No prescribed textbooks, no exams or marks at junior level. Classes named after mountains, rivers and trees instead of grades and a curriculum based on students’ surroundings. Such is the teaching style of Vidya Vanam, a school for the kids of daily wagers in Anaiketty, a village in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. Started in 2007 with just 40 students, today it teaches more than 300 local tribal children.
Not everybody can afford to study, but schools like these are making education accessible to all. Keeping up the good work, Mysuru-based Kaliyuva Mane and Hamari Kaksha in Chandigarh are teaching child labourers and school dropouts.
These schools offer free education as they receive funds from corporates, public, family and friends. Though Vidya Vanam charges a nominal fee of `1,300 to `1,900 a month for those who can afford it, Kaliyuva Mane resorts to help from alumni and students from other schools. “These students collect old newspapers from homes in surrounding areas and sell them. We’ve managed to collect `15 lakh since the school’s inception in 2005, through this method,” says Ananth Kumar, founder of Kaliyuva Mane.
The schools have one more thread in common—devising their own curriculum for junior classes because children start learning from prescribed textbooks only in Class VIII or IX. “Some students have not sat on trains, even seen a surrounding village. How will they understand World Wars or Indian history first?” asks Prema Rangachary, director, Vidya Vanam. “Hence, the whole syllabus is based on things students can become familiar with,” she adds.
And the methodology they stick to, in educational parlance, is known as alternative schooling, also known as experiential learning or teaching through activities.“Learning through the word gives us only partial understanding,” says Rangachary. “Therefore, when children touch, feel, smell, taste an object, they understand it in totality instead of learning it as a word or picture in a book.”
Therefore at Vidya Vanam, lesson plans are based on interdisciplinary interactions around the same theme. “For instance, if students are to be taught about water, then the Science class will deal with questions related to its composition (H2O), History class will talk about civilisations that flourished along rivers and in a Math class, students will have to calculate the volume of a dam,” says Rangachary.
Similarly, at Kaliyuva Mane, children will learn about money through a Kids’ Bank where they exchange school currency against the supplies and learn to be morally responsible through a Kids’ Court. From the opening and closing of a door, they learn mathematical angles and learn waste management, rain water harvesting and organic farming on the campus.
On the other hand, Hamari Kaksha, founded in 2003, is an after-school remedial programme catering to 400 students. It focuses on teaching basics to children through activities, irrespective of their age and grade, in their respective municipal or state schools. “Once they feel confident about what they’ve learnt, we help them catch up to their specific grade level,” says founder Anuradha Sharma. “We teach all core subjects through theatre, story-writing, field visits, photography, art and craft.”
These schools are also dedicated towards preparing children for their board exams and in dealing with life after school.
“Though we have our own methodology till Class VII, after they are mature enough to understand the ideas of testing and evaluation, we move them into a mode that addresses the requirements of a board exam,” says Rangachary. Vidya Vanam had their first batch of children pass out last year. While Durka Devi, 17, scored 72 percent, Subhash secured 88 percent in their state board exams and they are both now pursuing Science in other state-run mainstream schools.
“My parents are field labourers earning `8,000 a month. I am happy that I will be able to add to the household income but my parents are happier that I can now talk in English,” says Devi, who aspires to be a nurse. This year at Kaliyuva Mane, six out of seven children, including school dropouts, those with special needs and child labourers, cleared their English medium board examination. Among them were R Vighnesh and N Kiran, both 17, who scored 70 percent and 63 percent, and now want to graduate in Science.
However, for these students, the journey ahead is going to be a beginning of a different way of life, say experts. “Though students from alternative schools have been found to be more compassionate, they have an opinion and speak their minds, this could be perceived as an ‘attitude problem in high schools,” says Gita Bhalla, associate director of the V Excel Educational Trust that runs the Ira Institution for Learning.
Dr Samir Dalwai, a developmental paediatrician believes most students could also feel lost in a crowd because they are not used to following a rat race. But alternate education is for sure leading them to become better human beings, who are trained to make their own way.