Why moving to Dubai was not a bad idea for my boys

BY SAILAKSHMI DEEPAK

Reading during the rideMy husband and I lived with our two boys (10 and 6.5 year olds) in Mumbai until two years ago. We were happy to send them to an ICSE school there, knowing it was an extremely grounded one. It gave them the much needed foundation in terms of introducing the concept of school, timings, uniform, being independent, and largely sticking to a time-table for the day. But what the school offered in terms of education has always been a favorite topic of debate and discussion between the two of us, and among friends in India with school-going kids.

Education in India three decades ago did not do as much for my husband and me, as did the way we had been brought up, or the experiences our lives had given us. What schools and teachers taught us outside the curriculum has made us what we are today. Our scores and rankings were poles apart at school and college, yet we have been equally successful in our careers. Our ability to handle situations, make decisions and to reason out issues are comparable.

The system that was followed in India back then has changed in many ways, in order to accommodate the easy access to information today. But the basic framework is the same: subjects, tests, text books, homework, heavy bags, projects, learning by memorizing etc. The more we spent time in Mumbai, the clearer we were that this was not the kind of education we wanted for our children. Our children needed much more learning outside of books to prepare them for the future.

The International schools in Mumbai offered much better facilities, extra-curricular activities and the kind of education that we wanted for them, but they were unaffordable. Moreover, we wanted their early years to be spent with children that belonged to a similar economic background.

So, in 2013, when we were transferred to Dubai (a move that we had actively pushed for), we instantly looked at enrolling the kids into an international school very close to home. We have gone through a lot of challenges and changes due to this move, but it has given them the kind of experiences that education cannot.

  • The curriculum at the school here is based on learning to think, rather than just learning. They are encouraged to explore on their own with basic guidance from the teachers. They are tested not based on their knowledge of “correct” answers but based on opportunities that mandate application of their learning. This is almost always done without the children even knowing that they are making that effort.
  • We have hardly had any homework since we moved, except for a few weekends where work has been given that would require parents to share some ideas with the children. A lot of their free play during the evenings is invariably influenced by all that they are learning in school. It is so interesting to see them use varied material as props to support their games.
  • The school uses programs that are based on monthly or term-wise topics across the primary school. Hence, both the children are learning the same topic but the extent is different. Our weekend discussions revolve around the same subject. They come up with some amazing questions, quite thought provoking even for adults. They are always hungry for more information, and that is exactly what we want the school to do for them.
  • Their teen years will likely see them all confused about many things. The school will, however, present them with many opportunities and expose them to varied professions so that they will be better equipped to make decisions on what to study at university. It will also give them the courage to do something out of the ordinary and to follow their passion, if that’s what they’d prefer.
  • Their tolerance towards members of different communities, nationalities and culture is much higher thanks to an international set up. Yes, they make stronger bonds at this age with other Indian kids since they can relate to each other better, but with the others, they already know what works and what doesn’t.
  • In India the choice was between taking the school bus or the car or an auto to school: which was the most convenient mode to get from Point A to Point B. Here, the children needed to be educated about incomes and expenditures and affordability to make them understand why we could not buy a luxury car or a sports car.
  • We were now arguing and discussing pros and cons of having their own devices; why carrying a book made more sense than carrying an iPad to school every day; why being a 10 year old does not mandate carrying or having a mobile of his own.
  • The older one took a lot more time to settle into the school. He had to break into a group that had been together for 7 years; he had to move from being ‘popular’ in India to ‘insignificant’ in Dubai and then to ‘acceptable’ in his class; he was also being bullied for a long time by another child in his class. It taught him and us as a family a lot about his coping mechanism, but it was an ordeal we went through for a large part of the first year.
  • They are now exposed to older kids in their bus-ride back from school. This unsupervised interaction gives them a lot of unwarranted opportunities to learn about things that we are not sure they are ready for. We are having to sit with the 10 year old discussing appropriate / inappropriate behavior, objectification of, and respect to privacy of, women, sex, sexual preferences. In fact, at the end of the first day of school, we were wondering how we could tell him it was ok to be the only one in class who didn’t know the meaning of the ‘F-word’!

