Newsletter – January 2016

 

Wishing all of you a year filled with innumerable moments of Creativity, Learning and Fulfillment.

Pongal Celebrations

We had a wonderful Pongal this January! Pongal is a Tamil rural cultural festival. It is also a harvest festival. The sun, cows and the natural elements are honoured and thanked this week. The accent is on community spirit and on using natural materials for all the rituals. It is a lovely time to be in Sittilingi. The only jarring note here is the newly added custom of broadcasting loud music in the temples the whole month!

In Thulir, Pongal was special this year. Everyone creating countless kolams was enjoyable as usual. We also cooked pongal together in a huge mud pot on an open fire in the courtyard. Vellachi Ammal, a respected elder and an organic farmer from Thekkanampatu village was the special guest and resource person for the day! She taught us the traditional pongal songs and Kummi dances. All the women from Thulir and the hospital wore their sarees in the traditional Sittilingi style and sang and danced together with the children!

The traditional music and dance of the tribal people in the valley has mostly disappeared from people’s memories. We hope to re-discover and preserve what is left and revive it in the school for the future generations to look back on with pride.

The Transformed Thulir Campus

Those of you who haven’t been here for some months will now find the Thulir Campus greatly changed! The old workshop and the small Thulir classroom have become residences. Two families stay there: Senthil and Rajammal with Rishi, and Ravi, and Ambika with Ishanth. Senthil and Rajammal have a thriving mixed crop garden in front of their house which has a special beauty and draws everyone’s attention. The big classroom has lost all its books and teaching materials but is still used as a classroom for the basic technology students. It also doubles up as a dormitory space for big groups of guests. The office room is a guest room now. Most of the classes are now conducted in Professor’s house, i.e. the earlier guest rooms!

Towards a New School…

Planning has begun for the new school. We are still looking for suitable land. We then have to construct the buildings as per government regulations.

As a first step we have started a small pre-school for 24 children (aged 4 and 5). Most of them are children of the staff of the hospital and Thulir. Professor Ravindran and Sri. Nagarajan have generously permitted their house to be modified and used as classrooms temporarily.

Our search for suitable land for the new school has not been successful. It almost was. We had located a suitable piece of land and we were all set for the registration. But the pre-registration survey showed many discrepancies between the actual boundary in the field and the documents. So finally the deal had to be cancelled.

Legally the Trust cannot buy tribal land. Non-tribal owned lands are few here in the valley and most of the owners live outside. That is the reason for the delay.

New Energy and Cheer

Thulir has always had children of various ages occupying it at all times of the day and night. But now for the first time we have a group of 24 young pre-schoolers the whole day. These children have brought new life to the campus! Their enthusiasm, energy, innocence, laughter, learning and play have transformed the days in Thulir.

The Basic Technology Course group

We had planned to discontinue the basic technology course for teenagers this year as well,  in order to focus our energies towards the new school. However, 5 teenagers found their way to us. Their parents insisted that even if we had no time to teach them we should at least allow them to stay on campus and take part in the work here. They have no other place to go to! All these students have not ‘dropped out’ of school. They have been perceived as ‘academically challenged’ and have been ‘persuaded’ to drop out by their teachers in the 8th/9th classes! The schools are under pressure to show ‘cent percent’ pass in the class 10 public exams.

Years of corporal and verbal punishment in the  schools has made them extremely diffident and silent. But they are a sincere and earnest group. Sakthivel is in charge of them. Though we are not able to conduct an intensive basic technology course as we did for earlier batches, the group is blooming and growing more confident, vocal, cheerful and bright! The pictures above and  below show them learning to build Nubian vaults in sun dried bricks (adobe).

 

 

Evening Classes

The evening classes have been temporarily stopped this year. We needed to focus all our energies on the new school. The government schools also function for longer hours nowadays. Teachers come more regularly and students have more tests and assignments. So the number of students coming to Thulir has also reduced. Even those that come are often exhausted after a full day of work at school.

Also, after 11 years and around 500 students, we felt we needed to stop, take a breather and reflect on this programme and assess the needs of the community instead of just carrying on!

The school working Committee

Ravi, Manjunath, Ramesh, Prema, Anu and the teachers meet at least once a month to discuss the  policies and functioning of the new school.

Further Training and Exposure for the Thulir Team

It was felt that the Thulir team members needed additional training and exposure in order to take on the huge challenge of the new school. As a first step, Senthil has shifted temporarily to the hospital for further training and exposure. He will work with Manjunath, who co-ordinates the organic farmers’ association here, to get an experience of interacting with the community and the government offices outside. He will also help the Porgai artisans’ group with their accounts, thus gaining a wider experience of different kinds of accounting.

Bamboo Flowering

The bamboo trees in Thulir and throughout Sittilingi are flowering! Bamboo flowering is a rare event that occurs every 60 to 130 years. Producing flowers and seeds requires a massive amount of energy. As a result, the bamboo plants usually die. We expect the surrounding area to look quite different afterwards. Interestingly, when a particular species of bamboo flowers, the plant relatives and ancestors of that species will flower worldwide!

Running!

Some of the government school children still continued to come in the mornings till September to train for the long runs! Senthil and Rajammal were in charge of this programme. The Thulir team participated in three running events this year.

9 of them participated in the Kaveri marathon on September 18th. Although the younger students trained for it they couldn’t participate as it coincided with their exams.

The same group participated in the Bangalore marathon on October 18th.

The younger students and the teachers participated in the Ultra marathon and ran the 12 k and the 21 k on November 8th.

