In September 2013 I became the proud parent of a first grade drop out. Why was I “proud” of my six-year old’s desire to leave school in pursuit of a more home-spun learning environment? Her reasons were well thought out and ones which I simply could not argue with ~ even after two decades or more of working with schools world-wide.
“We sing and draw all day ~ and I can do that at home.” (…and indeed we do!)
“I miss being with my sister.” (…well, they are best friends after all.)
“They make me put up my hand and ask permission to use the bathroom.” (… Ok yeah, that is just…well…unnatural.)
“I’m not allowed to have a rest and get in trouble when I put my head down for a few seconds on my desk.” (…I’m over 40 and if I can’t set my head down to collect my thoughts once in a while, I become a mental, spiritual and emotional wreck too ~ again a good point.)
“We have to sing the alphabet song and I’ve known that for years!” (…understandable.)
The list went on and on.
Her school was lovely, her teacher was delightful, the environment was safe and vibrant. But, driving home from classes after the third day of trying to positively embrace her time there, our little family decided that home-schooling would be a better experience for us all at this time in life.
“Maryam,” I asked, “Do you know what discipline is?”
“Going to school?” she responded, after thinking for a few seconds.
“Sort of.” I encouraged, then went on to explain, “School helps us with discipline but it is not a discipline. Discipline means doing something important ~ even if you don’t feel like doing it all the time. Like eating, going to the toilet, washing, praying, cleaning… they are all things that must be done, even when we don’t always feel like doing them. Learning is a discipline. School can help us with learning, but we must keep learning all the time, everywhere…in school and especially out of school.”
Continuing I cautioned her, “If you don’t go back to school each day, that doesn’t mean that you can stop learning or have no routine. It means you must show even more discipline to learn and discover new things all the time.” And with that, home-schooling began.
The next day, during a hike in the Elora Gorge, my daughter insisted on doing a 200 foot zip-line by herself. As I stood back and watched my feather weight little girl step off the cliff in her rose-coloured helmet and sail across a rope, suspended eighty feet over a river valley full of jagged rocks and trees, I said to myself, “The School of Life has begun” and wondered if I were the worst teacher alive.
Ask one hundred people why they choose to home-school and you will get not only one hundred reasons, but also as many opinions on “how” it should be done.
For our family, the choice to withdraw our daughter from school to teach her at home was rooted more in a desire to maintain family connection than anything related to academics or social environments. Quite simply ~ we all love each others company and do not like to be apart when we do not have to be. Naturally, there are other reasons as well: the opportunity for our daughter to learn in her own unique way and at her own pace, develop her six senses (yes, I said six senses and will write more on that at a later time) in comfortably familiar surroundings, have the dedicated time of either her mother or myself in her lessons and the flexibility to learn wherever our family happen to be ~ at homes in Canada, the USA or Pakistan.
Due to the ideological and even economical choices we make for our family, we have been able to carve out a unique life-style for ourselves ~ enabling us to travel frequently and live seasonally in three countries. We believe that the whole world is our home and the entire earth is a teacher of wisdom, if we open our senses to life’s wonders and lessons.
Our family focuses heavily on three “F’s”: Freedom, Faith and Family.
To us, “choice” is the essence of “freedom”. We believe that human beings have valuable choices in life. Indeed, many people around the world have had their choices restricted through oppression and thus the choices they are left to make may be very hard, but choice is in the hand of each living person, regardless of how chained they may be ~ right down to the choices between giving up, giving in or getting out.
A dear friend of mine was a prisoner in Afghanistan during the early 1980’s ~ tortured and beaten for seven years with no hope of release from his unjust incarceration. (My 1998 song “The Beautiful Story of Yusuf” was written about his experience.) He is now living in Canada, a devoted father of a beautiful family, the founder of a medical social service organization and a man of great wisdom, mercy and patience. He is where he is now in life because of the choices he made…even as a tortured prisoner in a cage during his formative years. He choose hope over victimization, trust in something greater than himself over helplessness and forgiveness over revenge.
In North America we see a bombardment of choices ~ aisles and aisles of products to tempt, tantalize and torment one’s ability to decide. Where friends in some nations struggle with too few tough choices, we in privileged parts of the world are often beaten senseless with too many trivial options and the struggle of knowing how to make a “good choice”.
So, for my daughters ~ safe, un-oppressed and with countless opportunities around them ~ Lesson Number One: be grateful for, respect and embrace “Freedom” through learning how to make “good choices”. As parents we ourselves try to demonstrate this by celebrating our own continued learning from everything around us…questioning, exploring, experimenting, practicing, trying, failing and trying again. We aim to help our daughters understand the empowerment that comes with committing to the pursuit of integrity, not being sucked into the prison of “competition” (competing for attention, points or validation by the standards of others). As a family we aim to be willingly devoted to discipline, reverent toward ritual, respectful of routine and purposeful toward punctuality…while being cautious of becoming suckers to mindless regiment, self-righteously settled in blind faith, sheep-like with useless habits, or slaves to social expectations of conformity that hold no regard for human conscience, dignity or self-respect.
