We are open!

This morning I was preparing dosas on one burner, tea on the other, loaded the cooker with dal and rice and kept the milk for its ceremonial boil. While I worked with precise hand movements, frequently peeping at the clock which is purposefully running few minutes faster. I realised I was in the zone. I lined up the tiffin boxes and filled the water bottled. I also added a periodic holler at 5 minute intervals down the bedrooms. In one of the rooms I could hear an argument about how much toothpaste to take, gaining steam.

This was ok, nothing I can’t manage remotely. It was the other room with pin drop silence that was making me anxious. Before I marched into that room, I turned the browning dosa, poured another dollop of batter and spinned it with my ladle.

These high intensity workouts in the kitchen must ring a bell with some of you. Today was our first day at school. But there’s no bus waiting to catch. There’s no fear of getting remarked “late arrival” in diary. No last minute ironing of uniforms. No worries of not following the snack schedule. But this morning I am strutting in a frenzy. I want-to-be and have-to-be on time to open the front gates of our new school. Even though it is for 5 kids. Once a slacker, always a slacker.

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Doing the talk and walking the talk is quite different, I realise. Rewind a year ago, I would have been readying things for my childrens’ school, buying uniforms, toolkits, shoes etc. Eager to ship them out of the house. What had conspired and took us with a whirl is interesting to reflect upon today. Even though I keep saying that we have read John Holt and knew Sudbury Valley Schools, I hardly think we (my husband and I) ever came close to thinking of starting a school. Those were things we talked at tea parties with friends and cousins’ meet. It had just remained good material for gyan charcha. When it came to pick a school for our kids we put them in a school that seemed the most pragmatic to us. 

Maybe we were waiting for people like us to find each other. We found them indeed, a small group with a passion to create change. We disagree and debate on the silliest of the things, but we stuck to each other. Because we knew that was the only way this could work. Since then, it has changed everything. Forever. For our children life will never be the same again. I don’t expect them to be special. What they will have is a very unique childhood. I hope they will grow up to be self aware and fearless. Call it opportunity if you will, but I understand it is a difficult one.

I opened the locks in a rather contemplative mood. Self doubt comes naturally to me. The empty large rooms stared at me. Plain white walls demanding action. Few hundred books scattered on the floor waiting to be stacked up. The mess that needed to be cleaned. The path less travelled is difficult, I mock at myself. I take a deep breath, one day at a time. I turn around to find my partners-in-crime and their children. Screaming and screeching the kids were just happy for no reason. It is their first day too and look at me. My co-facilitator’s presence is assuring enough that we are in it together, I felt at home. We don’t know it all and will never do. This ever changing world and the children in it are all different. There is really no one-size-fits-all. 

We have come a long way but today we begin. I hope we maintain our eagerness to accept change and be open. Be inclusive and tolerant to all in our community. Rise up to every challenge. There are many things that we offer in a learning environment like this, but If I were to pick one precious thing then it is time. The luxury of time. Boundless with no commitments. 

I recently learned to swim and one of the initial lessons were to learn to float. I simply couldn’t do it. I struggled while all kids around me went on to the next level. The coach repeated that I need to relax my muscles. Finally when I got it I realised what he meant was let go. The moment I let go, I could see how much fun it can be. It is difficult to explain how that realisation happens. I simply didn’t let myself be. This is something we hope to offer in this learning environment. Self discovery!

Looking forward to many such discoveries in years to come. Sharing few pics of the day.

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New Beginnings!

Howdy people! One more year gone. A year that ended well with lots of new beginnings!

Last year environmental consciousness pushed me to do more. Composting and recycling plastics weren’t enough. I had been contemplating for a while but this year I made the switch to using menstrual cup. Stopped using shower heads in the bath and I now use only a pail of water for bathing. 

But the highlight of this year was our effort along with fellow parents from my childrens’ school that has culminated in starting our own school. This new school will provide complete freedom to children to chart their own path of learning. 

Last year the thing that I stuck to was my fitness routine which I ardently followed least three times a week. Starting the week with yoga + stretching, then I ran 5k midweek and ended with an intense cardio workout. This has tremendously helped me build excellent stamina.  

