How schools build community

Arun Elassery

I am one of the advisors to an alternative school called Udhbhavaha ( that operates out of a 4-acre farm on the outskirts of Bangalore. I have been exhorting them to engage more with the surrounding villages by starting a science activity centre, a handloom unit, a library for the village, etc. My friends who run the school will try doing some of these things and when Teacher Plus asked me to write about schools and their neighbourhoods, my first impulse was to expand on my ideas for Udhbhavaha. I realized, however, that while I am confident about my ability to write 500 words about any topic under the sun (check out, I will have to struggle to finish my quota of 1500 words on Udhbhavaha.

A solution that has always worked for me is to quote from what others have already written. Fortunately, I am part of an NGO, SIDH, that ran an innovative school where many experiments connecting the school to the village communities it served were tested out. There is a well written book about these experiments, Learning at Bodhshala: Reorienting the school to its community available in English, Hindi, and Marathi. I consider this book a classic on education. Although Bodhshala was a rural school, many of the experiments tried there can seed ideas for how urban schools can also be an asset to their neighbourhoods and not nuisances that clog up streets with yellow-coloured buses.

Bodhshala, situated 16 kilometres north of Mussoorie, served the small villages around Kempty from around 2008 to 2012. A day school; it catered to 100 to 120 students and had 8 to 10 teachers. Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of buniyadi shiksha or nai taleem, of a curriculum to reduce the distance between school and society, was the inspiration and guiding force behind the school. The key objectives were that the school should help to build livelihood skills native to the local community, and that the school should become a place of production so that it could be self-sufficient. Some of the practices included:
• Self-investigation as a mechanism for students and teachers to become responsible human beings.
• Focus on hand-skill and useful production activity as a part of everyday education.
• Outreach activity to share the learnings from the school with other educators.

The following excerpts from the book give an idea of the unique nature of the work that was done at Bodhshala:

Excerpt 1: An introduction to Bodhshala

“We had only one clear statement, which became the basis for all activities. The school is a part of community. What is good for the community, what strengthens it, what helps make prosperous families – these are the things that make the curriculum of a school, i.e., these are the things to be studied, to be learnt. In such an approach, the direction is set, but the path has to be one’s own. It has to be explored locally and understood on the strength of one’s own capacity, because modern society, modern systems and modern opinions may be completely contrary to the truth that one discovers.”
– Introduction, Page X

Excerpt 2: Ideas on connecting the school to its community

“Learning from the local environment implies that school activity be designed such that the child must be able to relate it with his daily life. Instead of cutting him off from his family and way of life, the school works to strengthen those ties. The child brings his everyday life to the classroom and with it, his understanding of the same, and the teacher recognizes and accepts this.”

“The teacher draws the child’s attention to the child’s own information, knowledge and activities, and invites him to look at it closely. The teacher then points out other related things to the child, thus expanding his vision. In this way, learning in a local context is wholesome as both teacher and child are encouraged to see things through a system to which they belong.”

“…. Our reading of Gandhiji and his vision of buniyadi shiksha also provided direction. Soon our farm produce activity grew into a full-fledged Production Integrated Basic Education programme. It ran for three years, during which the learning activities at Bodhshala resulted in the production of recycled hand-made paper, value-added food items, ayurvedic medicines, soaps and creams, cloth bags, paper bags and envelopes, and learning material such as number rods and the abacus.”

“This experiment was a response by the school to a crisis in the community. The experiment proved a source of great learning; it has confirmed to us the path of possibility.”
– The Eye of Commonality, Page 28-29

Excerpt 3: Production of goods for the school and the larger community

“The four main departments at Bodhshala of the Production Integrated Basic Education programme were Himalaya Haat, Carpentry and Maintenance, Tailoring, and Paper-making. We worked to instill the essence of self-production and self-sufficiency in all that we did.”

“When the sale of our products demanded carry-bags, the craft teacher incorporated this into her activity, and the school regularly made bags from old newspapers. We also made envelopes from used A-4 paper, which was printed on one side. As vacation homework assignments, students made traditional brooms using local plants, the kind used in their houses, and these brooms were used in school.”

