“Dad, why is being sent to the Principal’s office a bad thing?” Asks R Mahajan, my daughter, a fifth grader at the Chirag School.
“Where did you hear that, R Mahajan?”
“I read it in Calvin & Hobbes.”
“And I’ve heard it in Shin Chan and the other TV serials” chimes in A Mahajan, who also went to Chirag “Getting sent to the Principal’s office seems to be, like, the biggest punishment.”
“Well, there are certain schools where getting sent to the Principal’s office is a bad thing.” I answer.
“How can getting sent to the principals office be a bad thing? Sumit Da is so much fun. How is that punishment?”
“Well, the Principal may scold you.”
R thought for a while “But Principals don’t scold. Sunil Bhaiya or Rinku di never scolded us. And Sumit Da…” she smiled “…I don’t think he can scold. I would love to be sent to Sumit Da’s office. It would be so much fun! So why is being sent to the Principal’s office a bad thing?”
“If you did something really bad, the principal may ask for your parents to visit the school.”
“But why is parents visiting the school such a bad thing?”
(A few days earlier)
“Papa, Hema didi today said that if we are not good and don’t do our work then we will be made to repeat class five.” Says R Mahajan.
“Oh really?” I ask.
“Yes, since then Mansi and Aru and I – actually the whole class has been plotting how to not be good. That way we can all be in Chirag for one more year.”
“But that’s not fair.” wails A Mahajan, who left the school last year. The Chirag school is only till grade 5 after which the kids have to move to other schools. A Mahajan is now being homeschooled. “They never had that at our time. If they had that option when I was in grade 5, I would have repeated 5 and would not have left Chirag.”
The above are real conversations we have had with our kids. Their school, the rural, hindi-medium Chirag School, truly shows what a “fear free” school should be. And the school delivers fabulous learning, which I wrote about here. The school succeeds because there is no fear. Not despite it’s absence.
The village school is a stereotype. We expect people from lower income families to send their kids there. The average class size is 40 or 50 kids. The teaching methodology is traditional rote learning so the academic performance is expected to be average at best. A teacher slapping a student raises no eyebrows. We don’t expect any changemakers coming from these schools. We expect future leaders to come out of the big city schools where the rich kids go.
The trouble with stereotypes, of course, is that they are often true.
Here, in our neighbourhood, we have a Hindi-medium village school. The monthly fees of just Rs. 150. As expected, people from lower income strata send their kids there. That is where the stereotype ends. The class size of 18 is smaller than Pathways. The personal attention and involvement with each child is intense. The school follows a fear-free, experiential education methodology which many city schools tout but few deliver. The kids in this school are not scolded. They ask any question they want – their teachers patiently lead the child to the answer or encourage them to find it. Consequently, the kids are fearless and learn because they still feel a sense of wonder about the world. Their schooling hasn’t taken a toll on their curiosity.
This is the Chirag school – a great example of what schooling can and should be. Many highly-reputed schools in the city started off like this – as alternative schools with a beautiful vision. What kills them is growth – they scale at the expense of that vision. By the time they add that sixth section to grade 2, they have become one-size-fits-all factories.
But Chirag chooses to stay small, with only one section to each class. It is no surprise that the Chirag school has an academic record which stands the stereotype of the village school on its head. Measuring learning is controversial in the least, and a big exam is amongst the worst ways to do it. Unfortunately, it is the method the whole country follows. The kids from Chirag also have to adapt to the “outside world” after grade 5, so they take exams like the Navodaya exam.
While the privileged city kids have never heard of Navodaya, it is a big deal in the village. The Navodaya schools are government-run boarding schools from grades 6-12. They are completely free, including the tuition, boarding and lodging. Admission is based on an entrance test. Rural parents aspire to these schools, but since many kids are first generation learners the parents have no way to prepare the child for such an exam.
