Twenty-four/seven (reflections and humble advice to the homeschooling novice) *the complete post*

Assalamo ‘alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh. (apologies, I accidentally posted a draft!)

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When my first child was about 3 and I was just preparing to home educate, I read something that stayed with me. It was a Facebook post by an experienced Muslim homeschooler who was asked “how do you do it?”. Her immediate reply was: “You have to not mind being with your children 24/7.”

This sounds a lot more obvious than it is.

Lately, I have been talking about homeschooling with several people I know; Women who have either just taking their child out of school, have decided to start with their little ones or are seriously considering not sending their big kids to secondary school. Each of them is in a very different predicament in terms of the age of her children and the extent of their experience of public school; what they have in common is that they all are entering uncharted territory. Their situations – different as they might be – all remind me of giving birth (and no – not in terms of pain!!!): the decision to take full charge of your child’s education has a certain solemnity to it. You just know that it will forever be intertwined with your experience as a parent. It is thinking about these friends of mine and their families that some reflections started bubbling up to the surface of my conscience.

I myself feel as though I have entered a new stage in my homeschooling journey. I have been so busy hiking up the mountain, that only now I pick up my head and notice the landscape has changed. I realised that, rather than being “resigned” to it, I have embraced the idea that my children will not go to school. I always vouched for home education but, deep inside, I have been somewhat affected by the notion that “school = real life”. I felt that, for me and my kids, homeschooling was just a temporary solution to the absence of a salafi school where we live; I thought I would hold down the fort as best as I could until this phantomatic move to a place where I could find the right institution to “offload the burden”. In the meantime, my eldest is almost through with primary school. Moving is a remote possibility; our homeschool, on the other hand, has been a reality. It has been so for 7 years and by the sole mercy of Allah. It has been, and continues to be, engaging and a little unpredictable. Fluid and changeable. Frustrating and fulfilling. Subject to moods, light-bulb moments, phases of near obsessive interest and a few fads too. It defines our family. It moulds our relationships with one another. It is heart-warmingly good, spectacularly bad and everything in between.

Before I share my two pence worth of reflection and advice about homeschooling, know that – 7 years ago – that “24/7” statement felt like a slap in the face, because the thought of my 3 year old boy being with me 24/7 for the foreseeable future terrified me. Not to mention the guilt aftershock.

So, new or aspiring homeschooling people, gather around! these are more M&Ms than pearls of wisdom, but here you go:

  1. LITTLE CHILDREN DON’T NEED A CURRICULUM, THEY NEED A LIFE.

A life with you, to be precise. The need to do what they love with the person who is their whole world. And tons of books, to be read to them by the aforementioned, who is also required to slow down and be present. They do not need instruction, but first hand experience. And, that way, they learn. “Learning through play” means exactly that. It doesn’t mean putting up a puppet show to teach a 4 year old to solve equations or write cinquains. Don’t do that. Please.

2. HAVING YOUR CHILDREN WITH YOU 24/7 DOESN’T MEAN THEY MUST BE ON YOUR LAP 24/7.

When people ask me,”So, basically your kids are with you all the time?” In my head I chuckle and answer,”Where else should they be?” (They aren’t by the way, not all the time). School is a perfectly legitimate solution for some families, but when did it become the default place for kids to belong?

Having said so, some sensible boundaries have to be set. My kids are with me all the time, but they are not engaging me all of the time. When I am busy (meaning: late) making dinner, and each of my 3 comes to me simultaneously with a very specific snacks request for the fourth time, I joke with them saying that I am not a tapas bar. Or one of those sushi places with the little plates of food on a conveyor belt. Kids tend to be what, in adults, we call “self-centred”. They expect it to be an “all day breakfast” kind of situation. And it is, except that it would be impossible for a Muslim mother to carry out her other duties efficiently if she went along with it 24/7. Children are quite unlikely to think, “Hmm… I see Mother is looking quite drained after spending all day responding to our physical, educational and emotional needs. She should have a quiet hour a day to deepen her knowledge of the religion without any disturbances or endless requests,” (right???). So, instead of ending up resenting children because they can’t give us a break, it is up to the parent to create that time and guard it, put it in place and make it a routine. These are some ideas:

  • Get up before your children. Snatch that hour even if you have to study in your pyjamas to save yourself the time it would take to get dressed.
  • Have a bedtime and stick with it. Bedtimes are cherished in this house (and not just because they usually mark the end of my working day). An adequate bedtime must apply also to older children, or at least a time when they are expected to be in their room for the night.
  • When a toddler outgrows the need for an afternoon nap, nap-time can evolve into “quiet time.” With the exception of prayer at the masjid or any scheduled activities they might have outside the house, our boys will spend a couple of hours in their room in the afternoon. They may rest, read, play, draw, do homework … anything, as long as it is quiet. They are not locked in, they simply know that is a time we spend doing separate things and whatever is not urgent can wait a little.

