Written by: Kendall A. | UmmIman
(Originally Posted August 7, 2020)
Let me start by asking the question that is on everybody’s mind: why homeschool? You’re a teacher! Don’t you believe in the benefits of a formalized, schooling experience?!
To that point, part of my experience as a teacher in formal settings is exactly what lead to me to decide that homeschooling is the right option for our family, at least right now.
Let me give you some context: As a child, I always knew that I wanted to one day become a teacher, in sha Allah. To this day, I genuinely enjoy the process of teaching and learning, of creating exciting and engaging lesson plans, of trial and error, and my heart lights up at the sight of school supplies! I spent my middle school days volunteering after school and over the summers in the same preschool that I had attended as a child. I used to plan an annual “Little People’s Day” that gave me a chance to host my own daycare for a day each year, complete with outdoor activities, learning exercises, and pre-planned meals. Through the corporate work-study program that was offered at my high school, I continued to work in early childhood education settings, and upon graduating from undergrad, I took a position as a tutor in a charter school. From there, I began to work in an Islamic school setting for the five years afterward, where I taught a myriad of subjects and grade levels. After having my own children, I decided to set my 5th-12th English/Language Arts license aside for the timing being in pursuit of early childhood education once more, this time from a Montessori angle.
What drew me to Montessori education is the sense of order, concentration, coordination, and independence that it affords to its young learners. I saw children being the directors of their learning, by having the freedom to explore the classroom and engage in what was developmentally appropriate and of interest to each child. I witnessed very young children being responsible and feeling capable of acquiring knowledge rather than having it forced upon them. It was refreshing to note that each child was respected for who she naturally is and not manipulated into conforming to a preset notion of what children should be. Character development was at the forefront of the classroom experience, not just academics. This appealed to me as being a set of characteristics for the successful student, because I had seen a lack of this in many of my older students, which translated into a depreciation of the value of education and the joy of learning. It seemed to me that as children get older, they are less enthusiastic about “school.” I, too, remember feeling as a student that school took up so much of my time, that I didn’t have time to invest in or explore things that I was interested in, and in some ways, I sometimes resented school, because I wanted more time to dream and learn about what was important to me, and not just what my school had deemed valuable. So, I began to ponder: How can children, all of whom are naturally inquisitive and motivated to learn from birth, sustain the love of learning and the concentration to do so? What supports do they need in making the learning process an enjoyable and active undertaking? What leads children to dislike learning and/or school? How can the concept of school or education be reimagined to meet the very real academic needs of our society, whilst also valuing the individual interests of learners of all ages?
The obvious answer to this question may be that a child who is interested in a given subject matter will naturally do well, and that it is the teacher’s responsibility and task to engage and motivate all 20+ children in said subject matter. This is not a realistic ask, in my opinion. From my days of teaching middle school, I can say that many (not all) of my students enjoyed the classes that I taught, but did not necessarily: do well by a grade book perspective, love everything that we studied, or find relevance in some of the lessons. And…I cannot blame them, because at some point, I too began to wonder, why some of it really mattered. In the grand scheme of their lives, both present and future, why did they have to take a test on a particular novel, memorize certain information, or learn the ins and outs of every other culture, but their own?
What feels more relevant to me is teaching children the fundamentals–how to read, how to articulately express themselves both verbally and in writing, basic mathematics, how to think critically, and be given an opportunity to express themselves creatively. These core components are relevant in any subject that they take, be it: a formal English class, a Science class, Islamic Studies, or something deemed “less academic” by institutionalized standards. If a child has these skills, she can apply them to any subject area of interest and be successful in acquiring that knowledge. So in other words, teaching a child how to read opens the door to reading literature that is both academic and pleasurable. Both of those reading choices are valid, not just what I, as the teacher, have deemed worthy of memorizing. When we take this approach–that the child has been given the tools of how to learn–enjoyment of learning can be sustained, because the doors of what to learn are now his to unlock.
On another point, classroom management takes up so much of a teacher’s time. Trying to get 20+ students to all be interested in the same subject, at the same time, for the allotted class period, without expecting them to want to socialize/engage in conversation that is irrelevant to the lesson, is a headache! Every individual has a unique rhythm of alertness, ability to dive into a subject deeply, and inclination toward a particular subject. Thus trying to fit an entire class into one box of when everyone is expected to experience a state of flow is futile at best. I remember that for myself, as a middle school student, there were times that I would be in a state of flow in a particular subject, and the bell to signal the end of that class period interrupted that.
