About ten years ago I was introduced to Roxanne, a Jamaican-American Muslim like myself who accepted Islam as an adult. Meeting at a conference in San Diego, her characteristically Californian approach to childbirth, parenting, and natural living has made her a treasured big sister figure in my life. Our annual check-ins about life, mothering and homeschooling consistently leave me motivated, affirmed, and inspired for what awaits our family around the bend. In this interview she shares what it’s like to homeschool on a farm with six children, and what they’ve learned along the way.
When and why did your family decide to homeschool?
There was no clear point. My husband is a teacher and school principal. He knows the school system well and didn’t want our children in it. I’ve been through school and hated every minute of it. I begged my mom to send me back to Jamaica because I was always an outcast, though a good student. So, for some reason, we just never planned on sending our children to school.
How has your approach to homeschooling evolved with time?
There’s a lot of peer pressure for homeschoolers which is a sad, sad thing. For me, the pressure was memorizing Qur’an from really young and reading. I followed a Susan Wise Bauer book that was strict about how to teach reading. The child is required to sit still and not fiddle, so I started teaching my older daughter to read when she was four years old and it was horrid. It was frustrating for me and she just wanted to play. My husband asked a scholar friend about it. His advice was to do nothing. No sit-down academics and not even Qur’an until she’s seven. Initially, I was resistant, but we decided to take a break.
When we first moved overseas, my daughter was six and a half. We started reading lessons again and it was so easy. She wasn’t ready when we started the first time, but when she learned, there was no stopping her. So, I’m much more lax with that. I have six children–half of them read well and half don’t. It’s an individual thing. 15 years ago, I would’ve lost sleep but now, there’s no judgement and its fine.
What have been some of the greatest challenges to your homeschooling journey?
Teaching multiple levels at the same time and not neglecting anybody. Everyone wants to do school, so I try to have lessons they all can understand, but also let the younger ones sit in on lessons with older siblings whether they get it or not. I used to be anal about scheduling, but now I write our goals for the day in pencil and it’s rare I finish everything. If we didn’t get it done that day, I erase it and move it to the next week.
Before the farm, I would plan for the school year in the summer, but now there are so many projects. I’m gardening, canning, and doing stuff outside with no time to sit. Instead, we do an agrarian school year based on the seasons. We don’t really start until November when the last of the pumpkins is picked. Our school year goes longer but it works for us.
Having homeschooled in a number of countries and circumstances, what are constants in your family?
Flexibility. After the Susan Wise Bauer reading attempt, I did Montessori for a bit and then we fell into some aspects of Waldorf. One that I liked was morning circle time and my kids really like it too. We learn and recite poetry, memorize hadith, share things, and do some rhyming with motion for the younger kids. Even my high-schooler does it with us. We all gather together before everyone starts their individual lessons.
When you think of a successful homeschooling day, what does it entail?
Being able to do something with every child without frustration or emotional breakdowns. Ten years ago, getting outside would’ve been a daily goal that I would schedule, but now we have to go outside every day. We feed the animals first thing in the morning before we feed ourselves, milk the animals, and put the animals away in the evening. Now that we have teenagers, I don’t always cook dinner. If I feel satisfied that everyone had their time and I can get out in the garden while they do their individual things, that’s a really good day.
How do or will you measure the success of homeschooling in your family?
Years ago, college would’ve been the main measure as it was for me growing up. I had no choice, I had to go. But that has morphed a lot. Even with degrees, it can be hard to find work. Our goal is for all of our kids to have skills like entrepreneurship or learning a trade. Going to college is great, but it’s not something we’re pushing and saying that it measures whether they’ve succeeded or not. Love of learning is a big measure for us. We want our children to be lifelong learners and not feel that they need to depend on others for their education. We encourage them to sit with their elders to learn different skills, listen to their stories, and be of benefit to the community.
How has homeschooling changed you as an individual?
It has forced me to relax. You can’t do things exactly how you want them done. You deal with different personalities and learning styles and realize that what works for one child may not work for another. You have to be willing to let go and move on or let go of a subject altogether and pick it up at a later time. It has also really changed my perspective on what makes a person successful in life. I no longer think it’s the paper that says because you studied something for four years, you’re an expert.
This interview was originally published in Fitra Journal, Issue No. 4 in March 2018.