The crucible moment came for me when, 16 years ago, I pulled my 7 year old son from school. Once again. Thrice in four years. Was something wrong with him? With me? Or was it just that the schooling system was rotten?
The Indian schooling system is, by far, a highly teacher directed, chalk and board, exam oriented system. There is no place for individuality or creativity. And I was blessed with a brilliant boy - one who recognized the alphabets at one and a half years, and started reading fluently at three. And was utterly utterly bored being made to relearn reading, given baby sums and forced to write.
As I homeschooled him and two younger ones for the next 3 years, I realised the damage I was protecting my children from - physical and emotional abuse, stress and despair and an internalized notion of the self as a “grade-grabbing” machine. We had fun as our system devolved into unschooling. We were free. Lazed around and read. Baked. Kids pottered about in the yard digging for earthworms. Raced like little Mowglis down the narrow alley adjoining our very suburban house. And astonishingly enough, they taught themselves - reading, maths, geography, history, ecology, biology, - you name it. Voracious readers do that. My method for unschooling was pretty much that - surround them with books, and they’ll educate themselves. We went off on holidays when other kids were busy with exams. Cheap deals, too. I mean who waltzes off to Kodai in September?
However, over the years, the children craved company of their peer group. Kids like themselves. Oddly enough, they wanted to be “normal”, not freaks who didn’t go to school. So back I went with my eldest into the same system. He was old enough by now to hold his own and not succumb to the mechanistic, soul deadening system we call schooling.
But for my younger ones - NO! I didn’t want to risk their entire groundwork I had laid to be washed away. No school seemed to fit - most loaded kids with pointless homework, had tests regular like clockwork, forced children to sit and listen at an age when kids need to be talking and moving. Then, all of a sudden, one February morning in 2009, I woke up with an insane idea - “Start a school! A school that fits your definition of a school”. I tried to evade the onslaught of thoughts, wriggle out of my own head, shut metaphorical doors in my brain. But that deep burning desire to just go and start a school would simply not go away. It kept me awake, made me daydream. Forced me to confront myself. “Yes, if I didn’t like the way schooling was done, what was I doing about it?”
I tentatively tested out the idea with Hauroon, my husband, who by now was thoroughly used to my mad schemes. Surprisingly, he concurred. And that started us off on the journey that was Al Qamar.
“Paagalon ka school”, “The Motley Crew’, “The Rag-Tag Army” - one would have thought we had started a rock band, not a tiny little school with 9 children and grand ambitions. “No exams,
no homework, no tests, no schoolbags” was our motto. Naively, we assumed everyone and everyone would concur. It was an eyeopener as we struggled to garner admissions with this slogan. Imagine - a school where children roamed free. Played all the time. A school with no desks or chairs. But instead with lots of bookshelves. And paints, crafts and board games. A lovely little sand pit and a tap which gushed water at high speed. “Toys” to learn maths. Maps to draw. “Yakkity Yak” in every classroom.
Early years were tough. We stuck to our philosophy of pressure free, child centred education - never matter the financial pressure from low admissions, insistence from parents about homework or tests, complaints about kids coming home mudstreaked. Our philosophy was that children are natural learners. Remove the curbs, pressure and the adult control and surround kids with learning opportunities, they’ll learn. And they did. Our Montessori started churning out avid readers who penned short stories at the age of six. Who liked to add or subtract in millions. Who composed poetry or created artwork, alongside giving a lecture on the continents and oceans.
With the older ones we went many steps further. We had an array of speakers constantly coming to give talks to the kids. Kids sprawled on the floor, listening intently, questioning, arguing and clarifying with a Supreme Court Judge, a nuclear scientist, a lawyer, a hafiz. Anyone whom I could inveigle into popping in and interacting with the kids, came.
And we went out - at the drop of a hat, we went out. Trips, excursions, treats. We partied - that too at the drop of a hat. Eid party, another Eid party, beginning of the year party, end of the year party, just a party - kids planning the whole shamboozle, managing and running the entire show. And for quiet times, we had books. Lots and lots of books. Board games. Art in every classroom. Kids could freely go off, curl up in a corner or a bean bag with a nice book and tune the world out. Often found them in the most bizarre postures deeply immersed in books.
Montessori was a law unto itself. We used Montessori all the way up to 4th grade.Teachers had complete freedom to run their environments in complete adherence to Montessori principles. Children “chose’ to work, if and when they wanted to. Teachers gave presentations to individual children or in small groups. Children collaborated on projects. The cohort had children across three year bands. It felt like a family. No pressure, no exams, no homework, just learning for the sake of learning. No, it didn’t work for all children. Especially those with parents on steroids - gunning for exam success who felt they had wandered into an alternate reality. Those parents left soon.
Our older classes defied description. Classes were held sometimes in a classroom, sometimes in a common room, sometimes outside under trees. It depended on the mood of the teacher and the mood of the kids. The teaching involved a lot of discussion where children happily put forward their points of view, questioned and argued. Science classes had us looking for bugs, examining pond water, smelling garbage and going off yet again on one of our jaunts. Kids don’t learn as much within the four walls of the school as they do outside. That was our philosophy anyways.
