Alternative Education - Compassion in the Curriculum
by Megha Bajaj
Education!” seems to be the accepted panacea to all societal ills. Poverty? Education will lick it. Corruption? A wise man has observed that when you open the door to school for a child, you close another door of prison for him. Terrorism? If meditation and yoga were part of a child from his childhood, violence would not even touch his thoughts! When you think of it, almost every problem has its seed in a lacking or limited education. Indeed, schools have quite a responsibility – they are to a human soul, what a sculptor is to marble.
The tragedy has been that Indian education has long been focussed on equipping a child for a livelihood, and not for a life. However, of late, mainstream schools have started adopting holistic practices that serve the needs of the child better, and create a more sensitive climate. They have a long way to go before they reach the ideal, but every drop counts.
Yo for Yoga
Jane Mullan, a UK-based teacher, observes, “Yoga is just wonderful for children’s development. We want to educate the whole child: academically, spiritually, creatively, physically... yoga just fits.” Many ICSE schools include yoga in their curriculum. Anahita Wadia, an enthusiastic yoga practitioner, teaches yoga at the J B Petit High School, Mumbai, where it is offered as a complete subject with an exam at the ICSE level.
Anahita shares, “Not only have my girls been able to overcome several body problems like excessive weight, flexibility problems, myopia and constipation, but they have also been able to strengthen their immune system so much that their sick leaves have decreased drastically. What’s happening with their mind and soul is even more remarkable. Diffidence has morphed into confidence, and apathy into empathy. One student was having a quarrel with her father when suddenly, in the midst of the heated discussion, she said, ‘Give me two minutes.’ She dropped her body to the floor, and began to do certain breathing exercises, much to her parents’ amusement. She got up, calm and composed, and said with a grin, ‘Now shoot.’ It was too much for her dad and both burst out laughing. Her dad, a non-believer of yoga and meditation is considering enrolling himself for classes soon!”
Anahita also takes the children on a spiritual yoga camp to the Ramana Ashram. The students have just come back from their annual trip, and many have told their teacher, “We are quieter than before. We realize how much unnecessary chattering we used to do before – both in mind, and with tongue.” Shreya Chaudhary of St Anne’s school, Mumbai, shares that they do certain breathing exercises three days a week in their school. She doesn’t understand the meaning of the word spirit but says that while doing yoga she gets the same feeling she does when she goes to a temple, and sits before God, telling Him about her life.
Rabindranath Tagore once remarked, “The highest education is that which does not merely give us information, but makes our life in harmony with all existence.” And what better way to start than with meditation? Holy Family School in Andheri, Mumbai, firmly believes that meditation is a science and an art that puts one in harmony, first with the self, then with the other and lastly, with the world. And for a student to excel, he first needs to be at peace with himself. Ayush Modi, a student of the school, shares that he has benefitted tremendously from the practice. He says with a grin, “My mind was a monkey earlier, jumping from one thing to another. Every time I would sit for studies, I would feel thirsty. As I would go to get myself a glass of water, I would suddenly want to watch cricket scores on TV. With meditation, I am able to focus on one thing at a time. I feel calm. Even after school, I won’t ever give up meditation.” Father Francis Swamy, the current principal of the school, is a broad-minded, liberal educationist who wants his students to be ‘complete’ humans, and he believes yoga and meditation definitely help.
In my school, J B Petit, the principal would make us meditate before exams, to calm our frazzled nerves. I remember for the first time during my tenth standard, having an experience of what it felt like to have no thoughts for almost five minutes. I started meditating regularly after years, but the thought, the seed, the experience, began in school itself.
Know the Self
“Even a minor event in the life of a child is an event of that child’s world, and thus a world event,” said Gaston Bachelard, French philosopher and poet. Eight-year-old Rohit Kalra is extremely proud of his leather-bound diary. Every week, he sits near the balcony, pouring his experiences and feelings onto the blank pages. Cathedral and John Cannon School, Mumbai, has introduced the concept of a weekly journal for its students. The teachers believe this is a great way of introducing the child to himself and getting him in touch with his emotions. Does it work? A peak into little Rohit’s journal indicates that while he is no Anne Frank, at least he’s begun the process of self-revelation. “We went for Spiderman 3 on Wednesday. I loved it. Someday, I want to become Spiderman, or maybe even Superman, and help earth. Mom is making brownies for me. My best friend Varun is coming over to eat some too. I am excited. Bye!”
No child is to be ignored because he appears to be dull. No child is lesser than the other; he may only be different.
A famous quote reads: “The most important thing in life is to learn how to give love, and to let it come in.” Schools are increasingly factoring in social activities into their curriculum. A child from Delhi Public School was deeply impacted by his meeting with an orphan. He says, “I misbehave with my mom and dad for small things, but when I met that child, I realized that I could complain, be a brat, misbehave because I have parents who are here to listen to me, parents who care. What would I do if I didn’t? My attitude changed drastically after that.” Compassion extends to animals as well. An NGO called Beauty without Cruelty sensitizes students in 50 schools of the need to treat animals with love and respect. Cathedral School has a Nature Club that organizes both excursions and talks by environmentalists like Bittu Sehgal, editor of Sanctuary magazine, who recently spoke on saving the tiger. Children today have a chance to sign petitions, and get involved in creating a compassionate society at a young age.
