بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَـنِ الرَّحِيمِ
My daughter is now 6 years old and my son will soon be 4, اِن شَاءَ الله. Since the past 11 months, I have been homeschooling them and, contrary to how I anticipated this journey to be like at the point when I was about to embark upon it, it is I who has probably learnt the most in this interim, excitement-ridden period of enlightenment and realization.
I have been traditionally schooled all my life. It was not surprising then, that when my firstborn was a mere baby, I started the typical frantic search for a Montessori for her. I had never even heard of, much less considered, the possibility of educating a little child at home – and the immense impact and importance of that learning which takes place in an informal setting in those initial years of a child’s life.
My daughter was in school at the age of 2.5, when my son was 6 months old. For some parents in Pakistan’s contemporary pre-school culture, even this age of admission was “too late”. They were the ones who would express surprise at my complacent, not rushing around to register my as-yet-unborn fetus in the “top” local primary schools during pregnancy.
When my son was just a baby, I was a somewhat harried Mom going through the initial adjustment phase with sibling rivalry and frequent tantrums of a so-called “terrible-two” toddler. I admit that the hours my daughter was away at school gave me a breather, so to speak, and allowed me to bond with my second one. However, guilt gnawed at me when I went to pick her up and saw her herded in a line along with other perspiring children under the intense sun.
I disliked the whole school routine, but mutely acquiesced to the delusion that it is a “vital” part of every mother’s life: ironing the uniforms, laying out the clothes, shoes and socks at night; packing the bag according to the timetable; forcing the child to finish off her homework; making and packing the lunch in the mornings, forcing a few mouthfuls down a reluctant mouth, then sending off a sometimes mildly sick, or screaming toddler with a tear-ridden face, to school with a heavy heart and a shackled mind that never “dared” to question the necessity of this so-called “must-have” system of education.
At about this time, I met by chance a few mothers who were homeschooling their children in Karachi. The idea of homeschooling in our country was intriguing to me, especially since these ladies had initially sent their children to some of the local schools, and had also taught in these schools as teachers.
I was immediately attracted to their peculiar choice of education for their children, wanting to know why and how a woman who once had school-going children and who had taught in the schooling system herself would opt out of it to homeschool them.
Wasn’t it sheer stupidity? How did they manage? Didn’t they crave personal privacy and “me-time”? Didn’t they have doubts about what they were doing? Didn’t they worry that their children would turn out to be socially deprived, unconfident ‘weirdos’?
In addition to meeting these ladies regularly and asking them questions, I started to avidly read up about home education online. I read and read, mostly as a hardcore skeptic and critic.
It is amazing what one is able to achieve and experience when one tears down the self-imposed shackles around one’s brain – the barriers and obstacles that we erect around our own thought-processes to filter out new ideas and possibilities that lie right under our noses; ideas which can help us achieve our goals more easily.
I have seen that as modern-day parents, even though we may have an easier, faster alternative right before our eyes, most of the time, we are blinded to reality because of our beliefs based on our own past experiences and because of our blind faith in the opinions of our peers (other parents); not to mention, our mute, unquestioning acquiescence to become part of the rat race as soon as our baby makes its grand debut in the world.
Now that it has been some time since my children have been “studying” at home, I would like to share with you what I have learnt and noticed during this time:
The best learning is that which is is self-motivated and self-driven
Surround a little human being, even a few-months old baby, with different materials, and watch how she tries to discover them on her own. A baby will experiment, touch, test and play. But before all of that, she will observe how the people around her use that material.
Allah has created the human baby with an amazingly relentless, innate drive to learn: they are pre-programmed to acquire, pursue, test, observe, feel and experiment. Every new experience for them is a step up the learning curve.
It is absolutely preposterous how modern marketers of early learning products delude parents of little babies into thinking that they need to invest in expensive plastic toys, phonics books, flash cards, or flashy computer software to make their baby pick up a language, skill or ability earlier than necessary. I don’t think it is as important for a child to start reading at age 2 as it is for the same child to be reading avidly, willingly and enjoyably at age 8 – without being forced. Is the means more important than the end?
