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Auroville Experience


January 2008

 

Deepanam - Towards Free Progress

- Priya Sundaravalli

Tucked away behind the Matrimandir is Deepanam, a school moving towards Free Progress education.

“There are many things in Auroville that are born from necessity and this school is one of them,” says Rajeev, one of the team members at Deepanam School . He is here with two of his colleagues, Anand and Aikya, to talk about the school.

Started in the year 2001, Deepanam is a primary and middle school in Auroville for students from the age of 7 to14 years. It seeks to follow the ideals of Integral Education as described by The Mother and Sri Aurobindo.
Last September, two months into the school year, Deepanam went through a major change that resulted in the formation of a new team.

 

Crisis and new birth

Rajeev points out that over the past few years many experiments had been made in Deepanam introducing various educational methods – Montessori, Rebecca Wilde, Pestalozzi and so on – methods that most of parents were not familiar with, and which caused “quite a lot of confusion!” Many parents had pulled their children out of Deepanam in the middle of the year. So the team, disturbed by the lack of confidence shown by the (Aurovilian) parents in the school's direction, called the parents for a meeting after the first term break to discuss the future of the school.

“They expressed doubts about the relevance of Deepanam's existence,” says Rajeev. “And that took us all by surprise. Our immediate response was, why should we not continue? Even if we are a small group, we shouldn't be discouraged.”

In a dramatic move, the parents offered to run the school themselves together with a few from the previous team who were willing to continue. And so began Deepanam's rebirth last October with an optimistic team of adults and a dozen children.

Since the change, the biggest accomplishment, the three say, is the sense of being “one big family”. “We are very much together this time,” says Aikya. She is one of those who stayed on from the previous team. “And it's a feeling shared by everyone – both the children and the adults.”

The approach

To love to learn is the most precious gift that one can give to a child, to learn always and everywhere. “This statement by The Mother is our inspiration,” says Rajeev. “Our sole aim is to spark the enthusiasm for knowledge and progress in our children.” Since October 2006, Deepanam School has been working with the aim of encouraging the children to be responsible for themselves. The programme emphasises free growth and natural development. “For example,” says Rajeev, “the class schedule of each group is made by teachers and children together! And progressively the children are encouraged to take up more initiative in making their own schedules.

“In our schedule we try to be very flexible in order to accommodate as much as possible, the needs of the moment of children and teachers – while at the same time striving to keep a safe and structured atmosphere! We feel that children are happiest and most open to learning in such conditions.”

An outdoor class: learning about check-dams in the Auroville canyon in Utility.Photo  courtesy Deepanam School

An outdoor class: learning about check-dams in the Auroville canyon in
Utility. Photo courtesy Deepanam School

 

The School now

Within a year, the school has doubled its strength: presently there are 24 students. Half of them are the children of Aurovilians or newcomers, and the rest are children of long-term guests or those in the process of becoming newcomers. The only request made of the latter is that they stay in Auroville for at least three months – “preferably over a school year for an effective experience and development of their child”.

The school ensures that its policy of being open to children of guests does not have an effect on the programme [see box] followed by its regular students. Structured activities are planned separately in the mornings, but in the afternoons, everyone comes together during the time of the ‘free choice' creative or physical activities.

Going by the percentage of guests the school accommodates, Deepanam is indeed offering a valuable service to Auroville. “When families arrive in Auroville,” says Rajeev, “they find that their children first need to feel like part of this large ‘Auroville family' – children need to connect to other children. And what better way than being in a school?

“So at Deepanam we give priority for those guests who are seeking to explore the possibilities of settling in Auroville and so try to make their introduction to Auroville more welcoming.”

“Not all Auroville schools welcome short-term students,” adds Anand. But this, he says, is understandable because many of these visiting children have little or no knowledge of English. “This is something that can disrupt the regular programme of a larger school,” he continues. “It's precisely because we're small that we're able to take these children in.” For non-English speakers, Deepanam offers intensive language sessions, often on a one-on-one basis for the first few months.

 

Challenges

And the challenges so far? The main challenge, according to Rajeev, has been to try to convince the various groups in Auroville about Deepanam's need to exist. “Also fund raising has been a big challenge as being a small school few want to support our activities,” he says. “But these are moments of real challenge. To keep going on with a positive attitude in spite of it all, is what gives us – teachers and parents the greatest joy.”

For Aikya, the concern is not so much about the challenge of convincing people, but “to grow steadily and in truth. And if people get interested, we can give them the information they want.”

 

The Future

So will the new Deepanam survive? Aikya responds: “I remember a quote of Sri Aurobindo where he talks about faith – to have faith in your possibilities, and with aspiration and trust you will be led forward… But what we can definitely say is that we have a lot of joy in working and doing what we believe in.”

The new team is giving itself at least 5 years to discover “the lines of its own true nature”. “If one looks back at the history of this school,” adds Anand, “what's clear is that every time a system became rigid, and things got stuck, it ultimately broke down. However, all those experiences have left behind their truths and have contributed to where we are now. So I'd say that no struggle has been a waste!”

Says Rajeev, “At Deepanam we feel that if children are happy and healthy they will learn everything they need to learn. This calls for a big shift in the mindset for many parents and teachers – and this we are gradually exploring, debating, and applying.”

 

Deepanam School Programme

Each school day (5-day week) at Deepanam begins with a ten-minute concentration when every one gathers together in a circle to listen to (fine) uplifting music. The children are divided into three groups depending on their age and fluency in English. The mornings are devoted to structured activities which include mathematics, local history and geography, and languages. The four languages mentioned by The Mother – English, French, Sanskrit, Tamil – are taught at all levels. The afternoons are set aside for ‘free choices' where the children can pick from a variety of creative and physical activities. Some choices this year have included clay modelling, carpentry, painting, origami, singing, flute, Bharatanatyam dance, mime, capoeira, and computers. Sports, which is organized by the Dehashakti Sports programme, is mandatory for all children and takes place in the late afternoons.

All children are also involved in the daily life at school which includes arranging the classroom, cleaning up, working in the garden, cooking etc. A few teachers in the school have started to use the greater Auroville as a teaching and learning resource. Field trips are organized on a regular basis to various communities, farms and units. “It's another way of developing the love and connection to Auroville and encouraging students to participate in The Mother's dream project,” says Anand.

 

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