I wrote this for a Jewish homeschooling conference that took place yesterday in Baltimore. Here’s the full text:
The day after Pesach my ten year old daughter decided to make a siyum on a perek of Navi that she had finished. Two weeks before Pesach, when she had actually finished the perek, I had vaguely mumbled something about making a siyum some time soon and promptly forgot all about it. But once Pesach was over I had no excuse to delay her party. Especially since it involved real milchig ice cream.
Excited, my daughter began to discuss with her older sister who she’d like to invite. “I’m not inviting anyone who goes to school,” she said. Her list only included homeschoolers. Her sister agreed with her wholeheartedly. A siyum is not a birthday party. It is a celebration of Torah learning. My daughter wanted to give a speech and share what she had learned with other girls who would actually appreciate it. She didn’t want anyone rolling her eyes or spacing out. School kids are just not interested in learning, according to my daughters.
The beauty of homeschooling is the genuine love of learning I’ve been privileged to observe in all my children, even the older ones who are now in school. Homeschooled kids never lose their curiosity and their joy of discovery. When we learn Chumash with my daughter and her friend each of them gets excited when it’s her turn to read. After my husband learns Mishna with my son he is always eager to tell me what he learned. My children think about what they are learning outside of our official learning time and apply what they learned to real life situations. To them, learning is about life and life is about learning.
All children are born with a natural desire to learn. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss why and how school children lose this desire. But I would like to describe how homeschoolers nurture it and maintain it.
Homeschooling parents are attuned to their children. We enjoy spending time with our children and getting to know them. We try to let go of any expectations or preconceived notions of what our children should be like, and we learn to appreciate them just as they are. And along the way, we learn about their interests, strengths, and weaknesses. Intuitively, we pick up on their learning styles and recognize which approaches work best in teaching them whatever they need to know. We give them all the time in the world to develop at their own pace, without measuring their achievements against someone else’ scale. At the same time, we notice the areas where they get stuck and help them over those humps. Sometimes, that involves hiring a tutor, as was the case with my daughter who struggled with reading due to dyslexia. And other times, it simply involves lots of encouragement, and perhaps even pushing. We are aware of our children’s potential and do not accept anything less than them doing their very best.
And of course, we make learning exciting. For our family, that involves reading lots of books and using a literature-based curriculum whenever possible.
The concept of using living books in a literature-based curriculum has been around for over a century, since the days of Charlotte Mason, a British educator who devised an innovative approach to education. Her methods are still widely used by homeschooling families. The living books approach is frequently used by Christian homeschoolers, and there are many materials available for them. These days, with the growing number of secular homeschoolers, there are many secular living books out there. Currently, we use Life of Fred for math, The Sassafras Science Adventures for science, and various well-researched historical fiction novels for social studies. My children look forward to reading these books every day. My six year old son has been known to sabotage my laundry folding efforts by begging me, “Can we do science now? Pleeease?”
Over the years, as I observed my children’s excitement about a literature-based curriculum, I’ve been trying to use a similar approach to Torah studies. Unlike secular studies, there is nothing ready made available for Jewish homeschoolers. So I’ve been putting together my own list of living books. We’ve read the Naftail in the Beis Hamikdash series by Rabbi Yaakov Meir Strauss. We all enjoyed it, and learned a lot. We’re reading Avner Gold’s Ruach Ami series, currently volume 8. From previous volumes, we learned about Jewish life in Europe in the 17th century, about the Shabtai Tzvi saga and its tragic aftermath, and about living as a secret Jew in Spain during the Inquisition. Right now, in honor of Sefiras Haomer, we are reading And Rachel was his Wife, a novel about Rabbi Akiva’s wife. This morning, when we began our learning, the children asked if we could read it first.
There are many other good Jewish living books out there. But there aren’t enough. I would love to see a lot more books, on various Torah topics, that could together form a whole comprehensive curriculum.
We homeschoolers are creative problem solvers. If something we want is not yet available we think of a way to solve that problem. And so I embarked on an adventure. As a writer, I am working on the kinds of books I’d like my children to read. But one person can only do so much. So I invited other Jewish writers to join me. G-d willing, we will be working together on producing living books that inspire as well as educate. I began a Torah through Literature blog, where I post book lists, book recommendations, tips, and G-d willing, announcements about new books as they come out.
I invite you to join me on this journey and visit the blog at torahthroughliterature.com. Please subscribe to receive the updates as soon as they are posted. Who knows, maybe by the time our children are raising their own children, G-d willing, there will be not one, but many literature-based Jewish curricula to choose from.