Out of the Box:  Homeschooling in the 1980s when it was looked upon with scorn and skepticism

(Author’s note: “With our schools cancelled due to Covid-19, homeschooling has become a trend and a solution so that our students’ education may go on. As one of the pioneers of homeschooling in Dipolog,  I wish to share our homeschooling experience in the 1980s when it was looked upon with scorn and skepticism in our once, small and relatively conservative city.
“This was written a couple of years back .. Not many may wish to read it but I share this now for the mothers who are homeschooling due to this surreal global pandemic.”
The author divided this long piece into five parts and started posting the series on her Facebook page on March 29, 2020.  A year later, she-reposted this as an FB memory. MindaNews was granted permission to publish this)

DIPOLOG CITY (MindaNews / 04 April) — My children’s school is not a box. Their primary education started on a sprawling mini forest of mahogany and coconut trees, along with some wild and ancient trees in the island of many promises, Mindanao. Their classroom extended beyond our tiny nipa hut perched on a grassy slope. This home, built by my husband, had balconies on three sides overlooking clusters of bamboo trees, a vegetable garden, a crudely dug well, and a duck and fishpond replenished by a slow- dripping spring. The constantly blowing north wind carried with it a suffusion of fragrances and odors from the rosal hedges and the sampaguita bush, some ripe and rotting fruits in season, and a whiff of mud from carabao puddles.

Having been immersed in city life while in college, living in a barrio found us syncopated in a contrasting tempo. Far from the maddening noise of the city and with no electricity, the cacophony of sounds was an entirely different symphony. Blaring jeepney music and juke boxes, sirens and honking cars were delightfully replaced by chattering birds and the cool hum of rasping cicadas accented by mooing cows, bleating goats and croaking frogs. Even the drumbeaters of the soil, the lowly earthworms, joined in with an incessant whirr in the night.

The nipa hut built by the author’s husband. “My children’s classroom,” she said. Photo by DIDI ROMANO

In this restful milieu, we were encamped in our huge mosquito net by sundown along with our valued possessions – a King James Bible, a Yamaha guitar, a flashlight, a stainless steel Sony transistor radio, and a jungle bolo in its leather scabbard. With the quaint moon and some glinting fireflies as our night lamps, the sounds of numerous insects, unseen and unnamed, lulled us into a tranquil repose.

The cock’s crow was our alarm clock to start our day as we rolled our “buli”-woven sleeping mat. Shaking off the crisp chilliness of dawn, each of us had a coconut husk to scrub our few square feet of the antique floors of alternately-lined deep, dark Bayong and light-yellow Molave.

Fishing for tilapia down the fishpond for our daily meals seemed more like an adventure than a morning chore; so was gathering dried coconut fronds for firewood and picking some ripe mangoes or santol that had fallen off along the way. With wide-eyed wonder, the children checked the hens for eggs, catching the still warm and soft ovoids before the air could harden them.

This rustic backdrop is where my children learned not just their ABCs, do-re-mis and 1- 2-3s but also art and nature appreciation, an understanding of the eco-system, the word of life which is the bible, and certain life skills that are never taught in schools. Squatting on the shiny wooden floors of our nipa hut surrounded by fruit trees and hearing the merry tweeting of birds was an ordinary classroom setting for my children.

As the human brain was wittingly divided into the left and right hemisphere, so we believe that education should nurture not just the one side of the brain which deals with academics from mathematics to the sciences. Our system has neglected the right side of the brain from whence forth come the arts and music that feed the soul; undermining the creativity and imagination that have ushered in many inspiring and stimulating masterworks that have enriched human kind. Ought not we develop one and not leave the other undone?

Devising our own curriculum

Independently homeschooling our children meant that we could devise our own curriculum aiming for a balanced education. With academics in the morning, we had the whole afternoon devoted to art, music, home economics and play. But play was present even in their math, reading and sciences.

Fueling the child’s playful heart, homemade flashcards were read while clambering up on a guava or a balimbing tree. The multiplication table was made effortless and fun to learn as we set it to the tune of nursery rhymes. “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” had new lyrics of 2, 4, 6, 8…; “Are You Sleeping?” with 3, 6, 9, 12… ; “Row, Row Your Boat” with 4, 8, 12, 16… and so on.

