In Uttarkashi schools, a poem inspires teachers to reflect on classroom interactions, make learning fun for students
Teachers in Uttarkashi district's government schools have taken a liking to a reflective approach in teaching with them documenting classroom interactions and using it to find ways to make education fun and interactive
The Azim Premji Foundation has been working to contribute to improving quality of government schools through its field institutes across a number of districts in six states. The author visited nine schools in the Ganga Valley blocks of Uttarkashi district between 21 and 24 August and ten schools in Yamuna Valley between 11 and 15 September.
Uttarkashi receives lashings of rain during the monsoon, villages get cut off, the Bhagirathi river turns turgid and it is a time of dangerous landslides as boulders come crashing down the verdant and rugged Garhwal hills. It was during this period that we visited 20 schools in the district across both the Ganga and Yamuna valleys. I have visited schools in the district many times but this visit was after a gap of many years. By the end of two weeks, I could not help but compare what I saw now with what I had seen years earlier and felt a kind of elation that comes from seeing a transformation on the ground.
In the earlier years, I would see the odd heroic teacher. But what I saw this time among many of the 45 plus teachers, spoke of a journey of growth, self-expression, and commitment that comes from an upward curve of self-development. There were multiple strands that showed this transformation but in this article, I shall pick just one. The signs that teachers are indeed becoming reflective practitioners, who are thinking about their intellectually and ethically demanding profession in a meaningful way, and connecting what their work with how children think, feel and learn.
Writing a daily diary, with reflections of their day in the school — the joys and struggles of teaching — has taken root in the past few years. If you visit Shoorvir Singh Kharola, a teacher at the Laata Upper Primary School, perched high on the hills, you will see how he unfailingly records his experiences. One day it is the joy of sharing the life cycle of birds through a project with his students; on another day, it is his frustration at not being able to explain moss and ferns while on another day it's an emotional essay on a sad and troubled child who has recently joined his school. Singh’s diary would be a precious education for young teachers.
Back in Uttarkashi town, amidst a profusion of private schools, is the Government Primary School, Gyansu, with a strength of 70 children and four teachers. Rameshwari, a teacher in Gyansu since 2010, relishes the challenge of demonstrating that her students are learning as well or better than children in the neighbouring private schools.
It is obvious to anyone that she is completely invested in the students of Gyansu — for one sees energy, enthusiasm, and ownership. But this is tempered by the stocktaking that she does with her colleagues every day. The quality of her comments on every child’s progress portfolio, as a part of the Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) reflects that.
In many language classrooms, children are mechanically taught letter writing by copying a standard leave application letter. But in Rameshwari’s class, this becomes an adventure for she asks them to suggest all possible letters of application. Her children bring her their compositions — a letter to the district authority for water, for power, for roads and even one to the editor of their school wall newspaper, asking for the publication of her essay. Rameshwari maintains a daily diary and her writing reflects the vibrancy that is the essence of her persona. For example, recording how a team of 14 children when given a team task to discuss the concept of herbivore and carnivore, organised themselves into three smaller groups to ensure everyone had a say. The thrill of that day’s reflection in Rameshwari’s diary was that children designed such a process by themselves.
When one drives through the beautiful pine forests from Uttarkashi to Barkot, one moves from the Ganga valley to the Yamuna Valley. Almost as if in benediction, the clouds lift and the snow-capped mountain range of Bandarpoonch accompanies us on our drive to the Model School in Gangani. The first thing that would strike any visitor to this school is the collegiality among the five teachers.
As we sit in the sunlit portico, each teacher seems more intent on telling us something about his or her colleague. Suddenly, Manbir Singh gets up, goes to their library and returns with a slim, hardbound copy of a book, titled, Ranwalti Ki Akhaan (loosely translated it means proverbs in the Ranwalti dialect), written by colleague Dhyan Singh Rawat.
We teased out the story from Rawat.
Ranwalti is a Garhwali dialect and Rawat saw its rich folklore, proverbs, and sayings slowly disappear under a dominant Hindi. He decided to undertake a painstaking project to unravel and document all the proverbs in Ranwalti. He co-opted his students into the project and together they talked to grandparents and village elders to unearth virtually every proverb. Right from the sweep of the project, the way the children were involved, to the fixed pursuit, what Rawat has accomplished is precious. In a fascinating footnote to this tale, that afternoon, Rawat took my colleague Ashish and me to the remote village of Molda and introduced us to 92-year-old Sitaram Bahuguna. Holding him in a respectful embrace, Rawat said that many of the proverbs in his book were treasures shared by the old man.
And then there is Rekha Chamoli, a thinking and articulate primary school teacher whose diary is being brought out as a book; Chandrabhushan whose essays appear regularly in newspapers and magazines; and Rajni Negi who writes poems and stories because she believes she must augment what the textbooks provide.
I could go on but I must conclude by conveying how far we have come. In 2005, when newsletters like Pravaah were sent to schools in Uttarkashi, only a few would be interested; teachers would then be gathered together once in a few months and coaxed to read and discuss some of the essays. Twelve years later, Pravaah has become a 64-page publication with a number of articles contributed by teachers.
In a small way, this essay is also a tribute to Hemraj Bhat, a primary school teacher in Dunda. In his short life of 40 years, he left behind poems and writings that document the struggles and joys of a passionate teacher. His Adhyapak Ke Diary Ke Kuch Panne moved an entire community of teachers in Uttarakhand. How happy, Hemraj would be to know that the culture of reflection and writing has taken firm root in his beloved Uttarkashi.
The author is the chief operating officer of the Azim Premji University. He can be reached at email@example.com
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