Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Lady Shri Ram College Visit 2018

From Dec 1st to the 6th, students of education from Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi came to visit Southpoint, to observe our pedagogical methods and philosophical approach in practice.

See more pictures on our Facebook page!

A number of our teachers gave presentations on different aspects of our work at NIRMAN. Below is a report by one of the LSR students, Simran Sharma, on one such teacher presentation, by Harshita Wadhwa Shetty.

Presentation by Harshita Wadhya Shetty, Practitioner
report by Simran Sharma, student, LSR

Vidyashram-The Southpoint School was established in 1990. It has three main aims: Integration, nurture love for learning; create lifelong learners, imbibe the spirit of oneness; interconnection with all life forms. Pioneers, entrepreneurs, scientists, explorers. The classes are truly inclusive. Reading and writing are used as tools to empower learners. Through various teaching-learning activities, the school nurtures Minds to think constructively and bodies to work thoughtfully. Students are encouraged to engage in innovative tasks like creating an art gallery.

Learners are expected to do hands-on tasks like farming and composting under guidance. All this is done to allow them to gain a sense of ownership. They are also provided exposure for instance people from across the globe interact with the learners here. Music and singing classes are also held to keep students close to their cultural heritage and traditional roots.

The teacher is more of a facilitator. She/he accepts each child is an individual and has a mind of her own. She is flexible, open to learning, observes and grows, reads and researches, introspects in her own methods, develops patience, compassion and empathy, has the same energy as her children, discusses, debates and learns from her peers and her children, uses the limited resources and creates the best environments for her children. Parents are seen as partners in this voyage of learning.

Students experience success in varied ways. They can voice their opinion. They can talk and write in English, Hindi and their native language confidently. They know how to structure their own time. They work on academic projects and experience it from start to finish, for example, creating their own books themselves, farming in a small piece of land to selling organic produce, upcycling products and selling them, planning a play area and creating it with available resources, read stories and make plays out of them with reimagined plots. Children through these varied exposures realize their hidden potential and consider themselves as entrepreneurs sometimes involved in running their own business.

Harshita Wadhya Shetty is a practitioner at Vidyashram, provides us an insight about role of a teacher as a facilitator. She incorporated her experience as a teacher (class 1st and 2nd) in an alternative school setting. An important role of the teacher is to integrate every child in his/her classroom irrespective of gender, class, caste, religion or ethnicity and acknowledging the differences likewise her students vary in terms of socio-cultural and economic background as well. A teacher should inculcate various resources and apply different pedagogic strategies such as story telling, project-based learning to enhance his/her teaching while emphasising on hands on experience for the children for the all round development of mind and body. For instance, as project students were provided with piece of land where they sowed seeds, cultivated the plant and finally sold it in the fair. A teacher should know to manifest and utilise the energy of children constructively, there can be yoga, art and craft or music sessions to channelize their energy without restricting their mobility. Discipline can’t be imposed on students, a teacher should be flexible enough to provide the student with freedom in certain area and let the students take the onus of work or responsibility on them, in such a manner providing a scope for self-discipline. The classroom teaching must be in continuation with the child’s home environment then only a child would be able to learn without finding contradiction of ideas. For this the teacher and the parents should know about the activities at school and at home ,working as partners in nurturing the child then only it can be a successful process. At last she directed her speech for future teachers as it is important to understand that the willingness to work should come from within. As a successful teacher is one who is flexible , learn to monitor his/ her growth, introspects own methods and then only it would be justice to be teacher.

At the end of the session Prof. Farida Khan concluded it by putting some relevant questions for teacher educators and student teacher. This is the way education should be, why there is need of alternative schooling, why it can’t be mainstream. There is need to cater the diversity but firstly uniting the small groups so that they can be accommodated into larger ones. In a country like India where there is gradation of hierarchy i.e. hierarchy within a social group there is need to break that hierarchy by providing quality education and at the same time catering the diversity. There is a need to understand that schools are the microcosms of the larger society so the challenges at this level and the changes they can make, are to go beyond the classrooms. In recent times education has become the tool of indoctrination so it has become a challenge in itself for the educators to question the larger social values.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The meaning of empathy

The biggest challenge for educators is that they are all adults. Their clients, if we playfully use the business model for education in passing, are children. Adults and children are akin to two species—they have little in common. They are not natural allies; rather, they regard each other with distrust and suspicion. On top of this, the product in our business model is also children, educated, cultured and civilised children. 

