The Freedom School

Our son K turned 2 years, 6months. With lots of nudging from family we decided to enrol him in school. But which one?

My own experiences at school have been quite unpleasant. It was a rigid, uncomfortable place which made introverts out of most of us. Took another decade to somewhat unlearn the feeling! Obviously, I was aspiring hard to not put K into same hole.

A lot of googling and we found this place nearby somewhat unimaginatively called BeMe. The website was to say the least unimpressive. We anyways decided to check out the place because it was right next door.

Met the unassuming founder Prakash. He was the only one at school at 5.30 PM with a couple of children waiting for their parents, doing their own thing. He showed us the place — a 2.5 storey building, somewhat cluttered with most things organized/written/stuck/cutout by kids, it looked. They had 4 teachers — most likely not ‘certified’ by the Govt of India to be teachers. All 4 of them were teaching out of their own necessity to be with kids, not for the money — don’t think they were getting paid, really! Their idea was — why restrict who can be a teacher — parents are free to offer exciting electives, external experts are always welcome, and most importantly even children themselves can offer electives — Kabaddi and Soccer were 2 such.

BeMe School

How did this school work or not work!

They had an elective system and the kids as young as 5 could choose to enrol into whichever elective they found interesting. The electives we saw on our first visit were Rooftop Gardening, Conscious Eating (Wednesday afternoons were a delight!), Origami, Banjo, Geography (with only 1 student enrolled). This is insane, I thought. I come from a family, school, society where genius is considered as someone good at Math, History, Science — goes on to do a PhD and teaches in school — to complete the unending cycle of learning.

Children are often the boss here. They can come at any time they wish, but most end up trickling in by 9 AM. First thing, a parliament session — with the elected Prime Minister heading the session; judicial committee taking cases and discussing agendas for the week — this can range from mosquito problems in school, playing on unsafe roads in front of school, requesting parents to spend more quality time in school, to planning outdoor trips. Then the electives start mostly by 10 AM, with multiple slots available to the expert to choose from.

My favorite part — they had a ‘Toys from Trash’ cupboard — filled with trash neatly organized. They had a teacher who was coming once a week to build toys and teach physics. So much for the unending confusion between centripetal and centrifugal forces. We are big fans of one Arvind Gupta who teaches science to kids by building toys. This was a dream come true!

There were a few desktops in a room where kids watch whatever they like. In fact a kid was watching cartoons when we dropped by.

Prakash told us about a small experiment conducted by the students — they tried to get an aquarium going at school-they had to modulate the amount of food, kind of water and after several weeks they now had a 4 fish living and breathing successfully. Seemed like a small achievement, but trust me we just could not get it to work at home! Killed all 8 fish in our little bowl :(

The school was incepted just 8–9 months back — the founders, also parents of Beme kids, Namrata and Prakash, just took on the challenge simply like that when their earlier school moved 60 kms away. Thats pretty audacious! And they told us that we never expected others to join us — there were around 30 children, all age groups put together.

Every week all teachers make observations about kids which parents can read. They insist that this is not a report and just observations. Lot of fun to read!

Home Schooling or Not

In the past 6 months, the school has grown to almost 45 kids, the oldest being 13 and youngest being around 2.5. The children, parents, teachers seamlessly move through the school. Kids are allowed to walk out of classes, sleep in classes, basically do whatever they wish except disturb the class.

Parents are teachers and teachers are parents. Often teachers are students. There is basically no line drawn separating the three.

What they are trying here is some balance between home schooling with interaction with peers, friends and the whole lot.

The Big Math Question

Why don’t they have a Math elective every semester? How will the kids ever cope? Not clear what the answer is — but my belief is that a rigid structured approach is not needed to learn math either. They recently had a class called ‘Mathematics Modelling’. Some notes from BeMe

First session was about aero modelling in paper — origami planes, airflow experiments, flying aeromodels. We did airflow experiments with incense sticks. It was followed by building a paper aeroplane one step a time, testing it and correcting it so it makes a proper flight.

So can Math be imbibed in this most un-natural, indirect way. We just gotta wait and see!

Outdoor

Since it a small school, there is obviously no playground. So they cover up for this big time. Every week at least once, the kids stroll to the park — can be to collect leaves, watch birds or simply play.

Then there is an outdoor committee (kids, obviously) — whose whole and sole job is to plan monthly outdoor trips — this can be a day trip to Cubbon Park or a couple of days long trip to Chitradurga Fort. Usually 2–3 teachers join for the trip but the planning, preparation, finance management and everything else depends on the Outdoor Committee team. Kids dig this!

Obviously, they often have sleepovers in school — food, music, dance, movies — basically a crazy school party. And a day off for the parents :)

K’s evolution

And yes, K has been going to this school for the past 9 months. He seems to like the freedom, not that he knows how other schools function. K has picked up an amazing vocabulary, learnt a large set of numbers, gone on couple of day trips, made friends, learnt Gujarati poems, come home painted in red, green and blue, made caricatures asking for more lunch. Often when we ask his teachers about what he has learnt, they have no clue!

Learning, like consciousness, is an emergent phenomenon. It just happens — when the environment is conducive, rarely is there a fixed route to learn. Throw all the required elements in a box — some kids, some older kids, a few books, a fun environment, (maybe remove parents)-shake the box thoroughly and you’ll have your own version of Feynman.