|Project Update! Sai Baba Path Public School: Ecosystems, Upcycling and
Learning for Peace.
Last week, Prashant and I did the final pack, made final mechanical adjustments and rode out from Pune to begin the ride. Our first stop: Mumbai, aka. Bombay, India’s Maximum
City. Here we spent one week at Sai Baba Path School, a public school where some very special work is taking place. Our hostess, Meenal Borawake Srinivasan, has been working here with a dedicated team to bring innovative pedagogy to an underprivileged community of students. We spent three days with the teachers, students and families of Sai Baba Path Public School, leading sessions with both students and teachers and experiencing the incredible hospitality of the community of Jijamata Nagar. Our goals in this engagement were to: introduce principles of experiential education to the teaching team and thus; to assist in the school’s shift from traditional forms of teaching; and to introduce students to concepts of sustainability and practices of upcycling. The following is a summary of this project: the people, places and work.
We arrived to Sai Baba Path School to a simple and beautiful welcome from parents, teachers and students. A simple puja to welcome us and we were ready to go. Minutes later, we were planning our first session for a group of some seventy students, ages 11-14, learning about ecosystems and upcycling.
Ecosystems, Environment and our role in it all.
We wanted to introduce students to a basic understanding of ecosystems, the physical environment around us, and most importantly our role in maintaining and restoring the health of these systems. Being from inner-city Bombay didn’t stop the students from identifying biodiversity in their own surroundings, quick to name species of plants and animals around the school grounds. When it came to understanding ecosystems—and systems in general—it was time for a game. The more complex the concept, the more experiential learning can help in the learning process. In the Ecosystems Game, we learnt about ecosystems, our role in them, and how everything is interdependent, humans included. Students formed groups to represent one part of the ecosystem and environment around us. When one group tugs the rope, everyone feels it. WE ARE ALL CONNECTED..!
Key concepts learnt: Ecosystems, Environment, Biodiversity, Human impact, Interdependence.
On Day 02, Prashant led a session on UPCYCLING. Everything from plastic bottles turned into drip-irrigation systems, to car tires turned into comfy couches. Prashant puts it simply to the 5th standard students: “Upcycling is making best, from waste”. Prashant is the right person to teach this subject as after finishing his studies in mechanical engineering, he cofounded Rebirth, an upcycling design firm that since has done dozens of projects throughout Pune, turning waste into functional and beautiful design. While Prashant has put Rebirth on hold for now, he’ll be putting his full skill set to use in our next project: designing and building human homes from waste and naturally sourced materials, in Pushkar, Rajasthan. The session with students ended with a homework assignment: find one upcycling project you can do at home this week!
On our last day, our host and director of Educo, Meenal, asked us to do two last sessions with the 6th and 7th standard students: about peace. “They need to know that peace is more than an idea…” she said. Ben planned a session and the students brought it to life. What is peace? The students took turns explaining the importance of listening to others, feeling compassion and empathy. These students, speaking in a second—or third language—have grown up largely in a slum neighbourhood and at the age of thirteen, are able to openly share insights that few professional adults could have. What is the opposite of peace? Feeling angry, scared; being unkind; violence; war. Prashant took the conversation deeper. “If we live together, share the things we have, and burn down all the forests, is that peace?” Peace goes beyond the human agenda. It is inherently linked with the wellbeing of plants, animals and whole ecosystems and the non-living environment: water, air and mountains. In this session, we asked students what is required to engage in peace-work, and pushed them to see themselves as agents for peace in their own lives, communities and school.
That day these same students had put on a street theatre piece about gender issues. In our last session, it all came together. Peace means sharing the work at home, respecting each other regardless of gender, class or caste. Peace means FEELING and BEING. It is an active phrase.
And its not too early to start the work of peace.
In our time at Sai Baba Path School, we stayed in Jijamata Nagar: the community of the students and families of the school. Hosted by Vishal, a young Teach for India fellow, we spent three days getting to know the winding paths and impossibly narrow stairways of the community—especially for Buddy!—as well as the unbelievable hospitality, great food and open hearts of the families who hosted us.
