Connecting with nature in a virtual learning mode

R. V. Jayapadma

I work with a school. Switching to the online mode of learning last year was made all the more inadequate because it gave such an incomplete experience of what our school is about. A residential school in Varanasi situated at the confluence of  the Varuna and the Ganga rivers, in the midst of sprawling wooded areas and fields, where classes are often conducted outdoors, the interface through rectangular boxes on the screen hit us very bad.

While at school we had a routine every weekend, when we’d set out soon after sunrise or sometimes in the evening close to sunset, for a walk in the woods and fields and encounter birds of the season, regular inhabitants and visitors, insects, animals and others. There were over a dozen children who were regular. Satya Sir would lead the sessions and I was happy for the opportunity to join them. We’d be joined by others occasionally. Just before school closed in view of the COVID19 pandemic, we were visited by Dr.Shantaram, an avid birder, and for a week we were out in the morning and in the afternoon, learning from him, observing and recording. February and March are great that way with many migratory birds around, and we had an absolutely delightful time. From there to being closed in our homes, for many of us in apartment blocks, it was a rude shock.

View from a Gurgaon highrise

My room in my sister’s home in Gurgaon overlooks the central area of the apartment block which has an old silk cotton tree. In March, the flowers still abounded. The birds, as if knowing my angst at being uprooted from the lap of nature, decided to indulge me. On this tree I spotted the black kite in its nest, the yellow-footed green pigeon, spotted doves, rose ringed parakeets, among others, from the vantage of my window on the 8th floor. When it was safe to move around in our apartment block, there were more birds to be spotted in the green spaces and hedges, among them bulbul, sunbirds, Indian robin and magpie robin, roufus treepie, shikra, lapwing, sparrows, ashy prinia, black drongo, barbet, etc. The ubiquitous pigeon, mynah, crows and babblers were around in any case.

I compiled a set of facts of the birds commonly found in our apartment block and circulated it among residents, hoping to get them out of their homes and arouse their curiosity. With vehicular movement at a standstill it appeared the birds were more friendly, and gained confidence to roam around more conspicuously, or maybe we were more mindful and noticing them better now!

As summer progressed, we put out water baths near the hedges and also bird feeders at several places. Children took charge of refiling the bird feeders as needed.

Exploring the outdoors online!

In June, school reopened, but not quite! We were in the online mode. A month into classes, Satya and I decided to resume the ‘Birding’ sessions when the school was planning on conducting activity classes beyond the academic sessions. We pondered over how we would do it? At physical school, the lessons would evolve. We’d walk, listen, observe, talk minimally and share notes quietly if we observed something interesting. The talking usually happened at the end when we took stock, and marked attendance of birds as well as humans who attended the session!

We decided to call the session ‘Birds and Trees’. Over April and May, I had attended some of the sessions conducted by my friend, Garima Bhatia, who was with the Early Bird programme of the Nature Conservation Foundation, starting with one on ‘Balcony Birding’. Attending the session gave me confidence that we’d be able to connect with the students and provide the space for all of us to make connections with nature from where we were.

The Birds and Trees group now met in the virtual mode, every Wednesday afternoon for an hour. Some of the older students joined us, and some new ones came in.

 In the first session, we got to know from the children the different places they were located in (as we are a residential school, the children come from different places). To our surprise, or maybe not, children had not stepped out of their homes in over three months, and not really observed much from their balconies or terrace or windows!

I shared about the birds on the silk cotton tree that I had seen and Satya shared about a recent sighting of a butterfly emerging from the pupa. We asked the children to look around a bit (with proper safety precautions and adequate physical distancing), in and around their homes for insects, birds, trees and other sightings.

Since quizzes excite children, I shared a couple of pictorial quizzes to identify bird names. We had seen many of these birds at school, so there was a connect. This elicited some enthusiasm. Around the time, Raju Kasambe’s handy compilation of 100 common birds was also available online and children used that to find out more about these birds.

 In the next session,  the children  tentatively  shared the bird sightings they had, crows, pigeons, mynahs, etc. Some unique ones were seen, like the Himalayan Bulbul and Changeable Hawk. To know more of these birds we also introduced them to ebird by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Over two classes we then shared “Balcony Birding” by Early Bird, the session in which I had participated in April. Children were able to relate to the examples and triggers in the presentation and enjoyed the quiz. Their curiosity and interest was growing.

Connecting the dots

All the while we keep connecting with the nature of habitat and seasons and why we saw the birds we saw. We also decided to expand the scope a bit to know more about the geographies that the children came from. Each student then prepared and shared about something that was unique to the place they lived in. One student shared about the Betla National Park and Palamu Tiger Reserve that was not very far from where he lived. Another shared about an organic farm that his uncle worked on, while yet another student shared about the mud house he lived in. The stories were varied and interesting and helped the children connect and share about the places they lived in.

Satya who had been involved in a few bird rescues on the school campus shared about his experiences, and we explored why and how birds got injured and what one can do for them. In a dramatic event, a new born nilgai was eaten by a python and snakes became a talking point in one session.

The spirit we maintained was that we would keep connected with everyday events, so that nature was not something that we went looking for, but part of our everyday lives. In this spirit, the report on the State of Birds in India 2020 was also shared and discussed.

With interest around bird habitat, we next dived into the topic of ‘Ecology and Bird Behaviour’ through the material developed by Early Bird. Thanks to Garima, I had access to the presentations made by her during these sessions. The material was pitched just at the right level to generate interest among children, providing hitherto unknown information, and also in some cases opportunities where children could share their own understanding and experience. The discussion on this spanned two presentations as well. 

Tracking bird flights and migration became another topic of interest and discussion over September and we delighted in the Onon cuckoo’s flight from Rajasthan to Yemen and the Amur Falcons journey over 35,000km in a year!

On some days we worked with quizzes from BBC Earth to tickle the brain and to understand our environment better. The sessions really flowed based on the interest and energy of the children and the issues they brought. In one session we even discussed bird and nature poetry in English and vernacular!

The spirit in the 14 classes we had together was to stay curious, relate to the immediate habitat we were in, make connections with the wider elements of nature, look at birds, trees and animals, and all else, acknowledging the interconnections that exist binding all of us.

The author teaches economics at Rajghat Besant School, Varanasi, and as a continuing activity, connects with students around birds, trees and nature as well as issues of sustainable living. This article is based on the experience of virtual classes on ‘Birds and Trees’ which she anchors together with her colleague Satya, every Wednesday from 3 to 4 pm. She can be reached at [email protected].

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