New Trustee

Dr. Ravi Manohar joined the Board of Trustees as a trustee earlier this year. Dr. Ravi was in Sittilingi in 2003/2004 when Thulir started.  He then left to do higher studies in the UK and Oddanchatram.  He returned to Sittilingi with his wife Prema and daughter Varsha a few years ago. He has always been a part of Thulir’s efforts. He is now one of the main members of the group initiating the school. His 5-year-old daughter, Varsha, was one of the first students of ‘Kutty Thulir’ and now the pre-school. In October, Dr. Shylajadevi Menon stepped down as managing trustee due to health reasons and Dr. Ravi was unanimously chosen to be the new managing trustee. His addition to the Board of trustees has indeed given an impetus to the work.

Workshops on Traditional Art and Music of the Valley

Ravi’s uncle and father are from Echangadu, a village in the Kalrayan hills abutting our valley. They taught us the joys of toy-making using coconut leaves. They have also started us on bamboo basket making.

Vellachi Ammal, from Thekanampattu, has started coming once a month to teach us traditional songs and dances of the valley.

Parents’ Meetings

Education here includes educating the parents by engaging the parents in a dialogue and making them a part of their child’s educational process. If the situations and values are vastly different at home and school, the child suffers. We have had three major parents’ meetings since June.

The last one on January 7th was very positive and left all of us extremely satisfied. Parents also got a chance to use their hands and wits when they were given different jigsaw puzzles and asked to solve them. Then they were asked to give their feedback on their child’s progress. We were pleasantly surprised and happy when parents remarked that their children were now intensely curious and asked many questions. All of them said that their kids could not wait to get to school in the mornings! We went on to discuss the pros and cons of a pedagogy which concentrates on only academics versus one which integrates art, sport and physical activities with academics as it is in Thulir. Some parents complained that we take their children every Friday for a walk to the forest and that we allow them to climb trees! So a discussion on the importance of Nature education and being with Nature ensued. After this the children came out of class and put up an impressive performance for their parents. Their complete lack of stage fright impressed many parents. Then each child took his or her parents to the class and showed them all the work done so far.

We were a whole group of happy and proud parents, teachers and children that evening!

Volunteers and Visitors

As always many friends and fellow-seekers visited us over the months. As one young friend, Shankar from Delhi remarked after seeing the number of visitors we had, “I never knew you had such a hectic social life in Sittilingi! If you need solitude, please come to Delhi!”

Vijayalakshmi from Vellore volunteered in Thulir for a month before starting to study her B.Ed. She was a part of the teachers group here and took part in all the activities.

Lami, who was on a sabatical from her bank in Mayiladuthurai, volunteered in Thulir for some weeks. She helped the children with their English.

Sakthivel, a computer professional from Chennai, while volunteering in Thulir, translated many essays on Education from English to Tamil so that it could be used by the teachers here.

We were very happy to have the teachers from Marudam Farm school for a few days here. We had many interesting and stimulating discussions with them.

40 young teachers from ‘Teach for India’ visited on October 31 st. The discussions with them continued even after the session was over, with much enthusiasm.

The ultra-marathon runners group from Runners’ High came for their training weekend in September.

Ajay and Neha from Asha Bangalore came for a visit.

Ramkumar and Archana from Bangalore visited in November. They are toying with the idea of visiting Sittilingi on a more permanent basis over the coming years.

Christina and Sarah, medical students from Germany, made a slide show about Germany.

Nondiya from Nagaland and Nisha from Meghalaya took some classes for the children, taught some of their songs and talked about their homes.

Lea, a medical student from Hungary, gave a presentation on Hungary.

Franziska and Sabine, medical students from Germany, talked about their country and taught some English songs and games.

Mithun from the US also joined them for these classes. He also engaged the teachers in some conversational English classes and helped with this newsletter!

We hope to make geography more personal and engaging for the children through all these interactions with people from different countries.

 

*******************

Posted in Newsletters | Comments closed

Photo essay — recent events at Thulir

The new Thulir School was formally inaugurated on June 17th. Senthil, one of the earliest students at Thulir and now a senior staff, lights the lamp.

Parents, members of the education committee, and students  participated in this event.

A discussion on the kind of education and the values that should underpin it, followed.

Prof and Mrs Ravindran, Mrs and Mr Nagarajan have generously permitted their residences to be used as classrooms. Here you can see the bamboo work added to create a class room

children during a break

New classroom!

Thulir Alumni Jayabal, Dhanbal, Kumar and Kumar, along with Thulir staff have been working hard to get the buildings ready.

The new Reception area under construction.

Starting of the day!

Quiet time!

Activities!

Hmm, what shall I do now?

Fun outdoors.

 

Posted in Newsletters | Comments closed

update on “work and education”

As you may be aware from our previous posts, the theme of work in education has played an important role in Thulir’s activities. This post will attempt to update our activities in specific relationship to this theme and our current thinking.

Anu and Krishna were recently asked to write on this theme for Learning Curve, a magazine brought out by Azim Premji Foundation. You can access the full article at Learning curve article.

The post school programme that Thulir ran for many years [variously referred in our News letters and website as Basic Technology course/ Life skills course etc.] was a unique opportunity for us to explore the role of work in education. The idea of hands on work as part of the learning process at Thulir was introduced mainly as a way to bring in useful vocational skills. Young people [of the age group 14 to 20], we felt, would benefit by being able to acquire skills that might come in handy to make a living in the village/ local area.

Over the years, as we wanted to tailor learning to suit individuals and specific groups, we experimented with different mix of skills. So some years the emphasis was on construction skills [masonry, plumbing, electrical wiring etc.], while on other years it was on electronics, and bamboo crafts; and on still other year teaching preschool children, crafts, soap making etc. On one particular year we even tried tutoring and preparing the group only for appearing for the 10th public exam, without any hands on work. Incidentally, this was a disaster and the students did very badly, and we quickly discontinued it. In contrast, the hands on work based programme seemed to give confidence to the students to tackle academic exams which they could not earlier. Many decided to continue higher studies enrolling in class 11 in schools outside of our valley, some even at the age of 19 and 20! Some have gone on to Colleges for degree courses.