Few of the not so very proud things that I have done this year. Losing patience with my 8 yr old daughter?! I am not very happy about how I handle the situation sometimes. Primarily because now I think I have had enough and deserve a break to do things for myself.  

Secondly I guess I have become very edgy too. I am losing patience and have become very intolerant towards mediocre work and display of foolery. My sharp criticism sometimes is not received well. I realise its the way I put it too. I need to change that!

This is also the year that I turn 40. So I have great expectations from myself. Life begins at 40, some say!  Some of the things that I have noted here for myself in this year:

  1. Wake up @5 am
  2. Read. 20 books
  3. Write. Petitions, research papers, blogs
  4. Walk+Run. 2000 km
  5. Eat. More millet, protein
  6. Sleep. @10 pm
  7. Learn. Meditation
  8. Make. Videos
  9. Start. Carpooling
  10. Grow. Food

 

Schools : Past :: Future : ?

When I begin to write, I first think about the title, not always but usually. Then I make a quick search on the internet, just to make sure I don’t come out as stealing. The education conundrum, thats what came to my mind. Unsurprisingly the top few searches with same title called out the glaring inefficiencies of the education system (most of them surprisingly about Indian education). A report from Reuters on Indian schooling, a Pakistani educationist criticising the politicians and bureaucrats on only able to achieve 52% literacy and an article that talked about the pathetic quality standards at the university levels. 

Information available on this topic is quite a lot. Some of which unsubstantiated and biased. So I thought of starting my research from first principles so to speak.

How does one define education? Etymologically that is. Wikipedia says it is derived from the Latin origin ēducātiō which means breeding, rearing or bringing up. To nurture the child and help him grow. So it is a systematic way to pass on the knowledge, values and skills that the previous generations acquired. Thus, it is validated by the society and provided to its people for its own good. It is something that you take into your system that comes from outside. But can you educate one to walk or cycle? No. That comes from within which is known as learning. It is something that originates from the self. It can be innate and tacit. It can’t be taught, but it is an understanding which arrives in your conscious or subconscious. Learnings are instinctive and gained from experiences. Sometimes it takes the form of hunch or gut feeling. But how do you teach a gut to feel? Understanding of knowledge is very complex and abstract. When it comes to its delivery there is broadly an instructional mode and an intuitional mode. You can’t program the masses to have the exact intuition but you can mass produce textbooks. Maybe thats why we landed up in an instructional mode of knowledge dissemination.

Peter Gray, developmental psychologist in one of his articles mentions that tens of thousands of years ago when we were a nomadic tribe we were highly skills and knowledge intensive society. Because to hunt and gather food one needed to know about plants, keep a watch on animals, make efficient tools etc. Researchers who studied these tribes say that they never separated work from play. Then roughly 10,000 years ago after agriculture was invented, human beings settled in places. Surety of food gave them opportunity to have more children. Also it worked in their favour as more children would mean they had extra hands to plough and sow the land, help with household chores or to take care of other siblings. This is how it started. 

Utilising or employing young children for the works of the family or society. Whereas they would rather spend their time outside playing but they had to be beaten down and tamed to be useful. This was unnatural to the very being of a child where play and exploration was part of living. Later with the advent of factories children were employed as large scale unskilled labourers. Agriculture labour really helped breaking their will and succumbing them to the pressures of work that was repetitive and mundane. This helped in getting the workforces in factories to fall in line and be obedient to the authorities. Education thus became a vehicle through which newly minted workforce could be produced to do brainless repetitive work. It was the Protestants who first made it compulsory to have every child to go to school. They thought that everyone has a right to interpret the Bible and get emancipated.

During the early 19th century, curriculum was put into school. Curriculum became the idea or the mechanism through which the perceived knowledge was packaged into a dispensable format. Carefully then it was divided into chunks of subjects of sciences, math and languages. Further classifying them into age appropriate categories. Everything that deemed necessary for making a civilised “man” was put in the bucket (on the timeline of education, women going to schools is a recent phenomenon). 