By the mercy of Allah, this can allow for part time work from home, online study, exercise and any job that is best done without kids around. It provides much needed rest if one is unwell/pregnant/fasting or simply in need to pull herself together if it has been a hard day. Creating these pockets of time help us being more available at all other times, to give every ounce of us when our kids are around (which is most of the time anyway) and achieve some of our personal goals.

3. EXPOSING OUR CHILDREN TO MASSIVE FITAN FOR THE SAKE OF THEIR SOCIAL LIFE IS AGAINST THEIR BEST INTEREST.

We wouldn’t give our children a tub of ice-cream at every meal time instead of proper food just because they like it. Nobody could accuse us of starving them if we did, or argue that ice-cream is not food. Yet we don’t let them have that for every meal. Similarly, we cannot cave on this: If we consider the school environment available to our children to be a highly toxic one, one that could tarnish their morals and attack their deen, then we cannot overlook this just so that they can hang out with a bunch of people their age. This is ice-cream for dinner, just with even more harmful and far reaching consequences. The aspect of socialisation for homeschooled kids is like broccoli: wholesome and as appetising as you make it! Few things make us happier than giving our children what they desire and – especially as they grow into teenagers – their need for their peers is real. But we also know that what we desire is not always what is good for us. Moreover, Prophet Muhammad (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said: ” “A man is upon the religion of his close friend, so let each of you look to who he takes a close friend.” This couldn’t be more relevant in the case of older children and teenagers, for whom Ummi is no longer the whole world! This is not to demonise school in general, nor to point the finger. It might be that a family genuinely does not have a choice, and surely all Muslim kids have available to them the guidance Allah and the teachings of His Messenger (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), whether they are homeschooled or go to school. Having said so, parents who send their Muslim children to school uniquely out of fear that they would not be able to provide an adequate academic or social experience otherwise, should re-assess their priorities and give themselves a chance in this sense. And never underestimate what we are up against, in terms of desires, as we strive to give our children a good upbringing.

4. WE DO NOT HOMESCHOOL BECAUSE WE ARE AFRAID OF THE WORLD.

Homeschooled kids don’t live under rocks. The fact that we don’t just throw them out there in any environment and in any kind of company does not mean we want to keep them within our 4 walls. Where there are homeschooling families, there will – in sha’ Allah – be activities for your child to participate in with other kids. If something is not available, you can start it. Either way, your control over what kind of influences your children are exposed to will be far greater than in mainstream education. Beneficial companionship and friendship can and should be facilitated for our children and school is not necessarily the answer to this (in fact, for a Muslim in a non-Muslim land, it is hardly ever so).

5. HOMESCHOOLING OLDER CHILDREN MEANS TO BE THE MANAGER OF THEIR EDUCATION MORE THAN THEIR TEACHER.

You will not always have to sit and feel the sandpaper alphabet with them. As they grow, there seems to be less teaching and more organising. I sometimes feel like I am my 10 year-old’s secretary: Filling the calendar, setting the alarms on my phone for each activity (with one hour to spare – in case I completely forgot there was something and I need to give people lunch before it), remind them of any change of plans, liaise with other parents to plan activities, arrange meetings, outings, invitations, check that homework for other teachers is done, keeping an eye out on the local homeschooling community to see what is going on, etc. My 10 year old’s column in our family calendar is by far the busiest! Which brings me to my next point:

6. YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO IT ALL BY YOURSELF.

Usually a child would have two parents, grandparents, uncles, aunties, older cousins, family friends: each of these people has something he or she could bring to the education of your children, some talents and abilities your children might be able to learn from. Then there are other homeschooling parents that may want to set up clubs about something that they are good at and/or that interests their children. There are homeschooling co-ops, tutors, online courses… There are countless ways out there to get help in teaching our children, if one can be proactive and a bit creative.

