SAIIER Annual Report 2014-2015: Transition School

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Unity Pavilion and Hall of Peace
Transition School



Introduction

Transition School is a primary and middle school for children of Aurovilians. Inspired by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, the aim of Transition School is to help children develop integrally and naturally to their full potential. Through the years, the Transition team has worked to develop methods and programs to help us attain our aim. We strive for an atmosphere of protected freedom and harmony, where children from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds can grow together. The program that we offer cultivates human values, encouraging Auroville children to become responsible individuals dedicated to human unity and the creation of a better world. We are always trying to develop and improve our curriculum and teaching methods. Each subject is viewed as a tool for self-discovery, as well as an instrument to aid the child in learning to express himself or herself, and to grow in knowledge.

Activities of the year

This year at Transition School we had 35 full-time teachers and 155 children; they come from 20 countries and various states of India. Such cultural diversity creates a dynamic, creative teaching and learning experience with ample opportunity to appreciate and understand cultural differences. It also stimulates challenging opportunities for our research in integral education, an educational approach that includes the vital, physical, mental, spiritual and psychic growth of each individual.

At Transition School there are eight classes with a maximum of 20 children in each class. English is the language of instruction, while the program includes classes for learning Tamil and French. Subjects include reading, writing, maths, sciences, computers, environmental and social sciences, arts, music, and Awareness Through the Body. Cooperative learning, individual work, class projects and outings engage different learning styles. There is a commitment to developing the whole child. In the past few years we have shifted to a more flexible learning program; we have seen that this is also good practice for the children in learning to make choices.

Highlights of this year include a Nutrition and Health project; a Tree Stones project; activities inspired by our value of the year, Respect (see separate report); and field trips and outings (see separate report). Other shared projects included presentations, theater, and mixed-age activities, which we find very enriching for the school.

See below for descriptions of:

  1. Nutrition and Health project
  2. Tree Stones project
  3. Awareness Through the Body
  4. Arts and Crafts

1. Nutrition and Health project

This year we had several projects that touched all the teachers and students at the school in some way. One of these was a Nutrition and Health project. The older children studied topics relating to nutrition and health, made healthy menus, looked at their own eating habits and even did science experiments to learn about proteins, carbohydrates, fats and vitamins. The younger children learned through their experiences of gardening and yoga. Through these activities, the children became more aware of the healthy choices they can make in their daily lives. Some highlights were:

  • The second grade students learned about plants and grew some vegetables for the school. Each child had a seed to plant in his or her own pot, and the class made a collective garden behind their classroom. They planted ladies finger, corn, bitter gourd, beans, pumpkin and some green gram. Every day the children watered and took care of their garden. When the vegetables were ready to be eaten, the class cooked some beans and pumpkin to share with the whole school during lunch time. The teachers and other students were amazed that this food came from the school garden. They also learned about the different parts of a plant, and some plant songs which they shared with everyone at the Open House.
  • The third grade students went to Pitanga Cultural Centre to participate in a yoga class. Gala, a hatha yoga instructor, gave a brief introduction to yoga asanas and discussed how practicing yoga helps one stay healthy. Every student had a mat and participated in the class. The asanas involved stretching, turning, and twisting which helped children become more aware of their bodies. Most children had some difficulty as this form of exercise and concentration was new to them. Gala also introduced some Pranayama (breathing) exercises that helped heat and cool our bodies and wake up our brains.
  • The third and fourth grade students visited Solitude Farm where they met Krishna, steward of the farm. Here is a report from the third grade:
Our class explored healthy foods through our cycle trip to Solitude Farm. Some of the activities were: a brief introduction to the farm by Krishna, a tour of the farm, picking some fruits and banana flowers, brushing teeth with a neem stick, washing hands with natural homemade soap, drinking a healthy herbal tea, sorting banana flowers, removing the stamens, chopping onions, making batter for vadai using the banana flowers, helping cook vadai, and finally eating a delicious healthy meal complemented with the banana flower vadai. Through this experience the children learned more about Permaculture, mulching, the beneficial role of earthworms and bacteria and fungi in the soil, crop rotation, crop productivity cycles, local grains like ragi and their connections to festivals, and the importance of buying and eating locally grown food.
And from the fourth grade:
The students were eager to learn about how plants grow and about what plants grow here in our climate. We were grandly taken care of by Krishna, who explained about Permaculture. This became one of the concepts that we brought back with us to the classroom and talked some more about. Another thing was the kinds of crops being grown there. Krishna explained that the farmers encourage people to eat locally grown food, but that the use of some plants, and preparation of some foods, have been largely forgotten. He gave the example of the banana flower. He encouraged the children to go and ask their parents or grandparents if they knew how to cook banana flower. He promised he would give a banana flower to whomever came back. Later we learned that one of the boys went back to Solitude Farm with his mother to collect a banana flower.
  • The seventh grade students had a special project: every day after lunch, they weighed the food waste thrown away by the students and teachers. The amount of food thrown out each day was then noted on the dining hall blackboard for all to see. This activity was carried out so that all of us, students and teachers alike, would become more aware of how much food we wasted, and each do our bit to reduce this waste by taking only as much food as we would eat.

