The English Wall at Project Day

December 5th morning dawned bordering between pleasant and chilly, or so they tell me. I was somewhere between Chennai and Coimbatore, stumbling into flights and cabs and buses to get to the school on time for the Annual Project Day. My students and colleagues alike had sent me pictures of the exhibit while I spent the weekend in Bombay, and I couldn’t wait to see it myself. At 9:50 AM, I ducked under the rope that cordoned off the exhibit space and walked up to see how the ‘English wall’ looked.

Oh my god.

Spread across the wall in front of me was everything that the last six months had stood for. I had envisaged the layout one way, had simply sat my 8thstandard kids down and told them, and packed my bags for the weekend. And there it was, all laid out before me, an expanse of 50+ charts, three-four models, and two live counters. All ready to be flaunted.

The full spread, albeit with bad lighting and poor picture qualityThe full spread, albeit with bad lighting and poor picture quality

The centre of the exhibit was the outline of a human head juxtaposed against the world map (World Literature, you see). Coming out of the head were thoughts of various kinds. What is literature? What is writing? Why is writing literature? You look hard enough, you would have seen another bubble sandwiched between the others. Art for art’s sake, it read. Writing to write. To express. To communicate. Ask the kids and they would tell you that it meant writing just because (yes, even if that is an incomplete sentence) and not because it helped make or give you something else. We write because we want to write, Akka. And as an example of that, we spoke of nonsense literature, and stringing words together just for the joy of creating and expressing. “Like Carroll did in Alice and Wonderland, Akka, in Jabberwocky.”

This head was surrounded by the greats of literature – some of the most famous authors, poets, books, and Indian writers. It was coloured by conversation of how John Milton and John Keats were not related but Anita Desai and Kiran Desai were. It was about whether these were the only famous people there were or whether they were just a selection. It was questioning how many of these names I had read and why I hadn’t read the others. But more than anything else, it was discovery. Why are so many of them from England? How many women are there? How many of them are non-white? It was about taking this word called ‘literature’ and making it real, building it up into something solid.

Our Literature Man                                                                       Our Literature Man

Surrounding this Literature Head of ours, we had split the exhibit into vertical halves; one for poetry and the other, prose. Each section represented two countries – England (Daffodils) and Japan (haikus) for poetry, and Ghana (traditional folk story) and Colombia (Marquez’s Handsomest Drowned Man) for prose. We made charts that told you the story, that analysed it (what is the relationship between dialogue and emotion, what is said and what is felt), that extended it (crosswords and scrabble boards), and that made it our own. Dozens of haikus hung on scrolls around the Japan cloud, and students decided to take away from that “old man who wrote of flowers from some other country so long ago” and write their own poem. So occupying a seat of privilege next to Daffodils stood a massive double-chart titled The Rose, our very own mirror to Wordsworth’s Daffodils. Would I sound like a proud mother hen if I said I liked the mismatched rhythms of the double chart more?

Prose halfProse half

In front of this sea of charts stood our models. An origami garden to symbolise Japan and a two-thermocol layout that spelt out the Ghanaian story in sixteen scenes. Between these were our live counters – one where you could pick a chit to get your own personalised haiku, and the other to illustrate the art of translation (Tamil is an SOV language and English follows SVO, so what happens if you translate word for word?) Everyone knew everything, everyone seamlessly shifted from one role to the other, from one explanation to the next, from one chart to the one next to it.

Poetry bitsPoetry bits

Yet if there was one part of the exhibit that truly encapsulated all my time thus far in Vidya Vanam, it was a small book that lay amidst this riot of activity. In the middle of all this colour, it stood sober in its black and white design, its cover opening out to illustrate the layout of the school in the local Kurumba form of art. The title, ‘Voices’, found a snug corner to occupy. The book was 100+ pages long. Inside it were seventeen essays (each with an illustration) and six poems. Every contributor was a student.

