Recently a few people asked, “how did you go about starting a learning centre?” This is kind of FYI. So also, when I read, ‘Starting a Sudbury school’, the journey of many places had stark similarity with ours. If I think of writing it a couple of years later…can’t trust my memory. So here it goes…
The story dates back to month of June-July 2018. Abhishek and Me decided to withdraw the children from the existing school. Obviously, we were not alone. Four more families were also going through the same turmoil. All we knew is no routine school will work for the children. We thought of channelizing all our energy to this project. Here we started with our weekend meets. Practically, we met with kids, on every weekend, at someone’s place for breakfast/dinner or in the garden
We conducted first info-session, when we had nothing in our hands, except for the idea and strong will to follow our dream. We just had an experience of visiting Jidnyasa then. So, we talked about ‘free at last’, John Holt, Open education. We faced questions like, how will kids prepare themselves for competitions? What about job opportunities? What if someone doesn’t study at all (becoz we all study only for exam)? Are you planning to pull your children out of school? And of course, where the school will be located?
The first questions were easy. We had expected those. About our children, I was very clear. I answered assertive. But place, big question mark. Fortunately, we knew one of the trustees of a school in a near-by area. That school had a history of adopting open teaching methodology and had a renowned legacy in teacher training. The trustee showed interest initially, but things could not work out for some reasons.
We approached another school, but it had some other plans. Someone suggested us a big house, and the owner was going to charge us with bear minimum rent. But somehow, this time it did not go ahead from our side.
When you are geared up to something, day and night “the thing” haunts you. We were visiting places, meeting with different people, trying to connect to experts in person, on phone, on conf-calls. We were spreading words so that anyone who would wish to help us can be reached. We had our theory pit-pat. But place was the key. Unless that was decided, we were in fix for planning anything out and calling people for next info-session.
We were keeping our eyes and ears open. My friend, Rajitha, on her way home from station, was eyeing one place.. almost everyday.. she mentioned about it to me, but I did not understand it properly. Then on day of Ganesh Chaturthi, she happened to visit our place and talked about it to my brother-in-law Aniket. Hurray!! Not only he knew the place but he also knew the trustee. But the trustee had been out of country and we had to wait till mid-october.
In the mean time, we decided to give a formal shape to our group. We were sure that we wanted to form a Non-profit organization. After some thoughts we decided to go for Section-8 company, instead of trust or society. We had a strong discussion on what should be the name. Getting 9 heads together is almost impossible. We finalized on ‘Learners Collective’, and luckily, the name was available. Applying for Section-8 was not so easy task. We tried to do all the document work by ourselves. But the application was rejected twice for trivial, non-specific reasons. Finally we sought help from the professional.. and yes, our company was formed in November 2018.
One day, Wrik came home for a meeting with homeschooling parent. With him, he got a beautiful picture. It had earthy look, kind of Warli painting style. It was our logo. Exquisite and self-explainatory. How the learners protected by adults were moving out with individual differences. He had also booked a gmail account, email@example.com
As mid-october was approaching, I was getting very nervous day by day. Because of the wait from trustees side and the previous experience of other schools. It was no less than full-term lady waiting for delivery. But it so happened that these trustees were open to the idea at least. A meeting was fixed. We all went and talked a usual talk. We tried to explain how serious we were… the only two parameters were, firstly, we were admitting (risking?) our own kids in this new open school and secondly, I was ready to resign from my so called “prestigious, safe, only-few-lucky-get” job. No wonder, they thought we were crazy.
There was a waiting period again… but our meetings with experts in various groups did not end. Megha, did a strong PR. She found out contacts, phone numbers, she fixed up meetings, planned her vacations in order to visit the open schools, spread a message that some group in Mumbai is starting a self-directed learning centre. She also introduced us to Indian Democratic Education Conference, 2018. She played a key role in setting the pitch.
Now, we needed to test ourselves. Whether this self-directed, mentioned in books, happens in reality? And whether we can sustain 6 hrs of company of small children. So we decided to go for Diwali trial run. Since, we had a strong friend-circle around, within a couple of days 18 children signed for this run. We discussed about the plans, what we would like to do with children for that much time. Here, our debate began. Open education, self-directed learning has a different meaning to different individual. It depends a lot on our personality, experiences, the way we are brought up. We had a lot of discussion about No-structure, semi-structure, some-structure…we did a lot of back and forth.
