I ask for some leeway. I didn’t actually go to the event I describe below on my bicycle, even though I did briefly flirt with the possibility of doing so. I was instead taken there in a (gasp!) car. But the story needs to be told, all the same.
Amidst the seeming chaos, a lot of good things are happening in Chennai. One such is an educational project that is happening in some schools run by the Chennai Municipal Corporation, these are of course schools whose students come from the poorest of the poor. There are various people and organizations making this happen, chief among them being Sri Ramacharan Trust (SRCT: http://www.sriramacharan.org/). But SRCT is not alone. Key officers of the Chennai Corporation, dedicated headmistresses and teachers, and CMTC, an organization that trains Montessori teachers, are all behind the effort.
The project is to provide Montessori based education to kindergarten children in Corporation schools. It appears to be a fancy term, but the principles of this education are those that most readers of this blog would have practiced naturally with their own children. The Montessori system is predicated on respect for the child’s innate abilities. The belief is that the child comes automatically equipped with the ability to learn, to be focused, to be disciplined, and to make rational choices, and that education in the early years should consist of simply facilitating this intrinsic capacity for learning. As such, preschool education in this system consists of giving the child guidance on certain enabling behaviors, and then teaching basic skills merely by example, letting the child emulate them of its own. The child is given a wide range of activities that it can choose, and is allowed to spend large blocks of uninterrupted time doing these activities. The focus is on experiential and tactile learning using specially developed teaching materials. Later, the child is taught language and arithmetic, with an emphasis on phonetics and visual learning. The child is allowed freedom of movement in the classroom, subject to its not encroaching on another child. (All this contrasts with the usual way even very young students are taught in many schools in Chennai: they are made to sit in rigid rows at desks and simply regurgitate lessons delivered by authoritarian teachers.)
SRCT perfected the art of delivering this sort of education in one specific Corporation school in Saidapet that it had adopted early on, thanks to the cooperation of an earlier commissioner of education who was a very dynamic individual. Working with children in the age group of two and a half to five, and with the help of teachers trained by a private organization called Center for Montessori Training Chennai (CMTC), they have produced a corpus of kindergarten students trained in this method, who have since gone on to first, second, third, and in a few cases, even higher grades. For these grades, students only have traditional classrooms to go to. However, there is enough anecdotal evidence that students trained in the Montessori method retain in traditional classrooms certain key behaviors that are predictors of success: discipline, attention span, sensitivity to others, orderliness, care for the environment, and so on. Many of these students become favorites of their teachers later on.
Thanks to a series of very friendly commissioners of education in the Chennai Corporation, including in particular the current Joint Commissioner, this sort of learning in the kindergarten stages has had backers in the higher echelons of city administration. Impressed by the work of SRTC in their Saidapet school, the Chennai Corporation has recently agreed to implement the Montessori method in forty more schools! It has sent kindergarten teachers in these schools to CMTC for specialized training. In addition, in six other schools, in a tripartite agreement between the Corporation, Cognizant (a software company) and SRCT, SRCT is helping mentor Corporation teachers in the Montessori method, with Cognizant providing the materials, and the Corporation providing a beefed up physical environment.
I visited one such place where this sort of mentoring is going on, a Corporation school in KK Nagar. A very open and dynamic headmistress Sujatha makes this possible. She is an advocate of the Montessori method, and talks it up in meetings with other headmasters and headmistresses whenever she can. Here she is:
The Montessori method had been adopted in this school just this academic year, which was only nineteen days old when I visited. So, these kids pictured here were only nineteen days into the program, and for most of them, it was the first time they had left home. (It took a couple of days to calm them down, Sujatha amusedly recounted: they would cry incessantly and insist that the teachers phone their parents and ask them to come and get them, and many would try to give phone numbers, sometimes getting it wrong–these were kids who were as little as two and a half years old!)
I was quite amazed to see the discipline and the quiet focus in these children, just nineteen days away from home. One of the first exercises they learn is to roll and unroll their work mats: they go over to the storage area, pick up a mat, pick a spot on the floor where they would not intrude on anyone else, and lay their mats. They also pick an activity. In some places kids were working with paper and scissors, learning to wield scissors, lay the pieces in a holder, etc. In other places, kids were playing with jigsaw puzzles. In yet others, with blocks. In one case, a kid was slicing carrots. All by themselves, with minimal intrusion from the teacher. (Earlier, they had been given demonstrations of these activities, of course. Also, they get gentle guidance from the teacher if they are stuck: the teacher is constantly wandering around the classroom.) Each of these activities has a series of corresponding behaviors that is built into it, for instance, after each carrot or paper cutting activity, the child knows to get a broom and dustpan, sweep up the work area, and drop the trash into the wastebasket. (I was quite impressed: one kid, who could have been no more than three years old, had a really runny nose. So he gets up, goes over to where his lunch basket is stored on a shelf, picks out a handkerchief from the basket, wipes his nose, and then returns to his play area, all entirely of his own without anyone telling him to do this! Independence is a key trait of kids trained under this method.)
The activities are grouped into various levels: the lowest level consisting of activities which would be similar to what the child would have seen at home, and the highest ones developing and then building on sensory and motor skills. Phonetics and number sense come with these highest sets of activities. Some kids had already progressed to this level in nineteen days.
Your correspondent has interacted for nearly a decade with the good people at SRCT. He belongs to a small mom-and-pop US based charity that raises funds for such projects in India (he is the mom). He is encouraging SRCT to expand their mentorship model to the remaining 40 Corporation schools that have adopted the Montessori method, so that this method gets effectively absorbed into the DNA of these schools rather than get lost without guidance. To expand to more schools, SRCT needs to raise sufficient funds, train enough additional teachers, and so forth. There is thus some preparatory work involved.
I leave you with a video of one of these mat rollers. Happily, he turned out to be a namesake!