Voices - our in-house coffee table bookVoices – our in-house coffee table book

Earlier in the term, when the principal asked me to produce a coffee table book, I reluctantly agreed, not sure if I would have the time and the bandwidth to take that project on. As D-Day got closer, my fears were proven right, and I told her I just couldn’t produce special content for the book. How about using content we already have, I asked her. Between the eighteen children in classes 9 and 10, I had about 150 essays written in the second term alone. What if we choose one per child and compile them? So that is what we did. One Saturday night, I opened an Excel (as many would recognise is my habit) to make out a book plan. Which essays from whom? What were the sections? What would the sections be called? About five days later, the book went to print, with each essay illustrated and each contributor having a profile and picture to flaunt. Handing over their copies to each of the kids, I felt a twang of pride. They had written every word. My only quiet contribution was to pen each of their profiles. They had published 100+ pages in four days.

Project Day has come and gone, and school is back to its normal grind. Yet, the remnants linger. Every time kids dare each other to remember Marquez’s full name (Gabriel Jose de la Concordia Garcia Marquez) and laugh at each other’s trip-ups, I smile. Do they know he is a Nobel Laureate, arguably the greatest Colombian to have ever lived? No. When they talk of how a man named Masaoka Shiki renamed the ‘hokku,’ traditionally the first two lines of a longer poem, to ‘haiku,’ a standalone piece, do they know that the knowledge was three days old in my head, discovering it only as I prepped for their session? No. When they point to Ghana on the map, correcting one another that the capital was Accra and not Agra, do they realise that many, many people wouldn’t know whether to point to the east or west of the continent? No. Instead, they remind my wandering eye that it is the “country next to Togo, Akka.”

Amidst the laughing and arguing, the making charts and colour coordinating sketch pens, planning models and sourcing materials, the remnants, the strains of knowledge far beyond the average English as Second Language curriculum, linger.

And this, I reminded myself, as I saw the faces of my little brood of ten students own the display like they grew up reading literature, is why I teach.

By Yashasvini Rajeshwar

A beautiful and memorable experience

I have been a teacher at Vidya Vanam from 2010 – 2011. I am leaving to continue my graduate studies. I taught science for children ages 7-9 years.

Working in Vidya Vanam has been a beautiful and memorable experience. There is a lot of autonomy for the teachers and new ideas are always welcome. The atmosphere is relaxed without compromising the standards of education and student expectation. The teachers and local people are very friendly. Most importantly the kids are a bundle of joy to work with and they have great respect and adoration for the teachers.  It is a pleasure to see them enjoy school and be busy learners.

The school is well connected to Coimbatore by frequent bus and taxi services. The living quarters, including bath and toilet facilities are very adequate and well maintained. Food is vegetarian and wholesome .The vegetables and milk comes from the extended campus or bought locally from the villages. There is internet access in the campus.

24 hours security in the campus makes it very secure especially for women who are planning to work here. Annaikatti is a very peaceful area. The serene atmosphere and home like facilities make it a pleasure to work here and makes one cherish the experience for a lifetime. Working in Vidya Vanam is an experience which no teacher should miss.

By Riya K
Science teacher


My Experience at Vidya Vanam

Before joining Vidya Vanam in September 2010, I was teaching English in Jamshedpur – my birth place. After obtaining my TESOL certificate in July 2010, I wanted to teach English as a Second Language and explore new dimensions in the field of teaching English. Thus, I came down to Vidya Vanam to teach English to Tamil speaking tribal children. It was a tough job but I took up the challenge readily. Here, learning takes place by seeing and doing and the children are  not only taught inside the classrooms but they also learn with the environment and surroundings. As a teacher I got complete freedom to use  novel  methods and tools in teaching. At Vidya Vanam, the teachers get immense freedom and support and regular workshops are also held for their professional development. As teaching and learning cannot be separated, this is the place where you can learn while teaching. As far as the place is concerned, the school is situated in the lap   of nature, surrounded by hills and lots of greenery with a soothing  climate. Annaikatti is a small tribal village 30 km N.W. of Coimbatore, nevertheless, it is equipped with good roads, water, electricity,  telephone and internet services. The bus stand is nearby the school from where frequent busses are available for Coimbatore. There are few shops  and eateries near the bus stand, where one can get the basic things. Albeit being a remote village; these amenities make life comfortable for a teacher staying here.