Our Diwali run got over. It taught me two lessons. Firstly, I can sustain with kids. Secondly, the conclusions drawn from this run are no-way marker for our self-directed learning. Reasons were simple. All children had attended school and Diwali vacation was most sought to for rejoicing. Since we had minimal interference, kids spent it playing and enjoying nicely. Boredom, internal conflicts, individual search had no room since run was only for 6 days. But yes, we were on the journey…
With end of our Diwali run, we went to Bangalore for IDEC 2018, which luckily coincided with International Conference that year, not very sure of what we were doing and what to anticipate. But it opened our eyes!! Right from US, UK, France, Germany, Japan, China to Nepal, Korea, Israel… it practically had representation of so many countries we had never thought of. People were already into depths of what we were imagining to dive in. There were mentors, guides, people to seek help from, and just a phone call away. There were students, home-schoolers, parents, educationists, leaders, artists, all interested in Democratic education.
We asked them all our queries…same questions asked to us by other parents. To few we got new answers. Remaining were just reconfirmation of our notions.
After IDEC, there was no looking back. There was nothing to worry. We generally worry or we are made to worry when we tread on a new path. Here, we understood that the way is already paved. While we were preparing for IDEC, we got the news that our proposal has got a nod from the trust. Slowly, the picture started taking up shape. We proposed to conduct Saturday trials at the same place. But lot of civil work was required, since the place was non-functional for a long time. We were offered different place. Our Saturday runs were wrapped up earlier than expected, because weekend was the only time we had for our meetings. Lot of work was pending. This was the time when we needed second info-session. There was long gap of almost 4 months from the first. But since we were not sure about the place, there was no point in calling people. Luckily, Meenakshi from Puvidham, happened to be in Mumbai on very same day. She accepted our invitation. She mesmerized audience as she spoke about her journey and about Puvidham. Tejas-Namrata were also back from their US visit. Tejas also spoke about their experience of SVS. Then on, the movement grew even stronger.
In month of January 2019, Lock-the-box by bookchor arranged an exhibition in Shivaji Park. Me and Rajitha went to try our luck…I must say we were super-lucky that day. We got 8 cartons full of books…right from encyclopedias, DK, Readers digest publication books, to knitting, sewing, gardening cooking, to whole range of children’s books. For over next 3 months, Rajitha carried those cartons on her back seat and trunk. There was no point in lifting such heavy load to home.
We conducted a few parenting sessions. We proposed a few book-discussion programmes (which never happened in reality).
We connected to all contacts from IDEC about our new project formally on mail. Our website was launched. http://www.learnerscollective.in
By this time, children new clearly, what is happening. They were also ready to quit the school. With my elder daughter, Ananya, it was easy, because her best buddy, Kavya was also joining the new school. With my younger one, Nandita, things were super-easy, as she never liked much to leave school. When she understood, Amma is going to be there with her throughout… she was thrilled. They started talking to their teachers in school. Their friends’ parents started confirming the news. So one day, we made a formal announcement on WhatsAp group and filed the Leaving Certificate. It was a big step. No doubt. But this did not make me nervous at all. I was/am very sure of what I was/am doing.
The days were passing by. One day I got a message from my mother’s friend’s friend. She was holding a principal’s post in a pre-primary school. She had a lot of stuff like slates, pencils, specimen copies of books to donate. Thanks to Mrs. Smita Tatke, for such a great help.
We got quotations from painters, CCTV guy. We opened up for donations. And one day Rajitha called me, saying that Amulakh school is ready to donate us their old carpentry tables and few cupboards. We just have to tell them the date. Civil work took longer time than expected, which is a usual case. Then came the elections. Finally post elections, we got the keys in our hands. Sitting in the new place, visualizing how it will look, what needs changes, how much we wish to undertake, what our budget permits, and how much we want the children to decide… so many questions. Everything started sorting out, one by one.
As painting was half over, we got generous help from Amulkh. Two carpentry tables, one for electrical work, lockers, three both-side-opening big library cupboards, one wooden cupboard, one green board.. all free of cost. In about a week’s time, I got a message from Nnoumrata, from Oberoi, Goregaon, that she and her few friends from same society had a few things to donate. We suddenly became prosperous, with LCD projector, radio, Sofa, chair, water purifier, few more toys and books, everything in place.
Now we needed an open session. We wanted to let everyone know we were open. We cleaned up everything. Rushabh painted the gate. We had one more info-session on 26 March, 2019. Almost 35-40 people turned up. We had some fundamental discussions. But, by now we all were very seasoned.
Finally we began from 3rd of June. The civil contractor had left his scaffoldings in the compound for a long time. We called him up almost like 25 times. Finally, Rajitha decided to use them in more constructive way. To my amazement, she built a not-so-easy-to-climb jungle-gym. She climbed herself up, to reassure me that it wouldn’t topple. And all the little ones, started climbing and jumping in one day. They spend time on gym as much as they are on ground.
Of course, for us, building a nest is the on-going process. We still have to do planting, set up basketball hoops, music station, and whatever that our learners dream and try for. That’s the fun and real continuous learning…to keep refurbishing and expanding the nest, by placing a straw and a new straw, and one more….
Poorva is the co-founder and a facilitator of the Learner's Collective Foundation