Marrakesh homeschoolers, are you out there?

The school year is over, Karima just completed 3rd grade and Amin kindergarten.  My usual ambivalence towards conventional modern schooling, and the Moroccan school system remains.  On the one hand, both kids are learning Arabic and French.  The teachers are loving and kind, competent and doing their best with 30+ kids per class.  My kids go to what is purportedly the best school in Marrakesh.  And it’s true that the students I have seen from there do stand out, both academically and as having some extra spark in their personalities.

However my husband and I are getting an inner calling that it is time for change, major change.  We are thinking along the lines of a homeschooling cooperative, where small groups of children (5-6) can receive good quality, personalized instruction from parents and tutors.

One of the main reasons we are living here in Morocco is so that our children can receive a deep grounding in the Islamic tradition.  We want the children to spend a good deal of their time, especially these younger years, chanting and memorizing the Quran.  We want them to receive transmition of sacred knowledge from an illuminated being, a spiritual guide who can inspire in them great love for God.  This should be the top priority, and at the moment, it’s not.  They study “Islamic Ed” in class, and there is some benefit.  But Quran memorization is assigned as homework, then tested in class.  That’s not really how we want the kids to see Quran, one more thing they will get in trouble for not learning by heart.

We also think that the children can keep up with, if not exceed, the Moroccan curriculum for Arabic and French via an approach that is more based on the communicative method.  As a product of Moroccan schooling, I can’t tell you how many hours I spent learning Arabic grammar.  But never once did I have any sort of in-class discussion in Arabic, never once did I read a great work of Arabic literature and give my opinion on it (apart from the Quran, I’ve only read one Arabic book cover to cover and in my mind there is something wrong with a school system that is not focused on reading).  So for all my years studying Arabic grammar, I’d like to say I’m fluent, but truth is I’m not.  It feels unnatural for me to speak Arabic and I probably can’t speak 2 complex sentences error-free.  In fact, when you speak to most Moroccan students, they say Arabic is their least favorite subject (math and science are usually their favorites).  Most of my friends who are very fluent in Arabic claim to have picked up their fluency from watching Arabic cartoons!

We envision a language class based on communication: teacher asks students what they did on the weekend, and doesn’t correct their grammar when they answer, instead she responds to the content.  That gives the student confidence that she has communicated successfully in the target language.  The method should be based on reading, lots and lots of interesting, age-appropriate books.  Games such as Bingo and board games are a great way to acquire lots of lexical chunks without pressure.  Skits are another fun and creative way to live a language.  After all, we learn a language for two basic reasons, to communicate orally and to read the best works in that language.  We do not learn a language to become expert grammarians.

Take my own example in English.  My good mother taught me to read when I was 7.  It just so happened that I got hepatitis and was forced to stay home from school for a whole month.  Most productive month of my childhood!  My mother patiently taught me to read from good old “Ted and Sally”,  “See Spot Run”, and all that.  Thank you mama!  By the end of the month I could read.  Henceforth, my sister and I received a continuous supply of good English books that my parents hauled over from the US.  All the Little House on Prairie books.  The Narnia series.  The Lord of the Ring series and so many others.  My father read to us out loud every night too. (Just one more chapter, pleeeease!)  We were not distracted by television, we did not have one.  No computers either back in the middle ages of my youth.  (Although maybe if we’d had a TV, I could have improved my Modern Standard Arabic from the cartoons!)

I never attended a formal class in English until I got to university.  In my freshman year, I thought I should take Freshman English, to make up for what I’d missed out on.  The first day, the professor convinced me not to take the class.  “You’ll be really bored,” he said.  Instead, I took the CLEP test that gave me college credit for both levels of Freshman English.  I am not saying this to boast, I am just using this as an example of how powerful reading is.  We can’t overemphasize its importance.

Back to the homeschooling co-0p idea: the kids should be able to explore creative outlets as part of their daily activities.  Art, music, drama and sports.  School nowadays focuses so much on the left brain.   What about the right brain, and the rest of the body?  To paraphrase Ken Robinson, it’s as if modern education sees our bodies as  just transportation for our brains, slightly to one side.  Our son Amin is the prototypical right-brainer.  He loves to dance, he is someone who needs to dance every day.  He puts on his favorite music, something like Ravi Shankar tabla music, or Chinese sword dance music, and he just dances, usually with no one watching.  He is also the boy who is so drawn to images, he can “read” comic books for a good 45 minutes at a time, i.e. just look at the pictures and get a whole story from them.  At the same time, he’s not a very language-oriented person.  Concepts like “tomorrow” or “next week”, questions like “what day is today?” are hard for him to conceptualize.  I’m loathe to send him to the Moroccan school system that will have him sitting at a desk up to seven hours a day, learning abstract notions in two foreign languages.

I also think that when the kids aren’t so caught up in school, there is lots of time to explore.  Our children don’t even know their own city that well.  We’d like to take them to see all of Morocco, and eventually another country like Mali or Senegal.

I could go on and on, and I probably will in future posts.

Calling all Marrakesh parents interested in alternative homeschooling!  If you resonate with any part of this post, please contact me to begin a conversation about an alternative education cooperative.   It’s a lot of work, but it’s a creative project of massive importance.  Please write me at nora@clcmorocco.org and please repost this on any relevant sites.