Although this Health and Nutrition project was only two weeks long, it had an impact on the children and on the school as a whole. It led to information and ideas being shared and appreciated. We will do something similar in the next school year.

2. Tree Stones Project

This year, as part of their science program, the sixth grade class did a research project on trees in the Transition School campus. The first step was a visit to the Auroville Botanical Gardens, where we learned about the nursery and the different species that grow there. Santo of the Botanical Gardens afterward visited the school and helped us identify twenty different species of trees on campus. Since a similar project had been undertaken ten years ago, resulting in a book that documented the trees, this time we focused on the less common trees.

Each student chose a tree to learn about. Using the internet and various books, including some Auroville publications, each made a page about the tree they were studying. This page included the botanical name, common name, Tamil name and Mother’s name for the tree’s flower. Then the students found out the suitable climate, natural uses, human uses and interesting facts about their tree. This was accompanied by hand-drawn pencil drawings of the tree and its parts: its leaf, flower and seed. Photographs were taken of each child with his or her tree, and haikus were written by the students. We displayed the photos in the school, and asked the other students to find these trees on the campus. The pages were compiled together to create a book, which is now kept in the school library as a tree guide for all students to use.

As a second part of the project, the class visited Joss at Pitchandikulam Forest where we saw the incredible reforestation and tree labeling project that has been undertaken there. We were inspired by the exquisitely painted granite stones that are used to label the different species and provide information about the forest. We decided to start our own tree stones project at Transition School. Pitchandikulam provided the stones, and the back of the classroom was transformed into a painting workshop. Each student painted a tree stone for his or her tree. The children took turns, painting the tree’s name and their designs on the stones. These took from one month to six weeks to complete, progress being made slowly while normal classes took place. The children all managed to do this while keep up with the other work happening in the classroom. The atmosphere was very concentrated and focused. The children were proud of their work, and they felt that they were contributing something permanent to their school, to be enjoyed by current and future students for years to come.

3. Awareness Through the Body

“I learned that hate and anger can make your body feel bad. Anger just comes out whenever it wants, but people should be able to control it so that it does not harm. Hate is when you dislike someone or something which later on becomes severe. I’m stuck with hate, so I’m trying to get rid of it by doing ATB, which centers myself and gets rid of the past and makes my mind fresh. ATB makes me feel like going into a new world that helps me to get the sad stuff out of my mind. When I do that I fall into peace.” — Written reflection from a 14-year-old boy

Self-awareness and self regulation

Conscious control of oneself — a sense of aware adjustment to inner and outer needs of the moment — requires self-awareness, self-sensing, and honesty. The team at Transition School considers these skills among the most important for children to develop. It is a long process that ultimately leads a person to find his deeper sense of self. It is, we could say, the journey to a more fulfilling life. The first steps into self-sensing and self-regulation can be taken at any point in one’s life, but, we feel, the sooner the better.

All through the year at Transition we played games in which self-control and honesty were needed for players to stay in the game. Most of these games involved closed eyes. At the end of each session we facilitated a sharing where children had the opportunity to be honest and recognize in a safe way whether they managed to control their impulses to “cheat” by stealing a look, or if they gave in to the need to win, the need to be the best, the fear of losing, the fear of what others might think. These sharings began with closed eyes and a showing of hands, such as: show with fingers how many times you didn’t manage to control yourself/your eyes/your reactions? We then had a discussion, with eyes open. We offered a space where children could feel safe to recognize what had happened to them. We were very careful to help them move out of judgments, of “good and bad”, into simply recognizing one’s limitations and identifying what to work on for next time and why.