That is where the Chirag teachers come in. As I mentioned in my previous blog about the school, the true stars here are not the students, but the teachers. Molded in the Krishnamurti tradition over the past 10 years,
the teachers have commitment levels comparable to, say, a McKinsey consultant. They are as good at their work, but their motivators are different. These teachers are driven by their concern for their students. There is no personal glory or money or growth for doing extra work. But they take amazing pride in their students’ success. Two teachers volunteered to teach the grade 5 students through the one month winter break to ensure they do their best in the Navodaya entrance exam. Here at 6000 feet, winters are bone chilling. But the teachers and students turned up every day through the winter for the extra classes.
The Navodaya entrance exam is tough. For every 100 kids who take the exam, two kids are accepted (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jawahar_Navodaya_Vidyalaya#Admission). 4 of the 17 fifth-graders who appeared from Chirag were accepted. That is an acceptance rate of 24% against the national average of 2%. The Chirag kids are similar to other kids that take the exam. Only their education differs. Chirag school pulls this off with modest infrastructure but the right philosophy and approach. This result is testament to all that is right with this school.
Another great story is that of Jiya.
Every Independence Day the kids at Chirag put up a play for the community. This year was special because of Jiya (name changed). Jiya is a child who has different needs. She
enrolled in school at age six and hadn’t spoken a word until then. Chirag happily accepted her – “inclusive” is a philosophy here. With persistent support from her teachers and a lot of love and care from her classmates, Jiya slowly started adjusting to school. She spoke her first words after a couple of years of joining school. So imagine the joy Jiya brought when she performed on stage for the first time despite her social anxiety. She nailed all her lines. Most heartwarming was the applause she received backstage from her teachers and friends.
But the Chirag school needs support to survive and grow. If the above stories inspire you, please help. There are two ways in which you can.
The school is partly funded by the Chirag NGO, but depends in large part on the support of well-wishers like you. If you could like to make a contribution to the school, please donate at www.chiragschool.org .
The Principal of the school – Sumit Arora – will be leaving in March of 2019. He is brilliant, down-to-earth, methodical and a leader. He has transformed many aspects of the school. He has brought the morale of his team to a new high. To fill in his shoes, we are looking for candidates who might be interested in leading this outstanding primary school in the beautiful Kumaon Himalayas. This school requires intense work and this should not be seen as a retirement posting. If you know someone who you think may fit the bill, please connect with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(The author, Chetan Mahajan, is the parent of two Chirag students. He was the former chairman of the School Management Committee of Chirag, and continues to be deeply involved with the school. Before moving to the village, he was in leadership roles in various education companies including a Gems group subsidiary. He last role was the CEO of HCL Learning Ltd. He has visited some 1000 schools over the last decade.
One reason he left the city was his disillusionment with corporate India, which includes the business of education. He touched upon this in his recent TEDx talk ).
(Quote from Britannia Cafe, Ballard estate, Mumbai)
We had just come off a hectic six week spell of guests and visitors. Then suddenly, there was calm. The last guests checked out*. R’s school went on break.
“A” decided on celebrating the quiet with a “Family day” so we cuddled, played board games and badminton, and generally spent the whole day together. “A” improvised a pretty fancy lunch from leftovers, and gave each of us a “review sheet”. Vandita and R gave him 5 stars + so he complained about unfair parenting when I gave his lunch “only” 4.5 stars.
I also had my own surprise planned for that evening. I intended to grill some chicken for the kids. Fresh chicken isn’t readily available around here, so I called the meat shop in Bhowali (30 km away) and asked him to hand over 1 kg of chicken to the bus that comes up everyday. 3 hours later we met the bus at it’s usual time, but the driver said no one had given him any chicken. A call to Bhowali confirmed that our supplier had forgotten.
The backup was to check at our big neighbourhood grocer Kapil store – locally referred to as the WalMart. His deep-freezer can be unreliable, so I was delighted that he actually had some frozen chicken available. We proceeded to thaw and marinate the chicken. The grill I have is an ancient Weber from my days in the US, carried back from Chicago only because I was entitled to half a container as part of my transfer to India.