By Shouvanik Das
March 19, 2011    

Reflections on Vidya Vanam

This is my second visit to Vidya Vanam. I spent a day last year and decided to come for a longer stay this year. I teach students and teachers in Newton MA. Given my experience, I felt strongly that I could serve Vidya Vanam to whatever their needs may require.

So far I have had an unbelievably productive visit. After a day and a  half of observations I was able to start working with Nandini, the academic director, on their  English program. We’ve worked on components of literacy and putting together structures which will be relatively easy to implement after I leave.  We have created a sequence for teaching phonics from grades K through 6.  I’ve worked with staff on the five essential components of literacy and then am trying to demonstrate and teach several components. We’ve put together an outline for a literacy block and I have been holding small workshops each morning from 8 to 8:45 with  groups of staff. I’m trying to show staff how to do an explicit vocabulary lesson, how to use shared text to improve literacy, how to use experiential writing to increase literacy skills including fluency, showing why holding students and teachers accountable for sight  words will have a big pay-off. Tomorrow, Saturday, the staff will be here for a half a day, and I will do a workshop on the difference between assessment and testing.  We will  give the staff time to work on creating a literacy lesson plan for the week, after I model one for them. I am also working with Nandini and Ram (a young teacher here) about an effective way to improve English for the staff. I’m trying to be realistic about the constraints under which the school operates and am ever mindful that what they do here is close to miraculous.

The staff is either incredibly polite or are being very respectful of the fact that I am of a ‘grandmotherly’ age! We have been asking them to come in early or stay late. In the afternoons we have had a veritable cottage industry of producing charts and materials for literacy.  We cut, glue, draw, paste, make flashcards and charts and have been practicing learning new English songs which they can share with the children. I really am having a good time! The staff have a desire to improve their teaching and their English. The test will whether they will be happy to see me again next year!

Vidya Vanam is run on progressive principles – by the standards of any country. The student body is I think about 85% tribal families. The tribal group of this area – the Irulas – carry a burden of poverty. Many of them work in the brick works which are a big feature of this area. Wages for a day’s work are around Rs. 150. Today we walked over to the brick works on the other side of the fence from the school and saw how bricks are made. A team of seven laborers work and eight hour shift: mixing two kinds of local soil which gets sifted coarsely at first. Then it is mixed with water into a kind of lumpy mass, which is scooped by the armfuls onto a little iron table. A second person forms a rough ball and slaps it into a rectangular mold which sits atop a metal plate which stencils the 3 letter code for the brickworks. A third person smooths’ and presses the clay into the mold and then turns it onto a small rock slab as a brick. The other people move each brick into neat rows in the drying shed, dusting the slab with dry soil before returning it to the molding table, much as we dust a board with flour before rolling out dough. They work eight hour shifts and have to produce 4000(?) bricks in that time. That works out to 8 bricks a minute – imagine doing that for 8 hours.

The school has an amazing program. Basic academics in the morning  and then an afternoon full of enrichment: bharatanatyam dance once a week, music once a week including instruments like the mridingam, some audio-visual exposure, library time, game time and Phys. Ed. In the afternoons the students and teachers have opportunities to plan for special events. Right now they are planning for the Independence day celebration (August 15th) and the P.E. Teacher is busily working with them to learn how to march and do games for which they will have an audience of parents and visitors. One group is learning a bamboo dance from the Nagaland area, which involves great coordination and the imminent danger of having your ankles whacked by bamboo poles which are clapped rhytmically by two pairs of children in a criss-cross pattern. Each morning starts off with Yoga led by the P.E. Teacher. On Fridays there is Show and Share where children sing songs, do a dance or put on a skit. It was a lot of fun to watch them improvise  today!

