Life learning

19 Jul

Even before we had a child, back in summer of 2008 I met a child who was like most of her peers, but yet different. Confident, expressive, loud and free are the adjectives that come to my mind. It was fascinating for me to watch her and somehow she made me feel very happy.

When we gathered at a friend’s home, I spotted her with her mother in a corner. I was just drawn to the pair of them. I don’t remember how, but sometime during our conversation, her mother mentioned that the child did not attend school.

My mind was suddenly abuzz. There were a thousand questions, but also feelings of respect, awe at the courage to be ‘different’. I asked her amma, so how do you do it? You have lessons which you take at home? So is the school replicated at home? For which I received a rather simplistic answer- ” I just answer any questions that she has”. We stopped talking about it then, because her amma went to talk to someone else in the room. It took me a while to digest the answer.

That was my first introduction to home schooling. I remember having heard about it vaguely but had never come across anyone actually doing it. I was back again with more questions for which I got patient answers. Through this I made two dear friends and for me there was no looking back.

After Disha, I found more answers by reading and later interacting with other home schoolers. Askamma’s newsletter, John Holt’s books on How Children Learn and How Children Fail, Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn are most of what I read. The journey has only convinced us that we can trust our instincts and children’s innate ability to learn on their own terms. As parents we can only facilitate, encourage and stand back.

The ever growing home schooling community throughout India, more and more alternative education movements is proof enough that change is inevitable.

We are unlearning and growing along with our child. Rediscovering what we are passionate about. Many parents have said that home schooling is not about the children, its about us as adults, reflecting on our lives and what we can do to make this planet a better place for the future generations. The children do not need to be taught, they’ll learn anyway. One step at a time.

Watching Disha grow is cementing our belief in this choice. We don’t have all the answers, let alone know the all questions. And yet, I, feel peaceful and grateful.

The post was originally written for authors blog Whichdisha – Directions our lives take.

Please don’t disturb the still pond!

25 May

Most of us feel uncomfortable when our children exercise their freedom to be silent, walk around seemingly doing nothing of importance. This is because most of us feel uncomfortable ourselves being silent and doing nothing. Modern culture, which is obsessed with activity and productivity, calls it ‘laziness’ and conjures up proverbs like ‘An idle mind is a devil’s workshop’. But the most important work is waiting to happen during these times of seeming inaction.

Don’t confuse this with children “sitting quietly, doing nothing” in schools. There they are expected to listen to the teacher fearfully and anxiously, knowing they may be pulled up for anything any time. The fearful minds of such violated beings are extremely noisy, quite the opposite of being silent. By silence, I mean a certain voluntary, fearless and active disengagement with the environment through the senses; a retreat inwards.

Children who are left alone without the pressure of schedules, syllabuses and performance, pursue things that interest them at their own pace. I see Isha do this. She is intrinsically self-driven to explore. She is an extrovert and physically very active. Once every few weeks, she would wake up and say “Amma, let’s just stay at home today. Let’s not go anywhere, not meet anyone, not do anything.” These are not at all days when she is unwell or bored. She asks to stay home with great interest and with a certain clarity of purpose! These are very special days for me too, for I like to observe what she does with her time at home by herself. And I get to slow and quieten down as well.

On these ‘do-nothing’ days, she spends hours just looking at her little beads, or doodling with her crayons, intermittently engaging in some conversations (usually asking some simple but profound questions). On these days, she behaves more like an adult than a child with much less mischief. There is a certain reflective quality to these days. These spaces of silence are built into her life on a daily basis as well. Especially after she has been out all day with very intense kids, or has received a lot of stimuli, she retreats into her own space for a while after we get back home.

Observing Isha, and of course, reflecting on my own experience with silence, here’s what I feel children might be doing when they slip into it.


They process information to make their own sense of the world. Isha asks questions about something that she was told, she saw, etc. that day after a long silence. ‘Appa, why does the lion eat the deer, the lizard eat the fly?’ was a question that occupied her mind for a long time.

We are careful not to impose our meaning of the world on to her. We share with her what we think about something and leave her with “Nee enna nenaikkare?” (What do you think?) Being conditioned ourselves, I wouldn’t say we do it successfully all the time. There are times when we slip and try to indoctrinate her with our conclusions!

Using more information that she gets from us (which includes what we think about something), she processes it in her own way and makes her own sense of the world. This can happen only when there is space for silence in her life ‘at will’. When I say ‘at will’, I mean that these silences cannot be scheduled for “two hours every Wednesday and Friday!”

Many times she comes to us saying “Do you know how this happens? This is how!” giving us her explanation for things that she has processed, and tentatively understood. It may very soon (even as soon as in 2 days) come up for re-examination  She’d come and tell us “You know what I used to think about this when I was young? (younger by 2 days!)” and go on with her new understanding of it. Sometimes we challenge her with a more complex question “Oh really! Ok, if so, why then does this happen?” She sometimes gives a tentative answer to have the last word. Sometimes, she’d admit that she does not know and continue her exploration.


They process painful experiences to heal. Children are vulnerable beings who can be easily impacted by the things they see, hurt by the harshness of the world, confused by mixed messages they receive, disappointed by the lack of integrity among the adults they look up to, assaulted by the noise and stimuli around them, bombarded by the information fed to them, bullied by the frustrated older children and adults, etc. When they seek to be silent is when they are naturally drawn to staying with the hurt, processing it and healing from it without the need for much help from the outside. After a long one-hour silence during a recent bus ride, Isha asked me “Why does that aunty with the baby come asking us for money?” about young women beggars at traffic signals.  “Why do people always tell me not to cry when I am crying? What else can I do?” Clearly these are very disturbing to her and she was sitting with them on her own terms, trying to understand.

