Saturday, December 26, 2009

Free Time, Play, A Chance to Meander

An art teacher I met Christmas Eve noted that the real value of a good art education is not that it will lead to better engineers, lawyers or scientists, though it will, but that children need time and space to be creatively free and have fun. All the schools I have visited so far embody this philosophy. There's also an appreciation for what one principal described as a "healthy naughtiness."

There is a dark side to Indian education, no schools for many kids, corrupt schools or strict schools where children or brutalized physically or emotionally to the point of suicide. Now, the simmering debate on the future of Indian education seems to be breaking wide-open. Bollywood is of course doing its part, with recent films like Taare Zameen Par and 3 Idiots, which just opened. Stay tuned.

At one school, I was asked to speak to 90 class 9 girls, not realizing I'd be introduced a an expert on arts education. I am a student of it, not an expert. In situations like this, it's best to keep the speech brief and go quickly to the Q and A. I was as curious about them as they were about me, if not more curious. Their questions said a great deal about their concerns: poverty, political corruption, and the roles of the media and society in resolving these things. Their consensus was that the biggest problem India faces is political corruption and that resolving this would alleviate other problems.

All in all, a great afternoon that wholeheartedly supported my obvious biases.

Off to Kerala soon, where meaningful literacy is almost total (and there are also some nice beaches and wildlife preserves, providentially). :)

The quote on the blackboard says:
"The principal goal of education is to create men and women who are capable of doing new things not simply repeating what other generations have done."

(Seen at the Fabindia School in Bali, Rajasthan)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Annual Christmas Letter: Greetings from India, Country of Miracles

Dear Friends,

There are so many things I want to write about, personal and global (the developing situation in Iran for instance). I won't miss most of 2009, which seems to be the case for a lot of people, although personally it is ending on a positive note as a very good project has come to me, and so I decided to focus on that.

The project, which came about serendipitously for the most part, unites a number of my interests: arts, education, India and human rights. This providential journey began in 1986 at Mohan's Drink Shop in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, where I shared a table with a cheerful Aussie who struck up a conversation. He asked me what I did and when I told him, he said, "You must go to Darjeeling and write about this crazy Canadian priest and his coolie orchestra." He was so passionate, even evangelical, about it that I did. It was the first class of the Gandhi Youth group at St. Robert's school in Darjeeling and after I saw it in action and met the kids I became one of their evangelists too (and later met other backpacker evangelists for the program elsewhere in India).

The program evolved into its own school, the Gandhi Ashram in Kalimpong. Father McGuire died suddenly in 2005, but the school carries on, now under the guidance of Father Paul from Bangalore, a dozen fulltime teachers, and an assortment of volunteers. Here's a story PBS did about it.

I planned to go back for another visit to the school next year, and also visit a school started by my friend Rosyla in nearby Siliguri. Long story short, friends in New York arranged a grant for me to look at arts education for children in India and visit more schools. It's not a huge grant, but it's fine for the way I travel -- inexpensive trains, charming little hostels and havelis, bucket showers. I get a lot of free meals at the schools, which are blowing me away with their spirit and academic performance. There has been a rapid increase in programs that have arts as a core component of the curriculum, not as a mere elective, with impressive results: higher grades, increased creativity and cooperation, greater self-confidence. Check out the Fabindia School and the RKK School.

RKK is not a school for underprivileged girls per se - it has a mix of students from different backgrounds and regions, but it is one of the leading girls' schools and one pointed to as an example by other educators. Fabindia is another exemplary school with 50% of its students on scholarship. In all these schools one is struck by the mix of discipline with freedom of thought and expression. The children are well-behaved and respectful but encouraged to think and create outside the box. It's also striking how super smart they are, while at the same time they seem intrinsically happy. Even the teenagers. They are still teenagers, however, and a discussion of literature led to the Twilight books and Robert Pattison and of film to Titanic and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Grateful doesn't begin to explain how I feel at year-end.

Every time I walk into a school I think of my mother, an English teacher, and about a teacher named George Bastable, who died this year, and all the wonderful teachers whose contributions go largely unremarked. It's a challenging job, one I am not fit to do, but I am a loyal fan of teachers. George always wanted to be an educator, and a little later than most students, with the encouragement of his wife Vicki Camper, he went to university and became a beloved middle school teacher and coach. He wrote too, and had sent me links to his newspaper columns on education and literature not so long ago. George was one of those people incapable of making enemies. He had a generosity of spirit, a joie de vivre, a huge heart that changed everyone he met. He was just 50 when he died. So this is for George.

On that note, here's hoping 2010 brings you great teachers, boundless joie de vivre and, as the Iranians say, Azadi.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

Montazeri Dead

Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, champion of reform and the Green movement, has died at 87.