So we lit some coal in the grill and sat out in the balcony. It was windy and getting the fire going was a struggle. Both the kids were willing volunteers helping me with everything. We were out of matches so R repeatedly lit the candle from the gas. A went and found some dry kindling, and so on. (The purist in me refuses to use kerosene or other flammables.) The fire finally caught. We played Uno sitting on a durree on the balcony as we waited for the coals to turn red. The air was nippy and soon blankets were brought out and we sat together snuggled in blankets playing uno under the dim balcony light.
My amateur attempts at grilling meant a delayed dinner. But soon an almost full moon rose over the ridge of the local reserve forest, and things went from beautiful to surreal. A simple dinner of grilled chicken and bread was eaten with much relish as we watched the moon wink it’s way in and out of the clouds. It was another lovely evening.
It made me remember the time I served in the city, and all the opportunities we had lost. I don’t remember ever having seen a moonrise, or ever having spent an entire day as a family on an activity list made by the kids.
I was glad to be here, even if a few years late. It made me think about the price we pay for our dreams. Made me wonder about the tradeoff between money & happiness, and the habits we find so hard to break. It also reminded me of a beautiful Lao Tzu quote.
“If you don’t change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”
I’m glad I did.
* The place referred to here is quietplace.in , a specialty home stay run by the author in the Indian Himalayas.
“Our 2nd graders reading is seven times better than the national average.” Said the principal.
“Seven percent, you mean?” I corrected gently.
“No seven times.” He said, reeling out some data*.
But how can a Hindi medium village school where the teachers don’t even raise their voice pull this off?
The Chirag school started as a unique experiment. Could kids from a village learn in a fear-free environment? If rote learning was replaced by experiential learning, wouldn’t the villagers resist it? Could the principles of J Krishnamurti – which work so well in schools like Rishi Valley – also work in a no-frills rural school?
Today, ten years on, the experiment has been an unbelievable success. Chirag’s kids are an incurably curious and fearless lot. Their parents love the school and it’s method of instruction. The school outdoes state and national measures on all academic metrics (*see data points below).
I was at a parents meeting at the school last month, and there was some mention of the school going beyond grade 5. A parent whose kids had moved out of Chirag to another school (after grade 5) said she would pull the kids out of the current school and put them back in a heartbeat. After the meeting, another parent confided in me about how that lady in the early days was the one who always pushed for more homework from the school. But after her kids blossomed at Chirag, she clearly values it’s non-rote teaching methods now.
Chinmaya Vempati is a 16 year old intern from Bangalore who helped set-up an offline version of Khan Academy, KA Lite, at the Chirag School. He shared his experience here.
Chirag’s ability to attract and retain great teaching talent has made it a fabulous place to learn. Sumit Arora, 30, is a great example. An SRCC graduate with a Masters from Azim Premji University, he could be anywhere.
But he chooses to lead this amazing little school. And inspires everyone around him. Beth, the former assistant principal at the American Embassy School, volunteers full-time at Chirag.
The teachers at Chirag are driven. We saw a great example this month. Since the Chirag School is only till grade 5, kids have to switch to other schools in grade 6. The most coveted is the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya – a government run chain of residential schools which are almost free. The Navodaya entrance exam – with a pass rate of 2% (Link here) – is on Feb 4, 2018. Chirag has its annual vacation through January. Two Chirag teachers volunteered to help the kids prepare for the Navodaya entrance through the vacation. Both of them came to school everyday of January – including Saturdays. They did this free – for their students and their beliefs, not for money. Since Chirag kids are not used to exams, the teacher’s support was critical. Almost the whole of grade 5 turned up on most days through the semi-polar January. No wonder Chirag kids do exceptionally well in this exam.
For a school which is able to deliver all this, the Chirag School runs on a tiny budget. The holistic, progressive education of a child in the Chirag School costs Rs. 24,000 per year. With 122 kids, that is an annual budget of 30 lakhs. Most parents can pay precious little. The Chirag organization has been supporting the school 100%. But that support is now diminishing because of internal priorities at the NGO. The school needs money. It is raising funds for the next two years, and has also set-up an endowment fund.
My kids go to Chirag. I was heading the School Management Committee (SMC) for two years. I can vouch for the school and everything is delivers. In fact, Chirag is the reason we chose to live in these parts when we decided to leave Gurgaon for the mountains.