It was always sung while swaying to and fro on a hardy wooden swing with its thick abaca ropes tied on to a sturdy Mahogany branch. What once took me a year of repetitive chanting and memorizing was learned in just a week of swinging and singing in this invigorating setting.

Swinging through a multiplication table on the swing with eldest son Dandi and daughter Miracle waiting for her turn. Photo by DIDI ROMANO

Spurring their love for reading started when they were babies. Letters A, B, C were hung right above the bedroom window; D, E, F, on the door; G, H, I, in the kitchen. The whole alphabet cut out from old calendars and mounted on cardboards decorated our house in strategic places where baby would surely pass by. Giving the sound of each letter became a game which baby looked forward to each day.

Teaching my children to read did not end when they learned to read words and groups of words at the age of three. Reading activities had to be initiated. It was a game of taking turns, first me and then the child. We read word per word alternately till it became sentence per sentence, then paragraph by paragraph, progressing into chapter by chapter, till the child found pleasure reading children’s classics at an early age alone. This daily reading exercise was done with one of the few books on hand, our bible in the old Shakesperean English of “thous,” “yeas” and “nays.”

Back then, books were a scarcity but we had a dog-eared paperback copy of “Pepe and Pilar” and the hard-bound “Jack and Judy” browned from three generations of use. We drooled over the laminated and fully illustrated children’s books of our moneyed friends in the city. But then, we had the public library. During those pre-Google times, the public library was an effectual tool for literacy. It was our window of knowledge beyond our pastoral environs.

No piece of cardboard or paper with a blank space at the back was ever wasted in our household. We recycled all the calendars, posters, even election flyers and receipts for writing, drawing and sketching. Although matchless was our parents’ resourcefulness way back in World War II, when they used the back of the waxy banana leaves as paper.

Choosing our own textbooks, making our own workbooks

Home schooling gave us leeway to choose our own textbooks, make our own workbooks and exercises, and formulate science projects. It relieved us the dilemma of using error-filled books which we personally have come across in many textbooks used in school. Complaints from parents and teachers have come from different parts of the country about these inaccuracies on textbooks ironically called “learning materials.” An expatriate parent in Cebu, once brought to Congress factual errors in his child’s science textbook.

Reports of one thousand and three hundred errors found in an English textbook is baffling. It is pathetic that we offer our school children books with grammatical, typographical, factual and conceptual errors. Of course, the Department of Education urges everyone to report these errors after having distributed thousands or even over a million of these error-filled books. Don’t we have qualified editors who can make a thorough review before even printing? It is no surprise that the textbook business is booming with a constant supply of new sets of books every year or two. Before the mistakes could even be corrected, the textbooks are changed with another set of errors.

In ancient Greece, during the time of Pythagoras, the mathematician and philosopher, mathematics and music were taught hand in hand, seeing the mystical importance of both fields. It is lamentable that the Department of Education has abolished music as a single subject, even art. The time allotted for these areas of learning that enhance our children’s souls and harness their creative capabilities is one hour, once a week, all rolled into one subject, the MAPE ( Music, Art and Physical Education ). How much music and art can one teach in this lopsided curriculum?

Many western hits are slowly effacing our once treasured folk songs which we used to sing in our classrooms. Our schoolchildren could readily sing a Justin Bieber tune but hardly a Filipino folk song. We haven’t been taught enough to value our culture and heritage. It is no wonder that our architects, engineers and real estate developers can unrepentantly demolish heritage homes and buildings without regard for the art and legacy of an era gone by.

Tanduay bottle xylophone

When my daughter started making her own songs at three years old, I decided it was time to teach her note-reading. With hardly any money to buy books or any musical instrument for that matter, we engineered a bottle xylophone. My brother-in-law who drank Tanduay every day, played a vital role as we gathered enough of his empty flat rum bottles to make two chromatic octaves of tinkling notes. Putting in different measures of colored water in each bottle and hanging them on a solid Yakal frame, we had created a musical instrument where the children learned the rudiments of music. With the tongs of a toy xylophone, they glissandoed away to their hearts’ delight blending with the clacking geckos on the ceiling and the chirping mayas in the fields. Using my old piano books, they learned notes and chords till our bottle chimes could no longer contain multiple chords and notes beyond two octaves.

