On February 28th 2013, a curious mix of families converged by road and train from various corners of the country. There were families from Coimbatore and Chennai, Andhra, N. Delhi, W. Bengal, Goa, Karnataka, Gujarat, and of course Maharashtra. Contrary to popular perception, families came from diverse economic and social backgrounds, from farmers to businessmen, media persons and professionals; many who spoke mainly their own regional languages. They came from cities and villages and shared but one thing in common and that is that they all do not send their children to school.
This was a historical event – the very first All India Homeschooler’s Conference (28th February – 4th March 2013), held in Khandala perched atop the Western Ghats. The aim was to support each other in every way possible way, through sharing stories, exchange of information, curriculum, creative ideas and further networking. There were plenty of children’s activities from a vibrant art corner, to games and sports, a stage night, bonfire and singing. There were arts, crafts, needle work and handwork. Toys made from junk a la Arvind Gupta the toy maker. There were early morning treks deep down into the valley to bathe in the cool fresh stream at the bottom. Special sessions such as Attachment Parenting, People Skills, Story Telling and Family Bonding helped parents get a deeper understanding of what it is to be a parent.
Parents came together to discuss fears and doubts, solutions and what works for each family. Sometimes one spouse had been wanting to homeschool for years, but the other was not convinced, or one wanted to homeschool while the other wished to unschool. These kinds of issues got resolved amidst so many families who follow diverse paths, which encouraged spouses in conflict to forge their own unique path.
Many new comers did not know about the NIOS and IGCSE examinations that can be given directly. It was a relief for them to meet families whose children have passed these exams and got admission into prestigious colleges. They found out about flexi-schooling, in which some schools give homeschooled children a chance to use their facilities, attend certain classes, sit for examinations etc. They learned about portfolios of actual work done beginning to gain popularity among major universities in the west, as they are more valuable than mark sheets. The latter only say how well a student can tackle the exam system, whereas portfolios show what the student has actually done.
Experienced homeschooling parents shared about khanacademy.com that teaches every school subject in a very easily digestible form. And more recently coursera.com that has free lectures on YouTube from the best universities around the globe.
Some parents, who were worried about RTE and what it means for homeschooling, learned that the home minister Mr. Kapil Sibal has assured homeschoolers that they may homeschool. He has further explained that RTE is for the protection of the rights of those who wish to go to school but are being denied schooling.
There was also a small segment of unschoolers who met for the first time face to face after only online interaction for a couple of years. Unschoolers grow in freedom, and everything all the time is a learning experience. One learning experience is not rated over another. For example, an unschooling parent would not tell her child to stop chatting with the pani puri walla to go home and study, as the chat with the pani puri walla is considered of utmost importance and of great learning value. Unschoolers see a world without the necessity of examinations, standardized testing and fragmentation of learning into subject matter separate from the learner’s being and direct experience. It pushes the diversity bar even further! Parents are co learners, not teachers, and often find themselves having to rethink literally everything through their children’s questions. Thus they find themselves learning through and from their children.
The place in Khandala was simple and inexpensive. Many families were in a 100 bed dormitory with only 4 bathrooms. There were many very small children and babies; the youngest was 6 months old. There were also a few grandparents. I had expected pandemonium in the dormitory at nights and for the bathrooms in the morning. But all of us were surprised at how smoothly everything worked out, and the great bonding that was forged within the community because of the shared space. It was heartwarming to watch corporate men and even a Bollywood actor/writer carrying buckets of hot water for their families at the appointed timings when the boilers were on! Sometimes it is these simple acts that rekindle in us a feeling of oneness with humanity and with the universe.
Over the last three years homeschooling has begun to gather momentum in India. From a few hundred families, there are now probably thousands of families. This is not counting the families far away from cities who have always never sent their children to school; the people who have always lived in harmony with nature, and learned everything for their happiness and survival from their community and their environment. Except for the past century and a half, there have never been schools, and life on this planet has never been in more danger than since the advent of schooling. No one is saying that we have to go back to the time before schooling. But it is most certainly a time to rethink schooling, learning and education, and what better way than to learn from the experiences of homeschoolers.