Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Thinking Outside the Box: Unschooling Jewish Learning

This year, N. has been attending a seventh grade class for religious education in a synagogue program called Machon.

The problem for him is that the class consists of 27 students sitting down to take notes from a power-point outline as the teacher lectures. This goes on for an hour and fifteen minutes. Although the teacher addresses several different topics during this time, these transitions are verbal only, and the students do not do any activities that would reinforce what is being taught. There is a quiz over the last weeks material given verbally at the beginning of every class. In short, if you wished to design a class that would frustrate and overwhelm a child with Asperger Syndrome and Central Auditory Processing Disorder, this one would win a prize.

At the beginning of the year, after N. had attended one class and come home in a melt-down state, I met with the teacher and requested accommodations for him using methodology more compatible with visual learning. The teacher does not get it. He told me that the outline in powerpoint constitutes a visual intervention. (Reading off a screen is still reading and is a primarily auditory activity. Writing alphabetic language is still auditory). He is also overwhelmed, I think, with 27 students and no pre-developed materials to use for them. He then demanded that I attend the class, too, and make sure that N. takes notes. I did at first but two problems quickly developed. One was that N. became isolated from the other students and the other was that he really did not want me to be there. I talked to the Director of Education, who had formed a relationship with N., and she agreed that the situation was not good. However, she did not feel that she could ask the teacher to change his style. So we have been driving into town once a week for N. to go to a class that is overwhelming to him. He comes out agitated and frustrated and it takes several hours to calm him down when we come home before he can sleep. This is turn is disrupting his learning the next day.

You may ask: What is the purpose of this exercise in frustration for all of us? Believe it or not, it has taken me until now (February) to ask myself that question. I have been inside this particular box: We want a Jewish education for N. He has committed to continuing his Jewish education post-Bar Mitzvah until a Confirmation ceremony at the end of grade 10. In order to have a confirmation ceremony, he must attend the synagogue program. It took me until last night to really assimilate a confusion in my thinking. Is the goal Confirmation? Actually, the goal is Jewish learning. Just as the Bar Mitzvah ceremony is a symbol of the attainment of a certain status (adult in the community) by demonstrating certain skills (lead a service, give a sermon, publically read Torah), so is Confirmation a symbol. It is not the goal--it is a symbol of attainment of the goal. The goal itself is that N. continue his Jewish learning. (The unschoolers reading this are probably saying: Well-Duh! We we wondering when you were going to get it!).

N. is committed to continuing to learn Judaism--and that is a life-time pursuit. He has many questions and wants to be able to do many things. The problem is not his motivation--it is in the structure of the classes he must attend in order to be allowed to have a Confirmation ceremony. But if Confirmation is not, in itself, the goal, then we can get out of the box that has become a problem for N.'s learning. The purpose of Jewish education is ultimately to live a Jewish life. That means Torah study, observance of Shabbat and Holy Days, and participation in the life of the synagogue. Confirmation is meaningless if it leads away from this goal rather than toward it. If we continue to put N. in a situation that is exceedingly frustrating to him and that does not further the goals listed above, then we are actually inhibiting his ability and desire to practice Judaism.

Once I came to this realization, a little thought and a 15-minute discussion with DH was all we needed to come up with other ways to meet these goals that are more compatible with N.'s learning differences. N. is already one of the few students in his Machon class that regularly observes the in-home rituals for Shabbat and Holy Days. He also prays the morning service each day, laying t'fillin, which is extremely uncommon among Jews who affiliate with Reform institutions. So the goal of Shabbat and Holy Day observance is being met.

Torah study takes place as part of our in-home Shabbat observance, too. However, N. needs the cross-fertilization of ideas to be found in study with others. Therefore, we are going to do two different things. One is to commit to attending Shabbat morning synagogue services on a more regular basis than we have been lately. The other is for him to participate in a small Torah study group for boys 13 - 15 years old that happens bi-monthly on Sunday mornings at another synagogue in town. N. found out about this from the rabbi there because he called this rabbi to ask a question. (One problem with our synagogue is that it is so programmed and professionalized and clergified that it is difficult to just call and ask a question. I guess this is what the president of the congregation meant when she discussed a "systems synagogue approach" last year. We are underwhelmed by it). This will also cause him to participate in the life of the community in meaningful study and discussion. The only other issue we need to resolve is how to have participate in the community through just being there. We think that if we can find a way for him to do something useful at the synagogue this might be a way for him to learn through service to the community. Didn't some actor once say that half of life is just being there? We want to find a way for him to "be there" for informal learning. (My own connection to the synagogue comes because I am a volunteer adult education teacher and because I show up to services that are needed in the community--to be "a body" for a Shiva service, for example, so the mourners can pray at home). This kind of participation is about being a Jew and learning through that process.

