Sunday, October 9, 2016

Thurstan College teaches some (unmarked) lessons

Mrs Malathi, who taught Biology to A Level students at Lyceum, once lectured our parents on her subject. We were, I remember, in Grade Eight and waiting (with some apprehension, I now realise) for our baptism into Grade Nine and that as yet unknown terrain called the “Ordinary Level.” We were savages back then, unwary of the pressure we’d get into and patient only because our parents wanted to listen to each and every teacher from those classes to pontificate on their subjects before deciding on what we’d choose.

She didn’t pontificate. She reflected. She told us why Biology was important, the career options it opened us to, and the intense interest with which she herself had delved into it. She then spoke of how my school had produced excellent students in the field and the careers they’d carved for themselves.

That was when she stopped reflecting. We thought she was done, but she was not.

She looked at us all, sternly and with the quiet dignity characteristic of that stately lady, and drove home a point: “You may think what you’ll learn with me is what’s in your textbooks. You may think that marks are what I need from you. But that is not so. I care about results. Equally so, however, I care about whether you know your surroundings, are at peace with your environment, and can handle what nourishes it. If you think studying this subject is as simple as memorising statistics, then forget even coming to my classes.”

I remember looking at my mother and I remember her frowning at me, precisely because I wasn’t blessed with the ability to “know” my surroundings. The choice wasn’t hard to make, I suspect: I scrapped Science and chose Commerce. Mrs Malathi, I regret to say, never taught me.

Since then I’ve come to realise that education is more than just memorising. What’s the use of by-hearting facts, after all, if you are clueless about where you live? I suppose that’s why most schools teach General Knowledge as a subject, though that’s hardly adequate. Scouting and Nature Clubs can and do help as well, but they tend to be in-house. We hence need to instil something more in our children.

All this dawned on me the other day when I came across a news item. A school in Colombo had started a butterfly garden three months ago. Nothing extraordinary about that, but what caught my eye was the children involved, all from Grades Six and Eight. Naturally, I was curious. I called some friends, made an appointment, and went. The school, incidentally, was Thurstan College.

Not being blessed with a green thumb, I confess I’m a dud when it comes to butterflies. All I know is that there are about 245 species in Sri Lanka, of which 26 are endemic. Hardly enough, one can (correctly) observe.

I was therefore surprised (and pleasantly so) with what I saw. The teacher in charge (who teaches history in Middle School and wished to remain unnamed) was quite candid: “We’re more interested in getting our kids involved. This isn’t something that can be managed clinically. You need commitment and you need to know what you are doing.” She went on to say that the students are up and at it from morning and that they are at the garden for at least half an hour every day.

She then spoke about the site itself. “We’ve reserved an unused corner of the school for the project. As the days and weeks went by, the butterflies kept on coming.” I mumbled something about the danger of cats and other animals intruding on this well kept but open space, but she replied that apart from some birds and spiders, they haven’t faced any major problem as such.

No amount of supervision can compare with interest and appreciation, though. I found these abundantly among the children. Being a Monday, it was difficult to get the Grade Eight boys out, but the Grade Six boys were more than willing to take some time for me. I expected the teacher to prod them, directing them whenever they erred. As the minutes drew on though, I was quite surprised: not only were they acquainted with what they were doing, they spoke so eloquently about butterflies, trees, and nature in general that their teacher kept quiet, observed, and smiled.

All in all, about 15 boys from the Grade Six classes manage the garden, while five others from the Grade Eight classes join in. Some of them stand out and have become de facto leaders, though that doesn’t mean the others just stand and observe. At that age children have a knack for revealing what they know without holding back, a knack for honesty that they lose as they grow. They were hence excited as they took me through what they’ve done.

Apparently some of them are at school as early as 06.30 to tend to their little corner. They even take time off their interval to hover around and make sure that errant friends and seniors don’t litter their precious garden. Almost all these boys live outside Colombo, but that hasn’t daunted them: they make sure that they spend at least 15 minutes in the morning (before the 07.30 bell) helping the gardener (who waters the plants and trees twice a day) and taking down notes.

It’s to be expected, therefore, that they remember every detail in what they do, down to the number of cocoons and the kind of butterflies they’ve “birthed.” Having classified each tree and plant, they can even identify which caterpillar resides where and how long it takes for them to hatch. And it’s not only the easy-peasy task of attending to these creatures, but sustaining conditions amenable to them, which is why these boys even have got together to pile up some compost from rotting leaves and waste. All evidence of their green thumb, no doubt.

I then asked the teacher involved whether the project has got outside attention. Apparently the garden had merited praise from the Butterfly Association of Sri Lanka, with Himesh Dilruwan Jayasinghe (noted lepidopterist, author, and an official from the Association) organising a workshop at Thurstan for students from Grades Four to Eight. She is, however, modest when asked about the brains behind their enterprise: “It would be hard to point at one name above the rest.” The boys are as modest: “Without our Miss, we’d be nowhere!”

Projects like this tend to go beyond the curriculum. Because of that, what these children learn are outside the scope of tests and must therefore be judged on their own merits. The boys spoke for themselves when all of them chirped in, “We don’t merely learn the names of butterflies and where they come from, but more importantly, we learn how to nurture them and ensure that they remain our friends for others to come to our little garden.” Their teacher was more specific: “When we began, these children would sometimes trample on and cut flowers for fun. They’ve learnt to be patient and careful since then. Sure, it’s not easy driving those values into a child, but we’ve managed to do that surprisingly easily.”

While they are all modest about how they began, there certainly is one person who has taken an interest in it from Day One. E. M. S. Ekanayake has been Principal at Thurstan since January this year, but despite his short tenure he’s taken a stake in the project.

I asked as to what it meant to him. “I believe it’s taken our children outside the exam-centric approach privileged by our schools. That’s needed. Tests tend to keep the child away from his surroundings, which is why I encouraged our teachers, staff, and students to take an active part in this endeavour. We’ve set a precedent of sorts. We’ve made at least a little dent in our exam culture. I am happy to have been part of that and can only hope that we will not end here.”

That is also what the teacher and her students hope. “We won’t stop with this,” one boy tells me, “We want to expand. To go beyond what we have. We’re already prepared to use the adjoining land once it’s cleared for our garden.”

Mrs Malathi never taught me, but since that lecture of hers I’ve come to know and talk with her often. She’s always been firm on one point: exams can’t make up for experience. True. Going by that, the butterfly garden at Thurstan College is something the school and its students can be proud of. More importantly, it’s helped us understand that without soiling and dirtying yourself, you can’t nurture anything.

No, there won’t be tests to assess endeavours like this. But that’s not a problem. Not by a long shot.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, October 9 2016