John Holt makes another observation of children who feel free to slip into silence. They replay hurtful incidents in their minds over and over again, until they learn to step out of the experience and become a spectator from the outside. Then it does not hurt so much any more. Once the experiencer of pain from the past becomes a ‘character’ in a story, the character can be made to do whatever we wish for it to. A healthy, fearless and free mind is more likely to be able to reconstruct the past by imagining a different and more sensible, compassionate, fearless and appropriate response to what happened. And this is what we call ‘learning a lesson from our experience’. JH says that children, when left alone, do it very naturally. Quite something for us adults to observe and learn from!

When they have processed both information and pain to a fair degree, then their minds become free to absorb and process newer experiences and information. It is similar to how naturopaths recommend ‘fasting’ for the body to process unprocessed food (akin to learning), eliminate toxins (akin to healing from hurt) after which the body restores its health and becomes ready for fresh input. Repeatedly focusing only on ‘eating food’ (just like we focus merely on ‘information input’) does not mean that the body (or the mind) is assimilating it all. If the body is using up its energy to fight toxins (or build defense against hurt), it may not be able to assimilate the nutrition, however good and wholesome the food intake might be. The input might be excreted without assimilation, cause indigestion and turn into toxins.


A fearless and clear mind (that knows how to regularly cleanse itself of noise generated from unprocessed information and pain) is a very absorbent mind. A child with such a mind is most likely to stay well connected to her sense of life purpose and pursue the knowledge and skills needed to fulfil it. So the next time you see any child sitting quietly, just step back and observe. You may smile at her and make yourself available, but don’t initiate conversation, force the child to do something, excite her or get chatty. Become aware of your own noise in the head. Connect over silence.

Don’t disturb the still pond. Sit by it. Enjoy it. Let the reflection remain clear so you can see.

The post was originally written for Sangeetha Sriram’s own blog –

Learning to be Free

24 May

Shaju Philip of Indian Express writes about 13 year old Minon who won the National Award for the best child actor this year for the Malayalam film 101 Chodyangal (101 Questions).

Minon for India Express by Nirmal Harindran

Minon for India Express by Nirmal Harindran

Minon’s father is sculptor-craftsman John Baby and mother Mini John is a painter. They wanted their children to enjoy life and the freedom it has to offer. They felt that if independent thinking has to shape a child, he or she should be left free. Hence they did not send Minon to school. Minon’s sister Mintu also does not attend school and learns in her own way, like Minon.

A prolific painter, Minon has already participated in 65 exhibitions and has painted over 4,000 works since he turned eight. His other love is Malayalam literature, particularly works by his favourite author Vaikom Muhammad Basheer. He also lists Mark Twain, Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens among his favourite authors. A diversion from these home-bound activities is travel. He wants to grow up to be a globe-trotter.

While he doesn’t have many friends in his village, he is in touch with other homeschoolers in Kerala, whom he meets during his trips across the state. A firm believer in homeschooling, Minon firmly stands by his parents’ decision to let him choose his course of action and his future.

To read the full article in India Express (May 18, 2013) please visit

A balancing act

15 May

We have a log cabin set that our kids play with, building different kinds of log cabins or other structures or sometimes combining it with other construction sets, giving form to their imaginations. There are three kinds in this set – small, medium and long.

This morning after breakfast, Aniket as usual put away the dishes I was washing and suddenly he was gone. I finished doing the dishes and moved on to other things in the kitchen. Suddenly he called out and asked me to come and see what he has done. He was very excited! When I went to him, I saw that he had built a crude balance with the logs from the log cabin set – more like a see saw that we see in the playground. He had placed one long log on one side and 7 small ones on the other. He told me that 7 small ones weigh the same as 1 long one. So if he adds one more long one to it, the other side has to have 14 small ones. I was still so amazed (still am) on multiple levels…that I didn’t say much and smiled. He said “See how I’m using my multiplication tables”. I was not really convinced it was just about the multiplication tables and I returned to my work. Anyway, a few minutes later he called out again. This time, he had a metal box on one side and 2 medium ones and 4 small ones on the other, balancing well.

I’m still processing this incident. The learning and meta-learning in this instance is immense. What prompted him to build the balance? How did it occur to him to build the balance? What gave him the idea that 1 long one could weigh the same as several small ones? The questions are endless…I don’t know what his inspiration was to build a balance and try out all these things..I don’t know what he learnt from this activity…But that IS the beauty of it all, I don’t need to know. I don’t need to know. I don’t need to know. I don’t need to know.

Who’s Afraid of Mathematics?

2 May

This article grew out of a stray conversation with a friend who dropped in over the weekend. His daughter apparently hates math. My friend shrugged it off to lack of aptitude. “You either have it or you don’t”, he said. It makes his parenting style relaxed, conscious.  He doesn’t want to stress out his teenager. She has enough on her plate already with tuitions, guitar classes, tennis lessons and school. He would be happy if she scraped through her 10th grade. Afterwards she can switch over to arts. But he is a bit disappointed, you know.  It would be nice if she had been “gifted” with that elusive math gene. He looked wistfully at my daughter Viveka’s selection of math “novels.” Written by Kjartan Poskitt, they come with quirky names like Murderous Maths, Vicious Circles and other Savage Shapes, Mean and Vulgar Bits, Attack of the Killer Puzzles and so on. They are terribly irreverent and hilariously illustrated. They have really helped Viveka claim math as her own. Looking through the books, my friend automatically assumed that Viveka was ‘gifted’.

