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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Montessori for Nomads: Two to Three Years Old

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Disclaimer: This is not intended to be a Montessori tutorial in any way, shape or form; but rather, this is intended to share how we attempt to incorporate our understanding of Montessori principles in a DIY-minimalist-eco-friendly-raggamuslim-kinda way. Proceed, if you wish.

Montessori for Nomads:  Birth to Six Months

Montessori for Nomads:  Six to Twelve Months

Montessori for Nomads:  Twelve to Eighteen Months

Montessori for Nomads:  Eighteen Months to Two Years

Hopefully by the age of two, your child understands that putting non-food items in her mouth is unsavory and undesirable.  The boundaries of an activity can be articulated more clearly and the responsibility of enjoying an activity can be understood.   These developments give way to the supervised enjoyment of playing with small items like beads for threading, cups of rice for pouring, and ingredients for cooking.  Also, at this age, your child can more clearly articulate what they want to do and, more times than not, they want to imitate what they see you doing.  The challenge for us as parents and facilitators of learning is to find safe and manageable ways for a young child to enjoy a real, productive task and not a mere simulation of one.  Here are some ways that we have supported Lil’ Z in her pursuit of real work.

Transfer Activities

Long before writing begins, little hands need to be strengthened and their movements refined.  In the Montessori paradigm, this effort can begin with a series of activities that transfer materials like water, rice, and beans by sponging, pouring, spooning, etc. from one container to another. What I found most challenging about such activities is that my daughter didn’t see transferring as the goal and I didn’t feel a need to stop her from exploring an activity in her very own way, on her very own terms.  My only boundary was that the activity is to stay contained in its given space.  I later concluded that a rice bin was much better for us all.  In her own free style of play, she was able to accomplish a variety of transfers through free play and exploration.  The rice bin does require a few lessons in the use of a hand broom to clean up spills and plenty of reminders about where rice does and doesn’t belong.

Rice bin activity

Sandpaper Letters

A clever way of introducing letters and their phonetic sounds is by tracing mounted sandpaper letters.  Adding the tactile experience to a child’s learning creates another layer of depth for their experience.  We purchased both Arabic and English sandpaper letters via My Happy Prayer Place and Enrighten.  Montessori also advocates the teaching of phonetic sounds more than letter names which is really helpful when learning to read English, but less relevant when learning Arabic.

In the Kitchen

There’s a lot of learning that can take place in the kitchen.  Of course, there’s the obvious work of cooking.  By putting ingredients in small containers, I could step back and let my daughter make the batter for her oatcakes or prepare her own morning oatmeal.  She can also use a butter knife to cut plantains and, with supervision, a dull knife to cut cucumbers.

Washing dishes

The natural byproduct of any meal is dirty dishes and eventually Lil’ Z wanted to experience the joy of dishwashing for herself.  Under the sink, we set up basins and a dish brush for dishwashing.  Though a little dish rack would be ideal, we found a dishcloth adequate for placing her washed dishes.

Handling Laundry

Loading the washing machine is an easy chore for little people, as long as they don’t try climbing in.  Eventually, they can pour detergent and help you sort light and dark-colored clothing.  Once the laundry’s done, there is a clever child-sized drying rack for toddlers to hang their clothes on but we developed our own arrangement with shoelaces tied to chairs.  Adjusted to her height, Lil’ Z can use clothespins to hang up her washcloths to dry in indoors.  Now that she’s a little taller, she can help me hang socks on our full-sized drying rack on the balcony.

Folding

When her washcloths are dry, she then folds them in halves, then in quarters.  When folding really piqued her interest, just the sight of unfolded washcloths was enough to draw her like a bee to honey .  And then she would diligently fold each and every washcloth and stack them in a pile.  It was amazing to see her focus and concentration, even without my prompting or participation; but once that new task was mastered, it never captivated her interest in the same way.  We later progressed to folding pants and shirts.

Arts and Crafts

At around 2 ½ years old, we entered the wild world of art.  Play dough was relatively easy, so was cutting and gluing, but painting took much more mental preparation for me.  With the encouragement of a teacher friend of mine, we started with finger painting and progressed to paintbrushes and sponge painting.  As I much as I thought I wasn’t ready for the mess of paint, it wasn’t so bad.  A smock and old newspapers kept the paint spills contained, and seeing Lil’ Z’s satisfaction made it all worthwhile.

Threading wooden beads and cardboard shapes with shoelaces is another crafty activity that develops fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.

My beaded necklace

Real Life Learning

Lil’ Z and I have developed a wonderful synergy during our days together.  Our relationship has evolved and become a partnership.  Every day, my goal is to make sure all of our needs our met in the most peaceful, graceful way possible.  There are the basic needs of rest, food, and protection but Lil’ Z also needs healthy doses of focused attention, meaningful work, and free time.  For me, I need quiet time for prayer and devotion, exercise, time for housecleaning and some internet time for communication and writing.  I used to do the housecleaning when Lil’ Z was asleep but have come to learn that she should know  the joy and effort that maintaining a home requires.  This is a lesson in itself.  There is no maid and no magic wand.  We make time for work, play, and rest.

All in all, we weave together a day that is fulfilling. Without sitting down for lessons, Lil’ Z is learning a lot.  The richness of our family relationships teaches both the tangible and intangible.  We try to embody the character we want her to emulate and speak to her with the same respect and clarity that we hope she will use.  Our rotated selection of activities and manipulatives aid in her development also, and I can’t highlight the importance of reading.  At both naptime and bedtime, Lil’ Z delights in the world of her books before settling to sleep.

In the evenings, Urbndervish joins us, and he and Lil’ Z relish in their unbound collective creativity.  They draw together–creating characters, stories, and giggle-worthy goofiness.  After sharing our dinner meal and talking about our days, I retreat into the background to let them have at it.  I can’t even begin to express how Lil’ Z adores her dad, but that’s a post for another day.

All in all, we’re grateful for the vision and model that Montessori offers us.  We may not practice it all wholesale, but we see the benefits in what we do implement.  For now, our daughter is unapologetically unschooled in an attempted Montessori home environment, and we have yet to see any indication that she’s missing what a standard classroom has to offer.

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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