Nisarga Batika School

Learning math through games

Learning math through games

On the US Thanksgiving Day, I was sorry to be away from family and friends, and looked in vain for a stuffed turkey. But i had something else to be thankful for.

I was hosted for the day at Nisarga Batika School. I was thankful for the warm visit and also that there are at least some schools like Nisarga Batika. At the same time it made me sad that not all students have such great opportunities.

Teachers at the school are eager to find ways to improve, but as of today, the school would be the envy of some of the best progressive schools in the US.

Backpacks of the little ones

Backpacks of the little ones

The school’s philosophy statement begins:

is a thriving community of learners who engage in education that is holistic, relevant and meaningful. As an experiential learning school, Nisarga Batika offers an environment where each individual looks upon the world as their classroom and values self-motivated learning as a way of life.

Discussion about paper money

Discussion about paper money

I visited every classroom and talked with children there and on the playground, where diverse activities were underway. Although that’s just a small sample, it made me feel that the school is doing as much as anyone can to realize the philosophy statement, including seeing teachers as facilitators towards goals of critical thinking, self discovery, and creativity.

If you click on the photo below, or here, you can see a series of additional photos that convey the flavor of the school, including field trips in natural settings and the vegetable market created by children for the plants they grow.

Teach for Nepal

Swastika Shrestha presenting at the PENN workshop

Swastika Shrestha presenting at the PENN workshop

Teach for Nepal (TFN) is a program in which recent university graduates and young professionals commit to two year fellowships to teach in public schools. The Fellows seek to improve education as they develop their own leadership skills.

Shisir Khanal

Shisir Khanal

TFN is a core member of Progressive Educators Network Nepal, a project I’m involved with here in Kathmandu. The co-founders, Shisir Khanal and Swastika Shrestha, have been big supporters of this initiative from the beginning, and many others involved with TFN have participated in the workshops or our community visit to Dalchoki.

Krishna Kumar KC

Krishna Kumar KC

I’ve now visited the TFN offices, met many of the TFN Fellows, administrators, and community coordinators. I’ve also observed actual classroom teaching. Throughout I’ve been impressed with the dedication, the knowledge and professionalism, and the desire to learn more and do better.

For example (and at the risk of leaving out several others), Krishna Kumar KC, Amrit Bahadur Poudel, and Nija Maharjan have been major contributors to our workshop, and absolutely necessary to the success of our extended community visit to Dalchoki.

Nija Maharjan

Nija Maharjan

The very need for projects such as TFN raises questions that people should also ask about Teach for America: Shouldn’t society as a whole assume the responsibility of full preparation and support for teachers? Shouldn’t it encourage and support teachers to stay in the profession? Shouldn’t it provide decent schools for every child?

Questions about quality education for all are even harder to answer in Nepal than they are in the US. Public schooling is limited and severely under-resourced, especially in rural areas.

In the very different economic and cultural conditions here in Nepal, Teach for Nepal is a positive force; it listens to criticisms; and it is committed to working with others. It also works closely with non-TFN teachers and the school plus community as a whole. I’ve seen little of the political agenda mentioned above.

Amrit Paudel from a deck at TFN

Amrit Poudel from a deck at TFN

In contrast to Teach for America Fellows, those in TFN typically stay in homes in the rural communities where they teach. This leads to a greater understanding of local needs and a deep personal commitment to the schools and the community.

TFN has also engaged with community members in an important student vision project. That led to an impressive mission statement,  not only for the students they serve directly, but for all children. It includes the idea that students should acquire knowledge, but also learn to “demonstrate a sense of responsibility towards people and the future of the community”. A key statement is ingrained in the TFN work: “One day all children in Nepal will attain an excellent education.”

 

Schools for today

Learning Spanish through dance

Learning Spanish through dance

Some people in the US judge the success of their local school by its performance on standardized tests, innovation by the incorporation of sophisticated electronic devices, and curriculum by the latest clever acronym.

Schools seek to meet high standards, which actually consign a large percentage of schools, teachers, and students to the category of  “failing.” Even “successful” schools look more like efficient factories to produce high scores on the way to preparation for college and career. The school is separated from community life, and often from music, art, and play. Compliance and conformity often win out over creativity and critical thinking.

