Interview: India Reading Olympiad 2020

Lakshmi Karunakaran was awarded at the India Reading Olympiad at the Hyderabad Literature Festival 2020 for her contribution in encouraging reading among children from underserved communities. In this interview she speaks about the work of Hasiru Dala and the Buguri Community Libraries and why there is a need to build a community library network for children.

Keep calm and turn your self-care on


Lakshmi Karunakaran

I feel I am racing against time on most days. There are multiple tasks to finish, and I know when I finish them there will be more on the list. Don’t get me wrong, I love my work. It is exciting, I find joy when I am with my students. They fill me with hope and positivity. Yet, there is stress to the work that I do. I notice that lately I become angry quickly. I am snappy. I regret it later. I fall into a cycle of guilt. I know my energy levels are fast depleting. I feel the settling of pain in my back at the end of every day. I know I need to slow down and take a break. Sometimes my body says that, sometimes my friends do. Taking a break, I know will only further add to my task list, and hence my stress. I don’t want to abandon my work. Maybe I don’t know how to take a break anymore. What will I do when I take a break? Think and worry about work again?

Does this sound familiar to you? It does to me. I heard this from an educator friend recently and I knew much of what she was articulating I was experiencing as well. To compound to it, I work with vulnerable children and communities. I find myself worrying about them, their problems, and the trauma they experience affects me. I do sometimes struggle to protect myself, without becoming apathetic.

Many teachers and educators who focus on social emotional learning for their students, and/or are in the practice of being emotional mentors or guides often forget to take care of themselves. This is directly linked to more instances of burn out, stress and attrition in the teacher community. Building long term self-care solutions and practices might seem very tough but are essential in the long run.

Secondary trauma and compassion fatigue
During the Vietnam War in 1960, a young psychologist and first respondent named Charles Figley noticed something unusual was happening within him. As wounded soldiers were coming off the battlefield and sharing stories of horror and trauma that they were experiencing, he noticed something was changing within him too. He didn’t understand it, because he thought he knew, as a professional, how to protect himself. But he soon started to feel less safe, he started to question his values, and his quality of life started to deteriorate. That’s when he realized that he was taking the pain and suffering of the wounded soldiers and making it his own. He was experiencing Secondary Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Exploring this became his life’s work and in 1995 he coined the word Compassion Fatigue.

According to Figley, Compassion Fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.

Patricia Smith, founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project says, “Working with individuals who have experienced a traumatic event can make someone more susceptible to secondary traumatic stress. In other words, if you’re working with kids who are coping with trauma, there’s a chance it could affect you too. That’s why it’s so important to take care of yourself – a healthy teacher is a more effective teacher.”

What is self-care?
Susannah Joy Winters, HypnoBirthing Educator from the Unites States says, “Self-care is deliberately taking care of your wellbeing through restorative activities.” The key word here is “deliberate”. A human mind processes over sixty thousand thoughts in a day, and if you are stressed, about eighty per cent of them are negative. The key to self-care then is to deliberately build practices that can help create awareness about your body and your mind, help navigate these thoughts and feelings with awareness. It is to watch out for yourself.

How do I build a self-care practice?
Self-care practices may include setting healthy boundaries, knowing when and how to detach with love and care, positive self-affirmations, and building a peer support network – all of this may not be essential for your teaching practice, but are crucial for your own mental, emotional and physical health.

Shabari Rao, a dance maker, educator and researcher from Bangalore, India has taken a break from her regular teaching practice recently. “After 18 years of practice, I felt I needed to pause, to look at myself, protect myself. It’s been a few months since I stopped teaching regularly. Like a field is burnt down after a harvest, for new life to sprout, I see this break as a space to delve deeper into myself, to discover a new self. I am trying to simplify life. And I am realizing sometimes doing less, is doing a lot more.”

It is common for many educators/social workers, or care givers in general to be in constant saviour mode. We feel that when we are busy, we are important, we are needed, we are being useful to others, we are being appreciated. “We may be stuck in saviour mode – it’s important to recognize it. Knowing our boundaries, and stepping back sometimes becomes equally important. It is our job to protect ourselves,” says Sabari.

Susannah’s self-care practice includes eating healthy, practicing moments of stillness, including movement and exercise and spending time in nature. These practices help her manage her anxieties and help her keep her mind and body healthy.

In our frenzy to become responsive, giving and nurturing teachers and educators, I hope we don’t forget to protect ourselves from a burn out. Remember the famous practical quote with a massive metaphorical meaning: “Secure your own oxygen mask first before assisting children.”

This article was first published on the January issue of Teacher Plus.

The author is an arts based educator from Bangalore. She can be reached at lakshmikarunakaran@gmail.com.

Beyond the culture of fear

Creating welcoming and safe learning spaces for children

Article first published in the July 2019 edition of the Teacher Plus Magazine

Fear grips the society that we live in. It has been embedded in almost everything we do. It controls what we should wear, what we should eat, who we should trust, who our children should talk to, who we should support, who we should vote for and so on. The traditional education system is probably one of the first formal learning spaces that a child encounters and it lays the foundation of this fear.

The education system itself lives in fear that trickles down from administrators, to educators, to students. The culture in schools has traditionally been associated with the culture of fear – the fear of breaking rules, the fear of teachers, the fear of asking questions, the fear of punishment, the fear of being caught on the wrong foot, the fear of being bullied, the fear of neglect, the fear of failing. Fear blinds us, it dissuades us from finding long-term solutions and encourages us to find short-term fixes. Fear has created a high degree of anxiety and dependency among our children and set them on a path of subservience, in most cases effectively killing their own unique abilities and any possibility of growth. Many of them struggle to cope with it even through their adult life, making a lasting impact on their mental health. Amandeep Sandhu, writer and novelist says, “I wrote Roll of Honour on my school experiences to get past the feeling of fear that I had inculcated as an adolescent through bullying and corporal punishment. It took me about seven years to write the book during which I battled my own depression and tried to find my voice to tell my story.” Sandhu studied in a military school in Punjab during the times of militancy and his book gives insights into his schooling experiences.

When ‘teaching discipline’ becomes irrevocably tied to punitive punishment and propagating fear, the school narrows its own definition and investment in the very individual it claims to benefit. Krishna Haresh, an educator in his presentation at a conference at Centre for Learning (CFL)1, Bangalore said, “I truly hope we all will feel that our responsibility is towards the individual learner and her inner and outer world. Our responsibility is towards creating a safer world ahead. I don’t see how we can justify coercion and castigation, instilling fear through painful punishments, disciplining through punitive regimentation and the like, all in the name of effective schooling! I am sure it is effective, but that is not the effect I hope you want to have. Our abiding, long-term interest has to be the welfare of a learner even though fear may seem like an effective short-term motivator.”

Beyond the culture of fear
How then do we go beyond this culture of fear? One of the first steps is to relook the definition of schools and learning spaces. Haresh says, “School is a place where students begin to learn about friendship, life, love, sex, death and other important experiences to come. A school’s curriculum cannot side-step learning about the learner, just as a teacher cannot teach without learning about the teacher. Every individual has a world within to unravel: a landscape of emotions that intricately weave themselves into our understanding and response to the world around. Can we observe this world carefully? We need to closely observe how fear paralyses and distorts relationships (for the student and for the adult) towards learning, towards the teacher, towards oneself, towards each other on a daily basis.”

Creating a welcoming and safe teaching-learning environment, for the student and the teachers then becomes one of the most critical aspects of building a learning environment that releases our children from the grip of this fear. Mohamed Sidibay2, an advocate for quality education from Sierra Leone who lost his family and became a child soldier at the age of five, has closely experienced the benefits of such a space: “A safe learning environment should provide a student with a sense of belonging and self-belief. A safe learning environment is about a safe school premises, and so much more, like the right curriculum and pedagogy, safety from violence in and around school, and equity and inclusivity. Where I come from, the only way to rebuild a society destroyed by war and poverty is to continue providing children with quality education, and that cannot happen without creating safe learning environments.”

