Published in The Kathmandu Post
A Class One student picked up a small, water-filled bowl from a shelf and brought it to the carpet corner where her teachers and friends were sitting, legs crossed, in a circle. A yellow flower floated on the surface of the bowl, which shook a little, as the little girl, who was going to lead the morning’s peace ritual, sat down in her spot, still struggling to balance the bowl in her hands.
She then turned to a friend, passed the bowl, and softly said, “Peace, Diwakar.” Diwakar accepted the bowl, and due to months of practice, did not forget to return the greeting to the leader: “Peace, Shahani.”
And so the peace bowl went around the circle, one after the other. Soft smiles, eye contacts, little hands committed to continue the chain. I sat at the back of the classroom with Amrita Gaur, who had taken a micro from Pithauli, Nawalparasi the previous night in order to spend a day at Kaasthamandup Vidyalaya in Mandikatar.
The peace ritual is only one of the activities that take place during Circle Time in Kaasthamandup’s first grade classrooms. Depending on whose job it is, different students take turns reading the date and the teacher’s morning message on the whiteboard. Circle Time usually ends with a couple of students volunteering to share something special or personal that they might have brought from home, such as a piece of drawing or a favorite toy. Just like the peace ritual, the teachers have thoughtfully provided a structure to the Share as well. For example, what kind of shares are appropriate and more importantly, ensuring that the person ends his share by taking two or three questions from his friends.
Each day inside every Kaasthamandup classroom begins with Circle Time. Higher grades call it Morning Meeting, which is usually shorter and may have a slight academic slant. In the primary grades we visited that day, Circle Time took up the entire first period. As I circulated between the first, second and third grade classrooms where I had placed a Pithauli teacher, I tried, as much as possible, to point at specificities and explain what was going on.
“Morning messages foster literacy skills, but they also help students focus. See how the student leaders are so excited and appear responsible? Any ritual takes a lot of practice and instruction at the beginning of the school year. It doesn’t happen easily or automatically.”
At lunch time, I sat with the four teachers visiting from Pithauli’s Santu Devi School. “You must have noticed a lot of different things all morning. But what is one thing that really struck you?” I asked.
Three of them mentioned students. “They listen and cooperate more, behave differently. Such good kids,” they chimed in.
The day before, during our introductory session, I had prepped the teachers. “This is a private school in Kathmandu. Most students come from relatively well-off families. I know that your students in Pithauli come from a very different background. But pay attention to small details. How do the teachers interact with the students? What kind of posters are on the walls? How is the classroom environment? Don’t focus on things that you may not be able to do in Pithauli. Focus on one or two things that you can do, that you can take from here and apply in your classrooms.”
Using Play and Rituals for Instruction
We talked as we ate. I was happy that they had mentioned students and how they cooperated. So I used that opportunity to talk about Circle Time. “Kids are kids everywhere. And one thing every kid loves is to play. The passing of the peace bowl is an example of play. The teachers have provided a space and time for the students to play inside their classrooms, except that by repeating it every day, they have turned it into a ritual and used the ritual for lessons and instruction.”
Rituals are part of our humanity, practised individually, within families, communities, cultures. For children, rituals also provide safety and a sense of belonging. Young students entering a classroom, knowing their place, knowing what’s going to happen next, are more likely to participate and cooperate. In addition, Circle Time activities are personal and meaningful to children. They understand why they are reading the morning message. They count down days, anticipating their turn to share.
One teacher had even included a movement activity. Students stood around in a circle, clapping, repeating phrases. If someone messed up, they went back to the beginning and repeated. “Everyone seemed to be having fun. Did you realize?” I asked the Pithauli teachers. They nodded their heads in agreement.
Circle Time has been a crucial aspect of primary school classrooms in many parts of the world for a long time. I was very pleased to see it practiced at Kaasthamandup. Teachers use that time for different kinds of instruction. Something like the peace bowl ritual may have required more explanation, more of an explicit connection to a current event or a story. Circle Time can also be used for problem solving. Children are allowed to bring up a conflict from a playground or express curiosity, dissatisfaction or complaints about any aspect of their daily school life.
“Every lesson or activity inside a classroom needs to be thoughtfully planned,” I emphasized. Why are you doing something? If you teach straight from the textbook without providing any connection to your students or to their lives, it’s very difficult to engage them. Lessons that are not engaging don’t create any impact. So why bother.”
Reflections and Next Steps
I designed the Pithauli project at the beginning of the academic year as an experiment, with a one year commitment that involved four separate two-day visits to the school in Nawalparasi. Instead of my third visit, I invited some of the teachers to Kathmandu so that they could observe all the small details and intricacies of a high-functioning primary level classroom. I believe that the teachers got a lot more by witnessing the routines, lessons and interactions inside the classrooms than I could have ever conveyed through handouts or workshops.
While Amrita Gaur and Seema Gaur, a Class One and preschool teacher at Santu Devi school, spent almost all of their one-and-a-half day visit inside the same classroom, Dev Kumari Mahato, someone who is entirely new to teaching, split her time between Class Two and Three, and followed the students to their Art and Gym classes. Dev Kumari took pictures of displays, student work, materials and enthusiastically asked questions to the Kaasthamandup teachers. She noticed how the Art teachers used clay and cardboard for different projects, materials that are easily available in Pithauli.
The fact that none of the teachers used a textbook in any of the classrooms all morning was not lost to the Pithauli teachers. They understood that if students are made to move and given time for art and songs, they are more likely to be attentive during story time or a rigorous math problem. At the beginning of the year, when I had convinced Amrita Gaur, an experienced teacher at Santu Devi, to take charge of Class One as a homeroom teacher, she had agreed. But her first few months were a struggle. Even Dev Kumari and Seema Mahato had expressed how difficult it is to teach younger children. Their experience inside the Kaasthamandup classrooms were eye-opening. They noticed that children need to be treated as children; lessons and classroom conversations focused around socio-emotional issues are powerful.
The day before, I had taken the teachers to the City Museum, where Lahar Srijana, an NGO that trains and employs Tharus from Nawalparasi, had put up an exhibition. Some of the skilled workers from Nawalparasi were there, demonstrating their weaving skills. These workers used locally available materials such as elephant grass to make stools and carpets.
The Pithauli teachers interacted with the locals. And I talked to the founder of Lahar Srijana about the possibility of having one of her employees come to Santu Devi school to do a workshop with teachers, which would in turn help the teachers conduct similar art classes with their students. The meeting was a happy coincidence.
For my final visit to Pithauli, I plan on focusing on Art and Extra Curricular activities. I need to coordinate with Lahar Srijana. Hopefully, it can be worked out.
This article is a follow up to two other articles, The Road to Pithauli and The Pithauli Project, both published in The Kathmandu Post and both of which are available online.