Please support this amazing school. You can learn more about the school and find payment links at www.chiragschool.org.
* Data points : 94.1% of Chirag’s class 2 students can read at grade level as compared to the national average of 13.4%. Over 94% of children in class 5 can do simple division as compared to the national average of 25.9%. (National data from ASER 2016)
Something isn’t right about what this little girl wants from her life. I googled the lyrics. Nowhere does anyone ask for happiness.
It got me thinking about last evening. I was at the Sonapani Music festival surrounded by amazing people. None of them were particularly rich – and if they were it certainly wasn’t on display. They were all beautiful in my eyes. Not pretty in the TV – bollywood – painted faces way. They were all lovely in their real skins, and amazingly talented. The women were beautiful because they didn’t need Maybelline to tell them that they were worth it.
I also spent the last month with four Ashoka Fellows. I have been working with them as part of a writing retreat, which required me to understand their work and their stories. The more I learned, the more I admired them. Each one of them is working to change something big, and has already achieved some measure of success.
These two very different groups don’t live by the lyrics of Que Sera Sera. Neither of them
goes in search of wealth and good looks. They don’t care much how pretty, handsome or rich they are. The amazing artists at Sonapani – Harpreet, Moushumi, Shruthi & Shruteendra care about their art. They care about the world and all that is right and wrong with it. And that is captured in the beauty of their poetry and music.
Another line of “Que Sera Sera” the Ashoka Fellows don’t buy into is “what will be will be”. They look at what is, find what’s wrong with it, and work to fix it. They are not closed in their thinking. Not negatively invested in their particular organizations. They want change to happen – by whatever means. So they encourage others including their own employees to create organizations like their own. The corporate world calls that competition. The Ashoka fellows don’t resist this competition – they encourage it.
One thing common to all these people is that they have realized early on in life that happiness will not come from money or looks. They believe it will come from some form of personal fulfillment. It could be art. Or Music. Or Poetry. Or doing something truly meaningful with their lives. In their own way each of these people makes the world a better place.
And then I meet people in other walks of life – especially in the corporate world. I meet the many people who completely believe that wealth is a proxy for happiness. The difference is stark. What strikes me is that many people never make a conscious choice. They take the default path set by society without question. The few who consciously choose business thrive in it and love that too.
No, I am not advocating poverty. I am simply saying that before your children ask for “pretty & rich” make sure they ask for “happy”.
It’s not the same thing.
*Talking about song lyrics, I also think they need to officially change the lyrics to one song. “She’s a jolly good fellow” has to be the new anthem. Three of the four Ashoka fellows I worked with were women.
Poopkund. That’s what Roopkund is called when three of your fellow trekkers are between 9 and 10 years in age. The hordes of trekkers heaving their way to vast campsites which have taken over every level spot make that name more real.
We did this trek in early October and the weather was perfect. Ashish, a close friend, does such treks professionally and arranged everything. We had our own food, provisions, and staff. We hired six mules. Five to carry our material & packs. One mule was dedicated for my daughter R who loves animals. R had come on the condition that she would ride a mule.
This was the most ambitious trek we had attempted with kids – it’s highest point was 15750 feet. We had three kids in our group – R and AS, both 9, and AM who is 10. Every day of our trek was different and interesting.
Day 1: Drive to Wan village
We drove to Wan and stayed at the Paras hotel, about the only place in town. It was basic
and clean, but the kids named it the Kabristan (Cemetery) hotel.
Day 2: Hike from Wan to Bedni Bugyal
The trek starts with a gentle ascent, and a short downhill to a lovely stream. After that it is a steep climb. The total ascent that day was some 3500 feet. After 10 km we reached Ghairoli Patal. It was a pretty place and not too busy. In hindsight, we should’ve camped there even though it had less of a view. But we were on a schedule, and so we headed on to Bedni Bugyal. Bedni Bugyal was overrun with fixed campsites operated by outfits like Trek the Himalayas & Indiahikes. We liked the Indiahikes people and they also helped us in a tight spot. But we didn’t like what these companies were doing to the place with this volume of trekkers.