Think about it! Do we force our toddler to walk at 10 months if s/he doesn’t? Do we question why some babies crawl for many months before walking, whereas others almost directly transition from crawling to walking without taking so long? Why do some babies teeth early and others sprout their first tooth after the age of one? Why do some babies talk when they are one year old and others don’t start babbling even after the age of two? Did you ever wonder why, at a certain age, a child will learn to use a spoon to eat on their own, even if they are not taught? Or how they will automatically learn to climb stairs without being trained?
The answer to all this is that each human being learns and achieves different skills, abilities and milestones at different times and rates. He or she she comes pre-packaged with DNA in their chromosomes, which determines when they will start to do what. As parents, while we can facilitate their learning and gross motor progress, we can never, ever make our children accomplish something they are not yet ready to do. And that is not even fair!
Those of us parents who incessantly try to push our children into achieving something before they are able to, only set ourselves up for disappointment.
Lack of structure works for our family
People ask me at what time I teach my children.
I have seen, through the initial months of unschooling – a term used to describe the process of getting the child who was initially in school completely and naturally deprogrammed from the daily school routine – that an almost complete lack of structure works best for us.
Sure, I have a curriculum for my 6 year old: the official OUP textbooks of grade one that she was studying at the age of 5, when we pulled her out of school. However, when I sat her down to teach her chapters from these books ‘officially’, the way it is done in school, I saw her interest start to wane. At some times, she even told me that she didn’t want to study.
I decided to take full advantage of the flexibility afforded by homeschooling to allow her to do what she wants, and to help her out only when she comes to me. What resulted was no less than an epiphany for me.
I discovered that there is no such thing as “boredom” in the dictionary of little children. They just do not get bored. And yes, this is coming from a parent who has no television, video games or outdoor play area in her residence. My children never complain of being bored, even if they do not go out for three days! The reason for this is that, when left on their own surrounded with books, toys, and other random materials, they find ways to keep themselves constructively occupied.
So when I stopped teaching my daughter according to a set time-table with fixed learning slots for different subjects, I witnessed how often she returned to her books, picked one of them up, and approached me for basic guidelines about what to do in a specific chapter. Also, here is the clincher: she ended up reading, studying and poring over many more books and materials (such as storybooks, newspapers, magazines, grocery lists, bills, and receipts) besides her official grade one curriculum books!
I do leisurely read out to her and my son for a few minutes, but again, not every day, and never at a fixed time. I realized soon that, being blessed with an excellent memory, a one-time reading was usually more than enough for A’ishah. Without my prompting, but on her brother’s incessant requests (who loves to listen to stories), she’d read out the same story to him again and again, until – all praises to Allah – they both had it memorized by heart! This includes both simple English, as well Urdu, storybooks and the shorter surah’s/chapters from the last juz of the Qur’an.
Innovation, ingenuity and initiative
As of now, a typical day starts off with my daughter A’ishah rising early and leaving the bedroom. She starts her day doing things on her own before her brother emerges and joins her.
She uses pencils, colors, water colors, scissors, and paper to unleash her creative imagination.
Sometimes, she plays with toys and other materials to set up a make-believe kitchen or simulate any scene or event that she has witnessed.
It might seem from my children’s handiwork that I am a very hard-working mother who makes an extra hard effort to buy wonderful art and craft materials, storybooks, textbooks and workbooks to keep them busy.
However, wallahi, I am not. I testify that it is primarily Allah’s help that comes to me.
Masha’Allah, my children are given many gifts by sincere close relatives and many of my friends (remember, even though we do not celebrate their birthdays!), such as the wooden flower chest shown here ->.
All I ever do is facilitate my children’s work on these materials, by providing them basic verbal guidelines, sometimes a small helping hand that demonstrates to them what they have to do, and last but not least, tons of background encouragement and positive reinforcement in the form of truthful, concise, and unexaggerated praise.
Since A’ishah turned 5, she has an increased interest in Arts and Crafts (don’t all girls?).