Access to spaces
Sandhu says, “My school – housed in the Palace of Kapurthala, built by Maharaja Jagatjit Singh, on the lines of the French Palace of Fontainebleau, albeit smaller in scale – was a cynosure for tourists, heritage lovers, and of course us students and staff. It welcomed not only us but the world to Punjab. Yet, inside, the strict school regimen that fancied itself as a nursery for the armed forces, based on the idea of ‘discipline and punish’, the rituals of corporal punishment were brutal and scarred my growing up years. I encountered more barricades, in the name of discipline and correction, than open doors. I wonder if the building were any lesser, perhaps the school would not have been so full of itself and been kinder?”

It is important to think about who the learning space caters to, and how you are welcoming them into this space. How would you design your space in ways that the space reaches out to them? A space is after all more than four walls and a roof – it is an environment that speaks to anyone who enters it, telling them how they can fit into it and use it. How do we organize such a space and include elements within it that tell all those who enter that they belong, and that they can participate in happy, productive ways – by reading, playing, interacting, learning?

An invitation to read
Mridula Koshy, who runs a series of libraries in the National Capital Region (NCR) through the The Community Library Project (TCLP) says, “Our mission is to increase people’s access to books. For the majority of people in India there is no access to a book beyond the slim reader/textbook handed to the child in school. We know that putting books in a room and calling it a library does not result in true access. When people have been denied access for generations because of caste or class, there is a historic weight people are carrying, a weight which prevents them from walking into the library. They may not know what the space is, what it’s for, or even more likely they may know of it but believe that they are not welcome. A genuine welcome is a first best practice in ensuring that we build access for all.”

Koshy and her team spend hours walking through the communities that they work with to meet its people door to door to talk to them about the library program and invite them to visit it. They have equally put in efforts to make sure that the space itself becomes accessible to who it primarily caters to – the children of the community. “Our libraries are small jewels. We believe a beautiful space and an excellent, relevant and richly varied collection are evidence to our members of their value as readers. We have always rejected the idea that our library is a poor library for poor people. It is instead an excellent library for all people. We locate our libraries in working class neighbourhoods and the result is that the majority of our membership is working class and migrant,” adds Koshy.

However, in many schools the list of restrictions is far more than the list of accesses. Bhavini Pant, an educator from Bangalore recounts a simple step a librarian of a small school she visited in Tamil Nadu took to provide access to the library. The librarian announced that anyone can walk into the library at any time, not only during the library period. When Bhavini asked her the rationale behind this, she said, “I am part of a mainstream school that is oriented towards academics, I know that the library period will be the first to be sacrificed for a science or a mathematics class. In fact after middle school, our school doesn’t even have a library period. But I don’t want the children to stop reading because of this. I want them to feel that the library is always open to them.”

Making sure children have access to resources within a learning space is another critical aspect. In many learning spaces, everything is kept under lock and key, which already builds a culture of mistrust and hierarchy. “At the outset, in setting up our spaces we have consulted with and benefited from pro-bono support from a number of social architects and designers in Delhi. The single most important decision: open shelving that puts books at eye level and allows our readers to browse, pull out books independently, read the title, look at the pictures, read the blurb at the back and choose the book they wish to borrow,” says Koshy.

Letting the outside in
Many years ago I visited the Viveka Tribal Centre for Learning, a non-formal residential school in Hossahalli, Mysore. I was fascinated by its architecture, how it brought in openness through its architecture. Most classrooms, designed like gazebos had very little wall space that gave the feeling of being a part of the natural beauty of the school located near a forest land. Children walked in through any door/window into the classroom. I remember the school teacher explaining that this is an integral part of the philosophy of the school – openness. Also given that the school caters to children largely from the tribal areas, it is important that ‘education’ does not uproot them from nature and their traditional learning methods.

Is being welcoming towards children and teachers enough? How important is it that parents feel that they are a part of this environment? Are we mindful of providing access to parents who are usually neglected in the process of schooling? Maullika Malhotra Sharma, a counsellor, trainer and a parent to a now college goer says, “My daughter once went to a school that is one of the most academically successful schools in the city. It is known for consistently churning out state toppers through the years. Yet, being a parent who wanted to understand what happens in the school was a forbidding task. I remember entering the school and knowing that I was not welcome. The receptionist behaved like keeping the parents at bay was right on top on her job description. Later when my daughter moved to another school, I could feel a marked difference in the way I felt in the school space. The parents were welcomed with smiles, given snacks and tea and encouraged to share their concerns. It made a whole lot of difference in the way I and my daughter interacted at home as well”.

Freedom to think, question and dream
Access in this context can not only be defined in terms of physical spaces, but also to mental and emotional spaces. How can we create a space that is open to think and question? Sidbay recounts, “For me, it (a safe space) is an environment where a person is free to dream – to dream beyond the life they have led, to dream to break the cycle of poverty and discrimination. I was five when the civil war broke out in Sierra Leone, and even when no place truly felt safe, school was the safest place to be.” A safe space is created when the most marginalized in your school/learning space feels empowered to think, reflect, learn from mistakes and dream.

What is the role of educators themselves in creating such spaces? Rupa Suresh, educator, said at a conference held at Center for Learning in Bangalore, “Openness in relationship between the adult and the student seems most important. It is the first step if we want to create a learning environment for children. This relationship needs to be caring, there must be affection and we need to be interested in children’s lives. If there is no care, then I wonder on what ground the children will relate to adults. When children feel secure in their relationship with adults, it feels like they will engage with us, and with learning, more deeply. We notice in our experience, that most often children cooperate cheerfully when they trust adults and feel secure.”

Maybe a good place to start is – to be real. Show them that you are not only a teacher, but also a learner. That as you enter into a class you are entering into a space of mutual learning. Suresh elaborates, “As a teacher, I may be afraid of questions in class. When children ask questions and I don’t have an appropriate answer, I may get annoyed with the child for having raised the question. Here at CFL, we try to acknowledge that we don’t know and that we can find out together. Yes, we do feel bad but the clue seems to be to observe the feelings that are coming up in us and see the futility of the fear we experience. I have seen that children do respond well to this and it somehow also feels reassuring to them, I think, when they see adults also struggle with things just as they do. Fear may drive teachers to be authoritative, bring order and get work done. The language we use, our body language, may reflect this authority. If I am able to see, recognize that it is fear that is driving me to act, this can be the first step. Dialogue plays a significant role in our work at CFL: dialogue amongst us teachers, between students and teachers, and with parents too. In these sessions, we spend considerable time and energy investigating our psychological worlds. These conversations need not be conclusive or prescriptive. All experiences are subject to inquiry, including the emotion of fear.”

While working with children in schools and community spaces, I realize that most of my generation of educators grew up imbibing the diktats of closed environments. The challenge for us is to now find the courage to turn around such spaces and open them up. Even if we missed them, let the next generation reap the benefits of safe spaces, dream and flourish.

References:
1. https://cfl.in/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Conference-Proceedings-web.pdf
2. https://www.globalpartnership.org/blog/creating-safe-learning-spaces-all-children-and-youth

A Library for the Ragpickers of Bangalore

Supporting the Children of the City’s Ragpicker Community

– Priyanka Sacheti. (First published on lithub on May 19 2019)

When I arrive at Bangalore’s Buguri Community Library, Sangeetha Ramesh is reading aloud from a Kannada children’s book to four little girls. The late afternoon rays highlight a colorful wall mural depicting two children playing with a spinning top, called “buguri” in Kannada, from which the library derives its name. Ramesh, who helps run Buguri, patiently translates my questions about it to the girls. Shalini, 10, only smiles bashfully, but Jassy, 11, enthusiastically tells me, “We like it here very much. In fact, if our parents don’t allow us to come here, we get angry.”