No wonder adults’ imaginations fail them in their attempt to deal with children. No wonder they have to train so hard, work so hard, worry so much, remain tense, in their dealings with children. Adults know more about the workings of air and sky, outer space and ocean depths, than they know of what children are.

And yet, curious fact, every adult has been a child once. If we use the metaphor of a different species, each adult is an exemplar of the process of evolution where they emerge from one state into another and then break the bond. How should we ensure that we can stay in touch with the previous stage or avatar that we were? How should we empathise with the child—empathise in its dictionary meaning of putting ourselves in the shoes of? How does one possibly feel like a child again—that creature who is merely zero to eighteen, when one is in one’s thirties, forties, fifties or sixties?  

Here are the ways.

First. Stop playing the role of “the figure of authority.” It is just a role. Even at the best of time, when you are habituated to saying, “this role has to be played,” you are probably wrong. There are many other ways to rule and administer, to control and to discipline. Management specialists tell us that even in a corporation, authoritarianism, or “boss management” is not a good leadership style. Interactive techniques and democratic processes are guaranteed to be more successful in getting your, the boss’s or manager’s, job done. That’s with adults. With children, you can calculate a further success several times greater by using non-authoritarian tactics. So, in case you thought that playing the role of supreme authority was essential and that’s why you did it, you can relax because there is no need to play the role.

I feel like telling you about my mother. She was beautiful, charming, elegant, a sensitive soul. She had been married at sixteen, her studies cut short, and become a mother at twenty. Somewhere along the line she had picked up what seemed to her an unalterable truth: an adult had to be a figure of authority to the child. Consequently, from the time I knew her, from her at 20 years to her at 85, she acted out the role of a stern figure who was wise and firm, who seldom smiled and never laughed, who could be counted on to advise and support, who knew more than she conveyed, who had secrets she could never share, who was doomed to be always the weary head that wore the crown.

I say all this humorously now, but while growing up, how I wished she could be happy and playful, talk more, share more, laugh a little and joke even once. I knew she was all these things inside. But it was as if she had a script in hand and that told her to play this role of a strict and unbending mother-figure.

Many teachers are like this. They are perfectly sensitive and humane individuals inside but in their classes and with their students, they suspend their better judgement and play-act as if they were forbidden to be themselves.

Stop playing that role.

Second. Refresh your mind about children. Even if you are in your twenties and not your sixties, you may have already forgotten how you felt, what you thought, and why you worried about (now, in retrospect) trifles, when you were a child. There may be some ages you cannot remember at all, some you can remember very selectively, and many that you would rather blot out even further, and completely. Whatever the case, if now your work is with children, it behooves you to do some professional work. The world is teeming with stories about children, artistic depictions of them, and theories and hypotheses about them. Acquaint yourself with these.

I sat in an outdoor park-like place today with water fountains and benches. Because it is a serene surroundings and today was a nice day, many children were playing around. Their parents sat among themselves and the children formed knots and groups that formed and un-formed, doing some things together, some not. I could overhear some of their talk. Without going into detailed reconstructions, suffice it to say that nothing that two, say, eight-year old boys were saying to each other bore the slightest resemblance to adult talk. They inhabited another world.

If you read portions of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, you cannot help but feel your hair stand  on end with the sheer intensity of empathy she displays for her two seven-year old characters, Rahel and Estha. Their preoccupations, their worries and insecurities, their need for love, their pleasures and their longings—they are truly from outer space and the depths of the ocean. Please simply pick up the book for a few hours, and be transported to this distant world.

Very few adults can thus reconstitute a child’s world—but enough for us to not have an excuse for not picking up their books. My very favourite is Mr Pip by Lloyd Jones, in which an adult Mr Watts takes over the informal teaching of young Pacific Islanders after a war, and as he reads day after day from Great Expectations, each child processes the story being read differently, each entering their own imaginary world. Old classics, such as Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White force you to suspend disbelief in a fundamental way and share in the child’s—apparently—experience of animals speaking. And what about Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH? That unforgettable story by Robert O’Brien of rats and mice doing brilliant things? All fantasy literature requires you to seriously consider that, adult though you may be, you don’t know everything. There are some things—many things—that children know readier and better than you do.

