Last weekend I visited a special school. It is located in the middle of a slum in Ranip, Ahmedabad. It's built using only materials from in and around the slum, and by the children from the slum.
Patangyu School in Ganeshnagar is phase 2 of the after-school program for Ranip kids that was run by Manav Sadhna volunteers out of a small but colorful space near Jayeshbhai's house. The idea for this new schoolhouse is to involve the students themselves in every step of the school's development, and to make it a part of the community that they live in.
I attended the weekly Sunday session with a bloke from UK named Aaron, to see the school in action. The schoolhouse is simple: a basic circular space closed off by pillars of rocks gathered by hand by the kids, stacked into cylinders by wiring. There is a basic but sturdy bamboo roof on top. Overall it's minimalist and inviting.
When we arrived class was already in session. Any child from the slum is invited to attend, provided they stay for the entire session and are old enough to understand what is going on. But inevitably kids of all ages show up. Currently Anjali leads the classes each week. Typically she presents a theme of the day and have the kids discuss it. The theme is usually related to a holiday or festival that's happening at that time. Then she has the kids draw a picture on that theme. This week it was Ganesh, who's festival is coming up. All the kids drew Ganesh first with pencil, then colored it in. The main point of the activity is to let the kids be creative, use their imagination, and practice concentration. The kids broke off into mini groups and got to work. It was fun watching the diversity of pictures develop, the kids took drawing Ganesh in many different directions. Whenever they had trouble know what to draw or how to draw it, Anjali would ask the student to close their eyes and picture what they want to draw for few seconds, then open and draw what they saw. Worked every time. In fact part of this exercise is about unlocking the latent ability each kid has, but isn't aware of. It's a confidence building exercise. At the end of the session everyone gathers back in a circle and flip through the pictures together. Each child has a chance to describe what they drew. Finally, class ends with a few seconds of meditation and the kids are off to the races.
Watching the kids play in the space, Aaron and I commented how these kids have such active imaginations, making up random games to play with each other. They had no toys, but maybe that was a good thing because it forces them to come up with creative ways to entertain themselves. Anji mentioned that it's a known principle that children need to feel boredom in order to spark their imagination. Kids in the US who are constantly stimulated by video games, soccer practice, and dance class don't get to feel bored, and maybe that's not a good thing.
The school has it's share of problems. Adults in the community sometimes sneak into the space to drink or gamble. Others have come in and defecated. During the rains, a farmer used it as a barn to keep his animals. Each time, the kids have taken the initiative to let the perpetrators know that it's not OK, that their space should be protected. That level of ownership only comes through sustained participation and engagement.
Though Anjali is currently the only full-time instructor, the space remains open for anyone to come in and volunteer to share what they know. This week, an organic farmer from nearby visited the school to talk with Anjali about getting the kids involved in gardening by planting some vegetables, herbs, and medicinal plants in the dirt area behind the schoolhouse. They could grow vegetables specifically to meet some of the community's nutritional deficiencies, and medicinal plants that can help with common chronic illnesses amongst the children. Everything would be grown organically; the children would help create compost by collecting waste from their homes. Hopefully they will take ownership over the garden as they have the school space. There will likely be other challenges, like theft and hungry animals. But the kids have a habit of stepping up when it's called for.