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  • Writer's pictureMarilyn Saltzman

Learning by teaching

My grandchildren, Selam, a sixth grader, and Dian, a fifth grader, are enrolled in an online academy this fall. I volunteered to be their “learning coach” two to three days a week. The “job” involves being actively involved in their learning, discussing the lessons and making sure they stay on track.

This newfound career has been valuable for my Mussar, Jewish ethics, practice as I find new ways to experience such middot (soul traits) as curiosity, humility…and of course, my most challenging, patience.


When was the last time I thought about the difference between petroglyphs and pictographs? And why were they created? What story do they tell? Dian was asked to explore these questions with his “coach,” and we watched a short video about Petroglyph National Monument. It’s located in our neighboring state of New Mexico, yet I knew nothing about it. Now I know it’s one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America, with drawings carved into volcanic rocks by Native Americans and Spanish settlers more than 400 years ago. “Maybe after COVID is over, we can take a road trip to see it,” I told Dian.

Humility Am I smarter than a fifth or sixth grader? When it comes to subjective, objective and possessive pronouns, I’ve got it covered. After all, my first job out of college was junior high English teacher and I’ve spent the bulk of my career as a writer and editor. But the waxing gibbous moon? * Not so much. I had to learn this lesson of the moon cycles at Selam’s side. And what the heck is a Robinson projection map? ** Yet humility is much more than accepting that there are lessons long forgotten or never learned. It’s also about what Alan Morinis calls taking up the right amount of space. Can I stand back and let my grandkids discover the right answer rather than jumping in? If I stop, take a breath, stay silent and let them figure out the solution to subject/verb agreement or where the decimal point goes, they will feel a much greater sense of accomplishment and probably learn more. Which brings me to….

Patience Every morning, I check the grandkids’ lessons for the day – math, language arts, social studies, science. Sometimes technology, art and physical education too. How are they going to get all the computer work done and still have time for some experiential, outdoor learning, which I value so much? It takes effort for me to stay patient rather than push them through the online lessons. I need to bite my tongue and let them take their time reading the lesson, even if they are getting distracted by supplemental, yet entertaining videos. I need to keep reminding myself it’s about being present and enjoying the learning as they do it. How can I avoid imposing my learning style, a combination of speed and perfectionism…got to get it all done, all right and all right now!

Practicing these middot leads me to others I can apply to this teaching experience – lovingkindness in my interactions as we work together; honor, valuing and affirming their unique learning styles; and gratitude, for having the opportunity to learn with and from Dian and Selam.

In case you don’t remember either:

*A waxing gibbous moon is between a half and full moon when the moon is getting larger.

**Robinson projection is a map of the world that shows every landmass and continent at once. It was created to find a compromise between using a globe and a flat image.

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