One of the best things they do at Vidya Vanam is to provide nutritious food for the whole school – children and all the staff on the premises. They provide a morning snack (kanji made with rice, milk, millet and jaggery), a lunch with rice, dal and vegetables, afternoon snack before leaving, consisting of milk and biscuits or pohe or uppuma. This is critical for children whose families cannot afford to serve more than a starch and some greens collected locally. The kids also get vitamins once a week. The food also supports staff, for whom the burden of cooking lunch and breakfast is taken away. Several teachers live in a dorm on the campus and eat dinner there as well. The cook is a genius and with a support staff of 1 or 2 people at most, produces meals for upwards of 250 people for these many meals! It is incredible that he can do this.

The campus is lovely – filled with many different flowering trees and shrubs. There are 3 cows and currently 2 calves who are housed in a shed at the lower end of the campus and whose milk sustains the school. Last morning the calves were running around the campus in the early hours when they were released from the shed – they looked like kids having fun chasing each other. During the day the cowherds take them off to pasture although they are also provided feed. The resident dog is Jimmy, a dog who is immensely good-natured and takes in stride the bustle of the day and the peace of the evenings and mornings. Nothing seems to bother him.

There is a shiny, new, yellow school bus which takes the kids who live closer, home to villages which are not much more than a collection of houses. There is also a white van which transports kids who live a little further – some as much as 22km away across the border into Kerala. The campus is at the very border of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Many families have chickens which they raise for food and to earn income.

The children are beautiful and love the school which for them is an island of learning, love and joy. They are inquisitive, bright and meet the challenges of the school day. The school educates the whole child. There are no exams and no grades, and all the teachers are called Akka (big sister). It feels like a big family and there is radical feeling of respect and equality for each person, regardless of role or rank. This in a country which delights in hierarchies and is ingenious at fine shades of distinction. Prema Rangachary, the headmistress (a poor description for all the things she is and does!) is adored by all and is called Patti (grandmother) by the children. Her energy and patience is boundless and she leads by example so that the staff understand soon that this school is being run like no other school that they have ever experienced.

Prema’s most recent venture is to start a self-help group for the parents so that they can generate additional income for their families. Yesterday, a couple of people from the school were in Coimbatore at Swami Dayananda Saraswathy’s 80th birthday celebration, to begin sales of things the families were able to gather locally: coffee, wild honey, tamarind and tur dal. As this takes off, it will have an amazing ripple effect in the community and make it even more likely that the families will be able to afford to keep their children in school and help make a better life for all of them. Currently there are plans in the air to expand to a building for high school which will include a vocational track.

Being here is an amazing experience. It is an opportunity to be part of something unique, which will change lives for many people – the children, the families and the teachers. The spirit of the place is joyful, respectful and affirming of the worth of every individual who comes here. There is a concern for each child as an individual and a vision of a brighter future for them and their families. I am truly lucky to be able to come and work here for a few days and be part of it all – this Vidya Vanam – this grove of learning. I know I will be back next year and am already busy planning with Nandini, the educational director, ways to implement a school wide writing program.

When I was introduced to the program by Ram Sriram (President of the Foundation) at a fund raiser in Boston in 2010, little did I realize what an impact the program can have. And this is just the beginning!

By Kalpana Guttman
July 27, 2011

Lycenum: My personal reflections on Vidya Vanam

The great peripatetic schools of Athens such as Lycenum were spawned in minds that questioned everything. This questioning is not a product of skepticism but rather curiosity. More recently Albert Einstein once said, “To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science”. Einstein was absolutely correct in stating that knowledge is advanced when questions are asked and curiosity is abundant.

As the son of a school teacher and a student myself, I have a few different perspectives on education. Personally, I feel that a student’s comfort and curiosity in the class room is reflected by their questions. Sometimes a student needs to review a topic, and sometimes a question delves into new territory. Either way questions reflect how students connect with their material. I only spent a short time at Vidya Vanam however what surprised me was how young children, who had not seen much of the world, knew so much about it. They also had a hunger to know even more. The students at Vidya Vanam are very special, however the unique way the school is set up also has its benefits. Vidya Vanam is a brave idea especially in Indian education. Juxtaposition it next to any other Indian school and it becomes clear why. Most Indian schools publish test scores to the public and make sure that students know that teachers are not their peers rather their elders. When I had first heard of Vidya Vanam’s approach, not publicly posting grades and trying to create a family like relationship between students and teachers I had my doubts. I imagined a campus of children with too much freedom and full of cacoethes. However, what I found were students who focused their energy into asking about the world.