So, boldly I went to my father entreating him, “Dad, if you give me your piano, I won’t care if I had any more inheritance.”

The piano was delivered at our doorstep. That was when I started teaching piano to my children and years later, to hordes of other children.

Synchronizing our English and Filipino lessons was a timesaver. We introduced the same concept in English and translated it into Filipino. Studying nouns, verbs, and other parts of speech were paralleled in English and Filipino. Writing five sentences in English and Filipino every day became an effective exercise in teaching grammar and developing their writing skills. Under the tutelage of my artist husband, I had to unlearn my coarse penmanship and re-learn cursive writing so I could, in turn, teach the elegant Palace Script to my children. After all, life is a process of learning, unlearning and re-learning.

Every day was a field trip

This mini-sanctuary where my husband planted two-hundred mahogany trees as I was expecting our eldest son offered opportunities for valuable lessons on the ecosystem and natural sciences. Although we had to bring the children to a science laboratory in a nearby school once in a while, this bio diverse setting was an open laboratory.

Every day was a field trip. Beetles, dragonflies, and grasshoppers became ordinary science specimens. My little son swore that he could see and hear ants talk and communicate head to head, even engaging in war against another ant colony and leaving heavy casualties. Lasting fun was found more in a pail of hermit crabs than battery-operated toys that came as Christmas presents from ninongs and ninangs.

Heart-stopping experiences with snakes were many like that early dawn when a snake slithered inside our bedroom sending us all to scamper away and leaving it alone trapped inside our mosquito net; or that time Didi, my husband, was face to face with a huge cobra trapped in the fishnets or that day it joined us for lunch under our table. Snakes can be sly pretending to turn around but as soon as Didi turned his back, it came back at him. But our Protector never slumbers.

Starry nights became tools for studying constellations and heavenly bodies revealing not only stars and planets but even satellites moving in a figure of 8. In this, our rural hideaway where artificial lights could not interfere, the heavens were brighter and the majesty of creation was more visible.

Full moon was a mystifying display of nature when the celestial moon led the predators to their prey. Full moon occurrences like the waning squeal of a mouse as it whimpers into a snake’s esophagus, some fluttering bats feasting on the ripe papayas, and friendly palm-sized turtles appearing in the puddles were as educational as a National Geographic page coming alive.

A pair of snakes mating is a fascinating scene to behold as they writhe and peck each other intertwined and hissing erect above the cogon grass. These things you just can’t learn in school.

One day in her out-of-bounds meandering, my four-year-old daughter excitedly told us that she saw a huge spotted red flower larger than her in the woods nearby.

“What did the leaves look like?” I asked.

“There were no leaves, Ma.”

Growing up to be a voracious reader, my daughter later found out that what she saw was a Rafflesia, the world’s largest flower, three to four feet wide with spots, but without leaves, blooming unpredictably like mushrooms for a day or two in a year.

Enriching experiences

The lack of money did not deprive our children from enriching experiences. We would all ride on a motorbike to the beach once or twice a week with our sand sculpting paraphernalia, malong and breakfast in hand, and build elaborate sandcastles at low tide. When the high tide came and slowly toppled our belabored piece de resistance, it was then that the children’s tender hearts experienced a palpable sense of loss and understood the stark reality of the temporariness of things.

Tobogganing (padidit, as we called it) down the grassy hill on a coconut frond was a favorite pastime with visiting cousins and friends. Even climbing a tall coconut tree became a life goal for my eldest son which he fulfilled on his sixth birthday. Too terrifying for me, I never allowed it again. At least he got one birthday wish fulfilled, the others were just impossibly far out like having a pet elephant at one time, and an anteater and sea otter in his earlier birthdays. They never saw the Tarzan movie but they knew what it was like to spring from one tree branch to another. Husking a coconut and grating it were practical feats they had to learn.