Fixing a solar water heater, designed and fabricated at TTI

During the past 2 years, we stopped the organized course at Thulir for the post schoolers. This was due to many reasons. One reason was that, parental expectations and the student peer thinking  had changed and there was a drop in number of students seeking to join the course. This is due to the perception that academic qualification is more superior to acquiring vocational related education. The aggressive canvassing for students by the numerous new private colleges around the region is a major influence.

There was also a fatigue for the teachers/ instructors after years of running the course. Changing curriculum on a yearly basis with each group and constantly finding appropriate real life work situations for their projects, and to guide the students through these or find suitable resource people, was tiring work.

The second reason was that we started a small preschool,  mainly due to the continuous pressure on Thulir to start a full time school. We also started thinking / working seriously with a group of parents/ locals who showed interest in starting a school. The idea being that a community owned school would be a more sustainable institution in the long run.

The third reason being that there was a need for the training of building artisans, as the THI hospital in Sittilingi is expanding. This meant more attention was needed for on site training. Also some of the students who finished their post school stint at Thulir were keen on pursuing training to become full time building artisans.

Training of building artisans in Sittilingi.

Murugan, a young person from Sittilingi had come to us 12 years ago and started working at construction site as helper to masons. He is a good worker and a keen learner and soon we started training him in masonry work. Over the years, he has grown in confidence and after doing several buildings in and around Sittilingi with other masons, was able to become a senior artisan and build a small team of Adivasi youngsters from this area. Over the past 2 years, this group has been able to take on full responsibility for the construction of the new Operating theater building, the Women’s dormitory building and is currently building the new Ward building, all for the THI hospital in Sittilingi. This team, given the training has been able to produce high quality  and the buildings are much appreciated by various visitors to Sittilingi.

Murugan building the New Ward building at the Hospital

While this group was being trained, Jayabal and Dhanabal, ex students of Thulir, also expressed interest in similar skills and joined the team. They started with masonry pointing work and in prefab concrete work at the women’s dormitory building and were able to produce work of good quality. They were given small masonry work around the building which gave them an opportunity to learn more. Currently their confidence levels are good and are negotiating to take on an independent project  from THI which they plan to build with the help of a couple of more youngsters from their village [also ex Thulir students]. This would be quite a challenging project for them and they will need further on site training/ hand holding that we plan to provide.

Jayabal learning to do pointing at the Women’s Dormitory building

The Tribal Technology Initiative,  a project started in Sittilingi independently has a steel fabrication workshop and has a small team taking on projects in and outside Sittilingi. They have done steel fabrication work fore the Hospital buildings mentioned above. A few of Thulir’s ex students have joined and worked with TTI in different projects.

Perumal, our ex student and staff, is currently going to college. He also does part time projects for TTI, helping with electrical wiring, solar PV system installations, micro hydro power project installations, and electronics projects such as white LED light fixtures assembly. He has become a well sought after technician in and around Sittilingi, doing among other things, servicing of electronics gadgets at the Hospital, and doing maintenance of street lights in the Sittilingi Panchayat.

The building projects in Sittilingi have used various alternative technology ideas. We hope to update on the details in a separate post soon!

Perumal fixing new Solar PV panels at Thulir

Collaborations outside Sittilingi:

Meanwhile, Gramavidya an NGO started by Prof Jagadish and actively run by Dr Yogananda and his group from Bangalore requested that the Thulir experience be shared with their training programmes conducted on alternative building technologies. These are 3 day programmes usually held 3-4 times a year.

Architecture / civil engineering Interns have been joining Gramavidya and associated groups for training. So guiding / mentoring is another area of involvement. The interesting outcome has been one of infusing alternative ideas in education [especially the theme of combining hands on activities with more formal/ academic methods] into Gramavidya’s activities. At the same time, this relationship has strengthened building skills training and the quality of construction projects in Sittilingi.

Dhanabal learning to do pointing at Women’s Dormitory building

Current situation/ thought for the future:

We see that there are now  push outs from even Govt Schools, in the race to achieving 100% pass results in 10th board exams. So while there was a lull in children dropping out at 14 from the formal system, it seems to be reemerging. We do have a couple of such students in Thulir now, and so there might be a need to restart the Post school programme in an organized way in the coming years. At the same time, many of our ex students are now in the process of pursuing different vocations and start offering their services for the local community. The challenge in coming years would be to enable both these groups and to make linkages so that each activity benefits the other. We also realize that this needs more energy and people with different skills to guide, and hope the Thulir team will grow to face these new challenges.

Jayabal and Dhanabal currently building a dry composting toilet for Thulir.

Women’s Dorm., THI Sittilingi

 *************

Posted in Newsletters, Reflections | Comments closed

Newsletter Jan-March 2015

Wishing you a happy Pongal and New Year from Sittilingi!

(This newsletter was written and uploaded by Nikhil just before he left Thulir to pursue his interest in music and higher studies. He assures us that he will be back after a break. He will remain a part of the Thulir team wherever he is and we are eagerly awaiting his return. We wish him All The Very Best in his pursuits!)

Pongal Celebrations

As Pongal routine, buildings and floors were cleaned, washed and swabbed with cow dung water to give the entire courtyard a tidy and fresh appearance. In the rest of the village too, dusty brown turned to a dark fragrant green. It was then divided into separate areas in which kolams would be drawn and coloured. Soon it was evening time when children, nurses and a few doctors showed up for the get together and drew colourful kolams on the mud! It was great to see such a highly developed sense of symmetry in the artists as they drew large patterns-growing-outward-from-the-center style of kolams, and achieving perfectly circular figures without the use of any external tools. This years kolams were particularly impressive !

