Unschooling with the 4 R’s

Muscat al Ansab Wetlands

While I love the philosophy of self-directed education, there’s a part of me that can’t totally comply. I categorize our family as unschooling because we have no interest in recreating school at home or complying with a standard curriculum. However, now that Z is seven, we’re ready to introduce more structure and order to her skill development. If school is in her future, we want her to have the tools to succeed, but we’re prepared to support other paths of education and self-development too.

Religion

The only non-negotiable features of our homeschooling life has been character development, limited media use, lots of books and reading, and the study of Qur’an. We’ve been teaching Z how to read and recite the Holy Qur’an in a very gentle, casual way since she first became interested in it. More than a lesson, it’s a part of our daily rhythm and interaction. Additionally, we’ve introduced the Ghazali Children’s Project to our homeschooling, so each week one lesson is completed with the accompanying workbook.

wRiting

For now, I write Z’s answers from her Ghazali lesson and then she copies them into her workbook for her copywriting work. We’re practicing the use of lower case letters because Z primarily writes with capital letters. Years ago, I tried to teach writing with tracing books but she never took interest. Instead, she drew her way to excellent hand control and capital letter proficiency, especially when her dad introduced the idea of comic books and character dialogue to her.

Reading

We’ve always done a lot of reading and sounded out letters as needed for artwork, Thank You and Holiday cards, and whatever signs and Welcome banners she would make around the house. I remember trying to introduce a phonics reader and though Z was capable of reading it, she had no interest. Instead she would ask, “Can you just read to me?” I considered her response a show of laziness, but when she started spontaneously reading last year, I realized that she just enjoys being read to and has been working out the mechanics and art of reading in her own mind all along. Even though she’s a strong reader on her own now, she can’t help but lean in when I read to Moulay or she’ll read a book herself and then ask me to read it to her again.

 

aRithmetic

I love math but have been wondering how to expose Z to math in a comprehensive and logical way. When a friend suggested Khan Academy for Early Math lessons, I knew the idea of having her own user account and access to the online academy would be appealing. She has been pleading to do more math on the weekends when her other lessons have been completed. We’re available to step in if she’s stumped, but for the most part she’s navigating her way independently just fine.

As for other subjects like science, geography, and history, they are learned incidentally and introduced according to interest or relevance. Having no curriculum means that her knowledge base may not be identical to that of her peers, but once the tools for acquiring knowledge are well established, I trust that the rest of the puzzle pieces will fall into place. Our weekly co-op is also a great way for introducing new topics and styles of information delivery that we haven’t covered yet.

An interesting point about homeschooling that came up in a Raising Free People webinar I attended was that the true test of self-direction in education is asking what would happen if the child did not comply. Is there punishment or loss of privileges? For us, completing the weekly checklist means earning a few hours of weekend media time. It certainly doesn’t feel like a punishment to us because media time is non-essential in our home, but the privilege can be loss for other reasons like lying or general lack of cooperation in essential matters, for example. Other than a bit of procrastination, the current approach seems to be working at the moment and we’ll continue to tweak and experiment as the need arises.

Any other homeschoolers struggling with totally self-directed education or unschooling?

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Children’s Public Library: Muscat’s Homeschool Hub

Children's Public Library Muscat

After three years of waiting, the Children’s Public Library is finally open here in Muscat.  It’s located in Qurm, just across the street from the Children’s Museum, another great family resource.  Some moms have been complaining about the soft opening hours of weekdays from 10am to 3pm but guess what?

Children's Public Library Muscat

The hours are perfect for us homeschoolers.  So much so that we’ll be holding our weekly co-op there.  To finally have the numbers and drive to reinstate the homeschooling co-op is quite exciting.  We have committed volunteer teachers who are passionate, available, and willing to make our group thrive.

Children's Public Library Muscat

Interestingly, our current homeschool crew is comprised of about 20 families, representing 17 nationalities and speaking more than 21 languages.  Many members are first-time homeschoolers or have been homeschooling for less than five years.  Hearing the newbie anxieties and curriculum conundrums has us reflecting on our own homeschooling/unschooling philosophy.