This, I cannot emphasise enough, is the big,important lesson in empathy to be learnt by adults. “Adulthood” does not mean superior knowledge of all kinds, all the time, over “childhood.” The most ordinary child, it’s probably no exaggeration to say, has a more vivid imagination than the most poetic adult.

The third way is to play the role of learner. 

The fourth way is to understand the huge, profound meaning of “play” itself.

But these deserve a blog to themselves. Look out for my next one very soon!

- Nita Kumar, Director

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Ursula Le Guin and Amish Tripathi

Ursula Le Guin died a few days ago and I took up her books to read and re-read. Amish, as he calls himself, was announced as visiting nearby and I was teaching the Ramayana so I re-read his The Scion of Ikshvaku. Some thoughts.

What is wonderful about Ursula Le Guin’s writing is that it is loaded with detail. Not as in Arundhati Roy, hammer, hammer, hammer. But as in the best of realist fiction, with a little verb here and an adjective there. At the same time, it is not the no-nonsense self-important realism of a Bharati Mukherjee, Ernest Hemingway, American creative writing class. “The lane was dark. I stumbled along.” She would rather say, “The night was smoky with darkness. He stumbled along, bone-weary, expecting no light to shine through the darkness, yet with a flicker of hope in his heart.”

That brings me to my second point. She uses warm, intimate words and phrases: the heart, the legs, water, land, fire. Not in  he ways they could also be used in science fiction, to denote power and suggest evil or at least mystery, rather in ways that do suggest power and mystery, but as wound up in the friendliness of, or at least our comfort with, the universe.

Her work is about us. What we would also think and do under the circumstances.

So, amazingly, I do not feel alienated from Ged’s wandering around among the cold rain and snow, his battles with fierce winds and waves, his pursuit of the dark shadow over places that no one goes to—in short all those physical trials that turn me off in a James Bond adventure, or even Sherlock Holmes now. In Le Guin, the bettles with harsh conditions under no-food, no-water circumstances feel doable and definitely readable.

What is so not wonderful about Amish’s writing is that he is devoid of details. He has a stock of cardboard characters called Dashrath, Kaikeyi, Ram, Sita, etc. None of them have an ounce of life in them. They do not speak anything real or act as if they were real. Why did he not infuse them with life? Obviously he does not know how. Nor does he want to learn. He tells us in an interview that he reads non-fiction, not fiction. Compare the Wikipedia entry on J.K. Rowling, on the influences on her I believe (yes, a separate entry), in which she mentions scores of authors she likes and has learnt from and been influenced by.

Amish thinks that the plot is all. There is no question that he is inventive about the plot. His Ravana is a successful banker and trader who controls the economy of India through his sheer intelligence and purposefulness. Dashrath is a loser. Ram is condemned by the citizens of Ayodhya, and is such a stickler for rules that after he is party to the detonation of an atomic weapon to defend Mithila, he claims fourteen years of exile for himself. Sita is a warrior. The rakshasa as well as the monkeys and bears, are all humans excommunicated from mainstream society because of birth defects, and angry and keen to conspire and take revenge.

And so on. The inventiveness is intriguing. Much of the time it makes you want to read on. I have certainly read all of Amish’s books, in this case twice (it must have been so bad that it left no mark on me until I read it again and faintly recollected some parts). I can be made to read bad books, just as I eat laddus and cheap sweets on a railway platform because I need the sugar. In both cases, the thing consumed is bad without qualification. You have to be clear that it’s not the thing itself but some need in you that makes you see it through.

Amish may certainly be allowed to be a best-seller. He should just not be mistaken for “a Tolkien” or among India’s “best” or even “good” authors. The pity is both that he is not critically received and put into a context, but also, since he does not read (is not educated in his field) that he does not, can not,  acknowledge the niche he belongs to.

It is not that of Ursula Le Guin. I am sorry for Indian mythology which needs a contemporary voice sometime soon, as Celtic, Welsh, Scandinavian, etc. mythology has found.

- Nita Kumar, Director

Monday, August 21, 2017

The culture of our school

What should the culture of our school be like?

I wish first of all that they did not have to wear these grey and white uniforms. The good thing is that even our girls all wear pants.

I wish the school building did not have to have hard corners and straight walls and just look so chunky. The good thing is that there are so many trees. It is always beautifully shaded, many trees are in bloom and often spread bright flowers around on the ground. Whichever direction you look there is a haze of branches and leaves.