Centuries ago, Goethe said, “In praising or loving a child, we love and praise not that which is, but that which we hope for.” Several schools have now got their own counsellors, to whom children can go in case they need to talk to someone who does not have preconceived notions about them. Adolescence is a strange period – sometimes one feels loved by all; at other times, one feels like an alien. Lavina Gulati, who used to counsel at Bombay International School, Mumbai, had several kids coming to her in a day. She says, “Everyone needs a helping hand, especially if there are problems at home or school. Often, I don’t even need to say much. When the child realizes there is someone he can open up to, half his problem is solved.” A young student from the school shares how she visited Lavina every week while her parents were going through a separation. She says, “It was only after 20 sessions that I opened up and told her the whole truth, and expressed everything I was going through. I expected her to react with shock, but she just smiled calmly. At the end of it, I felt so relieved.” Lavina is now working part-time with a nursery where she actually counsels three-year-olds! It’s a counselling of a different sort – if teachers find a child to be consistently disruptive, Lavina is called. She does play therapy with them, whereby she hands them dolls and by observing their reactions to the father, mother and baby doll, she understands what is going on in the child’s subconscious.
Mrs Vandana Chawla, the principal of New Era Public School in Delhi, makes it a point to never fail a child. If a child is not performing well, she lets the teacher know that it is as much her responsibility as the child’s to pass. No child is to be ignored because he appears to be dull or disinterested. No child is to be ostracized. No child is lesser than the other; he may only be different. In fact, such a child is to be looked upon as a challenge for the teacher to improve her own skills. This has helped so much that both the teacher and the student try their best to perform.
Henry Beecher, the prominent social reformer from America, said, “You cannot teach a child to take care of himself unless you will let him try to take care of him. He will make mistakes, and out of these mistakes will come, his wisdom.” The principal of Saifee nursery, Lekha Merchant, takes her job extremely seriously. Since all psychology books propagate that most of a child’s personality is formed from 0-5 years, her work is indeed crucial. Her aim is to create children who are not just academic performers, but are well-rounded with good social skills. When a child comes to them to say, “X is pushing me, teacher”, they are told, “So go and tell X, don’t push me, I don’t like it”. The teachers are trained to be facilitators, and do not intervene in situations unless it’s absolutely required. Interestingly, they convey negative feedback, not by scolding or condemning, but through role-playing. One teacher acts like the erring child, and other teachers as his friends, and through dialogue, the child is made to realise his error. Lekha says, “I want the kids to become independent and responsible, and the training begins now. I have got feedback from parents of my ex-students that their kids are able to handle most situations they are put in, and have learnt to stand up for themselves when required!”
Daisaku Ikeda, founder of the Buddhist movement called Soka Gakkai, tells youth, “You must not for one instant give up the effort to build new lives for yourselves. Creativity means to push open the heavy, groaning doorway to life.” Shishuvan school in Matunga, Mumbai, has unique classrooms. The first standard, for instance, looks like a large set taken from the Flintstones cartoons. There is a house made of straw, pots and pans, stones for fire, banana leaves for plates. I discover that this is the school’s way of teaching kids about ancient man. For a few days, the students are required to eat on banana leaves, study in caves and ‘ape’ their ancestors. The older students, on the other hand, are learning Geography. No, not through maps or textbooks, but by visiting Kutch for a week. Not only do they have to measure the temperature, study the desert, and understand its topography, they also have to interact with the villagers there to realize how a majority of the world lives, survives with so little, and yet manages to find happiness. Shishuvan has no principal, no hierarchy. Kavita, one of the administrators, shares, “The endeavor is to teach in a manner which is practical and yet creative, different and yet fun so that kids grow up to become unique individuals, unwilling to follow conventions blindly.”
“The child must know that he is a miracle, a miracle that since the beginning of the world there hasn’t been, and until the end of the world there will not be another child like him. He is a unique thing from the beginning until the end of the world…” said Pablo Casals, the famous Spanish cello player. And schools seem to be listening. In Chennai and Pune, over 40 schools have adopted a weekly programme called Subject Plus whereby an organization called Alma Mater sends its volunteers to help children build confidence. One volunteer’s talk on the importance of being oneself began thus, “I was a banana. And then someone told me apples are better. So instead of being a first-class banana, I became a second-class apple. Just then a mango lover came along and once again I changed myself. Uncomfortable in the mango skin, I wept when finally a banana lover came along, and instead of being the best banana I could be, I was now a complete fruit salad.” The children laughed. But the message was not lost. A young student shared that the session made him realize that all his life he took up subjects and hobbies his brother did, because he believed his brother was the best. “For once, I want to sit and think for myself as to what do I like, what do I want to do and have the confidence to go ahead and do just that.”
J Krishnamurti wrote, “Right education is to help you to find out what you really, with all your heart, love to do. It does not matter what it is, whether it is to cook, or to be a gardener, but is something in which you have put your mind, your heart.” To enable children to choose their higher studies and consequently professions, to ensure that students find their passion and excel in it, several schools have recently started career counselling for older children. Dhirubhai Ambani School prides itself over its College Counselling Centre where students, along with their parents, are informed of undergraduate study opportunities, costs, scholarships and other related aspects, at universities and colleges, both in India and abroad. Cathedral School also conducts several career workshops with experts, so that students can make informed decision about their career.
Heartening though the changes, they are just the tip of the iceberg. Problems like too many tuitions, exams for very young children, the snobbery cultivated in some private schools, poorly paid and unmotivated teachers, and various other malaises dull the shining faces of schools, and yet, these changes reveal a change of mindset among educationists today, and are welcome. Until great ideas become the norm, and ideals become reality, these reforms can keep your spirits about the future high. They are enough to tempt one to go back to school.
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