Sagar* was sexually abused and made to work as labour by his relatives when he was a child. Ahmed* was a book seller on the streets of Mumbai and had dropped out of school after only Class II. He then went on to clear his X exams from the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS). Amit* was severely bullied in school for being a Dalit from the slums. Rita* has a history of sexual abuse and faces severe gender discrimination at home and in her community. Rukhsar* has often seen her alcoholic father beat up her mother.
These are some of the stories of my children from my class. I therefore ask, how does one design an education system that responds to these experiences?
Imagine you are a child sitting in class with a bad stomach ache. Would you be able to concentrate on what is being taught even if it was your favourite teacher or subject? What is the one thing that would capture your interest then as you sit in class with an aching stomach? Perhaps, if the teacher offers medicine or suggests you rest, you might be interested.
Now imagine a class full of children with experiences and memories of abuse, violence, neglect, poverty and discrimination. Would a child with an aching heart be able to focus on the best lesson plan that might have been prepared around topics such as centre of gravity or the history of Shivaji? Quite obviously, not. This leaves us with a very real need to design an educational approach that takes into account experiences like these. What would such an approach look like?
One way would be to transpose them into a different but illusive hope for the future, but neither the teacher nor the pupil would be able to gauge how successful that could turn out to be. And still another way could be to take this reality and set it up in the context of education that would empower everyone, students, teachers and others. In effect it would be to flip the pathos of our lives into beautiful opportunities to change the world. It is this approach that is employed by Akanksha’s Service Learning Program (SLP).
One must also consider how the children would feel about the opportunity to tackle these issues head on. On one occasion, during our session on gender and gender fluidity, one of my students asked, “If this is true, why do we not talk about it in schools?” It was then that it really hit me. Here is a student asking me in the capacity of a teacher – a representative of the system – what he must get from the system.
Later in the year, while reflecting on the caste system, another student observed, “It seems to me that hierarchy doesn’t really go away. It just takes new forms. In earlier times, it was caste that decided one’s role in society. Today, it’s the marks. If you score 90% in one exam you belong to an elite group, if you score less than 60%, you are like a Dalit for all your life.” When I reflected upon this, keeping my students’ background in mind, I had to severely question the idea of equity and merit. And I realise I not only have a wish but a responsibility to do something about it.
At Akanksha, it is this responsibility that drives us to do what we do. As part of the Service Learning Program that I manage and teach at, we are trying to find answers to some critical questions around the relationship between the child’s contexts and learning. Some of the key questions are:
– How does a student’s understanding of the self affect his/her academic outcome?
– Does having a sense of community engagement affect our sense of self positively?
– Should school regenerate social status quo or should it prepare students to question it and change it for good?
In the past year, through the limited interaction a weekend based program could offer, the current batch of students have come a long way. From having strong binary notions around caste, sexuality, gender and language earlier, today they proactively delve into the grey area. As part of their end-of-year internships and projects, they chose to work on diverse issues that mattered in their lives such as discrimination, wildlife conservation, alternative education, rights for child labourers and those on streets, right to information, gender and sexuality, human rights, organic farming and child sexual abuse. For these projects, they have engaged in primary and secondary research, conducted surveys in the communities, read fiction and non-fiction books on related themes and have interacted with experts in the field. Some of them have also created video documentaries and blog posts. This indeed led into academic skill development such as reading and writing, data collection, analysis and presentation, critical thinking and computer skills to name a few.
The question for us at Akanksha is, how can we integrate this within the curriculum of schools? With our continuous efforts towards teacher development, research and engagement, teachers in Akanksha schools today are exploring if in kindergarten children can be taught about the good touch and the bad touch while learning about parts of the body. In history lessons, while talking about Shivaji, can we discuss the role of his wife and the gender dynamics around it? Can we recognise the biases our textbooks hold and dispel them consciously in the classroom? Can our sports be gender neutral? Can our math class talk about daily examples from life? In biology, while discussing the reproductive system (and please do discuss this and don’t skip the chapter), also discuss sex, sexuality and myths around it? Can our science books talk about health, hygiene and environment in a more contextual form? Can our political science books help students explore the role of local corporators and have assignments around the Right To Information?
Yes. This can all be done and is indeed happening in Akanksha schools. And no, it is not only important for children from low-income communities. It has great value to all. After all, life happens to all, doesn’t it? And as American philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey has said, “Education is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.”
* Names have been changed to protect the identity of the children.
Rohit Kumar heads Akanksha’s Service Learning Program. The Akanksha Foundation runs 15 municipal schools in Mumbai and Pune in partnership with the BMC and the PMC. Follow them on twitter at @Akanksha_India.