This required of the facilitators a steady attitude throughout that was free from judgment. We carefully tailored our language to help children feel that ATB is a process of self growth; that it is very important and useful to be able to recognize one’s limitations and difficulties and to work on them; that there is nothing bad about not managing to keep control; that one can use difficulties to come to know oneself better and to learn, progress and grow.

As part of ATB we interspersed short exercises that can help effectuate changes in oneself. For instance we worked on what we call with the children “The quiet”.

The quiet
First we guide the children in closing their eyes and easing themselves into immobility. Then we ask them to listen to the sound landscape around them and notice the sounds. After some moments we invite them to listen to the silence that is always around the skin of their body. When they feel that, they are tuned in. Next, we ask them to sense in or around their body one place that feels particularly quiet, calm and peaceful. Once they find it they place one hand on that part of their body. If it is all around the skin, they put their hands together. Here we assist any child that might be lost or having difficulty following what we are doing. When all of them are with “the quiet”, we ask them to sense it as texture, temperature, density, color, and to notice how it makes them feel to be tuned to “the quiet inside”. After that we either conclude the exercise, or ask them to let “the quiet” spread to their whole being and to stay with that sensation for some moments. Before opening their eyes we remind them to remember that “the quiet” is always with them, that whenever they need or want, anytime any place, they can always get in touch with it. At the end of the exercise we have a sharing where each child tells the sensations he experienced and how it made him feel, or the children take some minutes to write about it.

With exercises like this, children acquire the knowledge that once they know what is happening in them, they have tools and ways for managing themselves.

During ATB we regularly encouraged the children to notice how they were mastering their impulses in order to stay focused on the activity. We encouraged them to see whether their willpower could be stronger than their need to look, to see others, to do something else, to attract attention, to prove themselves, to win, to submit to fear or worry or moodiness.

We regularly acknowledged the children’s honesty by thanking them for their effort to stay true to themselves. We noticed by the end of the school year that the children, in different degrees, started to put more value on being true than on proving oneself, showing off or winning.

Sensations, the language of the body

Parallel to self-control, we worked on helping the children develop their capacity for self-sensing — their proficiency in the sense languages of the body. We offered exercises where children could experience different sensations in and through their bodies, along with sharings, discussions and explanations about the different sensations one can feel inside and with the body. Most often this area is taken for granted, but developing proficiency in the senses actually requires a lot of patient repetition, especially with younger children. At Transition we are able to see how all the effort pays off at a later age, when children are more able to know what is going on in themselves and how they feel in any given situation.


"What did you find most useful from ATB classes?" (feedback from 14-year-olds)
“To be able to calm myself down when I need to. To be able to fully relax my body, muscles and the ability to feel more what is going on around me. Many times throughout the day I find myself being tense with the breath or a muscle, and using what I have learnt in ATB I am able to relax my body.”
“The most useful activity in ATB for me has been the one where we had to center ourselves, find the quiet, to settle down and get rid of the restlessness. It was useful because anytime I needed to calm down I would do the exercise. ATB has helped me to work as a group, to understand and listen to others. It has helped me to listen to myself, my body.”
“It is a very good subject and I use many things it teaches in daily life. I think that ATB is the basics of how to live a life.”


4. Arts and Crafts

Arts and Crafts classes for students of grades 1-4 introduced basic elements of line, shape, color, drawing, sculpture, and basic art techniques. Students of grades 5-8 experimented with a variety of drawing techniques, painting and sculpture. As well as doing guided projects the students were given the freedom to express themselves in creating works of art using their own ideas. As part of their art curriculum the students learned about significant works of art from various cultures, times and places through slide shows and documentaries. They learned to compare styles of art and developed their own personal preferences in art.

This year we facilitated the creation of an Art Garden at the school. Our goal with this project was to take art outside and to induce the theme of respect: for others, for our environment, for materials and for ourselves. We used the Art Garden as an opportunity to teach the kids how to up-cycle or to take items that would be waste and turn them into art.

