Looking back on my homeschooling experience

In the last post, I talked about how and why I started homeschooling my eldest child.

Looking back, I can see both positives and negatives.

On the positive side: I and a good friend of mine (also a conservative Muslim homeschooling mother) did our best to provide our kids varied and interesting learning experiences, despite our poverty, lack of access to a car, very limited support even in our own insular, conservative religious community, and the pregnancies/responsibility to care for our infants that tended to limit our mobility. We dealt with these considerable challenges with a can-do attitude and lots of ingenuity. Since God (we sincerely believed) wanted us to homeschool our kids, then it must be possible for us to somehow make it work.

We took our kids outside as much as possible, so that they could experience nature and learn about it in a “hands-on” way. (We lived in a city, so nature wasn’t going to come to us—we had to go out and seek it.) We wanted them to learn the names of different animals and birds, to be able to identify animal tracks, to know that some wild plants are edible and others poisonous, to recognize different kinds of trees… so, we took them out to parks as much as we could. We would take long bus rides in order to get to reasonably “wild” parks, pushing strollers and laden with diaper bags and packed lunches and whatever art or other supplies we thought we would need.

We took them to museums, the zoo, a kids’ farm and historic sites as much as we could. Entrance fees were a problem, given our poverty, but we took advantage of discount coupons, family passes and free or reduced-admission days.

The public library was (thank god) free, so we went there quite regularly. The kids picked out the books they wanted, and played with the cool toys in the kids’ section. We would head to the DIY section and look for books on crafts you can do with your kids, or science projects. We found some good ideas in books like that, and tried them out. Some were more successful than others, but it was a lot of good clean fun. We encouraged them to do different kinds of art projects.

The kids (and us) also got plenty of exercise and fresh air—significantly more than they would likely have gotten if they’d been in school. We walked places as much as possible, partly to save on bus fare, and partly because getting on and off buses was hard with our strollers, small kids and the bags of stuff that always accompanied us everywhere (diapers, sandwiches, changes of clothes for the babies, etc). We took them to the playground regularly. In warm weather, we’d take them wading or swimming, at times that would be as unbusy as possible, so that we’d have the place pretty much to ourselves. When it snowed, we took them tobogganing, and showed them how to make forts and snowmen.

We did our best to create a bubble in which there was no difficulty practicing Islam (as our very conservative community understood that to mean). Of course, we stopped whatever we were doing for prayers. Of course, all the food we ate and fed to them was halaal. We made du’a before and after meals or snacks, when leaving the house, when boarding a means of transportation…. We dressed “Islamically,” and so did our kids. They didn’t have to deal with peer pressure from non-Muslim (or, from less practicing Muslim) kids. They weren’t directly faced with the differences between their lives, and those of other kids.

We made a big deal out of Ramadan and Muslim holidays, making them as festive as possible. We told our kids the stories of the prophets, read simple hadiths to them, and taught them to memorize some short suras from the Qur’an. We got kids’ books from the library about the lives of kids in various countries around the world (we nearly always selected those on Muslim-majority countries), in order to ensure that our kids realized that they belonged to a religious whose followers were found all around the world.

Given our poverty, the kids’ exposure to tv was very limited (we had a small, black and white tv, and no cable, and we severely limited the amount of time that they were allowed to watch it), as well as to most types of music. We had a few nasheed tapes that we played for them, and we made percussion instruments with them and encouraged them to sing along and keep the beat.

We did our best to instill a positive Muslim identity in our kids, and to show them all the many ways that it is possible to have halaal fun. We also modeled a can-do, “faith and hard work can move any mountain” attitude, even in the face of community disapproval (some people in our insular, conservative group didn’t like the way we went about homeschooling, especially with our emphasis on taking the kids out whenever possible). When something didn’t exist that we thought ought to, like toddler board books with “Islamic” story lines, we made it ourselves. As far as possible, we didn’t let lack of resources get in the way of doing what we wanted to do.

(We just had so much determination and energy in those days—I wish I had even half of that energy now….)