The vision of early 20th century progressives of the school as the social center of the community, students as critical, socially-engaged thinkers who are capable of shaping a just and equitable society, and learning as a means to nurture good and purpose-filled lives, is often lost.

Education in Nepal faces even more problems. For some the issue is whether they have a school at all or a teacher. Books, computers, and electricity are often lacking. Even private schools are under-resourced by US standards. Yet in my short time here I’ve seen numerous examples of creative approaches to teaching and learning that build on that progressive vision, and resist the factory model.

In my next few posts I’ll share some of these Nepali examples. None are perfect (as if that were a sensible goal), and none fully challenge today’s dominant education paradigm. However, they do show how vision, dialogue, and experimentalism can make progress, even when operating within enormous constraints.

[cross-posted on Progressive Educators Network Nepal]

New beginnings in Nepal

Inaugural meeting at Hotel Vajra, Kathmandu

Inaugural meeting at Hotel Vajra, Kathmandu


The list of remarkable things about Nepal is remarkably long.

You could start with the physical: It has 8 of the 10 highest mountains in the world with elevations ranging from 66 meters to 8,848 meters above sea level. It is a biodiversity hotspot deriving from the multiple ecoregions–arctic to tropical, including mountains, hills, and savannas. There is a corresponding diversity of flora and fauna, with gorgeous butterflies and birds. There are many cultural groups and over 125 languages spoken. The architecture, the food, the music, the arts, the history, the religions, and more are fascinating. The traffic in Kathmandu is a story in itself.

Teach for Nepal, from the website

Teach for Nepal, from the website

However, I experienced something perhaps even more remarkable. I was fortunate to be included in a group of young Nepalis who hope to build a movement to make education in Nepal more progressive, specifically to make it more relevant to people’s lives, more connected to community, and more supportive of inquiry that leads to sustained learning and creativity.

The group has the tentative name of Progressive Educators of Nepal Network (PENN). We met last Tuesday for early morning breakfast at Hotel Vajra in Kathmandu.

King;s College events

King’s College events

Those present represented four organizations. Shisir Khanal and Swastika Shrestha came from Teach for Nepal. Like Teach for America and similar organizations, TFN engages university graduates and young professionals who are committed to reduce education inequality. They emphasize community-based education, teaching in rural, public schools. Fellows work for two years, typically living in a community and staying in a home there.

Children as innovators

Children as innovators at Karkhana

Umes Shrestha and Narottam Aryal came from King’s College, a new college whose objective is making world-class education available to Nepali youths at home at an affordable cost. King’s College seeks to make its teaching more relevant for students and more inquiry-based.

Karkhana, meaning “factory,” is a company emphasizing experimentation, collaboration, and play for both makers and teachers. It started as a Saturday morning hacker hang-out and evolved into an innovation focused company that combines education and design of new products. See for example, the recent Kathmandu Mini Maker Faire. Pauvita Gautram represented Karkhana and its inquiry-based learning approach.

KLL mapping as service learning

KLL mapping as service learning

Kathmandu Living Labs (KLL) is a not-for-profit civic technology company. It has been mapping all the educational institutions, health facilities, road networks, tangled mesh of gallies, religious sites and other geographic features of Kathmandu Valley using OpenStreetMap. Secondary and college-level students participate through mapping workshops. Nama Budhathoki represented KLL and its effort to extend youth mapping work to education for full civic engagement. See KLL goal statement.

In November, this network of people, organizations, and interests will host a month long project to foster the development of educators who can become leaders in community–based education. I’ll lead initial workshops on progressive education, inquiry-based learning, and community inquiry. We’ll also travel to village sites to explore community-based education, then bring those experiences back to Kathmandu for a national meeting.

The work of this group can be important for Nepal, while also serving as a model for others. More to come on this exciting project.

More than book sales

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More Than Words staff (from the MTW website)

On Friday, staff from More Than Words (MTW) worked with members of the Friends of Wellfleet Library (FWL) to load donated books for sale in one of two Boston-area stores and online. The books filled a medium-sized truck and weighed 2.75 tons.