Art projects of the year included:

  • The Hungry Caterpillar, Grades 1 and 2 - As part of this year’s Nutrition and Health project, the first and second graders read the story The Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Then in art class the students painted on a long sheet of paper, while listening to different sounds and music, to create colors and patterns like the style of the book’s illustrations. Then the long sheet of paper was torn into pieces and the students made collages about good and bad food (the first graders) and the body’s internal organs (the second graders).
  • Eco Garden dragon, Grade 1 - Students painted car and motorbike tires to make a dragon sculpture for the Art Garden.
  • 3D houses project, Grade 2
  • Piet Mondrian project, Grade 2
  • Shadow box, Grade 3 - The Shadow Box project tied in with the students’ learning of the rudiments of perspective drawing during. The shadow box is a craft example of a 3-dimensional picture.
  • Native American totem, Grade 3 - Third graders built animal totems out of paper and learned about Native Americans’ ways of representing nature.
  • “Your dream box”, Grade 4 - The fourth graders built and decorated a cube expressing their dreams and personal feelings.
  • Name sculpture, Grade 5
  • Picasso project, Grade 5
  • Black and white project, Grade 6
  • The Wind in the Willows play, Grade 6
  • Journal making, Grade 7
  • Mixed techniques, Grade 8


Outcomes

The range of outputs from this year, across the school, is wide and varied. It includes:

  • Individual student portfolios
  • Open house presentations: Biomes of Earth, The Renaissance in Europe, The Story of India, Science projects
  • Music and poetry presentations
  • Theatre presentations and props
  • Student-created books
  • Drawings and other artwork
  • Essays
  • Reports by teachers and students
  • Posters, nutrition charts and graphs
  • Powerpoint presentations
  • Photographs
  • Materials from teachers’ study days, including portfolios and assessments

In addition to activities with the classes, the teachers work together to solve problems and to work for progress in the school. At the end of each school year we have a Transition School year assessment, in addition to a day for teachers’ self assessments.

Reflections

Every year 20 little six-year-old children enter the school, most of them to stay in Transition for eight years. During these eight years the children change dramatically in many ways: socially, emotionally, biologically, and cognitively. It is an important time for their development as they begin to form their sense of who they are: What do they like? What are they good in? What do other people think and feel? Many questions arise. Children acquire their sense of self and self-esteem slowly as they mature into adolescents. Identities are developed over time and may change from time to time and place to place. This process continues and children are faced with many questions and struggles; sometimes they do not feel good about themselves or their behaviors in a situation and need guidance and support. As they get older, they want and need to become more independent. Some years ago our program was for children aged 6-12. We have observed that even though 12-14 year old children have a strong drive for autonomy, they need and want the support and guidance that is found in the family and in school. Offering this support is a very important part of our work: talking with the children, listening to them and encouraging them to express themselves, through words, art, music, and however they can.

In Transition School all school decisions are made by the teachers as a team. The teachers have been active as a team in the planning and execution of the buildings, in raising funds, in the development of the program and in the setting of the goals of the school. Each development has been the result of a group decision that aims to support learning, harmoniously with the environment, and fulfilling the needs of Auroville. As the team has grown, we felt the need to form a support group to help guide the administration and decision making. This has been useful for the running of the school.

Future direction

One of our challenges continues to be finding, training and keeping committed teachers who understand the aims of integral education. Our teacher training program is developing and has helped in the integration of some new teachers. We will need to find more in order to keep up with the growth of the population of children in Auroville. Our long-term goals and intentions are:

  1. We need to continue to work on our program. We have been able to improve the mathematics level in the school through a focus, now we need to work on other areas of study.
  2. We plan to have more opportunities for teachers to study together. We will plan teachers’ study sessions to review the Portfolio, Classroom Management skills and other topics that people would like to work on.
  3. We will continue to develop individualized learning methods for Integral Education. We would like to include more opportunities for children to learn to make choices.
  4. We need to further develop and research alternative and participatory forms of evaluation that reflect our child-centered, integral program. The portfolio and other forms of assessment are improving.

Conclusion

Education and progress are central to the Auroville society. Here there are many activities and areas of research and innovative work, and this offers many opportunities to extend learning beyond the walls of the classroom. These types of experiences are memorable and help children make sense of the world around them. Auroville is a living organism with many knowledgeable people happy to share their expertise, and we take advantage of these resources as much as possible. The teacher team at Transition is dedicated to the continuing development of integral education in a rapidly growing Auroville.

See also

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The Learning Community
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Unity Pavilion and Hall of Peace