Cut to the time when just before we pulled Viveka out of school, she came and announced that she hated math and the floor just gave way under my feet. This was just the first standard and yet the system had managed to set her up for failure, to be forever perceived as someone with no aptitude for math. Fortunately this and a few more timely hints later, she was out of school forever.  And now she is being thought of as a math whiz. What is this elusive aptitude and why is it more important than effort?

Actually if I use my two children as cottage industry scale research for this article, I would say that having never been corrupted by The System, my 8 -year-old son is the math natural. He sees rhythms and patterns everywhere. He lives in a math world.  We were learning a poem through a hand-clapping game and he stopped suddenly to say that this poem had been written in the ‘3’ table and proceeded to prove it to me by substituting the words of the poem with the multiples of 3.

My daughter on the other hand took time to lick her wounds and begin the slow circuitous path back to number land. We took the Waldorf approach of starting slowly, always the experience before the concept. Always real before abstract. Never boring, never tedious. We played and still play a lot of board games- battleships, palaankuzhi (mancala), Dara, all manner of card games, checkers and chess. Every year the complexity of the games grows. We did a lot of clapping and stamping, poems, verses and hopscotch, and of course Kjartan Poskitt. One day a couple of years ago she didn’t want to do any of her daily activities planned and asked for some time off. She wanted to play the Tower of Brahma game on the computer. (;

She sat for close to 4 hours at it before she cracked the puzzle. And when I asked her if she knew it was pure math, what she had been doing, she said: “Yes, but it’s also fun math…” And yet my father, the conservative voice of reason in my life, throws random questions at them – what is 17 X 3 or 2 to the power of 23 and if they can’t answer him immediately, he thinks they are lacking in math skills and therefore I should send them back to school. I tell him that memory and math ability are very different things. And maybe when Viveka tells him how much she is enjoying cracking codes these days, he might believe me.

Someday people are going to start correlating math anxiety or poor math skills with bad teaching practices, like too-early introduction of concepts, particularly abstract concepts, that involve memorising, and the throwing of random multiplication facts at the kids and the worst, unendingly torturous worksheets. Until then my kids will be continued to be treated as the weird ones or savants for merely admitting that they love math.

Imagination of the Child

27 Apr

After visiting Kanheri Caves and hearing the stories of Angulimala, Megh was introduced to Buddha. While crossing Sardar bridge I showed him the full moon and said, “today is birthday of Bhagavan Buddha, this full moon day (Sharad Purnima) is thus known as “Buddha Purnima.”  He replied, “Hmm… so God has come with cake!” What beautiful imagination connecting round full moon to a birthday cake.

Is the children’s world always full of such fantasies?

One night we read stories from “Sahajivan” or “Living Together” published by Scholastic. When Zebra is bothered by some fleas and insects on his body, birds come and eat the insects, thereby getting nutritious food while helping Zebra at the same time. Next morning what I see is that Megh has started making a presentation on the computer. He made five slides, each with a picture and a caption.

  1. Living Together
  2. Flowers
  3. Butterfly
  4. God (Picture of Buddha Statue)
  5. Megh & Mommy

I asked, I can understand relation between flowers and butterfly. I can also understand about having Megh and Mommy, but what about God? He said, “God is connected with everything, na?”

* * *

We were standing inside the step well – “Rani Ni Vav.” A group of school children came. Yellow shirt with blue tie and half pant was their uniform. Everyone came down and assembled into a group. With a sparkle in his eyes, Megh said, “Mommy, doesn’t it look like so many dried leaves fallen and gathered under the tree? And the sound of their footsteps is also like what dry leaves make while falling down, na?”

These days, he has grown fond of a story of Mohini and Bhasmasur, and also the movie Singham. Tigers and Leopards are like Bhasmasur, but Lions are like Singham. They will not attack unless someone disturbs them. But Tiger and Leopard attack whether they are hungry or not, just like Bhasmasur.

* * *

I’m never organized and keep writing and drawing in different books and diaries. I found something written in one of my diaries. Once Megh connected Sanyas with chewing gum ….enjoy while it has taste and then throw. It came up after I read about Sant Gyaneshwar from Amar Chitra Katha. Even though they couldn’t believe, they enjoyed all those miracles and at the end had many questions, especially on “Sadhu” and “Sanyasa.” Why do people take Sanyas and leave their family?! At the end of the discussion, Megh said, “We chew gum, we enjoy it for some time. After that we just munch it but it does not have any taste left. Finally we throw it.”

When she was learning Algebra, Ashna said one day, “Algebra is like Luck, we only know value of variables only after we solve the equation. Don’t we realize that in life, equations get solved in their own time, after we struggle to know the variables?”

* * *

During a teachers’ training program two persons were a bit aloof. Most probably they were not interested. While returning from the training, all others were talking about the training and how one peson was interrupting it, just wasting time. The second was also disturbing the session, though with sweet words. Megh connected this with a Gujarati doha.

મન મેલાં તન ઊજલા,બગલા સુંદર રૂપ,
તેથી તો કાગા ભલાં,તનમન એક જ રૂપ.