In a way, the last two years have seen an incredible amount of growth in their personality, knowledge base, and in their ability to make decisions. Yet, they have quite suddenly lost their childhood, innocence, and some of the important life skills that educating in India would have retained in them.

After all this, do I think I made the right decision 2.5 years ago? I most definitely do.

 

About the author:

Sailakshmi lives in Dubai with her three boys: 6, 9 and 40. She loves to read, eat, bake, sing and dance! She works part-time as a librarian, and the rest of the time she is busy going completely crazy with, for and because of her boys.

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When The Happy Child meets the Big Yellow Bus

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“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 mommygolightly@gmail.com if you’d like to share your thoughts.

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 12th January, 2015)

 

I’m a hands-on mamma but I keep my hands off homework

Re is learning how to count. And add. And write. From a parent’s point of view, these are too many milestones too soon. I knew it would happen one day or another, but I wasn’t really prepared or ready for it. There are all these schools of thought of when a child should write, and frankly I have no opinion on them. I think there’s a time and place for everything, and I’m in no hurry to find answers.

This might seem like a dichotomy, but I think I am a hands-on parent with very little interest on academic milestones. When the teacher tells me that Re has a great vocabulary and loves working with his hands, creating and telling stories and sharing knowledge, I go oh! And then she quickly goes on to add that he has little interest in written work. I continue gazing at her, unflustered.

People often asked me why I don’t home-school, since I am “doing such a good job” of him otherwise and I feel like saying, yes I am a good mother, but I’m certainly not suicidal. Given that I’m a teacher, that seems to be a very inappropriate thing to say, but that’s how it is. I don’t like mixing mommyhood with teacherhood.

Re has been given 10-12 worksheets which I am supposed to help him “solve” and after putting it off for days, I finally got down to it and shuddered. Wait a minute, I don’t remember my parents ever sitting with me and ‘helping me study’. What just happened here?

I tried. I did egg him on and facilitated a few worksheets (on a train trip, no less) and I lost interest faster than him. There’s a reason we are a team.

We think we are ready to grow down with our children but it’s harder than we think. A part of us is so adult and programmed that we cannot imagine taking ten minutes for what should have taken one. It’s easy to know a seven times table, but much hard explaining it to a child. I know parents who “take their kids’ lessons”, who practically study with their kids, take days off when they have exams and whatnot. I have no such intentions. When it comes to it, I will run. In that regard, I am quite like my parents. I can be your leisure, but I can’t be your school or your work, I will tell Re when the time comes. There’s only so much of me and I’d rather give you the good parts.

When did school become an insufficient place for education and things had to be carried forward to the home front? When did parents start doing holiday homework, projects and whatnot for their kids? Thank god it was different in our times. Knowing my mother, she would have probably said something like I wasn’t paying attention and knowing my father, he would have said don’t you have better things to do in holidays than studies?

This whole thing of parents meeting teachers was also quite alien to my childhood.  My father could barely keep track of which class we were in, and mom’s PTAs always clashed with our PTAs, so in the end, I went for my own PTA and also those of my siblings. When parents meet me now and want to know how their child is doing, I often wonder what they are going to do with the information.

People found my mother’s hands-offness from our studies hard to believe, because she was a teacher; it was assumed that she would replicate at home what she did at school. She did no such thing, because she was busy nurturing herself. She was learning to sew, emboss, paint on fabric, bake and sing in her leisure time. And I’m glad she did. We had so many textures of mom to choose from. Dad was the same. He would potter endlessly in the garden, planting, replanting, collecting seeds, reading up on new species, making files of his numerous paper-cuttings. He was always happy to have conversations about words, places and people, but often, these couldn’t be contained in lessons. He had far too much gravitas to fit into a book.When it came to studies or schoolwork, we were on our own. Guess that’s why we could do life on our own quite early.

So teachers, if you are sending homework my way, I ain’t doing it. I have better things to do.

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 10th November, 2014)