Tribal children. Foreign teachers. Classes named after fruits and trees. On the eve of a national educational conference to be held on its premises later this week, the writer visits the “educational experiment” that is Vidya Vanam.

Maybe the boy broke the bucket. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he just found the broken bucket, in the school’s premises. But, about what happened next, there seems to be little dispute. When Aslam Ansari, a Std. IV student at a government school in Betul, Madhya Pradesh, informed his teachers about his discovery, they began to beat him. The boy collapsed. His parents took him to a hospital, where severe backbone and neck injuries were diagnosed. They couldn’t afford treatment at this hospital, so they went to another one. There, the boy was declared dead. In the December 18, 2012, issue of The Hindu, Krishna Kumar, Professor of Education at Delhi University and a former Director of NCERT, made this tragedy the focus of his Opinion Page story. He said, “[The people] who brutally hit [the boy] got access to his body because they were recruited to serve as teachers. The court must ask on what grounds did the state satisfy itself that such persons could look after the welfare and rights of a small boy...”

Prema Rangachary, the 71-year-old director of Vidya Vanam, an education initiative for tribal and underprivileged children, was deeply disturbed by this story. Her first response was to write a piece titled “Teachers, tread softly on children’s dreams”, which appeared in the February 4, 2013, issue of The Hindu. She wrote, “Who gives this authority over the mind and body of the student to the teacher? Is it the state? Or is it the school? Or is it the society... So where do we fail? Is it faulty training? Is it teacher selection? Or is it the failure to understand the purpose of education?” The questions outnumbered the answers. She decided that something more needed to be done. “Krishna Kumar’s article got me thinking about how educators must create an environment of care and concern,” she told me when I met her last month at her residence in the Vidya Vanam campus at Anaikatti, about 30 km from Coimbatore, on the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border. “I felt that getting thoughts from people who have worked in education could help formulate an approach on how to address this.”

On May 29 and 30, Vidya Vanam will host a National Conference and Workshop on Educating for a Caring Society. The presentations in the morning will be followed by workshops on how these ideas can be incorporated in the classrooms. Rangachary plans to get teachers from mainstream schools to attend. She said, “Some of these ideas are already there in institutions like Shantiniketan and KFI, but these are alternative schools. How do we bring these ideas to the fore, and say that these are not just for a small group of people but for the school system at large? Education has become impersonal and fear-ridden. It should be something that’s enjoyed by both teachers and students.”

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Rangachary seems to enjoy her role as ‘Madam Paatti’, as the students call her. (‘Paatti’ is Tamil for grandmother.) With silver hair swept into a casual bun and a bone-rattling laugh that appears to emanate from her feet, she’s hardly the picture of intimidation you expect the director of an educational initiative to be. (Vidya Vanam is not yet recognised as a ‘school’, as the No Objection Certificate from the state government, which will allow Rangachary to apply for CBSE affiliation, is pending.) While we were talking, some students walked in holding a twig with a caterpillar they had found during Maths class. One of the boys claimed that the creature had two heads, “here also and here also”. Madam Paatti looked at where the boy pointed. “That is not a head,” she said gravely. “After some time, you’ll see poop come out from this end.”

The students at Vidya Vanam — most of them first-generation learners — are from the Irula tribe, the Adi Dravidar communities, and the BC, MBC and OBC categories. They are here because their parents, who are mostly daily wage earners, want them to learn English. Rangachary, who is from Chennai, first came to Anaikatti in 2001, when a friend asked her to help out with anganwadis in remote villages in the forest areas. There, she met parents such as Valli, whose child studies in Vidya Vanam today. Valli asked her, “Why don’t you start a school?” There were others too. Rangachary remembers what they told her. “Neenga pesara maadhiri avanga English pesanum.” They wanted their children to speak English the way she did, but they could not afford an English-medium school.

As it turned out, many of them could not afford any kind of education. When the idea of a school began to take root — thanks to contributions from Rangachary’s brother, a neurologist in the US who helped set up a foundation, and Swami Dayananda Saraswati, who donated the land — Rangachary called the headmen of the villages and asked them how much they could give as fees. After a brief discussion, they said they could give a day’s wage: Rs. 150 per child each month. But this has not always been possible. Next year, Rangachary plans to make schooling free for tribal children. “They are not able to pay anyway,” she said, “and they are embarrassed when we send them reminders. I’m afraid they may stop sending the children to school.”

