When I first began writing this column, it began with the intention to write about inclusive education in the classical sense. Ways on how we can make our classrooms and schools more inclusive to seamlessly accommodate children with special needs. However, the word ‘inclusion’ is an expansive idea and must not be restricted to specific situations. It is a mindset that one must nurture. Once we are able to make ‘inclusion’ part of our everyday vocabulary, it becomes an approach and a way of being where we begin to be sensitive and mindful of the voices that are usually left unheard and consciously make room for them.
Take for example, films written about womanhood or LGBTQ struggles with not a single woman or queer writer in the team, or global conferences that talk about how the climate crisis is affecting our crops without a farmer representative present. Closer home, educational conferences that have agendas for improving the future of children’s education rarely have children voicing what changes they would like to see. It’s almost absurd that as a society we have moved so far away from the idea of fair representation that we need to pause and remind ourselves of this.
However, a wonderfully refreshing step towards this has been made by the world of Indian children’s literature where children’s voices have finally been given a platform and books for children written by children have made a gracious entry. Pratham Books has created two such wonderful books after gathering thoughts and writings from hundreds of children across the country and across various socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. I Wish/Meri Arzoo is a bi-lingual picture book that brings to us the voices of 16 children telling us what they wish for, what they dream of and the freedoms that are most precious to them. The images here will give you an idea of how important these voices are!
The latest release by Pratham Books is We Hope, in which young voices tell us what they feel about the climate crisis and how it is impacting their immediate surroundings and lives. The book captures children’s voices from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, from a village in Agumbe – a rainforest area in Karnataka, from a little village in Maharashtra where groundwater has been severely affected, from Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, and Nagaland. It is a stunning book with jaw-dropping illustrations, which not only gives the child agency to express but also empowers other child readers to know that their opinions and thoughts matter.
Another wonderful book that was released during the pandemic was Speaking Tiger’s A Bend in Time – a collection of short stories written for children by children about the COVID-19 pandemic. Three stories written by students from Akshara High School (AHS) Mumbai, were published in this book. Garima Singh, currently studying in Std 12 in Mithibai College, ex-student of AHS, and author of the story Twists and Turns says this opportunity to write a story and express herself helped her tremendously during the pandemic. “Life was monotonous back then. The concept of everything online was very foreign, therefore, having something so interesting to work upon in the middle of a catastrophe wasn’t an opportunity to let go of. The process of writing the story helped me, as a 14 year-old, in many ways. It saved me a lot of time from thinking about all the ‘what ifs’ concerning humanity and wasting energy on the absurdity of the mind.
Eventually, seeing my story get published in a children’s book made me feel like finally I have done something I could be proud of.”
Tishya Tara, from Std 10 at AHS, and author of the story Dreams in an Empty Pot of Tea believes strongly that such opportunities must be created. She says, “Children always speak their minds. They are honest, rarely sugar-coat things and their innocence breaks the barriers of judgment. Children grasp concepts and ideas quicker than adults and learn more from not what they hear but from what they see around them. This makes them aware of the fragments of harsh realities and allows them to think and persevere on what they believe is right. I believe that if given the right opportunities these intelligent children can inspire, lead, and make adults see the world from a different perspective.”
It is evident that children want representation. They desire agency and flourish when they know they are being heard. To substantiate my point further, I thought it would only be appropriate that the rest of this article is led by children’s voices, responding to questions we are asking ourselves here. How can we make room for children’s voices to be heard in our schools?
Abhiraj Sagaonkar, from Std 10, AHS, who has authored a line in We Hope, says that a Student Suggestion Box or an Online Dropbox must be there in every school, in which students can write the issues and concerns that they are facing and also put in suggestions towards any change or improvement in systems. “In my school there is a Student Council team, with representatives from each class, who can be approached by any student to ask for help or complain about any problem regarding school matters. Children are comfortable approaching other children, which helps them speak out their ideas, thoughts and concerns.”
Tishya Tara says, “A school is not only a place where children learn but where they are nurtured and encouraged to formulate opinions. A place where they can speak freely and share their concerns. However, this can’t happen without various platforms. Debates, group discussions, and argumentative writing are great for children to open up and share their opinions on various topics. Schools can also start introducing programs where students can come up at the beginning of the day before the start of the first class to express what’s on their minds.”
Garima Singh lists several simple ways in which schools can make room for children’s voices.
• All kinds of questions from students during classes must be accepted without judgment.
• Socio-Emotional Learning periods, we called them ‘Happiness period’ in our school, are a must. They feel like group therapy sessions and really encourage children to express themselves.
• Morning assemblies, projects, and school events must be student-led. Especially, annual days must be self-written, produced, casted, directed and performed.
• If a teacher decides to change the course of teaching or drops some academic content, students must be informed and explained ‘why’ – this applies to school rules and regulations as well. Tell the student the WHY behind decisions.
• In a school, there are many shy wallflowers who take time to open up; schools must pay attention to what they have to say. Help, encourage and appreciate them to come out of their shells.
What absolutely fascinates me about children is the clarity and confidence with which they respond when they are asked about their opinion. Tishya Tara decided not to restrict her thoughts on including children’s voices in a school space. She says, “In housing societies, children should be given a platform to express what they would like to see in their surroundings and common areas. For instance, playing areas in exchange for another car parking; flexible playing times, etc.” Abhiraj takes it up a notch! He strongly believes that “There should be a children’s association run by children as part of the government system, so that their voice and opinion can come to the forefront without any filtration done by adults.”
If this is what our young minds are saying, it is honestly time we begin to listen and consider a more democratic way of functioning, at least within the walls of our own schools.
The author is an arts-based therapist, educator and children’s author. She has been working in the field of education for the past 15 years designing curriculum and training teachers and is a strong advocate of inclusive education. She is the former Executive Director of Akshara High School, an inclusive not-for-profit ICSE school in Mumbai. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.