Learning without lessons

Homeschooling is gaining popularity, but will it ever become a trend?

homeschooling 88 (photo credit: )
homeschooling 88
(photo credit: )
his weekend, 220,000 children in Jerusalem are enjoying their last few moments of freedom, as their parents count the minutes until life returns to normal. Come Sunday, these children will be rising early, packing their bags and going to school for another year of classes, lunch breaks and annual trips. But for an unknown number of families who homeschool Sunday will be just another day. In fact, Sarah Natan (not her real name), who lives with her husband Eli and four children on a moshav in the Beit Shemesh area, doesn't see the academic year as relevant to the education process. "We don't have an end of year," she explains, "because generally we follow the concept that learning happens at all times. We might have quieter times like the summer because things aren't happening, like hugim [activities]." At 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning her living room is tidy but cheerful. Two-year-old Malka scribbles contentedly, displaying her artwork proudly while her older brother David, 10, participates eagerly in the conversation, and baby Liora is alternately held and pushed in a swing. After a short while a sleepy Shira, five, makes an appearance. Most homeschoolers in Israel follow the less structured "un-schooling" model which does not provide a set curriculum but rather tailors itself to children's individual needs (see box). Though Natan believes that a certain amount of structure is important, her schedule is flexible and she does not force her children to study specific subjects at set times. Due to their recent move to the moshav, Natan says, "We've been on vacation from our normal family activities." Usually, however, the family follows a tentative weekly schedule. On Sunday, for example, recounts David, he would go to study with a rabbi in the morning, after which he and Shira go to Ramat Raziel to rehearse a play and the younger ones play in the park. They then go home for 45 minutes to eat lunch and then it's off to ceramics, followed by karate for David and ballet for Shira. In the Trachtman family household in Ramat Raziel the children's choices almost completely determine their lifestyle. At the gate of the Trachtman's spacious rural home three children declare that in addition to the two dogs in evidence, there are also "two sheep, nine chickens, a rabbit and a snake." Mother, Dina, later explains that the snake is a ball boa - "a non-poisonous constricting snake, which is [my son] Joshie's choice." "I think it's a rather conventional idea [to give children choices], but most people think it's rather unusual," she says. On a recent morning four of the Trachtman's seven children are at home - Josh, 13, Ezra, 10, Jonah, eight, and Frankie, three. The three eldest children are absent, as is their father, Michael, who spends much of the time working in the US. Jacob, 21, is currently living in the US and Rosie, 18, is in the army. Fifteen-year-old Toby is volunteering in the North. The Trachtman children are allowed to make choices in most spheres of their lives: they are allowed to choose what to study, what to eat, what pets to buy and although the family is Orthodox, Dina says she believes she wouldn't object if one of her children decided to marry a non-Jew. "I think that deep inside I would not be bothered by that," she says. "I'm not the police officer of faith, choice or anything." Eight-year-old Jonah says that while he likes to learn piano and act in plays, "I don't like learning to write." He considers for a moment and adds, "I like learning to read, though." His not wanting to learn to write does not disturb his mother, who observes that all of her children have learned specific skills at different times. Her attitude, however, does not mean she does not attempt to guide her children. "It is important to us to set a standard we live by and hopefully they will pick up on those standards," she says. "Certain things are important. Books are important to us. It doesn't escape their observation that we think a lot can be learned from books." The Trachtmans' willingness to allow their children to make choices extends to school. Her two oldest children have matriculated - Jacob, at the time hoping to ease his absorption into the army, took an external bagrut (matriculation certificate) while studying in yeshiva. Rosie, who according to her mother didn't feel that homeschooling in Israel "was a clear enough choice," earned an online international high school diploma to aid her later integration into society. But, Dina stresses, "If you were to ask her I don't think she'd say she got her education through the diploma." "Someone else might choose school down the line," says Trachtman, unperturbed. "School is just another one of the choices people make and our choice is to homeschool. "If I believed in school I would work in the school to improve the institution. I think it's about participating in your children's education. If you choose school, that's not to say school is a worse choice - it's a different choice." She does, however, think everyone has the ability to educate their children at home, but, she cautions, "every family has to choose homeschooling as a choice for their family and not as a last resort. It shouldn't be the default." Prof. Roni Aviram, chair of the Center for Futurism in Education at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, encourages homeschooling as an alternative to what he believes is the failure of the school system in the Western