In 2008, a small group of us decided to start a school with a different vision. We were fortunate to be donated an eightacre piece of land in the outskirts of Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu. We developed this land over three years, adding classrooms, a kindergarten space, a library, a laboratory, a craft area and a music room. Since 2011, we have been working from our own campus, and today we have seventy students from kindergarten to class nine, ten full-time teachers and ten volunteers. This article is the story of our journey into a truly integrative education, sharing what we have learnt and the challenges we face.

From the beginning, Marudam had students of varying backgrounds: some from the nearby village, some from the city and some from abroad. We have also been open to taking in children with learning difficulties, to help them explore, discover and develop other talents. We wished to be a small school, with children from diverse backgrounds, and lay emphasis on handson work and skills.

Ideologically this was a great decision, but how has it worked out pedagogically?

Five years have passed now, and it is good to reflect on the opportunity we have created and are in the process of creating. The children generally have a sense of wellbeing which we think is due to the variety of engaging subjects in the school such as art, craft, theatre, nature walks and gymnastics. The groups are small enough not to exclude anyone from any activity they are interested in, and every child can be confident that she is accepted, safe and valued. All children are therefore able to acquire and enjoy many skills in an atmosphere of equality. Our small numbers allow many vertical group activities. So today we can say with certainty that our children are happy to come to school and that they relate to one another fairly seamlessly, without any barriers.

Working with differences

From the outset it was important for us to acknowledge that our children came from very different backgrounds, and we found this reflected in the enhancement or absence of certain abilities. While there are exceptions, generally some differences are quite apparent.

For instance, children of foreign origin generally have a very strong sense of entitlement, are empowered to act on their own, have strong body awareness and are very articulate. They have a sense of their own space and share their possessions on their own terms. They are comfortable with adults and have no fear of speaking their minds. During lunch time, they like eating salads and are sensitive to spice.

The village children are, by and large, very open and flexible in their needs. They usually have a good knowledge of the natural environment, have tremendous ease with physical activity, plenty of energy and very little concept of their own space. They do not possess much and do not have much sense of personal belongings. They are happy to share what they have and also use what others have. Village children like eating rice, are not used to vegetables and generally detest salads; and we have struggled to get them to eat a balanced diet!

The middle-class city children are far more conventional in their expectations and their approach to learning. They generally have a higher motivation towards academics, have travelled more and have a wider sphere of knowledge. They, too, are often particular about their belongings and tend to talk about possessions such as cars and televisions. They are used to eating junk food and are very particular about taste, and with them too it is often a struggle to make them eat what is served. Another striking aspect of both the village and the middle-class city children is the huge influence that movies have on their interests, aspirations and interactions.

In the midst of such cultural diversity, we wanted our children to respect each other’s differences, work and play together harmoniously, develop problem-solving skills from an early age, and grow up as sensitive and caring human beings. It has been quite a challenge to hold a class together, but we find the classes alive and interesting with different kinds of children with various expectations, reactions and thinking processes. For example, while discussing groundwater, village children have an intimate knowledge of wells, how they are dug, about different soils, springs and bedrock. Other children have knowledge through study of books about aquifers, water tables and so on. The village children move from concrete to abstract learning whereas the others have the grounding of concrete knowledge.

In a mathematics class, village children relate to the topics when concrete examples are used such as purchasing vegetables or provisions for the house. Starting from here, they are able to understand mathematical concepts.

Village children are very good at using tools or climbing rocks or trees and have an ease with things natural, which the other children appreciate and learn from. One child comes from a goat-herding family, and while on the hill she is quite like a mountain goat herself. The way she climbs steep rocks with such sure-footedness commands respect from everyone. She also has a very sharp eye and makes very interesting observations about nature and is often the first to spot a bird or an animal in the wild.

Kalpana and Murugan are classmates. Kalpana has very good reading and writing skills and is a voracious reader. Murugan has very good observation skills and knows about birds. Kalpana helps Murugan to read and is extremely patient, and Murugan helps Kalpana with bird watching and mapping. Though from very different backgrounds, there is equality in their relationship.