On the not-so-positive side: We knew nothing about teaching, really, especially not how to teach small kids. Knowing nothing about educational psychology, ideology was what determined our curriculum, and even when it wasn’t working out very well, we continued to plug away at it. So, we believed that the first thing our kids should learn as far as reading was concerned was the letters of the Arabic alphabet, so that they could learn how to read the Qur’an. Meanwhile, they were (not surprisingly) much more interested in learning to recognize English letters, which after all surrounded them wherever they went. But we insisted that they learn Arabic letters first. In the case of my eldest, this definitely dampened his enthusiasm for learning to read.

We didn’t have the money to buy a complete curriculum, with textbooks, workbooks, etc, nor did we have any idea where to buy such a thing anyway (in those pre-internet days). So, we made do with “teach your child math” and such like workbooks that could be bought pretty inexpensively in department stores, along with the odd textbooks we ran across (such as when the library was selling their discards, or at Goodwill). So, our curriculum was not systematic. We would occasionally manage to get to an educational supply store, where we would drool over the merchandise (most of which we couldn’t even dream of affording), and then we’d buy a few things we thought were particularly needful—usually math books. Neither my friend nor I were at all good at math, so we leaned heavily on the workbooks for teaching it. Our attempts to use Montessori methods of teaching math (using home-made sticks of beads and so forth) weren’t working too well, for some reason—perhaps because try as we might, the kids were picking up on our math-phobia.

Unsurprisingly, the kids were not keen on the workbooks. As time went on, this type of sit-down learning turned into a war of wills, with the kids refusing to do their work, or rushing through it without caring whether they had gotten the right answers or not, just to get it over with. Letting up on the workbooks and tired, library discard readers in the hopes that the latent “self-directed learner” that supposedly lies within every kid would come out of hiding didn’t work either. As time went on, my eldest in particular became increasingly aware that nearly all other kids his age—even other Muslim kids—were in school, and kept expressing a desire to attend. Looking back, I can see that he was beginning to feel “left behind” and excluded from something that everyone else had.

We were not always patient when we were teaching our kids, especially not when they made the same mistake for what seemed like the fiftieth time. We were sometimes just too tired (what with pregnancy, and night feedings) to teach them much during the day. Or, their resistance to sitting down and doing their work would lead to us cutting the lessons short.

We were concerned about socialization, and also wanted to make sure that our kids would get the opportunity to participate in certain kinds of sports (under carefully controlled conditions, of course). So, we signed them up for swimming and skating lessons at the local community center. When it came to swimming, we were very concerned that they should not wear “immodest” swimsuits, so we made the boys wear long board shorts, and the girls wear a body suit with sleeves, as well as spandex shorts to their knees.

We thought that we were teaching them how to be good Muslims while also being involved in the wider world, showing that they were as capable as anyone else. Looking back, I can see that what we were actually teaching them was the fine art of being apparently present while actually absent—which after all was how we lived our lives.

In appearance, we were a part of the wider society. We took our kids to parks (where they played with one another, and often ignored other people’s kids), and stood in line at the supermarket waiting to pay for our groceries (where we talked to one another, and largely ignored the other women in the line), and rode the bus (while dealing with our kids, or talking to one another, or both, while mainly oblivious to our fellow passengers). Part of the reason that we behaved this way in public was to block out the stares (few women wore hijab in those days where we lived) and to deter the comments or nosy questions. But I doubt that our kids were unaware of how much we were stared at, or the sorts of things people said. They must have found this a difficult experience, and it likely also limited their ability to see themselves as really belonging anywhere.

Also in the name of socialization (as well as identity-building), we took our kids to as many local Muslim events as possible—celebrations of various types, bazaars, fund-raising events, Friday prayers, iftars and so on. The idea was that they could play with and get to know other Muslim kids. This did not always work out well. At some of these gatherings, parents would basically let their kids loose, and chaos would result. We didn’t want our kids learning from those other kids’ “wild ways,” so we would then rein our own kids in—while they protested that every other kid in the place was having fun except for them. Occasionally, an event would have some sort of planned children’s activity—but the kids (not unreasonably) often found these a disappointment. Some inexperienced teenage girls would have been given the task of keeping a group of restless little kids in a room busy with paper and crayons, or a few old, battered toys.

