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Auroville Adventure

March 2005

A village environmental education experiment

- by Alan

Aurovilians reach out to Nadukuppam, a rural school 30 kilometres north of Auroville


“Good morning, Paul,” says the little girl brightly to ‘Botanical' Paul as we get down from the van. She's standing by the colourful mosaic gates of Nadukuppam Government Secondary School which, I'm already beginning to understand, is no ordinary school. “Actually, when we first came here in 2001 it was pretty desolate,” explains Joss. “There was three acres of dust, three rooms in a bad state of repair, one or two trees, no water, no toilets and five teachers for 572 children! This school had the worst academic record in Villupuram District which, in turn, has the worst academic record in the whole of Tamil Nadu. So we were really starting at the bottom.”

Cooperative planning: Joss and some students
Since then, among other things, the original rooms have been repainted and repaired, a well has been dug and toilets installed, three new classrooms and an Environment Education Centre have been constructed, there is a pond, a tree nursery and gardens and shrubs and trees are beginning to green the perimeter of the compound. Above, all there's a palpable sense of energy and joy. “That's how it works around here,” explains Paul. “If you do something, it pulls in more energy which allows other things to happen.”

Aurovilians initially became associated with this school through a European Commission-funded project to restore the Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest , which included a component for environmental education in the bioregion. It had long been a dream of Joss's to create an outreach centre in the region where the best of Auroville's experience and skills could assist in rejuvenating local communities. Nadupakkam is an ideal location because it is relatively unspoiled (it's off the beaten track about 6 kilometres to the north of Kalivelli Lake ) and is located between two remnants of indigenous forest. “Moreover, the school's lack of resources and poor academic record made it an ideal test case. If we could achieve something here, it would really mean something.”

The first essential work for those working on the Nadukuppam School project was to build trust and relationships with the teachers, government education authorities, parents and local village leaders. “Once people understood what we wanted to do and saw that we were committed to really doing something, everybody became very supportive,” says Joss. “For example, the Chief Education Officer immediately sanctioned extra classrooms, the Headmaster gave up part of his room so that we could create educational materials and the local panchayat donated paramboke land.”

With money from the European Commission project and additional assistance from Quaker Service Australia and the Australian Government (which provided Australian $ 150,000), the major focus of the project – the construction of the Environmental Education Centre and the training and employment of environmental studies teachers – began about a year ago. Lourdes , a Tamil Aurovilian who has been trained by Heidi Watts and Subash in innovative teaching methods, comes daily from Auroville and is the moving force on the ground. “We didn't choose teachers from teaching colleges. Instead we went into the local villages and chose unemployed graduates and girls who had passed at least their 10th standard. Then we took these ten girls and eight graduate youths and put them through an intensive training for one year. Now they are a strong team with confidence in their own abilities.”

Since a Supreme Court judgment in the early 1990s, all educational institutions in India are obliged to provide education in environmental studies. However, in many schools and colleges only lip-service is paid to this ruling, partly because many teachers resent the extra workload it implies. The Nadukuppam School project is an attempt to remedy this because not only do the new trainees take up the responsibility of teaching environmental studies, but they also assist the regular teachers in dealing with learning difficulties. “As the school had such a poor academic record,” explains Lourdes , “it was clear that we couldn't ignore traditional academic needs. So for 1-2 hours every morning, our 18 trainees take small groups of slow learners and help them improve their reading and writing through fun learning games. Once they have attained the required standard, they return to their regular classes. The results have been dramatic. When we first came here, there were students in 9th and 10th standard classes who couldn't read or write Tamil, and only 10% of students reached the required grade at 10th standard. In only one year, that has increased to 41%.”