These carriages of a paper train were the result of finding a craft book by chance at a sale at the Liberty Books clearance outlet on Boat Basin, Clifton.
The book had to-be-cut-out pieces of hard paper that had to be folded along dotted lines and glued together to form these carriages.
The craft gems below are all from a collage book gifted to A’ishah by her aunt on Eid.
The book provided all the physical materials as well as detailed pictorial instructions for making each collage.
I tried to ensure that A’ishah makes each one herself, as much as possible, no matter how supposedly “ad hoc” or sloppy the first few attempts might be.
Homeschooled kids don’t get a lot of discouraging “Oh no! What have you done?” comments when they make mistakes. 🙂
If they do something wrong, we can gently correct them and show them how to do it right. Its not like we, as adults, have stopped making mistakes, have we?
This is a collage of a tropical island ->
There has been steady and good progress in A’ishah’s reading, writing and Math, as well, alhamdulillah.
Another gift from a friend that my children ended up loving, and learnt much of by heart, was this book of Muslim nursery rhymes ->
I read them out to them both a few times over a week and eventually, A’ishah had them learnt by heart.
She would then read them out to Abdullah.
Therefore, it is obvious that one thing that my children never do, alhamdulillah, is complain of being bored or having nothing to do.
As for Abdullah’s progress, since he has never been to school, he has literally turned out to be the first prototype of my practical, homeschooling “laboratory experiment”.
It is easy for a parent to fall into the trap of comparing one child to the other, especially if one child achieves milestones earlier. I have been conscious of not doing that with Abdullah. I just let him be – to see how he progresses by learning on his own.
Not once have I taught him how to hold a pen, or how to write!
Yet, as you can see in this picture ->, he started trying to write letters and numbers himself, basing his designs and shapes purely on his visual observation.
Because of hanging out with his sister most of the time, and albeit by also voraciously poring over pictures, papers, books; messing around with play-dough; scribbling wildly with pencils and crayons, and thrashing color about on paper with paintbrushes – he has learned a lot simply by observation and experimentation.
He has started writing rough letters and drawing other shapes all on his own, which reminds me how it is ultimately Allah who teaches the human baby how to write:
الَّذِي عَلَّمَ بِالْقَلَمِ
“The One Who taught by (the use of) the pen;”
[Al-Qur’an – 96:4]
Even though, right now, he is a month short of turning 4 years old, Abdullah can still not write Urdu or English letters on his own properly. However, I am not worried about that at all, because I know that just like his oral vocabulary, which went from almost non-existent at the age of 2.5 to an undeterred gush of new words at 3.5, when the time comes, he will start writing on paper properly, insha’Allah.
<- He has started to grasp the concept of basic counting, alhamdulillah. Again, this is without any formal instruction viz. learning numbers by heart.
Just like he learned to master the skills of climbing atop tall objects, speaking new phrases in English (I talk to my children primarily in Urdu, silly ol’ “paindoo” me), jumping down from a height, and drinking steadily from a full glass without spilling – without my “forcing” him to do any of these things, I know that he will learn how to read and write letters on paper too, insha’Allah – when the time is right.
This image shows that he can also associate pictures with their basic shapes ->
Neatness might not be his forte yet, but his scribblings show his efforts to write the capital letter “P” or “D”, and to make the “tick-mark” that he sees me make when I check A’ishah’s work. He has also tried to color into the shape at the top.
My “me time”
I have just one brother with whom I shared my room until the age of 11. As a girl who has not shared her bedroom with a sibling since the age of 13, I have been used to having my personal privacy, to the extent of being a tad selfish and spoiled!
Add to that my innate love for solitude, peace and silence, and I would think of myself as the last mother on earth who would have decided to homeschool two naughty little children who are always up to some new prank!
To tell you the truth, I was ambivalent about homeschooling for a long time primarily for this reason: that homeschooling would mean always having my children around me at home. It would mean disturbances and distractions; havoc and mayhem; my stress level hitting the roof and making me a permanent mass of nerves. Right?
