“What’s my spelling mamma?” Re asked me a few weeks ago. I remember him asking me the same thing last year, but I didn’t want him to think of letters as mere symbols; besides I didn’t think there was any rush for him to learn the alphabet (and I still don’t). I was enjoying him being a child –singing, dancing, doing things with his hands, painting, pretend-cooking, building stuff.
School made me nervous. It still does. Of course, children love numbers and letters, but we don’t know what they are thinking when they play with them. We are all too eager to box them as “Knows 1-100” or “Can read five-letter words” or some such. We love it when we outsource our kids to the ‘big yellow bus’ or the ‘big school’. It’s as though we are eager to homogenize our kids.
Re eventually learnt to write his name on his own, perhaps from his teacher, and every once in a while, he writes and shows it to me. Now he can count numbers, recognize letters and each time he does it, he looks at me for approval. Slowly, but insidiously, he was becoming part of the system. The system that trains kids to look for affirmation and productizes children, pretending to teach them, so that they all fit into neat little boxes and stay like that until they fit into society.
Coincidentally, Re’s first year of formal ‘learning’ also coincided with my first year of formal ‘teaching’. Much as I love working with my teenaged kids and treating them to new literary experiences, words and ideas, I still flinch when I am asked what I teach. Every time I enter a class, I wonder, “Am I really teaching them something? Or am I just holding their hand while they are learning?” I prefer to think it’s the latter, and I hope my students think the same too. A few were concerned that I wasn’t talking about ‘important’ things like ‘grammar’ and ‘tenses’ and various terms they thought they needed to know about. At the end of the term, I asked them how they felt. “Awesome, Akka, we had fun!” they said. My heart was full.
Once a week, I also take a class with the preschoolers and it’s a whole different experience from the older kids I work with. They are more open to telling me what they want to do and directing me to do it. Last week, they wanted to fly. We spoke about wings and flying and soon, they wanted to make their own planes. I asked them to draw theirs on the board. The drawings were amazing, but what startled me was that each child wrote their name correctly in the plane they drew. They were almost proud of it.
Perhaps writing one’s name is a signifier of the fact that you are on the road to education, that you are climbing the first steps of literacy, that you are trying to fit into the world of grown-ups, that you are trying to belong. It made me sad. I could see the natural child in them diminishing already. And this was not even a mainstream school!
I thought I was going cuckoo, but I found the articulation for what I felt when I started reading The Happy Child: Changing The Heart Of Education. In this thought-provoking book, Steve Harrison ventures outside the box of traditional thinking about education. His idea is: Children naturally want to learn, so let them direct their own education in democratic learning communities where they can interact seamlessly with their neighborhoods, their towns, and the world at large. ‘The Happy Child’ suggests that a self-motivated child who is interdependent within a community can develop the full human potential to live a creative and fulfilling life.
I was recently on a parenting talk show on television where one mother proudly declared that she had enrolled her son in playgroup at 10 months; another said learning the alphabet was the most natural thing that happened to her children. I felt out of place for crying hoarse that children have no business to learn the alphabet at age 4. Something was seriously wrong with the world, I thought.
I asked my students what they would really want to learn if they could choose. I got some delicious answers. Life-hacking. Doodling. Carpentry. Water-color. Origami. Ballet. Ventriloquism. Cooking. Astronomy. Designing a room. Being a performance artist. Stand-up comedy. Story-telling. Writing (ah, at least I am somewhat relevant, I thought)
One of the necessary evils of teaching is that sooner or later, you have to put children in boxes and label them. Writing reports makes me uncomfortable. Putting a child in one box just ensures that unless they do something drastic, they are stuck there, and even when they do, it is always for the parents or their teachers, never for themselves. I wonder why aren’t children ever asked to rate teachers? If learning is a direct result of all teaching, why are we rating the learners and not the teachers? It’s the same feeling I used to have whenever some prospective employer asked me for my resume. I used to think, “Well, you want me to work for you, so may I have your resume too?”
But in the end, if children truly want to learn, there is no teaching, as Steve Harrison points out. When there are enough questions, the answers are not important. If only we as adults learn how not to choreograph our child’s learning. Because every child, if left to explore can discover his/her passion May be that’s the only way to create a happy child.
Please email me on firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to share your thoughts.
(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 12th January, 2015)