Kids painted the facade of the school. Took three weeks and a lot of hard work. They ran businesses everytime we had a school event - grasping fellows they were! No one was immune to their charming sales pitch. We didn’t have a playground, just a narrow strip in front of the school. That was sufficient. Don’t ask me how they all knew who was playing cricket and who was playing tag. They just did. We had a “Me-Time” - the last hour of school where kids could do just what they wanted. “Me-Time in Al Qamar is tautology” a parent commented sardonically. They baked, made cakes and pizza, played chess and checkers, inventing rules all along the way, fought - oh yes they fought! But Me-Time was their time. And we teachers respected it. Then, two years ago, they started their own system of governance - their legislature sat down and made laws which were duly transcribed into a “Law Book”. Their judicial meetings were a treat to watch. Kids brought cases against other kids. As teachers, we wondered if something as trivial as “He put his books on my table!” was serious enough to warrant a court case, but then kids are kids. A judge and jury were elected. The plaintiff and defendant dragged friends in to be their lawyers. It was a Town Hall model - so everyone participated. Gaps in laws were rapidly remedied as new laws were passed, with a speed that would have given any constitutional expert a heart attack!
And they were good kids - they had a heart. Every year, in Ramadhan, they would earn money through chores, pool in the monies and donate to charity. Their businesses set aside profits for donation. This year they raised money for the migrant workers who were stranded in Chennai due to the COVID lockdown. They helped each other. Through an intense 3 year outdoors ecology program, these kids learned to love nature. Their trips to beaches, wetlands, birdwatching, organic farms, meeting activists and participating in recycling programs, gave them a rare perspective on the importance of nature conservation. They drew, wrote and spoke for nature. I don’t think anyone can take away that from their hearts.
What about the academics? Surely, children having so much fun, no homework, and no exams - all the way upto 8th Grade, would surely wear dunce caps at regular schools. Aha! That’s the nub! These kids outshone regular school kids. The school was routinely placed among the top 10 schools in a national benchmarking exam. They won writing awards. Cracked the Cambridge IGCSE and the Edexcel Achievements. Won laurels at online international math competitions. Someone or the other kept qualifying for gifted programs offered by top American universities. Last year, 75% of the upper graders were invited for the national Gifted exam. One girl created a divisibility rule for 7 from scratch. And to cap it all, one of our alums was the only Asian selected for the prestigious International Mensa Scholarship last year.
“Impossible!” you exclaim?
No, a reality!
Revisit the vision I laid out at the beginning - “Kids are natural learners. Remove the curbs and not only will they learn, they will shine!”
To create this weird and out-of-the-world institution (institution - what a misnomer for Al Qamar) needed deep committment. It was our passionate belief in the “rightness” of this system of education that drove us day in day out. We knew that kids needed this kind of schooling to blossom and develop their inner potential.
Hauroon and I had to sell our dreams to teachers - to come work for us. Working in alternative schools is extremely difficult. Kids have you on your toes all the time! These teachers needed to drastically change their worldview about teaching and learning. We ensured they got opportunities for professional development and forums to air their views and discuss their misgivings. It helped to be open, to share, to discuss and persuade. Teachers could walk into my office anytime. We all sat on the floor and ate together. Teachers felt confident enough to challenge me if they felt I was straying from our principles. And I really appreciated that. Relational transparency based on mutuality and respect was crucial.
Changing parental attitudes and getting their buy in was our biggest challenge. We constantly faced pressure to compromise our values. “Be a little strict with her!” “Give some homework at least?” “Can’t I teach at home?” It was tiresome hearing these barbs year on year, but we hung on. We stopped teaching a child at school, if we heard the parent was trying to teach at home. Or if a child went for out of school tuitions. Called the parents in and steamrollered them. Iron fist in velvet glove approach. It worked most of the time. We had to walk the walk and talk the talk. Hauroon was the tough guy there. Me, I was guilly of slipping them some homework now and then. But Hauroon created procedures to track the amount of work teachers assigned. And came down heavily if he felt we were exceeding our limits. He constantly reminded us about brain based teaching - kids need downtime for their brains to be fresh. Thinking is learning. No spoonfeeding. Let them work out problems themselves. Its about working smart, not working hard. So, no homework. None. Nada! No tests. No exams (except Asset). Eventually, I started seeing the importance of his values which were reflected in his behavior. And became mine too.
One area where we stubbornly adhered to our values was the refusal to pay bribes. It hurt us in the end. We didn’t get our governmental recognition to run the school. But we slept easy. It took a lot of self discipline not to cave in. But we felt that we couldn’t ask students to be honest, when we were not being above board. Kids sniff out when you’ve been guilty of subterfuge. They’ll know from your face. Consistency! That’s what is required every time you work with kids. And it takes a lot of self discipline.
And finally a heart full of compassion. For a teacher who had to take leave to tend to a sick child. For a parent who couldn’t pay fees, because his business had collapsed. For the children for whom a trivial spat with a friend could be heartbreaking. Sometimes I felt emotionally exhausted at the end of the day. All I could do was come home and curl up with a book.
So did this all work? Unfortunately no.
Today the school is closing down because as leaders, we could not handle the external challenges of government regulations. We couldn’t acquire the necessary land, or raise capital to build the infrastructure. We started seeing shrinking admissions as parents doubted the viability of a school, which after 11 years still doesn’t have a place to call its own. Yes, it's heartbreaking. Heartbreaking when I hear children worry about being beaten in the next school they go to. Worry about not having freedom. Worry about how their next teacher will deal with them. Heartbreaking when I consider the loss of human potential due to the mind-numbing, soul-deadening school system which sucks the creativity, originality and confidence out of our young ones. May Allah protect and strengthen these children. Ameen.
So was I successful? All I can say I tried. But at the end of the day, I pray my Lord judges me with mercy when it comes to Al Qamar. Ameen.
To learn more about this unique school, visit www.alqamaracademy.in