world, and especially in Israel. School as we know it, he explains, was developed in the late 19th century in the US, England and France as part of the industrial revolution. When millions of people moved to cities from villages to work in factories, legislation was passed to create a rigid school system to facilitate the production-line mentality. School was established in the US and England, and earlier in Germany, to imitate army barracks or a factory, Aviram says. At school, as in a factory, everyone had to arrive at the same time, do what they were told and work toward the same goal. "The characteristics developed in children were the same that were needed for the production line," he says. According to Aviram, the school format has not changed significantly. Today, he claims, "school is not relevant. It is not functional for students and not for society." Educational achievements are decreasing, violence is increasing and parents are becoming more worn out, he says. "These are the symptoms of the disease of incompatibility between schools that were established at the end of the 19th century and the needs of the 20th century. "The oppression that school is based on was necessary in the past, but it isn't today. We are now stifling our children unnecessarily." Now that the job market is more dynamic and people are increasingly working more flexible hours as freelancers, from home or in their own businesses, Aviram believes options such as homeschooling are becoming more realistic. He points to the Internet, as opposed to books, as an example of the irrelevance of the approach taken in the school system. "The child is exposed to books at school for two to three hours a day and is exposed to computers at home for [many] hours a day," he says. "They need to come to school to learn in a linear fashion from books?... It is a foreign world to them. When they go to work they'll use the Internet." While he sees homeschooling as one of the education solutions, along with alternative systems such as democratic and anthroposophic, he does not know whether it will ever become widespread. The practice of homeschooling is increasing, Aviram says. "I don't know where it will end. I'm very pleased about it. I don't think in Israel there is a chance that the education system will improve by itself. The only solution is that other systems will be created outside the system." Aliza Goldman (not her real name), now in her late 20s, who was homeschooled in the North until she moved to Jerusalem and began to go to school at age 12, is not convinced homeschooling is the answer. "It depends how it's done and I believe in most cases it's not done right and the children will be lacking in social skills because their mother is their teacher and their role model." Nevertheless, she says, "I'm not for the system, but I don't see anything necessarily better because I see the problems the schools do have." Goldman's father, who is originally from the US, "didn't want his children to be 'formatted.'" "He didn't find a secular system that he agreed with," she says. "He was a teacher for a while and he saw something about the world that he didn't want his children to be exposed to... He decided to do his own thing." Goldman, who grew up in a family of nine children, found her parents didn't have enough time to devote to her. "My oldest brother knew how to read at age three, but then my mother had me and then a year and a half later my younger brother... it was really hard for her and I learned to read later." Even though her parents brought in tutors, "it was more home than schooling. "I learned to read and write only at age 10-11." Consequently, "I still have gaps in my education," she says. When she finally went to school at age 12 - after her parents became religious and moved to Jerusalem and found a school system they liked - it took time to adjust both socially and academically. Rather than rejecting authority, she says, "I actually held onto instructions. That was how I got through it." Despite her misgivings, Goldman has mixed feelings about her experience. "I feel in a sense I'm different than a lot of children. It made it harder for me and it also gave me a different perspective on life. I'm glad I went [to school] because I don't know what would have been if I hadn't gone... but I was happier before," she concludes. According to the Compulsory Education Law, all school-age children must attend school, although it is possible to receive an exemption from the education minister. This is, apparently, a complicated process and many families prefer to homeschool without an exemption. The Trachtmans, for example, who at one stage were visited by truant officers, wrote a letter to former education minister Limor Livnat requesting permission to homeschool. Shortly afterward, they received a letter from the ministry informing them that their application had been received, but since then they have heard nothing. A group of approximately 100 families from around the country are attempting, through negotiations with the Education Ministry, or the court system if the talks fail, to have homeschooling legally recognized as a legitimate option (see box). The families, says Sasha Zinigrad, a homeschooler from Ariel who initiated the move, "don't want to be seen as criminals or as underground [members] - they want to be law-abiding." "Every parent has the right to choose for his kids. We're not coming from something negative, just from a belief that we can choose what's right for our kids," he adds. Natan agrees. "We, as parents, have more authority to choose how our own children are raised or