7. IF YOU FEEL LIKE NO OTHER OPTION IS GOOD ENOUGH, YOU WILL MAKE IT WORK – BY ALLAH’S HELP.

Being Muslim is not the easiest thing in the world nowadays. Our Prophet (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) told us that Islam started as something strange and, towards the end of times, it will again be seen as something strange; that to hold on to it will be like holding on to hot coals… yet we wouldn’t consider any other way, because – alhamdulillah -we know that it is the Truth and nothing compares to it (may Allah keep us firm upon it). The status of homeschooling is nowhere as absolute as that, of course, but the point here is: If we feel strongly enough about it, we will seek the means to achieve it – even if it is not the easiest or most convenient option. Rectifying our intentions and seeking the help of Allah are the first and most crucial of those means, and with the help of Allah nothing is impossible.

It is by the help of Allah that not only am I no longer scared of being with my children 24/7, but I am grateful not to have to give a school such a large chunk of their time – their childhood: a precious time that passes quickly, as does our life.

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New growth

Assalamo ‘alaykum. YES! that time of the year is upon us… what time? clues in the picture below:

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It is almost Spring! Alhamdulillah!

A few days ago (when we had a break from the glorious British gloom) I collected a few essentials in this square plastic bowl – that around here is affectionately referred to as “the vomit box” (it does come in handy when the boys get a virus) – and headed with two very excited children to the garden. I got my seeds, lolly sticks and a pen to lable the pots, the lovely gardening gloves my husband got me last year and I never used because my khimar gets in my way and I didn’t want to get dirty (here, to all those who imagine me being a great garneder; or a gardener of any kind) and the all important baby monitor (H was napping).

We started easy by putting in the ground some lovely cyclamins my mother had given me. Then we planted some basil seeds, courgettes, chilles, aubergines and lots of tomatoes. We will need to soak the peas and fava beans to plant later and see what else we can add, in sha’Allah.

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(I feel I should clarify here that the manly hands above are not mine! AND the gloves show that I did get dirty this time, alhamdulillah)

This coming Spring as a time of new growth in many ways. After H was born in the Autumn, I sort of hybernated in that strange, busy, sleepless world of being a “3rd time new mom”. And my family with me. Each of us had to deal with the personal challanges that the great change brought into his or her life. Alhamdulillah, seeing the sun outside, the buds on the trees, the boys riding their bikes at reckless speed (…oh, wait, this is not season specific!) anyway, I feel like the whole family is rubbing their eyes, having a good stretch and starting to had towards normality again. Not to mention our expert in matters of growing:  my 4 – no, wait – nearly 5 months old, who is turning from a cuddly blob into a beautiful, playful and happy girl, Allahumma baarik.

Incidentally, we have been picking up a science book with Y and I liked the “mind map” he came up with for the first topic, so I decided we should elaborate on it and turn it into a poster. The topic was simple enought for B to participate too. Alhamdulillah.

New posters up! the first change of homeschooling decor since the baby: alhamdulillah, it feels good to be back.

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Hajj themed counting activitiy

Assalamu ‘alaykum.

Today Bilal and I finished the Hajj activity we have been working on (with Yusef’s help) over the last few days. I won’t lie it was completely my idea and the boys were interested in the decorative aspect of it and left me to do all the “structural work” of gluing the finished product on heavy card, cutting that out and work out how to hang them… (who am I kidding here – I had lots of fun alhamdulillah!!!). Here it is:

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Each number 1-10 has 3 components: a card showing the number, a smaller one with the corresponding number of dots/stickers (I am sure there is a specific way to describe numbers written like this …) and a third part at the bottom with counted items, in our case Hajj related items. I’ll tell you what they are because some are … erm… less than obvious:

1- Ka’bah    2-Hills     3-Jamaraat    4-Airplanes    5-Mawaaqeet   6-Suitcases    7-Pebbles   8-Tents     9-Sheep     10-Pilgrims

I used some A3 coloured papers, each cut in half and each strip divided into 3 (with the middle one being about half the size of the other 2). Then I glued everything on card. I didn’t laminate because I knew I wanted to stick some sensory materials and textured papers on, but I supposed you could laminate the base and then stick stuff on top of it?

I had some craft papers which I used as well as an old map, scraps of colourful paper, cotton wool, gauze (for the ihram clothing!), and magazine/crossword paper… but the fun in these kind of project is that you can just rummage in your recycling bag/cupboards and use creatively what is already there! (fun fun fun).

The 3 components are put together with paper clips (fashioned into hooks) and holes punched at the top. I’ll be honest, I put them up this morning and by noon 3 had already fallen off (taping the hooks couldn’t hold the weight of the 2 bottom bits… enters the stapler!).