Far from such events being an identity-boosting experience for our kids, they often seemed to be the reverse. Our kids were both marked as coming from very conservative families (by our attire, as well as by theirs), and from an ethnically “mixed” background, which was not that common where we were living at the time. So, they were not made to feel particularly at home in gatherings like those either.

We could see that both the learning process (especially in terms of things like basic math and reading skills) as well as the kids’ socialization was not going too well. But, we pressed on regardless, telling ourselves that once The Cult had managed to establish a school, that our problems in these areas would be solved. Of course, we were wrong about that….

But anyway. Looking back, I can see that we definitely over-sheltered them. Given how isolated we ourselves were from meaningful contact with people outside our conservative little group, that was pretty much inevitable, and the attempts we make to provide our kids with somewhat wider socialization were quite inadequate.

In those days, we saw the idea of sheltering kids (especially when they were young) from practically every kind of deviation from the “straight path” (as we understood that) as a good thing. We lived in a city, and of course they could see with their own eyes that most people didn’t dress and behave and live like us, but we tried our best to distract them from this obvious fact as much as possible, in part by spending as much time as possible with the small group of other conservative Muslims who did share our outlook on life.

Another way we dealt with this was to focus the kids’ attention on the past as much as possible—so, we read them stories about kids who lived in centuries past (like the Little House books), and often took them to visit the local pioneer village. In the past (we pointed out to them) people used to dress “modestly”, children worked hard and obeyed their parents, and life was centered on religious values. Of course, this “past” we tried to immerse our kids in was romanticised, with things like child labor or the lack of rights for women smoothed over or ignored—though as we were North American Muslims, we did teach them about the Underground Railroad and they learned about heroes like Denmark Vesey and Harriet Tubman, so this wasn’t completely a whitewashed past. But still. We didn’t teach them a history that is interesting on its own terms—we used the past as a buffet from which we could select what we thought was beneficial to our kids’ faith, and ignore all that we thought wasn’t. We didn’t exactly model honesty or academic integrity here.

All our over-sheltering and filtering/censorship of what our kids watched on tv, listened to, read or encountered was supposed to be in order to give them self-confidence as Muslims. In reality, we probably did more to undermine their self-confidence. We did not allow them to develop the skills required to deal with a variety of different types of people. And through our example, we implicitly communicated to them that the outside world was dangerous, and that their faith was a hot-house flower, unable to survive unless carefully protected from most aspects of reality. We also ensured that they would have little culture in common with most of the kids their age. While we saw that as a positive thing at the time, they would have to meet the wider society sooner or later—but we weren’t thinking too hard about that.

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  1. #1 by bingregory on December 10, 2012 - 5:29 am

    Salams, I’ve been following your blog with great interest although I rarely comment.

    Homeschooling is one of several things in my life that worked out fine for me but that I can’t recommend to anyone I know. (It is also something that the ultrareligious and hippies both advocate, which makes for very strange bedfellows.) Money, a stay-at-home parent, a well-educated parent, a group of other home-schoolers and lots of nearby amenities all help immensely. I’d say you must have at least two to make it work and probably three or four to overcome a paranoid religious orientation, and it’s worth it only then if your local public school is utterly broken. I homeschooled in the 6th and 12th grades. If I didn’t have a group of homeschool kids my age that I saw every Thursday, 6th grade would have been miserable. If I didn’t have a nearby university where I could dual-enroll and a mosque to take Arabic in, 12th grade would have been a squandered year (it was the year I converted to Islam). But if I didn’t have homeschooling as an option, I would have been in a public school with rampant drugs, gun violence, skyhigh dropout rates etc. So I agree with you that homeschooling is not a tool to produce God-fearing children in a godless society. But I do think it can provide a decent education in a society like the US that has given up on the idea of a quality education for all its citizens.

  2. #2 by Lana on December 16, 2012 - 6:09 pm

    wow, so interesting to see homeschool experiences for different purposes than mine yet so similar. Good posts. I liked being homeschooled, but it had drawbacks.

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