Though its heart is mean, the egret appears bright and beautiful.
Better is the crow, same on the inside and outside.

He read these lines in the book of Jaymal Parmar on birds. He has liked these lines a lot and he remembered it but I did not imagine that he would link it with a real life example!

Orginal article in Gujarati

કાન્હેરી ગુફાઓની મુલાકાત પછી અને અંગૂલિમાલની વાર્તાથી બુધ્ધ વિશે પરિચય થયો હતો એટલે સરદાર બ્રિજ પસાર કરત વખતે પૂનમનો ચાંદ બતાવીને મેઘને કહ્યું “આજે બુધ્ધ ભગવાનનો જન્મદિવસ છે…બુધ્ધ પૂર્ણિમા” તો કહે “હ્મ્મ્મ…એટલે ભગવાન કેક લઇને આવ્યા છે! ગોળ મજાનાં ચાંદાને અને જન્મદિવસ ને સાંકળતી કેટલી સરસ કલ્પના!

શું આ બાળકોની સૃષ્ટિ હંમેશા આવી કલ્પનામય રહેતી હશે?

રાતે ‘સહજીવન’ નામની વાર્તા વાંચી,જેમાં ઝેબ્રા તેનાં શરીર પરનાં ચાંચડથી ખૂબ પરેશાન હોય છે અને પક્ષીઓ તેની મદદ કરે છે અને સાથે સાથે પૌષ્ટિક ખાવાનું મેળવે છે. સવારે ઊઠીને જોયુ કોમ્પ્યુટર ઓન છે તો એક સરસ મજાનું પ્રેઝન્ટેશન બનાવી નાંખ્યુ…પાંચ સ્લાઇડ,દરેકમાં એક પિક્ચર અને થોડું ફોનિક્સનું નોલેજ છે એટલે મારી મદદ લઈ દરેક સ્લાઇડને નામ આપ્યું.

  1. Living Together
  2. Flowers
  3. Butterfly
  4. God (Picture of Buddha Statue)
  5. Megh & Mummy

મેં કહ્યું આ ફૂલ અને પતંગિયું સમજાયું, મમ્મી અને મેઘ પણ સમજાયું પણ આ ભગવાન અહિં શું કરે છે? તો કહે, ભગવાન તો બધાં સાથે connect  જ હોય ને?

અમે રાણીની વાવમાં અંદર ઊભા હતાં. એ સ્કૂલનાં બાળકો આવ્યાં. પીળા શર્ટ અને ભૂરી ટાઇ/સ્કર્ટ/હાફ પેન્ટનાં યુનિફોર્મમાં. બધાં એક સામટા ધડાધડ ઉતરી આવ્યા અને નીચે એક ટોળામાં ગોઠવાય ગયાં. આંખો માં અનેરી ચમક સાથે મેઘ કહે “મમ્મી, આ તો એવું લાગે છે ને જાણે ઝાડ પરથી બધાં સૂકા પાન પડ્યા અને બધાં નીચે ઢગલો થઈ ગયા હોય?! અને તેમનાં પગલાં નો અવાજ પણ જાણે પાંદડાંનાં અવાજ જેવો જ લાગ્યો ને?!!!!!!!!

આજકાલ એક વાર્તા ગમે છે ‘મોહિની અને ભસ્માસૂર’ અને મૂવી માં ‘સિંઘમ’…તો કહે ‘વાઘ-દિપડા એ બધાં ભસ્માસૂર જેવા, પણ સિંહ તો સિંઘમ જેવા કોઇ હેરાન ન કરે ત્યાં સુધી એ કાંઇ ના કરે’!!! ભસ્માસૂર જે ભૂખ લાગી હોય કે ના લાગી હોય તો પણ લોકો ને ખાઇ જાય એટ્લે!

ડાયરીમાંથી એકાદ વર્ષ પહેલાં નું લખાણ મળ્યું – ગમે ત્યાં ગમે તેમ લખી નાંખવાની મારી આદત…ગઇકાલે અમરચિત્ર કથાની ‘સંત જ્ઞાનેશ્વર’ બુક વાંચી. માનવામાં નહોતાં આવતાં છતાં બાળકોએ ચમત્કારોની મઝા માણી અને અંતે પ્રશ્નોની હારમાળા! ખાસ કરીને સાધુ અને સંન્યાસ પર લાબું ચાલ્યું.શા માટે લોકો તેમનાં કુટુંબને છોડીને સંન્યાસનાં રસ્તે જતાં હશે?!!! ચર્ચાને અંતે મેઘ કહે – “જેમ આપણને પહેલાં પહેલાં ચ્યૂઇંગમ ભાવે પછી જેમ જેમ ચાવતાં જઇએ તેમ તેનો સ્વાદ ઘટતો જાય અને છેલ્લે સાવ સ્વાદ વગરની થઇ જાય અને પછી ફેંકી દઇએ!”

એલજીબ્રા શીખતી વખતે આશના પણ એક દિવસ કહે “એલજીબ્રાનું તો નસીબ જેવું, પહેલાં તો સમીકરણનો ઉકેલ લાવીએ પછી જ ખબર પડે કે એ વેરીએબલની કિંમત શું છે!” જીદગીનાં સમીકરણો તેનાં સમયે જ ઉકેલાતાં હોય છે ને, વેરીએબલ જાણવાની મથામણ કર્યા પછી!