educated. I don't accept the authority of the Education Ministry as a parent," she declares. Natan has not applied for permission to homeschool, and believes it is only those who make themselves known to the ministry who are then forced to send their children to school. Michael Trachtman has come to a similar conclusion. "It seems to me that families in which the children went to school at some stage are hassled more because they are in the computer system," he says. "It's more a computer thing than a philosophical thing." He also explains that conventional wisdom has it that Americans receive fewer visits from truant officers, while Israelis, single mothers and immigrants from the former Soviet Union receive more. "On the whole," he says, "they don't want to bother Americans because they think as long as it is limited to Americans it won't threaten the school system." According to figures provided by the Education Ministry there are approximately 100 families in Israel who are exempt from sending their children to school according to the guidelines of an April 2006 Education Ministry bulletin, while Zinigrad estimates there are in fact hundreds of families who homeschool. "Almost certainly there are families who don't meet the criteria in the bulletin's guidelines and who are therefore breaking the law of parents' obligation to send their children to school," acknowledges a ministry spokesperson. While there have been isolated cases of homeschooling for decades, it has only caught on as a trend in Israel in the past decade. Aviram estimates that Israel is 10 to 15 years behind America, where homeschoolers make up approximately 2 percent of the population, but that the Holy Land is slowly catching up. As a result, Trachtman believes, the average age of homeschooled children in Israel is much younger than in the US, about seven or eight, so Israelis have not yet begun to make decisions related to older kids. According to Zinigrad, families from across the socioeconomic, political and religious spectrum are members of the homeschooling flock. "Anyone who says it's something elitist or like a cult is wrong." While in the past, homeschoolers might have been isolated, there are now homeschooling groups all over the country, including one that meets bimonthly at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, and there are several Web sites and email lists. There is no typical homeschooling family. While many families in the Jerusalem area are Anglos, in other areas of the country this is not the case. "We are not an example of a homeschooling family. We are an example of our family that happens to homeschool," says Dina. The Trachtmans began to homeschool in the US after their oldest son Jacob was born. "It was a decision that came from the fact that we could," says Dina, who used to work as a geologist. "Back then it wasn't a decision about homeschooling, it was a decision that I would center our lives around our home." When they made aliya five years ago there was no question that they would continue to homeschool. "We have been able to manage wherever we are on one salary," says Dina. Natan has observed that most, but by no means all, Israeli homeschoolers are women. Although she has a doctorate in psychology she is currently not working. While her qualification as a psychologist has been recognized by the Health Ministry, her specialty as a general psychologist, which she obtained in the States, has not. "Sometimes I try to imagine working and work out how to do it," she says. "When I think about nursing and babies I don't know. I am convinced I will do it when I have the right formula." It was while waiting for recognition that she decided to homeschool. When the Natans returned after spending several years in the States, David was placed in an alternative school in a nearby moshav. Halfway through second grade the school began to run only two days a week and eventually it closed down. "It became a family lifestyle question rather than an educational one," Natan says. "It's about us wanting to live together as a family. We feel completely responsible for all areas of our children's lives and this includes time they would spend in a school. We feel that family life is rich with opportunities for growth and learning. "It's also about respecting children and teaching each child to grow with their own potential." The Natans do not yet have a local social environment because they are new to their moshav, but Natan ensures her children have adequate socialization through the homeschooling group and other homeschooling gatherings. Dina Trachtman believes homeschooled children actually have an advantage because "they are not poised to be friends with people who are the same age and the same demographic." "I make friends with moshav kids and people from JEST [Jerusalem English Speaking Theater]. I have friends of all ages from three to 80," adds her son Josh. That was not Goldman's experience. Her social life, she says, revolved around the children of her parents' friends. "Personally I was lacking in girlfriends." She is adamant that she wouldn't homeschool her own children. "It takes a [certain] type of personality... [the parent] has to give up a lot if she [or he] chooses to take care of them at home... She doesn't have a life. Others would say a mother who chooses to do that, that is her life." Trachtman takes the latter statement one step further. "Have there been days when I've wanted to run off to Antarctica? Sure. But even on those days I have reflected on the fact that I wouldn't have traded a single moment of my life with another person on this planet."