Learning At Home

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Jewish homeschooling families prefer to learn out of the box.

Aliana Schwartz, 12, and her mother Dahlia Schwartz work on algebra together while her brother Itamar Moltz, 10, works on his fractions in the dining room. (Photo by Jerry Zolynsky)
Aliana Schwartz, 12, and her mother Dahlia Schwartz work on algebra together while her brother Itamar Moltz, 10, works on his fractions in the dining room. (Photo by Jerry Zolynsky)

Most mornings, Aliana Schwartz, 12, wakes before the rest of her family to write. She writes all sorts of things — stories, essays, rants — and the freedom she has to explore a variety of genres and see where they take her is largely due to the way her educational experience flows.

Schwartz and her 10-year-old brother, Itamar Moltz, have been homeschooled all their lives. The Beverly Hills siblings, children of Dahlia Schwartz and Kathleen Moltz, love their life, which offers freedom, exploration and limitless discovery.

“It’s fun and it’s encouraging, and I don’t feel learning is as much of a chore as a fun activity when I do it with my family,” says Aliana, who is poised, articulate and confident — characteristics her parents believe grew out of the way she is being educated.

“I am so pleased with the way our children have grown up,” says Kathleen Moltz, the full-time, works-outside-the-house parent in the family. Moltz is a pediatric endocrinologist at Children’s Hospital of Michigan. “Homeschooling, opposed to a home-based school [where teachers provide materials and a set curriculum], gives my kids the opportunity to explore what they’re interested in but still get support in areas where they are weak.”

For the past century, most American kids have attended school outside the home and, for most kids, that will remain the most viable alternative, says Michael Weiss, assistant professor of mathematics education at Michigan State University in East Lansing and a father of five children who have never attended school. He doesn’t see his personal practice of homeschooling and his career focus as conflicting because as long as a majority of kids attend school, he wants to be on the frontlines, making it the best possible experience a child can have.

Yet he’s thrilled with the way his children are learning.

“All of my children have always shown that they are eager to learn, and there didn’t seem to be any reason why they would go to school,” says Weiss of Ann Arbor. “Schooling doesn’t seem to be necessary for their education.”

Homeschooling Evolves
In fact, until a century ago, all children learned at home. Upper-class or aristocratic families brought in private tutors while poorer families were lucky if their children learned to read and write. Weiss notes that in 19th-century literature, a classic literary character portrayed is the private tutor who lives in a family’s home and educates the children. Just look at the Bronte sister novels or works by Jane Austen.

“That was an option only for the rich,” Weiss says. “Public school was seen by the 19th-century reformers as a way of democratizing education, and it still is.”

Aliana Schwartz focuses on her government studies.  (Photo by Jerry Zolynsky)
Aliana Schwartz focuses on her government studies. (Photo by Jerry Zolynsky)

It was also a way to prepare the masses for the industrial workforce. Educating children en masse to listen to authority, take direction and complete tasks with minimal friction made it easy to transition into the American workplace.

In the mid-20th century, progressives and religious folks alike started advocating for the right to teach their children at home. Their efforts have resulted in an across-the-board freedom that exists today in the United States.

Every state is different. Some are strict about the parameters that permit homeschooling, while states like Michigan are quite loose. According to the Michigan Department of Education, “Michigan parents have the right to homeschool their children.” The state does not require any registration and doesn’t keep tabs. Parents don’t even have to inform their local district, though the state recommends doing so.

And what’s taught in the home, well, that’s the playing field of whoever’s doing the teaching. Of course, to get into college, homeschooled kids need to take the proper steps to show that they’ve completed work in order to move higher — say, obtain a GED, which their parents can assist with, and take the ACT. But prep for both of those is a piece of cake when learning has been independent-driven all along, says Lisa Lanzkron-Tamarazo, mother of three “unschooled” children.

While it’s hard to get good numbers, the National Home Education Research Institute reports that some 2 million kids are homeschooled — that’s 3-4 percent of American children. (There are no firm numbers as to how many of those are Jewish.)

Weiss says the reasons are many. Some are pedagogical, where parents don’t like the imbalanced ratio of adults to children in a classroom or their child isn’t being challenged or has a learning disability. Some are religious, where families want to include religion in the curriculum. Others may believe mainstream schools are too Christian to begin with.

Finding Friends, Activities

Max Lanzkron-Tamarazo, 12, chose to learn to knit as part of his homeschooling. He works on his bar mitzvah tallit as he chats with his mom, Lisa. (Photo by Brett Mountain)
Max Lanzkron-Tamarazo, 12, chose to learn to knit as part of his homeschooling. He works on his bar mitzvah tallit as he chats with his mom, Lisa. (Photo by Brett Mountain)

An abundance of religious Christians who homeschool can make it hard for a Jewish family to find peers. But local families say it’s not hard for their children to find friends or opportunities to socialize.

In fact, they chuckle when asked the inevitable question about socialization. Homeschooling parents agree vehemently that socialization and being stuck with same-age peers for eight hours every day are two very different things. And they all agree hands-down that their children are better able to socialize with children and adults of all ages than their school-educated peers.