Late 19th to early 20th century is when schooling became very competitive and was pursued only with self interest. The defects of following the system became very evident in our generation. John Taylor Gatto, an American educationist and a teacher for 30 years says that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders. In 1990 he was called by the US Senate committee to talk about how schools in future will look like. For which he said “school in 2000 will look exactly like school in 1990. School in 1990 is almost exactly like school in 1890.” The way schools are right now it can’t feed the pace of current going-ons in our world. It has not changed much since 150 years ago when the Prussians first devised this model of education. 

Educational consultants I met, one of a kind niche professionals of today, think the current education can only help one get data entry jobs. What children of tomorrow need are  leadership qualities, problem solving and critical thinking. Hence they are leading us towards International Schools. The reputed Forbes magazine has estimated the International Schools market to be $89 billion market by 2026, of which $39 billion will be raised by pupil fees. More than half of these schools are in Asia. Yes its only us folks who thinks international is everything to do with “west”. The rise of edu tech startups, some of which backed by Zuckerbergs and Premjis of the world are now a hundred billion dollar industry. Gamification of education and delivering it on cool apps is their answer to rid the boring classes and teachers. Various Online and Open courseware available are completely changing the way we will learn in future. An article on smithsonian.com talks about colleges in Europe and the US are going to become irrelevant by 2030. The large overhead costs and popularity of online courses are not making it viable anymore to run a juggernaut that a University is. 

What is then the right path that leads to learning? Filling up as many kids in a class is not lifting the masses. Connecting them to electronic gadgets is not making them social and problem solvers either. Maybe we are thinking hard on the problem the wrong way. Why not leave it to them? Let’s put them on the driver’s seat and hand them the rein. Some of us may scream…no way! How can they take decisions for themselves? We have to tell them what to do, what to want or wish? The main impediment in bringing about this change is us. We just can’t let go. I know its difficult and am learning too. But how wonderful it would be to leave our children in an environment where they are free to learn and explore? 

It is a false notion that a child can’t learn unless taught. A striking example of this is an infant learning to balance her head thats close of 30% of its body weight. Then learn to crawl, sit and walk, all of which completely self taught. Mind you these are one of the most difficult of physical skills we would ever learn in our lives. They make long jumps, double cartwheels and mid air somersaults all look cakewalks. While we were learning all this acrobatics we learnt to comprehend language and also to speak. All of this within the first two years of our lives. We don’t need teachers to teach but to facilitate learning. Teachers have to be learners themselves, because they are not keepers of the vast knowledge anymore. That is Google’s job. Knowledge is not wrapped in an expensive hardbound book, it is now floating on the cloud with access to all. Answers are not the only important thing its the questions that are now vital. If we stop being curious we can’t progress. Curiosity of a child is the most valuable asset. What’s the worst fear we as parents have? That our children will not learn and not survive? By virtue of millions of years worth evolution and the way we are wired its impossible for our species not to learn. Isn’t that how we survived the dark and ice ages, world wars and cold wars, floods and famine. So worry not, we shall also survive the politicians of our age! 

I don’t intend to be evangelistic here. And I am sure you know it deep down that my worry of all this is not redundant. My only effort is to urge you to question. It is coming is all am saying. So, when it knocks at your door, what will you do?

Education and what it didn’t do for the Indian populous

Think about the purpose and the scope of education in our society and you will agree that it needs to change for the future. The purpose of education in our society has primarily been that of elevating the masses towards human development. To be literate has been reduced to having the basic skills to read, write and count. We were predominantly an agrarian society till few decades ago when the masses migrated to cities for a better and sustained livelihood. Where new skills were required to quench the mechanised industries. They required workers who operated machines in factories, several small scale industries and textiles mills which constituted the blue collar economy. Besides being literate they needed different skillsets. Compared to the generation prior they did better in terms of providing food and basic comforts, and of course had their challenges. But this generation also knew that the only way to push their children out of this kind of life and into white collar jobs was to aspire for them much lucrative – pensioned government jobs.