Lesson Number Two: understand “faith”… belief in something we cannot see…reverence for powers such as love, mercy and kindness…avoidance of powers such as hate, greed and envy… thankfulness to the unseen controller of this universe we only see signs of in creation and humility through understanding equality of worth between all other humans. Anything, anyone or any environment which compromises that “faith” is a thing, person or place to warrant alarms in one’s heart and mind ~ awakening us toward a struggle for balance and justice.
Lesson Number Three: Family. A dear friend of mine in London, Ontario once told me, “Foster an environment at home where your kids have the most fun they could ever imagine when they are with you, and you will have succeeded in creating a healthy family unit.” With Mum able to adjust her studies and frequently work at home, with Dad working from home as an independent artist, with a little sister at home eager to play and learn, with Poppa down the street always stopping in for tea ~ how could we?…why would we?…send our eldest daughter to spend eight hours away from us each day? Wake her at 7 am, hustle her out the door with a boxed lunch and bid her farewell until late afternoon…especially when she wants to be with us all and we want to be with her? Rather (dare I suggest?), since we need to be with each other to maximize our collective learning potential and healthy social contribution as a family?
We moved to Pakistan many years ago so our daughters could be close to their great grandparents there… then we moved back to Canada quickly to care for my mother, staying on after her passing to provide assistance to my aging father. We regularly spend weeks and months of the year hopping around the globe to visits aunts, uncles and cousins. All their lives, our girls have seen devotion to family as a foundation of what keeps us all strong. Since we’ve been blessed with the choice of “daily school” or “home-school with family” the decision was an obvious one for us.
How the adventures in home-schooling progress will, most certainly, be written about during the year ahead.
We have always tried to foster and environment at home that is conducive to learning, but since September we have stepped up the game considerably. One thing I have learned from working with children for over twenty years (and something which has been confirmed to me after spending each day with my own three-year old and a six-year-old daughters) is: most children have the capability of learning much more than we give them credit for, and the ability to learn very quickly. Thus, they require incredible amounts of ongoing challenge. Not just “sensory stimulation”, but mental challenge.
In our home, there is no “classroom” setting or “desk” to counterpart what the majority of schools would have.
The kitchen table is our workspace for spelling and math, as well as our central spot for family conversation. A large bulletin board above the dining table is a constant reminder and proud display of the week’s lessons and artistic expressions. Pens, paper, scissors and glue are accessible at all times. The Kitchen itself is a laboratory of measuring, pouring, sifting, cutting and stirring. The sparsely decorated, but bright family room, facing out to the back garden (with its trees, birds, wild rabbits and squirrels) is the place for reading, story-telling, singing, dancing and house-plant care. The front “living room” is without furniture ~ only book shelves and rugs. It is a library and place of reflection we call “the masjid“, an Arabic word meaning “place of prostration”. An environment dedicated to thankfulness, humility and quiet study.
In the basement, there is a sewing room (both children learned a little about how to use a needle and thread this year), laundry room and a playroom, for arts, crafts and music. Outside in the garage is our workshop and studio ~ recording facilities, work-bench, tools, scrap lumber and out-door toys. This year, both girls also learned how to use a hammer and nails in the construction of small, self-motivated projects.
Alongside brief, daily “lessons” in spelling, reading and math (addition and subtraction), we try to make everything we do a learning experience. The girls accompany me to the post office and bank for withdrawals and deposits (where they have become quite the cute celebrities among the staff). They join me at the grocery store ~ helping to load and unload the shopping cart. We visit local libraries, forests, markets, hardware stores and as we drive I explain where we’re going, what we’re doing and why it is important to our lives. We chat with neighbours of all ages, engage in household chores together ~ sweep, separate laundry, clean out the rabbit hutch, sort recycling. We draw, sing and chat about all the things we find fascinating throughout our days together.
Each night the girls go to a local place of worship for instruction on how to read and recite the Qur’an. Once a week they do swimming lessons and frequently they join me for tea parties with friends who may stop over to chat.
Learning and socialization is central to all aspects of our lives and I am amazed at how much we have all learned in just a few months.
Trying help my daughters understand and appreciate freedom, faith and family has resulted in a deeper value for each in my own life. Since September, I have read, written, sung, drawn, built and even danced more than I ever have in my life!
Our favourite “lesson” ~ Custard 101. We read the recipe (literature), measure the ingredients (math), mix and cook (science)…and then practice the best lessons of life: Serve to others and savour the sweetness of what we all shared in making.