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Vidya Vanam was inaugurated in July 2007. Twenty children, aged three-and-a-half to eight, came on the first day. By the end of the month, the number doubled. Today, there are 270 students, in classes named after fruits (Orange, Mango), trees (Neem, Pipal, Jamun, Banyan), and rivers (Kaveri, Bhavani, Krishna, Alakananda, Ganga). These are the classes from kindergarten through elementary school to middle school. The high school classes will be named after mountains. “This way,” Rangachary told me, “the sense of failure is eliminated when we move children from one class to another”. You have to admit, there is a sense of a game being played in moving from Kaveri to Pipal, without a shred of the shame that might accompany a move from, say, Class III to Class II. There are no marks or grades till Ganga class. There are only evaluations for the teacher to understand where the student is. I looked at some of the report cards. One of these evaluations said, “Vishnu is regular in doing his assignment.” Another one said, “Plays only with friends”.

There are no prescribed textbooks either. The teachers cull material from books and distribute photocopies to students. And the lesson plans are based on interdisciplinary interactions around the same theme. If the theme is water, then the Science class will talk about two molecules of Hydrogen and one of Oxygen, the History class will get into civilisations that flourished along rivers, and Maths class will calculate the volume of a dam. They even staged a dance drama based on the Cauvery. Rangachary said that there was a constant endeavour to keep the children connected to their surroundings. They once went to a nearby village to study the flora and fauna, the community, and the river that flowed through it. “They need to know these rivers before they study about the Nile and the Amazon,” Rangachary said. I had to keep reminding myself that this isn’t an upscale, newfangled facility with avant-garde notions of education but a school for tribal and underprivileged children.

Rangachary doesn’t hesitate to call Vidya Vanam an experiment. “In a rural setup like this, I have a free environment,” she said. “It is not very structured.” The parents did not accept this the first two years. “Even though they were not educated, even though they could not help their child in any manner, they wondered what we were doing here, what their children were learning, whether the child would get a certificate. But they were convinced once they saw the changes in their children.” It helped that the teachers, at first, were from the same villages as these parents. “That increased their comfort level with the school. Now, we even have foreign teachers.”

I sat down in a class conducted by Faith Spencer, or Faith akka, as the students called her. (The teachers are called akka or anna, Tamil for elder sister and elder brother.) She began by asking questions about a film she had shown them earlier — Matilda, based on the Roald Dahl story. (Dahl seems to be a bit of a favourite in these parts. The library had a poster, made by teachers, which announced, “Before Roald Dahl started writing, he made sure he had six sharpened pencils that each lasted for two hours before being resharpened.”) Faith akka asked the class the name of Matilda’s teacher. The kid sitting in front of me turned to his neighbour and asked him the same question in Tamil: “Andha teacher-oda per enna?” The children screamed out answers. A little later, there was a change of topic. Faith akka asked the class, “Who can tell me what biodiversity is?”

Spencer, who is from New York, majored in Psychology from Sewanee University in Tennessee. She toured north India for three months — this included a backpacking trip to the Himalayas — and then went back and did a marketing internship. She heard about Vidya Vanam from Rangachary’s brother. She came here last August. She is thinking about applying for a Masters in teaching. This was her last week at Vidya Vanam. “It was very difficult at first,” she told me. “I was expecting to watch a lot of classes and then get into teaching. But they threw me in right away, which was probably for the best.” She got used to the cultural difference, but the language barrier — both the accent as well as the level of English she spoke — was the bigger problem. “With younger students, I had to explain myself with pictures and activities.”

Ursula Heath, from West Sussex, told me that she dealt with the “accent problem” with a “lot of repeating, explaining, finding different words, and going over things slowly.” Some of the Indian teachers, too, have to resort to tricks to communicate with the students. Art teacher Arunangshu Bhunia, a 29-year-old from Shantiniketan, showed me what his class had done. It wasn’t the usual painting within the lines. One of the students was fashioning a scabbard from cardboard for his role in the school play. Bhunia showed me a scrapbook of costumes the children had designed from glossy magazine clippings. Only a close look revealed the print.

Rangachary told me that schooling is bilingual — Tamil and English — till the children are about eight, and later classes are conducted more in English. While there are many teachers who are locals (even if it does seem a stretch to call Srividhya akka, who travels 45 km to get here, a local), the teachers from outside — outside the state, outside the country — are a logical extension of the parents’ original mandate to teach their children English. I spoke to Sivammal, whose three children are students at Vidya Vanam. She said that she liked Vidya Vanam because they teach Hindi here. When her husband, a welder, went to Delhi on work, he didn’t understand a word there. She said, “At least my kids will have a good future.”

Heath said the school “takes whatever they can get.” She is an archaeology major, so she asked her class to imagine someone stumbling into the Vidya Vanam campus 500 years from now. What would they find, and what would that tell them about the life we lead now? “I said, ‘This is my educational background, these are my ideas’. Prema said, ‘Fantastic. Teach what you like, as you like. We’re not going to monitor you.’ They’re very open to new educational theories, even classroom management styles. I’ve given them some ideas about how to structure the curriculum.”

