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02 Sep 2013
An Extraordinary Experience

By Gentaro Nakamura with Susan Henschel, Ren Nakamura, Uta Nakamura

Gentaro Nakamura is a teacher in the primary section of a private school in New York, and heard about the Vidyamandir Trust from fellow teacher Ameeta Samir Mehta (nee Ameeta Arunbhai Mehta). Being interested in meaningful initiatives in the field of education, he opted to spend a part of his vacation in India at Palanpur, where he interacted with the staff and students, even as his children Ren and Uta attended classes there.

            First and foremost, I would like to thank all of the people from Vidyamandir and the town of Palanpur who made our visit to the school and the town possible. It was an extraordinary experience for all of us. It gave us an opportunity not only to learn about the school, people and life in this unique town, but it was also a valuable time for us to reflect on our own lives.

Coming from Mumbai where we had seen constant rain, intensely dense population, heavy traffic and very fast lifestyle, arriving in Palanpur on a quiet and sunny Saturday morning was a big change for us. As we drove through the town to the guest house, we saw many children walking, riding bikes and scooters in groups, taking their own time, chatting and laughing. They seemed to be free, healthy and happy. This first impression of the town where I sensed that this is a safe place for children vividly stayed in my mind throughout the trip. (Obviously, this is not to say Mumbai is not safe for children -- I was simply struck by the strong contrast between the two places). This first impression proved accurate, we found, as we spent the following ten days in the school and the town. The Vidyamandir Trust had created many safe, healthy and communal programs, facilities and spaces for children and families in town. These places are run and managed by dedicated teachers, staff and adults. As I reflect on my own experience at home, I was most strongly reminded that these safe and healthy places for children and their families are not always available and should never be taken for granted. My eyes were opened wide when I came to realize the essence of inspiration and the mission of the Trust. Among the many needs of the community, the Trust has placed its belief to invest and nurture the most fundamental aspects of our social needs. In other words, the Trust has made one of its goals to support children and their families’ physical, mental and intellectual growth. In the end, what better way is there to place a foundation for bringing stable growth to a community than this approach?

During our stay in the town we saw many examples of the Trust’s support of this community. And in many cases, the Trust’s efforts went beyond nurturing of the children and their families. The Sports Academy, community park (Shashivan), public library, museum, theater/auditorium and IT center are some of the examples of this larger perspective. As a family, we took advantage of these facilities during our stay.The Sports Academy where children of many different age groups participate in a variety of programs was our own children’s favorite place. It was exceptionally powerful as it is open not only to the children and families of Vidyamandir, but for any families in the community. We were able to meet many families from and around Palanpur at the Academy. We were all inspired by the dedication and desire these family possess for their children. Some of them had moved to Palanpur so they could send their children to Vidyamandir. The library was also being used not only by the children and the families from the school, but also by many adults in the town who are preparing for various state exams. Shashivan was always busy with people who enjoy an early evening stroll. The museum was in use for the exhibition of the works of local artists. These facilities all offer safe, healthy and meaningful places for the people of community to explore their potential and pursue quality in their lives in various ways. Again, I was strongly reminded that these places and services do not always exist. The project this Trust is taking on is a public policy in its scale. And of all the needs this community seems to have, I was most inspired by the fact that the Vidyamandir Trust focused on the education and public health of the community. I observed the determination, patience and long-term perspective of the Trust which sees this approach as the healthiest and most sustainable of all the choices they have.


Among these efforts, the most sophisticated and comprehensive is the school system established by the trust about 60 years ago. Almost 5,000 children between 3 and 16 years old are in care of 450 staff on 14 campuses. This includes mainstream school systems based on instruction in two different languages -- one Gujarati-based system and one English-based system. Both schools run from KG (3s and 4s) up to 12th grade. There also is a school for children with special needs (children with variations in visual, auditorial, physical and mental ability). In this school, over 300 children with various needs participate in different programs. This school includes housing facilities depending on the needs of the child and the family. It also offers courses in vocational training. This school, Mamta Mandir, clearly displays the essence of Trust’s idea of community support, which is to approach the issue from the most humane and fundamental needs and with sustainable, long-term vision. Children and families with less support and the most needs are given a clean, healthy and caring home and an opportunity for education and/or self help and vocational training at this school. As we visited the school with our children, we were all inspired to see the passion and energy of the staff and children to engage and to get to know about all of us.