Jassy and Shalini are among the many children belonging to 200 families of informal ragpickers living in nearby slums who have regularly visited Buguri since the library opened in January 2017. Buguri has since then expanded considerably, housing over 2,000 books in Kannada, Hindi, English, and Tamil, while two more branches have opened in neighboring cities of Mysuru and Tumkur, reaching about 600 children in all.

The idea to create a community library emerged from the Bangalore-based nonprofit, Hasirudala, which works with over 10,000 ragpickers, looking after the welfare of this particularly marginalized community and reinstating dignity to the work they perform. Ragpickers collect, sort, and segregate waste before trading it; they perform an invaluable role in the city’s basic waste management, cleaning up a significant proportion of waste that it generates. 

Children Reading at the Buguri Community Library

“While working with the adults, we realized that their kids are even more vulnerable,” Lakshmi Karunakaran, the library program coordinator, said. “Given that the ragpickers are entrepreneurs loaded with numerous responsibilities, they are unable to create a engaging positive environment for their children or send them to schools despite the intention.”

An educator and communications specialist, Karunakaran said that she had been interested in Hasirdula’s work for a long while, and Buguri was the result of their desire to expand their children’s program along with her desire to work with children of marginalized communities.

“I had initially seen the library as a space of learning only to gradually realize that it instead became one of refuge.”

Lakshmi realized that children in the community lacked a safe space after school and often spent those hours alone at home or on the streets. She envisioned creating such a space and allying it with a long-term engagement program in form of a community library. She spent time researching the community library movement, met friends running both international and local community libraries, and came to understand how to fund those spaces along with the importance of adding children’s programming to a library space. She singles out Delhi’s Community Library Project as a particularly inspiring model, crediting its co-founder, Mridula Koshy, and her team for sharing their journey with her. “The work they were [doing] was overlapping with our mission, the kind of marginalized community we wanted to engage with,” Karunakaran said.

The team decided to situate the library in south Bangalore’s neighborhood of Banakshari in part because Hasirudala had already been working with the community there for the last several years; they also wanted to address several issues in the neighborhood that required urgent intervention, including child marriage, child abuse, and drug addiction. One of the biggest challenges Karunakaran encountered was finding a physical space in which to house and enable free access to it. “Space is at a premium in slums, there being so little of it,” she said. 

She also had to contend with the implications of lower-caste ragpickers’ presence in a staunchly upper caste neighborhood; for all their contributions, the ragpickers are often perceived as thieves and treated with hostility. Neighbors perceived the children as unhygienic, disallowing them from playing in the streets. “In India, class and caste dynamics greatly define the city’s demographics. In this situation, it meant months of searching for a place: eventually finding it was nothing short of a miracle,” she said. What worked, in the end, was negotiating with leaders of the neighborhood’s dominant and powerful religious organization to convince them to allocate two small rooms on the topmost floor of an old age home they owned.

When Buguri first opened its doors, Karunakaran said the majority of the children she observed had limited reading skills. Karunakaran and her team of volunteers engaged them through reading aloud in groups or individually. When the library first started coming together, approximately 50 kids turned up after school on the second day to request books; now, about 20 to 35 children voluntarily come every afternoon to participate in these reading groups, Karunakaran said. “We allow this flexibility in which the child can walk in and out any time he wants. I feel that the children really appreciate this and it’s one of the reasons why Buguri has been a successful model,” she said. “I had initially seen the library as a space of learning only to gradually realize that it instead became one of refuge … I had to slow down the program to give the children time to own the space, to soak in the idea of it being quiet, calming, and bringing them joy.”

Karunakaran said she’s observed the community become less resistant to the library, recalling the initial days when she used to arrive at the library and find many neighbors waiting there with various complaints. “It’s a lot more peaceful now, there have been no complaints in the last few months,” she said, while acknowledging that it will take a lot more time for the neighbors to get involved with the library. 

Describing Buguri as “a larger social experiment where you can bridge gaps between class and caste divides among people,” Karunakaran notes that there has been some interaction between children of the neighborhood and the slums. Last month, the library hosted a Read Aloud event in which 150 children participated, half were from Buguri and the rest from other communities, including children living with HIV-positive parents, children of domestic workers, and those with special needs.

Buguri is open for four hours every day of the week and performs multiple roles, hosting other events like art workshops and art therapy sessions. Having run a weekly art therapy session separately for boys and girls during the last year, art therapist Pallavi Chander said that the library “has become a container for them to express their emotions and be themselves using the medium of stories, music, and visual arts,” and that sessions provide a space for children to respond to events in the community. 

“The kids have bonded with one another over these issues,” she said. “They say that ‘We never talk at home but we do over here.

link to original article : https://lithub.com/a-library-for-the-ragpickers-of-bangalore/fbclid=IwAR0hLBm65KYgLBVcPmXaQq7bKgzyXBubRJTVVzNK90YJyTp-izeye5yErNc

The World as a Classroom

 

Walking ten thousand miles is better than reading ten thousand scrolls – Chinese Proverb

I cannot call myself a traveller, not in the way Instagram and Facebook feeds inform me. But I must confess that I find travelling to be one of the most enriching experiences. While I rarely see myself taking time out to travel, I try to make each of my trips whether, professional or personal, a journey that informs me not only about the world outside, but also one that helps me discover the world within.

As an educator, I remain conscious of how these experiences shape me and my practice. In the past few years, through work and other opportunities I have been able to travel to several countries in Europe. One of my most educative trips was a walk. Camino de Santiago, or the Way of Saint James is a pilgrimage (now more a cultural walk) to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. While the walk in full length can take up to 35 days across 700 kilometres, I chose to walk for a week covering about 200 kilometres from the last town in Portugal, Tui, crossing the border on foot across the Mino river into Spain. Each day we would start at 6 am as the sun came up, we would set out to the next destination on the route, usually about 25 kms away, guided by just a yellow arrow sign showing us the direction at various places along the route. We would reach the destination by mid afternoon giving us the time to discover the village or town, talk to the locals and understand local culture. While the walk opened me to the conflicted history of Spain and Portugal, the separatist movement in Galicia and the nature and wildlife of the landscape, the time of solitude that I discovered along the walk brought me some of the most important life lessons. A significant one among those was about baggage – in the physical and metaphorical sense.

Travelling light was essential as each of us carried our own baggage. So the seven days became an important revelation on how little one really needs to live. When starting, my backpack weighed about five kilograms, and as the days went along I saw myself shedding many things that were not important. A lighter bag made me more agile, more focused. This of course led me to think about the baggage of emotions – of fears, anxiety, regret, relationships, etc., that I carried within me. Today, each time I feel overwhelmed by life, I travel back to that journey that I took and remember all that it taught me.

When I was approached to write this article, I was pleasantly surprised. Since my own experiences of teaching has largely remained around experiments within the classroom, and limited to a few local trips, the possibility of discovering how other educators use the outdoors as learning spaces was exciting.