“The essence of self-production and self-sufficiency in all that we did also implied that for things we cannot produce ourselves, we should procure locally. This meant a good relationship with the village community. We exchanged seeds with them regularly. On a few occasions, we paid for and bought local rope made from the bark of the bheemal tree; and the local blacksmith mended our farming tools.”

“For me, the delight in all this was in discovering practices without any prodding or planning. The sports teacher started to string badminton racquets in school (as against the earlier practice of sending them to the sports shop). Many-a-times the carpentry teacher would find old wood, which could be recycled. He also produced wood polish in the school itself, which earlier would be purchased. The craft teacher made her own gum using maida in the kitchen (our stationery purchase was minimal during this period). And, we made our own laddoos for Independence Day and Gandhi Jayanti, which used to be outsourced.”

“The value of all this is akin to the value of breathing, it cannot be grasped by any accountant. There was, however, one instance, which had a gross, monetary manifestation. When I had just joined Bodhshala, I saw that the Annual Day celebrations involved hiring the services of a tent-maker from Mussoorie for Rs.20,000. The following year, I shared my concern with the teachers and we looked for an alternative. A teacher introduced me to a shop-keeper from the village who could do it for Rs.8,500! In the third year, for our annual Utpadan Mela, we did not spend a paisa! The school’s tailoring department stitched together sheets and repaired old, discarded tent material, and the maintenance department planned and erected the tent. This happened as a matter of course, without any accounting objective in mind. Self-sufficiency is indeed a good means to a good end.”
– Production Oriented Basic Education, Page 92-94

Excerpt 4: Projects that connect the school to its community

We had a project on animal husbandry for which the children conducted a census. Twelve villages were studied, and data was collected on the number of cows, bulls, oxen, calves, buffaloes, he-buffaloes, goats, sheep, mules and poultry owned by each family. The villages also provided information on the number of animals they had 10 years ago. Milk output for cows and buffaloes was recorded as also data on how many families sold how much milk, and at what price. Information on sale of goats and income from it was taken. Details of animal health, common illnesses and traditional cures, were also noted. Animal feed and grazing habits were surveyed.

A lot of this recorded data was quantitative. However, there was an important component of qualitative interviews with village elders, who gave their views developed over years of watching and participating in their socio-economic environment.

The project took nearly three months, with data collected every week. There was a weekly meeting where the emergent findings were discussed. These discussions were open and non-conclusive, and children and teachers both shared what they saw with equal vigour.

During the course of the week, the math class examined the data as it came in and worked out a modality to organise it; the social science class focussed on the relationship with animals and their role in a village ecosystem; the language classes of Hindi and English took the empirical findings and learnt and practiced ways and means of expressing the core content. This way, many subjects enveloped the project.

The trends unfolded gradually, patterns were slowly recognised and interpreted; this was the human mind in action at a leisurely pace. The inferences did not overshadow the observations, there was no single answer or solution, which had to be memorized, and consequently, there was no quick result delivered by a spreadsheet formula. Yes, we did organise and tabulate the data, and also created graphical representations of the findings. But our learnings were already in place, they were not solely the result of statistics.

In a similar fashion, the school learnt from other projects, which could originate from either the regular subject class or the production class. Projects included Gaon Ka Itihaas, which was a study of village history, Hamare Bhawan, a study of village homes and their architecture, Krishi Auzhar, a study of agricultural tools and implements. These were all done regularly every year with a different batch of students. I found that this kind of project work was useful only if it was a fresh attempt every time, with no prior record to copy from or compare with.

A significant factor in all this was that our students and teachers lived in the very environment which the project addressed. Because of this, the students were enriched by this study, which would not have been the case if they were to merely conduct an anthropological survey as outsiders. The children were continuously sharing their findings with their families, bringing the gist of home talks to class, and then taking something from the project discussion back home. They were the surveyors as well as the surveyed.
– Projects, Page 125-127

The author an alumnus of IIT Kharagpur, has 3 decades of experience in Engineering, e-learning and Education. He is the author of two books on “Learning to Learn” and blogs regularly at

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