Newsletter January-June 2016

There is fresh life all around us as we write this! Fresh grass, tender leaves, new flowers, new sprouts … Yes, a few good showers in the last 10 days have ended the blistering heat of the hottest summer here for ages, bringing great relief. All of us are now looking forward to the start of the academic year!

New Thulir Road

When Thulir started in 2004, there was hardly a proper road connecting it to the village. The mud path from the village ran over a stream bed that would fill up with water whenever it rained. Children would stop coming to Thulir whenever this happened. The road used to be so slushy that many a pair of slippers have been lost in the clay.


A bridge was finally constructed across the stream some years ago. But now from February this year we can boast of a brand new tar road!

Land At Last

After two years of intense searching, land for the new school has been identified and was bought this March.

This 3 acre piece of land is more central in the valley, about 1.5 km from the present Thulir campus. It is also easily accessible from Velanur, Kalaiyankottai, Nammankadu, Sittilingi, Moolasittilingi and Malaithangi. Yet, it is also far enough from any government school to satisfy all the requirements.

The 2 acre land which Thulir had earlier bought for the resource centre was found unsuitable for the school. It had no scope for expansion and was very close to the Sittilingi village and the existing government primary school. This land has now been transferred to the Tribal Health Initiative for its Organic Farming marketing activities.

We have now fenced the new land. In the coming month we will dig the well and then start the construction.

The process of designing the school is on, with inputs being taken from both teachers and students.

New Teachers

It was felt that the school needed a few more teachers with degrees in education. Once again, news of this spread through word of mouth to all the villages. Ten local youngsters with B. Ed and DT. Ed degrees applied. For the first time in the history of Thulir we had to conduct an exam and an interview in order to select people!
Jeyachitra and Sinthamani from Naikuthi and Rettakuttai villages respectively have joined the Thulir Team from April 1st. They seem to have bonded well with the rest of the team already.

Sports Day for the Government School

Regular evening classes for the government school children were put on hold this year as the Thulir team was preoccupied with the starting of the primary school. However, some children came in the morning to train for the 10k, 5k Runs that we participated in this year. We also conducted a Sports Day in February for them.


Though there were no formal announcements of this event, word had spread in just two days and a total of 104 children turned up to participate. The sweltering heat of the day could not curb the childrens’ enthusiasm; they all declared that they wanted the events to continue and never stop!

As usual, there were prizes for all the participants and not just the winners.

Annual Day – April 16th

The Annual Day at the end of the academic year was an opportunity for parents, teachers and children to get together and share the achievements and trials of the year. The children, many of whom had been completely shy—refusing to come out from behind their mothers’ sarees—when they joined a year ago now went up confidently onto the stage to sing and dance and act. After a while, they all left as a group to quietly engage in drawing and painting, leaving the adults to have a one hour meeting. Finally each one of the children took their parents to their class to show them their files and all their work for the year. At the end of the day, the parents all appeared to be very happy with what they had seen.

Participation in the Freedom Inclusive Summer Camp for Children: May 2nd-May 7th

Sakthivel, Ravi, Mohan, Perumal,Satish Raghu and Karthik participated in the Freedom Summer Camp for Children organised by The Runners High. The objective of the camp was to bring together children from completely diverse backgrounds in order to help create awareness and respect for each other.


Children from SSK, Shrishti Special Academy, Snehagram, Thulir and Ananya participated. The children stayed in the Spastic Society and Pegasus campuses and engaged in various Art, Craft and Theatre activities together.

Participation in the Asha Summer Teacher Training Session May 27th-May 31st

Rajammal participated in a teacher training camp organised by Asha Chennai at IIT Madras campus. Her confidence and skills have been given a definite boost.

Participation in Runs

Senthil and Ravi ran the Bangalore 10 K run on May 16th  to raise funds for the Tribal Health Initiative.


Sakthivel, Mohan, Raghu, Karthi and Perumal participated in the Anandayana Run organised by Runner’s High on June 6th. This was an opportunity for them to once again bond with the students of Ananya  School, Spastic Society and the runners from Runner’s High. It was good for them to renew contacts with old friends and make new friends.

Visitors/ Volunteers

Julian and Miriam from Germany conducted English language games with the teachers and children.

Old friends from Asha, Sridhar Desikan (with his daughter Janavi) and Balaji visited. It was good to have them here again.

The headmistress and teachers from Vidya Peetam, Salem, also visited.

Thank you for being a part of all our efforts so far. Hope you would stay with us as we now raise funds to build the new school and help create a meaningful learning community of children and adults together.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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

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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!


 

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