By Deepti Priya Mehrotra December 1998 You could put your children in a school that hammers them into assembly-line products. Or you could choose an education that nurtures your children into creative, sensitive individuals. First of a two-part report from the leading alternative schools and their underlying philosophy What’s the difference?Alternative schools have a small number of studentsChildren are allowed to learn the basic skills of reading and writing at their own pace Such schools may or may not subscribe to the national examination system. Learning is pursued for the sake of knowledge and building character There is an inherent spirit of cooperation with an internal discipline. The uniqueness of each child is nurtured There is little or no internal hierarchy in alternative schools. The ambiance is essentially fluid and informal Nandita’s diaryThe eight-year-old accompanied her mother, Deepti, to various schools 31.8.98 : I am at the Aurobindo ashram, it is wonderful. It is in Pondycherry. 1.9.98 : I saw a red and black centipede. There were two of them. I saw them at the Shri Aurobindo school. I climbed a big gulmohur tree, and saved some ants almost drowned in a little water in a little hole in the tree. 2.9.98 : Today I went to Auroville. I first went to the kindergarten. It was very beautiful, all the children were very small-small they were very cute.Then we went to the New School. It had tree house classes. And little ponds. And the children were designing their school. Then we went to an uncle’s house in a school called New Creation. He had four dogs and six cats, 21 small birds in a big cage, 11 rabbits, and 18 fish in the biggest size of aquarium. 5.9.98 : Rishyvaly is very nice, in it I saw a big tree. Rishivaly has many beautiful birds. There are many cats and dogs even. And I like them all. There is a boding school in Rishivaly. And I am staying in Birds house. 6.9.98 – Today I made a new friend, her name is Shweta. I liked her and she liked me. 7.9.98 – I saw a school called RISHIVANM, there were mud room classes. The children were poor children. There were 70 children. They had made swings and slides themselves. Like we can. It was very beautiful. 1965. All of four years old, I’m bursting with excitement as I wear my new uniform-red checked skirt, starched white blouse, striped tie. I’ve been longing for this day, green with envy as I see my sister go to the ‘bada ( big ) school’ every morning. Already I have tasted school-an experimental ‘model school‘ in which I’ve played on swings and slides, built blocks, crayoned and painted to my heart’s content. I imagine ‘bada school’ to be a bigger, brighter version of this. The day, however, turns out to be probably the worst one of my life. I have to sit at a desk, one of a row of small uniformed human beings. Uneasy, required to be quiet. I feel faceless, nameless. The teacher looks at us with lethargy and disinterest. I am chilled by the cold, unfriendly atmosphere. Slowly, I grow used to my ‘bada school’. Survival instincts to the fore, I gravitate towards another teacher—bright, smiling—and sit in her class, refusing to budge. At recess, I seek refuge with my sister. As years roll by, I even learn to love my school. It has some wonderful teachers with strong values. In Presentation Convent, and later in Carmel Convent, in New Delhi, India, I learn the meaning of commitment, hard work and responsibility.…But I remember wondering, often longing-for something different. What, I know not… 1993. Back to school! As parents seeking admission for our child, we need to pick up the prospectus, fill in forms, seek information, even go through long tests. Recalling with horror the cold anonymity of my early school life, I sought a friendly, warm atmosphere, where my daughter would receive individual attention. We found it, in Mirambika—a rare school amid the hustle-bustle of New Delhi, India—a school that tries to enable each child to grow at a unique, inwardly-motivated pace, nurtured with loving attention. Gradually, I was introduced to the school’s philosophy—the thoughts of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother ( cofounder of Aurobindo Ashram ). ‘The aim of education’, said Sri Aurobindo, ‘is to help the child to develop his intellectual, aesthetic, emotional, moral, spiritual being and his communal life and impulses out of his own temperament.’ A school like Mirambika helps unfold unknown dimensions within the child. Parents, too, look and learn: from the place, from diyas ( the collective term for teachers: didis or elder sisters and bhaiyas or elder brothers ), from their own children. ‘It’s the kind of school I wish I had been to’—more than one parent has felt this sentiment rustle through the mind while walking down the ‘Sunlit Path’ to collect the kids. Here, squirrels play hide and seek, parrots squawk and chatter. In spring and early summer, the hardened golden-brown pods of the gulmohar trees beat a rhythm as they hit against one another. More than one child has stopped to gaze at these music-makers or pick one fallen on the ground. Here, you can find tranquility, simplicity and joy. As my daughter hops her way from one year to the next, one group to the next, she gathers in the colors, soaks them deep within her, expresses and lives the spectrum from one mood to the next. The classes are not numbered here. Rather, they have names like Red Group, Blue Group, and later, Progress Group, Sincerity Group, Gratitude Group. Not that all is perfect here. Alternative schooling has its share of problems too. Like most parents I know, I fret, am confused, sometimes anxious. All around, children write and read by the age of five. But in Mirambika, there seems no end to free play, sports, drama, insect-collection, flower-growing, tree-climbing, face-painting and papier-mâché modeling. Formal reading and writing skills settle in only by the age of seven or eight. Sometimes, I wonder if the children will lose out on formal skills. In the long run, would a ‘normal’ school be better? From my school days, I remember feeling fearful, lost in anonymity, painfully shy. On the other hand, I learnt the three R’s, and received a training in academic skills that helped develop professional competence and confidence. Is it possible to have both—academic skills as well as a free and happy childhood? I speak to parents whose children study in conventional schools. Many are dissatisfied, because their children have to cope with too much study, too little play. Parents worry when they find their children losing their appetite and zest for life. So, is there a clear option? For every thousand mainstream schools in the country today, there is perhaps just one that poses any kind of real alternative. All alternative schools are guided by a clear philosophy of education and life. They are small, with a limited number of children in each class. In the alternative schools I visit, I find a warm, relaxed and creative atmosphere.CREATING ALTERNATIVESSays a disturbed Nirmala Diaz, 43, who works for an ad agency in Hyderabad, the capital of the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh : ‘When I began looking for a school for my son, I found schools treat children as raw material, to be hammered into shape. I was shocked.’ So Nirmala began searching for alternatives, and is now involved in running Shloka, started in Hyderabad, India, last year. When I visit Shloka, I find the teachers singing, children dancing in rhythm, stamping their feet and clapping as they play number games. The classrooms are bright, curtains in soft pastel shades, surroundings green, with huge rocks upon which children climb and play. Class-time, for the little ones, means story-time. The school believes that children up to the age of seven live in a world of fantasy. Undue pressures harm the children irretrievably. The Education Renaissance Trust, which runs Shloka, is guided by the thoughts of Rudolf Steiner, German sage and mystic. Steiner, whose philosophy has been influential across the world, set up his first school in 1919 for the children of workers in the Waldorf cigarette factory at Stuttgart, Germany. Today there are some 700 independently run Steiner schools in the world, following what is called the Waldorf model of education. In his first school, Steiner closely observed the needs of children at different stages of growth. Up to the age of seven, the child is a creature of will; from age seven to 14, feeling predominates; from 14 to 21, the thinking capacity is the strongest. Education, in Steiner schools, takes its cue from this natural pattern of the child’s development. Anandhi, 36, left her job in a mainstream school to teach in Shloka. ‘Childhood years,’ she notes, ‘are vital to our total existence. Overloading children early, with too much memory-oriented learning and formal writing, can cripple a child’s sense of wonder.’ Tina Bruinsma, 46, specialist in Steiner methods, contends that learning is as natural to a child as flying to a bird. It comes at the right time if the right stimuli are provided. Too-early imposition of formal skills will harden a child’s soul, she says. ‘Steiner learnt so much from India,’ she reveals. ‘He drew inspiration from your sacred books. It is wonderful that his ideas should come back to India.’ Today, it is little Medha’s seventh birthday, so the children sing a special song for her. She is an alert, enthusiastic child. When she came to Shloka, Medha had withdrawn into a world of her own, unable to cope with the stress of a normal school. In Shloka, she has flowered. THE
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