We were graced with an in-house manufacturer of custom-made toys from Roman helmets, shields, marionettes and dollhouses complete with all the trimmings. My youngest son thought his Papa could make a real spaceship in time for his birthday.

Papa was the painting maestro as each of us, equipped with easel and palette, mimicked nature’s display of light, colors and shades on canvas. Our ground being of clay gave opportunity to crude pottery-making and sculpting.

Happy, healthy pace

Homeschooling our children meant a happy, healthy pace amiss in our present educational system. Our schools are stealing away the joy of learning as they flood students with a spate of assignments that leave the child no time to breathe and unwind.

‘Fishing for lunch’ sculpture by husband Didi, eldest son Mario and daughter Miracle.

Students in traditional schools are over burdened with unnecessary and impractical projects that cannot increase their IQ a bit. With no regard for the students’ well-being, too many achievement and qualifying examinations are administered that half or more of their time is spent reviewing for these tests. More for the glory of the school and the teachers, they push the students to get good scores, studying and memorizing under pressure. After the examinations, it becomes a relief for students to flush out all data that had strained them. They end up unlearned and the tedious exercise becomes futile.

My niece in Grade II was distraught when they were assigned to type and submit fifty Christmas songs. How does one expect an eight-year-old to type or print by herself, let alone fifty Christmas songs? Cut-out projects leave the students no choice but to deface and ruin glossy pages of books and magazines. And to what end?

Being a piano teacher to many grade schoolers, I feel their woes and daily struggles. One day, my seven-year-old pupil was in tears exclaiming,

“I have twelve assignments to make tonight!”

Isn’t it unsettling to find a grade two student wish that it were the end of the world in desperation over too much assignments? The assignments are beyond their capacity. They would need to have an adult to assist them and procure the materials for those thoughtlessly-given projects. It is teaching them to be dependent.

Stressed and Distressed

Pity our worn-out students, who have to sit through at least an hour of tutorials after an exhausting day at school. Why do our students need tutors after school? Isn’t this indicative of  the kind of educational system that we have?

Once in an inter-island ferry, we chanced upon three Atenean researchers and overheard them. “Nakakatakot educational system natin ngayon. Panay input, walang retention.” (Our educational system today is alarming – all input, no retention.)

Instead of producing a wholesome well-being, our system is creating a generation of stressed-out and distressed pupils. At an early age, they are overwhelmed with heavy books that have to be borne by trolley bags. We might be too intent in teaching academics that a pre-schooler learns fractions even before learning to tie a shoelace.

Sadly, with industrialization as a goal, our students have become disconnected from the things that matter most. Family time is diminished. Even our schoolchildren have to beg for their much needed play time. How many of these students would have time to sit and appreciate the magnificent alchemy of a setting sun or a glorious sunrise? Even in the 1800s, Henry Thoreau had warned that we teach students to see through telescopes and microscopes, but we do not teach them to see with their eyes.

It is reasonable for a college student majoring in a chosen field to be plagued with schoolwork, but our little pupils burnt out at seven years old is unwholesome. The buds are shriveled even before they could bloom.

“We are here to teach you attitudes”

Finland has the highest success rate in its educational system. They only start formal schooling with children at seven years of age, which allows the child to grow and play, learn life skills before tackling academics. Amazingly, they give no assignments to take home. Still, they maintain high standards of education with a carefully-planned curriculum which creates a right and happy attitude towards learning. In Japan, pre-schoolers are taught respect, love for nature, cleanliness and order. No quizzes or examinations are given to students below eight years old. The quality of their education is reflected in the order evident in their society and the honorable attitudes among their people.

What values are we teaching in school if bribery seeps through the department as we hear of new public school teachers buying their appointments with a hefty 150,000 pesos despairingly borrowed from loan sharks that hound the teachers thereon? Even elementary student council elections have reports of vote-buying.

The valued Christian principles of humility, honesty and love are taken over by a fierce competition to the top among our students.