ટીચર્સ ટ્રેનિંગમાં બે ભાઇઓ કાંઇક અલગ હતાં, તેમને કદાચ ટ્રેનિંગમાં રસ નહોતો પડતો. ટ્રેનિંગમાંથી પાછા ફરતી વખતે મિત્રો તેમની વાત કરી રહ્યાં હતાં કે એક મીઠાં શબ્દોમાં અને બીજા ભાઇ ખુલ્લી રીતે ખલેલ ઊભી કરતાં હતાં, સમય પસાર કરતાં હતાં. તો મેઘ કહેઃ “મમ્મી, આતો એવું જ ને કે….

મન મેલાં તન ઊજલા,બગલા સુંદર રૂપ,
તેથી તો કાગા ભલાં,તનમન એક જ રૂપ.

ઘણાં સમય પહેલાં જયમલ્લ પરમારની કોઇ પક્ષીઓ પરની બુકમાં આ વાંચ્યું હતું અને એને ખૂબ ગમ્યું ને યાદ રાખી લીધું હતું પણ મને નહોતી ખબર કે તે આવી રીતે કોઇ સાચૂકલી વાત સાથે તેને જોડી દેશે!

When Learning Comes Naturally

23 Apr

Purba Sen Mitra writes about homeschooling and homeschoolers in her article for Good News Tab. The article is being reproduced here with the permission from Good News Tab.

What if learning could be a journey without any beginning or end where children could design their own curriculum and become their own teachers? What if children could bond and learn with their families every day? In a world where, on an average, the first 21 years of our lives are spent running from one institution to another to acquire certificates and degrees, an option to learn away from schools and colleges may sound terrifying or even crazy to most. Even so, a small group of warrior parents are opting for such a life by homeschooling their children.

Homeschooling, in simple terms, means deriving learning from the natural environment. As more and more parents are questioning the homogeneous approach to schooling, they are re-looking their entire lives through the philosophy of attachment parenting and natural living. They firmly believe that living and learning go together and can do well without the insistence of institutionalised learning. Dola Dasgupta, a single parent and an unschooling mother of two children aged 7 and 11, says, “A school does not seem the right environment to learn, although I myself did go to school. According to me, and what I experience with my children, learning happens naturally, depending on the receptivity of each child … forcing anything before time or withholding or postponing till some specified age, as it’s done in schools, hampers the natural learning process of the child. A well-rounded education for me is the alignment of mind, body and spirit, in which the mind is empty of all existing knowledge, and the body is healthy by living in its natural rhythms.”

Navin Pangti adds, “Homeschooling is just a part of child rearing, the way you look after your children or the way a family system has to work.” Pangti, along with his wife Deepti, has homeschooled his children, who are 9 and 10.5 years old.

The homeschooling movement was started in the US three decades ago, mostly by parents who were unhappy with the religious education meted out in schools, and also academicians who were confident of doing a better job teaching their children. While homeschooling has become popular in Australia, Europe has made it illegal to homeschool.

As a concept, there are two commonly understood strands of homeschooling. One strand is about following the school curriculum or a structured curriculum at home, with parents as the teacher or guide; and the other is unschooling, where children are guided by their own inner design to learn and explore. In the latter scenario, the parents’ role is to be a partner in the learning journey, often providing resources and answers to queries, but more as a companion and a co-learner.

So can homeschooling produce the desired results? A case in point is Sahal Kaushik who has been homeschooled by his mother. At the tender age of 14, Kaushik cracked the Indian Institute of Technology Joint Entrance Exam (IIT-JEE) and is now pursuing MSc in physics from IIT Kanpur.

There are also increasingly heard examples of young people taking responsibility for their own education. Aditi Parekh (17) who studied at Rishi Valley School opted out of it after 11 years. She is currently a life learner, following her interest in writing and Bharatnatyam, and is committed to bringing about social change.

Sahya Samson (20) who has been completely unschooled has self-published her first book based on her thoughts and musings from the time she was 14 to 16 years. Presently, she is pursuing a four-year course in Eurythmy at Peredur Centre for the Arts, UK, where she got through on her own without any degrees and certificates to show.

Suhani Shah (23) left schooling when she was seven years old to pursue her passion for magic. Today, she is a magician, orator, psychosomatic counsellor and hypnotherapist, and runs her own clinic in Goa. Sakhi Nitin Anita opted out of school at the age 12. She is presently revisiting her interests and passions as a Khoji (a learner and a seeker) at Swaraj University as part of a two-year innovative learning programme for the youth that focuses on self-designed learning. The university believes in creating portfolios based on one’s own experiences rather than degrees and certificates as a proof of one’s education. It is, therefore, completely unrecognised and does not offer any degrees or diploma. One of the co-founders of Swaraj University, Manish Jain, also co-founded the Shikshantar movement that began in Udaipur, which regularly organises discussions and debates around alternate educational models.

Homeschooling also involves a degree of de-schooling and unlearning for parents, who more often than not have been to school themselves. As Urmila Samson from Pune, who has unschooled her three children aged 20, 16 and 13 years, shares, “During my unschooling journey, I found that my children were fine, they knew what they were doing but it was me who was holding them back with my old concepts and ideas and conditioning. They knew who they were, they knew what they wanted and they knew how to find it.”

Although homeschooling has been prevalent in India for some time, over the last few years, information technology has brought the community closer like never before. Hundreds of families across the nation now talk to each other on the India Homeschoolers forum on facebook. There is also an active Ning online community, with 770 members, and other groups like the Pune Homeschoolers Google group, where families share resources, organise outings, share views, opinions and offer encouragement.

