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Shanti Bhavan & Alternative Education

Learning is accepting over and over that what you thought you knew isn’t the whole picture; at the rate of absorption and exposure to new people and ideas and places I am operating in, I feel this phenomena amplified, as if every time I think I have a grip on what is going on around me my perspective zooms out one step farther to reveal an entirely new picture.

Those who have had the privilege (or misfortune…?) of getting tangled up in one of my infamous rants against traditional education, understand my determination move towards something new. Simply put, alternative education. To each person, this term carries different weight and over the past four months, I have sat with this concept trying to understand what it means to me.

Shanti Bhavan Residential School provided me with much needed context regarding the life of an educator, put my definition of ‘alternative’ onto a sliding scale and taught me repeated lessons in cultural relativism that I will carry forward.

Shanti Bhavan represents a radical change from conventional short-term basic literacy educational models: we promote academic achievement, instill values of global citizenship, and emphasize leadership development. Our program gives individual attention to every aspect of a child’s upbringing: emotional development, mental and physical fitness, social and cognitive growth and academic excellence.”

Shanti Bhavan boasts a 97% high school retention rate, 98% college graduation rate and has supported 97% graduates to full-time employment. These statistics are staggering in comparison to the outlook for lower-caste children, many of whom are denied access to schooling altogether and consistently face societal rejection and exclusion. The school is truly a haven of peace and its children radiate joy. The environment of love and care that Shanti Bhavan has cultivated is unparalleled. In the face of incalculable odds, these children have been lifted out of cyclical poverty and given an opportunity to uplift themselves and their families. This responsibility was placed on them as children and they face intense pressure to succeed but are supported diligently throughout their primary education and higher education then into the work force. For an in depth dive into what SB is all about, check out their Netflix documentary, Daughters of Destiny.

Any critique of this school that follows, comes from a place of love and respect for all of those involved as well as a desire to reflect critically on my personal experience. I want these children to have the most rigorous possible education in order to improve their outcomes and provide tools for lifelong success, the system in place at Shanti Bhavan has done immense good within its context and touched the lives of many. It is a radical educational intervention that has uplifted and touched thousands with its ongoing generational impact. I encourage anyone reading this who has the means to donate to this ongoing project, particularly as they gear up to open a second school!

Regularly working sixteen-hour days and a minimum of eleven-hour days for five to six days a week for six weeks pushed me to a capacity I didn’t know I had. Teaching a variety of subjects to multiple grade levels presented different challenges, and each gave me a newfound appreciation for the efforts and workload of all educational professionals and a gratitude for my own high school education. The workload required to lesson plan, the mental fortitude required to effectively manage student behavior and the stamina required to wake up fresh and positive daily is incredible. My ruthless critique of past educators and school experiences needed some re-evaluation as I begin to take in the huge complexity of what it takes to create inroads of change in the ‘system’ and the heavy expectations placed on educators to be everything from a friend to a figure of authority to a counselor to a mentor to a coach and so on. Particularly, I am practicing removing the blame from individuals. For years my focal point was individual teachers and their deficiencies or inability to provide individualized help or teach writing effectively, or structure genuinely engaging lessons, or support a diverse student body equitably, or…or…or… Now I am refocusing it on the root causes: a lack of effective teacher training and adequate support, inability to fire low-quality teachers, understaffed schools, unmanageable class sizes, under-compensated and overworked staff, problematic or undeveloped or outdated curriculum, standardized testing dependency, under-funding, systematic or structural parameters and the societal hyper-valuation of academic-based over trade-based education, to name a few.

To change a system, experience working within it is crucial, it’s easy to talk about ideals and significantly harder to execute them. This is not to say we should be complacent with what we have simply because change is difficult, or that the critiques that exist against current systems are unfounded, but for me, taking a moment to understand how comparatively alternative my ‘traditional’ experience has been when contrasted with the Indian context was important as I consider international education and think concretely about cultural relativism and how it manifests itself. It’s difficult for me to avoid seeing cultural differences as limiting, but this mindset comes with a set of problematic realities: Do I believe my methods or broadly western methods are superior to Indian methods of teaching and structuring education? (Long story short, no, but with a side note that the current Indian education system has been heavily restructured and influenced by British colonization…important to factor this into critique of current methods and potential educational re-indigenization efforts. Am I critiquing Indian methods or British imposed methods?) What are the interdisciplinary factors that have informed the modern systems in each country? How does my experience of ‘US’ education differ from the realities across the country? What generalizations am I making? Is attempting to influence education a facet of continued cultural imperialism? Is there a ‘correct’ way to effect change across borders? How do US perspectives of India and Indian perspectives of the US corrode mentalities around superiority? How can such beliefs be critically deconstructed? Is it necessary to shape what’s ‘radical’ or ‘alternative’ around cultural values and belief systems? Is this limiting or does this represent tolerance for diversity?