Farming

The rains passed and the cold was on till mid march and even though the days have grown hotter now, the nights remain equally cold. In Thulir, we got around 9 kilos of Coriander seeds, a bumper harvest of brinjals and tomatoes, chillies and spinach. In fact, we got so many brinjals and tomatoes that it supported 14 of us for two weeks! We ate only brinjal and tomato  for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and didn’t have to buy any vegetables from the shops till the 15th day!

Our rice crop failed though due to a lack of water. We harvested thattam payaru, a local lentil as we needed, fresh from the plant and into the cooking pot and so were left with only a kilo of seed for the next planting.
The tapioca is growing along, although a bit slowly, and we can see a difference in the way the leaves have wrinkled up in the plants in Thulir and how they have lushly spread out in the ones outside (which presumably are watered often).

Thattam Payaru sprouting

Although things don’t look completely dry yet, the hills are also slowly turning brown. It is also that time of year when the bamboos are turning a beautiful orange-yellow and shedding leaves. A couple of bamboos in the village of Moola Sittilingi have flowered and borne seed and there is much excitement to eat the rice – an unexpected gift from the forest with love.

Trees in the campus are flowering and bearing fruits and seeds so all the walkways and the campus in general are full of seeds and dry leaves. These are good for the children to collect and keep safely, to see later at a time when there will be no seeds and remember the season of fruiting for that tree – A lesson in local ecology.

A seeding Bamboo!

Auroville Marathon

Thirteen people from Thulir, 9 young boys and 4 teachers went to Auroville in early Februrary to be a part of the Auroville Marathon. Children from many schools across India had come. Our boys, aged from 10-14, ran the 10 km run, and the teachers ran the 21km run, and seem to have had enjoyed themselves. Some of them got to see the beach for the first time! There was activity time before the marathon where all the participants from all schools worked together on art projects.

Activity time – Working in groups

New School

Discussions on how the school should be still continue. In the last months we have talked to the hospital team, the farmers group and the womens group. Smaller working committee meetings are also going on. The land for the school has still not come through. After much debate and discussion, it has been decided that the new school will temporarily start functioning in Professor’s house from June with 20 children. Work on finalising and buying the land, building all the buildings, getting government recognition, will continue simultaneously. The minimum age limit has been decided to be 4 years.

The curriculum will give importance to tribal culture, agriculture and the forest that surrounds Sittilingi. Working on specific themes, like clothing or water or food will give us many opportunities to talk about the processes behind the themes, and how it came to be the way it is. For example, if the theme is growing plants, then the children can learn about the biology of the plant, good soil and climate, seasons, geography of its spread, measuring plant growth, garden patch size, plot growth graphs, measure weight and volume of produce, understand nutrients provided by the vegetable/fruit, organic vs. inorganic ways of growing, writing poems and stories about plants, drawing them, sculpting them, etc. The limit to what can be taught with a central theme in mind is only limitied by the imagination and resourcefulness of the teacher. Therefore, development of the teacher’s interests and knowledge base becomes important.

Temporary School

Exposure to different learning situations we hope will enthuse and inspire our  teachers to think differently about teaching, learning and living itself. So we travelled to Sita school in Bangalore by jeep and to Anand Niketan school in Sevagram( Gandhi ashram at Wardha, Maharashtra) by train.

Train Travel

Had the bay to ourselves mostly. Story Telling!

The travel itself was a great learning. It was the first time many of us travelled by train. In it were people from Bihar, Maharashtra, Assam, Kerala, Andhra and Tamil Nadu, both healthy and diseased, rich and poor, all packed together in some places and spread out comfortably in others. The views from our windows told us what was being grown at each place and topography, and as all our teachers are from an agricultural background, it was all very interesting for them to see – how crops were being grown in different parts of the country, where there was plenty of water, where the land was rocky and undulating, etc. A visit to the pantry came as a rude shock to some teachers, and after that, they weren’t very keen on eating anything prepared there. Some were surprised that all the cooks there were men.

Anand Niketan School, Sevagram

 From the railway station, the 11 of us ( and the 4 babies !) caught 3 auto rickshaws to Sevagram, what used to be the residence of Gandhi in pre independence times. It was early evening when we arrived. There were a lot of bustling khadi clad figures moving about the place. We found out that there was another meeting being held there near our guest house. Medha Patkar, Subhash Palekar and Anna Hazare were a few among them as we later found out. (they were visiting to rally people for a pad yatra from Sevagram to Delhi ) The idea of a pad yatra excited our group and they got thinking about how people could journey like that, without money or any necessities. In the evening was a short daily prayer out in the open by the residents of the ashram, after which was dinner and then bed.

The next day, we went to the school, situated within the premises, but in a different area. The school runs on Gandhi’s philosophy of education called “Nai Talim” which in Hindi means “New Education” or “Basic Education”. It focuses on teaching children the basic aspects of living, which are food , clothing and shelter and involving them in the actual basic work of the community. The original Nai Talim school was started in 1938 and functioned till 1965. The present school was restarted in 2005 by Sushama Sharma and her friends in the Nai Talim Samiti.

Learning to make a mat out of coconut fibre rope

There, in the school, we met Guruji, the tabla teacher, a gentle old man who had studied in the Nai talim school before it was shut down in 1965. He told us that in his time, children would wake up at 4.30 in the morning and go off to their respective duties, like milking the cows or helping out in the kitchen with the cooking or gardening work or general cleaning. The groups would rotate so that each group would get to do all the activities through the week. After an early breakfast, the children would clean the campus till lunch time around mid day. He specifically emphasized the time they spent sweeping and cleaning. After lunch, children would have academics where the lessons would be based on the activities that they did in the morning. For example, if a child had helped cutting vegetables in the kitchen in the morning, then the lesson would invariably cover basic mathematics, science, diet, geography, history, economics of cultivation, basic literacy and language just to name a few. After being brought up in the Nai Talim tradition, it was Guruji’s opinion that this way of teaching children was much more effective than studying the same things out of a textbook.

