I had always imagined homeschooling to be the replication of the school procedures in the house — complete with time-table, many subjects a day, break for lunch and mother\father taking the place of teacher in the one, two or three child 'school' at home.
Recently, I came across this young couple — Kavita and Thomas John — who homeschool their two daughters, and for the benefit of anxious parents in this city, I asked them every question you would want to ask about homeschooling.
The couple decided on homeschooling because they wanted to give their daughters, Kavya and Nayana, as much freedom as they could in their learning so that "the line between fun and study is very blurred". "Kavya (7) had been a very natural and outgoing child; when she went for two months to regular school, that joyousness went out of her. Suddenly her whole life became very rigid. She constantly feared that she may have forgotten to do something and would be punished. It was a big change in her and a shock for us to witness it. She also began to talk 'adult' about phones and such things. We looked around at a lot of schools; if one was good in the value area, it was too obsessed about academics and vice versa. We discovered any school would be a compromise."
They admit it called for large amounts of courage to take the first step and withdraw their child from school. There was no turning back.
"In India, there are no requirements (for homeschooling), and no regular tests. You have to register your child for the board and public exams at Class IX and Class X. A few seasons before that time, we have to start bench-marking the child's progress." (Children who are being homeschooled cannot take the ICSE, CBSE and SSLC exams. Instead they can take the IGCSE , which is equivalent to Class X; NIOS — National Institute Of Open Schooling — and SAT exams).
Until then, what is the curriculum they follow? "We have not let the curriculum restrict us at this stage. We are simply observing her natural responses and looking out for inclinations. Astronomy is something she is interested in so we encourage her voyage into the subject. Not only by acquiring books but by bringing other play material and reading books that would interest her."
Is it a very expensive process? "The only investment is in relevant books. Old homeschooler families tell us that there are libraries on the Internet with great material online for almost no price. We also spend more than we used to on things she likes — science kit, telescope etc."
What is the daily homeschooling study schedule like? "You start the whole process very casually and over a few months morph into something with more format. We find learning happens when children are not physically tired. Now that she is seven, some kind of fixed schedule is taking shape — at least one hour each for 'reading time' and 'math time'. She has the choice of way — any book she chooses, and in Math it may sometimes be just multiplication in the form of a game." The exciting thing is that the child opts to study on her own. "One day she suddenly said she wanted to learn tables."
Kavita knows that as the child grows older, a schedule will happen and that "as kids get slightly older, they want and like a schedule of time, application and subjects, but they glide into it, they are not forced into it."
Do both parents participate in homeschooling? John said candidly, "One parent has to take the lead. Kavita is more with them and she knows how to pick up the cues. I do it but I have yet to learn to do it with purpose. It's fun for all three of us as we learn together." Right now, Kavita is the Dean, Principal and fee collector!
How is the child's progress monitored? Kavita said, "At the moment it is not monitored for anything but Math and reading for which I have a syllabus. As for Science, Geography, History and such subjects, I don't bother too much at this stage; each will gradually glide into the programme at the right time. I do know that she has done a lot of stuff others would not even know about."
What worried me about the rosy picture was the lack of necessary social contact with peer group. I am informed that most homeschooling parents in different areas of the city meet every day for an hour in a common area like a park. "It is a free setting where the parents (mothers mainly) exchange notes and the children meet and play. The important thing is that there is wholesome growth taking place as they play; there is no group sitting around a gadget."
I pointed out that children like to be like other children, and when they find that most of the children around them are going to formal school, do their two girls feel resentful? "We did some due diligence on this and we have noticed that when adults ask, 'which school do you go to, which class are you in?' the children with them are more accepting of the homeschooling situation than the adults themselves."
There was a day last week when they were with a group that was playing capitals of cities, and Kavya did not know most. Some child made fun of her homeschooling and said, 'You don't know anything!' When a slightly subdued Kavya talked it over with her mother that night, Kavita told her that the next time any child were to say this, Kavya was simply to say, "That's not a problem because there are some things that I know, that you may not know; and what you know, I may not know." Kavita does not want her child to get an arrogant or one-up attitude.
Does a mother have to sacrifice her life and own interests for the success of homeschooling? Kavita said practically, "Someone has to be with the children; in some homes it could be the father. I know I want to be with my children for the next 10 years. It is my dream. But my husband and I work it out in such a way that I have hours and days of the week where I do something for ME — things that I really enjoy."
In conclusion, John says, "In this day and age of isolating technologies and pressures, I think the value of family life without stresses and agenda is almost non-existent. Here, our daughters have the benefit of being with their mother without an agenda — the psychological benefits of this on a child's mind cannot be expressed in words. You get a distinct glimpse of your child's stamina and gifting. We also have the ability to tap a child's learning at a level not available in schools. Moreover when you look at how children have to spend more than one hour in the bus every day, it is tough to look at them physically worn out."
He speaks of the drawbacks too: "There is no team sport or athletics; schools have certain facilities like the lab which has its value and we cannot deny that and some of the things like overcoming losing; dynamics of listening, instead of always speaking, in a group etc. You have to make a conscious effort to see that your child can be part of it in an appropriate social setting."
In conclusion, the couple says, "We may definitely be missing out on something. I don't think we evangelise that homeschooling is the only way to educate; but the good thing is that if we cannot cope at some stage, we can always go back to regular school. But we believe if we put our minds and hearts to it, it becomes very beneficial because of a connected and joyful family life."
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