            In every school, including the special needs school, the facilities are clean, healthy, practical and inviting. They are well equipped with a range of instruments and spaces depending on the needs of the school, including libraries, technical instruments such as computers, machines and tools to aid children with special needs, wide open playgrounds and fields, indoor gymnasium and auditorium and more.

            What makes this school system complete and comprehensive is that it includes a school for teacher training in early childhood program at Shri. K. J. Mehta College. This is another testament to the strong belief of this Trust in their sound and sustainable approach to the healthy development of the community. This teacher training college not only offers training for quality teachers for Vidyamandir but also for the entire community and the region. It also serves as a way for higher education and professional training for the women in this community and beyond.

            Our own children, ages 11 and 8, were fortunate to spend a week in The English Medium School, in Standard 5 and Standard 2 at Smt. Menaben Manial Mehta English Medium Balmandir for a week. Nothing explains our experience at Vidyamandir better than asking our own children about their experience there. Our children’s first reaction to the question placed by the director, Mr, Hasmukh Modi, about their experience was, “Can we come back again?”. Obviously, our children were aware of the many differences between their own school experience in New York and in Vidyamandir. But, beyond those differences, the school, the teachers and their peers were able to show our children that good schooling and education are truly universal. Our children immediately came to understand that this is a safe, caring and meaningful place for them, just like their school in New York. Their transition into classrooms in Vidyamandir was seamless due to the help from the teachers and their peers. Their days at the school were filled with social, emotional, physical and intellectual adventures and learning. They made many friends, they met many caring teachers and staff, and they have grown so much in just a week. Again, we all understand that no educational system or school can exist without the historical, cultural, and social background of its own. This, to our children, in comparison to their school experience in New York, was evident in many aspects, small and large, through their school life at Vidyamandir. Yet, with the help from the teachers and their peers, our children came to realize that the essence of good schools and education is something very familiar to them. This experience was a strong reminder to me that, in this world, we do have a common, universal language between us, namely good schooling and quality education. This language can transcend many differences in our lives and communicate the important essence of human life, which may be described as “respect and trust” in short. 

            As our children attended their own classrooms in their own standard, I was able to spend my time in KG sections of the school system. Three days at Smt. M. M. Mehta English Medium KG program, and one day at two different schools of Gujarati Medium KG program, Shri Jain Balmandir and Shri Chandulal Raichand Mehta Balmandir. Finally, with help from many faculty throughout the schools, I was very fortunate to be given one day to talk about my own work with children in New York and to share ideas with teachers from various KG programs and the teacher training college.


In these KG programs, dedicated and trained teachers spend time with young children through a carefully structured and planned day. Children move from room to room (resource room system) based on the subject or the goals of the activities. In each room children are given materials to engage their hands and their minds, rather than simply listening to instruction. This resource room approach, combined with activity-based method is introduced so as to encourage more engagement, initiative-taking and child-centered learning experience. Materials are simple, clear in their hook (inviting and interactive nature) and used according to children’s developmental needs and age group. Almost all instructions are communicated primarily by English with support of Gujarati in Englsih Medium program. I was quite impressed by the high level of engagement, enthusiasm and comfort in communicating in English among children of Upper KG classroom. In contrast to the children of Lower KG who has just started the school life about a month previous, Upper KG children who had spent a full year in English Medium school showed great level of spontaneity and comfort in interacting in English with the teacher and me.

            Intensely planned and executed use of English among the teachers throughout the day is one factor contributing to this fluency and comfort. But, in my observation, very clear and developmentally appropriate routines and structures in children’s school life, combined with the strong sense of independence and responsibility given to young children throughout the day, is the essence of this program and the strong development of the children. Through numerous experiences of repeating and trusting the routines and their own capabilities, the children seem to build a strong sense of ownership and comfort in their school life. Once, in Lower KG’s field trip to Shashivan, I was picking up children’s sandals randomly taken off and scattered around the field. I was clearly reminded by one of the teachers that it is children’s own responsibility to take care of their own belongings. This is just one example of the messages children are given in their school life. That is, they have an ownership of their experience and in return, they do have their share of responsibilities.