Travel as education
Savita Uday is a researcher, educator, farmer and folklorist. She is based in Honnavar in the Uttara Kannada district, and is the founder of the project Buda Folklore. Buda has, over the years, been deeply engaged in documentation and reinvigoration of folk practices, especially those in the Gokarna-Ankola region focusing on the lives of Halakki, Siddi and Kare Okkalu tribal communities. Savita, after her PHD, taught in a few schools. However, she soon discovered the restrictions in the classroom experience. ‘I was teaching students about the low tide and high tide phenomenon. Having grown up in a coastal area I realized that I had experienced it in a way that I could not translate in the classroom setup. I decided that I needed to give children a way to experience it the way I had’. She slowly changed her entire life, moving back to Honnavar and setting up Buda. Today, she hosts children who spend weeks on educational trips. The Buda program has marked out three routes through the Uttara Kannada landscape – The Forest Route, the Sea Route and the River route. The children travel in groups along with volunteers and educators experiencing the rich ecological diversity in the landscape meeting members of tribal communities that inhabit these spaces and learning about how they live and experience life.

Installation by walkers on the way to Santiago

For Hema Gopinathan Sah, a homeschooler from Mumbai, travel or outdoor learning is an essential part of homeschooling. ‘We didn’t want to bring structured, institutionalized learning into our home, so keeping it outdoors and experiential was critical. Of course there are unstructured holidays, but because we follow the Waldorf/Rudolph Steiner curriculum, we travel with a specific purpose of understanding, experiencing. That is very much our homeschooling philosophy. Almost every topic, any subject will begin outdoors, preferably onsite, at the actual location of the subject we are studying or at the least at a museum. For example, when we were studying rivers we went to Triambakeshwar in Nashik to see where the river surfaces. And then we could bring it home with a craft project of a papier maché 3-D map of Maharashtra tracing the journey of the river. We may have been studying geography, but the takeaway was more because we learnt about Hindu mythology, mathematics to figure out the distance covered, volume of water discharged, the area irrigated and so on.’Thejaswi Sivanand, educator from Bengaluru through his work at Center for Leaning (CFL) has taken several adolescent children on educational trips across the country. A traveller himself, he has had firsthand insights into how travel has informed his own growth as a person and as an educator. ‘I love literature. Books have helped me travel to spaces and times that I cannot physically access given my circumstances. However, I have also known the qualitative difference in the experience of understanding that travel brings vis-a-vis reading. For me, it is the human component that makes all the difference. For example, one can read several books about the lives of adivasis of central India, but visiting them, travelling with them, and building friendships that last decades, informs you in ways that no book can. I try to bring this understanding to the children that I travel with.’

Planning an educational trip
Sivanand shares that there are four critical aspect of planning an educational trip with children:
The first one is setting the goals for the trip. ‘I feel that any educational trip should consider two basic goals – help children look beyond their context and current lives, and encourage them to look within their own selves.

Students on the river route offered by the Buda programme

Choosing the place, modes and means of travel is another important aspect. ‘The place and plan arises from the group of children that I am working with. If I feel that the group needs to push themselves physically or psychologically, I plan a trip that calls for such a challenge. For example, a Himalayan trekking trip. If I feel that the group needs to be exposed to a layered experience of understanding the socio-cultural-economic-ecological diversity of a space, I plan a trip that pushes the group to understand multiple perspectives. I recall a two-week trip to Punjab that helped us look at history starting from the Harappan Mohenjadaro civilization, to medieval times, to partition, to the Khalistan movement and to the current state of Punjab. It helped us explore ecological diversity, and culture and food of the land through the people we met. These trips are not luxurious by any means. We travel sleeper class and stay modestly. On our Punjab trip, we only lived in Gurudwaras and ate at the langar that they provided. This is a critical part of the education on the trip, as it allows the students to understand the landscape from the grassroots, not as a tourist.’The third and one of the most critical aspects is to create spaces of discussion and reflection. ‘The two weeks of travel is an intense experience for both the students and the educators. Each student is encouraged to maintain a personal journal through the trip. This helps them gather their observations, assimilate it and make sense of it. Apart from this, there are group discussions everyday that allow spaces for questions and dialogue. This helps children and the group further build understanding of what they are experiencing.’

The last, yet critical aspect to consider is the dynamics of the group. ‘Travelling can bring the best and worst in many of us. When we are out of our comfort zone, we tend to expose different sides of our personalities. So being alert to the movements of children, giving space, at the same time offering help when they need it becomes an important role of the educator.’

Ini Periodi, alumnus of CFL, corroborates Sivanand’s thoughts. She was part of several excursions from CFL. ‘Yes, it’s the understanding of group dynamics that has stayed with me the most. Even though the group was small and we spent a lot of time with each other at school, travel brought out a different side to all of us. This was important to witness and understand. I truly learnt how to work as a group and find my role within the group.’

Today Periodi is an educator and works with young students. She says that the lessons that she learnt through her travels have seeped in multidimensional ways. ‘Travelling on educational trips the way I did has taught me one of the most important lessons – to be open. Open to various experiences, people and learning. It has helped me be ‘present’ in a space, in a moment, not only when I travel but also in the classroom that I teach.’

The author is an educator based in Bengaluru. She can be reached at lakshmikarunakaran@gmail.com.

This article was first published on the Teacher Plus magazine’s December 2018 issue.

 

A ROOM OF THEIR OWN: LIBRARY PROJECT GIVES CHILDREN OF INFORMAL WASTEPICKERS IN BENGALURU’S BANSHANKARI NEW WORLDS TO PONDER

By SOWMYA RAJARAM, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Updated: Jul 26, 2017, 02.36 PM IST

Just off the hustle and bustle of Banashankari Temple Ward and the metro station; in a nondescript lane around the corner, are colourful flowers and tall giraffes.

Offering them company are people such as Rani, who is afraid to go to school on the first day because she has no friends. Her pals – Shalini, Ajay and Jenny – are empathetic. After all, they’ve been there too. Together, they talk about how they will travel to school, and what they have to look forward to over there. Soon, everybody is chatting and laughing, and life on a boring Thursday evening seems considerably brighter.

Rani lives in a book and the giraffe is painted on the wall, but for the children of Buguri Community Library, they are real. So real, in fact, that despite the demands of school, vacations and practical challenges such as having to help the family fill and store water, they are here every evening, filling up a tiny 200sqft space with energy, enthusiasm, and the occasional notoriety too.

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Books and being

An initiative of Hasirusdala – an organisation that works for the welfare of informal wastepickers – Buguri Community Library is the first such initiative that came out of a desire to engage with the community in more sustainable ways. Since February 2017, programme coordinator Lakshmi Karunakaran, along with other volunteers and facilitators, has been conducting reading sessions with the children of about 200 families living in a slum. The idea, says Karunakaran, was to create a safe, non-academic space for children who crave just that. While Wednesday to Saturday is devoted to reading and storytelling, the space turns into an art activity centre on Sundays, where kids learn to paint, draw, and have even dabbled in theatre and beatboxing. The kids are aged between six and 16, and are divided into two groups.

They had lofty ideals to start with – it would be a space that influences children on a long term basis; a space where they would be exposed to a lot more than what they are exposed to on the streets; it would teach them how to think, speak, engage socially and so on. But the very first activity – painting the walls of this space – introduced a shift in their thinking, Karunakaran says. “Our first realisation was that, all our objectives aside, the kids were just happy to have a space. When we put out word that we were going to start a library, 20 kids came over on the first day. We just didn’t even have enough books! That’s when it hit me – they were just glad to have a space of their own. We decided to put all our agendas aside and let them just feel this,” she says.

Over 2,000 books – in Kannada, Tamil, Hindi and English – were raised from donors from across the world, including Goobe’s, the bookstore on Church Street, and publishers such as Tulika Books and Pratham books, among others.

Learn and grow

One of the first challenges they encountered was that many children couldn’t read (about 80 per cent in the younger group), while others were dropouts. While Karunakaran admits that they’re still working out ways to circumvent that (they might introduce a short-term reading fluency programme), they’ve dealt with it for now by becoming visual readers. This includes read aloud sessions and storytelling and discussion. They also open up the story – personalising and contextualising it to the conflict in the lives of the children, and asking them how they would react in a particular session.