Walking around Sevagram

All children were involved in all activities in the ashram, whether it be agriculture or spirituality or thinking about the direction that society is moving in and coming up with ways to bring about change. All children would also spin the charkha, the simple device that brought down the rule of the British and the East India Company. This process of spinning thread from cotton using the charkha was very meditative and required concentration and skill to get a strong and evenly thick(thin) thread. Once we did it, we understood what a great activity it would be for all children to really apply themselves to, to develop power of concentration and patience.

The Charkha!

Preparing the cotton before it can be used in the Charkha

Presently, the school doesn’t function the way it used to in Gandhian times. There is less time spent working and more time devoted to academics, but still enough time is found in the day to learn dance, music, craft, gardening, embroidery, cooking, vegetable cutting, cleaning and spinning the charkha. Even though we got only two full days at the school, we feel we got to see a lot of things and came back inspired and understood the place of work in elementary education.

Visit to Sita School in Silvepura, Rural Bangalore

This is a school that Thulir shares a close relationship with. We’ve had more than a few exchange programs for students but this time, the entire teacher team visited the school. Along with the mothers came their babies, happily dressed in colourful clothes but constantly soiling them without warning. We went together from Thulir in a Tata Sumo, the owner of which is a man from Sittilingi who had never previously been to Bangalore. Apart from the confusions with the routes and experience of being completely smoked in in rush hour traffic and minor incidents with the traffic police, it was a smooth ride to the school, jolly and excited as the whole group was. We were glad to reach though, after long last, and to be welcomed by the smiling figure of Jane Sahi.

Mother and son

The babies, we noticed, were giving the mothers a lot of trouble (as usual) and made it impossible for the latter to concentrate on anything else so we arranged for a baby sitter to distract them and take care while the mothers were gone – Me!  The mothers were relieved at having “a day off” (after a year!) and went around the school to observe its functioning.

Learning Materials in one of the classrooms in Sita School

The teachers were particulalry impressed with Jyoti Sahi’s oil paintings and other abstract art works that were put up all over the campus on large pieces of canvas. Sasikala remarked, “Each one has at least a hundred different stories! We can imagine whatever we like by looking at the painting, and all of it could be true!” Even our driver Theerthan absorbed a bit of the philosophy of the school with respect to raising healthy, capable children, and was pleasantly surprised to find that kids here swept, washed vessels, arranged their own classrooms in order and did other chores without the least bit of supervision from the teachers. Even while eating our meals, he was surprised to see that  boys helped with the kitchen work, and even men can help with the arranging and the cleaning up of the table, and that more importantly, there was no shame in doing so. What inspired the teachers most was the excellent quality of education and care given to the children there while using very simple resources and infrastructure and the teachers ( especially Jane) being gentle and soft spoken!

A different pattern arranged by children every morning before prayer. This one uses Mahogany pods and flowers – all materials for this are taken from in the campus.

We left early in the morning from Sita School so that we could reach Lalbagh Botanical Garden before the morning traffic began. Fresh from a good dinner and a good night’s sleep, a morning walk in cloudy Lalbagh was very enjoyable. The large trees and massive honey combs, far above our reach, swayed gently in the cool breeze, and brought us a scent of flowers from somewhere near. We then headed to MTR for a breakfast of bisi bele bath and rava idly. The babies were fascinated by the traffic, and much to our dismay, so was Lakshmi, and that too while crossing the road! We had crossed to the other side, and realized that we had left Lakshmi behind, who was just coolly crossing Double Road with peak hour traffic as if it was the road outside her house in the village. But we still managed to travel back to Thulir in one piece, and even enjoyed the gift of rain on the way, after hot weather. The anxious mothers were much easier within themselves to be, after what seemed like a long journey, back home.

Lalbagh

What we saw in the few alternative schools that we visited were curriculums designed keeping in mind not only scientific aspects of children’s learning and failure, but also ways to promote equality, justice and a sense of inclusiveness among other things. All of which are  ignored in the conventional curriculum followed by most mainstream schools.

Construction and Moving in

There has been a bit of construction going on here in the Thulir campus. The building {Professor Ravindran and Vanajakka’s house}that is to be used as the temporary school for the next two years or so (till the land comes through and construction is done) needed some changes to its structure before it could be used. Some sunshades were installed in place to keep  the rains out, and a new sheet roof was put to cover the central courtyard of the building.
The books and other things from the shelves were all first cleaned up. All books except for children up to 8 years of age and some reference books for the teachers were packed up in cardboard cartons and kept aside. The remaining books, puzzles and play things were arranged in the shelves and moved to the new classrooms.

The present Thulir classrooms are being converted into guest rooms. This conversion requires some modifications of the existing structure, and additions like a new battery room and tool shed. The roof of the existing tools shed and the library had to be changed, the thatch had lived its life and was beginning to leak in places. Dried sugarcane leaves were used as the roofing.

Leaky roof fixed with sugarcane leaves

The hill grass that was previously used to roof the main Thulir building and library is now getting increasingly rare and expensive to use. Even the men skilled enough to use it are reducing in numbers, and soon, it may be go out of circulation as a common roofing solution for hot climates. The thatch is a bad conductor of heat, and hence doesn’t radiate outside heat into the house during the day while during cold nights, doesn’t radiate the heat from inside to out or the cold from outside to in, keeping the house at a moderate temperature at all times.It is an ideal roof for our country.