Children's Public Library Muscat

As many of you know, Lil’ Z is not so little anymore.  She’s turning seven in December, God willing, and this milestone is significant in the Islamic ethos.  Traditionally, children were left to play for the first seven years of life and formally instructed thereafter.  Similar views are articulated in the highly successful Finnish educational system, the Waldorf philosophy as articulated by Rudolf Steiner, and others.

Children's Public Library Muscat

Some mistakenly interpret this approach to mean that children learn nothing before the age of seven, but as we know firsthand, this is just not true.  Children learn foundational life and character lessons through imitation, play, culture, and daily life.

Children's Public Library Muscat

Lil’ Z’s learning up to this point has been an extension of our family life and lifestyle.  So, now we’re introducing table work time to our daily rhythm where she can choose between copywriting, workbook exercises, or art.  Her weekly media allowance is usually conditional upon cleaning her room and being truthful.  However, we’re also planning to add a checklist of a few other completed academic and household tasks before she enjoys the privilege of watching episodes, playing educational games, or using a tablet.  All of this, supplemented with our weekly co-op classes and recreational activities affirm for us that homeschooling is offering the enriching educational experience that we hoped for and, more importantly, building moral fiber and character, which is our top priority.

Children's Public Library Muscat

If you’re interested in learning more, join our Homeschoolers in Muscat group on Facebook.  And if you’re not local, just feast on these lovely pictures of our new library and imagine you’re here.

Teaching Arabic to Our Homeschooling Community

Dolphin Cruise

Following our camping trip in Dubai, we spent two more days in Abu Dhabi with dear and beloved friends. Coincidentally and serendipitously, I wasn’t the only visitor passing through that weekend. Another dear and beloved friend, who I consider to be more of a mentor than a fellow student, was passing through. Before babies and the Arab Spring, we were students together in Hadhramaut, Yemen. She was the very first person I extended my hand to greet on my very first night in the city. Like the first greeting until our most recent, her humility and sincerity has always moved me to reflect on my own spiritual state.

Al Riyam Park

Unlike some of the other students, this special sister was efficient and focused. She was tenacious in her studies and intentional in her socializing. It was a tremendous blessing to see her and her reflection in her children. We chatted and reminisced but mostly reconnected. Meanwhile, the teacher who hosted our modest welcome gathering in the park spoke to me warmly and liberally in Arabic. She later invited all of the attendees to an evening event and called upon both my reunited friend and myself to speak to the entire audience in Arabic. The entire encounter was surprising, and we quietly chuckled about how we were similarly put on the spot to speak back in Yemen many years ago.

Nakhal Fort

Standing in front of those blessed Yemeni and Emirati faces, I shared a bit about my life and how I came to embrace Islam. But more potent than what I shared was what I received. As much as I doubt myself about this fact, it is true—I can speak Arabic. Perfect? No. Native-like? Never. With mistakes?  Yup. But, all of my years of study produced something. I’m not only understood but I understand and with my former colleagues and teachers gazing at me with their good opinion and lofty expectations, I realize that I have more to give to our little community in Muscat than I thought.

Nakhal Fort

Upon my return, I quit skirting around the issue and stepped up to make myself available. Though I would welcome more capable candidates for the task, until they arrive, I believe it’s my purpose to teach Beginner’s Arabic and Qur’an recitation to the children and mothers in our little homeschooling community. So, by the grace of God, that’s what I’m doing and the more I embrace my role, the more I find great resources and support at my disposal.

Farm in Barka

For the younger students, ages 4-7, we’ve started with basic vocabulary groups like colors, shapes, foods, animals, the weather, etc. At some point we introduced songs like Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes and The Days of the Week in Arabic. I even translated “This is the Way We…” to fit into a lovely set of graded story books that can be downloaded on Scribd. I recently discovered Arabic Seeds and that’s a great resource too!