A book of ghost stories for instance, led to a conversation on the existence of god, and from there to religion. Meanwhile, many non-readers are encouraged to pick up books and make their own stories, giving wing to their imagination. Karunakara cites the example of Lakshmi, who she describes as an “excellent” visual reader, who will go through five-10 books in one session; talking to the book and being dramatic. Volunteers work with specific children who seek additional mentoring. Vimala (15), for instance, likes to practise speaking in English. Stories are picked up depending on the dynamic of the class. For instance, to teach the kids about the concept of a community-led space, a volunteer read a story about planting a tree, around which a community grows. An art exercise followed that.

Lessons have been learnt along the way. For instance, the community has a huge issue with water, which has meant that attendance at the 10am Sunday sessions has dwindled. This, because Sunday morning is when the while family is roped in to fill up buckets. Attendance also fell during summer vacations, when the children were out of town, or, in many cases, forgot what day of the week it was, Karunakaran says with a laugh. “They know what day of the week it is when they have school, but forget during the vacations. In such cases, we’ve actually gone to the colony and called them,” she says. Another learning has been the need to adapt to their practical limitations. Giving the children lessons in cleanliness and asking them to shower regularly is pointless when they don’t even know what it is to have a running tap. Used to the structure of reward and punishment, the children are also taking time to understand the dynamics of this space – it can often be confusing and overwhelming. When a few kids misbehaved and tore up some books, for instance, they expected to be beaten up. Instead, they were kindly asked why they behaved the way they did. “We took a democratic vote and decided to cancel the membership of anyone who breaches the library’s rule of love towards each other and the books. That way, they learn to respect rules,” Karunakaran explains.

Looking ahead

Today, there have been subtle shifts. The kids clean up before coming to the library; the girls will pop in and come back after combing their hair. Older kids who can speak Hindi now translate for one of the volunteers, who doesn’t speak Kannada and Tamil. Then there is Vimala, who wasn’t inclined to help out at home (Karunakaran says her mother would complain that she would pretend to study and read all the time and was too lazy to help out at home) volunteers at the library. She even admitted as much in a presentation to DELL EMC (which sponsors the library), saying that she wouldn’t help out at home but after coming to the library, was “liking to help”. They are visible too. Dressed in a green salwar kameez, Vimala is a picture of polite confidence. Reading her favourite books – The Lion and the Chameleon, Swalpa Swalpa, among others – have enriched her vocabulary and helped her translate for others too. In fact, the book Word Festival, that she read at the library, was seminal in helping her put together a presentation on the meaning of festivals for a Social Science project at school. “I got 50 out of 50 for it,” she says, beaming.

In the background, Shalini and Ajay listen agape to the story of Rani, and tell the facilitators how they feel about school. Their eyes sparkle with curiosity and mischief. After all, children are children – they deserve a room of their own.

This article was first published on The Bangalore Mirror.

This Bengaluru Library With Over 2,000 Books Is Creating a Safe Space for Kids of Ragpickers

Lakshmi Karunakaran, with the volunteers, has been conducting reading sessions with the children of about 200 families living in a slum.

An empty room above an old-age home in Banashankari, Bengaluru, comes alive every week. With stories that give wings to the imagination of children of ragpickers, residing in shanties close by. Dozens of children run up and down stairs of the community library set up by Hasirudala.

Hasiru Dala is a Bengaluru-based non-profit organisation that works for the welfare of the community of wastepickers.

Named ‘Buguri,’ meaning ‘spinning top’ in Kannada, this community library creates a space for children of wastepickers to spin thoughts and ideas, learn and have fun too.

 

buguriSpeaking to The Hindu, Nalini Shekhar, co-founder of Hasiru Dala, says, “They are all first generation learners. Even those who go to school do not have reading levels equal to other kids their age.Unless you make learning interesting and relevant, it is tough for them to show interest.”

The community library took shape in late 2016, when the organisation was trying to find a place and collect books. Spearheaded by Lakshmi Karunakaran, accessibility was a high-priority for them. The idea was to help children walk to the library by themselves.

Getting children was not a daunting task. Their first visitor, Aravind, a 4-year-old, arrived while the repair work was going on. The blank white walls became colorful canvases when several children, guided by artists and volunteers, painted trees, toys, and giraffes.

“We didn’t even get an opportunity to formally start. After the painting event, we told the children they had to give us some time to set things up. And next day , thirty kids landed up, asking for books,” says Lakshmi.

 

This article was first published on The Better India.

 

 

 

Creating a safety net for the mind

Over the years there has been an alarming rise in mental health disorders in the country. According to a study conducted by the National Commission on Macroeconomics and Health in 2005, nearly five per cent of India’s population suffers from common mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety. Children make a considerable chunk of that number. They have been at the receiving end of many socio-economic changes that our society has seen in the recent past – the breakdown of the joint family, peer and parental pressure, pressure of academic performance, sudden advancement in technology, and the need to ‘fit in’ has multiplied their risks of stress, depression and other mental illnesses.

Given this, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) has specified the appointment of one counselor in each of its affiliated schools. While the mental health community has welcomed this decision, schools on the ground are facing the dearth of trained professionals. What adds to the problem is the lack of understanding of the role of counselors in school.

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Role of a counsellor
According to the Indian Institute of School Psychology*, school counselling is a profession which: i. aims primarily to improve the academic performances of the students. ii. provides vocational guidance. iii. helps in social and personal development of the students. iv. provides the much needed bridge between parents and students. v. functions in preventive, remedial and developmental modes. vi. functions to remove barriers to development if any, in the individual or in the environment. vii. works to identify, assess , evaluate, solve or refer, if necessary, problems of students which may be behavioural, emotional, social, academic or psychological. viii. Involves the team efforts of the teachers, the parents and other school staff.

While this definition seems comprehensive, schools have not yet been able to orient themselves to accommodate such a complex role in the system. Maullika Sharma, counsellor at The Reach Clinic, Bangalore, working largely with adolescents and young adults agrees “Schools in most cases are unable to utilize their counsellors. That is largely because there is a lack of understanding of the counsellor’s role. Most counsellors land up being just another teacher and are often burdened with teaching, arts and crafts, and admin work, because the school administration feels that the counsellor has no substantial work.”

Maullika believes that the counsellor, through his/her work in the school needs to engage with all three characters of the triad – child, parent and teacher, to be able to address the larger mental health needs of the school substantially. “Parents are often confused when they are unable to understand a child’s behaviour and if abnormal behaviour persists they don’t know where to go and whom to turn to. When they are faced with diagnosis of mental illness for their child, they don’t understand the implications and often don’t know how to react or respond to best support their child. They are often overwhelmed with their own anxieties and pressures that they are unable to be available for their child when their child needs them most. Teachers, like the rest of us, maybe struggling with life’s challenges as well. In giving them access to a safe space, the chances that they will carry the impact of their life’s struggles into their classrooms are reduced. It is important to help teachers deal with their emotional baggage so that they can be more emotionally available to the students they teach. Also, counselling helps them understand the impact of their words and actions on the lives that they are helping shape.”

Teachers, who for decades have remained informal counsellors at school, feel the pressures and demands of the current educational system, and the socio-economic changes equally. White Swan Foundation (WSF), a not-for-profit organization that offers knowledge services in the area of mental health is currently involved in a project that caters to the mental health and wellbeing of anganwadi teachers. Patrecia Preetham, who manages outreach programs at WSF says, “Anganwadi teachers work with young mothers, children and teenage girls. Our initial survey for the project showed that they knew very little about mental wellness. While our primary objective was to educate the teachers about being able to inform and counsel the children and parents on their mental well-being, we realized that most anganwadi teachers themselves need help. Many came from battered families, and faced domestic violence and distress in their own homes. Since then addressing the mental health needs of the anganwadi workers has become a key element of the project.”