On our first day of classes with beloved Professor Francisco Arcellana, he emphasized, “We are here to teach you attitudes,” – an embodiment our educators could emulate. But what attitudes are they teaching in school now? Our system has led our students to dread school. They have quenched the enthusiasm to study and learn, hampered the creativity of our children and hindered the imaginations of potential artists. They have neglected the soul, which is the very essence of our being.

Planting, cultivating the huge garden and vast fields of your child’s mind

Planting and cultivating the huge garden and vast fields of your child’s mind is a privilege and a great responsibility. It is something that one cannot pass on in ink and paper as in a will. It is something more enduring than that. Like a breastfeeding Mom who must stay close so she can fully nourish her baby, so should a homeschooling mother. If I had chosen comfort and ease , I’d be sending my three children to school, kissing them off cheerfully in the morning and receiving them with an eager embrace, calm and composed at the end of the day. But no, after a day of homeschooling, I ‘d need a good bath.. tussled hair, sweaty face and muddy feet… down by the well with a clear spring slowly trickling on the ferns and wild grass by the sides…sweet waters to wash off a day’s toils and challenges.

With all the strains and restraints, homeschooling is not all merriment and play. With discipline comes moments of tension and times of chastening and correction. It can be a test of wills and a battle of emotions. It means giving up a lucrative job in the city and forsaking personal pleasures like reading a book, long afternoon naps, and prettifying oneself. Once during the important event of the opening of my husband’s art exhibit, baby and bag in hand, I realized that I had a different shoe on each foot. Or that time I was seriously conversing with the mayor and some VIPs only to find out later that my blouse was inside out. I barely had time to look into our small mirror. Taking a sweet short nap one afternoon, my 5-year-old son shook me and woke me out of a much needed rest. And I said to myself, “It’d better be important.” His query? “Ma, kinsay gapatay ni President Magsaysay?” (Who killed President Magsaysay[1957]?)

“Could they speak English?”

Homeschooling is a prayerful journey lugging the disapproval of elders and bearing the scorn as if homeschooling were a crime. The townspeople in this small and once conservative community were appalled by this unconventional idea. It was something strange and objectionable to them. It was the talk of the town that left me sobbing, feeling like an outcast. They considered it a disgrace to my parents’ profession, my father having been a high official at the regional office of the Department of Education, a dean in graduate school, and my mother a college teacher. They pleaded, “Don’t be selfish! You are depriving your parents the joy and pride of pinning medals on your children at the end of the schoolyear.”

When meeting gossipy housewives at the market, they had this cunningly phrased conversation which always led to the children’s schooling.

“Could they speak English?”
“What about their socialization?”

Blessed to belong to a big clan, interacting with more than a dozen cousins came naturally. For what use is it keeping company with children not taught good manners and using foul language? Isn’t socializing learning to appreciate one’s culture and showing respect to other humans? Is it not learning to live peaceably with others and being able to follow the law?

We have enough of society’s schooled brats who could not respect parents; who have difficulty uttering a “please” and a “thank you”; who bully whom they could; who are unable to follow even simple traffic rules. We have so-called “highly-educated” and sociable politicians with their integrity in question.

Once, in a children’s party, one child whispered maliciously to other children, “Wala mana silay eskwela-eskwela.” (They are unschooled.) To the chagrin of my children, all the other children took their toys and shunned away.

Homeschooling without the stigma

But that was in the 1980s. Three decades passed before our community could grasp the idea of homeschooling. Many mothers are now enthusiastically asking about it and a few families are really starting to homeschool without the stigma that we, as pioneers, once bore.

My father’s colleague, who was a retired school superintendent from the Department of Education inquired on us one day. She was scouting for a good school in our regions for her granddaughter and realized that she could not find any, so, home-schooling became an option. Coming from a top official from the education bureau, this speaks a lot about our educational system.

One weekend, my teen-age niece came to visit and blurted out, “It’s so boring at home!” She was genuinely surprised when I told her, “Out here, we never get bored,” I retorted.

“We even wish we had more time to do the things we desire to do.”

In a home with literature, music, and arts, dead space is given life, the senses are kindled and boredom becomes taboo.

