“Education is a method whereby one acquires a higher grade of prejudices.” -Laurence J. Peter
Observing primary classes at Bhasha’s Vasantshala school, I’ve begun to wonder how school shapes one’s identity. To be fair, ‘identity’ is hard to define and can be specific to one person’s experience. But there are common threads, such as where your parents come from or where you live. As an American from a Bangladeshi family, I had trouble knowing where I belonged. In elementary school, I learned to adopt the teachers’ narratives rather than write my own. At Vasantshala, the teachers discuss the stories, history, art, music and language of local tribes, and expect their students to learn about tribal cultures that are not their own. However, in their references to holidays or key events in history, it seems they also want their students to consider Gujarati, Indian, Hindu, and other perspectives.
The students come from tribes that mainstream society has severely marginalized, such as by pushing them out of their homes in ancestral lands and forests. Many of the students have had to work difficult jobs and become self-sufficient at a very young age. But the teachers ask the kids to share what they know, even if it does not fit mainstream experiences (by mainstream, I mean shaped by people of wealth or in positions of leadership). The teachers use a flexible, ‘mother tongue’ approach. They use both Gujarati and the students’ tribal languages to teach lessons, communicate values, and ideally build intellectual and cultural respect for where the children come from.
Initially, I wasn’t keen to watch the Vasantshala classes. My project is to study how the teachers teach, and I knew it made them nervous. There are also language barriers. But recently researchers from Mumbai and Delhi visited the campus. Sitting in the classes together, I have started to feel like a part of the Vasantshala cohort rather than an outsider. I already knew the teachers lived apart from their families for over ten months out of the year. A few of the teachers’ children are growing up without them, while they teach the children of others. Sitting in their classes, I find that the teachers interact with the students with such warmth and encouragement, that for a while you forget their hardships. They expect their students to work together and support each other. They push the older students to clarify what they mean when they speak, and encourage the younger students to try not to feel shy about what they have to say. You also forget about the mainstream view of tribal people, or the mainstream in general, while you’re here.
While teaching a history lesson, Gopsingbhai Rathva, a Vasantshala teacher, guessed that some of his students didn’t understand what he was saying in Gujarati, so he used words from the Bhili language, which isn’t his own language. One student corrected his pronunciation, which made most of the other kids laugh. I was surprised when a smile spread across his face and he joined in their laughter. The lesson was about inventions that have endured and evolved such as telephones and writing materials. This lead to a discussion about writing on palm leaves, and students shared their experiences of how palm leaves are still used today.
When I was in elementary school, my teachers taught one narrative based on American history and traditions. I knew dimly that my parents’ Bangla food and language were not part of the American heritage the teachers had in mind. In fact, my parents’ background was considered a liability. My kindergarten teacher insisted that I be enrolled in English as a Second Language, though English was actually my first language. At my Sunday school (madrasa), the teachers were originally from Pakistan, Bangladesh, or the Middle East. While Bangla wasn’t out of the norm there, the teachers expected us to follow their traditions, such as gender norms, but didn’t account for us not sharing their experiences as second generation Americans. Teaching one narrative can make it easy to become prejudiced against something different, and I labeled what I learned in school as the ‘standard’ and better way of doing things. Over time, I went in the other direction and blamed my teachers for my constant worries that I wasn’t good enough or that I was doing things wrong.
In another class I observed at Vasantshala, students were asked to identify any tree on campus and give a short presentation (a tree-atise, if you will) about it. One student chose a tree a few feet away and stood by it. He said that since the wood was strong and durable, his community used it for building houses and furniture. Another said that a member of her family had used the bark of that tree to make a poultice to heal their goat’s fractured leg. The teacher, Vanitaben Valvi, hadn’t heard about using the bark in a poultice before. She wrote the tree’s name in Gujarati (saag) on a chalkboard, and she asked the students to raise their hands if it was called something different in their own languages. She also noted that the tree is called teak in English. Students volunteered the name in their own languages: in Rathvi and Dhanak, the teak tree is haagro; in Dungra Bhili and Dehalvi, haage.
I was surprised how much a tree figured into the students’ experiences. I once tried to tell one tree variety from the next in Washington, DC, and I couldn’t even with the help of an illustrated guidebook. I was also surprised that the teacher did not assign one narrative about the tree. Similarly, in a Gujarati language class another Vasantshala teacher taught a passage on the Hindu holiday of Diwali from the state textbook, and then she asked the students to share the ways that their families did (or did not) celebrate it.
In my short time here, I’m learning that the lessons at Vasantshala are shaped by student input, which makes me hopeful for the future of this cohort. My experiences in elementary school made me believe in the myth of a standard culture. I think asking students to describe their own experiences can begin to break that down and allow for acceptance or at least insight into different perspectives. If the Vasantshala teachers help their students feel comfortable sharing their experiences, they may get in the habit of getting to know and respect other people as a part of learning. What an interesting standard that would be!
Debi Prasanna Pattayanak, an Indian linguist and humanist, has written extensively about language and cultural diversity in education. Check out: Pattanayak, Debi Prasanna. (2014). Chapter 95: “Multilingualism” in Language and Cultural Diversity: The Writings of Debi Prasanna Pattayanak, Volume I. Hyderabad: Orient Blackwan Pvt. Ltd. and Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.