Reaching out
The counsellor is an expert who addresses a specific area in the school system. While it is important for counsellors to be ‘different’ from other teachers at the school, it is equally important that they are visible and accessible to students. “It is important that students understand what issues to approach the counsellor for and how to seek help. Confidentiality is key. They must come to believe that if they visit the counsellor with a problem, the other teachers, or the principal, or their parents, and most importantly, their peers will not come to know about it,” says Maullika. “For this, it is important for the counsellor to reach out to as many students personally. I would visit every classroom in their free period. I would educate them about various emotions, and how and why it is important to express them. And, emphasize on how I could help them. And after each of these classes, my diary used to be filled with appointments that the children scheduled. At the start of the academic year I would give a questionnaire to every child asking them to list out the kind of problems they are facing. The objective was not so much to get the children to respond, and most of them didn’t, but to make them aware of my presence and how and when they can seek help.” says Maullika.

Anita Rajah, Consultant, Clinical Psychologist with over two decades of experience, agrees and adds “I believe that confidentiality issues are linked to the larger atmosphere that the school system creates. If the school promotes an environment of friendship, openness, and trust, between the management, teachers and the students, this should not be a problem. If there is an authoritarian, punitive approach to the issue, then one observes the children of such schools shy away from approaching counsellors and getting help.”

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Teachers as counsellors
To fill in the large gap that exists between the demand for counsellors on the ground, and the number of trained professionals, there is a growing need for teachers themselves to be trained in counselling skills.

Anita believes that this is going to be the way forward.”Personally, I believe that all teachers need to be trained in counselling. The teacher is the first point of contact and probably has the most power over the child. So to some extent, the day to day problems and mentoring needs can be handled by them. If there is a problem that is repeated, and the teacher notices a pattern, then the teacher should have the judgment to refer the case to somebody who is more professional. More than often, that is the point of dispute – When do you refer? So a teacher may have helped a child overcome certain issues, been very supportive, but identifying that the problem is intense and the child needs professional systematic help, comes with training and experience. This is where an untrained teacher can slip.”

And the cost of such slips, like Maullika discovered, could be quite high. “A student with suicidal tendencies approached a teacher that she trusted. The teacher counselled her informally, and she felt she was able to handle the situation. She didn’t refer the child to a professional until one day it was too late”.

To have teachers who are trained to work with the school counsellors and have an understanding of the ambit of their own counselling work is crucial. “At any point about 30-40 per cent of the children in a school face some problem or the other. The ones that really require professional help are about five to seven per cent of the entire population. So in a school with a 1000 children, we are talking about 50-70 children who need expert help. This group definitely needs to be out of the ambit of the teacher,” adds Anita.

The larger question
As we diagnose children and label them in terms of their mental health and needs, there is a call to understand and investigate the larger issues that trigger such behaviour.

In a recent facebook post I read a query of a three year old’s mother who was contemplating taking a drop year for her child, but was extremely worried if that would affect his age considerations for his IAS entrance. This left me shocked and disturbed. Are these the kind of pressures and expectations that we are exposing our children to? At such an early age?

When I mention this to Anita, she says, “Regardless of academics there is a much larger social issue where children are being victimized. One is the lack of physical space. This means that there is no place for children to move around. They do not get enough opportunities to step out and breathe freely or move about freely. Because of which, some children who are more vulnerable tend to become more restless. There are others who have different paces of learning and are unable to catch up to what the school is teaching. And since the teaching method is uniform, the child loses interest and slips away, developing a secondary learning disability. A secondary learning disability is when children are unable to follow the instructions in class, for various reasons, and are not motivated or interested. They finally experience fatigue. All these are the children who get labelled. In most cases the school does not have an answer, the counsellor doesn’t have an answer and the parents definitely don’t have an answer. So we have a whole group of children who are being labelled continuously because of a system they are unable to fit into. There are very few schools that remain open to work with the children, and not against them. This I feel is the real issue”.

Even the Indian Institute of School Psychology’s definition of a counsellor, the primary focus is on “’to improve the academic performances of the students”’, while the larger need is to focus on the mental well-being of the students. The children’s access to help is still largely controlled by teachers and parents, who themselves are, in many cases, unequipped to handle such situations.

As we fill in positions of counsellors in our schools, it’s becoming important to ask: How are we going to respond to the needs of children in our school? How do we address the larger question of their mental health? What is the path will we take?

*International Research Journal of Social Sciences Vol 3.(3)

The author is an educator based in Bengaluru. She can be reached at lakshmikarunakaran@gmail.com.

This article was first published on the Teacher Plus magazine’s March 2017 issue.

 

Rendering relevance through the arts

Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learnt in school. – Albert Einstein

It’s every educator’s quest to make education relevant and meaningful. However, the challenge of a rigid curriculum based system and the threat of information overload looms not only over our students, but also our educators. A significant disadvantage of the curriculum-based approach in education is its tedious uniformity. It fails to cater to the diverse needs of the children within the classroom and is either far removed from their immediate environment and socio-economical reality or its relevance and impact on the students is left unexplored. Arts education is becoming a medium to bridge this gap and is helping educators bring relevance and immediacy to the lessons they teach.

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“Our school books have nothing in them that reflect our environment and everyday context of life,” says Ms. Arundhati Ghosh, Director of India Foundation for the Arts (IFA), a national, not-for-profit, grant making organization that supports practice, research, and education in the arts in India. ‘Arts education enables students to understand who they are, where they come from and what relationship they have with the world around them. It also helps them ask questions and challenge their lived experiences – make them not good citizens but critical citizens of this democracy.’

IFA’s Arts Education programme is one of their oldest grant making programmes, and probably the only one in the country that offers grants to government school teachers. In its initial years, the program made a series of wide-ranging grants on a national scale to artists seeking to promote arts in classrooms. However, by 2008 the program was revised to place the ‘school teacher’ at the centre of the program.

Ms. Ghosh reflects on this decision, “It was felt that teachers are key change makers in the school system. They are the pivots. Ask anyone who has been the greatest influence in their lives, or who has inspired them and the name of some teacher in their lives many years ago will emerge. Teachers are the door openers of our minds in so many ways. Thus we felt that if we were to make arts education work, we must focus on the teacher – with training and grants. We need to equip them to do what they do best – make learning a journey full of the joy of curiosity.”

This thought led to the birth of the Kali-Kalisu program, a pilot project that showcases good practices and the larger possibilities for arts education within the schooling system in Karnataka. Over the last five years, the programme has focused its energies and resources on arts-based training for teachers from government schools and has been enabling interesting work to enhance project ideas at grassroots level. “Arts education fosters an understanding of the self and the other by collective experiences of making art. Especially in government schools that lack infrastructure, facilities, teachers and all other amenities, arts education can provide a semblance of spirited explorations into learning,” adds Ms. Ghosh.

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Apart from the grant, IFA conducts Master Resource Persons (MRP) training programmes across the state, covering 17 districts in South Karnataka and 17 in North Karnataka. “One of the main objectives of the program is to focus on local themes, folk art, and culture,” says Mr. Krishna Murthy, Program Manager of the Arts Education Program. “Interaction with their local community and the challenges the community is facing is another important aspect,” he adds.