For the older students, ages 8-13, we’re using the tried and true Madinah Islamic University Curriculum with as many extension activities I can come up with like Pictionary, scavenger hunts, charades, drawing maps, writing stories, etc. The pdf version works well for the mothers that I teach, but the Goodword edition is much more appealing.

For those of you interested in starting an Arabic playgroup or class in your homeschooling community, my best advice is to start where you are and with what you have, learn as you go, and have fun! I’m certainly not the fountain of Arabic language I’d like to be, but I do need to honor what my teachers have poured into me by pouring that knowledge into others.

International Book Festival

Cultivating Community for Homeschooling and Life

OmanA constant theme in our life abroad is the search for community. We were very blessed to experience true bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood once upon a time, but eventually those ties frayed as individuals followed their hearts and purposes elsewhere. Before coming to Muscat, the question crept up again and I’m pleased to report that the pursuit has been promising.

Oman

Sunday night, the eve before a national holiday commemorating the birth of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him and his family), three families gathered to remember his life and legacy. We had a vegan-friendly and mostly gluten-free spread while we shared stories, poems, and crafts. Children played, parents chatted and reflected, and it feels like we have a community again—a space where we can share a common aim and respect and be respected for who we are.

Oman

Ultimately, we’re more driven to build a community for our children than our own selves. Urbndervish and I have found contentment in each other’s company, but for Lil’ Z and Moulay, we are intentional about seeking out friendships and connections that are enriching, affirming, and nurturing for them. When living abroad, some communities are formed around nationality or faith. For us as a Muslim, Black, Jamaican/American, and homeschooling/unschooling family we intersect a number of expat communities. Most American expatriate families are connected to diplomatic relations, military work, or church. Even within the homeschooling communities, it’s not unusual to find groups exclusively representing one faith, nationality, or language.

Oman

Here in Muscat, the gateway to meeting our new friends has been the modest but diverse homeschooling community. Some say we’re only a dozen actively homeschooling families, but regardless of the numbers on Whatsapp groups and Facebook pages, I’m discovering that statistics mean little in this regard. At the end of the day, this elusive concept of community comes down to the people: individuals who participate, connect, and commit to one another again and again. Sometimes I’m nervous. I worry if our children see each other too often, but then again I consider that most children go to school with more or less the same cohort day after day and sometimes year after year.

Oman

Right now, the chemistry is good and I’m praying this honeymoon stage won’t end. I’m excited about the friendships we all are developing. We plan gatherings, field trips, classes, co-ops and camping excursions together. I’m filled with so much hope but, also fear that it may fall apart with only the slightest friction. However, like any community, we can only exist by putting one foot before the other by forgiving when we falter, stretching when we grow, and committing to what we’ve created. While few of us are historically rooted in Oman, I believe there are enough of us who want to build a future here and hold space for more families to join our unorthodox path of home education and life abroad.

Oman

A Long Way Home

Black Traveling Family

It has been a long hiatus. I have written little for the past three months for three reasons: we were in the US visiting our families, Urbndervish left to start a new job and he had to take our laptop with him. Even if I had the laptop, it’s not likely much writing would’ve gotten done without my partner. I’ve been pouring all of my energy into the children- keeping them calm, engaged, and nourished since exiting Turkey, hopping between homes, and adjusting to life without Baba. However, much has changed in the last three weeks. The said Baba has returned and flew us to our new home—a home we never really wanted to leave in the first place and that took two years to return to–Oman. However, instead of returning to the traditional, provincial Nizwa, we disembarked in Muscat, al hamdu lillah (thanks be to God!).

We slipped out of the Sultanate’s embrace two years ago. Knowing that we had to leave Nizwa to expand Lil’ Z’s homeschooling experience, we tried moving to Muscat. Our top choice employer promised an offer that we didn’t receive until days before our scheduled departure. And with no room for negotiation, we turned down the paltry offer on principle and pushed on. While visiting our family that summer, we received word about a position in Morocco and spent the next eight months there awaiting the arrival of our son. We returned to the US for a pre- and post-birth stay of almost six months until taking up the next job offer in Ankara. Ankara was having a particularly rough year which we decided to wrap up on the night of the coup attempt. The very next morning we started the job search once again, and Urbndervish was offered an interview for the very same job he turned down two years prior. However, the offer was much more reasonable, so he accepted it.

