As mentioned in yesterday’s blog, I travelled south of Bangalore to visit the premiere example of an Art of Living School. AOL has 175 schools across India, with the goal of providing free, quality education to poor rural children.
The school that I was visiting has been in existence for 22 years. It was the first school started by Sri Sri and is considered the model for all of the others. By Indian standards, it seemed like a typical school. 60 children to a classroom, designed in a traditional format. The children learn Kanada, English and Sanskrit and follow the prescribed state curriculum. They start at age 5 and go all the way up to the 10th standard. Also, the children who choose to get more education than 10th standard can stay and move on to the 11th and 12th grade pre-university school that is right there on the campus. They also teacher the women especially to be tailors so that if they do not carry on with their education they can have a trade that will earn them a good wage and not have to be servants.
The main difference between this school and other schools is that first thing in the morning these children participate in a meditation for 20 minutes. They start the day with silence and pranayama (breathing). I tried to ask if they had done any studies showing the benefit of beginning a school day with meditation. The principal didn’t quite understand me, but he did say that they have very few disciplinary problems and the kids are ready to learn. I imagine that 20 minutes of mediation makes a huge difference in how the day goes in a school. Heck if we all started the day with 20 minutes of silence and breathing the world would be a different place (so why don’t I ever seem to be disinclined enough to sit in silence, I ask my Quaker self?)
When I was visiting the 10th grade was taking their ever important 10th grade exams. The principal interrupted the exams for me to come in to the classroom. The students were working on geometry problems. I was so embarrassed to be interrupting! 10th grade exams are EVERYTHING IN India. They determine your entire destiny. I did not want to bother those kiddos! I left quickly and sent s many positive vibes as I possibly could. At least I was pleased to see that the exams were open ended questions—not just multiple choice like in the U.S.!
After the 10th grade rooms, I visited other 7th, and 9th grade classrooms busy with school work—primarily social studies (learning the rules of local government) and Sanskrit). Each classroom had approximately 60 students. Very common for Indian schools. Mind boggling if you’re used to U.S. schools.
In each class that I visited I introduced myself very simply. “I am from the United States. I am a professor there. I have come to learn about your school!” And then a couple of times I tried to ask them questions like,
“What do you like about your school?”
“Everything!” they would shout. (Although in fairness I was standing next to the principal when I asked the question).
“What would you change about your school” A girl responded, “Everything has changed since I have come to this school.” That was a powerful moment. Maybe worth the two hour drive through traffic!
The school serves children from 24 villages surrounding the Ashram. I asked how they choose who comes and they said that they do not. They serve any child in the 24 villages who wants to attend. No charge. Busses pick them up. I asked if the parents also receive training, especially in the kriya and AOL meditation. The school sends facilitators to the villages to give trainings to the parents in a form of meditation. All parents of the children in the school have attended these workshops.
The school also serves children from Manipur, a region from the north. The children from Manipur were rescued from child trafficking and brought to the Ashram to live permanently. Most often, their parents had tried to sell them away to prostitution, child labor, other nations, and so on. These children were kept separate from the other children because they were taught as English being their primary language and the other children were primarily taught in Kannada. English was not their primary language back home but whatever their language was, they would not be speaking it much more. The girls from the “English medium” classes ‘(below) were the most talkative.
“Tell us a story about where you come from!” one said. I wasn’t ready for that, but I told them that Penn State had 40,000 students and that the American football games would draw crowds of 110,000 people. But even though I said American football, they still thought I meant soccer. The principal said, “These boys won the football championship this year! And the girls won national championships in Tae Kwon Do and will go to Dubai to compete!” Sports are offered at this school—government schools offer nothing.
I could tell that some of the boys were trouble in the English Medium class (aka Northern kids who were almost sold into slavery). It is not a surprise given their experience. But in each class the principal would walk in before me and the kids would stand up and say “Good morning sir!” and salute him! I never saw that in any other school here. But in the English medium class, the boys in the back row were VERY, VERY slow to get up and I could tell the principal was deciding whether it was worth the fight to make a fuss about it. not wearing the uniforms either!
I spoke with the principal a while as well plus a very nice woman who worked in the central office back at the Ashram. The principal had been the head of the school for 16 years. He had lived at the Ashram for 12 and then got married and moved to al local village. I usually can talk to the principal for hours, but this guy didn’t have all that much to say.
The woman was more talkative. She came to AOL right out of college. She had visited the ashram as a guest and ended up staying to work with the schools. She said, “I always knew I wanted to serve.” AOL wasn’t her plan but it seemed like a good fit. She serves as a link between the local schools and the board of trustees. Each month the schools must write a report back to the Ashram (That seems like a LOT of reports. Quarterly would be sufficient if I was in charge). Her job is to synthesize those reports and share them with the board. Plus she is involved in ongoing needs/issues for the schools, which are geographically all over the country. I asked her if they faced trouble finding qualified teachers for all of the schools—an issue for all of India. She said that they prefer to hire Art of Living people. They approach volunteers that they think would be suited for the job and also they train poor people to become teachers in their own villages. They are paid a good salary, she said, but the goal is also to help to change the lives of adults as well who could become great teachers.
I left the school feeling disappointed. While the school’s banner says “Values-based education” I didn’t seem much different other than the kriya. Certainly it seemed to be a “good” school, in that the kids seemed to be much happier than in some of the other schools that I have seen. The principal and central office woman emphasized that the school provides quality education throughout in ways that the government schools don’t care or have the resources to do. The facilities were not much different than the government schools, but the vibe did seem much more positive. I cannot comment on the quality of the teaching. But I left wondering what more they could be doing they that aren’t doing. Why they don’t try to stretch the boundaries any more than they do? I get the sense, much like the government schools in some way that the focus is on providing an education to all. Not so much about changing how we thinking about schooling. Although there does seem to be an emphasis on quality here that I do not see in the government schools.