A long way

Nowadays, I sit back gratified, contentedly thanking the Lord as I sip my turmeric tea relishing the soulful strains of “Bayan Ko” from my youngest son Misha’s violin. Well, his violin is made in China but to his mother, he makes it sound like it were made in heaven. This homeschooled probinsiyano had won the grand prize of the National Music Competition for Young Artists in violin in 2016.

Our neighbors would either be cursed or blessed depending on how they take our evening concerts as my eldest son and only daughter frolic away on two pianos with a Gershwin Rhapsody, a Rachmaninoff and a Tchaikovsky Concerto or a Paganini Caprice, joined in by our youngest on the violin and at times Papa’s saxophone and guitar.

The graduates of our homespun Tanduay bottle xylophone have come a long way from Chopsticks to Bach; from the open-air gigs harmonizing with warbling robins and sparrows to the cavernous halls of the cultural centers of Cebu, Manila, and abroad, this time, not with mayas and crickets but an orchestra to accompany them. From Pepe and Pilar, they can now readily spend their extra money on a Dostoevsky, a set of Prousts or a Pamuk.

Missing our jungle-book days, my eldest son leaves for work in the morning as a manager of a reputable hotel and comes home late in the evening, not climbing coconut trees but long flights of stairs in the hotel, his cooking skills tested when a chef in one hotel outlet absents himself unannounced. Unlike his early childhood when quiet tears would fall when I forbade him to read any book till house chores were done, he now reads all he could. He is fully resigned not to own any elephant, anteater or sea otter but an adorable toy poodle, Bibi, whom I suspect enjoys digesting the books oozing from my son’s bookshelves.

My daughter and my right hand teaches piano and violin in our home studio. Her evocative writing takes us vicariously on her meanderings now extending beyond oceans and continents. Drawn to the Japanese Suzuki method of nurturing music with love, she became the first and only certified Suzuki International piano teacher in Mindanao,(update: there is one in Davao now) and has a long waitlist of aspiring students. Her musical compositions are not confined to the two octaves of our homemade xylophone but soars higher than the 88 keys of our piano. Fulfilling her childhood wish to be left alone in the kitchen, she concocts savoury meals and brews excellent espresso not to be easily forgotten.

My youngest son, Misha, has brought us to foreign lands with his violin. God has favored us with this gift and the delight he gets in making music and honing it through countless hours of practice. Being the family jester, he charms us with his own sense of humour as he mimics sounds and characters, doing tricks so suavely by the sleight of his hand. He continues to surprise us with his cooking and mystifies us with his extraordinarily-done sketches. We didn’t know we lacked him until he came 15 years later.

The erstwhile scoffers who thought my children did not know English, are now leisurely reading my daughter’s column at the editorial page of the Mindanao Observer.

The tittle-tattling housewives who hounded us before have long been quiet. The skeptical but sympathetic people are now enrolling their children and grandchildren in our studio where we hope to impart not only lessons on art and music but a zest for life and knowledge.

Art and music, life and wisdom

From homeschooling three children, our home is now a hub for dozens of fragile minds whose souls need to be nourished not just with art and music but with things pertaining to life and wisdom. As John Steinbeck says, “Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”

God has heard the silent weeping and weary sighs of a mother reproached for giving what she thought was best for her children. The sacrifices and the things we had to relinquish as pioneering homeschooling parents are now recompensed.

We have shortcomings, weaknesses and inadequacies that could only be filled in by love and forgiveness. But let not these be the reasons to not exhaust all the resources and capabilities within reach. Let it not stop you from giving all you can. This is the earthly investment I chose to pour my energies on… the treasure field and legacy I pass on to my children.

Out of the box, we were unchained from a curriculum insensitive of the psychological and spiritual well-being of our children. The quality family time that busy parents and rich business people dream about is not a myth in our home.

Out here, the children know that the things visible are ephemeral and could easily be washed away by all sorts of surging tides in a twinkling of an eye. Here, we fashion worthwhile values that our children may never lose their souls. In this our school, which is also our home, the quest for knowledge and wisdom is like a heartbeat that stops only when it dies.

[Marietta Dalman-Romano of Dipolog City, a homeschooling mom and piano teacher,  finished AB Journalism at the University of the Philippines in Diliman]