Jijamata Nagar is a community living with very little governmental services, and sighted to be demolished to make room for high-rise development in coming years. The families here almost all faced mass unemployment when the local mill industry was outsourced and the jobs disappeared. This was followed by a wave of criminality and mafia rule. Now, thanks in part to longstanding grassroots social activism projects, the community is safe, warm and welcoming, the streets are colourful and everywhere we went students from Sai Baba Path took our hands and led us home for chai, food and stories.
Our evenings with the families of Sai Baba Path were full of easy humour and heartfelt conversations. Again and again people expressed gratefulness towards the school and the Educo program, of education that would be otherwise inaccessible. And the students themselves know this too. Their dedication and vigour in their learning is both inspiring and humbling.
In our time at Sai Baba Path, lunch mysteriously arrived for us every day: homemade soul food. We soon realized it was students’ parents who were taking turns to prepare us meals (see Ben’s meeting with one such school parent below). When we stayed in the community, we visited the homes of these families and shared food together. The food was unending, and people gathered wall-to-wall to share stories and tell us about their work, lives and families, and to ask us about the Vasudhaiva Ride. We can’t thank these families enough for their generosity, nor the women who prepared our food each day we were engaged in this project. We reckon we each gained 1 kilo at least.
If peace is the vision, the students of Sai Baba Path make their own learning the path to peace. The same students who live with little room at home to spread a textbook, met us every day at school dressed impeccably and passionately ready to learn. And they are miles ahead of the game. They understand the value of their education. They jump to answer questions and often would beat us to the point in discussions about sustainability, community wellbeing and peace. When they enter the school in the morning to start the day, they touch the floor in respect. Education here is much more than learning the class content. Its growing, and learning to live as confident young people, and most importantly as a caring community.
Meenal Srinivasan is the woman who brought Educo to Sai Baba Path. For Meenal, education is a right, not a privilege and she works to bring quality education to the children who deserve it: cutting-edge pedagogy that is child centric, active and socially resonant, to create compassionate citizens for today’s India (See more at: www.educo.in). Meenal and her teaching team work tirelessly to make this happen and the results you can see in the students every day and in every classroom. Significantly, the Educo teaching team are all local teachers from the public school system, as opposed to internationals or private-sector teachers, and the programming is simple and effective. It is a truly grassroots program, on that brings training to local teachers for local students, and enriches the immediate society.
The teachers: WOMEN lead the way.
It has taken me some time—two years and counting—to understand the many contradictions within India. One of these is the role of women: in some cases outright oppressed, in other fields, indisputably leading the way forward in society. Such is the case of the teaching team at Sai Baba Path. With a few exceptions, all women, local to the area and in love with their work. We were lucky enough to visit many of their classes, to watch the passion and skill with which they teach and the friendships they extend to their students: one of the secrets to the success, I think, of Educo and Sai Baba Path School. In a teacher training session on our last day, we invited the teachers to consider the role of the teacher beyond delivering course content: the teacher as a guide, a mentor and friend; if we, teachers, are training the next generation, what are we training them for and how are we training them to live, to act towards one another and the world around them. The role of the teacher is paramount in a student’s learning and with this comes great responsibility. To the teaching team at Educo, this comes naturally.
While there are many issues regarding gender in Indian society—and globally—these women are making steps each and every day with their work, educating the next generation to do things differently, to challenge gender roles and question oppressive norms in their culture and society. It is a bold movement that is happening person-by-person, and we are honoured to have spent time with this team. As Prashant said in our last moment all together, “What you are doing is no less than activism”.
… the end beginning.
Our time with the students, teachers and families of Sai Baba Path School and the Jijamata Nagar community, though too brief, has inspired us deeply, and we are excited to share their story through the ride. We also are hoping to make a visit for a follow up project on our Southward journey this March.