Hanging in Brooklyn

In those two years away, it became clear to us that Muscat is the best destination for us. The safety of the country, the character of the people, and the emerging homeschooling community gave us confidence that we could make a home here for a while. Even though we were disappointed about our temporary separation, we knew it was worth it and made the most of it. I lingered behind with the kids in New York until our family visas were ready nearly two months later. It was a challenge being apart so long, but the children and I had a lot of fun ending the summer and entering fall in New York. We hung out with family, had play dates in Brooklyn, took trips to DC and New Jersey, attended my best friend’s wedding and watched the fall foliage change around us. Thankfully, we snuck out before Election Day and the pending winter.

Fresh Flowers

Urbndervish made a crazy overnight trip just to pick us up and fly us over to Oman on the same night of his arrival. We were finally together again and ready to settle into the nest he had been preparing for us. As we traveled, I felt a stir of emotions–sad to leave family, happy to be reunited, and anxious to see if Oman had changed or wasn’t as great as I remembered. Were my rosy memories omitting the challenges, difficulties, and frustrations we faced? Was I forgetting just how odd we were (and are) as an unschooling, vegan, American Muslim family with “crunchy” tendencies? Did Oman still have the charm that won us over years prior? In only a few days, the anxieties evaporated. Finding peace in the shopping mall’s prayer room, hearing Maher Zain belt “Yaa Nabi, salaam alayka” in the supermarket, and sitting on the beach for our first homeschooling meetup with beautiful moms and children from France, America, Kenya, South Africa, and Sri Lanka have all affirmed for me that we are where we’re supposed to be. Additionally, old friends have extended themselves by helping us find our apartment, selling and giving us great furniture and houseware, lending us our old car “Suzi”, and generally being helpful for our inquiries.

Some of the not-so-rosy moments have also surfaced. Plumbing problems, internet issues, and perpetual dust arose, but they are all manageable. Our children still go to bed with full tummies in one of the safest countries in the world and for this, we are abundantly grateful. There are bumps to be smoothed out and some that may never go away, but in the wise words of Mr. Kendrick Lamar, “We gon’ be alright” and I believe so. Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him and his family) said it more eloquently in the following translated statement:

Amazing is the affair of the believer; verily his entire affair is good and this is not for one except the believer. When something of good befalls him, he is grateful and that is good for him. When something of harm befalls him, he is patient and that is good for him.

So, it’s really all good, al hamdu lillah.

Unschooling in the Green Mountains of Oman

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I recently joined a group of Muslim mamas on Facebook who have shared passions—attachment parenting, homeschooling/unschooling, and natural family living.  When I told Urbndervish about it, he lit up saying “you’ve found your niche!”  Sweet soul that he is spoke nothing other than the truth.  I’ve found a robust group of women trying to live naturally, parent gently, and raise their children sustainably.  In this group I’ve even met another vegan Muslim family; the first we’ve ever met!  Other than talking about breastfeeding, cloth diapering, and natural mosquito repellants, it’s great that we can also talk about our faith journeys, favorite Qur’an reciters, and preparing our homes for Ramadan.

The group is a gem in many ways but the discussion topic of most interest to me right now is unschooling.  The concept of allowing a child to freely discover, learn, and pursue what interests them has always appealed to us.  We like the idea of embracing a lifestyle of learning, not relegating education to certain times, days, or months in the year.  But what does it practically look like?  How do you plan a day or week with such uncertainty?  What daily rhythm and home environment best support this free-spirited experience?  If we lived in the United States, this decision would be a no-brainer for us.  Most major cities have an abundance of museums, libraries, and parks with homeschooling co-operatives to explore them with.   However, the reality is that we don’t have a homeschooling community, varied outdoor activities, or even a library in our small town of Nizwa.  Our nearby park was demolished to widen the roads, so on weekends we venture further out to a large park about 20 minutes away.  A local hotel has a kiddie pool, which we take Lil’ Z to regularly, and we look for fish, frogs, and dragonflies in the coursing water channels of a nearby village.  We would love to set up some playdates but have difficulty finding families who share our views on discipline and childrearing.

