A huge change when we moved to Israel was that we decided to put our children in school. After eleven years of homeschooling, this was a very big shift for all of us.
I think when people talk about the difficulties for children in making aliyah, what it mostly refers to is going to Israeli schools, learning the language, and making friends. I had planned to homeschool all of our children except dd15, believing that it would ease the transition for them in coming to a new country – our lives could continue in many ways the same by homeschooling, and it would give them a chance to slowly make the language and friend adjustments. Those plans changed very quickly after we got here.
We came to a city where the schools don’t have much experience in dealing with Anglo olim, so to a degree our children are the guinea pigs.
So how is everybody doing?
Ds4 – He is in a huge class of 34 boys – this is far from ideal, although his teachers are very good. He understands everything, but doesn’t really interact much with the other kids in his gan (preschool) yet. This matches his nature of sitting back and watching, and not jumping in until he knows all the rules of the game. He every so often asks me why he has to go to gan ‘every single day’, but goes willingly. He really enjoys the daily craft projects and every week displays at our Shabbos table all of his projects and pictures from the beginning of the week (he saves them all).
Ds5 – His teacher is so overflowing with praise about how wonderful he is that it’s almost embarrassing. He’s outgoing and self-confident, and right away spoke to the other kids, even when it was in English. There was a point where he was subdued in class, when he realized he couldn’t communicate in English or Hebrew, and his attempts to nonverbally be friendly were rebuffed. His teacher was very aware of this , and repeatedly asked me to tell her about even little things that might be an issue. With some time and changing seat partners in his class that weren’t a good fit for him, he’s doing great!
He has one very close friend who he speaks with in a mixture of English and Hebrew (the friend is a Hebrew speaker), and it’s very, very cute to watch the two of them teaching each other words in their mother tongue. At this point he understands most of what goes on in kindergarten and can form simple sentences in Hebrew. His teacher is amazed that he is more advanced in Hebrew writing and understands the concepts of letters better than most of the Hebrew speakers – she told me one day when they were learning the letter Bet, that she asked the boys what started with this letter – and ds5 called out two words before anyone else had a chance to think of anything! His Israeli accent is perfect and he gets along well with the kids in his class.
Now for the harder situations – all of the older kids.
Ds9 (fourth grade) – His school right away arranged for a private tutor for him to help him learn the language, for about 2 – 4 hours a week. Unfortunately, the books the tutor needs have yet to arrive, which has limited the effectiveness of their time together. He has no English speakers in his class, and he tends to withdraw when people try to speak to him, since he doesn’t understand what they’re saying. I’m trying to teach him to smile and look them in the eye, but he feels self-conscious.
He has a wonderful teacher who is incredibly caring and sees him struggling socially, and has called me to ask what he can do to make it better for him. I honestly don’t know why he is so eager to go to school every day, because he has no friends or anyone to talk to, sits for hours listening to classes he doesn’t really understand….But his teacher told me he can see his comprehension is growing.
It was really nice this week when our guests had an eight year old son he could play with all Shabbos – being able to speak to someone makes a big difference in your supposed social skills! He doesn’t really have anyone to regularly play with outside of school, either. This isn’t as bad for him as it sounds since he was already used to being with his siblings a lot. A couple of days ago I requested and received his class list, and my thought is to directly contact parents of boys in his class that he feels somewhat comfortable with to invite them over to play one on one. Unfortunately, there’s only one boy in our general area who is in his class – this was a down side of not sending him to the boys’ school that most families in our community sends to. (I don’t feel it was a mistake to send to this school, though.)
Dd11 (sixth grade) – her school has also arranged tutoring for her, although it didn’t begin until October. Until then she had no assistance in any way, and just spent hours sitting in class not knowing even a bit about what was happening. She meets with her tutor just a couple of times a week, so even now most of her time is sitting and not knowing what’s going on! They also have yet to receive the books for her.
She has one English speaker in her class, but plays with the Israeli girls during recess – fortunately at this age they still play outdoor games that she can figure out and participate in without understanding all that is said. Like ds, she doesn’t play much outside of school, though at least there are a couple of girls in her age range (a few nine year olds, a couple of twelve year olds) who speak English. She really enjoyed the twelve year old girl who spent Shabbos with us, and afterwards told me how nice it was to have someone she could speak to. She said that in her class, people don’t know who she really is, because without speaking Hebrew well she convey that. For her, my impression is that girls think well of her even though they can’t communicate with her much. So I think as she gets the language, it will continue to improve.
Ds12 (eighth grade) – Hashem was very, very kind to us because this could have been the most difficult adjustment, and instead was one of the easiest. He has three English speakers in his class, and he likes them all; one of them is becoming a very good friend. His teacher is fantastic and ds is a strong student; he catches on quickly and even with only partial understanding of what is said, mentally fills in the gaps by making educated guesses about what is said. His comprehension is building very fast, and he can communicate in very simple sentences. He’s very athletic and active in the schoolyard, which is a good way to make friends even when you can’t speak much.
