Saturday, January 8, 2011

Tales of a Homeschooling Graduate

 The article I wrote on homeschooling that was published in SISTERS magazine last summer.

I was introduced to Mariam A. by a sister on Facebook. She had sent a link to a young photographer’s Facebook page and was urging us to support this new Muslimah talent. But one look at the gorgeous photographs on the sister’s Flickr site and it was clear that no such exhortations were necessary. It was clear that the sister had real talent, masha Allah.
But I was even more intrigued after speaking to her: a 21 year old Canadian of Syrian, Egyptian, Bedouin, Turkish and Chechnyan origin, currently living in Egypt, totally homeschooled. This sister sounded bright, intelligent, confident - and her photographic skills were self taught: a true homeschooling poster girl.
We often hear of sisters making the decision to homeschool their children. Support groups, advice and resources abound for the wannabe homeschooler but it is rare to hear about the experiences of the homeschooled children themselves. I decided to ask Mariam about her own experiences, in the hope of adding a new, fresh voice to the ongoing debate about our children’s education.

A momentous decision

When I turned three, when it was time for me to start my first year of school, both my parents came to the conclusion that life was too short to miss out on any moment of their children’s precious lives. They wanted to be involved in every step of our education and development; to watch us grow in front of them, teach us things and share their life experiences with us. They thought homeschooling would combine both the academic and social aspect of a child’s development. My mother, being a statistics major, knew she would be responsible of covering the academic part while my father, with his wealth of business, social and life experiences thought he would enhance our mental and social growth tremendously.
In addition, a home’s healthy environment - away from bullying, peer pressure and negative influences - would positively shape our character while encouraging us to learn and be independent thinkers.
But most importantly, my parents believed that the responsibility of raising and educating a child is a God given right to each parent that should not be waived to the school system.

Lone pioneers

After announcing that they wished to homeschool us, my parents found that they were not supported at all by relatives and friends. Instead, they were accused of using us as guinea pigs in an experiment that was bound to fail. We were pitied by everyone around us, including kids of our own age. At that time, homeschooling was barely even heard of: people thought my parents were crazy.

Richness in diversity

We are a large family and as a family we have lived in many places and discovered many cultures, and I believe this adds a lot to who I am today.
My experience as a homeschooler has been a very rich one, not necessarily education wise, but as a life experience in itself. For us, education was not restricted to a classroom setting with desks and textbooks, but rather it was a real life experience. We never actually had a daily schedule to run by. I guess I would describe our learning experience as easy going and relaxed. When we were young, the Canadian outdoors was our classroom. We used to wait eagerly for each distinctive Canadian season, for each held special gifts for us.
Summer brought its warm eveings, barbeques, picnics and bicycle rides. Fall meant collecting leaves, and enjoying the sweet scent of apples and pumpkins, while winter brought all the fun of snowball fights, hot chocolate after shovelling the driveway, and quiet afternoons of reading in the library. Spring was our favourite, an opportunity to combine learning about nature with the fun of walking in the rain, running barefoot on the grass, and watching life emerge from dead tree branches.
The vivid Canadian seasons were a great educational tool that opened our little minds and drove us to ask questions and seek answers from our parents, the Internet and the library.
Our learning style was a very unique one. As we grew older, our learning experiences became more creative. My siblings and I would work on projects together. One such project was a home bakery that we opened. It was a great learning opportunity that came with many rewards. For example, I was always interested in arts and crafts. I loved creating beautiful things from ordinary objects. At age seven, I made a little doll house out of a chocolate box and making things like this made me so proud, and it helped boost my self confidence.
Growing up, I always had a soft spot for animals. I raised an orphaned pigeon who was found on our doorstep, almost a week old. I have also nursed an orphaned kitten, as well as having a semi cat shelter with 36 cats in our backyard!

Academic philosophy

As for academical education, my parents didn’t want to restrict us to a certain curiculum; my mother always tried to choose books about subjects we were interested in. My parent’s philosophy with regards academic education was to concentrate on skills - basic mathematical skills, reading, writing and comprehending in both the Arabic and English languages - as this would enable us to learn and discover on our own.
As for Science , Geography and History these were regarded in our home as general knowledge and this was obtained through borrowing documentaries from the library, the National Geographic and History television channels, while encyclopedias, books about the animal kingdom etc, were scattered all over the house.
Our parents used to take advantage of current events and turn them into lively discussions through which we’d learn more about the political climate, events that were taking place and how they would affect the rest of the world. For instance, the American Presidential elections of 2000 presented a great opportunity for us to learn about the history of American presidents, different political parties, how the election system in America worked, among other things.