At the end of the day R & AS were fine but AM complained about aching feet. At one point that night tossing and turning in his sleeping bag he asked me “Why did we come on this stupid trek?”
Day 3: Bedni Bugyal to Pather Nachani
We started walking after a leisurely breakfast. This day was a short (5 km) uphill walk and the gradient was gentle. We reached Pather Nachani by lunchtime. We had planned less walking on day 3 & 4 because we were reaching higher campsites in short distances – Pather Nachani was over 13000 ft. We didn’t want to push for longer distances to ensure everyone acclimatizes well.
The shorter walk also helped AM recover. On reaching camp, after a brief rest all three kids were busy playing their games and running around.
We met Anuja at a chai shop in Pather Nachani. She was an Indiahikes staff member
and she was very curious about how the kids were doing. When she learnt that this was their first trek at this height, she handed me a whole strip of Diamox. We were blown away by her generosity and concern.
The main campsite at Pather Nachani was small and crowded. Our guide knew of another site further up the hill and it was a better place to stay for the night. Our campsite offered an amazing view of Chaukhamba.
The next morning we woke up to frost and below freezing temperatures.
Day 4 : Pather Nachani to Bhagwabasa
The alleged 5 k hike felt like less. The GPS said 3k, but with frequent patches without satellite signal. Not too reliable. This day’s walk started with a steep ascent. Once we reached the Shiv temple and two tea shops, the trail leveled off to a pretty & easy walk. The view from the temple was amazing – provided you have clear skies. Trishul and Nanda Ghunti loomed over us, austere and aloof in their snow capped glory. It was a great reminder of my own pathetic ego and mortality.
Bhagwabasa was yet another busy campsite, and water was hard to find. We had sent an advance party to grab a good campsite, while the rest of the group followed later. The advance party – two ultra fit women and our guide – were the luckiest because they got a clear open view of the big mountains.
As camp was being set up, we came again to the pit loos. The art of digging a pit loo was something Ashish’s crew learnt on the job. The first campsite had the pit so wide it felt like the morning dump and morning yoga were combined. The crew kept getting better with each new campsite. When the pit loo was dug in Bhagwabasa, we all saw Ashish do a tryout squat at the trench even before the tent was put up. Fortunately, he kept his pants on. That’s when we realized just how anal he is about customer service.
Bhagwabasa was freezing. Kids being kids insisted on running around without gloves and a hat. Earlier in the trek, the kids (and some adults) had complained of the occasional headaches and painful limbs, but they had all recovered on their own. But that evening, R threw up three times in a row. We panicked – our biggest fear in this trip was Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). (Learn more at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Altitude_sickness). Headaches and vomiting are both symptoms of AMS. One of the best ways to tackle AMS is to lose height. I immediately decided to put R on a mule and head down to Pather Nachani. But the mules and Mule-walas had all gone down to the valley so that the mules could graze and be warmer. They would only return the next morning.
I then headed to the India Hikes campsite to seek out their trek leader – a young man named Dushyant. He had stopped by our campsite at Pather Nachani that morning. An exceedingly nice person, he had asked about how the kids were doing, and had offered to help in any way required. At Bhagwabasa – after I told him R’s symptoms – Dushyant immediately walked back to our camp with me.
He had an oximeter – a tiny device which clamps on a finger. He told me that the Oximeter indicates the blood saturation level and is a good indicator of AMS. When we reached the campsite he chatted with R for a bit, and then took her saturation level. It was well above the minimum of 85. Then everyone in the camp had their saturation levels checked. Safe in the knowledge that nobody had AMS, we all slept.
R had a decent dinner, kept it down, and insisted that she would walk upto Roopkund the next day (mules don’t do the last 3k).
That night – or early next morning – we heard many groups pass by chanting stuff like “Ganpati Bappa Moriya” and “Har Har Mahadev”. My spiritual Himalayas had turned religious.