The state couldn’t provide jobs for all and the only way to select a few was to measure everyone on a single yard stick of educational merit. The certificates were only meant to be the foot in the door, everyone agreed the real learning happened on the job and shop floors. In that regard the current education did very little for us. But to say that it was completely futile would be too harsh. My parents and the extended family is today an example of that. My father, the 8th among the 9 children used to walk 8-9 kilometres a day to go to a school in rural Kerala in the 1950s. After he topped the SSC board, he was busy taming cows and goats, while his elder siblings similarly having completed basic schooling were busy tilling the land. Upon the insistence of his teacher, my father’s widowed mother gave him the permission to travel outside of Kerala (the first person to do so in family) to join the Indian Airforce. After 15 years of service he retired and joined the banking sector, all the while collecting degrees in economics, accountancy, sociology and humanities through correspondence. He knew he would need them to move on in life. Having jumped ahead of the lot, my father found himself morally responsible to mentor the children of his siblings. He would tutor them to appear for government exams and our house became the launching pad for many of my cousins, who would then fly off to greener pastures.

While growing up priorities were made very clear to my brother and I, the only way to progress any further in life was to study hard. So both of us did that, we became engineers and went abroad to further study. We also collected degrees, BE, MS, MBA. Did this make our lives better? Yes it did. With greater knowledge, are we pursuing our passions? I don’t even know what that means. From an agrarian income dependent family in the past two generations we have become a knowledge centric family spread across the globe. We build chateaus on paddy fields now. 3 out of 5 of my cousins belong to either of these professions: teachers, bankers, engineers, doctors, dentists, ayurvedic doctors, pilots, researchers and MBAs, all of which need degrees and certificates. This is not an unheard story but a familiar one. This is debatable of course if all this can be considered as progress. If not completely happy, at least it has given us enough opportunity and financial independence to seek what happiness meant.

I was going through a recent article by the Oxford University and Human Development Index on decreasing poverty levels in different states in India. Though the article talks about the welfare schemes but it is difficult to miss the walloping truth that the literacy rates are comparable to how poor the state is. 40-52% of people in Bihar, MP, UP are below poverty levels which is very comparable to the literacy rates in those states. Malnutrition, child and women health is directly comparable to how literate the women in that area are. All of us know about the much applauded scheme of Nitish Kumar, Bihar CM where the government gave free bicycles to girls so that they can go to school.

The state’s juggernaut task of running close to 13 lakhs of schools with tens of lakhs of teachers could only achieve mere literacy, is a sad state of affair. Plus all of us put together we are not there yet. But if you were to step into the shoes of the State (if it were a human being) what else would you do to empower the masses? Besides running the welfare schemes and creating jobs, the only way to empower will be to make them literate and skills ready. Hence in the due course we have now an over supply of engineers and their employability is totally questionable. Just over a quarter of the engineers in India today are employable, said a much debated Mckinsey research report. AICTE has ordered to shut down close to 200 engineering colleges due to lack of proper facilities and standards. What this necessarily tells me is that we managed to put the foot in the door but completely forgot to take the brain along. We have pushed our children into going to schools but they still can’t put together a sentence. Reports of tenth standard students failing to do simple math is not new. No wonder we are a mediocre society, but a tolerant one who is patient towards failing infrastructure, substandard education and with a dearth of people with professional attitudes. Only because we don’t know as society how better can better be. We haven’t seen the brighter sides yet and our politicians’ and bureaucrats’ myopic visions can’t aspire a better life for us.

I was mulling over what education should mean to my children. I have that leisure today only because my father didn’t end up tilling the land. Having moved up the natural progression towards upward mobility in the current class society of India. Now I can take a pause. And think. 15 years hence what I do not intend to do is push them into the already overflowing pool of half witted professionals. Thankfully survival is not the question here, we have learnt how to do that. The second/third generation educated class have to really define what education means for next generation because they are the ones who will make the choice for them. What education should lead to is an environment where learning really happens, where a child can discover herself/himself and their passions, strive for excellence, fight their battles, survive in this overpopulated world with meagre resources, be sensitive to nature and contribute to society. So it’s about time. This shift and change of mindset needs to happen now. Because the leaders of tomorrow are in kindergarten today.

still writing Part 2….

“We are the 99%”

This is the most powerful slogan from the Occupy Wall Street movement. This was a protest in 2011 addressing to tackle the hardcore capitalistic agenda of decades which created the social and economic divide in the Amercian society. This was not a leader led movement but people led in its true sense. “the 99%” says it all. It captures the emotions of the general population that has been victimised under the hands of a few “1%”. People felt they were cheated of their fare share of opportunities.