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Some of this free-style experimentation with mixed-age, mixed-ability classes may soon come to an end. Rangachary told me, “We are streamlining the senior classes age-wise because we want the children to be eligible for public exams three years hence.” The week I visited Vidya Vanam happened to be a rather historic occasion. For the first time, the senior-most students — the equivalent of Class VII (Vidya Vanam is seven years old) — were sitting for exams, having to answer questions within a fixed timeframe. For the first time, they will be awarded marks. “This is the training I want them to have,” Rangachary said. “And they will have this training for the next three years, when there will hopefully be a board exam here.”

I hopped onto the school bus one evening, as the children were being taken to their homes. Gopikrishna, whose father was a weaver and is now employed in Swami Dayananda’s Arsha Vidya Gurukulam in Anaikatti, told me that he had given a Tamil exam that day, where he was asked to explain 10 kurals (Thiruvalluvar’s couplets). There was only one exam left: Hindi. He said he didn’t know Hindi very well, and when I asked him to say something in the language, he said, “Tumhara naam kya hai?”. (“What is your name?”) I asked him to say something else. In a scene right out of a K. Bhagyaraj comedy, he said, “Tumhara mataji ka naam kya hai?” (“What is your mother’s name?”)

The next morning, I squeezed into the van that was going to pick children up from their homes. Babu, the 31-year-old driver from Mattathukadu, told me that he makes three trips every morning. The first trip — this one — is the longest, 23 km one way, covering the villages of Kavundikal, Koolikadavu, Agali, Naakiyapadi, Ottathara, Mattathukadu and Vattalakki. The other trips are shorter. Babu said there were plans to buy a bigger bus so that all the children could be picked up in a single trip. As we left the Vidya Vanam campus, BJP flags in green and orange were planted on either side of the road. A half-kilometre later, when we crossed a small bridge and entered Kerala, the roadsides were plastered with red posters with a hammer and sickle, announcing the candidature of M.B. Rajesh.

The van has made it possible for parents like Krishnan from Kavundikal to send his children, a six-year-old son and a seven-and-a-half-year-old daughter, to Vidya Vanam. Earlier, the children stayed with Krishnan’s mother-in-law and went to another school where the van cost Rs. 450 for five kilometres, in addition to the monthly fee (Rs. 600). Food was billed separately. In Vidya Vanam, he pays only Rs. 500 per child all told. A few kilometres away, I met Anoop Pavithran, the father of Abhijith who studied in an English-medium CBSE school nearby before the van made it possible for him to go to Vidya Vanam. Pavithran, a workshop mechanic, told me that he could see the difference in the way Abhijith speaks. He is happy that Abhijith can rattle off the names of motor parts and car models. The only problem seems to be Abhijith’s handwriting, which is bad. Pavithran wants to talk to his son about it, but it was 11.00 p.m. when he came home last night and the boy was asleep.

Babu isn’t just a driver. He collects fees from working parents who cannot come to the campus. He is also a messenger. One student’s grandmother, who was given a ‘fees pending’ reminder showed Babu a receipt and insisted that she had paid the amount. On the way back, the kids in the van began to clap as they broke into singsong doggerel: “Tom and Jerry. Christmas Mary. And an o-o-o. And c-c-c. Crocodile Pepsi.” Babu speaks no English. He has a toddler whom he wants to admit in Vidya Vanam. He said he would feel proud if his son spoke English, but didn’t know if his son would then be ashamed of him. He said, in Tamil, “If he is speaking in English with his friends, I will feel bad that he has a father who cannot join in the conversation.”

I mentioned this to Rangachary later. I asked if learning English could end up changing the dynamics in these households or even alienate the children from their parents. “No,” she said. “The simple reason is that it’s these parents who asked for it in the first place. When these children come here, they have no confidence, no sense of self-worth or self-esteem. But after a while, you have to see how much they are respected in their own environment.” From next year, Vidya Vanam plans to have a vocational stream as well. “These children should not think that the next step has to be a BA or an MA in a faraway college. They can also be an entrepreneur and earn a living in their village.” I asked if she thought her students, with their relatively late initiation into the world of examinations, would be able to handle CBSE question papers. “That is one question that has been bugging me quite a bit,” she said. “But I think we need to give them the freedom of learning up to Class VII. Today, they are not afraid of expressing themselves. I need that self-confidence in them before they can take an exam, and that has been built up over the years.” I asked her how she thought her students would fare in the board exams. “Of course they will succeed,” she said. After a pause, she added, “We may not have state rankers but we will definitely do very well.”