Loading books

That’s a lot of books! Even so, the MTW truck will need to return for more books in a couple of weeks. Once, they managed to carry twice as much, but that pushes the safety limits on a medium-sized truck.

Backing the MTW truck up to the shed

Backing the MTW truck up to the shed

On this day, a couple of MTW workers joined with Friends volunteers loading books by passing them in a chain from one hand to another.

I thought the names would be easy for me since I was positioned with two Stephen’s before me and one after, but I found that it caused confusion when I’d call out, “careful, Stephen, that box is breaking!”

Book donations to the Library

These books and others were donated by people who care about the Wellfleet Library. Occasionally a book may fit Library collection needs, but generally the idea is  that they will be sold during the two summer book sales or from a sale rack in the Library. Some of the children’s books are given to new parents or to families involved in a summer reading program.

Filling gaylords with books, 500 pounds each

Filling gaylords with books, 500 pounds each

The sales have been extremely successful, raising thousands of dollars for Library needs. Receipts from the sales supplement the Library budget, making possible museum passes, children’s programs, online tools such as Freegal and Zinnio, special equipment purchase, computer user support, special books and periodicals, and audio visual materials for documenting the life and times of the community.

But there are always some books that don’t sell. In the past, many of these met their end in the recycle bin. But for the last three years, MTW and FWL have partnered to give the books an extended life, one that amplifies the reach and benefits of the Library.

More Than Words

The partnership helps More Than Words (MTW), a significant, nonprofit social enterprise in the Boston area. MTW “empowers youth who are in the foster care system, court involved, homeless, or out of school to take charge of their lives by taking charge of a business.” Youth in the program have managed an online bookselling operation since 2004. They are challenged with authentic and increasing responsibilities in a business setting, along with high expectations and a culture of support.

MTW opened a lively bookstore on Moody St in Waltham in 2005 and added a coffee bar in 2008. The model was replicated in the South End of Boston in 2011, doubling the impact of the program. Even so, the Wellfleet donation is about all that MTW can handle from Cape Cod.

Serving multiple needs

Helpers of all ages

Helpers of all ages

I’ve always felt that the summer books sales serve multiple worthy goals: raising money for Library collections and programs, making low-cost books available to those who need them, bringing community together through a shared project, informing people about the Library, and preserving a literate tradition. Even a book that doesn’t sell helps with some of those purposes. But I was sad to think that even one book might end up as recycled paper.

Through More Than Words, many books continue their good work. They become available to a larger audience, both in the metropolis of Boston and through the worldwide online market. More importantly, the book sales offer young people an opportunity to learn business skills, to further their education, and to develop as individuals. Now, although I still hope that FWL racks up good numbers in the summer sales, I’m glad to see that many of the books continue to serve additional purposes.

Sharing reading across generations

I recently had an enlightening day reading with middle schoolers. It was definitely more fun than when I had to be in middle school myself. I had volunteered for an intergenerational reading group, part of Project Read. This meant that adults in the area would read the same texts and do the same homework as the students. We would then meet with them in small groups during regular class hours to discuss the reading.

On this particular day, we had all read Shirley Jackson’s story, The Lottery. This classic of secondary school has long provided fodder for discussion, confusion, and in some cases distress. I know at least one person my age who says that she’s still disturbed by it. It’s interesting to read the reactions of readers as shown in their letters to the New Yorker, where it was first published in 1948.

