We wake at dawn to the trilling calls of unfamiliar birds, go for a walk amidst the tea-bushes stretching row upon row on the steep slopes, bordered on the higher ridges by dense shola forests—an entirely new landscape! One may chance upon a barking deer, shyly moving about in the bushes, or suddenly come face to face with a majestic Gaur. There are seventeen of us at Devashola Estate, near Coonoor: five teacher-principals from the KFI schools, one ex-principal from a like-minded school, two senior KFI educators, half a dozen experienced teachers, a young man who takes on organizational tasks, as well as three children accompanying their parents. We are here in 'retreat' to explore the 'culture' of our schools, and what makes for a renewal of 'culture spaces'. We need to generate amongst ourselves, over the five days that we are together, a spirit of communication, sharing, and inquiry. Being in a new place, away from daily pressures and habitual routines, aids our own renewal and readiness to enter into this inquiry. Having a facilitator who brings intensity of purpose and yet allows for structure to emerge organically makes it possible for each of us, including the children, to connect with the occasion and add their own flavours to the retreat.
What is meant by 'culture' of a school? All schools have a character that is not easy to define, a certain quality of relationships and value orientations that one may sense or experience in the school environment. This suggests that a school culture emerges from the way the collective concerns of the school community are held by individuals —administrators, teachers, students and others—and what they bring to their relationships. This culture expresses itself in the norms, values, beliefs, practices, and curriculum that get developed over time. More than the visible and articulated curriculum, the overall culture of the school perhaps leaves deeper, long-lasting impressions on its participants—students and teachers. School cultures are not static. They are constantly being reconstructed and given shape through interactions among participants, shifts in their orientations and emphasis, and through reflections on life, education and the world in general. They remain in a dynamic state through the questions that we ask, the inquiries we engage in and the initiatives we take.
So here we are, looking at our own deeper concerns and how these might express in the context of our schools that share a common underlying philosophy. Some early questions that set the tone are: What authentic, 'uneducated' questions do we hold about life? Do we see schools as a place of learning for adults as much as for children? Alongside and apart from curricular learning, what else do we learn about? And how do we support this learning? A direct challenge to the principals is: How would you meet a new teacher? How would you invite him or her into the school space? How would you communicate your expectations of him or her? As we engage with these questions, we realize that they are not just for principals. We focus on the importance of relationships in the school community, the complex tendencies that come up in adult-adult relationships; we look at issues of hierarchy, of territoriality, of barriers in communication, of our individual responsibility in working through these and participating in creating a living community. For this to happen there is a need to be clear in oneself, about one's own purposes as well as the intent of the schools. The retreat itself is a 'microcosm' of what we intend in the 'macrocosm' of each school, across all of the schools, and also beyond them, within our various spheres of influence. The ex-principal from the school that shares our concerns has agreed to document the discussions.
'Culture classes' in the school time-table are meant to be one expression of the deeper concerns of the schools. There are questions that converge around this: How do we see 'culture classes'? How are they related to the 'culture' of the schools? In what ways do we engage with students of different ages in these classes? What are some challenges and limitations of these classes? We recognize that this space in the time-table, which every school provides for in different ways, is intended to bring in a wide range of issues and topics which children, young people and adults are interested in, need to engage with, and which do not find a direct place in the academic curriculum. These issues range from those which are close to us, nearat- hand—our behaviour, reasons behind school norms, understanding ourselves, conflicts and opportunities in our relationships, making life decisions—to those that are seemingly at a remove—understanding the basis of violence and corruption, biases and prejudices, poverty and privilege; reexamining influential ideas in myth, history, and contemporary media, responses to environmental concerns, wars and terrorism, becoming aware of the fragmentation of life and consciousness, and the possibilities of wholeness. Culture classes are also intended to foster the ability to discuss, to have a dialogue, to begin to learn to 'see oneself' as part of every human situation, and as part of nature, rather than as being apart from it.
We admit that there are difficult challenges and serious limitations with regard to 'culture classes'. If it is boxed in between, say a math and a language period, and it lasts only forty minutes, there is hardly the scope to set the tone and have an extended discussion that involves the students. Since there is no set curriculum, do teachers begin with some issue which students bring up or should one have a theme planned beforehand? Should our approach be didactic or experiential and exploratory? It is not easy to know how to animate such a class, and few teachers may have the ability to initiate and lead a discussion. Very few among us may end up taking the culture classes. Or else when the periods are simply distributed among many teachers, the classes could end up being seen as light, 'free' periods for telling stories and showing films. Unless more among us teachers are able to take on the intent of culture classes and are supported in this, these classes could lose their value in the school's overall concerns.
We pause and consider: surely it is not only 'culture classes' that represent or express these concerns and values in our schools? Here we affirm that in fact there are multiple forums and practices that each school has evolved. There is a special quality to the morning assemblies or the evening gathering at astachal, which nurtures quietness and attention. There are nature walks for junior school students, and engagement with activities, projects or field trips that allow for contact with diverse natural and social phenomena. For older students, there is a general studies programme with an imaginative curriculum that varies from year to year; or a journalism club that engages students in discussions and debates. Talks and discussions with visiting thinkers, practitioners and performers from different fields widen their minds. School structures include circle time, open forum, class teacher periods and house contact, each allowing for different forms of communication between adults and students. Adults in school too have opportunities to engage on wider topics, in the beginning-of-the-year orientation meetings, weekly staff meetings, reading and discussion groups, dialogue sessions, parentteacher meetings and so on. There are also the interstitial times for spontaneous conversations to arise among students and teachers. We recognize that all of these go into creating our school cultures, and we ought to view them all as 'culture spaces'. Thus is born a new term, 'culture spaces', of which 'culture classes' are seen as but one instance.
