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Nurturing little hearts

Dec. 23rd, 2007 | 11:42 pm

Earlier this month, I got the opportunity to be part of bal vividha, an amazing festival on alternative approaches to learning. It was organised by Comet Media Foundation and held at the Birla Industrial and Technological Museum in Kolkata. This festival attempts to offer a creative, non-threatening and fun space for children to participate in various kinds of activities. It also addresses issues that would be of interest to parents, teachers, social workers, policy makers and other stakeholders in education. Apart from workshops, interactive corners, cultural performances and film screenings, there was an interesting colloquium called Knowledge and Schooling: Growing Up in the Digital Age. I thoroughly enjoyed myself at bal vividha, and would like to share one particular experience that has left a tremendous impression.


It feels great to learn from those who have had intense fulfilling journeys and are willing to share the fruits of their experience. Having heard about ‘the legendary Sister Cyril’, principal of Loreto Day School Sealdah in Kolkata, it was truly rewarding to have participated in a workshop on ‘Role of Principals in Social Transformation’ conducted by her. In the spirit of the pedagogical style that she encourages, Sister M. Cyril Mooney went about the workshop with a combination of the lecture mode and group work mingled with question-answer sessions.


“I am happy with computer education, but we should remember that sixty million children don’t even have a school. We should bring everyone forward, otherwise there would be a vicious cycle of affluence,” she said. This is the guiding principle behind her efforts at Loreto, and one that she hopes would serve as a model for others as well. Sister Cyril has been instrumental in opening up the school to poor and underprivileged girls, many of whom used to fend for themselves on the streets of Kolkata. This is part of the Rainbow programme adopted by the school. She believes that a good education should empower children to become agents of social change, to learn to share and care for others. “We follow a cost-effective method. The regular kids teach the street kids. There is no need to get highly qualified people. The regular children benefit tremendously. Their whole education takes on a new dimension,” she said.


For Sister Cyril, inculcating values is a vital aspect of education. She asked us participants at the workshop to write down one value that we would like a child to imbibe and retain during the course of his/her life. After this, she circulated several pieces of paper among the participants and told us to move about in the room looking for related pieces that would form a picture. There were three pictures in all. Based on this, three groups were formed. It was fun to see ‘adults’ being involved in an activity like this. It was a creative way of forming a group. Also, this ensured that we would not restrict ourselves to people we were familiar with. Each group had about five members. Within each group, the members were expected to share the value they had written down and explain why they felt it was important. After the internal discussions, Sister Cyril requested a representative from each group to read out the values they had noted down. The final list included values such as humility, obedience, discipline, time management, awareness of the environment, critical consciousness, patience, responsibility, perseverance, etc.


Sister Cyril patiently wrote down all these values on the board. It was time for the next question: What was your happiest moment as a child in school? We were requested to close our eyes and think of this for ourselves, without discussing our experiences in the group. It was a lovely exercise; dipping into the past and reliving some special moments. Given the time constraints, Sister Cyril told us to think of one word that would capture the essence of the happiest moment. Some of the responses were: appreciation, achievement, joy, cared for, love, praise, enthusiasm, loyalty, etc. Sister Cyril made another list on the board. Now there were two lists. The first one was named ‘Head Values’, the second one ‘Heart Values’.


“Heart Values motivate children. They are community values. They are gifts from others. They make us feel happy, as you can see from your own responses. Head Values are important, but it is not easy to get them. In your own classrooms, how much space is there for the teacher to reach out to each child? Think about this,” remarked Sister Cyril. Silence was the unanimous response. Sister Cyril added, “When children have community values, see how they fly! Even in academics! If you inculcate Heart Values, the Head Values will come naturally. If the student knows she will be trusted, she will be honest.”


Sister Cyril also spent some time discussing the competitive system that has become so deeply entrenched in the present educational scenario. She feels that this system is unfair because it considers only the highest mark as the criteria for excellence and therefore reward. According to her, this makes the ‘first one’ complacent. He/she has to work only enough to keep ahead of the ‘second one’ and not realise his/her full potential. At Loreto, there are other parameters to get prizes. All students who score beyond a particular mark are awarded certificates of general proficiency. This way, not just one, but all who work hard get recognition for their achievement. In addition, Loreto gives ‘progress certificates’ to those who show a significant improvement in their academic performance – a person who scores 50 per cent marks as against his previous score of 40 per cent would also get a progress certificate. Effort, rather than talent, is the basis of rewards at Loreto. Those who switch off the fans, pick up garbage and engage in other beautiful acts that generally go unnoticed are also encouraged by way of ‘appreciation cards’ handed out at the end of the year.


It was a workshop that is generally conducted over three days, but even within the span of time that we got with her, she shared a lot of interesting ideas that could make our classroom learning not only effective but friendly, compassionate and healing. Her emphasis on heart values and on reaching out to the wider society are worth taking note of for anyone who cares about education and children.


If you wish to contact Comet Media Foundation, email cometmediafdn@gmail.com

To know more about Loreto Day School Sealdah, visit http://www.loretosealdah.com/





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Dec. 23rd, 2007 | 04:30 pm

This morning, I completed my first reading of Mister God, This is Anna by Fynn. It’s simply gorgeous – a story written by a man who ran into a child of four one night in London, and subsequently brought her home. His life transformed, not by some miracle, but just by watching the child at work and listening to her discoveries. The edition I read is published by Ballantine Books, New York, 1974. Here are two lovely excerpts from the book. They’ll tell you more about Anna than I can attempt to. Enjoy!


