Schools: Anand Niketan

This is the fifth post in a series on alternative learning spaces. The original article appeared in the Teacher Plus magazine and is available here.

I don’t think Gandhiji will be pleased to see what they have done to his ashram at Sevagram. Everything is manicured and tourist-ready and there is a souvenir shop. To top it all, there are small boards put up everywhere saying things like, ‘Gandhiji took his sunbath on this lawn’. The atma has left the place and only the immaculately preserved mummy exists. However, Gandhiji will be very happy to see Anand Niketan in the adjoining compound. This school, originally started in 1940 by Gandhiji to experiment with Nai Taleem and shut down in 1975, was revived in 2005 and is now doing very well.

Sushama Sharma, the head of Anand Niketan, was in the middle of working with some children when I reached the school. She told me that she could stop what she was doing because her time was flexible or that I could wait for half an hour. It was almost lunch time so I went, had lunch, and came back to find her free. Sushama is a soft-spoken, polite, gentle, and wise woman. During our walk around the school, many teachers and children spoke with her. Her tone with everyone, whether adult or child, was courteous and her interactions had the completeness of wisdom. It seemed as if Sushama was a part of everything happening in the school. As we were passing by a class, we heard some children talking loudly and laughing and stopped to ask what was going on. The children explained that some of their friends had not kept their footwear in the designated place outside the classroom and so they were teaching them a lesson – when these friends were away, the children in the classroom hid their chappals under some bushes in the garden. The children told Sushama all this as if she were part of their gang and would see the justness of their actions. I noticed that Sushama enjoyed the exchange but gave no adult value judgment like – ‘OK, after they learn their lesson please return their chappals’; or ‘That is a good thing that you have done.’ Wisdom and compassion probably go together in people.

The school campus is spread out and the buildings are the same ones that Gandhiji walked through. I don’t know exactly what it is – the location next to the ashram, or the spread out buildings, or the large trees everywhere – but there is something utterly charming about this school. It felt like the farm, and the trees, and the buildings with their tiled roofs and the small and big people moving through it all fit into each other perfectly. There was a completeness to the picture; perhaps it was in the simplicity of the buildings and the people, or their connection with the local. (This is not an elite English medium school, the teachers and students speak Marathi all the time.)

Some things that stick out from my visit:

– The Montessori-like preschool with its two large rooms with the work of the children visible everywhere. The children finishing their meals before leaving for home. Their teachers, quiet and efficient and mother-like.
– The crafts room where among other things the children weave the floor mats they use in school and also sell to make money for the school.
– The farm area where every child helps in the growing of the food for the school.
– The large Maulsari tree in full bloom with its small delicately scented flowers.
– The museum where the history of the school is chronicled in old black and white photographs.

Let me wind up this impression with an excerpt from a story of how the old school used to be.

“Awaking early in the morning, the entire school community, consisting of its students and teachers, would undertake an hour’s safai (cleanliness) of the entire premises, including classrooms, dormitories, buildings, grounds, latrines. Time for bathing, washing clothes, and attending to personal cleanliness followed. The community then assembled for prayers, after which there was breakfast. Three hours of Sharir Shram (manual labour) formed an integral and perhaps the most important part of the curriculum. Here too, students and teachers worked together whether in the fields, or the spinning shed, or later, when the subject was introduced, in the mechanical engineering shed.

Study periods would be in the afternoons, after lunch and rest. No textbooks were followed, but all that was taught was related to the work done in the morning, not just math or economics, but science, social studies, language, literature also would be based on the work done. A session of games, in which students and teachers participated, helped to build an atmosphere of harmony and co-operation. At about 6.30 p.m., the entire ashram would meet for prayers. When Gandhiji was there he would always attend and on occasions, he would give a talk after prayers.”

Quick facts:

Name of school: Anand Niketan, Sevagram, Wardha
Been around since: Restarted in 2005 at the original Nai Taleem campus that Mahatma Gandhi set up at his ashram in Sevagram in 1937. (The original school had shut down 40 or so years ago.)
Number of teachers/staff: 20 including balwadi teachers
Number of children: 110 including balwadi children
Classes handled: Pre-primary to class 9
USP: Continuation of Mahatma Gandhi’s Nai Taleem school
Location: Sevagram, Wardha

Schools: Manzil

This is the fourth post in a series on alternative learning spaces. The original article appeared in the Teacher Plus magazine and is available here.

I met Ravi Gulati, the founder of Manzil, at a learning conference in Delhi where he was one of the speakers. The gentleness and wisdom that shone through his words made me search him out and talk to him. This is his inspiring story!