Our biggest issue with him is what to do about high school. At this point, we’re thinking of leaving him in eighth grade another year. Then he’ll go into high school fully fluent in Hebrew and caught up on the material he’s missing now, and be positioned to really shine. If we send him this coming year, he’ll do okay but will always be having to work to catch up. Since we skipped him to eighth when we got here, letting him stay another year in eighth means he’ll be in the grade where he’s actually supposed to be, agewise.
Dd15 (tenth grade) – Her school had done absolutely nothing to assist her with learning Hebrew until very recently, a change that came about after I very strongly expressed to her principal my disappointment (she said she had been working on it before I spoke to her, though). Several weeks ago, she got a tutor, and though they meet only once or twice a week, dd feels she’s learning a lot. She’s also picking up a lot of Hebrew.
It helps a lot that as homeschoolers, our children learned to take responsibility for their own learning, and it means they are willing to work and educate themselves in the absence of outside help. I think the transition from a school in the US to here would have been much more difficult than it was for them as homeschoolers. Dd recently spent three hours online, trying to figure out the math lesson so she could complete her homework. The next day, the teacher asked her if she did the homework, and dd said she did, so the teacher responded, “Oh, good, so you understood what I taught?” Dd told her that she didn’t understand the Hebrew, but she googled different terms, etc, and found different math sites online to help her work through the material. The teacher was very impressed since the rest of the class didn’t do their homework since they said they couldn’t understand the material (not a language issue)!
Unfortunately, there’s really not much going on socially for high school girls here, which I hadn’t anticipated. I thought since there was a high school, there must be plenty of girls her age living locally, but it’s not actually true since many girls come from surrounding areas to attend this school. This has been a disappointment for her – there are just four girls in her entire class who live in the city. Fortunately, one of them is an English speaker, and additionally, there’s another girl who speaks English (not a native English speaker) in her class who lives in a different city.
Dd16 (eleventh grade) – This is the child who should have had the easiest time adjusting – after all, she studied here last year, started school with a working grasp of Hebrew…But this change has been challenging for her. She was used to having loads of friends (she lived in a dorm last year), being popular, and having people know her. The girls in her class like her, but she told me the same thing dd11 did, that people in her class can’t really know who she is because of the language gap, that she isn’t herself when she’s speaking Hebrew.
She graduated from high school almost two years ago at the age of 15 (she’ll be seventeen in just over a week), and so she doesn’t need to be in school for credit purposes. She’s there because she wanted to make friends locally and become fluent in Hebrew, and this had seemed like the best possibility to do that. But now she feels like she’s not accomplishing what she had hoped to by attending school, and really wants to do something productive. Some options that would be very good for her aren’t logistically doable, as they are located in the center of the country and we’d like her to be living at home right now.
I had a talk with her last week and told her that being that we’re in a Hebrew speaking country, we can find other ways to help her learn that language than insist she remain in school. We’re looking into possibilities, and we agreed that we’d set a limit of a month, to give ourselves time to find something she’d enjoy doing. By the time the month is over, she can leave school.
Ds18 – he’s really happy in his American post high school yeshiva program. Learning the language, integrating into the culture?? Not happening much. I believe it will come with time, but he’s always going to be an American living in Israel, which I think is true of the oldest three kids as well as dh and I, and possibly ds9, dd11, and ds12 – when you come past a certain age, you can learn the language well, but you don’t change your mentality to become an Israeli. And that’s really okay.
As far as my transition from homeschooling to sending the kids to school, initially I felt a little bereft – I’ve been home with them for so many years and it took some time to shift to an altered reality – but I’m enjoying it now. Since the kids are almost all home every day by 1:30 – 2 pm, we still have a lot of time together. I don’t feel like I stopped homeschooling; it’s more that I’m delegating some of their education to the schools. Dh and I remain very involved, emotionally and educationally; we don’t rely on the schools to give the kids all that they need, which means we don’t have high expectations of what the schools do or don’t do. And that means we don’t have lots of frustrations with the schools, either, because we don’t expect them to do what we would do.
I enjoy my quiet mornings with ds2, and find my mornings are full. Now that the kids are in school, they don’t share the chores the way they used to, and so there’s a lot more for me to do. So my mornings are busy but fairly quiet, which I appreciate – I like having a nice hot lunch and clean house to greet them with when they come home, and more than that, I appreciate having the head space to enjoy being with them when they get home.
To sum up, I’d say school is going as well as we could hope for everyone, and a big part of this transition continuing to be successful is to give everyone time to really learn the language. As that happens, I think it will get dramatically easier for them all.