There were four class periods with small reading groups, then whole-class discussion, so I was able to hear a variety of responses and share my own:
  • Many students were excited to discover the similarity of the story to that of The Hunger Games novel/film, and even more to learn that others had made the same discovery.
  • I was surprised to hear one boy say that the story must have been set very long ago, because “the heads of household were all men.” Another added that “the men did all the talking and mostly talked about the women, rather than letting them talk.” I don’t believe that middle school boys from my time would have said the same.
  • One student said that the stoning in the story was wrong “because there were only 300 people in the village.” (One death would make a big difference.) We then talked about whether stoning someone to death was ever justifiable.
  • A big question concerned why people in the story, especially Mr. Warner, didn’t want to change. Several students agreed that the people who resisted ending the practice of stoning were similar “to the people who resist allowing fast food restaurants into Brewster. People are afraid of new things.” I didn’t do a poll, but I imagine a sharp generation divide on the fast food issue, with the older ones opposed. The students were right: The older folks don’t want change. Nevertheless, I was uncomfortable equating stoning people to death with opposing fast food.
  • A volunteer adult added, “sometimes you’ve been doing something your whole life and it’s hard to admit that you were wrong.” I doubt that the 13 year-olds have that same feeling about doing something their whole life.
  • I was dismayed to hear two girls in separate groups describe incidents in which boys had thrown (multiple) stones at them.
  • Another student said that Tessie Hutchinson was stoned because she was engaging in protest. The usual reading is that her cry that the stoning was unfair was disingenuous since she never said anything until after she’d been selected. But in the context of Ferguson events I can now understand the interpretation the student made.
  • My best contribution was to bring up Martin Niemöller’s famous First they came… statement. This much-quoted passage reads all the more powerful for me knowing Niemöller’s own earlier national conservative views and anti-semitism. And it makes his analogy to Tessie Hutchinson more telling. The statement is quoted in a book that the students will be reading later in the year in their Holocaust unit.

Like any good learning experience, this one was shared broadly. The teachers, volunteers, and middle school students had to cross some boundaries, but all learned something about the story and about each other. A quote on the classroom wall seemed especially a propos for this intergenerational encounter:

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” –Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

Child-centered classification

I’ve been reading about Metis, a Dewey-free library classification system developed and implemented in 2011 by the librarians at the Ethical Culture School in New York City (Kaplan et al., 2013). The system places the thinking, interests, information needs and information-seeking behavior of children at its center. It was developed as an alternative to the Dewey decimal system, which is currently the most commonly used system in school and children’s sections of public libraries.

Metis is named for the Titan Metis, who was the mother of Athena. The Greek word metis means a quality that combines wisdom and cunning. The system is designed to encourage productive independent browsing and successful catalog searching by children. Its emphasis on situation specificity, flexibility, and user-centered design is closer to John Dewey than to Melvil Dewey. I liked this on the Metis site:

Our decision to create Metis is a result of our progressive approach to education and the library. The system isn’t a cut-down version of adult thinking. Kids feel empowered to navigate the library because it is organized in a way that they understand. Metis increases the success rate of finding books, which fosters self-reliance and produces joyous discovery.

The Metis main categories are based on studies of the practices of young children. They put users and their needs and interests at its center, and curriculum, collection, and library geography second. In contrast to the Dewey system, they are not meant to reflect the state of human knowledge or depict the relationship of one branch of knowledge to another. The categories are ordered using the letters of the alphabet, A-Z. This is the only code that is not whole language.

For example, H. Arts, might include art books, biographies of artists, and fiction featuring artists, whereas in most other systems those would all be in widely separate categories. U. Scary is a category of special interest to children, either as one to seek or one to avoid. G. MakingStuff would include cooking, model building, magic tricks, and crafts of all kinds.

Some obvious concerns about Metis are whether youthful readers can make the transition to other systems. One critic asked “What happens to these children when they arrive at a college or university and need to learn the Library of Congress classification system?” Notwithstanding the fact that very few college-educated adults presently learn LC, I’m inclined to support an experiment aimed at getting children to read more. Moving to another school could present problems, too, but seeing classification as a human construction could be a valuable learning experience in itself.

Almost a century ago, Célestin Freinet developed a classification scheme with a similar motivation, to facilitate the easy finding of documents. It was also for his Bibliothèque de Travail, a collection of student and teacher-made booklets for the classroom. The Freinet classification is also a simple system, similar to the Dewey decimal system, and reliant on the decimal coding.

There are 12 major divisions, such as 1.3 2. Plants1.4 3. Animals, and 1.5 4. Other sciences, with subdivisions and sub-subdivisions. Many educators see it as more logical and natural for school work than the Dewey system, although it is closer to that than is Metis. The Freinet classification is still used in the libraries of some elementary schools.

I’ll be interested to see how well these alternatives work and how much they spread to other libraries.

References