Seniors (Already)

June 3, 2011

So the kids went back to school on Wednesday. They’ve started their third year now; this year, they are “Seniors”. Cliched though it is, I must say it: How time flies! Wasn’t it just the other day that I put them into the nearby playschool so I could enjoy a brief respite from the constant state of high-alert they kept me on?

They are old enough to get the idea of summer holidays now – at least, they get that summer holidays will end at some point and they will go back to school. It’s nice that in the Montessori system, the class and the teachers remain the same. The “babies” (M0 and M1 kids) are new, and the “seniors” from last year (M3 kids) have moved on to First standard, but the M1 and M2 kids from last year stay on in the same class, so two-thirds of the kids are the same every time school reopens. (Albeit a different two-thirds, if you know what I mean.)

So far, the kids were taking a school van to get from school to daycare. This year, we’ve started to send them by school van for the morning drop from home to school as well. Hats off to the kids that they’ve accepted this step with their usual elan and wait eagerly and impatiently for the school bus every morning. It’s a different van from the one they take to daycare, different driver, attendant, and kids, and this one ferries older kids as well as tiny kids. But they never batted an eyelash at the newness of it, and were thrilled to discover that two of their classmates are on the same van.

School is five whole hours this year – 8.30 to 1.30. They leave home at 7.15 and get to daycare only at 2.15! They get two snack breaks, but no proper lunch break at school, which means lunch gets pushed out to 2.30 or so, which is pretty late. Breakfast is basically a glass of milk, so the snacks will have to be fairly substantial to keep them going till 2.30. Yesterday we packed two snacks in one box for each girl and apparently they ate both the snacks in the first break and had nothing for the second break. What’s more, Mrini was so tired by the time she got to daycare that she ate very little lunch and went to sleep! Sorting out their meal content and schedule is going to take some work. Already I’m terrified each day that I’ll forget to pack some crucial element of their school bag or their lunch bag which will lead to them being hungry, thirsty, or under-dressed some day. And I’m really worried about how I’m going to come up with ideas for two healthy and substantial snacks per child, per week day (20 snacks per week!) and still keep it interesting.

And there’s another thing that’s worrying me in a “back of the mind” kind of way. Their teacher told me at the end of the first day that I should make Tara do some writing work at home.

This teacher of theirs is an experienced and balanced kind of teacher. She’s not the overly pushy kind. And the nice thing about her in particular and the Montessori system in general is that there is a real effort to understand each child and work with them as individuals. This is as far removed from cookie-cutter education as it is possible to be at least in the Indian context. At the end of the first year, she told me, “They should be able to count to ten by now, but it’s ok. We can work on it next year.” She also said, “Let them eat with their hands and let them do a lot of drawing and colouring. It will improve their fine motor skills and help them to learn to write.” This kind of advice I can work with – anything that is a general recommendation and that, moreover, tends to work around a problem, sounds good to me.

At the end of last year, the teacher said, “Let them do some clay modeling over the holidays. It’s good exercise for their hands.” Well, we didn’t get around to doing clay modeling, but I didn’t worry about it. They did a lot of colouring and crafts at daycare, but I didn’t “work” with them on writing or anything else during the holidays. I’m the irresponsible type of parent who believes that “working” with them is the school’s job and my job is to do lots of other stuff. But when their teacher told me that Tara needs to work on her writing at home (“a little bit, if you can – don’t force her or anything”) I was worried.

The thing is, since this is a generally balanced teacher who has given sensible recommendations in the past, I can’t dismiss this advice out of hand. On the other hand, “working” with Tara at home is not, in my opinion, the right approach. Given that I’m not going to be the kind of mother who holds her child’s hand (literally or otherwise) throughout school, working on handwriting at the tender age of less-than-five is not something I’m going to do. In my opinion, Tara’s handwriting is not the problem. The problem is her attitude. I want her to learn to focus, to learn to take her work seriously, and for her to believe that she can do well and then to want to do well. If I have to teach her anything, it’s motivation first, then discipline, focus, and plain hard work.

I’ve seen other people teaching kids to write – by holding their hands. That’s easy enough – anyone can do that. But how long will you keep holding their hands and teaching them? How long will you, the parent, be responsible for what your child learns? I do want to teach my kids, but what I want is to teach them to teach themselves. That’s not so easy. Some would say that it’s too early for that lesson, but I don’t think so. It’s never too early. The problem is to find the right way to do it.