Some things immediately follow: without losing the potency inherent in the idea of 'culture classes', we are freed to visualize various features of the schools which constitute its 'culture spaces', and which contribute to generating that 'steady, persistent hum' that lends to the school culture its specific character. Our questions now shift to the following: How do we sustain these 'culture spaces'? Can the school itself remain centred in its 'culture spaces', rather than be pushed (by parents, examination boards, social and economic forces, and our own unexamined assumptions or default modes of functioning) towards accommodation with narrower conceptions of school education? How do we deepen and widen the reach of these 'culture spaces'? Are there new ways of going about this? Can they become a space for the germination of a 'new mind'? How might this have a wider reach, both within and beyond our schools? Implicit in the last question is: how is the intent of these schools and their 'culture spaces' related to the 'culture' of the world beyond?
Ways of construing 'culture spaces'
Two kinds of approaches are shared: one from a larger, more structured school, and one from a small teacher-and-parent led educational initiative, both from outside the KFI fold.
The first approach: 'In our school— located in a small town—we see to it that students directly engage with the community around us and learn to contribute to it in as many ways as we can. In class 4, students visit a nearby anganwadi, tell stories, chant and make posters for the younger children; in class 6 they may visit an old people's home and entertain them with a play or songs; in class 7, students visited a colony to run an active campaign about garbage collection and management; in class 8, they studied—through interviews—the situation of domestic helpers and made a presentation to sensitize upper class parents about their plight; in class 9 they took up the cause of maintaining public parks with the local municipality; in class 10 they planned awareness-raising campaigns on issues such as child nutrition, eye-donation and forest fire prevention. On another occasion, our class 8 students exchanged places with students from the local government high school, so that they could both experience a different culture and educational setting. So one of our aims is to make students more aware and feel a sense of responsibility towards the community and the local area. Apart from this, we also have a once-a-week 'philosophy for children' class, which is a block of two periods, and which may include silent nature walks, a topic for discussion, reflective writing about an incident, or free choice for children to suggest ideas. Every month, on the last Saturday, we have a teacher training workshop, where some of these ideas are also discussed.'
The second approach: 'In our school, dialogue among adults—teachers and parents—as well as with children, is central to its origin and continued-functioning. We explore different ways of engaging students in understanding themselves, the world and their relationship to it and to life. For instance, we recently took children (who are used to travelling by car!) in mixed age groups, on a public bus ride to different parts of the city that they might never have seen. Without trying to draw out any specific lessons from these experiences, they were invited to have conversations about what they had observed, what they felt, what made them curious. They produced a magazine in which they made drawings, shared incidents, imagined 'one day in the life of' some of the people they had seen. This sort of non-directive, non-analytic approach enables children to become sensitive, to observe more freely, and allows questions to emerge that may unfold deeply. Another thing we have attempted is to relocate the whole school for a period of time to a distant natural setting—in the mountains or by the ocean. Facing a new natural and social environment, living simply and learning in the midst of elemental forces of nature, has had its own impact on the maturing of students. This approach perhaps has its own discipline built into it, and does not rely on direct moral instruction for students to become more sensitive, aware and thoughtful.'
Several other initiatives are shared by principals and teachers from each of the schools, and the discussions are animated. We touch the pulse of something that is vitalizing, that matters deeply to each of us, which perhaps brought us into the field of education in the first place. But we also share our dilemmas, the creative tensions that arise. While we need to sustain a structured curriculum, a time-table and a coherence of purpose in the school, can we also sustain the live quality of 'culture spaces' which emerge from specific issues or interests of students and teachers, and which have a spontaneous dimension, a depth of engagement? Should we work towards putting down some sort of a common curriculum for 'culture classes', perhaps in the form of critical conversations and thematic modules that all students would experience across the age groups? Or should we rely more on a wider sharing and seeding of ideas for each other, suggesting resources and approaches, and allow for each school to develop the nature of its 'culture spaces' in the context of its location and each teacher to handle 'culture classes' according to their concerns? Should our educational approach with ourselves and our students have the quality of a 'walk in the woods', listening, observing and wondering? Or should it have an intensity of purpose, an uncompromising asking of difficult questions? These are clearly not 'either/or' questions and we need to play with different kinds of possibilities.
A new mind
We sit at night by a bonfire, silently watching the dancing flames, watching ourselves. What is the quality of the 'new mind' that is to be nurtured in and through these 'culture spaces'? What is the significance of this in a world becoming more and more disordered, fragmented and violent? This is unknown territory, and it is uncertain whether we can consciously do anything about this. Within our limitations, however, we evoke glimpses of what is demanded. There is need of a mind, a way of being, that is non-divisive, that inquires in depth into the 'science of life', and explores in active engagement, the 'art of living'. There is need for an awareness of the human drama, of fear, conflict, sorrow and the fragmentation of human consciousness, along with a feeling for wholeness, for the source of initiative and creative action. It is such a mind that may heal itself, others and nature.
In Devashola, at the boundaries of forest and tea-garden, we sense the living potential of the 'natural' and the 'cultural' in our human lives.