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From moment to movement

I went through a similar feeling last week. A few like minded parents of the Shishuvan school, where my children go, met under the King’s Circle bridge in Matunga. The agenda was to discuss the mass resignations happening in school. The Principal, Vice Principal had resigned in protest along with four other staff members. The school is managed by a Trust that belongs to a minority community. The protest was against this Trust that has set in motion a divide in ideology and the founding principles of the School. “From an open and inclusive culture it has started to become stifling”, said one of the staff members who resigned. The trust component was missing now. Rumours said that many more resignations were in pipeline.

When the school reopened this academic year, it seemed not ready yet. Small things like diaries and ID cards were missing. Children from primary section were asked to bring cash for their books, which was unheard of before. Some may argue these are smaller issues, but I have heard its where the rot begins.

School’s ERP system was up in toss. The teacher retention is poor, despite 80% increase in fees in the past three years. Parents were all anxious and shaken by the current upheaval and decided to write an open letter. The idea of an open letter turned to an online petition addressing the Trust and the Shishuvan staff. Soon a whatsapp group was created, “Save Shishuvan”. The title so apt, must have struck a chord with the larger community of parents. From a group of 7-8, we were 150 parents in a matter of few hours. A well defined and curated petition was floated. Very efficiently the petition found its way in all the groups of all grades. Many called their fellow parents hoping to wake them up from slumber. The expectation was only 200 signatories but it snowballed to 900+ signatures in 4 days. Our petition demanded a parents sabha, an open forum where the members of the Trust, Shishuvan staff and Parent body come together to discuss the resignations. We were 900 hopeful parents. We had the voice and we had spoken!

A group of 60+ parents got together to submit the petition in person to the Trust’s office but found a “closed door”. Later during the day the management announced that they accepted the resignations and the handover was to be done in two days. The chitter-chatter and the notification dings in the groups stopped. Though only for a few seconds, but the silence was killing. Then phone calls to each other began and frantic typing on groups started again. One of the parent said, “they nuked us”.

We were idealists and maybe even romantics. Seeking the change like its our right. We misinterpreted the strength of the 1%. We were so hopeful, that it made us dream again for the future of our children. I am disappointed and now doubting if I was also delusional. Didn’t I see it coming? But hope is infectious. Like one of the other poster in the OWS movement says, “You may say I am a dreamer, but I am the only one awake”.

Feeling proud to have been part of this journey.

My childhood memory

One of my fond memories of childhood is taking these long journeys in train. There’s something about the whole experience that has left an indelible mark in my mind. I remember them quite fondly, it wasn’t nice or special, rather it was contrary. It used to be one of the very few intriguing experiences a typical Indian middle class family could offer 8 year olds. At least till 20 years ago. Especially for us, me and my brother, it can only get as adventurous as this, since we had a very protective childhood.

We were from Kerala but lived in Surat, Gujarat. My father served in the Air Force for 15 years wherein he travelled the length and breadth of our country in trains. Later he joined the banking sector and got domesticated. This is very normal for us Kerallites, we are largely non residents. Like most migratory birds, as summer approaches we flock together southward. And the great Indian Railways was our only solace. Connecting regions unknown like stitching mismatched pieces of cloth. Or what else binds them, Ahmedabad and Kolkata; Jaipur and Delhi; Okha and Eranakulum except for these railway tracks. Indian railways is the fourth largest rail network in the world and carries about 22 million passengers every single day. It is a saga in itself.

Train travelling is not all that easy, it gets sweaty in the sleeper class and sometimes the compartments had cockroaches. The fetid stench of the bathrooms can put a person of any size to coma. But yet it was not boring. At nightfall, me and my brother would fight to sleep on the upper berth. Once my father figured to stop us from fighting it was best to put both of us to task. He asked us to jot down all the stations and rivers that went by. He made us believe that he had this master list from the train’s driver, a Malayali from the same village. Upon hearing this my brother had a quizzical look, after some back and forth, he looked convinced, then I too would join the game. One such night I insisted that I would sleep sitting near the window, or I shall miss all the stations going by at night. I was fascinated by names of stations like Guntakal, Jowalarpattai and Kuruduwadi. Sceneries would keep changing as we moved kilometres, it goes from warmly green to sparse mountains to the dry boulder stretches of Deccan or the lush green coconut and palm trees of Kerala. Many valleys and rivers would pass under our feet. Not to mention the varied scripts written in yellow/black on the stations.

