Sunday, June 21, 2009

Schools That Work: Personal Reaction

My first reaction to Wertheimer’s Schools That Work was a delighted “YES” (accompanied by a pumped fist). “Finally,” I told a colleague, “SOMEone thinks that we’re not all failing.”

I had become thoroughly sick and tired of articles about supplemental schools being awful and behind the times; of discussions in which the main theme was “Everyone knows that religious schools are a dismal failure;” and of matter-of-fact statements to the tune of, “Well of course my kid hates religious school: all kids do.”

I first discovered this “of-course-all-kids-hate-religious-school” when our now-27 year old son entered fourth grade at our local synagogue school. He had been an eager participant until that time. He'd get into the car eagerly and come home to enthusiastically share stories about what they had learned and classroom antics. He liked playing soccer and climbing on the geodesic dome in the back yard better, but then recess was his favorite part of his secular school day, too.

In fourth grade, things began to change: classroom demographics changed; his teacher had difficulty with classroom management issues (kids were allowed to tease each other, because “that’s how kids are”); and he was beginning to struggle with some significant but-as-yet unidentified learning disabilities. In less than a year, he went from an eager Judaics and Hebrew student to one who tried to run away when it was time for religious school. He’d scream, “You can’t make me go.” I could and I did – but it was a painful experience.

I spoke to relatives, friends, other parents, the principal. All of them assured me that “Of course, he hates religious school – all kids do.” Other parents said, “I suffered through it and was miserable. Now it’s my kid’s turn to be miserable.”

As a convert to Judaism, I was appalled. The more answers I tried to find, the more frustrated I became. The situation, which was already intolerable for my son, rapidly became unacceptable for me. And so we began to look for alternatives.

We tried first to work with the school…. And were met with a shrug of the shoulders and the implication that perhaps I was ambivalent about or deficient in my attitude towards Jewish education. If I “got with the program,” my son’s problems would probably go away.

Things were complicated by the fact that my husband had found a community in which he was comfortable and we decided that we were unwilling to leave the congregation. I ultimately met with our rabbi and asked him what alternatives were available. By that time, we had pulled both of our children out of the religious school and I was homeschooling them in Hebrew and Judaics while we searched for viable options. My request was simple: I wanted a solution that would be a better match for my kids and fulfill our synagogue’s requirements for bar and bat mitzvah.

There was a community school nearby that fit the bill. I met with the Education Director, and shared our experiences, concerns, and hopes. We made a plan to integrate both children into their program the following year. I continued to homeschool our kids for the remainder of that academic year as we planned for that transition.

It was a much better fit for our son – and not a bad fit for our daughter.

End of the story? Not quite.

A year or so later, the kids began to complain vociferously about the commute to religious school. I’d drive them to school three times a week, listening to moaning and complaining the whole trip (30 minutes, now, instead of 10 minutes the year before). My stomach would be in knots the entire time they were in school, and I’d dread their return home. Finally, they’d walk in with their dad – laughing and giggling and practically bouncing in excitement. “What’s for dinner, Mom?” they’d shout.

One day, I couldn’t stand it any longer. “What gives?” I demanded. “I get the tsoris/grief and Dad gets the nachas/joy. Not fair.”

My kids grinned at me. “Oh,” they admitted, “We don’t like GOING to religious school, but once we’re there, we don’t mind BEING there.” An important distinction – and one that I later used when I began to teach OPK – Other People’s Kids.

Next up - more personal reflections about my teaching and directing experiences.

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