Motivation, for instance. It’s easy – “Write ten lines, I’ll give you a chocolate.” But that, again, is not the right kind of motivation. The motivation must be to do a thing well, not the rewards that come along with it. Can this kind of external motivation lead to some kind of internal motivation? I think not – why would you need any other source of motivation if your motivation is a chocolate, a book, a cycle or whatever? The motivation I want to see in Tara – Mrini already has it to a surprising extent – is “Write ten lines because you can.” Or “Write ten lines because you want to learn.” Or, what would be best, “Write ten lines because it’s so much fun.” In the absence of that, I’ll even settle for “Write ten lines because you have been told to and then you can go play.” There’s nothing wrong with obedience and plain old discipline if all else fails.

One thing I used to see quite a bit of, but it’s been less evident of late, was a kind of negative competition between the girls. Mrini always wanted to do her work and she got a lot of praise for it. Tara didn’t want to do the work, but she would try to just because she saw Mrini getting attention and praise. Then she would lose interest and start messing around. I think she had begun to feel that “Oh, Mrini is so good at all this, I’m hopeless, there’s no point in even trying.” Nowadays, this has changed a bit. Tara has been uncharacteristically helpful around the house, while Mrini has been irritatingly uncooperative. So Tara gets the brownie points, for now. Amit and I are both consciously trying to notice and praise her when she’s focusing on something, anything. We’re trying to tell her that she can do well at things, if she tries. Trouble is, essentially their personalities are different – Mrini is all eager to please and Tara is devil-may-care. This makes motivation that much more of a challenge for Tara – she will only focus on and work on something for her own sake, not for anybody else’s. And if she’s cut out that way, I don’t think it’s too early to start telling her that she has to focus on her work for the sake of the work itself.

The question is: How can I get her to understand and accept that?

Observation 2

August 18, 2010

We were invited by the kids’ school to go for an observation this week. This is an aspect of their school that I can’t praise enough. I’m sure all parents are itching to know what stuff their kids do in school. Kids are, typically, less than forthcoming. The Montessori system does not require notebooks or textbooks in the first two years, so we know even less than we might in the kindergarten system. An observation is our opportunity to find out what our kids are doing in the three-plus hours that they spend in school. We had been for it last year as well, and came away enlightened and delighted in equal measures.

Mriini-Tara were quite thrilled when we told them we’d be going to sit in their class with them. They led us into class somewhat shyly and spread their mats out in a corner next to each other. Their teacher told us they don’t normally sit next to each other and Mrini had already told us in the car, “Nandu and Nirupama and Vaishnavi are Tara’s friends. Navneet is my friend. Only Navneet.” She was very firm about it. (Yes, Navneet is the same boy she kissed a couple of weeks ago – at least she’s constant. And yes, the teacher confirmed that the kiss did, indeed, happen!)

Amit and I sat down on the floor next to the two of them. To start with, Mrini went through several very easy jigsaw puzzles, while Tara worked with great focus on some number-related activity. Eventually, with some effort by the teacher, Mrini was also persuaded to work on number-related activities. There were several different activities. The one I’d heard most about was number rods – a set of rods with length from one to ten units. The idea was to arrange the rods in sequence and then count the striped units on the rods and the correct number symbol with each rod. There was another counting activity that involved putting the right number of sticks into various slots; and another activity involving putting some kind of counters in front of the number symbols. What impressed me most was a set of beads. There were ten beads, nine strings of ten beads each, nine square mats made up of ten strings of ten beads each, and finally, a cube, made by stacking ten mats on top of each other. So you had units, tens, hundred, and a thousand, visually reinforcing the numerical, geometrical and decimal relationship between all of them. It was so simple it was beautiful – I wish I’d seen it this way when I was four. This basic concept – especially the concept of square and cube, and of zero (dot) one (string) two (square) and three (cube) dimensions – was never actually tied to the real, physical world when I was a student. They were abstract concepts which I didn’t get my head around until much later. Not that Mrini and Tara have any concept of square and cube right now, or of the decimal system or of dimensions of any kind or number; but when they do begin to understand those concepts, they have something real and physical to understand them by. That is just so nice.

The other activity that their teacher made sure they showed us was sandpaper letters. Both my girls can associate vowel sounds with vowel letters and many/most of the consonant sounds with consonant letters. Mrini can do a few more than Tara and other kids in their class can do more than both, but that’s neither here nor there. The fact is, my girls almost know their letters! Wow! Of course I was swept away by dreams of buying them a truckload of books each – I can hardly wait for them to discover the joy of reading! – but when I asked their teacher, she said it would take another year or so before they learnt to read. Can it possibly take that long to get there once you already know the letters???

Their teacher told us they were now much better at putting away stuff they had worked on – something we still have to get after them to do at home – and that they both were very independent in class. She also said it was possible now to have real discussions with them, which was nice. She pointed out some of their art work, mentioning that it was quite neat now, and they were probably ready to start writing. I told her they’d been practicing zig-zags, 5 and 2 at home.

