A Model School For Rural India

The model school concept is one of my most ambitious projects in Janwaar. If successful, it will transform schooling for the kids and slow down rural/urban migration.

An honest look at schooling in Janwaar isn’t promising. A badly equipped school, miserably trained and motivated teachers practicing outworn teaching methods in an authoritarian style. And no questions allowed. But that’s only one part of the story. The other is that parents don’t encourage their kids to go to school, they much prefer to let them work in the fields or in the house. And most of the kids aren’t even eager to learn because the benefits from schooling aren’t obvious, and it’s way too strict and boring as kids are made to sit quiet for hours. The midday meal might be the only inducement which makes school attendance worthwhile. The outcome of such a system is unacceptable. The kids can hardly read and write – they’ve never been encouraged to find out what they are good at and are unprepared to tackle the challenges of village life. They will either be unemployed or continue to do what their parents and grandparents have done! A few might migrate hoping to find a “better life” in the cities.

So the outlook is cheerless and dark. That’s the situation in Janwaar.

What we lack is a school which suits the needs of the millions in rural India. A school which provides fun, empowers the kids to live better lives and allows them to do very practical things which make daily life easier and which might even become a source of income. What we need is a school which is kid- not teacher-centric, cherishes diversity not uniformity and prefers emergence to authority. Based on our work in Janwaar and with the help of partners, we’ve started such a school and put it into practice. We learn and improve as we move forward.

Our school has five pillars. The first pillar is our government school where we focus on enriching the official curriculum with learning labs, we improve teacher quality, introduce better ways of learning and make the classrooms more appealing. The learning labs are organized in small groups, off the regular school schedule and are very hands-on. A lab is only created when kids articulate interest. It’s designed together with the kids. Sometimes they last a few hours, sometimes a few days, depending on the subject. Currently they are small in number but they’re easy to scale. To the mark sheet we add a detailed evaluation for each kid, describing in what the kid is good and not so good at, and how she/he has evolved over time. We’ve done workshops with the teachers trying to replace ex-cathedra teaching with interactive methods; group work was introduced and theatre plays performed. We’ve taken the kids on trips where a lot of informal learning happened. We’ve built two libraries in the village with open access to books for all. And the school has finally got electricity and fans.

Our major partner in all of this is Prakriti in Noida. With their help and expertise we also design the learning labs for the other four pillars of our model school. These pillars include subjects the government school does not cover and our kids love them: sports, the arts, farming and a maker space. Our main sport is skateboarding. All kids are self-learners and they’re among the best skateboarders in India. The sport labs include repairing and maintaining skateboards, and eventually building them. Some of our kids are ”hidden” artists. At Art Ichol’s ceramic center they learn everything about clay. They create tiny little skateboards which every visitor loves as a souvenir from Janwaar. This has become a source of income for Karan, one of our elder boys. In creative labs the kids design postcards out of plastic garbage, paint skateboards to auction them as “artboards” and they learn how to take photographs. In our Kisan labs – 90% of all the villagers are farmers – we build kitchen gardens and set up a community compost heap for organic waste. The manure which can be made from this helps to grow the kitchen gardens and the trees we plant. We also run experiments to enrich water. Our labs are MAKER labs – the kids literally build things. This way they learn how things function and immediately see the outcome of their work and its benefits. Very often the labs happen in our maker space, the Bamboo House, right next to the skatepark.

The model school provides a 360 degree learning experience – it starts in the village and comes back to it – and broadens the kids’ understanding of what learning is all about. Learning can be fun and is NOT restricted to textbooks and classrooms. The kids explore and experiment without the pressure of exams. This empowers them to become more complete human beings, to build a stronger village culture and to make a decent living in their own village.

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