Published: 02nd July 2018
This Kerala school is using untraditional methods to bring tribal students into the mainstream
The couple behind Gothrathalam speak about teaching without the constraints of rules and the future of education
A small, unassuming shed stands outside Sudhi Nammayan and Mini MR's house. The previous day's lessons remain through the partially wiped out chalk marks on the walls as the make-shift tarpaulin curtains flutter in the wind and parts right at the centre, inviting us to this new realm of learning. More than 20 km from Thiruvananthapuram, this house sits in Kanjiramkulam where a school was born simply out of a couple's desire to change the world around them. Christened Gothrathalam, it began with music, dance and a celebration of tribal traditions and art.
For years, children from the neighbourhood aged between 4 to 14 would gather outside Sudhi's house to perform plays and sing folk songs. However, it was when Sudhi married Mini MR from Wayanad that they jointly headed towards setting up a school. They decided to set up that small, unassuming shed that stands outside their house.
Class act: The school has been set up in a shed outside their house
"In all honesty, we are basically just the oldest students in this school," laughs Sudhi, "We are changing so much through this process. When you teach these children, you learn more than you teach." And a first — the school has very strict regulations against rules of any form. They use a set of activities, music and tasks to teach students what a set of textbook never could. He goes on, "On Saturdays and Sundays, we bring in professionals from various fields to teach our students. We have been graced by actors and directors who teach them drama or professional artists to teach them art. We give them everything they miss out on when they go to their actual schools the next day."
Mini nods in agreement. Having studied in Kanavu Gurukulam, a similar school set up by writer and theatre personality KJ Baby and his wife Shirly in Wayanad, Mini wanted to bring the same freedom of knowledge to her new home in Thiruvananthapuram. She says, "I learnt among students who come from a lot of poverty and they face so many issues when it comes to education. And these are the students who are offered the worst. I myself had to deal with the same issues. Many students drop out before they've had the chance to learn and they have various reasons to do it — an unfamiliar language, family issues, an inability to communicate with others."
Any institution has some form of rules and regulations. But we rejected all of that and completely did away with the idea of a timetable. We have teachers and professionals who come in at a given moment and they just start teaching. None of it follows a certain order because it is simply about the children and what they take away
Sudhi Nammaya, Teacher, Gothrathalam
"Malayalam is a strange language to many and to suddenly be instructed in it is very hard for these students," Mini continues, "Many of them are working daily wage jobs as well. There is no one to support them. There are a few government hostels, but they are in extremely poor conditions. Some students go back home as patients. The teachers look at these students and brand them as 'stupid' or 'slow' and force them to the back benches. I was a part of Kanavu from the very beginning and it changed the way I saw everything. It is a type of teaching that does not discriminate between students and teachers. They teach using art and artforms more than anything else. It is a whole other world."
After she moved to Thiruvananthapuram, Mini found that education among the Vedar community in the district was severely lacking. She decided to adopt all that she had learnt into the drama school her husband had started in their neighbourhood. In 2012, their endless conversations became a reality and students found a place in their backyard. "Now, Gothrathalam is properly based on education," says Sudhi, "What we do is focus on everything. If we find even a trace of a talent that a student could possess, we try to help them develop it."
Learning to fly: The school focuses on learning through practical lessons
"Something that we actually focus on is languages. Reading and writing Malayalam is very difficult for some kids here. Even if they learn from us, there can be a lot of mistakes, even in the way they speak," explains Sudhi, "To counter this, we make them learn through odd tasks and music. We bring the language to them and they learn it without realising it. I believe this is one area in which we've really succeeded." Although most of their students already go to school, the couple has learnt that most of what the students learn does not really register.
In this special space they have built, the teachers and students have grown to share a special relationship. Mini excitedly recollects one of her favourite methods of teaching, "We use stories. Just a few days ago, we made the students act out the story of The Rabbit and the Tortoise. Students assumed various roles and they learnt simply by speaking as the characters. And we wrote the words they used on the blackboard. They naturally end up learning so much; and all that through art! If there is a word that a student can't find, we simply give it to them."
And if you happen to pass by the school someday, do not be taken aback by the sounds of students selling fish. It is nothing but an improvised spoken English lesson for older students who struggle with the language. "We let them take as long as they need, but by the end of it, they would have surely learnt more than anyone expects of them," says Sudhi. For a few students who struggle to travel by public transport due to the fear of confrontation, the school provides a push by actually encouraging them to travel by buses where they have to naturally bring themselves to speak.
Different cultures have different lifestyles and systems in place. How can we force communities to adapt to a system they cannot even begin to understand if we don't start from within the communities itself? It all starts with education. No one school can singlehandedly save a community; change comes with the students
Mini MR, Teacher, Gothrathalam
"We teach them through everyday life," says Mini. Sudhi adds, "Sometimes, we get these ideas in the middle of the night. It's an endless discussion between us about how we can keep giving these children the best we have to offer." And the response of the children has been overwhelming for the both of them. "When we first got children to come, they were terrified of the very idea of learning. They were so scared of us that they would hide behind each other. Today, they have the courage and confidence to speak anywhere without the trace of fear."
Sudhi adds, "We even have children teach each other here on occasion. They grow into teachers as they learn. It's an amazing process to watch, like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon." They lament the state of education these days, saying, "Children suffer because of this new competitive environment. Their very health is often ignored, they do not even get half of the sleep they deserve. Where is education headed? It's just about impressing other people. In our society, the worst thing they see is a bad report card and the more students are taught this, the less they are able to see what is actually important. We cannot let education become a drawn-out contest that nobody really wins." After everything is done and dusted, their faces light up as they prepare to welcome their students inside for the day. Let's exit the class for now with the hope that this is exactly where education is headed.