Farming as a positive choice

While conventional educational methods have made learning as abstract as possible, rarely connecting the leaner to reality, Puvidham Learning Centre has been shaping the thoughts of young minds by creating an environment where the inherent sensitivity and intuition of the child is sharpened and encouraged.

Farming is the most important occupation on earth for nothing can survive without food. While this simple fact has not changed, the attitudes of society have shifted drastically. Farming is not considered a worthy occupation. It is felt to be the lowest of jobs. All are looking to get a job and leave the village as quickly as he/she can. This sad state of affairs is perhaps true for the whole of India.

Education plays a key role in this scenario. Farming majority cannot read what is present in the inputs used by them. Most people cannot read the warnings on the pesticide packs. Nor can they read the instructions of self protection.

Farming, in a majority of cases is done by people who have limited understanding of pollution to the soil, water and air. Also, they are not expected to understand the phenomenon of global warming, open market economy or even the importance of planting trees. Thus a greater attention to farming is needed in Indian education system. In our school, we treat farming as a very important activity and its importance in the overall picture of life is emphasized. While suggesting career options like doctor, engineer, teacher etc., ‘farmer’ is included with pride.

Genesis of our journey

Both of us, Umesh and Meenakshi were born and brought up in Mumbai. Twenty long years in Mumbai opened our eyes to the various facets of urban life and the realities behind these. Our search for an alternative brought us to Auroville, near Pondicherry where we worked with low cost eco-friendly construction technologies and organic agriculture. But we always wanted to grow our own food organically and have a school where learning was a natural and fulfilling part of life. From Auroville we both moved and tried to work with other NGOs.

After working with these organizations for some years we decided to settle down on our own and practice the various alternatives in farming and education. We were financially very constrained and in 1992 we bought a completely degraded 12 acre piece of land in a drought-prone area of Dharmapuri District in Tamil Nadu. There were about 2 acres of arable land where we could grow dryland crops and 10 acres of eroded hill slopes on which we could only hope to regenerate the land by creating a forest. For the first 3 years there were good rains and we were able to do farming. But in 1997, when the rains became erratic and undependable, we started losing our crops.

That year we decided that we could not completely depend on rain-fed agriculture to support us and so we bought some land in a valley with a dependable source of water. But due to a history of intensive use of fertilizers and pesticides by the previous owners, the first two years of organic farming failed to produce good yields in the irrigated land. In the third year natural balance began to establish itself. We were careful not to apply even sprays when we noticed beneficial insects. By the fourth year the land had regained its health and our outputs improved. Around this time we decided to work with local people and help them to convert to organic methods of agriculture, not directly but through their children – the future farmers.

School for future farmers

Farming is now left to the people who are considered incapable of doing anything else.

We started a school in 2000 based on the ideologies of Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi, using methods demonstrated by Maria Montessori and David Horsburgh.

We started with 7 children in 2000. Now we have 95 children in our school. The children live and learn with us. We also run a hostel for children of migrant labourers. The day scholars are children of nearby farmers. All of them are first generation learners.

In designing the curriculum for our school, we were very aware of these conditions. The school is the place where the child learns to value himself/herself and others. The child also learns a value system that stays with him/her all through life. In our view, the school is a place to sensitize the child, to build a culture of respect for nature and an awareness of his/her role in its preservation.

Sensitivity makes space for creativity and scientific discovery.

The total focus of all that we do in Puvidham learning Centre is to try to create an environment where the inherent sensitivity and intuition of the child is sharpened and encouraged rather than demoralized and snuffed out. Sensitivity to animals, to plants, to nature as an entity, to other people and to the inner personality or the self is kept alive through working with nature.

In conventional schools, learning has become fragmented and removed from life. It has been made as abstract as is possible and it is rarely that a child can make a connection between what he/ she learns at school and what happens in real life.

Our curriculum has evolved on this foundation but has included the story telling and singing tradition as a means of passing on knowledge effortlessly. The traditional schools rarely classified the subjects in the early school days. Learning was wholesome and was meant to be used to understand the life around the child.

It is our intention, through our curriculum, to integrate life and learning and help children to synthesize knowledge through the observations and experiences made available to the child in the school environment or the real life environment.

Keeping all these requirements in mind, we decided to classify our learning into five basic modules centered on the five elements: Sun, Earth, Water, Air and Space. The five elements are essential for survival. The children learn the physical properties and experience these elements through their five senses. We call this type of learning as Experiential learning. We all know that learning is much more accessible for practical use if it is experiential or has been acquired by doing. The basic essential concepts deemed necessary by the educational boards and institutions are incorporated in stories and songs and repeated and recited in class.

The children make concept drawings to express what they have understood from the stories and songs. Mathematical activities like counting, sorting, classifying, measuring, measured drawings, scaled drawings and geometrical drawings like the traditional Rangolies are all used to include mathematics in the class activities. Discussions, walks, observations and questions are a part of everyday classes. Children are guided to speak about what they know about the element or the concept and then the teacher helps them to build on their existing knowledge of the same.

Learning by doing

The children are divided in to groups. On an empty plot of land they decide and mark the part they want to grow plants in. They measure the plot and draw it to scale. They design the rows and decide what they want to plant. They calculate the quantity of seed they will need. They mulch, water and watch their plants grow. They measure the rate of growth, count the number of flowers and compare with the number of fruits. They observe and sketch the plant parts and the insects and birds that visit. Finally they compute the time they spent gardening and the quantity of vegetables they could harvest and make a cost analysis of their activity. They also learn to make natural pest control extracts and vermicomposting.

This type of knowledge synthesizing process we believe will empower the child and make him/her feel that their methods of learning which helped them acquire so much knowledge till they got to school is a valid method.

This approach has two main aims: firstly, to make the experiences that students have at the school relevant to the students’ lives, and to rural livelihoods in general. Secondly, the teaching methods should give value to the children’s own knowledge.

Children already have a lot of experience of the elements that they have gathered while helping out at home farming. This knowledge of theirs is generally brushed aside as useless. By celebrating and using the knowledge that children have about the environment, and by presenting farming as a positive choice socially, the children from our school will have a more balanced perspective.

We do hope that the fact that they have had so much time to dwell on it will help them resist the parental and peer pressure to make money the sole object of their work. And maybe a few years down the line they will find ways of living a simple, dignified, economically satisfying and fruitful life based on farming and the values they have imbibed from our school.

Puvidham Learning Centre, Nagarkudal Village, via Indur, Pennagaram Taluk, Dharmapuri District, Tamil Nadu.

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