The classroom management conundrum is one that troubles me as well, because in order to combat it, many schools take the approach of implementing systems of rewards and consequences–often a euphemism for punishments–which I do not agree with. Through experience and research, I have found that rewards and punishments lead to external motivation rather than internal motivation, and this is what I want for my children–to be internally motivated to learn, to do good deeds, to try their level best, not because they are going to gain an external, tangible trinket for having done so. I saw this most clearly in my time working in a charter school. Academically, it was an amazing institution that did put students on academic grade level and beyond; however, it came at the expense, I feel, of creating a prison-like, disciplinary system which is not mirrored in more affluent neighborhoods where ethnic diversity is also lesser. This, to me, felt racialized, given that charter schools are typically constructed in urban settings to reverse the lag that students may have experienced in other educational settings due to lack of funding and investment in communities of color. Practices like: having students walk on a black line in the hallways and earn a consequence for not doing so was disturbing. The obsession with obedience of students to authority is unhealthy on many levels and has real implications of what is expected in society at large. While I want my children to have an excellent education, I don’t want that to come at the expense of them having their spirits crushed and their bodies controlled by other human beings.
Add on top of classroom management the expectation for the teacher to create a tiered lesson plan to meet the needs of everyone in the class, and it becomes very stressful on the teacher, as well as the students. Someone is bound to slip through the cracks, not by nefarious intent, but instead because of sheer ratio and lack of sufficient time. I believe and know that teachers are overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated for the dedication that they put into each child in their classrooms. And teachers are often blamed for the failure of their students. However, it is unfair to place so much expectation and hope into one person who is responsible for the learning of so many students. In order to teach well, supports have to be in place and everyone has to be on board, including students and families. The imposition of the grading system in most schools also creates a hierarchy in the classroom of success when students are measured purely on their finesse with paper and pen. I’ve taught many intelligent students who were just unable to express their learning in a way that translated into an A on a report card, yet this should not be an indication of the future that they can have. And so I have concerns about these two points with regard to my children’s potential experience in elementary, middle, and high school.
What I mean to express here is that my views of success and which types of learning matter have shifted drastically from the beginning of my career to where I stand today. As a society, we’ve been taught to believe that only one narrative of success exists–to go to college, get a good job, earn lots of money, buy a house, etc. etc. However, the elusive “American Dream” was not even intended for all of America’s inhabitants. The narratives and stories that are promoted in schools are often that of the dominant group, which leaves everyone else as marginalized or specialized, ie: “Black History,” “Asian Musicians,” “Women’s History,” because the norm is the While, male experience. I digress. The point is: all learning is valuable. All people are naturally inclined toward certain interests and talents. Learning is a life-long process whereby we each make connections in our heads at different times, not by a calendar or standardized idea of when mastery of a subject should be actualized. The notion of success wears many hats. Every individual plays an important role in our society.
How does this translate into our story? There are so many amazing educational opportunities that exist in the world–both in the public and private sectors. I have fallen in love with many a program’s spiel on what it has to offer and have daydreamed over what their lives could be like if my children attended such and such institution. However, I have resigned to accepting that we will never find the “perfect school” that meets all of the points on our wish lists. Don’t get me wrong, my children have attended some wonderful programs that we have been very happy with and that met our needs at the time. Yet, in looking at the overall experience of education that I want my children to have, homeschooling gives me the most flexibility in making tangible my vision, both in the present and in the future, as it continues to reshape and mold itself.
For me, a holistic educational experience for my children and the ideal “school” looks like the following: Islamic; Arabic-Spanish-American Sign Language Immersion; Montessori; gives ample time to imaginative and outdoor play, as well as artistic expression; shows a value and concern for social justice and the beauty of diverse representation; integrates hands-on, child-lead, and project-based learning; consists of a multi-age setting; and has strong parent-involvement. If you know of such a place, call me now!! In the meantime, that is the program that I am designing for my home. In this space, I wish to cultivate: a life-long love of learning that is not competitively driven by or beaten out of my children by a grading system; the ability to concentrate and create meaningful learning that is guided by their interests; a knowledge that is always rooted in Islam; and confidence in themselves as beautiful human beings with much to offer the world, bi’ithniAllah.
All of that said, I do believe in the importance of peer socialization, of learning from other children–both younger and older, in extra-curricular activities, in the necessity of learning from other than me, and of building powerful relationships with people outside of our home and immediate family. I also take seriously the idea that the mother is the child’s first teacher, and want to make good on that and earn the ajr of really having invested in them in this way [formal home education]. I am inspired by the history of early education whereby tutors would come to the home to instruct children in reading, writing, and mathematics, where mosques were learning vessels for acquiring spiritual knowledge, and where people traveled far and wide to gain valuable learning from the best teachers. I want them to experience learning like that–that learning is something that takes place all the time, from many different people, in different places and platforms, and is tailored to their unique passions. I am a firm believer that with intentional planning, all of these points are achievable and that homeschoolers are capable of having a unique and wonderful education, and ability to contribute to the world just as much as any child who attended a physical school building!