We sat with them for about an hour. Towards the end, I was getting itchy. I think Amit would have sat there the whole morning, he’s that kind of a doting dad, but I thought the teacher had better give some attention to the other kids in her group as well. With a maximum of 30 kids, 3 teachers and an akka, they weren’t too stretched at any point, but you can’t hog the teacher’s time for too long all the same. Other kids came up to her to ask for work or to show her what they’d done. Several kids showed her words they’d written, and one boy brought his notebook and asked for sums. Yes, he asked for sums! He even knew what numbers he wanted to add – and the teacher let him dictate the questions! And when he didn’t like the colour of the pen she was using, she let him bring her another one.

Meanwhile, the girls were getting itchy too! In the middle, Mrini wandered off to join her friends and find out what Navneet was up to. She came back soon, but not for too long. We kept telling them we’d be leaving in “five minutes” – standard procedure for brining any fun activity to a graceful end – but when we still hadn’t left at the end of fifteen, Mrini gave me a disgusted look and said “bye, mummy,” much too firmly. We took the cue and left!

I was talking to their daycare teacher about it later that day. Their daycare runs a primary kindergarten school, where things are done rather differently. I mentioned to her how much freedom the kids had in the Montessori environment. She surprised me by saying, “It is one of the most disciplined methodologies.” I started to tell her how little discipline there really was, but she was two steps ahead of me. “It allows kids a lot of freedom, so they learn to do their own work, at their own pace, and to enjoy the freedom of being able to walk around without disturbing other kids. That’s what discipline really is. Not being made to sit in one place and be quiet, but knowing that you have to do your own work without disturbing others.” That was a good point.

Overall it was a very nice experience. It is nice to know that one’s kids are actually learning something in school, even if they refuse to show off or even talk about it at home. It’s nice to see the manner in which they are learning, and how much fun it can be. It’s great to watch the independence, freedom, and responsibility that this environment allows them. Best of all was the atmosphere in class. When I sat in class with the girls in June last year, when they had just joined school, it looked like complete chaos. But now it’s August and the class has settled down. A couple of the new kids are still shy, and one boy howled for five minutes when his mother handed him over to the teacher, but apart from that, the kids were all comfortable, happy, and mostly engrossed in their work. The teachers were comfortable, cheerful, firm and un-hassled. Kids were completely comfortable with the teachers, they didn’t even hesitate to sit in the teacher’s lap. Yet… this was school – not somebody’s home, not a playschool, not daycare – this was school.

I don’t have a very clear recollection of what my school was like at this age, but I’m sure that it was nothing like this! I’m so happy our girls are in this warm, bright, and happy place for three whole years.

School Admissions

November 25, 2008

Next year in June, a little shy of their third birthday, the twins will – hopefully – start school. Big school, that is, which might even see them through till the end of their school days, if we find no reason to change.

We have applied in four schools, but we are really interested in two. One, Headstart, is a Montessori school in Koramangala. It is nearby, but it currently runs up to only the fourth standard, though it has plans to extend. The school building is small and it is located in a largely residential area; a small patch of lawn and its own covered rooftop are the primary play areas.

The other school is Vidya Sagar, which is 15 km (a one-hour drive) away. It has spacious and well-manicured lawns and play area and a large, sprawling building. It is a pre-primary school and feeds into two higher schools after three years. The one we are looking at is Vidya Shilp, which is 20 km away from home (that is, only a little beyond Vidya Sagar). It is practically outside the city and there’s not many residential areas very close by. But the school has huge grounds, with lots of sports fields and a nice swimming pool, an impressive building, and a huge lawn in front. It would certainly be a lovely school to be part of.

If the girls get admission in both places, we’ll have a tough time deciding which one to take. But first, we have to negotiate the admission process.

VS gave out admission forms for just one week and the only Saturday in that window was the last day for both getting and submitting the forms. That made it a bit of a scramble, but we got it done. We got a call for an interview quite soon after. We were expecting that we’d be the ones interviewed, while the kids were perhaps primarily observed, or put to play somewhere. But no. I had to take the kids one at a time into a room where they were seated at a table with a collection of seven or eight different toys/activities like crayons, picture books, play-doh and the like. They were expected to play with (or to demonstrate expertise with?) ALL of these in a period of about 15 minutes, and finally to pour some sand from a scoop into a cup in a miniature sandpit.