The brilliance of Vidya Vanam is how the school fosters curiosity in its pupils. I know that asking a question can be difficult especially in a room filled with all your peers. Curiosity is sometimes stifled in education because of fear. Fear in a class room comes from students feeling inferior to one another. And this inferiority comes from an unrelenting wave of test scores, assessments, and publicly posted grades. Tests are important and assessments are essential, however Vidya Vanam has dissolved the fear, kept assessments, and maintained curiosity. By doing these things learning is much less daunting and students look forward to school. I realized the importance of this on the first day when I was asked to teach a science class to children age 12 and below. Immediately I was hit with a fury of questions and although the topic was supposed to be on just atoms, unbridled curiosity lead us to how electron microscopy works and the history of nuclear power. Everyday inquiry leads us down different paths of science, history, culture and even sports. Even when setting up Vidya Vanam’s library with my brothers the students would sneak in to observe how we were cataloging the books. Long term teachers talked about how sometimes topics can last for a week because the students have so many questions.  My mother who is a teacher once said that anyone can lecture, but not everyone can connect. The curiosity, teacher student connection and school set up make Vidya Vanam a brilliant place to learn for students and teachers.

I imagine that teaching is difficult when one has to spark interest in a subject. I imagine so because I do not know. During my time I never had to spark interest and encourage curiosity. Being there was so enjoyable because the difficult facets of teaching had been removed. I was at Vidya Vanam for only one week. For one week I tried to answer an avalanche of questions. For one week I planned on teaching one topic but ended up discussing seven. For one week I was part of a young Lycenum.

By Prashanth Rau

With planets and stars for company


It was a memorable night as kids got to look at the sky over their heads like never before.

It was only my second astronomy club session. In the first, I had seen Jupiter and the moon, so I was excited to see what this one was going to be about. My second astronomy club session was organised by Mango Education that holds after-school science and computer science programmes. Obuli Chandran, one of the founders, said that this was a way to interest children in astronomy, as this subject is not taught in schools. The session was held on the night of October 7 because there was a meteor shower. The night sky over Anaikatti was very clear and I saw three planets and the moon.

It was a big learning experience. Setting up the telescope and looking at everything through it was also a lot of fun. I improved my knowledge of astronomy, the stars and everything else in the sky. I spent the night asking questions, getting answers, and clearing doubts about space science.

It was almost a week ago when I first noticed a star near the moon. I started watching it every day and noticed that it was moving farther and farther away from the moon as the days went by. When I saw the star through the telescope for the first time last Friday I realised it wasn’t a star at all. I had been looking at Venus, a planet.

Up next was Mars. It looked red, like the textbooks said. After Mars, we saw the planet with rings. Saturn was majestic, even though it was difficult to focus on because of the clouds. I got lucky. When I was at the telescope, the rings were clearly visible. Some other teachers, students, and visitors weren’t that lucky.

Last on our list of sightings was the moon. It was the clearest thing I saw on the telescope. I could even see the craters and the rocks! It was amazing to see something so far away as if it were right next door!

The showstopper of the night, though, was the meteors. I thought meteors were very rare, but the people from Mango Education, who were helping us with the telescopes, told us we might see some more on October 21. I wasn’t able to see any yesterday, so I am going to keep watch.

Hopefully in a couple of weeks, I will get luckier.

After we gazed at the skies, we got together to watch The Martian. At the end of the movie we played a game about a manned mission that crashed on the moon, 200 miles away from the landing spot. Only 15 items survived the crash without damage, and we had to prioritise the list. Then, we compared our list with what NASA had released.

With all the planned activities coming to a close, we headed back to star-gaze.

