Home schooling has always fascinated me. When my children were growing up and had various difficulties in school, I often thought that I should just keep them at home. But, it never went further than a thought. I was too timid to buck the trend and do something so unusual. I also could not imagine having my children home all day. I liked the comfort and structure of having them in school. Besides, it was scary to have the full responsibility of bringing up my children by myself! Home schooling was too radical to even consider.
But home schooling has become a part of my life, now, because two of my granddaughters, ages five and eight, are being home schooled. I decided to find out more about it from the perspective of the home schooler – and the home schooled.
When I arrived at my children’s home on a Sunday morning, the family was eager to show me around and explain how things work. I was given a tour of their “classroom” in the basement, where my granddaughters proudly showed me their workbooks. Chana Bracha, my five-year-old granddaughter, was eager to show me her tracing book and a magnetic letter game she plays from the program Handwriting Without Tears. Tova, who is eight, showed me the story she is in the middle of writing. The girls gave me a glimpse of the plethora of supplies in the teacher’s (otherwise known as the mother) supply closet. They pointed to a map of the United States on the wall with spaces to fill in all the states. Tova explained that when she has finished filling in the whole map, she will be able to choose a trip to any state that touches Maryland for a prize.
“Do you wish you could go to traditional school like the other girls your age?” I asked Tova. “Well, I don’t want to go to school,” she said, “but I would like to go one time to see what they do there.”
I was puzzled by her statement, so Tova explained, “I just made a little knapsack with my new weaving loom, and when my sister and I were playing school, we used the knapsack for our doll, but it has nothing inside it because we don’t really know what children who go to real school put in their knapsacks.”
“Oh,” I said. “So going to school is to help you play school better.”
Tova wholeheartedly agreed.
After this delightful start to my research, Tsippy, my daughter-in-law, offered to connect me to some other local home schooling families, so I could find out about home schooling from their perspective.
* * *
The first family I spoke to was the Masinters of Bancroft Village. Rebecca Masinter was actually home schooled herself for four years during her childhood. She has nothing against school, she told me. She enjoyed attending school herself and chose to home school because she sees its tremendous benefits. She has six children, ranging in age from her oldest son, who was recently bar mitzva, to her youngest who is almost two. Rebecca says that they used to be the only home schooling family in Bancroft Village but now there are more.
Rena Baron, Rebecca’s sister, has five children: a boy and four daughters. “Baltimore has the largest hub of frum home schoolers in the United States,” Rena says. “I think there are about 40 families in our community who home school. Because there are so many home schooling families, my children have many opportunities to make friends and spend time with other children.”
Fayge Pinter* has three daughters. She home schools the oldest, the second goes to school part time, and the youngest is in school full time. “I try to do what is best for each of my children,” she says, “although I am thinking about home schooling all my children next school year.”
Matt Bernstein, the newest home schooling parent I interviewed, has only been home schooling his 14-year-old son for three weeks, but he is bursting with enthusiasm about the myriad of opportunities that are available. Mr. Bernstein’s son is learning through a combination of media, including online classes and private teachers, both in person and via Skype. He has the opportunity to learn with real experts in different fields.
Why Home School?
“Why do you choose to do something so unusual and so different?” I asked Tsippy. “What do you hope to gain? What are the advantages?”
Tsippy was eager to share her views. “For me, this is a lifestyle choice. Home schooling your children creates a completely different dynamic in the household. My children have many more opportunities to think for themselves and become independent people. They spend hours playing together. They also play well with children older and younger than they are. They get plenty of attention and love from me, so they don’t have to act out in order to get my attention. They are not perfect, but it is rare that their misbehavior comes from lack of parental attention. In the summer, when the girls went to camp, I noticed a big difference in the family dynamic. Although they enjoyed camp immensely, they came home drained and were not available for relationships at home.
“Traditional schools foster sameness and being receptive. All the children’s energy goes towards being a part of the group, making sure that their friends like them and making sure that their teachers like them. When children are home schooled they don’t have to worry about all that and can use their energy for other things. Traditional schools focus on the outcome, but while the outcome is definitely important, we tend to put more emphasis on the process/experience of learning.”
Tsippy’s husband, my son Aaron, who is more a support than a hands-on participant in this project, chimes in with a few of his own ideas. “Home schooling gives me opportunities to present new ideas to my child in the way I think is best. I’m not always one step behind, trying to correct what her classmates or teachers have already taught her. Children are a blank slate, and it’s a privilege to be the first to write on it. For example, children with behavioral, emotional or learning disabilities were teased and looked down on when I went to school, because they didn’t ‘fit in.’ Now, I explain to my daughters that everyone has strength and weakness. Some people’s weaknesses are more visible to others. We should not be embarrassed or looked down on because of our weaknesses. It’s so much easier when you’re taught it right the first time. My daughters see less value in fitting in. After all, they don’t spend their day with a class full of kids just like themselves. I love that my kids are so unique. Home schooling fits our children and our lifestyle at this time. When our children get older, things may change.”