Lanzkron-Tamarazo notes that she was painfully shy as a child, and she is proud of how comfortable her children are interacting with adults and strangers the family encounters.

Online groups for Jewish homeschoolers help kids connect with others like them, a good resource especially if there aren’t many Jewish families to interact with close to home. There’s also a wealth of resources, from curricula to philosophy to Judaics. Most of the people interviewed seem to create their own curricula and either purchase educational materials or get them from public libraries.

In cities with larger Jewish populations, there are homeschooling groups, like Los Angeles’ LA Jewish Homeschoolers. In southeast Michigan, the handful of Jewish homeschooling families know one another; but they also interact regularly with homeschoolers of many faiths and from no faiths at all. What they have in common is a desire to live outside the box and learn alongside their children.

Lisa and Frank Lanzkron-Tamarazo’s three kids are “unschooled,” a form of homeschooling that allows the child to direct all learning. They started doing this when they were living in New Jersey and Max, now 12, was a toddler. Lisa was disappointed with the Montessori preschool she first sent him to.

“They had no great insight into who he was,” she recalls. They tried a parent-child class at a Waldorf school an hour and a half away, but the distance was too great a hardship to make it a regular practice.

So Lisa began researching her options for teaching her children herself.

“I come from a Type-A family so I had concerns about what it would mean if they wanted to attend an Ivy League college,” she says. And then she read a book, Excellence in Homeschooling, about four brothers who were homeschooled, learned to read at different ages and all went to Harvard.

The Lanzkron-Tamarazo family at their coffee shop, Chazzano Coffee Roasters: Parents Lisa and Frank, Max, 12, Nicoletta, 7, and  Doris, 9. (Photo by Brett Mountain)
The Lanzkron-Tamarazo family at their coffee shop, Chazzano Coffee Roasters: Parents Lisa and Frank, Max, 12, Nicoletta, 7, and Doris, 9. (Photo by Brett Mountain)

The Lanzkron-Tamarazo family, owners of Chazzano Coffee Roasters, follow no curriculum. The children choose what they want to do. Lately, Max has been into computer programming and knitting — he’s knitting the tallit for his bar mitzvah, in fact. Doris, 9, reads a lot; and Nicoletta, 7, is really into dolls.

“I wouldn’t be able to spend so much time knitting and playing with computers if I had to go to school,” says Max. Then he and his sisters get into a debate about whether the activities they do could all reasonably be considered “extracurricular” if they do not attend school. The banter is easy and intellectually far beyond their years.

They are shomer Shabbat (Shabbat observant) and Frank, a cantor, is employed part-time at Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park. Though the family lives above their coffee shop in Ferndale, they have a Shabbat home near the synagogue. It is there that the children find many friends in Beth Shalom’s religious school, which they attend for the opportunity to make friends, their parents say.

They also interact with others on Fridays, when they hang out with an open homeschooling co-op in which the Schwartz-Moltz family takes part.

Some Jewish families who homeschool weave Judaism into their learning, and some say it’s so much a part of their daily lives that the children learn religion and spirituality by osmosis.

Aliana Schwartz learned for her bat mitzvah with a Jerusalem-based tutor over Skype and pretty much led the entire service at Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield, where they are members. It wasn’t a one-time thing, says Kathleen Moltz. Aliana continues to take part as a fully active member of the congregation every week. And Aliana and Itamar also take part in Beth Ahm’s Shabbat school.

Critics of homeschooling tend to point to “socialization” as a barrier, decrying the idea of isolating children at home with a parent. They worry about a child’s independence. The criticism is unfounded, say homeschoolers.

“Yes, my children are not socialized to stand in line and wait for a fire drill,” says Moltz. “They are socialized to pick up a fire extinguisher or quickly evacuate to a safe place and watch out for the people around them rather than stand in a line.”

Marilyn Finkelman, a Southfield resident who homeschooled her youngest son Yaacov, now 25, from third grade on, says, “The socialization thing is a piece of thinking of school as normal. If you spend time with homeschooled kids, they socialize entirely differently from the way school kids socialize. It is not age-segregated and it is not gender-segregated.

“We take school so for granted that we think the way kids socialize in school is normal and when kids bully each other, that’s just kids. Maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s the setting they’re in that encourages that competitive behavior because everything’s graded. Maybe it’s a dysfunctional school system.”

Her son, Yaacov, reflecting on his education, calls the school type of socialization a form of “imprisonment” with same-age peers.

At the end of the day, homeschooling is an incredible commitment — on the part of parents and on the part of children, too. But it can be incredibly freeing.

Doris Lanzkron-Tamarazo is already writing novels. Itamar Moltz learned quantum physics before he learned to read. The Schwartz-Moltz kids visit the Detroit Institute of Arts and sit with sketchpads, interacting with the docents about what they see on the canvas and what they’re recording to take home.

“I wanted to see my children have those aha moments,” says Lisa Lanzkron-Tamarazo. “Watching my children learn to read was awesome.”

Every so often, Moltz and Schwartz evaluate how homeschooling is going and whether their children need something different. So far, the answer has been no.

“It takes more work to homeschool your children,” says Moltz, “but I think the rewards are so much greater.” 

 – By Lynn Meredith Golodner, Special to the Jewish News

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