I have not quite given up on Confirmation, even though I have changed my perception of it's purpose. I am stepping out on a limb by requesting an alternative religious education program for N. due to his learning disabilities. This will largely be what I outlined above, but can grow and evolve because N. will participate in tweaking it to meet his needs. I am hoping that by having N. document his participation in these various activities and reflecting upon them, he will be allowed to demonstrate his continued Jewish learning and thus be allowed to participate in Confirmation. At the same time, now that I have articulated for myself the purpose of a ceremony like Confirmation, I do not see it as intrinsic to the goals outlined above for being a Jew. It is a nice marker, but it is not the thing itself. (Confirmation is not even a normatively Jewish ceremony--it was developed as a religious graduation ceremony in the Reform movement and was originally intended to replace Bar Mitzvah, which the early reformers wished to remove for a number of reasons). So, if we cannot come to an agreement on the alternative program, then we will have to forgo Confirmation.

It isn't always easy to venture outside the box. But the well-being of N.'s spirit demands that we cross some boundaries. After all, the original word for our people, Ivri means "boundary crosser."


Megan Bayliss said...

How well I understand the essence, frustration and struggle behind your words. Congratulations to you all for seeking acceptable alternatives for N. There are so many ways to skin a cat that we often overlook in our pursuit of doing the right thing.

I am very impressed with your family’s commitment to service. This is one of the things we have rated as being high on our learning objectives for Boy. My view is that learning through service is such a worthwhile type of education that it needs to be rated up there with Math and English.

I so long to sit and have a chat with you - to lessen the isolation that Asperger's parents often find themselves in from a world that demands certain tasks be met in a particular way to achieve a tangible reward. Whereas that may work for many kids (and parents), our kids deserve creativity and higher learning that is meaningful to them.

Now I must away...Boy is awake and cranky. He is not sleeping well and his frustrations are through the roof. We're visiting the health food store today to buy some more natural sleep remedies (if they don't work for Boy, I'll take them myself!!).

Take care everyone in your home. Our positive and sharing thoughts fly to you.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

N. goes through periods where he has difficulty sleeping, too. I find that I have to limit stimulating activities before bedtimes.

This is another reason why Machon is a problem. It happens in the evening, ending past N.'s usual bedtime, and his coping skills are not good when he gets tired. As you know, it is hard for kids with AS to cope with sensory stimulation at any time but when they are tired, well, Nelly bar the door!

N. takes meds to deal with anxiety and attention as well as a sub-clinical dose of a psychotropic drug that balances certain neurotransmitters. In the evening, he takes a half-dose of this drug because it stimulates appetite and helps him sleep. I find hot milk sweetened with honey helps in the effect, because the heat releases Tryptophan--an amino acid that aids in the regulation of diurnal rhythm. (It's the same stuff that makes one sleepy after eating Turkey, Chicken broth, or ice cream). The honey makes N. want to drink the milk and also helps with allergies--it is made locally--which can also disturb sleep.

How are the monsoons going?

Chaya said...

What a relief it is to have found your site. I thought that I was the only Jewish mother crazy enough to take her child out of school and begin homeschooling. I still get an horrified reaction from everyone--from our rabbi to our friends--but I have never regretted doing it. My 10-year old son has learned to read and write in English and Portuguese, excels at Math, and is even begining to read Hebrew now.

After spending 5 years in a traditional religious school, he would come home crying because he couldn´t read. The teachers would hold regular, bi-monthly meetings to complain bitterly about his performance and behaviour. Finally, they stated that he would have to take Ritalin if he were to be allowed back in school. I said, "That´s it--we are getting him out of here."

Few people here in Brazil understand or accept homeschooling. According to Brazilian law, homeschooling is illegal. Thankfully, my son has an American passport.

One problem remains: I cannot find a decent Jewish-studies curriculum, designed for home study. Sure, there are an infinite number of sites dedicated to Torah study for kids. They do not offer, however, as comprehensive a material as Calvert´s. We need real books, teacher´s manuals, workbooks, craft suggestions geared to the lessons, parasha notes, Hebrew, etc.

I may be wrong, but perhaps we need a Jewish "Calvert School," and naturally, there will be problems establishing which line of religous thinking and observance ought to be promoted (preferably Orthodox, as far as I´m concerned), but this should not be an impediment.