Home is where the class is

When Janaky Venunathan, a wellness consultant, decided to come back to India after a decade-long stay in Australia, little did she foresee that school admission for her teenager would be a problem. “We had some bitter experiences. In one of the schools, we were asked to wait for hours, at the end of which the principal said that my daughter wouldn’t be taken in, as the syllabus which she studied in an Australian school differed and the school wanted to maintain a good record in their Class X public exams,” she says, recalling the summer of 1999.

This is despite Seethalakshmi Venunathan, Janaky’s daughter, being one among 3,000 selected from the 15,000 who appeared for the Selective High School Placement — a test where students are selected based on their academic merit. After a few more tries, Janaky decided to homeschool Seetha. She followed the same syllabus as was followed in her school back in Australia, and later earned a Bachelor’s degree in English from Madras University, while working part-time. Now, she works as an Academic Manager of the English Language Centre at a reputed institution in Chennai.

Today, getting admission in a good school involves sleepless nights for parents. From queuing up outside the school campus along with a bunch of strangers and sitting through nerve-wracking interviews, to shelling out wads of cash, it’s a tough battle. Once in, both parents and children become part of a pattern that focuses on churning out a 10 on 10 from students, says Janaky.

Over the years, many homeschoolers such as her have been silently rebelling against the system by having their children pulled out of the rat race. “While there were hardly any others doing it back then, now there are several parents who have taken it up with supportive groups and online networks to guide them,” she says. Indian Association of Homeschoolers (Swashikshan on Facebook), a platform started by Chennai-based Sangeetha Sriram and Hema Jain, is one such. More recently, the concept became a topic of discussion after a home-schooled Mumbai teenager, Malvika Joshi, made it to MIT, without having to produce her public exam certificates, but just on the merit of her International Olympiad in Informatics certificates. This had many eyebrows raised: how did someone without formal schooling make it to one of the top institutions?

According to Janaky, homeschooling “helped my daughters enjoy the process of learning. They were not put in a box, or expected to deliver results. They focussed more on the methodology. That apart, they got enough time to indulge in their interests such as kalari, travelling and dance.”

Nirupama Raghavan, who was homeschooled by her parents, concurs. “Routines and class content were negotiated between myself and my parents on an annual/biannual basis, once I was old enough. They gave me a list of grade-appropriate topics I was required to learn in the next six months, and I was asked to provide a list of learning goals and topics I was personally interested in, and my daily routine for the ‘term’ was decided based on a combination of both lists,” she says over an email from Canada, where she has been staying for the past five years.

“I incorporated my interests and hobbies into my learning goals. I have an abiding love for reading and writing, history, mythology and literature, and I turned these into my studies whenever I could. This was, for example, how I was able to negotiate for time to translate Parthiban Kanavu, which was eventually published by Tulika Publishers as Parthiban’s Dream in 2004,” she adds. “Also, I was and am disabled in ways that make it extremely difficult for me to physically write, among a host of other things; I would have been crushed by the writing requirements of the traditional school system; my parents’ recognition of this has honestly saved my life.” Nirupama has cleared her GCE A-levels through Edexcel, has a B.A. degree in English, and is now working for an adult literacy programme with Red Deer in Canada.

Given all the positives of homeschooling, there does arise a question from many: But how would they learn to socialise with their peers? For Seetha, it was a challenge to get friends her age. “While I did get a lot of time with my parents, grandparents and cousins, I hardly met people of my age group. Even Math tuition was one-on-one. Probably, that is one of the challenges,” she says. However, her transition from studying to working was smooth. “There was no social awkwardness, or difficulty in becoming part of a team,” chips in Janaky.

As for Nirupama, “being on the Internet made it easier for me to befriend people; I have never been at ease with the artificial (and frankly unnatural) age-based group formation that is forced on children, and being able to interact with a wide range of age groups online and offline has opened up my world.”

Instead, the main challenge was her struggle against the assumptions and prejudices people had about her being homeschooled. “I faced a baffling series of contradictory stereotypes: that I was shy, that I needed to just understand what school was like, that my parents were homeschooling me because I was stupid, because I was too smart, that I spent all day doing nothing, that my parents were pressuring me to do too much. I felt pathologised by people; my introvertedness and my outspoken personality were assumed to be due to my upbringing, and no one would have commented on it if I had been in school. I was and still am bitterly disappointed in the unwillingness of most of Indian society to accept people who are different in any way, or whose choices do not fall into a few select acceptable social narratives.”

Different strokes

Meanwhile, there is an emerging trend of radically-thinking schools such as the Summerhill School in the U.K., which follows a democratic way of teaching, says Chitra Rajendran, who teaches at the Yellow Train in Coimbatore. “A similar pattern is followed in Sholai CLOAAT school in Kodaikanal, which is a self-sustaining school,” she says. The school focuses more on practices such as recycling, farming and such, more than examinations. “But I think these do not make children ready for the outside world. The key is to have a balance between both — the traditional and radical,” she says.

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