Ravi grew up in Khan Market, a posh colony of South Delhi, where some of the richest and most powerful people of Delhi stay. Like any upmarket place, Khan Market also has a few people living in big houses and many, many more, providing essential cleaning, gardening, cooking and driving services, living in small servant’s quarters and one-room tenements that are carefully hidden from the manicured views of the rich. Ravi says that he played with all the children in the neighbourhood as he was growing up but the rich kids very early got a sense of which friends could be taken home. A defining influence in Ravi’s life has been a sister with special needs. As she finished her schooling and Ravi’s mother taught in her school for 20 years, Ravi got his MBA from IIM Ahmedabad. Reluctant to plunge into the rat race that he had a golden ticket for, Ravi was trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life when the family was sucked into a year-long battle with cancer that his father lost his life to. Ravi decided to slowly sort out all the pending duties and move to a remote village in Uttaranchal and begin organic farming.

He was relatively free and two boys, in 8th and 7th class, from the poorer side of Khan Market, came to him to learn math and he agreed to teach them. It was soon clear that although the boys were very smart, they had fundamental problems and Ravi started working with them. Soon there were 20 children of various ages and abilities coming to Ravi to learn math and this is how Manzil began its serendipitous journey into outside-school, non-formal education. Ravi’s plan to escape into the Himalayas gets renewed periodically, but Manzil, that is today more about learning and less about which side of the economic divide the student is from, has been around for 17 years and conducts classes in spoken English, math, computers, music, painting and theatre. They also have a pre-school that is open to children with developmental needs and adult education classes for their mothers. Manzil has grown organically driven by the needs of the students coming and seeking help and by students becoming teachers even as they learn something else.

Manzil used to run from Ravi’s house but as more children enrolled, they have expanded and operate out of two small tenement houses that one of the student-turned-teacher, Anil, who has been with Manzil for over 10 years, showed me proudly around. There was a very informal atmosphere and a computer class was going on and it was difficult to tell who the facilitator was and who the students. I had asked Ravi how Manzil was funded and he gave me an answer that I will not forget in a hurry. He said that his family has passed him down two precious inheritances, one some money-in-the-bank and the other an innate miserliness that makes the money go a really long way.

Let me finish by using Ravi’s words from their website:
“…Manzil’s journey has been one of constantly discovering the deeper continuities and inter-connectedness of all life. It is this thought that infuses our work and vision, and illuminates our understanding of education and empowerment, as that which builds connections between the self and the social, the personal and the political, the intellectual and the emotional, the rational and the felt, the common and the distinctive, the ordinary and the sublime. We are all learners here. And like life itself, any Manzil is only a sojourn.”

Quick facts:

Been around since: 1996
Number of teachers/staff: 23 teachers; 11 core members
Number of children: 230 students
Classes handled: Non-formal supplementary classes in English, math, computers, science; In the arts: theatre, music, kathak, modern dance, photography, film making, art and crafts.
USP: A learner driven space for non-formal education, Manzil is a learning community and an after school alternative learning centre. They work with people with high responsibility of learning, people who want to learn regardless of age, gender, region, religion, intelligence, caste or class.
Location: Sujan Singh Park, New Delhi

Schools: Indus World School

This is the third post in the series on alternative schools. The original article appeared in the Teacher Plus magazine and is available here. (Note: The article was originally written in 2017 and many things have changed at the school and its parent company, but the radical experiment that the article chronicles is worth implementing in other schools)

Shivku, R. Shiva Kumar, Alumnus IIT Chennai and IIM Kolkata, board member of CL Educate limited, a large education services company, is the head of the Indus World School in Indore. I have worked directly under him for an year and our families lived in adjoining flats for some time and we know each other very well. From its head office in Noida, CL runs 12 Indus World Schools spread across the country and Shivku should have been sitting there and thinking of the larger picture. He chose to distance himself from the head office and commit three years in actually running one of the schools. Of the many initiatives he tried in Indore, one is so different from our normal idea of schooling that I am using this space to chronicle it.

Just a paragraph about the organization and the people behind it before we get to that. 17 years old, 225 centers in 175 locations across India, 3000 employees and partners reaching out to 50,000 students with its test preparation classes – CL was started by a group of friends who studied together at IIM Bangalore. There is a story that highlights the college-like feel that the company still retains. Satya, the Chairman, was living in the company guest house as his family was away and a new recruit arrived from out-of-town late one night. He organized dinner for her and they shared an auto coming and going back to the guest house over the next couple of days before she saw in an induction video that the person she knew as Satya was the boss-man. When well-intentioned, smart people like Satya, and there are a bunch of them at CL, decide to start a chain of schools, they do a good job.