With our small classes and children from such varied backgrounds, there is no average student to whom the class can be addressed. Each student is addressed individually, and each follows her own learning curve. While we have common topics and resource materials, each student follows these at her own pace. Classes have to be carefully planned, and materials have to be in place. Often we have several volunteers in a class catering to different groups of children or even to individual students.

Bilingual classes

All our classes are bilingual; every single instruction in class has to be shared in English and Tamil. But it is not just the teacher speaking in two languages. Every sharing by every child is translated from Tamil to English or vice versa. For example, after our Friday walks the children come back and share their observations. Two columns are made on the blackboard: one in Tamil and the other in English. All children’s observations are written on the board using whichever language they choose to share in.

In geography, we decided to study the natural world one biome at a time. We started by studying rainforests, for which we got an excellent book with many pictures. The book contained information on the forest-dwelling tribes of the rainforests and the conflicts they faced. All the reading material was translated into Tamil. Once a week, we watched nature documentaries on the topic being covered, and we stopped every few minutes to translate and explain the commentary in Tamil. We also visit regularly the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary for a first-hand experience of life in a rainforest.

Some European children speak Tamil, and this encourages other children to learn Tamil too. One boy of British origin prefers people who speak English, but is happy to play kabbadi with everyone and do project work with a few others. So he ends up having different partners for different activities, and nobody judges that or pushes it in any direction.

Project-based learning

Given such diversity, we felt that learning through the project method would be the most inclusive. We chose broad themes and followed them through comprehensively for several months. Once the topic was chosen, we allowed children to pursue different leads and explore them by providing materials, and taking them on visits when possible.

One of our initial projects was on food: ‘From Farm to Plate’. We did many activities such as growing vegetables, making salads, cooking, visiting neighbourhood farms to interact with farmers and to see what was being grown, and visiting the town market and interacting with the vendors there. It was a rich learning experience, and the children have not forgotten the many things they learnt in the process.

Another project we did was on eris: ancient traditional water bodies. Having always heard that they are interconnected, we decided to see them for ourselves. So together we walked through the canals connecting one eri to another. This knowledge became real to all of us. Being out together was also a great experience for all the children. Some were excited about the concept of the eri system, and others drew maps in their heads for a new landscape. Many remembered the fine details of trees or specific landscapes which others might have not even noticed.

Our kindergarten

We chose to follow the Rudolph Steiner method in our kindergarten. In this approach, children do not start writing till the age of six or seven. The emphasis is on play, socializing, working on developing fine motor skills, playing with clay, and doing household chores like folding, cleaning and cutting. The first activity of the day for this group is a long walk through the neighbourhood, which of course the children enjoy immensely. From this activity we noticed big improvements in their observational and socializing skills and physical strength. Even at a tender age the village children are more knowledgeable and more agile and often lead the walk.

Leela, our kindergarten teacher, emphasizes that integration occurs naturally in the kindergarten; it is simply what happens every day. For example, ‘free play’ is expressed as role play and the creation of imaginary worlds, which is a particularly fine substratum for integration to happen naturally. While ample scope is given to group activities and play, any expression of discrimination (yes, it exists even at this young age) is greatly frowned upon in the kindergarten. There are a few times in the day where the children are asked to hold hands. It is a simple thing, but is one of the acts where there is no freedom of choice: it is unacceptable for a child to refuse to hold another’s hand. Strong bonds are formed early, and children learn to interact healthily from this very young age.

Bringing Children Together

We have found theatre to be a powerful tool in bringing children together. We have two hours of theatre class a week in which every child participates. They play theatre games, making up little skits or engaging in mime. Or they may sit together in a circle, each coming up with an idea and fitting them together into a play.

Theatre is one of the most ‘integrative’ pedagogical methodologies as it has the potential to be totally inclusive. Each child can act out a character he is comfortable with and thereby feel part of the group. In the classroom a child carries all sorts of insecurities, and these can be dropped while acting. Being watched by others also gives a feeling of acceptance and selfworth.

