When the learning comes home to stay

Hema Jain

“Our home is the best place on earth. I LOVE being at home. Why can’t I be at home most of the times and go to school rarely?” This came from my child when he was 7 years old. Although I didn’t want to think too much about this question then, it haunted me. A year later, I decided to take a deep look at it and address his unhappiness in going to school. That led to a cascade of events leading to where we are now. We are thankful for the support we received from fellow homeschoolers and the insights from authors like John Holt, Alfie Kohn and Gabor Mate.

Fast forwarding 10 years. My husband Dev and I live on our farm near Tiruttani/Chittoor with our kids Abhi (17) and Aparna (14). Aparna never went to school. Abhi has been home since he was eight. The decision to homeschool liberated us. We realized that we could live anywhere we wanted to. We were not limited by the necessity to continue a way of life, just for the sake of conformity. The decision to homeschool dramatically brought down the everyday stress levels at home. As a direct consequence, the quality of our life improved. This enabled us to pause and question our priorities in life. This in turn enabled Dev to quit his corporate job; soon after that we moved back to India (from the US).

For the past seven years we have been living in rural South India. Looking back, the challenges presented by this period have inevitably resulted in learning new skills. It is important to mention here that we didn’t embark on this path with this agenda in mind. Here, I would like to present a few snapshots from our homeschooling experiences.

Since we have snakes in our area, it was highly imperative to be able to identify them correctly and swiftly. This need fuelled by their interest helped the kids get adept at identifying, catching and rescuing (non-venomous) snakes. During this feverish phase they made toys, tools and games that would help them with snake identification and snake catching. Life was all about and only about snakes then. We even cared for a Checkered Keelback at home for three weeks to observe it in close quarters. In our neighbourhood, the kids are now known as the local snake catchers.

Similarly, the lack of restaurants and a strong desire to enjoy baked goods got Aparna interested in baking. She now bakes wholesome bread, cake and pizza. She experiments with local/seasonal fruit and vegetable in her recipes.

Two years ago Abhi wanted to eat the fruit of our palm trees. But people who climb palm trees are not easy to find anymore, even in villages. Thus, his desire drove him to learn to climb palm and coconut trees. This process lasted for about two years – to acquire enough physical strength and skills, to get over his fear of heights, to collect and use the tools needed for the harvest. This summer both Abhi and Aparna were able to climb and harvest palm fruit and tender coconuts. Abhi wanted to document this process and that became a valuable film-making experience that involved script writing, editing and post-production software work. His work is available on his YouTube channel “Dancing Dodonaea Studios” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sxG4w_EW2ZI).

For several months, after moving in to our new house at the farm, we were looking for a carpenter to build a chest of drawers for our farm tools. We could find absolutely no one to work on such an unconventional project. As Dev started designing the storage space, Aparna got interested in building it. She already had basic wood working skills since she had built some furniture before. These skills were developed and honed for many years – starting from working on cardboard projects (miniature models), moving on to simple utility (wood) projects with no joinery and then taking up joinery work. She is currently into relief carving (carving done on a flat panel of wood). All these were born out of interest and/or necessity.

We have always been a multi-lingual family – my native tongue is Tamil, Dev’s is Hindi. We live in a place where Telugu is spoken by half the population. Although they speak all these languages, the kids never focused on the writing aspect of Indian languages. Out of the blue, Abhi recently realized the need to be fluent in the Tamil script. As he was watching a permaculture documentary in English, he had an urge to make it available for the non-English speaking, local Tamil farmers. So he started writing the subtitles for that documentary in Tamil, of course with Google translator on his side. In just a few weeks he became a Tamil literate!

Dev and I consider the education of our children as a piece in the jig-saw puzzle of our life – no more or less important than the other pieces. After moving to India, we bought a piece of land and got into farming without any prior experience. It has taken us all these seven years and more to learn about the local ecology, soil and organic methods to a reasonable extent to be able to grow some food. Similarly, every aspect (being off-grid, composting toilet, adobe bricks, traditional tiled roof, natural finishes) of our house construction took us long to research, learn and execute. As a consequence of this, we as a family now have many construction related skills. It is important to emphasize here that all these started from humble beginnings.

One common thread that I have observed in all these learning journeys is the sustained interest that is needed to learn any skill deeply. Sustained interest can come ONLY from within. It can’t be force-fed. Sustained interest, I have seen, comes out of a burning desire or an absolute need of the hour or the pleasure we derive by doing something (like music). Sustaining an interest is possible only if we enjoy the process, not if we wait impatiently for the end-product. Working with hands and working on our own helps us understand this.

During all these years of being with the children, I have observed that they go through periods of no activity – when they are not visibly engaged in anything. These periods of non-activity, I think, are as crucial as their growth spurts. During these periods they question life around them, assimilate something they came across recently, heal themselves, dive deep into themselves, etc. I have learned to cherish these periods and not disturb them while they are there.

For us homeschooling has been about:

  • mindful parenting to the extent possible
  • growing organic food and working together as a family
  • being close to nature and taking care of other life forms (plants, trees, animals)
  • allowing everyone to take up things that interest them deeply and nurture the development of those skills
  • maintaining an environment at home where mistakes are considered a part of the learning process
  • building resilience that the kids need to survive during difficult times in this era of climate change
  • having enough time to ponder over questions that come up and to develop an understanding about one’s own self
  • trusting our ability to solve problems (technical, medical, emotional) and not resort to professional help right away
  • personal care – cooking, washing clothes, cleaning, making clothes, hair cutting
  • management and self-regulation of one’s time.

In our lives, saying “no” to the mainstream has ended up as “yes” to various other possibilities, which have made life more fun. There certainly have been difficult and challenging times since we changed the course of our lives. But then, there were similar phases earlier too! In a certain sense, we have chosen the current set of challenges and that wasn’t the case before.

The author was a networking software engineer. She has been a stay-at-home mom for the last 17 years. She enjoys cooking, working in their farm and working with the local people. You can read her blogs at: http://devandhema.blogspot.com/. She can be reached at hemajain@yahoo.com.

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