(This was a story about the school, and the class I took, that I started writing in 2014–15, intending to publish as a book. With so many other pressing work claiming my time, this was never completed. But I thought I will put up the unfinished work anyway, a bit of it everyday, for our students to read. This is the second instalment of the story)

‘All — please submit your homework, put it on this desk,’ I say.

We did not have any homework for our students in the first couple of years after the school started. Kids studied only at school, and the results showed that lack of homework was not affecting their learning. In standardised tests, most of our school students ranked among top 15% nationally — and the school itself was ranked among the top-10 schools based on its results.

Still, the parents were not happy. It seemed just the output is not enough — you need to demonstrate ‘input’ too. How would they learn if there is no work to be done at home? How did we learn during our childhood, for god’s sake?

May be you did not learn much at school, I wanted to retort. Do you want your kids to have the same life that you had? Do you feel proud of making no difference, working in a government job where young kids, sometimes without a college degree, are changing the world? Do you want your kids to stay rooted in age-old thoughts, prejudices and superstitions while the modern world passes you by? Or do you want them to be in sync with the changes, or possibly even bring about some of them?

But I say nothing. At least these parents were enlightened enough to send their kids to a school which is so obviously different, I reason with myself. I cannot have a school without students. Without students, how can I prove that this is the only method that works? I need their support. I cannot afford to piss them off — at least not too much. I express my thoughts politely, reasonably –while seething from inside. One day people would see the light, I say to myself.

But that does not happen. The questions continue. ‘When will you give them books?’ they ask.

‘I thought something with printed letters inside is called books,’ I say. ‘We have many books at school that they read.’

Then I get the point. I see the light, instead of them. Books are defined as something that you memorise at home. Books are not something you learn from. Books are not something you read for pleasure. So whatever we teach at school cannot be classified as books. After all, if kids are enjoying reading them, how can they be books? Books have to be boring, mind-numbing, full of jargons and definitions.

I do not give in to their demand for such ‘books’. But they are insistent about homework. Now the questions are phrased differently. Our children do not know what to do with so much free time at home. They watch TV, they jump around. Evolution is working backwards — they are transforming into monkeys. Please give them something to do at home.

In the end I give in. I try to find some stuff that they can do at home. Yes — handwriting. That obsolete skill. Parents complain that in our school no ‘writing’ is done. They actually mean handwriting. Why not give that as homework and make parents happy?

Only handwriting will not keep kids busy. Come on, one page of handwriting per week? Are you crazy? They will finish it in half an hour. What about the rest of the zillion hours per week?

So we create a math homework booklet, for each class. Again, obsolete, mind-numbing, calculation oriented activities are given as homework. School does not want to inflict rows and rows of multiplication and division sums on the kids. But the parents complain that kids are forgetting basic calculation. They cannot seem to do a three-digit by two-digit multiplication quickly. Other schools are far more advanced. Their students can even do a five-digit by four-digit multiplication.

They can use a calculator, I say. Or an excel sheet. Do you do multiplications every day, I ask the parents. When you really have to do it, do you not use a calculator? Is it not enough that they know how to do it?

Anyway. We create the homework booklet — full of dreadful calculations. Parents are happy. Two pages from those booklets have to be submitted every week.

Today is one such day.

Everybody submits — but not Hulk.

‘What happened, Hulk? Where is your homework?’ I ask.

‘I went to a marriage function,’ he says.

‘Your own, or somebody else’s?’’

‘Not my own, obviously.’

‘Then this cannot be allowed as an excuse. I could have excused your homework submission if it were your own marriage.’

‘But the marriage party was in Calcutta, I came back only yesterday evening.’ Hulk replies.

‘Well, then you should have stayed up late and finished the homework.’

‘I stayed up late, but still it was not finished.’

‘Then you should have woken up early today and finished it.’

‘I woke up at 5:30 today, but then I had to come to the school for the extra class.’

‘Oh, I guess then you really need more than 24 hours a day. You know there are planets where you have more than 24 hour-days? May be you should go to those places. Why did you come to the extra class anyway?’

‘I missed a few classes before the puja vacation, and I need to catch up on the history booklets.’

‘Oh, what’s the status on that? How far has the class progressed on history?’

The class says that they are on to Russian revolution, where Hulk seems to be still stuck at American Civil War.

‘Which part of American Civil War? Has Lincoln been assassinated yet?’

‘No,’ Hulk replies.

‘Well, then assassinate him soon. What are you waiting for?’

Everybody laughs. Hulk remains serious. The prospect of assassinating Lincoln does not cheer him up.

‘Open the Big Questions booklet. Turn to the page, Do miracles really happen?

Tamoghna raises his hand. He is a new student in our class. His father recently got transferred to the nearby Bakreshwar Thermal Power Township.

‘Sir, which subject is this?’

This question stumps me. The Big Questions booklet contains questions like,

  • Are rich people happier?
  • Will it be good to live forever?
  • Are the great stories like Mahabharata or Illiad true?
  • Why do wars happen?

Now, which subject is this, really? I understand Tamoghna having a problem with our approach. Till class IV, he studied in an ICSE board school in Kolaghat, another thermal power township. Like all schools, there must have been rigid routines and clear subject boundaries. If we are doing something in school, it must be under one of those subjects, right? How exactly should I make a child understand that in real-life, problems do not come neatly packaged in narrow subject boundaries?

‘Tamoghna, in this booklet we discuss topics which are not directly under any subject, but still important enough to discuss. Broadly, you can consider this a combination of history, science, philosophy and economics.’

Tamoghna’s face lights up. Looks like in this school I’m getting to study more subjects than I did in my old school, his expression seems to say.

More subjects are always better — this is a lesson I learnt of late. In the parent-teacher meetings, a standard question is, ‘In this school, kids seem to be studying English most of the times — what about other subjects?’

‘Yes, when will history and geography be introduced?’ an eager mother of an LKG child speaks up.

Suddenly, there is a clamour for history, geography, science, computers — as early as possible.

‘In the XYZ public school, they teach computers right from class I,’ somebody says.

‘And St Xaviers school has eleven subjects, including moral science,’ another person says.

I let them speak for some time. Finally, they look up at me expectantly, waiting for an answer.

‘How do you expect them to study any subjects at all, if they do not first learn the language well? Right after you were born, did you study geography? Or you just learnt to understand and speak Bangla? For them, English has to be like their mother tongue. If they cannot read English fluently, how will they read history? In which language?

‘And what is the hurry? The board prescribes that social science and science are introduced only from class VI. Primary level, till class V, is a time to prepare the child. They should learn to speak, read, write. They should develop a logical and analytical mind. That’s all the goal we should have till class V. Other subjects must come after that.’

‘But at least computers can be taught earlier, no?’ a father of a class I student asks, hopeful that at least one more subject will be added to the measly list of English, Math and Environment Science. Only three subjects? How awful is that? My neighbour’s kid is learning double of that.

Double, yes. Learning? No.

‘Yes, you can teach painting in computer, or playing games. But if you have to teach something real, like using internet, or using MS Office — then we must wait till their language skills are better and they are more mature.’ I answer.

‘Yes, in the other school they only teach them to paint during the computer class,’ he sheepishly admits.

I know this is not the end of it. In the next parent-teacher meeting, the same questions will be asked. May be by the same set of parents, may be by some other group. Sometimes I feel like recording my replies to the standard questions of homework, textbooks, more subjects. Well, you have a question about homework? Let me press button one on this record-player. About textbook? Let me press button two.

Founder, The Levelfield School. Writes on education and society.