Now back to Shivku’s initiative at Indore. He told his 9th standard math students that he would conduct a 10 day introductory seminar during the summer holidays on concepts in 10th standard math and children who are interested could come in. He also said that it was not very important as he would be covering the same ground over the next academic year. As he had guessed, the 8-10 children in his class who were interested in math came for his seminar. He started the day with an hour-long story-like overview of the first chapter and asked the children to read through the chapter and solve all the problems given at the end and come back the next day. He encouraged them to talk to each other and use all the online resources and books they had access to in school and at home. He started the next day discussing any issues the children faced and gave the story-overview of chapter 2. And so on! The 10th standard syllabus was covered by the time the seminar finished! When the school reopened Shivku had 10 teaching assistants who already knew the subject. He got them to sit with groups of their classmates and let the children work through the syllabus slowly. Shivku’s job then really became what we like to think of in progressive circles as that of a ‘facilitator’. Being available only when the children needed him.

Of course, this is not the only way that Indus World School ensures good education for its children. There are structural elements like the age-appropriate pedagogical methods or the focus on the social and emotional growth of the children through ‘circle time’ etc. Shivku’s initiative can be categorized as the idiosyncratic, non-structural element that only an inspired teacher can provide. And that is why we need more Shivkus and Satyas to come and join the conversation on school education.

Quick facts:

Name of school: Indus World School (IWS), Indore
Been around since: 2007
Number of teachers/ staff: 60 teachers across two campuses
Number of children: 1000
Classes handled: Nursery to class 12
USP: Self-paced child-friendly learning environment
Location: 2 campuses in Indore. IWS has 12 schools across the country.

Schools: Aksharnandan

This is the second post in the series on alternative schools. The original article appeared in the Teacher Plus magazine and is available here. Hope you like it…

“I would have our young men and young women learn as much of English and other world languages as they like, and then expect them to give the benefits of their learning to India and the outside world… But I would not have a single Indian forget, neglect or be ashamed of his mother tongue, or to feel that he or she cannot think or express the best thoughts in his or her own vernacular.”
Mahatma Gandhi

When I explained that I was going around the country collecting alternative school stories, Vidya Patwardhan wrote back: “Well, Aksharnandan is a mainstream school, exploring innovative spaces within. So cannot really be called ‘Alternative’.”

As she graciously showed me around Aksharnandan, Vidya told me how it all began. Vidya, who has an MA and an MPhil in Anthropology, was working on teacher training at the NG Naralkar foundation and she felt that this was having limited impact on the triangle of teaching/ learning/ evaluation. This insight was the seed for a group of like-minded persons from varied walks of life coming together to form Aksharnandan. In addition to integrating information, knowledge, values and skills, Aksharnandan anchored itself firmly on the following pillars

a. Using vernacular (Marathi) as the medium of learning (Aksharnandan’s website echoes Gandhiji as it states: “A truly universal mind can grow, only when it strikes strong roots in its indigenous soil.”)
b. Focusing on a cooperative, non-competitive environment
c. Building sensitivity to ecology and environment
d. Following democratic values
e. Integrating Head, Hand and Heart (3Hs)
f. Making the school inclusive

As we walked through the non-box-like architecture of the school’s new building, what was very noticeable was the children’s art and writing work displayed over all the walls. On one wall I remember a large painted tree with hidden animals in it, and I noticed that a snail shell stuck on the wall looked very real. We peeped into some classrooms and I saw relaxed looking children in small groups sitting around and quietly working on furniture-less floors. In the rooms where the teacher was talking, the children faced her but even here it didn’t look like a ‘class’ was being conducted. I also got a glimpse of a child sleeping with his knees up on a low bench in the corner of one of the classrooms.

Two stories Vidya told me highlight the teaching/ learning methodology they follow at Aksharnandan. 6th standard children working in groups follow bank procedures to get loans of 500 to 700 Rupees that the school facilitates. The children use the money to buy raw materials to create artifacts that they then sell. The other story is that many activities that integrate head, heart and hands, cooking Vidya thinks is an especially good example, is done by all the children in all the classes.