Excerpt 1


Being a sum doer myself, I was very interested in Anna’s approach to mathematics. It was love at first sight. Numbers were beautiful things; numbers were funny things; they were without a doubt “God stuff.” As such, you treated them with reverence. God stuff behaved itself. True, God stuff was sometimes very difficult to grab hold of. Mister God had, it seemed, told the numbers just what they were and just how to behave. Numbers knew exactly where and how they belonged in the scheme of things. Sometimes it suited Mister God to hide his numbers in sums or in mirror books; and mirror books, as you know, could get pretty darned complicated at times.


The love affair with numbers soured a bit and, for a long time, I never knew why. It was Charles who put me on to the track of the explanation. Charles taught at the same school as Miss Haynes, and Miss Haynes taught sums. Anna’s attendance at school was reluctant and not too frequent, as I was to discover later. At one of these sums lessons Miss Haynes had focused her attention on Anna.


“If,” said Miss Haynes to Anna, “you had twelve flowers in a row and you had twelve rows, how many flowers would you have?” Poor Miss Haynes! If only she had asked Anna what twelve times twelve was she would have got her answer, but no, she had to start messing around with flowers and rows and things. Miss Haynes got an answer, not the one she expected, but an answer.


Anna had sniffed. This particular kind of sniff indicated the utmost disapproval.


“If,” replied Anna, “you grewed flowers like that you shouldn’t have no bloody flowers.”


Miss Haynes was made of stern stuff and the impact of this answer left her unmoved. So she tried again.


“You have seven sweeties in one hand and nine sweeties in your other hand. How many sweeties have you got altogether?”


“None,” said Anna. “I ain’t got none in this hand and I ain’t got none in this hand, so I ain’t got none, and it’s wrong to say I have if I ain’t.”


Brave, brave Miss Haynes tried again.


“I mean pretend, dear, pretend that you have.”


Being so instructed, Anna pretended and came out with the triumphant answer, “Fourteen.”


“Oh, no, dear,” said brave Miss Haynes, “you’ve got sixteen. You see, seven and nine make sixteen.”


“I know that,” said Anna, “but you said pretend, so I pretended to eat one and I pretended to give one away, so I’ve got fourteen.”


I’ve always thought that Anna’s next remark was made to ease the look of pain and anguish on Miss Haynes’s face.


“I didn’t like it, it wasn’t nice,” she said, as a sort of self-inflicted punishment.


This sort of attitude to the Mister God stuff of numbers was almost unforgivable, and it rocked Anna more than somewhat.



Excerpt 2


“Mister,” she said, “do you always work here?”


“Most times,” the policeman replied.


“Mister,” Anna took his hand and pulled him to the wall, “mister, is the Thames the water, or the hole it goes in?”


The policeman looked at her for a moment and then replied, “The water, of course. You don’t have a river without water.”


“Oh,” said Anna, “that’s funny, that is, ‘cos when it rains it ain’t the Thames but when it runs into the hole it is the Thames. Why is that, mister? Why?”




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Alternative Schools

Dec. 22nd, 2007 | 11:38 am

If you want to find out about alternative schools in India, this one is a good book to begin with: Alternative Schooling in India edited by Sarojini Vittachi and Neeraja Raghavan with Kiran Raj, published by Sage. ‘Alternative’ comes across as a vague term to many. The introductory chapters offer a wonderful sense of the various meanings and associations it carries: sensitive to the child’s interests and pace of learning, non-violent in its pedagogical style and evaluation system, based on co-operation rather than competition, valuing hands-on learning as opposed to rote learning and reproducing from memory, etc.


The book is useful because it brings us the perspectives of insiders – kids, parents and teachers. Anyone who is considering sending their kids to such a school or is even curious to know what the buzz is all about, will benefit from the first-hand accounts. The book also contains a substantial directory of alternative schools in India, including their philosophy of education, their teaching methods, their contact details, etc.


Here’s a review you might like to look at:



I bought my copy from Kolkata where I was attending bal vividha, a festival on alternative approaches to learning organised by Comet Media Foundation. That is something I’ll reserve for another post.




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On Taare Zameen Par and An Invitation

Dec. 21st, 2007 | 09:23 pm

I am so happy that I watched Taare Zameen Par two hours ago. It’s beautiful, heart-warming, full of hope. It’s been a while since I’ve had people wondering why on earth I would like to become a teacher. Taare Zameen Par is my answer.


We need friendlier schools where children would be happy to spend their day, eager to come back and tell their family about the wonderful time they had learning about various things and just having plain fun. I hope the film reaches out to as many people as possible. Thankfully it is not a rhetorical rant about the problems with the education system. It wouldn’t have been this effective in that case. It is such a honest, sincere attempt to help us look within and around us and realise just how violent we are with kids – with their imagination, their world, their self-respect, their creative expression, their ways of learning.


If you’ve somehow got the notion that the film is only about dyslexia, let me share with you that it isn’t. It is to the credit of the filmmakers that they haven’t depicted dyslexia as an illness, but made an attempt to explain what it means and involves in an uncomplicated and accessible manner. But the film is as much about childhood, parenting, teaching and creativity. Children deserve our love and encouragement. They enjoy having someone around who would listen to just what they have to say, someone whom they can speak to without any fear, someone who can respect the space they need to express what they feel. It is our responsibility to nurture them like precious flowers.


Taare Zameen Par also compels us to enquire what learning means to us, and if what passes off as education is really worth all the effort, hype and energy. But it doesn’t stop at that. It also urges us to consider healthier and happier alternatives. Today, I start this blog hoping to share with you my explorations in this area…books, websites, workshops, films, other experiences. I invite you to be part of this journey and share.


Three cheers to Ishaan Awasthi and Ram Shankar Nikumbh!!!






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