In July 2012, the homeschoolers launched a national body called Swashikshan, which organised the first ever ‘All India Homeschoolers Conference’ under its banner in March this year. Dasgupta shares, “It was a very emotional journey for me. The fact that there was an overwhelming response and participation from 200 people across the nation, not just from the cities but also rural and semi-urban based families; the fact that the conference saw children effortlessly overcoming language and other barriers to interact and play and make new friends; and to watch parents interact with their children with so much love and kindness was a learning in itself.” The conference saw four days of lively interaction through workshops, sharing sessions and activities for children. Swashikshan also has a website that is managed by parent volunteers.

In spite of such successes, the homeschooling journey is not smooth. Friends and family question the decision of pulling children out of school or not putting them in school in the first place. Sometimes, parents face fierce criticism as well. According to Pangti, one of the most commonly asked questions is: “What are you trying to prove?” Priya Desikan, an unschooling mother, says, “The greatest fear and challenge that I face every day is to let go of what my mind and heart are used to clinging on to. The way I deal with both my fears and challenges is to try and look at what is happening without any coloured lens and look deep within myself. Very often, I have found that when I free myself of those old patterns and habits, I free my son.”

While the regular certification systems of ICSE and CBSE have kept homeschooled children out of their ambit, some state boards allow children to appear for the exams as private candidates. Many homeschooled children keep in touch with mainstream requirements by appearing for the likes of Cambridge international exams (IGCSE, O Levels, AS and A levels), or by studying under the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) supervised by the ministry of human resource and development. The NIOS is an examining and certifying authority in itself and is preferred because it caters to a diverse population of learners through open and distance learning. It also allows greater flexibility in choice of subjects and a five-year time frame for completing a course from the time of registration.

The recent Right to Education Act (RTE), which has made education between the ages of 6-14 years free and compulsory in a neighbourhood school for all children, has left homeschoolers wondering if it makes their decision illegal in the eyes of the state. However, an affidavit filed by the Government of India on July 18, 2012 in response to a writ petition filed by 14-year-old Shreya Sahay, who opted for homeschooling, and others in the Delhi High Court states that the RTE Act does not make homeschooling illegal. It essentially puts the state as the duty bearer who must ensure that every child is able to access free and compulsory education between the age of 6-14 years.

With an increasing number of families living in nuclear set-ups, couples with full-time jobs and children in demanding school systems, early burnout is hitting hard. In such a situation, can homeschooling be the answer for parents and children who want to embark on a journey of self-discovery, learning and natural living?

Do you see what I see?

20 Apr

In a moment of insight that rippled through our family, my daughter Veda made a discovery with letters and numerals. Veda is almost four years old and has not been to any school.

Veda read F-O-X and T-U-B yesterday by herself. She then looked at the pictures that were on the card that has the letters and said “Fox” and “Tub”.

For a while I have known that she knows some letters, but haven’t really kept tab on which of the 26 letters of the alphabet she actually knows. If she comes across letters that she wants to know about, I help her when she asks me “What is this, Amma?”

This all happened due to a particular game we have. My sister-in-law gave us a letter game as a hand-me-down gift. The letters and numbers are bright plastic magnetic ones. The game has words on cards.  In each word, the first letter is missing and can inserted into the slot. Usually we play with the letters and numbers by grouping them into colors and making rainbows out of them. That’s the extent of how we have used that game…

Yesterday, besides reading the letters in sequence, she did something different.

She arranged the number “1”, the the number “5”and the letter “E”  in a particular order and said that they were the series “1, 2 and 3”.

“Do you see what I see?” she said.

My husband Anand saw how she saw it and when she saw that he got it, it was all so cool!

My mother-in-law, who was a quiet spectator to all of this told me and Anand later on, “So kids can actually learn at home! They don’t really have to go anywhere else! When I was growing up nobody believed anything could be learnt at home or knew to explain when we asked, and so we had to go to school.”

My mother-in-law is seeing what I see. And to me, it is all so cool!

Is there a curriculum in this house?

18 Apr

Kanti wakes up and starts telling the story of her dream to her mother, Shanti.  The story involves some balls rolling down some hills or steps or slides – she can’t really tell and in the dream they sort of morphed one into another.  She closes her eyes again for some time.  Then she jumps up to find some balls and starts rolling them down the steps and then creates a slanted surface with some pillows and rolls the balls down that.  She folds her sheets, lays them over the pillows and rolls blankets down that too.  Over breakfast their conversation goes to bicycles, how you can tell the slope of a road by riding your bike (more easily than you can by walking), how you can gain momentum to continue riding uphill without pedalling, and how long that will last.  She also tells her father, Ganti, what her friend told her the other day when they rode bicycles together.  The conversation reminds her of another friend and she goes to skype with that friend.  On skype they play a guessing game for a while and then decide to login to Khan Academy together to show each other their programs.

At lunch she has pulusu and rice in a steel plate and when she spins the plate she observes the pulusu spin to the edge of the plate while the rice and vegetable pieces remain in the middle.  Then she spins faster and sees the motion of the vegetable pieces and rice as well.  She puts the rice and veggies in different parts of the plate and observes the motion when she spins the plate.

She reads a book and later enacts some of the scenes of the book using some beads (pretending they are the characters).  Afterwards she makes some things out of clay and pretends that she is running a shop.  She makes some clay money as well.  She keeps accounts, tracks expenses and profits as well.  Some objects cost more because they use a lot of clay, some because they require more skill.  Some are made of clay plus other things like toothpicks or cardboard pieces.