And — what role does feminism play in my critique? This was a major conflict of belief that came up during my time at SB. There are certain ways that women and girls are treated and roles they are expected to follow within Indian culture that differ from my western feminist lens; does the fact that these are cultural norms make them ‘right’? How are my perspectives clouded by my positionality and how can I continue to actively broaden and welcome intersections into my understanding or practice of feminism? This dilemma makes me think of a chapter entitled, The Discourse of the Veil from Leila Ahmed’s, Women and Gender in Islam. In this chapter, she discusses the Islamic practice of veiling and the root of Western association with veiling as anti-feminist. The projection that veiling was a symbolic source of female repression was rooted in Western feminism and local pushes for unveiling were geared towards Westernization rather than improved women’s rights. The interrelation of feminism and the push towards ‘civilization’ and western culture damaged women’s rights movements, as feminism became associated with an attack on Islamic culture. Ahmed provokes readers to consider how outside pressure for change comes with baggage, and that the most successful movements are inspired from within. This helped me to bite my tongue on occasion and sit back with an open mind to listen and learn from people with different perspectives from me. The ideal version of feminism for a white woman from Washington, understandably does not align perfectly with that of an Indian woman from Tamil Nadu. In addition, regardless of the individual views that any person holds regarding feminism, the societal realities of different countries and regions play a role in dictating appropriate behavior. Expectations at home for SB students and in their careers in an Indian context must be considered.

When setting out on this grant with the intention of seeking out alternative education, I hadn’t imagined that I would spend time teaching from textbooks, teaching to an test (ISC English Language, whoop whoop!), or working in a discipline-oriented school where students provided little feedback and the teachers word was law. What I discovered was that despite these components, which had represented the failures of public education in my mind since I found a voice to critique my own educational experiences, this school operated at a level that far out-shined the government school alternative, or the possibility of no formal education whatsoever particularly in the case of students from India’s lowest castes of which Shanti Bhavan is comprised. The context that this school operated under required students to excel in their examinations and the culture determined the norm in terms of severity of punishment. Things that I found shocking or excessive quickly became the norm in my mind, and the relatively carefree attitude of students reassured my initial red flags and reinforced the fact that my perspective was clouded with my norms that had not yet adjusted to the context I was working within. Quickly, I began to fully realize how radical Shanti Bhavan is with its promotion of marginalized students, poverty eradication mission and relative promotion and empowerment of young women despite my occasional misgivings over best practice, behavior management or organization.

Alternative education, radical education, means seeking out what is right and what works in the face of conformity to the norm and societal oppression of marginalized communities. It means creating space for all and promoting those who are not served by traditional systems. It can look different in different contexts, as it should. Alternative education shouldn’t strive for one ‘perfect’ system, it is a testament against the homogeneity that traditional public education enforces and it demands localized methodologies designed to suit each school’s student body.

Teaching is hard, but that’s okay. The endless list of good greatly outweighs the bad and is incredibly rewarding, but it is exhausting. It can be frustrating, and it can be overwhelming. I left some classes feeling as though I had accomplished nothing or was unable to fully get control of the class and was therefore ineffective. I left others feeling full and proud of my students’ hard work and participation. Sometimes I was under-prepared or realized partway through class I didn’t fully understand the grammatical topic I was teaching. Other times I felt as though my lesson couldn’t have gone better! I had days where I felt defeated and frustrated. I had days where I felt fulfilled and engaged. Days where the material I had to teach didn’t make sense and I left my students confused. Days where they thanked me at the end of class, and we all left in great moods. The challenge of picking up a class where someone left off with no time to prepare and varying levels of background knowledge is immense. There were significant problems associated with having a rotating supply of volunteer teachers coming in and out in terms of consistency namely the gaps in understanding of class material. By the time I was preparing to leave, I felt I finally had a grip on everything I needed to teach. Unsurprisingly, six weeks isn’t long enough to learn, in some cases, entirely new material and to learn how to effectively teach, though I put in the hours and did feel significant improvement. A return to SB may be in the forecast…

