Making sense of civics

Manisha Jadhav

When we started Aksharnandan, we first had to revisit the notion of education, only then could we conceive the framework of the school. Some of our major founding principles are as follows: the medium of instruction should be a regional language, education must be child-centred and yet open to new ideas, it must employ pedagogical tools that are close to life, meaningful yet enjoyable, it must be a school that emphasizes on cooperation over competition, and a school that instills in its students empathy and care towards the environment.

We have been continuously striving to maintain these founding principles. We expect our students to have a wide vision and maturity to become responsible members of the society and we believe that teachers, parents and the society have a role in providing students the opportunity to do so.

How is civics generally looked at as a subject?
A subject with a mere weightage of 10-15 marks. A subject that is boring and provides uninteresting information. A subject that talks about ideals disconnected from reality and expects a student to write exams by mugging up answers based on lifeless chapters. A subject that requires remembering the framework and responsibilities of local self-governance bodies that a student has neither seen nor experienced, while memorizing the rights and duties of citizens. But the worst part is how it’s taught. Constrained by textbooks, chalks, blackboard and classroom teaching, civics is confined to the four walls of the classroom.

How does Aksharnandan look at this subject?
The scope of the subject is very wide and deep. Children learn socio- political systems as well as value-education in civics. If we want them to understand, accept and then adopt the guiding principles of the school and the Constitution of India – such as guaranteeing individual freedom, equality of opportunity regardless of caste, religion, gender and economic strata, respecting diversity, being sensitive towards diverse lifestyles and environmental interdependencies, dignity of labour – a classroom only approach will not work.

Children observe and internalize values from their experiences in school through all subjects and activities as well as through their surroundings and the behaviour of the adults around them. Hence, the environment needs to be complementary. Children have the wish and the ability to understand the realities of the world. Here at Aksharnandan, we take the opportunity to go beyond textbooks into the world outside and also bring the outside world into the school whenever possible. We do activities that increase their sensitivity and sense of responsibility.

The subject is planned with the objective of making the children face life with the confidence they gain through experiences, preparing them to take care of themselves and the society and making them ready to take on leadership roles. We discuss with teachers who teach other subjects how they can incorporate these objectives in learning/teaching their subjects.

We discuss this later in the article.

Teachers at Aksharnandan understand the significance of civics and add complementary exercises at all stages right from the pre-primary years. Some experiences and exercises are repeated at various stages depending on the students’ age and maturity. For example, in an exercise to understand the nature of work and lives of people who ensure that our lives run smoothly, 4th class students meet an elderly vegetable vendor, 8th class students meet a porter and 9th class students meet a rag picking lady.

Accept diversity and imbibe the value of equality
When studying history, 4th class students learn the attributes of Shivaji as well as Aurangzeb. When they study about Shivaji’s Mudra (the royal seal), they think about his policies that can be understood through the Mudra. Then they make a Mudra seal for Aksharnandan. That’s when they try and understand the policies and objectives of the school. They try to relate them to their own experiences.

Aksharnandan is a family with members from diverse backgrounds. Men, women, boys, girls of different castes and religions, rich and poor, handicapped and healthy, vegetarian and non-vegetarian, people who speak different languages at home, people who live in slums and in large gated communities, people who cook their food differently…. Children see this diversity reflecting in the school.

They make friends and help the differently-abled who study with everyone else in the school and learn a lot from each other. They sincerely listen to the experiences of their friends who are born to parents with disabilities. They see books written in Braille and also help in making these books.

We had a girl with cerebral palsy studying in the school. She was ever- smiling and talkative. In their farewell after 10th, her classmates said they learnt two things from her – one, that it is possible to not keep crying, but accept any type of disability bravely and lead a happy life and two, that they won’t be scared if such a child is born in their families.

A visually challenged parent had once come to talk about his field of study. Children saw books written in Braille at that time. They made a thank you note for him in Braille.

The school tries to bring in people from outside the school-world. Among the guests who visited the school on various occasions was a 9-year old boy from the Potraj* community. Children of classes 5 and 6 interacted with him and tried to understand his way of life which was different from theirs.

Lakshmibai, a waste picker from an organization called Kach-Kagad-Patra was the chief guest for the flag hoisting ceremony. On another occasion when college students from the North-East visited, 9th class students learnt about the geographical, social and political situation of that region from them.

Foreign visitors come often and children chat with them freely despite their limited knowledge of English. Once, a group from Europe had come and many of them could not speak English. This largely changed the image that the 4th class children had of English being a universal language!

Every year, 5th class students do projects on the states of India. For that they meet families from each state and learn about their traditional lifestyles directly from them.

Often, children narrate their experiences in the Saturday assembly. For example, a few kids who had been to Baba Amte’s Anandvan with their parents spoke about projects built to empower patients of leprosy. Children who had visited the Narmada valley described their experiences on topics such as problems of the displaced tribal communities and environmental issues.

Such things help naturally bring forth concepts of equality, acceptance of diversity and sensitivity.

In the class, students are encouraged to express various thoughts and viewpoints openly and respectfully. As educators, we make sure we listen to each one of them and make them realize what their decisions mean. For instance, when 8th class students watched the film ‘Gandhi’, some kids said that they don’t agree with the concept of non-violence and also explained why. Nobody scolded them and this was used as an opportunity for a discussion.