Our theatre teacher Alice gives some examples of such integrative moments: ‘One boy who loves to act, but has problems with lines, chose a very physical role and could leap about, being in his element. Another girl who is reluctant to go on stage took on a regal role and found pleasure in acting a part with limited movement and limited dialogue, yet she held the part with incredible majesty and also seemed to be in her element.’

Another activity that creates conditions among the children for complete acceptance of each other is physical education, which is a part of the daily routine at Marudam. Physical education teacher Jessica shares a story about Maha, a home-schooled and bright child with no experience of playing games with other children. Maha preferred to sit immersed in a book while the others played outside. One day while the children were practising a sequence of postures such as standing on one leg like a tree or slithering on the belly like a snake, the idea came that Maha could lead the class. The sequence was long, but to the astonishment of the others she was able to do all the movements as well as the speaking! The group performed this, and Maha’s own confidence in her body grew as well as her acceptance in the group.

Play gives the village children, who are often more body-oriented, opportunities to be acknowledged and seen. Vineeth, a ten-year-old bundle of energy, was asked to be on the top of a pyramid of three levels. He climbed slowly onto the shoulders of his peers to the top, and a big applause greeted him as he stretched his arms out in the final pose.

Conflicts do arise, and we have had to deal with many difficult situations. For example, Kala, a village girl, refused to partner with Jaap, a Dutch boy, during study time. She complained that he did not share any of his things. Jaap took in this feedback and changed. He wanted some private space, but was eventually willing to share his belongings.

Ila, Avani and Amrutha are children of European origin, and for some reason tended to form a ‘clique’. Sasi and Kamakshi are Indian children of their age, and there was not much engagement between the two groups. We discussed this in circle time, and Avani and Sasi were willing to make an effort to integrate. Crochet was the first opportunity that came up, and they have grown close since.

Integrated teacher body

Our teaching community is almost a replica of our student community. We have five teachers from the surrounding villages, five from foreign countries and eight from cities in India. In addition, we have many volunteer-teachers who come for specific activities such as farming, yoga, gymnastics, clay, art, wrestling and silambam (an ancient Tamil Nadu martial art form). Children are therefore exposed to people who speak a variety of languages and are from different cultures.

Our village teachers are particularly good at creating experiential learning situations thanks to their intimate knowledge of the land and the culture. They bring a level of comfort to interactions with nature. For instance, Pachaiyappan is completely at ease with handling all kinds of creatures.

The school itself is a community of people who work on our afforestation project and organic farm, whose children are at Marudam. We have parents who are farmers participating with children while they are on the farm, parents who help cooking with children and two parents who are art teachers and an aunt who is a craft teacher.

Further, because Tiruvannamalai is a destination for different kinds of interesting visitors, we enjoy unexpected encounters with people from all over the world. This opens us up to diversity and helps us see people from different backgrounds as friends.

Questions about the future

As a school based in a rural area, there are many questions about the future. We certainly do not want our children to end up feeding the industrial machinery. We, of course, will not stand in the way of a student who wants to pursue a career in engineering or any other professional course, but we would like them to follow their heart and find happiness in a field of their choice. We have many firstgeneration learners who struggle with the alphabet even at the age of twelve or thirteen. These children are brilliant in other areas such as art, craft or farming. Should they go through the grind of exams, or should we empower them to just pursue what they are good at?

Many of our children are from poor backgrounds and aspire for a higher standard of living. Their parents would like them to go to college and find lucrative jobs. Their education at Marudam may end up moving them towards the city, and we wonder what we can do to counter this situation—or must we accept the inevitability of it? We are still very young as a school, and none of our children have actually reached this threshold. We will wait to see what the future holds for us.

In our staff meetings, held once a week, all the teachers and many of the volunteers participate. We conduct ‘child studies’, where we choose a child a week or two in advance and then share our observations about the child in the meeting. Sometimes we discuss a group as a whole. It is fascinating to note the kind of diversity that exists in learning styles, different kinds of intelligences, aptitudes, energy levels, which of course vary with different activities.

To be honest, sometimes it is a nightmare to deal with a range of differences, but it is also a blessing. It helps the teachers and the children accept differences and respect them, for that is the reality.