Mr. Mallesha M, a grantee from Kalghatki, Dharward Dist, used the arts to create awareness about the social and cultural issues that surround the school and the community, with a particular emphasis on female absenteeism and child marriage. “While I worked with the children, I realized that it was important to get parents on board. In the previous years, we would go door to door and talk to the parents. We changed that. We brought all the parents to a common place. Through the grant and with the children in the lead, we started an awareness program in the village,” says Mr.Mallesha. He organized his students into a variety of art clubs, such as literature, drama, and cinema, and steered them towards gathering knowledge and information about school-related issues with the help of external resources. This was followed by the clubs working independently and with each other to shape art-based interventions, such as creating a script and staging a play, or screening a film, to directly engaging with the larger community through an arts camp.

Mr. Sadanand Byandoor, a teacher from Government High School, Kundapur, Udupi has been a recipient of the Kali Kalisu Master Resource Persons Training in 2010. Through the grant he took up poetry and through innovative modes, made studying poetry an experiential and sensory engagement that brings alive the essence and spirit of poetry. “I was always interested in working with children on poetry, but we government school teachers find very little financial support for such interests. This grant helped me realize this project.” In addition to the poems in the textbooks in Kannada, Hindi, and English which students have to learn, Mr. Byandoor drew up another list of poems in Kannada from across the years to give students exposure to the wide variety of and rich language traditions in Kannada. “We spent hours after school reading and discussing poetry. Initially, I realized that the children couldn’t connect or relate to many of these poems. The language was dense, the contexts were different. I then started to break them down into simple stories, connecting them to local happenings and characters that they could relate to. Soon, things changed,” says Mr. Byandoor.

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He invited poets, writers, singers, and theatre artists to conduct workshops on discussing, reading, and performing poetry in ways never done before in the school. “I am not sure how much poetry my students will practice in the future, or how many of them would become poets themselves or retain interest in poetry. But one thing is for sure, they have learnt to ask questions. They have learnt to think about what they read, and that skill, hopefully, is for a lifetime.”

The challenges are many. “One of the biggest challenges is in the mindset of most educators, who see art as ‘extra-curricular’, as something that is threatening to ‘real’ education. Reaching out to government school teachers, especially the rural areas is no mean task. That is why the trainings conducted in the various districts are important. During the trainings we sensitize teachers to this approach to teaching and learning and the resources that are available to them to take it further,” says Mr. Murthy. The lack of infrastructure and support is another ongoing challenge.

What after the grant period is over? Do the teachers continue the practice? Ms. Ghosh says, “The challenge is as always sustainability of the work that these brilliant teachers do. How do we ensure more support from governments? How can their work influence and transform the archaic ways of pedagogy of our schools? How do we ensure that arts education plays a role in the training of teachers? I am reminded of the famous Pink Flyod song here – how do we ensure that arts education frees us from creating another brick in the wall through our education systems?”

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Though the challenges are many, the applications for the grant have been steadily growing. “What amazes me is that with such limited resources teachers can transform learning and with that the lives of thousands of students. Their passion and commitment to their vocation will inspire even the most cynical. That understanding and learning about arts and cultural practices around us, in our communities, in our quotidian environment can be so enriching. That in the stories of our grandmothers and the songs of our ancestors, in our work fables and the ritual decorations of our homes, in our languages and our diverse cuisines – lay bodies of knowledge that can equip us to imagine our futures. That through arts education we learn to ask questions about our present lives, social injustices, economic instabilities and political motives. That through arts education we gain a sense of who we are, what our values are, the kind of lives we intend to live. We have also discovered that it’s a junoon once you get into the journey – there is no stopping,” says Ms. Ghosh.

Clearly, there is a need to take on board the fact that despite all hurdles there are government school teachers who are committed to their work, and want to enrich the lives of children that they work with. And that they are in need of support and guidance.

The author is an educator based in Bengaluru. She can be reached at lakshmikarunakaran@gmail.com.

This article was first published in the Teacher Plus Magazine’s December 2016 issue.

 

 

 

Who is your enemy?

This article was first published on Teacher Plus Magazine, March 2016

Faisal Abu Alhayjaa, speaks about his journey with Freedom Theater, the lessons he learnt from his mentors and how working with children has healed him.

It was in Germany last year that I first heard about the Freedom Theater. I was talking to Palestinian friends about the Intifadas, and the role of children in the movement of resistance. Their stories had left me shaken. I didn’t sleep peacefully for a many days.

Palestine has been under occupation for over 67 years. Children have been the most affected by the ongoing conflict. Arna Mer Khamis, through her unique initiative, Care and Learning, used theater and art to address the chronic fear, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by children in Jenin Refugee Camp after the first Intifada. Later she set up the Stone Theater for the children, which was destroyed during the Israeli invasion of the refugee camp in 2002. In 2006, Arna’s son, Juliano Mer Khamis revived her dream and set up the Freedom Theater. The theater aims to generate cultural resistance through the fields of popular culture and art as a catalyst for social change in the occupied Palestinian territories. Its goal is to develop a vibrant and creative artistic community that empowers children and young adults to express themselves freely and equally through art.

Early this year, I was excited to know that Freedom Theater was in India to collaborate with Jan Natya Manch, JANAM, India’s own radical theater group. As a part of this collaboration, they toured through the country performing their play, ‘Hamesha Samida’. After I saw their play in Bangalore, I spoke to Faisal Abu Alhayjaa, director and actor at the Freedom Theater.  Here is an excerpt from the interview.

Faisal, let’s start with your journey in theatre. How did you choose theatre, or rather how did theater choose you?

I like that expression ‘theater chooses you’. I believe art in general, not only theater, but also film making, writing, storytelling, dance, singing and so on, it’s the art that chooses you. My story with theater started when I first saw the film Arna’s Children, which is a documentary about a theater group in the Jenin refugee camp in Palestine. I think I saw it in 2004. While I was watching the film, I realized that one of the children featured in the film was my cousin – Ashraf Abu Alhayjaa. I was thrilled that one of my family members was in the film. In a scene in the film Juliano Mer Khamis, the director of the theater, asks my cousin “Ashraf, what is your dream?” And Ashraf replies “My dream is to be a Palestinian Romeo”. In the second scene of the film, I saw Ashraf being killed during the invasion of Jenin refugee camp in 2002. I was shocked. I knew I was not watching fiction. It was not a Bollywood or Hollywood film. This was reality. At around the same time, this thought was seeded in me – I want to be a Palestinian Romeo too but I don’t want to be killed.  So that is how I started to dream about being in theater.

Do you remember your first day at the Freedom Theater?

Yes.

 How was it like?

I remember it clearly. I was very scared to go to the theater. It was 2006 and we were still in the Intifada. All the talk around me was about martyrs. It was a time filled with pain, disappointment and hopelessness. And I remember, when the Freedom Theater course started, a lot of rumors had spread about it – that they will bring foreign culture, they will rape our minds as Muslims, they will change the values of Islam, and they will have men and women together on the stage. So it was not easy for me, to walk into the theater that day. Also, I didn’t have any experience of theater or performance. I had seen some theater on TV, but I hadn’t even seen a real play yet. I remember being very confused – should I go or not. Finally, I was brave enough to go.  There I met Juliano Mer Khamis, one of the founders of the Freedom Theater. I asked him “What is this place? What do you do here?” And he replied “This is a theater school. We also have multimedia departments, film making workshops, photo exhibitions, and we teach creative writing”. I was stunned. All of this was happening in the refugee camp that I had lived in and I didn’t know about it!

So I joined the school because I was in love with theater and acting. And through these years I have realized that I am not only an actor, I am also a fighter. I am throwing stones as a Palestinian, but not on the streets. My stones are my plays, my work, and my voice. The Freedom Theater became a place where I could express myself, as a child, as an artist, as a human being.

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Faisal talks to the audience in Delhi

Faisal, tell us about those people and moments in your life so far, that you feel, changed you completely as an artist, as a person.