In the common space meant for 7th-10th classes, there is a box called ‘Setu’ (dialogue box). It provides the students an opportunity to give their suggestions, express their distress, disagreements, report unpleasant treatment by anyone in the school or ask questions. For instance, the school observes a five minute silence every day. Once a note in ‘Setu’ asked if this silence-time was applicable to the school principal as someone had heard her talk on the phone while the school was observing silence. The principal took due note of it.

We always welcome such questions. Adults get a chance to retrospect and also fill any gaps that are left out in the dialogue. Since the school believes that healthy communication is the basis of healthy relationships, it encourages students to express themselves (their grievances, thoughts, emotions) freely.

We conduct a regular exercise with class 9 students regarding this. The students who don’t get along are paired and asked to have a heart to heart talk for half an hour with each other. They are supposed to know about each other and report it in writing to the concerned teacher. These writings are the most revealing evidence of how communication helps build relationships. They get to know each other well. They realize that the prejudices they carried were unjust/ unfair. Such exercises develop more understanding and a humane perspective concerning relationships.

In order to understand the meaning of gender equality which is part of the syllabus for class 5, we discuss the current state of the society and various incidents that happen around us. But in addition to that children write about the advantages and disadvantages they have as a boy or a girl. The students also realize that girls need not be the only ones suffering. The narrow-mindedness of the society also suffocates the boys. At such times, boys and girls reflect on their experiences and emotions.

In line with the topic ‘Social Health’, 8th class students once participated in the ‘Don’t Spit’ initiative launched by the newspaper Sakal. Each student was supposed to give a note saying ‘Don’t Spit’ to any two people they saw spitting on the road. Students shared their experience of how scared and terrified they were of handing out notes to strangers. While some people who were given the notes reacted saying, ‘Mind your own business’, some said ‘Ok dear, won’t spit again!’.

The school takes every opportunity to inculcate environment friendliness among children. For instance, we celebrate Ganesh festival in school differently. The students make the Ganesh idol in school using soft soil. They don’t paint the idols. After the festival they immerse the idol in a bucket of water. Even the decoration materials used are environment friendly. We have observed that the students carry the message effectively outside the school. Some exercises and homework bring school topics home and when children behave as they learn, they even make their parents participate. Class 2 kids don’t let their parents jump signals ever since they went to the nearby traffic signal and observed. Children also remind their parents to take a cloth bag along to avoid plastic bags!

Assessment
In addition to questions from the textbooks, we also have questions which ask the children to think independently, express their views, relate their experiences, etc.

How is all this assessed?
Based on a few points, we give observational descriptions on how the child performed in the written test and how his/her response was throughout the year.

Points –
1) Are the concepts in the subject clear?
2) How do they interrelate the content they learn with their surroundings?
3) How do they present their thoughts?
4) How is their written presentation?
5) How is their class participation?
6) Are they socially responsible while in school?

Guests who visit the school or teachers from other schools often ask us, ‘How do you manage to teach civics like this in the limited time?’, ‘How do you finish the syllabus?’, ‘How do you help the teachers?’

Our answers are:

  • The group who started the school has very thoughtfully guided the teachers. A teacher should always remember that the curriculum is divided into subjects for convenience, but the subjects complement each other and hence should be integrated.
  • A civics teacher needs to connect exercises from other subjects to civics. This is the teacher’s skill.
  • If we limit ourselves to teaching the contents of the textbook, we can quickly finish it. Read the chapter, understand, mug up the answers and it is done! But if we put that content into action, participation and experiences, then the students will learn in the real sense.
  • When we have teachers’ meetings for a class, teachers of all subjects sit together and plan what parts of civics they can incorporate when teaching their subject and who will do what exercises at what point of time. Exercises are outlined based on what the chapters focus and emphasize. For example, as part of the 4th class Marathi chapter ‘I am proud of my mother’, the students were asked to talk to children of labourers. They spoke to a child of a railway platform sweeper. For 5th/6th class science chapter ‘Nutritious diet/Malnutrition’, a guest who works in Melghat (Adiwasi region) was invited to talk about malnutrition in children of Melghat.
  • Planning the arts and craft classes – These will obviously be activity based, but we link these to the subject. For example: Appeal to segregate dry and wet waste, pick waste in the surroundings, or write, direct and perform skits to understand the work of social reformers in history.
  • Moreover it is well understood by the teachers that while planning the timetable the lectures need not be straight-jacketed into subjects, flexibility of clubbing the lectures is necessary now and then.

If we are deeply aware of the pervasiveness of civics as a discipline then objectives become methods and we start honouring them. Learning and teaching civics then becomes a symbiotic and continuous process.

Note: This article was written by the author in Marathi and has been translated into English by Antara Gadgil. Antara works as a translator for an IT firm in Hyderabad.

*The Potraj Community (also called the Kadak Lakshmi nomadic tribe), travels from one temple to another, singing religious chants, playing the drums, dancing and violently flagellating themselves.

The author has been a teacher with Aksharnandan school for 20 years. She teaches science, geography and civics. She firmly believes that education is an effective medium for social transformations to take place. She can be reached at [email protected].

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