Two years ago I pulled into the parking lot of a strip mall, parked my car close to one of several unmarked doors, and tried to brace myself for what would inevitably be the beginning of a daily separation with my children. The twins were just shy of turning four, and with an infant at home, I had my hands full. The time had come. They needed to start school… right?
As I walked from door to door, pulling hard only to find each one locked, I began to feel increasingly annoyed that there was no clearly defined ‘main entrance.’ When I finally found an open door and walked inside the school, a receptionist asked that I wait until the principal was available. Seeing as how I had an appointment, I wondered where she was, but took advantage of the time to observe the surrounding classrooms.
The school was eerily quiet, a bad sign in my experience as a former school teacher. The desks in each classroom sat one in front of the other in single rows facing the front. I guess cooperative learning wasn’t something they valued at this Islamic school.
After a brief meeting with the principal,+ she happily informed me that although they only had one opening, they would accept both my kids. “We’ll make room,” she said with a smile. She’ll make room? Didn’t she tell me earlier that the school had a cap on the number of students paired with each teacher to ensure each child received plenty of individual attention? How many other kids were they ‘making room’ for.
As I drove home that day, I thought about the world of learning my twins had experienced up until that point. Thus far, learning was intertwined with their daily life and their play. My husband and I usually read to them while we all snuggled up together on the family room sofa. While our household was pretty typical in that we had our fair share of chaos, tantrums, and brawls, we worked hard to as parents to build cooperation, empathy for one another, and a sense of teamwork within the family.
Would sending our children to this school undo all our tireless efforts? Like most other kids, they would spend more than half their day in the company of peers their own age and a teacher. I wondered if this teacher would value making learning a positive journey for them, one that encouraged curiosity about the world around them, in the same way my husband and I had? Would she instill in them a love for reading? Would she recognize their strengths and be patient with their weaknesses? Would she give them the room to do things at their own pace so that when they did participate, they would take ownership over their learning rather than shy away out of a fear of making mistakes? And worst of all, would they spend hours sitting at a desk, first learning how to take tests and then being tested repeatedly?
I knew the answer without hesitation. As I pulled into our driveway, I picked up my cell and dialed my husband’s number. “I’ll figure out a way,” I said. “But they have to stay home. At least until we find something better.”
That was two years ago. Every few months since that day, I would park myself in front of the computer and research all my options again, hoping to find a school that “had it all.” I wasn’t against school, really, but I was insistent on finding one that would be able to offer as much, if not more, to my children as I was giving them at home. Not only that, I also wanted to be sure that the school I selected wouldn’t undo the values and learning I had inculcated in my kids so far. Eventually, I stopped looking. And shortly after that, I became a homeschool advocate.
The journey towards homeschooling my children didn’t happen overnight. I had all the same doubts and reservations that other non-homeschooling parents have. Would my kids excel academically? Would they socialize well with their peers? How would they make friends their own age? Would I even be able to do it? What about my “me” time?
When we began this journey, I perused through a multitude of curricula, searching for one that would help me teach my twins as much and as quickly as possible. Even though I would never admit this aloud, that was the goal. In time, I realized that the challenge lies in facilitating each child’s learning and development to the best of his or her ability. God has blessed each of my kids, and every other human being, with a unique set of strengths and talents, and I decided that my mission as their teacher was simple: to guide them in exploring their interests and to help them achieve excellence.
Over time we’ve transitioned from organized lesson planning towards a less conventional approach, one that’s led by my children. They pursue whatever interests they have, and I try my best to keep up. We learn in fun and authentic ways; in lieu of textbooks and worksheets, we spend our days visiting museums, taking nature walks, going to local plays, and taking advantage of the host of other activities our city has to offer. My husband and I always loved to travel and every trip we take now, with all three kids in tow, is a glorified field trip. And while the brunt of the teaching falls in my domain, my husband relishes any opportunity to contribute to their journey–albeit, this usually comes in the form of sports/physical education! I acknowledge that we may not always homeschool the same way we do now, but the personal and intellectual growth apparent in each of my children convinces me that, for now, this is the best setup.
How do I know or measure that my students are learning? In the same way I know that I am learning. Although each state follows different regulations, we’re fortunate to live in a one that requires little paperwork from homeschoolers, so I am not under any obligation to show test scores to the state board of education. Instead, I assess my children’s learning by their practical application of their knowledge in day-to-day tasks. For example, the kids add the number of books they want me to read to them or they read aloud recipes and use basic math skills to follow them while helping to prepare dinner.
Homeschooling in our house is not just a means to educate our children. It’s a way of life. Knowing that we are going to be around each other for substantial periods of time forces members of our family to treat one another with a level of respect and consideration—we wouldn’t survive more than a week if we didn’t! And fortunately for us, we have all the time in the world to practice this cooperation. I like to say, “We’re not homeschooling, we are parenting conscientiously.” We learn together, parents and kids alike.
Do I still have doubts about my ability to do this? Absolutely. Do I still have doubts that this is the best thing for my kids? Absolutely not. Since we began this journey two years ago, seeing my children thriving is proof enough for me to continue on this uncommon path. My children might not adhere to a strict curriculum or learn things at the same time or in the same way as other children, but they receive all the one-on-one attention from their teacher they possibly need, they experience the world first-hand, and throughout it all they are sowing seeds of closeness and love with their siblings and their parents.
Saira Siddiqui is a former elementary school teacher, with a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction, who now spends her time homeschooling her children and managing her blog “Confessions of a Muslim Mommaholic.”