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Issue 143- It Doesn’t Start in Tenth Grade
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz
This article orignally appeared in Mishpacha Magazine

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It is rare to find a single ‘smoking gun’ – a clearly identifiable cause – (to explain why a child regresses from the ‘inner circle’ of successful students to the ‘outer ring’ of uninspired learners, and perhaps even to those who r’l sink into the morass of at-risk behaviors. After all, there are a huge range of non-educational factors – parenting and social/emotional issues – that often play a significant role in a child’s success in school. Having said that, I think that we would all agree that we have a sacred obligation to reflect upon, and seek the counsel of our gedolim, as to the most effective way to be mechanech our children so that they all reach their fullest potential.

While much attention is focused on the teen years, when many at-risk children begin exhibiting symptoms of distress, I strongly feel that in many instances the slide began far earlier, when children failed to acquire the basic skills they desperately need to achieve success. In order to illustrate the point, please permit me to present the following scenario:

Imagine that you received an offer from a generous benefactor to head a group of kollel yungerleit in learning the writings of the Rambam in their original Arabic over a period of ten years. You would love to take the assignment, but there is one slight problem. You don’t understand a word of Arabic. Your prospective donor tells you not to worry. He informs you that he is confident that you will master the language and bring new insight to the timeless works of the Rambam.

Assuming that you accepted the offer, how would you go about designing the ten-year program?

Well, there are basically two paths that you could choose. One would be to take the strategic route. You would designate significant blocks of time at the onset to carefully and methodically study the language of Arabic. After all, how could you possibly understand the basic text of the Rambam’s works, let alone the nuances of his every word without a thorough understanding of the language? You would look high and low for the best Arabic-English dictionary money could buy and keep it at your side at all times.

Perhaps you would consult with an expert in learning foreign languages. You might be advised to proceed slowly, as learning a foreign tongue is often frustrating – and there is significant danger of ‘burnout,’ if you progress too quickly at the beginning of the program. Additionally, you may decide to set a long-term goal of mastery of all topics that the Rambam draws on regularly in his writings – Chumash, Halacha and all portions of Nevi’im and Kesuvim.

There is a second and far simpler route that you could take. You can simply jump in headlong and begin reading the Rambam’s classic Morei Nevuchim (Guide to the Perplexed; a very deep and difficult philosophical sefer written by the Rambam) in Arabic the very first day. As far as the language barrier – no big deal! You figure that you will pick up Arabic as you go along. After all, you are a bright fellow and you already speak Hebrew, English and Yiddish. It can’t be difficult to learn another language, can it? You figure that the longer you keep at it, you will just get better and better at Arabic.

Reading these lines, which of the two programs described above do you think will result in a greater chance for success? The first or the second? The slow-and-steady approach or the ready-or-not-here-I-come one? Who do you think will reach the finish line first – let alone healthy and well adjusted – the tortoise or the hare?

Well, if you think about it, our pre-teen sons are in a very similar situation to that of the fictional program described above. Our sons have a ten-year ‘fellowship’ program, during which we hope that they will master the intricacies and timeless beauty of gemorah. However, in order to achieve that objective, they will need to learn to read a new language – Aramaic – without nekudos (punctuation). The best way to achieve that lofty goal is a question of approach and methodology. What type of program will allow our children to thrive and reach the finish line having mastered, appreciated, and developed a lifelong love for gemorah and learning? A slow, skill-based, balanced approach or a hurry-up program that will teach them “a lot” but not that well?

This is not a ‘new’ discussion. Read through the writings of the Maharal and others on this topic and you will discover that they suggested a methodical and systematic approach to mastery of Tanach and gemarah hundreds of years ago. (More on this in the next column.)

In these challenging times, when not “making it” in Yeshiva translates into squandered childhoods, unrealized potential, and often a complete abandonment of Yiddishkeit, we would do well to make a serious communal cheshbon hanefesh and decide if the hora’as sha’a (extenuating circumstances) of the climate nowadays mandates that we slow down the pace a bit and properly prepare our children with the skills they will need to succeed.

Kids don’t drop out in 10th grade. They fall behind in the fifth and sixth grades. And they never catch up.

© 2007 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

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Related Articles:
Issue 149- Rolling out the Welcome Mat
Issue 139 - Proactively Addressing the Chinuch Challenges of Our Generation
Issue 141 - Exit Interviews
Issue 145 - Training Wheels
Issue 147 - Pulling in the Gangplank

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