A long and fragmented list of good memories in no particular order:

Harshyia looking me in the eyes and telling me that I made history fun after she worked so hard and we studied extra together. Prem being hardly able to contain himself because he’s so excited to answer a question. Manoj, Simon and Prajwal studying Geography with me and loving the extra attention. Sitting with Prem and Thiru (sixth graders!) at dinner and talking about consciousness and philosophy. Dimple sitting for an hour and telling me all about her favorite uncle and how he sneakily buys her kinder surprises even though her mom thinks they’re a waste of money because you don’t actually get that much chocolate. Helping Prem, Thiru, Poovarasan and Yogalakshmi practice Someone You Loved for three hours, then on the night of the Open Mic watching the entire audience join in. Getting goose bumps every time the choir sings. Joking around with eleventh grade. Kids yelling ‘Good morning Miss!’ Playing sharks and minnows with the little kids during PT then them asking me to come back to play again every day after. PB trying to convince me that if he takes a nap during an exam it helps him focus, sarcastically saying ‘that’s cute’, and the entire class erupting in laughter. The joy of a special snack. Letting the kids listen to whatever music they wanted during the last week of school in prep and bonding with ninth grade over it. Sitting in twelfth grade watching a crazy Tamil movie about a food safety inspector. Watching Mollie zap a fly with the electric swatter that was sitting on her shoulder. Bread deliveries, peanut butter and nutella. Making Christmas decorations with Deepika, Sharmila, Rebecca and Srimathi. German Brunch field trip and seeing Shankar eat his heart out and the rest of the kid’s excitement over the buffet. Managing to get pulled over four times on our drive home…classic! Surprising the kids with a volunteer choreographed dance during the Christmas open mic. Sitting with Marina and laughing over sentence transformation and the awful ISC textbooks. Anwesh looking at me in excitement when Marina’s sister Gianna did an environmental talk over skype and brought up soil terms we’d just learned about in Geography class. Watching the boys have the best time playing soccer during PT in the early morning fog and watching the sunrise. Seeing how excited third grade got about stickers. Seeing how excited fourth grade got about mycelium and tree communication. Teaching fifth grade the “Power Steps” for their power builder reading comprehension and watching them get hyped about reading. Sitting with the second grade boys at dinner and playing ‘eye spy’ and teaching them ‘high five, on the side, up above, down low, too slow!’ Reading princess stories to the third grade boys and girls, they love them! Leaving class knowing I’d delivered a kick-ass lesson. Limbo-ing at Thanksgiving dinner. Watching the eleventh graders take on leadership roles and have fun planning events. Helping set up a haunted house for Halloween my first day on campus and seeing all the boys come out covered in noodles and oatmeal (they had to find a hidden key to escape that was in buckets of ‘brains’, ‘blood’ or ‘vomit’.) Twenty kids coming up to me at dinner to ask me the same riddle they had all learned that day and feigning ignorance every time just for the giggle. Seeing Ms. Annie dressed up as Santa Claus and the kids having a dance party and getting down like nobody was watching! Watching Chocolat with the other volunteers while eating chocolate to unwind after a long week. Getting to sleep in because PT was canceled. Sitting with Kishore and talking about how his family grows all their own food just like Shanti Bhavan and how cool and environmentally friendly that is. Bharath telling me ‘secrets’ all the time. Watching Patrick take a million pictures and all the kids running to pose for them. The day all the fifth graders decided to ask a ton of questions during the news to the delight of everyone at assembly. The day I finally memorized the school prayer and felt like I belonged. The feeling of finishing grading the eleventh and twelfth English Language exams. Ms. Meena (SB alum and now third grade teacher) watching the Shanti Bhavan documentary for the first time and seeing old footage of herself and her friends in school. Sitting out on the rocks watching the sunset with a chai in hand. Chai, chai, chai getting me through the day. Kids not understanding cultural references and it being hilarious, (eg. Ba-dum-chhhh after a bad joke and all of them staring blankly at me.) Secretly watching the end of She’s the Man with Thanu and Sharmila while we finished coloring in letters to donors. Deepika sneaking me a list of songs to add to my ‘SB Requests!’ Spotify playlist. Watching kids try to hit a piñata with giant sticks and hoping nobody got whacked. Competing in SB trivia on teams with teachers and cracking up over all the fun facts. The endless supply of third graders coming to the staff room to ask for a new pencil because ‘theirs got small’. Ms. Beena trying to hold back a smile every time she had to be stern and get kids in trouble for little things. Seeing kids laying outside in the grass reading. Dani making nests with the kids for science class. Listening to kids tell me about their favorite books and favorite series, so many big readers. Kusuma telling me she has read The Name of the Wind, one of the best books I’ve read this year and getting all the twelfth grade recommendations for new fantasy series! Giving Ganga a sneak peak at her graded exam and joking about the short story she wrote, ‘Where did that shed come from?’ Giving eleventh and twelfth grade feedback on their exams and all of us laughing our way through some of their sillier mistakes while reinforcing good test taking skills (gotta keep it educational). Watching the sunset. Looking up at the stars on my way back to the teachers quarters every night. Cracking up at the loudest birds ever that absolutely went off every night at sunset and pooped on anyone walking in or out of the school building. Venkat and Ms. Amodhi doing their rendition of Stand By Me. Chapatti all over this body! The night we cleaned the staff room, listened to jazz music and put on the fake fireplace on Netflix to make it cozy. Boxing and yoga to let off some steam with Eva, Vanessa and Mollie. Listening to the kids try to memorize Christmas songs and get them so sooo wrong because they haven’t heard them play non-stop on the radio like the rest of us. Nishi accidentally yelling out the school prayer or an affirmation at the wrong time during assembly and watching Boopathi and Kishore barely be able to keep it together from trying not to laugh. The days when Nithin gets to play the school song on the piano even though he’s still learning instead of Ganga our pro. Angel coming to me for extra help because she’s wants to do well. Rakshita getting 100% on her history exam. Samuel trying so hard in class and loving answering questions. Sixth grade loving the GIFs I put on their power points for class. Eleventh grade also loving the GIFs I put on their power points. Zoe, our teaching fellow, hearing how great my GIFs are and asking me which website I use to find good ones. Zoe liking my suggestion to start legacy documents for greater continuity between volunteers and implementing it making me feel like I contributed to the ongoing organizational improvement of SB. The assembly hall full of kids watching the new animated Grinch and laughing so loudly at everything that happens even though they all already watched it last year, or so I was told. Finding out and being horrified that it is an SB tradition for the older kids to watch horror movies for Christmas! Feeling the improvement in my teaching and getting into the swing of lesson planning. Alvin dancing. The day I sat outside and read Harry Potter y la cámara secreta aloud to myself for two hours. The day Mr. Vish gave us his hot water kettle and our shower game changed for the better. Kids running to dinner chatting excitedly to each other. Reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to the fourth and fifth graders even though they initially wanted a scary story and them loving it and coming to ask to borrow it the next day. Randomly seeing Ms. Beena and Ms. Nermala (Principal and VP) out the window on our way home from a field trip and the kids being amazed. Watching Dhanush pose for pictures in every room of our hotel tour. Karthik, Patrick, JP and PB singing jingle bells in Santa hats. The pre-k kids singing Old Mac Donald with one of them dressed up as the farmer with a pillow stuffed in his shirt and the rest with homemade animal masks. Pretending to eat a dinner made of flowers and stones and catching ghosts with little kids during PT. Having entire dinners where all I can do is nod and smile because kids are so excited to tell me so many things that I can’t get a word in. Debating if we are eating spaghetti, pasta, macaroni or noodles at dinner among other hilarious topics. Figuring out creative ways to make grammar interesting…succeeding? Being out of breath after history class because my lesson was practically an improv performance complete with running and jumping and acting out everything.

Had some unforgettable fun! If you’ve made it this far and are looking for more, hit me up for tons of cute videos, check out the SB website and watch the documentary.

2 thoughts on “Shanti Bhavan & Alternative Education

  1. Wow, wonderful, Emma! I am so glad you had this opportunity – and your reflection on the experience is a treasure to read. Go you for recognizing the aim or your critique landing in the wrong location with education – and going further to identify where it should be landing. I am also impressed that you recognized how important it is to be apart of a system to truly understand it, and all of if its wonder and flaws. I, too, have struggled with the tension between my feminist ideals and the gendered norms I encounter when traveling. I am glad you have this awareness – and are doing more research and reflecting on the subject. Overall, awesome…thank you for sharing.


  2. Expand and grow. The possibilities are infinite on your journey!

    I used to keep this quote stuck on my desk for many years and couldn’t help but think about it as I read your post:

    I am only one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything; but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

    Edward Everett Hale

    We love and miss you!

    Dad xxx

    Liked by 1 person

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