Our Children's Partners in Learning
“Children are like wet cement: whatever falls on them makes an impression,” wrote Dr. Chaim Ginott, an Israeli early-education pioneer. I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot this week as I have watched my two school-age sons transition from summer vacation to a semester of virtual learning.
Like many parents in the congregation, I’ve been frustrated this week, trying to help Jesse and Ezra log-on to an endless succession of zoom lessons. And, I’ve wondered how they can be expected to focus for hours on the small screen of their MCPS-issued Chrome book. I am not sure that I could do it!
How will a nearly a year of online learning impact them? What impression will this time period make? Will they miss some fundamental lessons about long division or photosynthesis? Or, will the remote learning experience leave something more essential lacking – cooperative skills, socialization, active learning? Or, maybe just maybe, living through a pandemic will impress upon them the skills of perseverance, patience and adaptability.
I’m just a parent like so many of you, and I’ve also wondered how to best help my sons, now that I have been thrown into the role of homeschool teacher. I know my role must go beyond just remembering the list of zoom passcodes and troubleshooting how to submit online assignments. Virtual learning, by its nature, tends to be more one-sided than a classroom experience. Conversation, the give-and-take between teacher and student, is more stilted and difficult.
I am no expert but I think that engaging in simple conversation can be one of our most powerful tools. Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, writes, “Education means teaching a child to be curious, to wonder, to reflect, to enquire. The child who asks becomes a partner in the learning process, an active recipient. To ask is to grow.”
The classic Jewish style of learning is called “chavruta.” “Chavruta” is based on the root “friendship” and, in chavruta learning, two partners challenge one another over deeper understanding of a Jewish text. Our children need partners in learning and, like it or not, we are those partners for foreseeable future.
One of my favorite tall tales from Jewish tradition is about a great prophet who visits a faraway small town. The town is experiencing a terrible drought and the townsfolk think if they present their most outstanding citizens to the prophet, perhaps the draught will abate. The mayor, the rabbi, the head of the yeshiva all come to meet the prophet. But the prophet points to a non-descript, quiet man standing on his own in the back of the room. “What do you do, sir?” says the prophet.
“I’m the teacher of small children,” says the man. “When a child grows impatient with learning, I take him to see the goldfish in my pond. We watch the fish until he is ready to learn.”
“He has the merit!” says the prophet. And, according to the legend, upon the prophet's pronouncement, the rain clouds open.
My pledge to myself, and my sincere hope for you.
Have patience with your young homeschool scholar. Remember that everything about this experience will be impressed upon them.
Engage with them about more than just zoom passwords and computer frustrations. Ask them their opinion, encourage them to be curious. “Chavruta” means friendship. Be their friend in learning.
And, when they grow impatient about learning (or you grow impatient about learning), take a break. Encourage them to watch the birds outside, the squirrels jumping from tree to tree, the wind in the trees. Encourage them to wonder.