Our journeys were as long as 50 hours, after we alighted, I would still feel the ground beneath me swaying for a day or two. Food for the train was made with special care and packed with precision. My mother would make them semi-dry so that it would last long. We had a designated food bag, a multi-tier steel tiffin that otherwise never came out of the attic. Pulli sadam (tamarind rice) and nimbu sadam (lemon rice) would be meticulously spread in thalis for a session of cool down under the whirling ceiling fan. It will then be packed in portion sizes in roasted banana leaves which again would be wrapped in a newspaper and again in a plastic packet. Aloo bhaji, puris, tomato and onions chutneys, hard boiled eggs (my father’s favourite), pickles of mango and lemon would go in the tiffin. Mor kuttan (buttermilk curry) or rasam in Kissan Jam glass bottles. Dry snacks like murrukku and paka wada which would be prepared days in advance and we would know about them only when she takes them out in the train. She would also take Rasna, the coloured squash drink that many of the children from 80’s would remember. We had the Milton’s Kool Keg for drinking water which was so huge that it qualified as another piece of luggage. These were the good old days before the plastic bottled water. Refilling the keg was a big deal as according to my father water can’t be refilled at every stations, it had to be a “junction” like Vasai or Erode. Apparently thats the time when coaches also get refilled. Obviously we had time in hand. I remember opening the lid of the kool keg and finding the tiny plastic cups stacked underneath the lid and its tap perpetually dripping. The keg would sit on the upper berth with its nozzle perching out where my mother would put either a piece of cloth or some newspaper to soak the water.

If we didn’t get reserved tickets for all then we would be sharing the berth. Me and my mother would fit in one berth with our heads on opposite ends. I always then wondered how she slept in a saree. We made friends with our co-passengers. Mothers with other mothers and kids with other kids. My mother would be chatting heart galore with other ladies, as no household chores or homework of kids bothered them here.

It would be very unfortunate, if I couldn’t get my kids to be a part of this saga. So I soon will one day embark again, this time I will be the mother.

Black and White

I haven’t picked my side yet, but I will have to. This is a very peculiar phase in one’s life. Some of you would have been here, if not already, in a while you will one day. All of sudden you find yourself on the other side but feel cheated because no one told you in the first place. The more I think about it the more I observe it in people around me. My house maid, most of my colleagues, few my aunts, friends, acquaintances, all of them do it. But the common denominator is that they are all women. Men flaunt and women hide it.
Recently my mother had come to stay over. She happened to notice my ever casual attitude in this regard and it greatly perturbed her. Even at the slightest mention, I would be on guard. She had expected this reaction but it made me introspect. So I took a long look at myself in the mirror and found the evidence. I was ageing and rounding off to forty. There was no going back. We are all ageing to die one day. My heart sank, only when I was about to get things right in life, now I can’t look the same. I assured myself it’s post partum, erosion of calcium, lack of B12, D3, pollution, stress, blah blah… But there is no fooling oneself. The clock is ticking and its showing on my face. After a while I started side parting my hair, stuffing the silvery strands behind the blacks but it was only a temporary relief. Nothing seemed to work and I was under attack with vengeance. So I insisted it was the growing wisdom. Well the truth of which was self evident to people around me.
Anyhow, I noticed that men hardly care. Despite the ease of it compared to women, they look least bothered. And of course they have Richard Gere, George Clooney, Milind Somans to look forward to. Women have no one. None in Bollywood or media. There are many successful women in business but there’s hardly anyone gutsy enough to flaunt it. When it comes to women success is directly related with the way you look. In some marketing research, they figured out that 85% of American women colour their hair. They find that it affects their confidence level and how they are accepted among their colleagues. Mother of a friend of mine, used to dye her hair for ages and recently gave up. She says, “You can’t imagine, what a relief this is! I have decided to go grey with dignity.”
Even though gradually I hope find peace with the whites. Isn’t that the beauty of it…everything is very gradual on the time scale.