Challenges and accomplishments

To me, my biggest accomplishment was learning to read and write on my own after having been tutored in the basics by my mother until the age of 7. This made me realise that with persistence and motivation, I can achieve almost anything I want. However, from my experience, and as I have mentioned earlier, the pressure from close relatives and friends was the biggest challenge my parents faced. Homeschooling was not easy in the beginning, and lack of support from people around us made it harder. As for us children, I don’t think we faced any major challenges alhamdulilah.

Little boxes

The way I see the school system is like a big mold that shapes all its students into one model. It allows very little room for a student to develop his/her very unique personality and character. Schools adopt a one-size-fits-all scheme of learning and shaping their students. Therefore, you are more likely to have a generation of children thinking, eating, dressing and buying the exact same things. Because of the ‘one mold’ policy that is followed by a lot of schools, there is less room for individuality, uniqueness and creativity. On the other hand because learning at home is tailored to a child’s needs, it allows his or her talents to be discovered at an early age, while being nurtured and encouraged. This, in my opinion, is a recipe for success.
Another problem with today’s educational system is the matter of labelling. If a student is a slow learner, he/she becomes labelled as a “special needs” student when, in fact, that child could prove to be a genius if given the time and space to prove him/her self. For example, I began learning at the age of three, while one of my siblings started his learning at the age of nine! He was a hyper-active child, and in my opinion, if he was a school student he would have been labelled. Eventually, he grew and developed at his own pace and turned out to be the cleverest of my siblings.

The learning journey

While most people think that success is measured by the grades a child achieves on tests, true success is measured by how developed a child’s character is, and how dedicated, independent, and aware of the world around her she is. I have met many high school students who are considered very smart and clever but when I actually talked to them, I found that, despite all the learning they received, their interests were quite superficial. They had no real interests, hobbies, or opinions, which is quite sad. For a generation to have no interests in life is a true social crisis.
Homeschooling made me an independent person. It made me think outside the box, with a clear mind, one that is not being controlled by the system. I can form my own opinions freely, based on my own judgments. It also made me open and sociable. Most people think that homeschoolers are unsociable but, on the contrary, while growing up, I had the privilege of making friends from all age groups and backgrounds. I remember when I was about 7, I used to spend hours on the phone with my mother’s aunt, who was 60 at that time. It never was a problem for me to come up with things to talk about and discuss. Many (if not all) of my friends are more than 5 years older than I am.
I find the company of older friends more interesting, as I have gained a lot from being with people who are more experienced than I am. One of the most important thing that I have gained from homeschooling, is having a strong relationship with my family. Being together all day long made us appreciate each other, and depend on each other in many things.
Many people find it hard to go against the flow, for fear of rejection or ridicule. Alhamdulillah, as a homeschooler, I never had to face that problem. I grew up to be a practical person. I run my life by what I believe to be the right course, not by how people expect me to. I also had enough space to discover who I am, not being told who I should be. I discovered who I am by discovering where my talents lie. From a very young age, I was fascinated by beauty in all its forms. I looked for ways to express myself, hence my passion for photography and writing emerged. I wanted people to see this beauty the way I saw it, either by a very expressive poem, or a captivating photograph.

Ultimate goals

My parents instilled in me that my main ambition should be to to strive to be a good Muslim, to always seek the guidance of the Qur’an and Sunnah in everything I do in life. Because this is, after all, our ultimate goal.
Everything else in life is merely a tool for achieving this goal. As to my professional ambitions,
my dream is to become a published writer and photographer. Also I’m planning on studying the art of glass-bead making and hopefully integrating with my professional goals.

I came away from my discussion with Mariam A. most impressed by this confident and self-assured young lady. May Allah reward her parents and bless her with success in all her affairs, ameen.

5 comments:

jnana said...

Wow, mashAllah. I really admire your parents for being dedicated to do this. I would love to be able to have the patience and capacity to homeschool my children in the future.

Love and Sugar said...

MashaAllah you've inspired me!
InshaAllah I will be able to do what your parents have done.

Mariam said...

Jnana, inshallah you will! May Allah give you strength :)

Jazajy Allah Khair love and sugar :)

Dunia said...

WOW..!!
u really discovered the beauty of life..
i dont know what to say, but i really thankful to have a "friend" like you..
i enjoy readin it so much walla :)

محمد الطيب said...

Great Mariam,

Now I am attached to your writing style. This is to tell you that I haven't forgot you. I am reading this whenever I am taking a break from my technical work.

Few more "breaks" to gooooo :)