Well, the practical experience has proved otherwise. Alhamdulillah.
When your children start staying at home after being pulled from school, it is very important to perceive their presence as a blessing, not a burden. After all, they are your children.
Secondly, remember that little children are very easily trained with time to adapt to their environment. My children quickly picked up cues about my likes, dislikes and preferences e.g. doors are to be closed softly (not banged shut), any spills or crumbs are to be immediately wiped clean or swept away into the bin; toys and papers that are sprawled over the table or floor have to be cleared up and kept away; every afternoon they have to nap/lie down for two hours; and after eating, the crockery and cutlery have to be transported to the kitchen sink without being told.
Within a few weeks, four little hands were eagerly helping me out in my daily tasks, be it hanging up or folding the laundry, replacing tissue rolls on their stands, or clearing away the mess created during play – all without my forcing them to.
Keen observers, when children are not coerced to “Stand straight!”, “Form a straight line!” or “Don’t talk!” daily by tight-lipped school teachers, they instead copy and imitate the behavior of the adults around them, subconsciously adopting the latter’s habits, mannerisms, behaviors and attitudes.
You won’t need to enforce rules upon them the way they are imposed in school, simply because you are their parent, and this is their home – a place where they are comfortable and “free”. Instead, your small little army of angels will turn into your helpers and comrades in everything you do, further strengthening your familial ties, in addition to excelling at companionship and teamwork.
Consequently, totally unlike the feelings of dread that are experienced by mothers of school-going children twice a year, at the advent of summer and winter vacations, a homeschooling Mom will never, ever negatively perceive the 24-hour, constant presence of her children at home. Rather, she will relish and appreciate their chirpy company, because homeschooling them automatically molds their behavior and antics according to your preferences and rules.
Children are akin to empty vessels; when they are young, they can be molded into whatever the parents desire.
Its not always rosy
Do I ever shout at my children? Do they ever answer me back? Do they fight, spill food and drink, physically wrangle, break things, or disobey me? Do I go out in public secretly fearing that either or both of my children will behave in a way that will cause me embarrassment? Does my house look a mess on most days, strewn all over with paper, books and toys? Have I given up hope on having my home embody a pristine, impeccable aura of spotless, charming interior decor?
The answer to all these questions is a big “Yes!”
We are a real family with very real, human shortcomings.
We as parents make mistakes, just like our children. There are good days, when I feel absolutely calm and serene, unruffled and happy because everything goes smoothly. Then there are those days when I am a mass of nerves, cranky and short-tempered, snapping at the slightest provocation!
The whole point of realistic, grounded parenting is to appreciate and work on the good, and to overlook, forgive, and try to correct the bad. We parents should remember that it is absolutely imperative to constantly seek Allah’s forgiveness for our mistakes and sins, via sincere, heartfelt استغفار. This should stem from the recurring realization that we are fallible as human beings, and have inherent shortcomings that make us slip again and again.
In her own words…
So what does my daughter have to say about being homeschooled after spending 2.5 years in school?
She has not forgotten some of the incidents that happened there.
“Mama, you did the right thing by taking me out of school. The other children often laughed at me and once made fun of my clothes on white-color day, saying, “Look at A’ishah! Look at what she is wearing!”.
When I’d go to the washroom, there would be no lock on the door and the commode would always be dirty, and the pottery Uncle would sometimes walk in to wash his hands.
And once when I went somewhere from my seat, a boy in my class threw the cake in my lunchbox outside the window for the crows to eat!
When the electricity would go, we’d have to sit perspiring in the heat.
I am so glad I study at home now. You teach me so well.”
What can I say except الْحَمْدُ للّهِ that Allah guided me to take this step and unleash the wonders of His creation before my eyes in my home – our new center of learning; the place where my children don’t just come to eat and sleep, but where they live, love and learn.
Its not just “burka”-clad, ‘weird’ Muslim mums whose disappointment in the conventional schooling system has made them turn to homeschooling – even over-idolized, globe-trotting, so-called “A-list icons” of stardom and humanitarianism are doing it.