 Evening Classes

With all of this going on, we are also busy learning and preparing  to be full time teachers at the new school. The learning materials are being prepared by us during the day, and when added to all the regular responsibilities of taking care of the accounts and the campus in general gives us very little time to prepare for classes in the evening and hence, we have decided to stop evening classes for children for the time being.

The number of  children attending too has reduced gradually. The children at the government school here are being kept for longer hours at school.The children of class 9 and 10, especially, are in school from 7am to 6 pm preparing for and writing revision exams. So they are hardly able to come to Thulir. For the other classes too there is more emphasis on rote learning and writing tests than on understanding the lessons and actually learning. So the children are exhausted and drained by the time they come to us in the evenings. This last year when they were in Thulir in the evenings, it would be clearly visible that they are not interested in any more learning and we would find it hard to do any kind of activity with them. They would just want to play in the evenings together, and attempting anything else suddenly became very difficult.

Just the other day, i met a few boys who used to come to Thulir previously but stopped as they moved into the tenth. The boys who used to be so spirited and energetic seemed dull and defeated, and on asking how being in tenth was treating them, answered sadly  with the usual sense of disillusionment that all the tenth graders here exhibit. They wanted me to teach them English. I gladly invited them to come but wondered silently when they would find the time or energy to learn, living the way they were.
Now with the exams going on, and their parents insisting they score high marks and literally locking them up indoors to study, the least we can do is wish them well and hope that the school that we are starting will prevent or at least reduce the damage to children in this little village…

Sports Day

A Sports day was suddenly organised on the 29th of this month, as a sort of farewell to me! Though the evening classes had been stopped, when we sent word to them about this event, children promptly came. It was sweltering heat but the children were enthusiastically running and playing and refused to go home after it was over. We had to have an indoor session of  viewing photographs and films after that!

Kutty Thulir

The children in Kutty Thulir are growing up really fast, and we often forget how magical the process is. Here’s hoping to a great time ahead for these children and us.

Congratulations are in order to our friend and colleague Ravi and his wife Ambika who have a baby boy now, 2 months old. We wish them all the best for parenthood and beyond!


 

Posted in Newsletters | Comments closed

Newsletter Aug – Dec 2014

Happy New year to all of you!

May we together make the world a slightly better, wiser, happier and a more healthy and peaceful place this year.

Read in this Newsletter about rains in Sittilingi, Raspberry Pi (a mini computer designed for villages without much electricity), craft week at Marudam school, plans for a starting a school, farming, visit to Puvidham school, re roofing buildings in thulir, sports days, hogenakal water falls visit, cycling trip to Sathanur Dam and about the visitors we had during these months.

Rains
This year has been worse than the previous year in terms of rainfall. Summer was unusually hot this year and when it was the monsoon’s turn to show up, it never did. It seems that other parts of Tamil Nadu have gotten their fair share (and more) of rainfall, but little Sittilingi remains parched. Hard working farmers around us haven’t got their expected harvests and are a bit frustrated especially after hearing from others traveling outside that other regions are blessed with good rains.
Our crop of Kambu (bajra) too hasn’t been very good and much of it was consumed during the harvest itself (The evening children like it raw, fresh from the plant).

The water level in our well has increased but not so much that we can tide over the summer. This year, a bore well has become a matter of having water to drink, rather than a question of ethics. With farmers around us increasing the amount of water they use for their (relatively new) cash crops- to flood their paddy, or irrigate sugarcane, turmeric or tapioca for instance- all our judicious water use is like climbing a coconut tree with a weight problem and a fractured ankle.
The village panchayat has been of some help by digging a bore well on thulir land and installing a working motor inside it. Now there is a water tank inside thulir campus that holds the water from the bore that is pumped occasionally, but the only problem is that the bore well doesn’t have much water in it.

Ultra marathon runners from Runner’s High
Santhosh brought his team of runners again one weekend in September to train for their ultra marathon. They did a 12 hour run on Saturday and A 5 hour run on Sunday. Senthil and some boys from Thulir too joined them for part of the day. Unfortunately the sun too came out in full form and decided to join them making them thoroughly hot and dehydrated! Seeing and interacting with them, the Thulir team is now inspired to host a run here in the valley some time.

Madanyu
We had two interesting visitors Aftab and Max from the UK, PhD student and Post-Doc at the University of Cambridge, from the Madanyu Education Programme (http://www.madanyu.org) to travel to remote villages in India to provide computer skill training at education centres via the Raspberry Pi. This is a low power, fully functional computer that will fit into a shirt pocket; basically a CPU with in-built ports to connect a monitor, keyboard, mouse, Ethernet cable and a memory card, which is the main data storage of the Pi. It also has GPIO (General Purpose Input Output) pins which are exploited by hobbyists to connect various components to the computer and use it in different ways. The memory card comes loaded with the Madanyu OS, basic programming software, educational games, etc. which we could all use and learn from. We had a three day workshop on how to use this computer and Python, a powerful programming language that is increasingly being used in the computing world. The children and teachers had a class on turtle graphics, a program much like the original DOS version LOGO, except more advanced and colourful.

The children watched videos of hobbyists who have used this computer as cell phones, radio transmitters, discreet cameras, and even robots capable of responding to instructions through radio waves! At the end of the workshop, there was a competition of sorts, where children had to come up with a new and different application for the Raspberry Pi and explain with a drawing and some writing to the two volunteers. Some wanted to study Marine life by attaching it as a camera onto the bodies of  aquatic animals underwater, some wanted to use it as a controller to control those serial lights that we see in Christmas trees and install those lights in shops to make the shop more bright, colorful and attract more customers(very practical!), some had totally outrageous ideas, like using it to increase the strength of an elephant so that it may carry more load, or generally increasing the capacity of an animal to do more work (we were equally boggled at the idea!)
The competition ended with the resource persons gifting us with an electronics kit, without any manuals or other help so that we tinker around with it and figure out what all it can do all on our own.