Juliano Mer Khamis has had a very deep impact on my life. He was a very strong and charismatic teacher and artist. I remember this incident very clearly. Initially my family didn’t support me and my work. Juliano’s mother was an Israeli Jew, so there were a lot of speculations on the motives of such a program. And of course, for my family what I was doing was haram, forbidden. And then something changed when they saw me on stage. I remember, we were performing the play Animal Farm. It was the first professional production of the theater school. I was playing the horse, Boxer. We had adapted the play in the Palestinian context. It was a big production and there were many challenges. There was a lot of pressure and I used to cry a lot. We were pushed to deliver our best. And just before going on to the stage, when there was so much apprehension, everyone was on their toes, nervous; Juliano came to the back stage and said something that has stayed with me. He said “Faisal, the audience don’t know the play. So if you make any mistake, the audience will feel that it is the play. And you will still exist” This was life changing for me. Because sometimes as an artist we tend to worry about what other people think about us. We feel we are playing to an audience and we need to please them. But I realized that, when an artist becomes merely a audience pleaser, it will be his end.

So we performed the play, and it went very well. At the end of the play my brother came to me and said “You know Faisal, if we bring a hundred politicians to talk about Palestine, it would be so boring. They would give us a headache. But through your play, we were so inspired that we could see ourselves on stage” My family’s biases against me and my work, had changed in an hour, through a play! And that’s when I realized the power of this medium.

Juliano, he taught me another important lesson about time. Once, one of us came in late for a rehearsal. Juliano walked up to him and said “You know, we have been fighting through our work – we have been throwing stones, fighting to protect our camp, our city, ourselves. And you are the one who is responsible to protect our camp. But you didn’t come; you didn’t turn up on time, while the rest of us did. So what is your excuse for this?” That is when I realized that what I am doing is not merely theater. My work is connected with the resistance, and he showed me the importance of time and disciple. This has inspired me to give myself completely to the stage.

Faisal, you joined the theater as a young artist and over the past few years have been training other students on stage tell us about your experience of teaching children at the theater.

I think Freedom Theater, pulls the children out of their lives filled with violence. It gives them the space to look at themselves, from a distance.  When I joined the theater, I began to realize how important my work is. And I believe that it is important to feel what you are doing is important. And you have to find the reasons as to why it is important. I feel if you are affected by theater, then it’s your responsibility to send this message to the new generation.  Just like the way I was affected by Ashraf in the film. It was just the one scene in which Ashraf speaks about his dream. It changed my life. I wondered how many Ashrafs are there in the Jenin refugee camp? How many Ashrafs are there in Palestine? How many Ashrafs are there in the world? Ashrafs who have dreams, but they don’t have the power of choice – of the place and the situation.

The children at Freedom Theater…they are so energetic and also very crazy at the same time. They are very smart, and they understand everything. So I discuss everything with them, about the play, the stage and the entire process, while giving them examples from their own lives. I realize all the examples of their lives is of freedom fighters, of martyrs, of violence, of pain, of disappointment. But you need to give the child the space to look back and say “But here, in this place…things are a little different”.  We need to give them the space and time to look at other stories, from other contexts, other colors…other messages. In our curriculum in the school, the first year is spent with each student engaging with this question ‘ Who am I?’ It is about them discovering their identity.

I did this play with the children called ‘Who is the enemy?’ Children were asked to probe themselves and bring in material from their lives about who they thought were their enemies. The answer that we got after a very complicated process that involved writing, interviewing, discussions, improvisation, film, music – was that ‘I am the enemy’. I am my own enemy, for most limitations are rising from within me.

Freedom Theater

Freedom theater members performing in India 

Faisal, you also mentioned that working with children has healed you. Tell us how.

A few years ago, I did this play called Tuwani. Tuwani is the name of a Palestinian village in south Hebron Hills. The circumstances are difficult in these villages. They are surrounded by Israeli colonies and there is constant tension and conflict. So the army has been pushing these people to leave. And they have been resisting this for a long time. The people of this area are mainly shepherds and farmers. Many times the Israeli army poisoned their sheep, destroyed their farms. I used to visit this community to perform plays. One such time the children narrated a story to me, an incident from their life that I would like to share with you.

One day, a few years ago, the children in Tuwani decided to have a summer camp. There were 30  to 40 children between the age group of 7 yrs to 14 yrs. But the children didn’t know what a summer camp was. The only thing they knew was that summer camps happen in beautiful places. So there was a mountain in front of the colonies and the children decided to have their summer camp there. Then they cleaned up the place, made it look nice, pitched their tents and brought a lot of tyres. In fact they brought hundreds of tyres and painted them with Palestinian flags. And so they prepared the space beautifully.

After some time, one of the Israeli settlers came and stole one of their tyres. The children noticed that. Then the children, without thinking, very spontaneously, had a demonstration through the colonies. And to enter the colonies in Palestine is very dangerous because there is security, there is army, there are bombs. But the children, marched fearlessly on the streets shouting ‘We want the tyre… We want the tyre’.   Soon their families heard the noises, and they came running to warn and bring back the children. But when they realized what was happening and when they heard the slogans, they joined them. Soon there were many more people marching and shouting ‘We want the tyre… We want the tyre’. Then the Israeli army came, with the police and the management. There were hundreds of soldiers, with guns. They started to say that Palestinian terrorists were attacking the colonies. But then they noticed that they were just children, demanding a tyre!

So after a lot of negotiation with the children, they tried to convince them to go back to their side. But the children stayed and shouted ‘We want the tyre…we want the tyre’. But the army refused. They said they don’t have any tyre. The children had noticed that the one who had stolen the tyre was a rather chubby man. And the children knew him well. So they started to shout again ‘We want the tyre. We want the tyre. It’s the fat guy, the fat guy, the fat guy, who has taken it’ The situation became almost comical, and a few people started to laugh. The officers became annoyed and they said “Guys, these are just kids, and they want a tyre! Give them any damn tyre!” So they brought out a tyre and gave it to the kids. The children realised that it was not the same tyre. So they said, we don’t want this tyre, we want our tyre with the Palestinian flag on it. So the chants continued ‘We want the tyre … we want the tyre’. Finally, the soldiers became tired and the children got their tyre back. Then the procession continued towards the mountain, with the tyre as the trophy. And the children chanted ‘We got the tyre back…we got the tyre back’

So when I heard about this story from the children, I was very amazed by this kind of resistance. I grew up in a refugee camp and I knew how dangerous this could have been.  I asked them “Why is this tyre so important for you? It’s so easy to find a new one on the streets. If you lost one, you have so many others. In fact, you have hundreds of them” Then one of the children replied “Today is the tyre… tomorrow it will be the mountain. Now they know that they cannot even take a tyre from us. So they will not be able to kick us out from here”

I was so inspired by this story that it became one of the main stories of the play, Tuwani. And I swear, every time we reach that scene where the actors shout the slogans, the entire audience is up on their feet shouting ‘We want the tyre’. So when you these children, who are in such tough circumstances of occupation, of prison, of death yet find the strength to fight for their rights… they make me re-look at my own life. And all my troubles and problems seem so trivial. For me they are my heroes. They heal me.

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Juliano Mer Khamis, Faisal’s mentor, and one of the founders of the Freedom Theatre was assassinated in Jenin on 4 April 2011 by masked militants. Faisal and his colleagues at the theater continue to take his vision and legacy ahead.

Note: This interview was first aired on Teaching and Learning Moments’ second season in March 2016. Teaching and Learning Moments with Teacher Plus is a program on education and various aspects of teaching and learning in and outside the classroom and it is brought to you in Collaboration with Bol Hyderabad, a  campus based community radio channel in Hyderabad Central University.

You can listen to the complete interview here