It was beautiful to stand in the ground with friends, old and new, and just look upwards to the night sky. It was almost 2.00 a.m., a beautiful time to watch the stars. They all looked so beautiful in the night sky. It was a perfect way to end the night.

An article by Subaash from Himalaya (grade 10)
Also published on The Hindu on Oct 11, 2016.

Weaving words, telling tales

vayu-naiduShe sat in the only chair in the room, while we sat on the yellow benches adorned with the graffiti characteristic of a classroom. Watching Dr. Vayu Naidu, we understood why she is called a storyteller and credited with having coined the term ‘Performance Storytelling’. She is the author of Sita’s Ascent and Under the Banyan, and her latest book, The Subaltern’s Sari of Seeraivakkam, will be published in December. Dr. Naidu spent a week in our school, Vidya Vanam, and spoke to us about her influences, journey, and why she does what she does. Excerpts:

How did you get interested in storytelling?
I became interested in storytelling by accident. At the age of 27, I was in an accident and could not speak. I started theatre soon after and, for theatre, I needed to speak. My window into the world of speaking again came through storytelling. I had grown up listening to Ram Leela and Yakshaganaperformances. All these showed me how a good storyteller can connect the past with the present, enticing people to listen.

Do you tell only Indian stories?
No, I tell a lot of stories from around the world — African, Russian, Caribbean, and Indian — all sourced in different languages. Now, I write novels and use folk tales from around the world to influence my stories.

You use music and instruments in your storytelling. What does music add to your stories?
I often use Western contemporary and World music in my performances. Music creates landscapes. Sounds help the storyteller build interiors and exteriors of characters. It helps communicate emotion and tone. I like to think that music is an integral part of the storytelling experience.

What is the hardest thing about being a storyteller?
Physically, it is very tiring. The job comes with a lot of travelling. The hardest thing is to be calm and composed when one is angry, and even perform for a couple of hours in such a mindset. The skill of a good storyteller lies in taking an alien story to an unknown audience, and making them feel it as if it is their own.

What is your favourite story to tell and hear?
I absolutely love Ramayana to listen and to tell. I have spent time listening to the epic in a host of different languages including Punjabi, Bengali, Tamil, Gujarati and Telugu, and have constructed its narrative from the many retellings I have heard. Love, jealousy, hatred, loneliness, rejection, pride… they all find their place in this tale. One can never get bored of this epic and its plethora of storylines.

What, in your opinion, are the golden rules for storytelling?
The role of a storyteller is to really hold up the truth. Stories are a way of clarifying what is actually happening in life. It is essential, therefore, for the storyteller to be interested in the truth of the story. If I don’t know where I am in the story, how can I tell it to you? If I cannot feel Sita’s loss, what is the point of that narration? When I was training storytellers, I used to make my students sweep the classroom with me on the first day. The entire action of sweeping with a tall broom gives movement to the body and establishes a cadence in the speech. Within that exercise, I would ask them how and why they came to the class. It was a good way of finding out who was committed to the truth of a story, and who was only seeking to impress. The latter eventually stopped coming.

How has storytelling changed with the influence of technology?
I don’t think technology has disturbed storytelling. Today, there are ways of preserving stories with digitisation, but it is not particularly disruptive. Ten years ago perhaps, we were all obsessed with our screens, but now live storytelling is coming back. Sure, we no longer have the traditional ‘kadhaikaaran’ in our temples, but it is on an upswing for sure.

Storytelling is becoming increasingly popular in India today. Do you see a benefit in bringing it into schools?
Absolutely. It is already hugely popular in the West, and I believe there is much to be gained from adding it to classroom material across age groups. All of us learn how to speak before we read, so it only makes sense to allow us to benefit from not just written literature but our deep-rooted history of oral traditions as well. Personally, I spent many hours of my childhood up a tamarind tree, telling stories with my two fists as audience. I started reading only much later.

An article by Nitha and Pavin from Vindhya (class 9)
Also published by The Hindu on Oct 14, 2016.