Marudham craft week
Marudham has almost become like another home for us at thulir, and if it is craft week, we somehow find ourselves planning and packing to spend at least 5 days there. This year also we did the same and had a great time, soaking in the energy of the place – there is activity in every classroom and outside too with varied activities like kalamkaari to silambaattam, and everything else in between so there is something for everyone. The school is so vibrant during that time that the whole 5 days there is like one long endorphin rush. Such an atmosphere is so charged with learning that we come away with our hearts full. This time, the entire thulir team went and participated in kalamkaari, palm leaf weaving, ear ring making, silambaattam, wood carving, stone carving and the art of learning how to learn! The football sessions in the evening, the unicycle that was just lying there, free for anyone to try it out, juggling lessons, learning how to perform a summersault in the air by jumping off a spring board and landing on a mattress, learning dive rolls, walking on a tight rope and interacting with different groups of people all added to the experience.
Senthil and Sakthivel will soon be visiting Marudham to conduct a workshop on bamboo chair making. The chairs are elegant and comfortable to sit on, and completely bio degradable, made of just bamboo.

Shankar birdwatching club

Dr.Shankar, a friend from Bangalore was kind enough to donate a pair of fantastic binoculars to Thulir this winter. This has come at just the right time when the children are beginning to pay more attention to birds around Sittilingi. Now with a few interested kids, we have started a birdwatching club! (and decided to name it Shankar birdwatching club as a way of saying thanks). So far we have spotted many birds and bird nests in Thulir itself, and roughly identified a beat. The best part about the binoculars is that it has shown the watchers beauty in chickens too! This is a big achievement as this is a bird they see every day, everywhere, it being the most common feathered friend around. Butterflies are also observed, along with squirrels, rats, dogs, cats, sometimes people, the hills nearby, tree tops, clouds, etc. Knowing about a person like Salim Ali and that it is also possible to write a book and make a living observing birds has given some kind of energy to a few boys here, and they are still amused and browse through the plates of ‘The Book Of Indian Birds’ with a quiet wonder.

To school or not to school…?

For years the community here has been asking us to make Thulir a full time school. We have been putting it off saying that since there is a government school here, it makes more sense for us to supplement and complement it rather than replicating the entire infrastructure. But education levels around here have actually become worse and what we do does not suffice. The pressure on us for a new school has increased.There is no place for real learning or values and definitely no place where children are allowed to discover themselves and learn freely and happily. A new school is on the horizon definitely now.

Plans for the new school in Sittilingi are being made as we speak. We would like a larger community to have the ownership of the school and be part of formulating the philosophy and vision for the school. So all the doctors and the staff from the hospital, organic farming initiative, tribal technology initiative and Thulir have been meeting up on a weekly basis to discuss the school and democratically arrive at a consensus on all matters ranging from the values and culture it should uphold to how the school should be, how its teachers and teaching should be, what kind of an atmosphere do we want the children to be in, should the students be primarily tribals or non- tribal,should the students wear uniforms etc. The meetings have been of great help for us as a group to understand what everyone is thinking about the school, and also education in general.
A couple of practical problems like land for the school, funds, a team to get permissions from the government officials, water, still remain but are being discussed also. It is a challenging task ahead for all of us but we hope it will be a space for learning more relevant and interesting than any other institution in the entire valley.

The children came up with this plan when we discussed with them how they want their dream school to be like!

Farming

The enthusiasm during what little monsoon we had manifested itself in the form of ploughed fields and planting of brinjal, green chilly, onion, spinach (a variety known as pulicha keerai in tamil because it is sour tasting – which we keep harvesting from time to time for chutney, etc.), beans, ragi, rice, and for the first time in Thulir history, tapioca, a one year crop. Everyone, including the kutty thulir kids, helped us in preparing the field! We made furrows, flooded the fields and leveled it with everyone helping out. We hoped that the crops would benefit and mature from whatever monsoon rains we have. We would harvest most of them before March when the heat starts so there won’t be much irrigation required. Tapioca doesn’t require water.

Due to the density of the salt water, the lighter grains of rice float to the top and the heavier or more mature grains remain at the bottom. The heavier grains are then selected for planting.

Ragi Motherbed

Puvidham visit

As part of the initiative to start the school, we decided that exposure trips for our team of teachers to different schools would be good . With this idea, the entire thulir team travelled to Puvidham school in a little village called Nallampalli, 20 kilometers from Dharmapuri. It is an alternative school catering to rural and dalit children. It was the second alternative school that many teachers from here visited, after Marudham. The men in the team cycled to and back while the women and the 4 babies went by public transport, changing 3 buses. The thulir team got to interact with the Puvidham teachers and students, learnt about their functioning, curriculum and exchanged songs, dances,etc. The experience was good and we learnt different things from it.

Examining a corrugated roof made of compressed layers of tetra packs with a thin plastic lining on both sides.

Another big learning was how the Puvidham school team managed to deal with the government officials for the registration process. Getting recognition now even after fulfilling all the requirements is a long and cumbersome process and it has been good for us to hear the experiences of Marudham and Puvidham so that we are a little more prepared, and have a better idea of what to expect.

Exchanging songs!

Re roofing Thulir
The thatch roofs of the course room, tools store, engine shed and entrance verandah had decayed and it was time to re roof them. Normally we would have employed people from outside for this. But this time Senthil, Sakthivel, Ravi, Mohan and Perumal decided to take this up as a weekend project and do it themselves. They worked hard from Saturday early morning and finished by Sunday evening. Senthil’s two year old son , Rishi, refused to be left out of the action and generally had great fun carrying and playing with sticks/leaves,rolling in the sugarcane mulch etc.