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They are meant to be removable so they can be used for a matching game that will help number recognition and – when Hajj season is over – we can make different cards for counted things according to whatever theme we want insha’Allah. Exciting!

Ramadan activity plan – WEEK 2

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Assalamo ‘aleykum.

Below you will find listed the activities I picked for my boys (aged 7 and 4) for each day of Ramadan. Feel free to be inspired to pick your own favourites or just copy the whole thing. This is why homeschoolers share ideas in the first place, Alhamdulillah.

It might seem that I must have spent a lot of money on crafts, but I didn’t; I already had a few of the materials because sometimes I just buy craft materials when they are on sales and I have a couple of pounds to spare. This year I bought the kits also because I wanted to save time on planning wherever I could, Alhamdulillah.

WEEK 2

DAY 1: Windmill kit (not the exact same I bought but similar).

DAY 2: We’ll be making fattoush Insha’Allah. Chop, tear, mix: I expect  my kids will love that insha’Allah. (If you are Lebanese and completely horrified at this recipe not being authentic, accept my apology and know that I picked the first recipe with a yummy looking picture that came up on Pinterest *smile*)

DAY 3: Foam mosaics. The boys will be given some colourful self adhesive foam sheets and cut out shapes to make a Ramadan inspired design of their choice. (Or I might cut out some geometric shapes and see what they can come up with).

DAY 4: We’ll be making ice tea (I will put decaf teabags and lemons in the mailbox).

DAY 5: Pillars of Islam mobile from A Muslim Homeschool (barak Allahu feeki).

DAY 6: The Moon Seems to Change  (please note that this is not a general endorsement of this book. I didn’t receive this book at the time of this post and bought it based on a preview. Almost all children books out there – written by Muslims or not – tend to contain some haram images and might have some content that contradicts Islamic teachings. When I recommend a book on this blog, I assume a Muslim parent will go through each book before giving it to their children and apply the due rectifications to make it suitable, Insha’Allah. If the book in question turns out to be beyond rectification, it will be thrown in the recycling without hesitation).

DAY 7: Spinning tops to colour in.

Ramadan activity plan – WEEK 1

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Assalamo ‘aleykum.

Three years ago I made a “Ramadan mailbox” for Yusef out of a cardboard box. I put it at the bottom of the stairs and everyday he would enjoy finding a little note or suggestion on a good deed to perform. Now, those notes were completely random and very last minute. By last minute I mean that many of them were actually thought of and written at suhoor time on the day I needed them!

Because Yusef hasn’t stopped talking about that box since, I thought that I would do one again this year. This Ramadan I also have a different 4 year old who I hope will enjoy it as much as his big brother did, Insha’Allah. AND I am actually planning it! In fact I must have started picking activities 2 months ago and collected them in my Ramadan with the kids Pinterest board.

Each day I will put in the mailbox the relevant materials x2 (Yusef is going to want to participate Insha’Allah). Each week I tried to include cheap crafts, worksheets/things to read and a simple recipe to share with our neighbours Insha’Allah.

Insha’Allah, I am going to share my list of the activities that I picked for each day, in case someone wants to do something similar but is too short on time to think about which activities to do.

WEEK 1

DAY 1: Ramadan countdown paper plate and pegs.  We will paint the plate and decorate the pegs with craft papers and buttons (we will just remove a random one each day, no need for numbering). By the way, these pegs are great to give out as small presents to the aunties at the end of it: You always need a cute peg to close a pack of some food in the cupboard (we made some for family in Italy and they were a resounding success masha’Allah!)

DAY 2: We will be making Breakfast burrito bites (or better, “Iftar burrito bites”). Yusef will find in the mailbox the printed recipe with pictures and Bilal some of the ingredients, Insha’Allah.

DAY 3: Lanterns (if you don’t want to buy a ready made kit, you can easily find free printable patterns online Insha’Allah)

DAY 4: The boys will find in their mailbox a siwaak each with a container that they can personalise with craft papers Insha’Allah. Sunnah AND craft!

DAY 5: Braiding activity. The boys will get some colourful strings, be shown how to braid them (or plait them? I don’t know if there is a difference between the two). Insha’Allah this will result in a handy string for their siwaak holder.