Rebecca Masinter was very articulate about why she home schools. “Home schooling has the potential to allow the family unit to be the most important part of the child’s life,” she says. “In today’s world, parents are told that they are not good enough and need professionals to help them bring up their children. I wanted our family to be primary, and the best way to do that is through home schooling. As the decision maker in our home school, I have the choice about what I think is important for my children to know, and I can focus on those things.”
Fayge Pinter* started home schooling her eight-year-old daughter, Chavie, because the school insisted that she give her daughter medication in order for her to stay in school. Mrs. Pinter’s pediatrician agreed that medication was not necessarily the right answer for Chavie, so Mrs. Pinter felt she had no choice but to keep her daughter home. She came to the decision to home school because of the conflict with the school, but now the process is working well for their family.
Matt. Bernstein says, “My son reminds me of myself. I also struggled in school. For some kids, the traditional educational system is just not a good fit. They need a more student-centric educational model in order to learn.”
Filling Up the Day
One of the things I imagine home schooling children saying to their mothers is “Ma, I’m so bored. What can I do-o-o-?” None of the three families I spoke to seemed to have that problem.
“Ha!” says Tsippy, “My children barely know what that word means. They are used to entertaining themselves and can play for hours and hours. Most days we get up between 7 and 8 a.m., and the girls play for about two hours. After that, we daven, have breakfast, and go down to our school room for an hour or two. In the afternoon, we usually go out to an activity. There are many activities for home schooled children all over town. This year we are going to science programs at the science center. We have also gone to programs at the zoo and the aquarium.”
On Mondays, we attend the home schooling co-op, where they take interesting classes with other home schoolers. On Tuesdays the girls take gymnastics at Bas Melech, and on Wednesdays, during the winter, they take an ice skating class. Thursdays are still open, but I am sure they will be filled up soon. We also go on lots of trips to playgrounds, farms, and parks around Baltimore.
Boredom doesn’t seem to be a problem for the Masinters, either. Rebecca runs a much more scheduled school then Tsippy. She teaches her children most of the school day. For example, she learns the parsha with all her children almost every week. She uses workbooks and other educational tools. She feels very strongly that when a child is ready, he will want to learn. She doesn’t pressure her children to learn to read or to learn Chumash at a certain age. Instead, her attitude is “I know that when you are ready you will love to learn to read or to learn mishnayos.” If the mother has the patience to wait, the child will sometimes approach her and ask to learn a certain subject.
“My daughter is a big reader,” says Mrs. Pinter, so she learns a lot by just reading. She is very curious and is interested in finding out about things that intrigue her. I let her choose what she wants to learn. For example, I asked her what halachos she wanted to study, and she chose hilchos lashon hara, so that is what we are doing this month. When I asked her what she wanted to learn in home economics, she said she wanted to learn how to strike a match and cook with fire, so that is what we are learning now. We probably have an hour and a half of school in the morning and an hour and a half of school in the afternoon.”
Matt Bernstein has set up a complete educational program for his son. He has three different rebbeim with whom he learns, either in person or via Skype, and gets to choose what he wants to learn, which make it much more palatable to him. “In school, my son would be lost in the classroom,” says Mr. Bernstein. “He is able to do much better with a one-on-one relationship with his rebbe. He studies algebra with a professional algebra teacher, also online. Although we are calling this home schooling, the truth is that my son is often not doing his work at home. Most days he comes with me to my shared work space and does his school work there.”
Rena Baron loves home schooling her daughters. “My son is in school, so I do not feel responsible for his education, but I feel the awesome and amazing responsibility of being the sole educator of my daughters. I only really sit down and teach them for about 20 minutes a day, but we fly through the material, because I am teaching them one on one, and I know what they already know.” Indeed, many home schooling parents point out that they can cover a day’s full of material in a fraction of the time it takes in a classroom full of children with differing abilities, because the teaching is geared precisely to their child’s level.
I asked Rena if her husband is involved in the home schooling as well. “No,” she quipped, “but he is the fundraiser.” She adds, “There is so much material available to home schooling families. We have great text books, and many of the museums in the city have special programs for homes schooling families. My children are eager to learn and many times take the initiative and ask me to teach them something new. For example, we have a game about the states that the girls enjoy so much that they beg me to teach them about new states.”
Independence and Creativity
One of the benefits of home schooling is fostering independence and creativity in the children. Both Tsippy and Rebecca talked about the skills their children are learning at home. “Being at home all day allows time to learn real life skills,” Tsippy explains.
