Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Room to Grow: A School on the Subcontinent Celebrates Creativity and Environmentalism

In the hardscrabble farmlands of rural India, dance and song help build pride for impoverished children.

May 26, 2008

"Do you know magic?"

Five or six tiny children peer at me through the windows of their dome-shaped school building at the Puvidham Learning Centre, in the rolling farmlands of southern India. They are wide eyed, enthralled. I don't consider myself particularly exotic, but I've become accustomed to a bewitched audience. Here, an hour or so outside of Salem, in Tamil Nadu, I'm about as inconspicuous as a fluorescent billboard.

"No, I don't know magic," I admit, "but the other people here, I think they do."

This isn't as misleading as it sounds: I am here with the Dreamtime Circus, a group of theatrical fire dancers from San Francisco whose mission is to spread environmental awareness and circus joy throughout India during a six-month tour of the country. We've been offered grass mats on a classroom floor this weekend at Puvidham, a nonprofit, grant-funded school for impoverished rural children. In return, we will lead some hands-on workshops for the kids and perform a show full of juggling, clowning, and emphatic messages about deforestation and pollution.

Credit: Sara Bernard

Little did we know the school and its students would put a spell on us at least as powerful as any we might conjure. In a drought-prone region where educational and economic opportunities are few and far between, this school is a surprising oasis: Social and emotional intelligence, project and experiential learning, and a gentle love and respect for the environment -- and for one another -- pervade the sunlit grounds.

The Puvidham Learning Centre is the brainchild of Meenakshi Umesh, a Mumbai native with a penchant for the natural world and sustainable, organic farming. The bilingual Tamil- and English-language school, founded in 2000 with nine students and now grown to eighty-three, developed from an organic farm she and her husband, Umesh, began in 1992. Today, the school employs seven teachers, in addition to several more who work in three local village learning centers that have begun with the Puvidham model in mind.

"What we want to do for children is give them confidence that they use to handle life," explains Umesh, who rejects the textbook-heavy, teacher-centered method in place at so many overcrowded schools in urban slums and remote villages (here and in the United States). "Here, we want them to have positive interactions with people and develop a trust of humanity."

It's an important mission, as the educational alternatives for Puvidham children (roughly ages 3-13) are grim. In addition to the dearth of resources this far from the city, Umesh says, the rote learning and streamlined messages of the government schools can alienate rural students from themselves. Their way of life is de-emphasized and devalued and as a result, she adds, "the children look down upon their parents, their culture, and their background."

There is little connection between what students hear in traditional schools and what they see in their everyday lives; corporal punishment is often employed and self-expression sidelined. "Add in the economic factors," she says, "and it's made very obvious to them that they are the 'have-nots.'"

Fair Play:

Puvidham students gather daily for hands-on activities, learning to work together and solve conflicts creatively.

Credit: Sara Bernard

Math in Farming, Language in Dance

The Puvidham community attempts to reverse that message: here, learning is connected to the students' environment, emphasizing self-esteem, conflict resolution, and eco-friendly practices and farming techniques. In their lessons, teachers use Montessori methods and artistic creativity through music, dance, art, and theater. (While the Dreamtime Circus rehearsed, Puvidham children did, too, on an ample stage on school grounds.) The word puvidham loosely translates from Tamil as "love for the earth," and children learn much of their academics through organic farming, including math (establishing planting patterns), biology (studying the relationships between plant growth and environmental factors), economics (determining the price of a farm product), and language skills (writing about their activities and observations).

The school is funded primarily by Asha for Education, a grant-giving organization dedicated to improving basic education for underprivileged children in India, and the Association for India's Development (AID), as well as individual charitable donations. Students' families make small contributions on a sliding scale, determined by what they can afford (which, for some, means only time or labor). For children of migrant workers who would otherwise face a roving existence in slums and construction sites, Puvidham constructed a hostel facility, housing about half of the school's population.

Social harmony is paramount at Puvidham, as most schoolwork is group work, whether it's simple chores and gardening tasks (children are expected to water the plants, clean the classrooms, and so on) or group performances. "If they are doing a dance together, they have to be able to communicate without hurting each other, and get the cooperation of a maximum number of people," explains Umesh.

Violence and caste-related conflicts are tempered by discussion. A persistent ideology regarding low-caste families once had students refusing to drink from the same glass. Teachers nipped that in the bud, Umesh says, by displaying its absurdity: "You two are breathing the same air! The water glass goes only to the lips, but the air goes all the way inside the lungs!" This fact, she says, "made so much sense to them that we didn't have a recurrence of those problems. Now, children eat from each other's lunch boxes and preach to their parents about it, too."

Head Over Heels:

Mankandan tries out a circus trick.

Credit: Sara Bernard

Frequent forays into what Umesh calls "silent theater" also help students find creative ways to express emotions or enact the social situations they encounter. When teachers ask, for example, "How do you depict fear?" students construct widely disparate scenes -- a pupil cowering before a teacher's stick, for example, or a tree being cut down. "Through that and through discussions about that, we get a lot of other angles into situations that we wouldn't get in the traditional classroom," she explains. "How they react to society, how they relate to society -- all that comes out in these kinds of games."

Puvidham students have started on a path to social activism through their theater skills, too: Older students write and perform skits in neighboring villages about relevant local and environmental issues, such as land degradation, chemical farming, and water conservation.

Ultimately, Umesh affirms, school shouldn't have to be a chore, disconnected from a child's sense of self. Students' "reason to be alive and what they want to do in life," she says, is as much a topic of discussion and reflection as conflict resolution or sustainable agriculture.

The weekend I visited Puvidham, which had begun with circus workshops for the children, ended with lessons for us. Students taught us origami, simple phrases in Tamil, traditional Tamil songs, chants, and dances with bamboo sticks and cycling rhythms, a complicated game of spinning tops, and many other skills I didn't have time to try. They were self-assured, knowledgeable, and, above all, happy. A contented peace permeated the air. There was no sense that these children had ever been, or would ever be, the have-nots.

No, I don't know magic, I told them. What I could have said, I realize now, is, "You do."

Sara Bernard is a former staff writer and multimedia producer for Edutopia.

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