DAY 6: A wonderful book (printed out and bound) by my awesome ukhtee at A Muslim Homeschool (Allahumma baarik!) The Tale of Three Israelites

DAY 7: The boys will get some Ramadan inspired images, cut to thick shreds and mixed up, to glue together as a puzzle. We will have a board above the kitchen table where they can stick their work and we can all admire it at meal times, Insha’Allah.

Suddenly, homeschooling! (or “the playdough effect”)

Assalamo ‘aleykum.

Following my recent post about wanting to do more meaningful and structured play with my 4 year old, we have started with the most obvious, versatile, easiest and universally enjoyable activity of all: playdough.

I have to admit, first of all I had to re-enter the frame of mind in which the state of the kitchen floor (and the sweeping skills of the child involved) are not all that important; you know, that sometimes forgotten place in your mind where taking out and playing playdough at any time of day is not only perfectly acceptable but desirable.

Secondly, I decided to make our own playdough. There is a wealth of playdough recipes and activity ideas online (here is my playdough board on Pinterest Insha’Allah). I used shop bought playdough all these years, but over the last year or so, I noticed it seems to make me sneeze and to dry my hands out? Not nice. In general I am very much against using food for playing. I believe it is a blessing from Allah and it should be eaten, but, after my first experiment with actual edible flour, I plan to use up the “free from” flour that sat opened and unused in my cupboard for a couple years and, in general, minimize the use of food for non eating purposes, while at the same time avoiding what seems like a mild allergic reaction, Insha’Allah.

I used the first recipe that came up when I searched  (although I do know and like this site) and I was convinced by the title Best ever no-cook playdough recipe. It was much easier and required a lot less kneading than I thought and the result was excellent. The dough is very soft and smooth, lovely to work with, masha’Allah. The only let down for ours was the food colouring we chose: the little yellow tube does not give a vibrant colour but a more pastel shade (also, only some colours from this brand are suitable for vegetarians – because I don’t know what actually makes them unsuitable and I have no idea whether that makes them haram for us, I avoid).

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On the day we made it, both boys played with it straight away, and from that day on, Bilal has been going back to it quite often. He plays in short creative bursts, then puts away. The best thing is that -Alhamdulillah, all success is from Allah – after he is done with the playdough, he feels sort of “inspired”. He usually goes, “What other job (i.e. activity) can I do now Ummi?” and he is off to the bookshelf to fetch an Arabic wooden puzzle, a geoboard or some stencils. I am now thinking that my plan for a little Montessori shelf for him might still have a chance to come into fruition, Insha’Allah.

Alhamdulillah, it is so lovely to see him busy and suddenly interested in homeschooling, when he is not riding his bike or pretending to mow the lawn that is!

Hit. Miss. Try again.

Assalamo ‘aleykum.

Having a child of formal education age, I sometimes find that I focus so much on him and getting work done, that the younger one doesn’t get the same amount of attention in this sense. Several fellow homeschoolers reassured me that it is quite normal for subsequent children not to be as academically advanced as the first was as a pre-schooler, simply because a mother would not be physically able to give him/her all of her attention and focus completely on his/her learning needs and no one else’s. However, I do feel the need to involve Bilal more Insha’Allah and do some sort of structured playing with him, rather than letting him spend the time I homeschool Yusef playing on his own. Since the good weather started and they started spending most of their playing time outside, I found Bilal’s behaviour deteriorated. It is probably partly a phase (I remember his brother going through the same at roughly the same age), but I also suspect that it might be due to him spending too much time playing on his own and basically being “left to his own devices”. Although we talk when he is outside and he is loosely supervised to make sure he doesn’t do anything too daring/silly, I feel he doesn’t spend enough time doing something with me, especially given that I cannot participate to outside playing as I do indoors.

With this in mind, I ask Allah’s help and decided to try harder to get Bilal engaged in some age appropriate homeschooling. Alhamdulillah, he already does Qur’an every morning (i.e. I recite about 2 pages of juz ‘Amma and he recites along. He can’t read and he doesn’t yet understand the whole “repeat after me” method). A few days ago I introduced writing in flour (it might have a technical name but I don’t know it). Despite my huge excitement  (I had been keeping the little wooden tray and the expired gluten free flour for months with this purpose in mind and I was so chuffed to find that that my dough scraper fitted perfectly as a surface smoother) the success was only partial.

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“Bilal, did you like writing in flour…”

“Yes”

“… or not so much?”

“hmmm…. not so much”

It still ended up like this though, so it must have been fun… at least a little!

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I think we might very well come back to it another time. But for now, time to bring in some serious playdough Insha’Allah.