In the bathroom she watches the water dripping from the tap into a mug and overflowing into a bucket and observes the ripples as they fall.  Because the mug is tilted the ripples are not circular but in an oval shape.  She recognizes the focal points.  She observes the periodic nature of the overflow from the mug to the bucket.

“Kanti!” her friends calling at the window shake her from her thoughts.   “Coming!”  she shouts back in reply.   She quickly finishes her bath and gets ready to go out to play.  Outside she and her friends decide what game(s) to play using an elaborate decision making process.  Then they play the various games until every one has to go home.

Ganti asks her if she wants to go to the store.  She says, “can we take the long cut?”  “Okay,” he says as they go out.  Rather than walk on the main road, she walks across the open lot behind their neighbourhood, around some drainage pipes that she can climb, and through a cluster of houses that have come up near a construction site.  She plays with some dogs along the way.  On the way back it starts raining and she knows where on the open lot the puddles would start to form and goes there to splash and also to look for earthworms.  She can not find any worms and so plans to come back the next day.

When she gets back home her shoes and clothes are thoroughly muddy and she stops first at the bathroom to change and dry off.  She asks her dad not to scrape the mud from her shoes but to leave them to dry like that so that she can walk with heavy shoes and then hammer the dried mud off with a rock, as she had done once before.

She and her mom start making rolls. She plays with the dough for a long time, which is useful because it needs to be kneaded.  Otherwise it will not rise.  “Why?”  she asks.  She explains that kneading the dough combines different proteins to make gluten which is more stretchy.   They place the dough in a bowl, cover with a damp cloth and leave it to rise.  After dinner they punch down the dough and form it into rolls.  These will now rise again for an hour and then bake for half an hour.  But now they are so tired that no one wants to stay up and bake them after an hour much less eat them when they are done.  They decide to make them the next morning – but they don’t want the rolls to use up all their rising capacity overnight so they put the entire tray of rolls in the fridge.

Her dad tells her a story of Akbar and Birbal.  She interrupts frequently, leading to a number of tangential conversations, but always coming back to the story, until they fall asleep.

In the course of the day a variety of questions have come up – about fluid flow, forces, shopkeeping / economics, properties of materials, biochemical reactions, emporers, worms, and so on.   These questions will remain and help to sort out other experiences and data that she comes across, and in turn she will have further questions.   In fact Shanti is already prepared for the next time she and Kanti will talk about gluten as she has looked up some information about how it gets activated in the kneading process and is ready to show its molecular structure using paper clips.  Is this conversation about gluten child-led?  Adult-led?  Led by the desire for bread?  Kanti plans to go back to the ground the next day to search for earthworms.  Had she not gone the previous day with Ganti, she might not have made this plan.  If she lived in a house where getting muddy was frowned upon, it would be less likely to happen.  Or more likely – depending on how risk-averse (or frown-averse) Kanti was and other factors.

This path, wondering, pondering, meandering as it may be, comes from within.  Suggestions, expectations, requirements and other stimuli come from the outside world but the way one receives and responds to them comes from within.  Though the specific things Kanti says and does cannot be predicted in advance, they are influenced by whatever she and those around her have said and done before.  Underlying it all is an intricate fabric.

Is there a curriculum in this house?
I ask this question with an echo.  An echo that, like every echo, echoes another.

Here I echo Stanley Fish:  “Is there a text in this class?”

“Is there a text in this class?” is a question posed by a student to a teacher who then reported this question to Stanley Fish, who then shared the story in the opening paragraph of his essay titled, “Is there a Text in this Class?”  It is published in a book of essays, under the title, Is There a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Harvard, 1980).

You can read the article online here or download a copy of it from teacherweb.

“Is there a text in this class?”

Here is how Stanley Fish encountered and in turn posed this question:

On the first day of the new semester a colleague at Johns Hopkins University was approached by a student who, as it turned out, had just taken a course from me.  She put to him what I think you would agree is a perfectly straightforward question:  “Is there a text in this class?”  Responding with a confidence so perfect that he was unaware of it (although in telling the story, he refers to this moment as ” walking into the trap”), my colleague said, “Yes; it’s the Norton Anthology of Literature,” whereupon the trap (set not by the student but by the infinite capacity of language for being appropriated) was sprung:  “No, no,”  she sad, “I mean in this class do we believe in poems and things, or is it just us?”

The question “is it just us?” refers to the idea that the reader is part of the text, and that the meaning of the text comes from the experience of reading, and is not a fixed and finished product of writing.

But is there such a thing as “just us?”  Are we not in turn formed by our interactions with everything around us, including the text before us?  Rather than conclude that a text has no meaning, Fish proposes that we find that meaning in the interplay between reader and text.

“Meaning is an event, something that happens, not on the page, where we are accustomed to look for it, but in the interaction between the flow of print and the actively mediating consciousness of a reader.”
– Stanley Fish, Surprised by Sin:  The Reader in Paradise Lost

And so it is for curriculum.

Curriculum is determined not by the external sources (where we are accustomed to look for it) but by the interaction between the flow of external sources and the actively mediating consciousness of the living learner.

Curriculum is not just that thing that schools or traditional homeschoolers use. Curriculum is a path of thought inherent to everyone who thinks. Like a river charts a course by flowing, and explorers blaze trails by walking, we pursue ideas by thinking, in communication with the sea of ideas that surrounds us.