Occasionally, we head to Muscat for some variety—playdates with Lil’ Z’s buddy, lunch with friends, and visits to the beach (too hot for that now).  There are plans to open a children’s library in Muscat but for now we rely on our own collection of books, in both Arabic and English.  At the moment, this is the best we can do.  Putting together the sum total of our efforts, both outdoors and indoors, we often wonder if it’s enough for her or will it be enough in a year from now.  Can we effectively unschool… on our own…in Oman?

On Saturday, the answer to these questions was a resounding “YES!”  One of my dear friends is returning to London, and we wanted to do a fun excursion as a send-off.  We hired a driver to take us to Jabal Akhdar, the Green Mountains.  We ascended 45 minutes up a mountain range so steep that only 4WD vehicles are allowed on the road.  Once we reached more level ground, we dismounted from the Land Cruiser to feel the mountain air, the first naturally cool breeze we’ve felt in months.  We peered down the canyon to behold terraced hills and historic villages.

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Our next stop was Wadi al Ayn where we walked through the narrow alleyways of a small farming village, passing rose bushes, fields of corn and pomegranate, peach, and walnut trees.  As Lil’ Z reached up to touch a low-hanging pomegranate, still green and not yet ripe, she understood that we have to wait until it’s bigger and turns red before its ready to eat.

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We asked about a nearby tree and could hardly believe it contained walnuts until our guide used a rock to crack open a small round green fruit, with the nut nestled in its center.  This is unschooling.

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A later stop at Wadi Bani Habib required a long descent down an endless set of steps.  After crossing the dry valley, passing the pear trees, and ducking beneath the large tree branches, we met a mulberry tree glistening with little red berries.  Our guide Ahmed picked a few berries for us, not yet sweet but edible.  Lil’ Z wanted a taste too and filled her little belly with sour berries, walking along berry-stained rocks requesting even more.  This is unschooling.

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We then climbed up a short staircase to a structure that appeared to be in ruins but discovered a small mosque, still in use, at its core.  We saw bright red patterned carpets, a prayer niche, and a picture of the Kaaba hung on the wall.  This is unschooling.

Whether we use the term “unschooling” or “life learning”, we have to ask ourselves what do we gain or lose but placing our home and family life at the center of Lil’ Z’s education.  A quick scan of the last nearly three years of her life show just how much she’s learned at home:   how to wash herself, dress herself, prepare food, fold clothes, pour water, set a table, and whatever else she attempts.  Then there’s language, letters, and colors, but more important than all of this is her character.  All of the etiquettes and habits of our daily life and interactions are reflected in her speech, behavior, and ideas.  Yes, those little brains are sponges, but so are those little hearts.  They absorb the models of character around them, both big and small.  Entrusting Lil’ Z to a school, even an inviting and beautiful school, still means entrusting her to the people in it.  We’re not paranoid, trying to shelter her from bullies and boo boos, but we do want the foundation of her character to be strong and firm before spending a significant portion of her day without us.  The responsibility is great, the task is daunting, but at the same time, I love the learning adventure we’ve been on, and I’m intrigued to see where it will take us.

Within the framework of our value system and home environment, Lil’ Z is thriving.  She asks questions freely and experiments on a daily basis.  She’s young and curious, and there is no curriculum to confine her, just principles to guide her and love to sustain her.  Even though I often wonder if we’re giving her enough “fodder” for her flame, she seems to be burning bright and if her learning light begins to dim, then we’re prepared to reflect and adjust, so she can continue to shine.

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