Day 5 : Bhagwabasa – Roopkund & Junar Gali – Bhagwabasa – Pather Nachani
We started off for Roopkund around 7 AM. Most groups had left at 4. The alleged reason was that you got a clear view of the big mountains from up there. I think it was also because it gave the camping companies enough time to get everyone down to Pather Nachani the same day.
But even at seven the temperature was 00C. The kids were cold, and R (who almost changed her mind about walking up) kept whining about how hard it was and how cold her fingers and toes were. I put her in an extra layer, had her tuck one hand into her underarm, and held her other hand in both of mine. Even then, she was cold. After a while the sun came out and she was warmer, but the whining continued about how difficult the climb was.
Vandita (R’s mother) turned around and told her “R, the constant whining doesn’t help you climb. You have to make up your mind and then act on it. You have to decide what you want to do, and do it for yourself. Just like when you decided you wanted to learn to swim. You inhaled water, you coughed and choked, and finally you learned how to swim. You had decided. This climb is the same way. You have to decide that you want climb the mountain, and then do it. The constant whining doesn’t help – it only makes it harder for you.”
It worked. R was energized after that, and went the rest of the way without a peep. A few places she stopped and took breaks, and said she was tired. But it was factual, and not whining.
The thin air made the climb to Roopkund harder. The last half km was the most gruelling. AM also had a slow climb. All the hikers coming down from the lake would say complimentary things to the kids. At one point AM saw a large group of trekkers descending towards us and said “Ab phir thank you bolna pade ga.” (Another round of thank you’s to be said.)
The rock star was Ashish’s son, AS. He’s only 9 but walked effortlessly without any signs of fatigue. Only on the final lake ascent did he display the smallest weakness – probably because of the altitude.
Roopkund itself was anticlimactic – more a puddle than a lake. AM gave it one glance and said “This is what we walked 4 days for?”. Junar Gali is a path going further up to the ridge beyond the lake. AM & I stopped at the lake itself, but Vandita and R went up to Junar Gali. They said the view from there was magnificent.
The walk down was as treacherous as the uphill was hard because of loose rock and scree. We made it down to Pather Nachani and decided to call it a day.
Day 6: Pather Nachani to Wan & drive home
Wan was a walk of 17 k – all downhill. It played hell on the knees and toenails to do it in one shot, but we were keen to get back in a hurry.
We reached Wan by lunchtime and drove out. Although we would reach home late in the night, it was much more inviting than another night at the Kabristan hotel.
Our Roopkund experience was great and terrible. The nature was great, the crowds were terrible. In future, before planning any trek I will check the websites of Trek the Himalayas, Youth Hostels Association and India Hikes. I will skip all treks that have fixed date departures on these sites and look for something less mainstream.
*Please note that the kids who went on this trek all live at an altitude above 6000 feet where they run up and down slopes all the time. They’ve all done easier treks like Pindari before.
This is about the Himalayan blogging and podcasting retreat but it is not an advertisement. I am going to tell my personal experience at my dad’s retreat. OK, where do I start? I should start with the bad things first. I don’t know about the rooms I have not stayed there. As a 10-year-old, I got super bored. The wifi was not good and the light went often.
Now let me tell you about the good things like food and more food and also people. Okay, so food. They have good food and if you’re lucky you might also get a barbecue. I was lucky by the way that’s how I know. If you want to know more about the retreat then go to the writing retreat website at www.himalayanwritingretreat.com. So to tell you about the people – there were 10 people who were attending the retreat. Two hosts – my dad
and Kiruba uncle. He also has a blog. And I liked the guy who wrote about iHeart café. iHeart is my favorite cafe in this area. There was also my boring cousin sister Shruti didi and Manoj uncle who owns the place where the retreat was happening and he does the barbecue.
In the retreat I also committed to a 50-day plan – in 10 days I had to write a blog and that’s what this is.
That’s about it for the blogging and podcasting retreat. I forgot Podcasting was also there but it was boring.
About Anhad Mahajan: Anhad is an animator who has published his own comic book titled “Nature Heroes”. He is in grade five, and is currently recovering from a broken leg. That setback allows him free access to most of the events organized by his parents under the Himalayan Writing Retreat banner.