What it would it be not to follow a curriculum?

To follow whim?

What is whim?  Does it come from nothing?  What is nothing?  Is there (ever) nothing?  Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

Is there such a thing as “no path?”

Was Kanti walking where there is no path when she rejected the main road in favour of the open lot and through the neighbourhood?  Let us look at the factors that influenced her decision:

  • open lot route was interesting – pipes to climb, puddles to splash, pitfalls to dodge
  • road was same old route, hence boring

These are just facts about the two routes.  These alone might not determine her preference each time.  What influenced her decision that particular day?

  • had time to take the “long cut”
  • had taken it before and hence knew about it
  • wanted to feel the mud on her shoes
  • dogs
  • vehicle traffic on the main road
  • position of sun, which way the wind blew
  • other factors we don’t know

Her path was as much influenced by the existence of the main road, which she found unattractive, perhaps because it was neat, orderly, paved and fixed, as by any particular feature of the open lot and winding alley paths.

Though the path may not be there on the ground, the path is there in the mind, and that directs one’s footsteps on the ground.  Every time we take a step, there is something behind our step, leading us to take this step and not some other step.  And one step leads to another.

Power of Stories

15 Apr

One of the most powerful stories I have heard is the story of Story.

One day, the sisters Truth and Story got into an argument about who was more beautiful. They argued mightily and loudly and late into the night and still couldn’t come to a conclusion. So they decided to test it. Each would walk into the village and see to whom the people paid more attention.

Arrogantly confident, Truth walked into the village first. Taking one look at her people started shutting their doors and windows. Still she walked on. Some people even screamed and ran.

Children started crying. She couldn’t understand what was going on. She knew she was losing the bet. So she decided to use the ultimate weapon. She went into the village square and took off her clothes and stood as naked as the day she was born. But what was this? People ran helter-skelter in abject terror. They even threw stones and curses at her. Within minutes the square was empty. Dejected, she went back. Then her sister Story lovingly covered her with a cloak. It was a magnificent cloak, soft and billowing and shimmering with all the colours in world.

Story then took Truth’s hand and walked again into the village. Soon, little by little all the people walked out to see who these beautiful women were. They had seen no one quite beautiful as them. The children laughed and clapped their hands in joy. Everyone invited them home…

This is the power of a story. The harshest of truths can be told through it. I got a glimpse of that power a few years ago. A cousin’s daughter was terrified of bats. She had been told that they would scratch her face and get into her hair and what not. So afraid was she that she would not go out to play in the evenings because her building society had many fig trees that played host to a cloud of bats – yes that is the collective noun for bats along with cauldron and colony!

Fears are unreasonable, you can’t ‘reason’ with them. You may try logic and science, make an impressive speech that with bats’ ultrasonic hearing and echolocation talents they are unlikely to ever bump into you. But I can guarantee that is not going to get the child to feel lovey-dovey about the furry flying foxes. So you tell a story.

This was time when the earth was young and the first human was yet to walk on two feet. There was no night or darkness to be afraid in. It was light all the time. Brother Sun didn’t get much rest in those long gone days. The animals lived in complete harmony and spoke to each other like we do these days. Bats were considered the wisest of all creatures and God’s most beloved. One day, God summoned a Bat and handed a box to him for safekeeping. “Be very careful”, he said. “I cannot trust anyone else but you with this mission. This box must not be open at any cost”. So the Bat took the box and flew earthward. It was a long journey and the Bat was tired. He landed on the nearest tree for a pit stop. This tree was home to many of his cousins and they were very curious about the box. When the Bat nodded off, one of his small cousins lifted the lid to sneak a peek and…darkness escaped. Yes. God had locked up darkness in the box. The world experienced its first Night. It was a scary time. The Bat woke up with a start and realised what had happened. He had failed in his mission. But he had to do something. So he started flying around trying to collect darkness to put it back in the box. Seeing him struggle, all the other bats pitched in. And this is what they do to this very day. Fly around at night trying to collect the darkness to put back into the box. Brother Sun, he was happy. He could rest now. God sighed and shook his head and set to work on making Sister Moon.

I told this story a few years ago to my children and their cousins including the bat-fearing child. I hear that she plays happily in the evenings these days.

So what did the story do? I don’t know, really! Except that maybe it enabled the little girl to look at bats with compassion and humour and lift the curtain of fear that was obscuring her vision.

For where logic and intellect fail to go, stories unhesitatingly, fearlessly tread. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie talks about how vulnerable we are in the face of a story. We listen. And when we listen, we give it the power to change us.

I was lucky to grow up in a family that had the tradition of telling stories. Appa told us stories till we left home – just to stop him from telling us stories. I carry the shards of those stories within me. Like an ancient civilization they lie buried, to surface every now and then providing timely wisdom. I remember Appa telling me the story of Rome, of the twin brothers Romulus and Remus who were brought up by a wolf; of the brave Horatius who stood alone in the face of a massive Etruscan army to save Rome. When we were studying the history of Rome, I told the Horatius story to my daughter, instead of getting her to read it. At the end of it when I looked at my difficult to impress daughter’s shining eyes, I knew the story had travelled from my

Appa’s soul to mine to my daughter’s. Perhaps she will tell it to her children. Or perhaps not. It will lay buried in her and rattle to be let out.

There is a story about a man who knew four stories, but would not tell them. So the stories plotted to kill him…and that is another story!