One of the environmental teachers sensitizes the students to snakes
For the rest of the day the trainee teachers devote themselves to environmental education. In this respect, the school campus is like an open-air classroom. There is a tree nursery containing indigenous seedlings, a raised-bed vegetable garden, a medicinal plant garden, and many of the 1600 trees and shrubs scattered around the perimeter of the compound (and which are cared for by members of the school's eco-club) have explanatory texts. “In this compound,” explains Joss, “we have many plants, including medicinal ones that are not well-known. If we're going to bring back traditional pharmacies and knowledge in the villages, it makes sense to have them here so that the children can grow up with this knowledge and become their parents' teachers.” The environmental message is also reinforced by the ‘baffle' toilets which recycle waste water into a pond, and by the solar pumps which will be used for irrigation.

The centre of environmental activities, however, is the recently-completed Environmental Education Centre. As we enter the classroom Eric, a field biologist, is preparing something in a corner while his class sits patiently on the floor. He turns, and there is a gasp. Sitting on his hand is a huge black scorpion. Eric, a benevolent bear of a man who makes the small children sitting in front of him look even tinier, speaks quietly in Tamil as he holds the scorpion in front of him, explaining that as long as he does not try to injure it, it will not sting him. Then he starts enumerating its many uses, including the fact that it is partial to cockroaches: “so don't kill scorpions.” The children stare, wide-eyed. Then he draws out a jar with a lid and passes it round. Inside is a huge centipede with yellow stripes. “This is a tiger centipede,” he explains, “it's very poisonous so don't play with it.”

Environmental education is not confined to Nadukuppam School . Every afternoon the trainee teachers also go out to teach in primary schools in the area. “The core of our environmental studies work is projects,” explains Lourdes . “Project work is much more interesting than just sitting in a room reading textbooks.” The team have just completed a pilot project on ponds. “A class in each school in the area took their local village pond and researched its history by questioning the elders of the village. Then the children explored what lived in the pond, and the usefulness of the pond to the environment and to the villagers. They measured it, documented it, wrote stories about it, made puppets and finally performed a play about it for their parents and members of the panchayat (during one presentation a student let a frog loose among the panchayat leaders, causing a near riot). In this way, the student learns not only about the environment but also Tamil, maths, how to self-study, creative writing, drawing, model-making, speaking skills and how to work in a group: it's truly integral education. The pilot project was so successful that all the headmasters asked us to continue. In fact, to take whatever lessons we like!”

Have the regular teachers begun to adopt these innovative methods? “They come when their class has environmental studies,” says Lourdes , “but I don't know how far they adopt the methods. For one thing, it's very difficult to apply these methods when you have more than 100 students in a class – we take only about 20 students at a time for environmental studies – and project work would involve them in much more preparation. For example, we produce information cards for each project, based on information from resource people like Eric or Paul and from gathering information about local customs, history, skills, flora and fauna etc. Finally, these will be translated into other languages and made into a manual for other teachers to use (we've already had enquiries from a college). The information will also go back to the villages through the students and through our regular outreach newsletters.”

“Taking the local knowledge back into the villages is very important,” points out Joss, “because this helps the villagers recover and own their own knowledge. Concerning the environmental studies programme, we need only do something here that is clear and replicable and it will spread like wildfire. The Chief Education Officer is already watching this experiment with great interest. If we can create a successful model of environmental education here, it can become a model for rural schools in the whole of Tamil Nadu and even further afield.”

Planting another tree
For Joss, this environmental education programme is just one strand in a vast concept of rural regeneration in which committed individuals and modern technology will assist the recovery of local wisdom and encourage new, sustainable forms of livelihood based upon respect for the environment and the promotion of human dignity. As a next step, he hopes that an organic farming and agroforestry demonstration centre can be located next to the school so that local farmers can learn of the vital interrelationship of farming and forest. Lourdes' interest in the Nadukuppam School project lies in its being both a proving ground for his teaching and organizational skills (by all accounts, he and his team are doing superbly) and in its being the first big outreach centre for Auroville methods and skills in rural Tamil Nadu, indeed in all of India. “This could be the beginning, a way of transferring the best of Auroville's experience in areas like education, health and environment and renewable energy in an integrated way to the bioregion. I haven't yet spoken to the children about the ideal of Auroville, nor do I mention what Sri Aurobindo and Mother wrote about education. Here we try to be it, to do it instead.”


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