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Monday, October 10, 2016

It's All Homework, an interview with Yael Aldrich as appeared in the Binah

When my children were young, I would find myself longing for September first. Yes, I’m a good mother, at least most of the time, and I truly love my children, but there is a limit to how much quality family time I can stand. I need structure, I need privacy, and I need time to just be, which is why I would find myself doing a little jig as the children boarded the school bus for their first day of school – and then running home to nurse a cup of piping hot coffee while savoring the sweet sounds of the refrigerator humming and the dryer working, all noises that, during summer vacation, was drowned out by my boisterous offspring being children.

It’s davka because I need structure and time for myself to be able to do anything (other than kvetch) that I am in awe of those unique, and, for the most part, very accomplished women, who choose to homeschool their 

Yael Aldrich is one of who these unique and accomplished women. Mother of four, ranging from age 15 to six, she gave up an excellent career managing and fundraising for Jewish organizations to be able provide her children with a tailor-made education, where, “I can impart our family hashkafah to our children, and assure that they are receiving the type of education that I hoped they would get, one that would have a positive effect on them for the rest of their lives.”

The Aldrich children certainly do receive a high-level, well-rounded education. Their teachers are highly qualified: Yael has a double masters from Brandeis University in Jewish communal service and non-profit management. Rabbi Dr. Daniel Aldrich has two masters degrees and a PhD from Harvard. Rabbi Aldrich’s position as Director of the Security and Resilience graduate program at Northeastern University in Boston as well as his frequent travel all over the world leaves him just a few hours a week to work together with Yael to teach the children.

Their general studies curriculum includes higher mathematics; chemistry; three foreign languages: classical Latin and Japanese; logic; geography; classical literature —a high-level curriculum. Limudei kodesh includes all the traditional subjects. The older boys receive private Gemara lessons with a tutor. The program is a success. “When our oldest graduated homeschool at the end of eighth grade to attend a yeshivah high school,” says Yael, “he was above grade level in both limudei kodesh and limudei chol.”

Yael runs a tight ship. “We’re pretty structured. School starts at around nine a.m., after davening — the boys, in shul, the girls, at home — and breakfast and household chores. Every day I create a schedule of what I plan to accomplish with each child, both in limudei chol and in limudei kodesh. Then, while I work individually with one child, the other two children work on their own. Sometimes Daniel is able to work from home and can then help out with the teaching, but mostly he teaches the children in the mornings before work or after work is over for the day. In addition, we supplement our homeschool program with online classes in such subjects as literature and logic. These classes cost money, so we do our research and are careful to choose the best. But it still comes out a lot less than paying tuition!”

Although Yael’s homeschooling style follows a traditional structured curriculum, the lack of external structures leave her with more opportunity for extracurricular activities, and spontaneity, than in a regular school. So, for example, when the opportunity for a family trip to Israel opened up during the traditional school year, the Aldriches were able to take a break and go. And whereas traditional schools have off for “snow days,” the Aldriches take off for “sun days” to enjoy a spontaneous family outing (after all, when the school is in the home, there’s no problem with staying home for the snow). Yael also believes in making learning fun. The family celebrates lots of siyumim; upon completing a sefer, a parashah, a or whatever. “Of course we serve ice cream. Sometimes we invite the kids’ friends, and other times it’s just us. The main thing is that the kids enjoy themselves while celebrating an accomplishment.”
Yael began homeschooling her children when the family was living in Japan, where her husband was an Abe Fellow studying post-disaster recovery in Japan. Since there was no Jewish day school in Tokyo, they really had no choice but to homeschool. Upon their return to the United States, Rabbi and Mrs. Aldrich realized that they were on to a good thing. “We liked homeschooling our kids, and didn’t need to put them back into a regular school.”  They asked their Rav for his advice. He was very positive and told them that they were well prepared, and understand both the advantages and challenges involved.

The Aldriches keep to a traditional school schedule: school starts in September and runs until June, with a two-and-a-half month summer break. “During the summer, my kids go to camp. They have lots of friends in the community, so they have vacation when their friends have vacation, and when my husband has vacation.”  But classes do not resume on September 1. Instead, the Aldriches get together with other homeschooling families for a traditional Not Back to School Picnic. “Since everyone’s back at school and the parks are finally empty, it’s become a sort of tradition among the homeschooling community to celebrate the beginning of the official school year by getting together with other families for a day of fun. Last year the picnic was held at a beautiful lake in a State Park. The weather was perfect, and we basically had the whole place to ourselves. There were lots of great activities, and while the parents schmoozed, the kids had a great time wading in the water. It’s a great way to share ideas and provide mutual support.”

Homeschooling also has its challenges. “We spend more time with our children much more than people do, which means that we need a tremendous amount of patience.” Rabbi and Mrs. Aldrich are their children’s only mechanchim. “That means we are solely responsible for our children’s development, and that can be scary at times.” 

So how does Yael manage? “I ask a lot of shailos to my Rabbanim, for general guidance, what to teach, how to teach, and how to balance my full-time job as a mother and teacher with taking care of my personal needs.  It’s crucial that I don’t overdo it, that I take care not to become a shmatta. So I am particular to carve out time for myself, including going to shiurim, exercise classes and spending time with other adults. After all, with the kids home all day, I’m basically mothering on full burner, so I have to be even more aware of the need to take care of my intellectual, emotional and physical needs. I would say that the first thing that anyone considering homeschooling their children needs to realize is the importance of taking care of oneself.”

Yael runs a group for frum families who are homeschooling their children. “We are about 500 families from all over the world. We discuss curriculum, social issues and hashkafah. In addition, we have webinars, and, for the last seven years, the Torah Home Education conference where the parents attend lectures and network, while the children participate in group activities while meeting other homeschooled children over a long weekend. It’s the one time of the year when we actually get to meet in person, and it provides us with mutual support.”

Homeschooling is a rapidly growing alternative to conventional education. According to the United States Department of Education, in 2012 there were about 1.7 million students being home schooled in the United States, representing about 3.4 percent of the school-aged population. This growth is mirrored in the Orthodox community. In communities such as Baltimore, Miami, LA, and Chicago there are frum Jewish homeschooling communities ranging from a dozen to almost 100 families who have made the choice to keep their children out of the traditional schools and teach them themselves. Although the high cost of tuition certainly plays a part in this trend, according to Yael, homeschooling tends to attract parents who are thoughtful, willing to think out of box and dedicated enough to devote hours of their time to their children’s education.

“Homeschooling is possible. It’s a viable option that can even be fun,” concludes Yael. “Today, there is a tremendous support network available for frum people educating their children at home, so don’t be afraid to try it. You might just find that you like it!”

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