The twins could have happily spent 20 minutes at any one of those activities, maybe even more. But switching between ALL of those after like 2 minutes each? And that, after they had spent a good five minutes settling down, looking around at the other tables and kids, looking for each other, fingering the toys…

Mrini didn’t speak much but she grudgingly made her way through most of the activities. Tara, on the other hand… She was already upset when Mrini and I went into the room and she was left to wait outside, wailing. Still, when her turn came, she did quite well, even spoke a bit, until she came to the sandpit. The first thing she did was to scoop sand out and on to her dress! The teacher then hastily decided she had seen enough and bid us adieu. When I tried to get Tara to leave, she threw herself on the floor, kicked up her legs, and let out a loud scream. Great. A tantrum. There was no way they’d give her admission now. Not that I could blame her, I could just feel her frustration at seeing all those lovely toys and not being allowed to play with any of them to her heart’s content. It’s like being shown a whole Death by Chocolate and then being given only two teaspoonfuls to eat.

Anyhow, I didn’t think much of that admission process. They didn’t want to know anything about us except whether I was working or not. And what they could make of any child based on that whole gamut of activities, coming right on top on new environment, strange people, time spent waiting and/or driving and/or away from usual daily routine… I really don’t think this is any way to assess or evaluate whether or not to take a child into a school.

HS on the other hand, has so far seemed to shine as far as the admission process goes. First there was a school exhibition, where their methods of instruction were demonstrated and teachers were on hand to explain. That, itself, was an eye-opener. If they really do teach the way they say they do, it’s wonderful already.

They seem to give out admission forms on one day and one day only, which is scary. But then, there’s a good three-week period to fill in and submit the forms. They also profess not to interview the child, only the parents. After seeing VS’s interview process, I can only say that any school that does not “interview” the child will automatically go way up in my esteem. I already like the admission form – there are a number of sensible and sensitive questions, including a few very pertinent open-ended questions.

So in some ways, we are in a deeper dilemma now than we were before. Before, it looked like VS with its superior facilities was a clear winner, but now I’m so disenchanted with their selection process that it doesn’t seem like the fantastic facilities mean so much any more.

My sister, who is an educationist, said she preferred HS: she said it was a warmer place. I think she’s right about that. And that should count for a lot.

Well, time will tell. Meanwhile, the girls are so enjoying their neighbourhood playschool that last weekend they were demanding to be taken to school even on Saturday morning.

Teaching Religion

October 3, 2008

Now that the twins are going to be starting playschool already, I have to face something I haven’t really given much thought to: religion. Apparently, even these neighbourhood-type playschools teach kids to pray.

Pray? Seriously?? Two-year-olds???

I hadn’t expected to have to teach my kids anything about religion at this age.. Not for a few years yet. But playschools teach prayers, what do you do?

I’m sure there are many who’d argue that it’s never too early to teach kids about god… But my problem is that prayers aren’t about god, not in this format. They’re just word strung together by someone else and chanted or sung by everyone together in public. It’s not as if the kids even know what they’re saying.

When I teach my kids about praying, I’d like them to learn what I believe – that praying is something that can (or even should) be done in private, maybe even in silence, and always with utter honesty and intimacy and sincerity – not using pre-formulated words uttered by rote along with hundreds of others.

I’d like them to learn about god in terms of morals, values, and a guiding philosophy of life, not about the rules and rituals of this religion, or that, or another. I’d like them to know that there are many different religions, but that what matters is not the declaration of belonging to a religion and living by its rules and rituals, but instead practicing “goodness” (for want of a better word) in whatever they do.

Obviously, these are not lessons for a two-year-old, or even a four- or six-year-old.

I know that as they grow, they will meet various religions along the way, and that’s fine. I’m not trying to insulate them from religion per se. What I don’t like is that they should have to “learn” any particular religion in school. Why? I’m not sending them to a seminary (if that’s the word I want). Why can’t normal primary education be divorced from religious education?

Of course, now that I come to think of this whole matter, religion was a part of the schools I went to as well. One was a Convent (need I say more?); then there was a school intended for children of Naval staff (I wasn’t; don’t even ask) and a DAV school (Dayanand Anglo Vedic – there’s a lot of philosophy, history and context to that, but I don’t honestly have a clue), both of which defaulted to Hindu prayers at assembly. Why the naval school should offer up Hindu prayers defeats me, but I suppose they thought they couldn’t just have the school band play merry marching tunes every morning.

So I shouldn’t be surprised that the twins are going to be learning “prayers” along with their colours and numbers and nursery rhymes. The best I can do is to take it as another kind of nursery rhyme… and let them get acquainted with my beliefs when the time comes (and also with Amit’s, which is that there is no god)… and hope that they choose whatever system works best for them.

But really – why do schools teach prayers? And why to two-year-olds? And how can they assume (other than those schools that, like Convents, statedly adhere to a particular religion) that Hindu prayers are best suited to all their students? I mean we do have people of other religions in this country, so if you’re not really affiliated to a particular religion, shouldn’t you just stay away from the whole thing?

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