lapbooks, which was sad to me, because they are such a fun way to get a lot of real learning done.
Here’s my stuff, all laid out – okay, kind of slapdash!
This and the picture at the top were literally the ONLY two pictures of any kind that I took during the conference. I wanted to HAVE the experience, not waste time running around taking pictures of it.
After lunch, there were more sessions…
2:45 - Ways to Prevent Mother Meltdown Robin Alberg
This was another easy call: I skipped a session called, “A Father's Perspective.” Indeed, there was only one Abba in the room for this session, who said he was there to learn to support his homeschooling wife better. Aww… Robin’s message was basically, “family first.” Reinforced by anecdotes from her own 6-week road trip, alone with kids, something I’d never be brave enough to do. Her talk was very practical, with lots of tips and hints from her own experience.
3:45 - Limudei Kodesh through a Classical Education Lens Yael Aldrich
You may have heard of Classical Education in the general homeschooling world: early study of Latin, diagramming sentences, mummifying chickens(!). How can we apply the principles and motivations behind this seemingly non-Jewish educational philosophy to limudei kodesh?
4:25 - Ages and Stages Gila Haor
Missed “Teaching to Our Children: A Look at Individualized Education,” which I probably would have gotten more out of. By this point in the day, I’ll be honest, I was getting a bit tired and overwhelmed and overloaded. Not that I was unhappy – you totally get your money’s worth out of this conference, especially since the cost of admission was only $36.
This was the one session I probably could have done without. It was sort of focused on child development, but not at all focused on homeschooling, and really, having raised 4 kids, I feel like this is the kind of stuff I know already, and know specifically about my own kids, better than I could be told by somebody who isn’t a homeschooling parent and mainly seems to have experience with special-ed kids in schools. I have nothing against the presenter, but did not enjoy this talk for those reasons. Oh, well… they can’t all be a win.
5:15 - Homeschooling Parent Panel: Let's Learn!
Yes! Something fun! Learning from the pros! Except, by this point, I was not only exhausted but also worried about making it to our 9:15 bus, given that we needed to stop for supper along the way.
Naomi Rivka, on the other hand, even after seven or eight fairly dry (for an 8-year-old) speaker talks, was absolutely riveted. Throughout the weekend, she’d become utterly fixated – to the point of Creepy Stalker Obsession – with one of the homeschool mamas who happened to be participating on the panel. And she was basically staring, staring, staring at this mama while the panel discussion was going on. She would have sat there all night listening to this woman speak. All week. All her life, just for the opportunity to be taken home by this woman. She was IN LOVE.
So when I went off to the side to pack up my bags, she refused to come with me, but stayed in her seat front and centre, perched there in her stock-straight, bolt-upright fashion, staring zombie-style at this one particular mama.
At which point I realized that, despite having unloaded a few books and a couple of maple syrup bottles, my suitcase was now officially MORE FULL than it was on the way down. This is a mysterious thing that happens when I travel; my possessions swell to fit the available space, then swell more when we arrive until they are absolutely un-repackable for the way home.
Desperate, I crammed everything in, but even with forcing and squishing, could NOT get the suitcase to zip all the way. Gave up, grabbed Naomi Rivka, and left. Saw a woman from the conference outside the JCC and dashed outside to ask her for a ride to the restaurant… only to realize that the JCC was now closed and I had no way of getting back inside to retrieve my suitcase. And then, oops – realized I’d forgotten to say goodbye to a few people of the people there that I really cared about and didn’t want to leave without doing it.
But that’s okay, because the woman seemed totally dubious about giving us a ride, anyway. She was like, “well, I’ll have to ask my husband.” But I was prepared to push, because I had a kid with me, so we waited until he came with the car, and it turned out he was happy to give us a lift. I told him to wait literally 2 minutes, found an open door back into the JCC, hugged the person I wanted to hug, waved at a few friendly faces, grabbed our suitcases, and hopped somewhat awkwardly into his car.
Our supper (at David Chu’s China Bistro) was wonderful, though I realized halfway through ordering that there was not a single vegetable coming our way… well, except in my Hot & Sour Soup, which was delicious. It’s the only place I feel happy ordering the Hot & Sour Soup, knowing it’s not going to be gluey or sweet or red or weird like other kosher restaurants I’ve been to.
Also, after eating lunch at the conference, neither of us was all that hungry, so we ended up taking most of our meals to go. I ate mine (General Tso chicken) on the bus later that evening, but Naomi Rivka never did finish her chicken fingers (a generous plate, with fries, for $6.50).
After supper, we rushed to the Metro station which Google Maps had promised was 11 minutes away. It was more like 20, and by the time we got downtown, it was 8:25 and I was worried there wasn’t time to get to the distant mall where the Megabus stops. So we took a cab… fifty bucks later, we made it to the mall with 10 minutes to spare. The bus arrived on time, and we were homeward bound!
I haven’t really said anything here – cuz I’ve been holding back – about what a bittersweet experience this conference was; how weird it was exploring my commitment to homeschool and rededicating myself to the cause of educating my children… even as I am planning to turn them over to various schools once we arrive in Israel.
But in a sense, we are all homeschoolers, and I never want to abdicate responsibility for the kids’ education, which ultimately does rest on me. So I feel good for having gone. I’m happy I went.