I wish that as soon as you entered you saw groups of children preoccupied with painting, clay and mud, gardening, playing sports, singing and so on. Certainly not sitting in straight rows or even at rounds of tables in bare-looking classrooms. In all fairness our teachers do a lot of “activities” and “projects.” The school is full of music and games. But we could have so much more and also many more specialised teachers.

I wish there was a softness to everyone’s behaviour, a genuine smile as they greeted each other, a palpable pleasure that all were together, working and playing and full of joy in life itself.

I wish that any child in the school could be asked to show a visitor around the school, because any child chosen at random would feel that the school was a family that she belonged to and that belonged to her.

I wish that if I was a visitor I would get a real surprise at cormers. Maybe someone has hung up something really interesting on a wall. Maybe a group is rehearsing an unimagined text. Maybe some children are conferring to put together a secret something. I don’t know.

I would like a lot of science on the school campus. All around—solar power and wind power and water power being harnessed in ambitious—but modest—ways and being used. Seeds being nursed and plants being protected as they grew. Everything labelled. Maybe on one side an excavation site. On another an outdoor exhibit. Somewhere an indoor one—maybe a Maths model. A machine. A tunnel. A bridge. A garden. Locking systems. Communication systems.

I imagine children walking around hand in had, in groups, in twos, excited and chattering, also quiet and thoughtful, sitting on rocks and steps, under trees and facing the river, talking and gesturing, maybe munching, laughing….When they see an adult, they do not change anything about their voice and behaviour, and the adult, if she likes, can join them.

We always wanted children to mix with each other, across sizes and ages and sexes and every other difference.That's at the heart of the culture.

The school should be a little world for them.Their own world.

We need to find so many people who love children, learning, adventure, discovery and life to come and work in our school!

- Nita Kumar, Director

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Today's Teachers' Workshop

Every Saturday we spend an hour and a half to two discussing teaching strategies. This past month I planned that we talk about one different strategy each time.

Today’s task was: Textbook Comprehension. The strategies we needed to use were: lecture, discussion, notes, and questions and answers. I conducted the workshop. I explained that when teaching in an English medium school like ours, we had to be crystal clear about the fact that a big challenge was the difficulty of the prose. English prose was what all the subjects except Maths and Hindi were in. Children’s intelligence simply could not be measured by their ability to master this prose—you could be quite intelligent and not get many of the turns of language in the textbooks.Our textbooks could be fine, even nice, in other respects, but their language was absolutely not child-appropriate. Not Indian child-appropriate.

I enacted a History teacher in Class VIII as well as conducting the Workshop as facilitator. In their notebook they made two parts. In one they wrote their notes as if  Class VIII students in my History class. In the other they wrote the teaching techniques and points I was demonstrating.

The topic was “Women in the Nationalist Movement.” The text was a chapter from Geraldine Forbes’ Women in Modern India. I photocopied it and divided the students into groups of two with one copy each to share.

We began by discussing what the “Indian Nationalist Movement” was. People gave their different ideas. They named important nationalist leaders. An argument ensued whether Bhim Rao Ambedkar should be in that list. We took a vote and had 4:5 in favour with the rest undecided.

I then told them that a number of definitions of the “Indian Nationalist Movement” were possible but that they must all have the words, “British/British colonial”; “fight/struggle”; and “Independence/freedom.” They wrote down a definition for themselves with these building blocks.

Except for two Social Studies teachers, two Hindi teachers and two Bengali teachers, no one remembered—after seventy plus years, after all—that we had been under the British and had fought for our freedom, even though 15th August was just over and children’s speeches had resounded with this memory.

I then asked them to read the first two pages quetly in their groups. As they read I went around to help them with difficult words and phrases. After that I asked them to phrase some questions.

It’s quite a feat, believe me, for people struggling with a language to actually comprehend a prose passage enough to know what is a proper question and then what is the correct answer for any idea within that passage.  At the same time, there is a trick to questions and answers and with practice you get better and better. We rehearsed together many good questions, and bad questions. Then we went into okay answers, good answers, not good answers, unnecessary answers, and impossible answers. One can do all this with children as well.

On the board I wrote down the following important teaching tools:

1. Always begin each topic interactively, with oral discussion, informal questions, argument and debate, something else like taking a vote—as we had done.

2. Then give a lecture on the subject, or some introductory part of it, and the first definitions they need to know. They should take notes. We had done this and taken a short cut at the end in the interest of time.

