A mountain to climb

23rd May 2014 at 01:00
In the Himalayas, a creative approach is a radical change for pupils

I had been wondering for some time how I could use my experience as a teacher to help children in rural India. An opportunity presented itself when I came across an invitation from the Avalokitesvara Trust on Facebook. They were looking for teachers from all around the world to volunteer their services. What better way to spend my mid-term holidays.

The destination was Leh. Lying under the shadow of the great Himalayan mountain range, Leh is situated 3,500m above sea level. The beautiful city is dotted with Buddhist stupas and crumbling Ladakhi buildings. As my taxi hurtled through the tiny lanes, I watched the stark, Mars-like landscape fly past me. Eventually we arrived at a sprawling school beneath the icy caps of Mount Stok Kangri.

Jamyang School was built with funds from the Dalai Lama's charitable trust. It opened in 2008 and has been running quite successfully since. This residential school for students up to the age of 13 takes in children from all over Ladakh, including many migrants from neighbouring Tibet.

What friendly people they were. Children with rosy cheeks and shy smiles greeted me everywhere I went. Despite this, the first day I stepped into school I felt awkward and nervous. I knew that planning lessons in advance was futile; I would need to get a feel for each class first.

I was a little shocked when I got into the classroom. The walls were bereft of any student work. Girls and boys sat in quiet rows on the floor, their bags propped up as makeshift desks. They read from English textbooks they barely understood. The teacher stood in front of the children and taught. They listened. Occasionally, a pupil was whacked with a stick for getting an answer wrong.

My approach was radically different. In most schools in the West it would be viewed as standard, but here it was as left-field as they come.

In my first class, with younger students, the children gasped with delight as I took out oil paints, pastels, crpe paper, brushes, colourful beads, clay, strings and different sized cartons from my "magic" box. As I read Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar, acting out each page, the little ones listened intently. At the end of the lesson, they couldn't believe their luck when I asked them to create their own collage and put it up on the wall. During break, they crept into the classroom to take a peek at their handiwork.

With the older children, I introduced project-based learning. They were focusing on the Indus Valley Civilisation and had the dreariest-looking textbooks I had ever seen. The illustrations failed to do their job, which was to pique the students' interest. Seeing this, I asked the principal to let me use the computers in the administration building. After much hesitation, he finally agreed. As the children watched videos, browsed the net and looked through pictures of burial sites, pottery and remnants of the old city walls, the topic came to life. And when I asked them to recreate the civilisation using models and creative writing, I was amazed by their ingenuity and sense of collaboration - especially when they had done nothing like this before.

The local teachers were a little perplexed by this method of learning and did not seem convinced of its efficacy. However, all that mattered to me was that, when I left after two weeks, the children begged me to come and teach there again.

Naini Singh teaches at a school in Hyderabad, India

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