My visit to Aksharnandan renewed my faith in how much difference a small group of determined, compassionate individuals could make. In my thank you mail to Vidya I wrote:

“Thank you for the time you took out of your busy schedule to meet me. It was wonderful getting to spend time in the circle of your wisdom and warmth. I came away really inspired by what you have done at Aksharnandan. You said that you are ‘mainstream’, well I think that many ‘alternative’ schools can learn some basics about real education from Aksharnandan.”

I thought Vidya’s response proved my point:

“Arun, I also enjoyed talking to you. ‘circle of wisdom and warmth’! Well put Arun but a bit exaggerated. Would love to meet your family, perhaps next time I’m in Kerala.”

I think ‘Wisdom and warmth’ it is, and that is probably what reflects off from everything in the unique ‘mainstream’ experiment called Aksharnandan.

Quick facts:

Name of school: Aksharnandan
Been around since: 1992
Number of teachers/ staff: 20 full time and 25 contributory (part time)
Number of children: 484 (40 students in one class and no class divisions)
Classes handled: KG to 10
USP: Marathi medium school that follows democratic values and propagates a non-competitive, ecologically sensitive worldview interweaving academic studies with productive activities.
Location: Pune

Schools: Muni International

I visited many alternative schools and wrote short articles about them as part of a fellowship I had with Wipro Applying Thought In Schools (WATIS). These articles were later published as a regular column in the Teacher Plus magazine. I will post some of these articles here to highlight the variety of experiments going on in the alternative schools of India.

The first post in this series is about Muni International school. The original article is available on the Teacher Plus site here.

Among all the schools featured on my list, Muni International is undoubtedly the most politically incorrect one.

Consider the following:
– Their daily prayer asks for a blessing from Maa Saraswati.
– The school promotes Jeevan Vidya, Agrahar Nagraj’s system of spiritual thought, to all its students.
– Ashok Thakur, the founder/ principal, cheerfully claims ignorance of what most people would consider foundational aspects of education.
– The school website has videos of Ashok Thakur talking, sitting next to Swami Ramdev.

No, don’t stop reading just yet, because this is a heartening story of a departure from the norm so extreme that it may potentially switch on some dusty, unused light bulbs in your head.

I met Ashok Thakur when he was conducting a training session for teachers in a school run by a friend in Ahmedabad. Ashokji was talking about education and everything he said, even the radical things like not using any textbooks, seemed completely right, as he spoke with the conviction of a practitioner, using real examples from his school in Delhi. When the session was over and my friend and I asked him more about his interesting experiments in schooling, he invited both of us to come to Delhi and see for ourselves. So, it came about that, a few months later, we drove down potholed roads in a down-market part of West Delhi and reached the four-storied building that houses Muni International School.

This happened many years ago but the visit is bright in my memory. Bright with the vibrant brightness of the children we met, their bubbling enthusiasm and joy in showing off their school and their many talents, their comfort level with us as if we were close relatives visiting after a long time, and treating us as if we were on a short visit and were to be made the most of. The whole school seemed full of children comfortable with being around adults! One thing that Ashokji figured out early was that if you make small children speak more than one foreign language every day, by the time they finish school, their fluency will at least guarantee employment. Meanwhile the academic qualification needed could be worked on peripherally and without too much stress. So all the children we met spoke English but they also wanted us to hear German songs and French poems and wanted us to watch them enact Japanese skits. Even the very small ones from the primary section! It was truly breathtaking!

We started with a bullet-point list of ‘political incorrectness’ so perhaps it is fitting that we counterbalance that with a list of ‘educational correctness’. Here is a partial list:
– There are no textbooks used in the school. The syllabus from NCERT is used to anchor the learning and the children question, discover, and explore the subjects with the help of their teachers and using the available online and offline resources. The focus is on anchoring learning in experience. Ashokji mentioned that a tree that has its leaves arranged such that every leaf gets sunlight is a great way to learn geometry.
– The school parliament has school level MPs, class level MLAs, Councillors, judges, committee members, etc., who are elected from within the classrooms every month. The same child is not allowed to get elected to the same post more than once.
– The school caters to the underprivileged families in the neighborhood.

I remember Ashok Thakur saying that his 8th standard children competed with MA students from a nearby university, the task being to read from a book that nobody had read before and answer questions from it, and the children from Muni International, who had effectively learned how to learn, won hands down. I can well believe it!

Quick facts:

Name of school: Muni International school
Been around since: 2003
Number of teachers/ staff: 40
Number of children: 700
Classes handled: 1 to 12
USP: Caters to poor children. Emphasizes foreign language learning for livelihood security.
Location: Uttam Nagar, New Delhi