3. Let the read the text silently. Do not do “read aloud” reading, going around the class, such as is done so frequently in Indian classrooms. It is a waste of time because no one can pay attention, everyone is bored and the aim of the exercise is not clear. With silent reading, the teacher can circulate and help out with difficult words or concepts. I did this and was asked something by each group.

4. In classes from VI upwards, the teacher can give out a simple summary of the topic. In simple sentences, that is, subject verb object. This will ensure that the bare facts are clear enough.

5. Discuss possible questions and how a question can be framed. Did someone do something? What did they do? When and where did they do it? Why did they do it, or why do you think, or does the author think, they did it?  Was it x, or was it y? We had a very productive time (I thought) going over possible questions and answers.

I emphasized at the end what we were learning and what we were not. Today's teaching was not about a dozen possible techniques, including projects, creative writing and performance. It was only about textbook comprehension. The q&a approach we were discussing was simply how to understand the text well enough to understand questions on it and form answers from within the text.

This was a useful distinction. In a school like ours, chock-full of the arts and creative ventures, it is easy for teachers to make the mistake of not teaching enough reading, writing, comprehension, spelling, maths, etc.    

Productive--but everything will have to be done many times over again.

- Nita Kumar, Director

Friday, August 18, 2017

A Day in the Director's Life with the Littlest

The Pre-School group was so lovely. They stood in a circle and did the rhymes as I led them. They were eager to learn anything: words, tunes, rhythms, standing instructions. Only one little girl, Arya, looked exhausted and complained at regular intervals of wanting to sit down. She stopped doing anything.

There are also three or four little boys and girls who are from illiterate or semi-educated families and never hear a word of English in their background. They are convinced deep down in their minds or psyches that they cannot understand whatever it is that ma’am is saying in English. They repeat words mechanically without a glimmer of understanding in their eyes. Worse, without a hint of a smile on their faces. It was only when I said “Jump up HIGH!” in one verse that these children laughed.

When I went to Class 1-2, I could give more special attention to these three or four children who had convinced themselves that they “could not understand.” By matter-of-factly correcting their work, pointing out one mistake at a time while praising them for everything they were doing well, giving them precise homework exactly where they needed it. The matter-of-factness is the key. They must not guess, from the smallest tone of voice or gesture or raising of eyebrow, that they are not “normal,”

And actually the privileged middle class children are not "normal." S--- of wonderful middle class parents, could not write or understand, but went on comfortably asking what and how, in childish Hindi.

I am on the verge of a discovery. Most teachers will not be able to be kind enough to poor children. They will keep resenting them in their minds for daring to be equal to the rich. They will keep blaming them for their shortcomings and being sarcastic in their presence and showing helplessness behind their backs.

The only way is to shame them and break their entrenched prejudices through theatre exercises. Only then will our teachers change in a deep ideological way.

At the same time, I can keep giving research projects and homework and having discussions and quizzes about the postcolonial aspect of our work so that everyone grows intellectually.

And, of course, we can design the curriculum and the classroom and its processes with subtle egalitarianism. Everyone does not have to understand everything; they just have to do it.

- Nita Kumar, Director

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Parents’ Workshops at NIRMAN

            Parenting is obviously as old as creation. In todays volatile India, however, there are new family tensions and parental worries. These concern language use, including body language, discipline at home, socialisation into ethics and morals, interaction with school, the nitty-gritty of consumption, including of internet and TVand much else.

            In village India, and in the smaller cities of India among the lower middle classes and working classes, there is a problem. Older networks and support systems are weakened and destroyed. New techniques to teach parenting are slow to replace them. Our research with families reveals a huge lacuna. Parents are more and more concerned that they are not in controland they are not.

            The Centre for Postcolonial Education at NIRMAN is working on precisely this problem. After years of ongoing research with families in the city and village, we have launched a bi-monthly workshop series free and open to all. We use images, objects, interaction and the arts to discuss the following topics and more:

Nutrition for the child             Books and reading                  Phone and internet                  Discipline                                Storytelling                             Games and Play
Academics                              Everyday life in the house      The world

            On July 22, we had the first workshop, on The Mind of the Child. About fifty parents attended, listened, interacted and were very interested. The next one is on Aug 12, and the one after that on Aug 26, on, respectively Academics for 2-10 year olds and What should my Child be Eating?” 

             Please attend and share with any interested parents and individuals!