            This exceptional consistency, in children’s social development (encouraging children to take ownership of their experience) and learning experience (shared goals and plans among the teachers) is one of the strengths I observed, not only in English Medium School but also in the Gujarati Medium Schools. In fact, these precisely planned and well executed curricula are products of constant communications and teamwork among the teachers through all three KG schools. From the theme and the progression of the curriculum to the use of materials and languages throughout the execution of the curriculum, no details are left undiscussed. When I was visiting two different Gujarati KG schools, despite my limitation in understanding Gujarati, I was able to follow every step of the activity as I observed the same activity in the English Medium School the day before. At the same time, I must add that this consistency, a result of teamwork among the teachers, does not make these three schools identical. The fact is quite the contrary to this and it was a real pleasure to feel the difference in each school. Just as each KG schools are housed in uniquely different buildings with their own history, the energy, characteristics and identities of each school are equally unique. I sensed this as the reflection of democratic and organic cooperation and communication style among the schools and teachers.

            As I spent a week in these three different KG programs, some of the issues each schools seem to be facing started to catch my attention. Obviously, these are my observations in just one week and need to be further discussed with the teachers. First is the diversity of the family demographics who participate in the program. As I observed the young Lower KG children eat their breakfast together, I sensed the wide range of differences in children’s backgrounds. It seems that the children and the families are coming from diverse range of demographic which include geographical (city, town and rural), social (educational background of the family, expectation of the family toward the school etc) and religious backgrounds. This may be requiring a great amount of attention and support from the teachers. Second is the enormous task of running a dual language program in English and Gujarati. There seem to be a very high expectation from families in attaining fluency in English. And in contrast to this expectation, once children leave the school their environment seem to lack consistent support to maintain their English outside the school. Constant reinforcement and repetition at school seems to be the key to maintaining children’s acquisition and mastery of English.

But, I must remind the readers that, as I will mention in my next section, overall, we were quite impressed by children’s enthusiasm and fluency in communicating in English.

            As we finished up our stay in Vidyamandir, the director, Mr. Hasmukh Modi took his time and came to say goodbye to us. As we exchanged thoughts and ideas about our stay and experiences, I mentioned one thing to the director, namely the intense desire of the children of all ages to communicate with us in English. As we spent every afternoon at the Sports Academy, we met many children of all age groups between 10 to 16 in both genders. They are from both English Medium School and from Gujarati Medium School. What surprised and sometimes overwhelmed us was the strong curiosity and desire the children displayed in trying to communicate with us in English. We were all impressed by their courage to speak to us in English, and also by their fluency. Here are some of the comments they made about their feelings toward using English.

1)  There are no opportunities to use English in Palanpur except in the classroom and among themselves. There are no tourist or foreigners coming to the town.

2)  They feel confident in listening and understanding English spoken by us (I am Japanese living in US around 15 years and my children are American). But they felt difficulty in speaking in English to us.

3)  They feel this is because they do not have real opportunities to use English outside of their own community where they can always mix in Gujarati.

4)  It is hard for them to make proper sound in English. “Indian accent”, they mentioned. They also mentioned their fear of making mistakes.

After discussing this experience with the director, we have talked about how these are all common and important challenges children face when they try to acquire a second language in their own community where there is not much real context in which to practice the language. We also talked about how it would be wonderful if these enthusiastic children were given real opportunities to engage in a conversation in English. We also talked about how this can happen between the children of Palanpur and the children of some place where English is not necessary their native language. The only important point here is that they have no choice but to communicate in English, just like what happened between us and the children of Palanpur. I mentioned to the director that sometimes it is helpful to practice English among the non-native speakers as both parties are free from the fear of making mistakes. I also mentioned that the technicality of the language, grammar and pronunciation should not be a focus in such experience. This opportunity can be created through the use of technology, such as Skype and Facetime. Or these opportunities can be created through a program in which children from other places may visit Vidyamandir, or children from Vidyamandir may visit other places.

            This is the end of my short summary of our experience in Vidyamandir schools.

Again, this trip not only gave us a unique opportunity to observe and learn about different and new things, but it also gave us a precious perspective to reflect on our own lives and practices. It also strongly reminded us about the fundamental similarity, not only in terms of education system and approach, but also among people. It was a real pleasure for us as parents to observe our own children noticing such familiar qualities in life in such a faraway place. Superficial differences between Palanpur and New York did help them to notice many important things, but discovering the fundamental similarities between the two places had an even more powerful impact on them in learning about the world we all live in.

We would like to thank again all the people who made this trip possible for us.

Thank you very much and we hope to see you again sometime in the future.

         
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