A courageous classroom culture
Chintan Girish Modi
Present these statements to your students. Write them up on a blackboard, or project them on to a screen, or have them printed out on A4 size sheets. Ask them to underline every statement they believe in.
- A hero has in abundance all that I lack.
- A hero is someone I look up to.
- A hero is born with extraordinary powers.
- A hero is loved by all.
- A hero is someone I would love to be like but do not have the guts to.
- A hero is my escape into a fantasy world.
- A hero has to overcome several obstacles.
- A hero is destined to be great.
- Nothing and no one can harm a hero.
- A hero has to sacrifice personal happiness for the greater good.
- A hero reminds me what I am capable of.
- A hero has impossibly high standards, and is forever lonely.
Now divide the class into small groups or pairs, depending on the strength or what works best in your context. Invite them to discuss the statements with each other, sharing why they believe in some statements and not in others. Encourage them to think of this as an exercise that is meant to help them appreciate diverse perspectives. Therefore, there is no compulsion to think of a particular answer as the correct or desirable one.
After a brief discussion, ask the whole class if they would like to add any new statements, or modify existing ones. Invite them to move from the abstract to the concrete, and name the heroes they have been thinking of. These could be people they know, folk heroes, fictional characters, mythological personalities, religious figures, celebrities, inspiring leaders, superheroes, etc.
It is important that you make them feel comfortable speaking about their hero. Sharing freely in a learning space is an act of courage, and they should understand that they need not feel judged for who they think of as a hero. In fact, a session like this can help students learn about each other’s aspirations, fears, strengths, and challenges. If they listen carefully to each other, they can even think of ways to support and nurture each other.
As an educator, here is a wonderful opportunity for you to get rich insights into your students’ private worlds – what they value, who they would like to emulate, what they are struggling with, etc. It would also be interesting to learn how they got introduced to these heroes in the first place – family, school, peers, media, etc.
Mushtaq Ul Haq Ahmad Sikander, who teaches at Girls High School, Pandrathan, Srinagar, says, “Heroism is achieving extraordinary feats with passionate endeavours accompanied by vigorous discipline. Since Kashmir is a disputed territory, and our educational policies are flawed, very little is taught about our heroes and our history. In my classes, however, I do talk about heroes like Nund Rishi, Lal Ded, Habba Khatoon, Yusuf Shah Chak, Subhan Hajam, Allama Iqbal, Mahatma Gandhi and Bhagat Singh.”
“I teach my students that human beings can achieve great feats. The heroic acts that students can do are to volunteer in community activities, and to inculcate the habit of charity. Both these are qualities we direly need in Kashmir, especially among our youth.”
The heroes mentioned by Sikander belong to different time periods, and represent different ideologies. Some draw spiritual sustenance from them, others draw intellectual rigour, and political conviction. Do you think of these individuals as heroes? Have any of them popped up in your curriculum or your conversations with students?
Joan Serra Montagut, founder of SOM Editorial Colectiva, a non-profit organization that aims to promote reading among youth in Mexico and Latin America, says, “Heroism is a daily attitude. It is related to peace, and with dialogue and equality. We can all feed on it if we open our hearts and understand that we are all the same heart, that we need each other. Being a hero involves destroying all the false scenarios and masks that our civilization has built to create walls between people. Our world is full of heroes that suffer marginalization and injustice. Schools and non-formal educational institutions must give them an opportunity to expand their voices.
SOM Editorial Colectiva runs Proyecto Ja’ab, a project that engages youth in civic issues, learning about their Mayan heritage, and taking responsibility for social change through the production of books that are collaborative efforts by hundreds of youth in 12 different cities. These books are made available in public libraries, and they not only promote reading but a celebration of young people’s freedom of expression and their creative potential.
“As an educator, I try to get the students to reinforce their own internal hero. A class of 30 students is a class of 30 potential heroes, 30 potential change makers and peace builders, 30 seeds of social change,” says Montagut.
“The hero must feel that someone is listening to the message they are spreading. Sometimes, they feel apathetic or afraid because they don’t find spaces to express themselves and open their hearts. Our schools need to create platforms for these students. The catharsis experienced by them can generate strong heroes. It can help develop confidence in their own abilities to make change.”
Jayshree Murali, who is a member of the Academic Committee at VIDYA Mumbai, an organization that runs education programmes for children and youth from urban slum communities, has an approach similar to Montagut’s while talking about heroism. To her, it is a quality that resides not only in a chosen few but in every individual.
“As an organization, it is essential for us that every child feels empowered. We do not want anyone to feel pity for them, to think of them as a poor little slum kid. They have their own dignity. They have it in them to script their own destiny. They are leaders in their own right, and can teach us a thing or two,” she says, while recalling William Ernest Henley’s famous poem ‘Invictus,’ which ends with these lines: “I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul.”
Another way to think about heroism is through the lens offered by Vikramjeet Sinha, a storyteller and performing arts facilitator from Delhi who runs Building On Art Therapy (BOAT) – an organization that works with children and youth to explore status, power, choices, conflict, gender, memories, rituals, patterns, and dreams, among other aspects of their being.
Last year, he worked with the senior school students at Heritage School, Gurgaon, on a play that delved into the life of a student who is bullied at school, and has a dream wherein he encounters characters from the epic Mahabharata.
“In the context of this play, my students and I looked at the notion of the quest,” says Sinha. “The seeker is the one who asks questions. The heroic is the jump into the unknown – to take a stand, to ask why, to challenge the status quo. My students and I talked about the hero as a risk taker, a dreamer who is not complacent but restless, and often wounded in some way. This leads to the call for an adventure, either through a project or the creative risk of playing a character that will create vulnerability. After all, being on stage is an act of visibility that creates vulnerability.”
Now, if this is the definition we latch on to – the hero as risk taker – what are the risks you are willing to take as a teacher? Think of this question in terms of your pedagogic choices, your presence in the classroom, how you relate to students, your approach to assessment, how you resolve conflicts between students, your struggles with school policies, the initiatives you are dying to take but are afraid to, and the things you want to say but are reluctant to.
Invite your students to share the risks they are willing to take, and why. Are there risks they feel confident to take on their own, and risks that they can take only if they are assured of support from someone else? Would they like you, as their teacher, to model risk-taking behaviour before they can take the plunge? Engaging with these questions honestly can go a long way in building a courageous classroom culture.
The author conducts creative writing, peace education and gender sensitization workshops with students and teachers. He consults with UNESCO’s Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.