Sports Days
In December, we had two days of just sports and team games. It was such a hit with the children that we decided to have one later in the month too! Interests had changed, movements had become more fluid, children were planning a bit more, also executing plans a bit better, physical strength had increased from last year. But what remained unchanged was the adrenaline levels during games and the cheerful mood (well, mostly) throughout the day . No one wanted sports day to end, and it was always us adults who had to tell children to go back home or take a break in the afternoon or stop for lunch, etc. On sports days, children can live mostly on air and water!


Sports day started with a talk on winning, losing, sharing, caring, rising above just prizes (and as an extension, not being a slave to a materialistic mindset), and most of all, knowing why we play sports – not to win prizes but to learn to handle winning and losing and to have as much fun as we can. It is the joy that lasts in our minds that makes it more important than winning.
Then there was a warm up as the kids rushed out of the enclosed space to the open ground. A few stretches and laughs later, sports day was on its way! There was the usual games as always – running, long jump, relay, kho kho, kabaddi, dodge ball, frog jump and nondi- hopping and catching, a thulir favorite that is very hard on the leg that hops.
To end it, there was a prize distribution where all the participants got a box of crayons. Guests Marina and Charu taught us some songs.The songs revived the children and again no one wanted to go home but since the teachers were all too tired, it had to stop!

Excursion to the water falls at Hogenakal
This happened immediately after the visit to Puvidham School. There were two teams from thulir -The bus team consisted of mothers and their infants – Rajammal, Sasikala, Lakshmi and Ambika with their babies, all barely walking, Prema, Anu and Nikhil. The cycling team (Senthil, Sakthivel, Ravi, Perumal and Mohan) left much before the bus team, early in the morning to Hogenakkal on their cycles so their experience was very different from ours, also due to the fact that we couldn’t meet up there. While they went bathing in the water, the bus team went boating with the babies on ‘parisals’,I.e, circular boats with the black bitumen lining on a bamboo frame, rowed with a small wooden oar. The experience of it was something new for all, and the different kinds of rock formations made by the water on the black granite over the centuries were fascinating to see. The spray of the waterfall too reached far beyond the fall itself, and gently wet our faces and finger tips.
The movement of the boat was gentle and smooth, calming both the babies and their mothers. Initially, everyone feared it, but later, as they got used to it, they started enjoying it, and were all smiles.

Cycling to Sathanur Dam

The boys Senthil, Sakthivel, Mohan, Perumal, Annamalai, Solomon Raj and Nikhil went on a cycling trip to Sathanur Dam, around 50 kms from Thulir. It was Annamalai’s and Solomon Raj’s first trip outside on cycles. The uphills were tough and down slopes were a breeze, especially on old and rickety cycles with rusted moving parts. Rocky hills, quaint villages, semi deserted temples, idlis for 1 rupee each, vast green fields, winter skies, many slim tyres on black tarmac silently speeding through… We’re sure they will be back for more!

At the dam itself, we visited the crocodile farm that we had heard much about. With an entry fee of half a rupee, we walked in excited. What we found was that in a fifty by fifty compound with a wall of about 5 feet high were locked up at least 25-30 adult crocs. The “water body” that they had to “swim” in or cool off consisted of half the area with the water as dark as pools of tar at midnight and a stagnant stink of rot that would bring hungry vultures. There were many of these compounds and some were filled up more than the others with the animals lying lazily on the floor, some absolutely still with their jaws open, some on top of the others, taking the morning off with friends and spouses. Not that there is much else to do in a place like that where you are fed and watered according to a schedule. But it was a chance to talk about reptiles, alligators, dinosaurs and interesting things about crocs like how their skin can be bulletproof. The boys thoroughly enjoyed the animals and will soon be back for more.

Kutty Thulir

Alphabet in Maida mixed with turmeric powder to make it yellow. Makes it easier to learn when the children get their hands involved in the process too.

Little Farmers!

Visitors
Roshan Sahi from Sita School, Bangalore visited us for a few days. It was great to have him here. He was good enough to share his extensive knowledge of painting and sketching with the children in the form of a class on nature sketching. Concepts like shading, observing, and depth were discussed and examples were pointed out to the children, who all interestedly took to it, forming little groups and sketching plants and other objects around thulir.

Stan and Mari from Gudalur have been like gurus for Anu and Krishna when they were working in Gudalur amongst the adivasis there, and their visit to Sittilingi was great for all of us. Stany’s class for the thulir team on the injustice committed against the adivasis all over India from the Pre independence era, their struggle for justice, the Forest Rights Act which recognises their rights over their forests was very illuminating for us. Listening to his stories from Gudalur and how the A.M.S faced and overcame the injustice of the police and government laws for the past 30 years was inspiring to hear. Two sessions with Stan were not enough at all, we felt, but still we learnt a lot from them, and are very thankful for such an experience!

 Rebecca, the 14 year old daughter of a good friend Christiana from Germany volunteered at Thulir for two weeks. The children enjoyed having her around,doing things with her. It was amazing to see how so much cultural exchange happened, most of the time without language, as neither Rebecca nor the children were completely comfortable in English.

Lakshmi, AKA Kutty lakshmi, Anu’s niece, was in thulir for over a week and did many interesting activities for the children in craft. Swetha from Poorna School too was here. She shared with us the functioning of Poorna and the systems in place there during one of the school meetings. With Lakshmi, we spent many hours during these Christmas holidays weaving loom bands, quilling shapes, making new kinds of ear rings and paper jewellery, and also dancing to songs together. It was fun for everyone to have lively new persons in the group.

 

Thanks to all of you for being with us all along. Your support gives us the courage to face the daunting tasks ahead. Thank you.

Posted in Newsletters | Comments closed