“For example, Tova, does her own laundry. She collects her laundry, puts it in the washing machine, and after I help her sort through what belongs in the drier and what gets hung up, she puts away all the clothes. She also cooks some dishes. She knows how to prepare salmon and how to make lemonade, macaroni, and pancakes.”
“Home schooling allows the children to feel that they are important people and can do important things,” says Rebecca. “I need them to help me run the household, and they know that. When everyone is home together all day, a lot of mess is created and my children help keep the house neat. On Fridays and before Pesach, we have less school and instead focus on home economics: i.e., preparing for Shabbos and for Pesach. I think it is just as important as school work.” Recently, Rebecca’s eight-year-old daughter prepared and planned her own birthday party, from printing the invitations, delivering them, planning the games, and baking the cake.
“Home schoolers are independent thinkers,” says Rena. “When I attended the home schooling conference this year, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. They had a panel of children who were home schooled. All the children were asked certain questions and then given time to answer. I noticed that all the children gave different answers. They weren’t looking over their shoulders checking what other children were saying in order to decide what they should say.”
The Home Schooling Co-op
One of the highlights of my grandchildren’s lives is the home schooling co-op they attend on Mondays, run by Rena Baron. “A co-op is very common in home schooling communities,” says Rena. “About 20 families are part of the co-op, which takes place one afternoon a week for about three hours. This year, the co-op has five groups, including one for 10- to 13-year-old boys, 6- to 9-year-old girls, 5- to 7-year-old boys, 5- to 7-year- old girls, and children four and under. The afternoon is divided up into three classes for each group. Some of the groups are run by mothers and some have hired teachers. “I started the co-op because it takes time to prepare a subject in a fun way that the kids will really understand and enjoy,” says Rena. “Instead of each parent preparing every subject just for their own children, we split the work by sharing the subjects with all of our children. Different parents are passionate about different subjects and naturally will share that enthusiasm with their children. In the co-op, the kids gain from the enthusiasm about each subject they are taking, because parents can choose the subject they want to teach and generally pick subjects they are passionate about. Each parent has also been able to share interesting information with the kids based on skills they know. The kids have been exposed to sign language, origami, edible plants/flowers, watching wheat grow, learning how to set a formal table setting, and more.”
Traditional vs. Home School
Most of the home schooling families I interviewed do not home school all their children. Both Rebecca and Rena have one of their children in school and home school the others. “It was obvious to me that it was best for my sixth-grade son to attend school this year,” says Rebecca. “Homeschooling was not a good fit for him anymore. This year he is attending Ohr Chodosh and is doing well there.”
Rena’s son goes to TA. “My son is in the Zilberman track and is learning a lot that I could not teach him at home.”
I was surprised. I imagined such a situation might cause friction in the family. The child who goes to school might feel left out if fun things were happening at home while he was in school. But both Rebecca and Rena said that this is not a problem. “My children understand that not everyone is the same,” Rena says. “Each person does what is best for him or her. There are many fun things at school that my home schooled children do not get, so it balances out.”
I asked my granddaughter Tova if she felt bad about not attending traditional school. She was very clear on her views: “Why would I want to go to school if I would have to work 10 hours instead of one hour at home,” she said. “But what about recess? Wouldn’t that be fun?” I asked. “I have recess a whole day,” Tova answered. “And how about having your lunch and snacks in a brown bag?” “If I am hungry after I eat lunch, I can always get something to eat from the kitchen.”
Is Home Schooling for Everyone?
When speaking to Rebecca, I commented, “You sound so enthusiastic about home schooling that I think this article is going to cause a mass exodus from schools. Do you try to recruit others to join you?”
Rebecca laughed. “Of course not. Home schooling is something that a family has to want to do. It is not for everybody. It has to work for your family and your lifestyle.”
Obviously, home schooling has its advantages and disadvantages, just like regular school. Some people feel that home schoolers are harming their children scholastically and isolating them from the rest of the community by bucking the norm. One parent who used to home school his son, says, “Home schooling did not work well for our family. The home schooling community is very small. Our son did not find his niche and did not make friends.”
Another problem had to do with learning. “Our son did not cooperate. It was very difficult to get him to sit down and do his work, so he fell behind his contemporaries who were attending traditional school. This made it harder to get him back into school when we wanted to do that.”
I am sure that there are many families on both ends of the spectrum. Some parents and children find that home schooling is perfect for them, while others flourish in the traditional school environment. Still, it was especially enjoyable to talk to home schooling parents who have a passion for what they’re doing. As Rena Baron said when explaining about the home schooling co-op, “When people are passionate about something, their enthusiasm and excitement is palatable and contagious.”
My daughter-in-law, Tsippy, sums it up succinctly: “When you home school, life is your classroom.”