Remember ME - You Me and Dementia

Monday, May 4, 2009

Alternative advantage, shackled by regulation

“Dinesh does not talk to us. He will turn away every time he meets us. I do not know what I have said to offend him; nor will he tell us. When he gets angry without a reason, I feel insulted and hurt," says 15-year-old P Penchilamma of her classmate at the 115-year-old Olcott Memorial High School in south Chennai. The class X student is talking to the school counsellor at a workshop for life skills.

What might seem like adolescent angst to most of us is a valuable lesson for Penchilamma. Her mother is a domestic servant and father a casual labourer; she does not find time to be with them and learn coping skills.

“I get angry quickly when people do not treat me fairly. But I feel guilty after my mood swings," says her classmate P Sivagami, also 15. Till they took part in the workshop, they did not realise these mood swings were a rite of passage into adulthood. “After giving our class X exams, we were under so much stress about our future, At this workshop, we have learned how to handle our emotions and the stress that could come with higher education,” say the friends.

The school initiated these training sessions to address teen depression and suicide in the community that their students come from, something absent in most of the Government-run high schools and many private schools.

Alternative schools push the envelope
“This is the advantage of alternative education, especially among the socio-economically backward community. It looks at development of the child as a whole and not just academically. When their parents are not in a position to provide for their emotional growth, the school steps in and be the parent too," says Lakshmi Suryanarayanan, head of Olcott Memorial High School, where around 560 students from around the south Chennai fishing hamlet of Urur Olcott Kuppam get to learn about a lot more than from textbooks. Apart from sticking to the curriculum, the school also runs an English Language Lab, a computer lab that links computer literacy and self-learning, and two counsellors.

Lakshmi points out that in most schools the teacher student relationship centres around academics, but alternative schooling for marginalised children has to extend beyond academics into a nurturing relationship too. A sick child has to be tended by the school, since their parents are often not immediately reachable due to the nature of their work. "Invariably you start looking at students as a whole," she says.

Often children from poor backgrounds have a high amount of stress that impacts their learning. Recent studies (by researchers in University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University) show that children from poor backgrounds have a reduced capacity of memory, which is believed to the result of stress that affects how children’s brains develop. Given strong anecdotal evidence, and current science, more schools are now tuning in to an alternative to the rote-oriented learning in the mainstream.

For V Uma, Managing Trustee, Suyam, alternative education thus becomes the way out of poverty. Working with a community that includes those rescued from begging, street children, bonded labourers in brick kiln, apart from pig farmers and marginal farmers, Suyam found a need for a child-centric approach to education. In 2000, the Siragu Montessori was started in suburban Palavedu Pettai (15 km northwest of Chennai). Today, Siragu has around 380 students and is about to send students into Class IX and Class X.

“We came up with our own books that stick to the prescribed curriculum at the same time incorporated the Montessori methodology of activity-based learning,” says Uma. Children stay in the hostels and are involved in activities including organic farming and arts and crafts, apart from academe. “We are confident our children can compete with those from elite schools. We encourage a child to learn by themselves and express themselves without hesitation, she says.
At The Shriram School in Thiruneermalai (20 km off Chennai), where around 800 students from neighbouring villages study, the story is no different. Most of the community is involved in construction work and the children are also first generation learners. With its students also at class VIII level, the correspondent is actively working with the government in getting the requisite affiliations for the school to grow into secondary and higher secondary levels. The correspondent, Vidya Shankar, says that shaping the curriculum for first generation learners is important.

“These children do not have support structures at home and rely on schools alone for their learning. The challenge lies in sticking to the prescribed curriculum while making the textbooks simple,” says Vidya.

By way of an example, Vidya compares the lesson on ‘Our Environment’ in both the NCERT book and State syllabus. “The NCERT book is full of self-learning exercises. While the state board text is exhaustive but requires by rote learning. The lesson construction is very heavy and rambling in the state textbook and full of details that are insignificant,'' says Vidya.

In educationally and socio-economically backward Dharmapuri, (around 260 km from Chennai) Puvidham Trust helps 83 children from tribal, farming and construction worker communities to receive an education that is skill-based and promotes self-learning. “Schools have become either too mundane or if they are progressive, too expensive. Most education does not allow the child the opportunity to think and the schooling then becomes a way to mould them to take orders. There are no lessons about managing real life situations,” says Meenakshi Umesh, Puvidham founder.

Based on the ideologies of Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore and Montessori methodology, the school teaches mathematics, science, social sciences and languages using farming and real life situations around them and learn how to manage them. Her school too takes the children up to the class VIII level and the students then join the government or private schools for the secondary, higher secondary education. “In the end, the parents want their children to be capable of taking board examinations and getting a collegiate education. If not, they will be designing agricultural tools at our school on a par with agricultural universities," she muses.

Read in detail:

Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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