Children like to ask questions. Across physical, cultural, and political borders, learning happens when they can indulge their curiosity. When I began working with San Francisco public school students in their kindergarten year, I stepped into an environment defined by upheaval. They were living personal stories of foster homes and adoptions, of immigration and legal struggles, on top of the ordinary chaotic adjustment to the school environment. Their spirited persistence was my motivation to begin researching progressive theories of education that incorporate social, emotional, cognitive, creative, and physical learning.
There is a tradition of debate in education hashed out through pedagogical practices in classrooms around the world. It centers around discovering the best model for facilitating integration first into the school culture and later into general society. Within a framework of appropriate materials and behaviors, should children be given as much freedom as possible to explore the world around them? Or is their task to uncritically absorb the information that is carefully chosen for them by their guardians, until they have acquired a strong enough foundation of knowledge to begin making informed decisions?
Last year, I received a Fulbright grant to research educational philosophies in Hyderabad, India, and I emerged with a more critical understanding of the claims of both progressive and conventional educational philosophies. By experimenting and collaborating with several student groups in India, I developed the curriculum for the On the Move workshop series that I implemented when I returned to the United States. The intention of the On the Move curriculum is to empower children at the sites of social disconnect by providing them with creative and cooperative tools for self-expression. New material is presented to the group, discussed, and individually processed through a simple drawing project incorporating personal memories. The children then collaborate to create an elaborate frame for their individual stories, building a large work of art including space to display all of the drawings. The structure of the workshops strives for an ideal of collective knowledge building. Each project, like each student group, is uniquely constructed by its specific context and available skills.
The art project created by Graze the Roof students in San Francisco’s Tenderloin.
The first workshop site in San Francisco was at Graze the Roof, a model urban garden perched high above the streets of the Tenderloin district on the rooftop of Glide Memorial Church. Glide provides a long list of free services to the community of the Tenderloin, the neighborhood with the highest percentage of people living below the poverty line in San Francisco, as well as the highest population density and concentration of homeless individuals. The strategy of law enforcement in this neighborhood is “containment”, creating an area where illegal activities are essentially condoned to prevent their spread to the rest of the city. As a whole, San Francisco is not a family-oriented city, its demographics and public image heavily slanted towards young people and professionals without children. According to the US Census Bureau only 14.5% of the population is under 18 years old, as opposed to 27.3% in California as a whole. Through their poverty and their demographic insignificance, children in the Tenderloin are publicly invisible and silenced despite the many languages they speak.
The relatively affordable housing is bringing an influx of low-income families into the area, though. A year ago, a month-long public art exhibit in the Tenderloin calledWonderland
included a mobile sculpture that drew on local children’s ideas and addressed some of the same themes as the On the Move workshops. In this case, a working group of artists asked children at the Tenderloin Boys and Girls Club to draw pictures of a house that moves, or a “Home Away from Home”, the title of the project. The sculpture’s final design was based on a synthesis of the drawings, making the children of the Tenderloin authors in the creative process.
At Glide, the double doors open every morning to offer a free meal program, health services, permanent supportive housing, a women’s center, and youth and childcare services. Maya Donelson, the designer and manager of the rooftop garden, teaches an on-site science and gardening curriculum to the students attending Glide’s school-age programming, and agreed to have me as a guest for the first few sessions of the new school year. Up on the roof, I worked with three classes of children between 5 and 12 years old. Together, we managed to weave together the physical space, my curriculum, and the themes of a model rooftop garden – literally. We had to plan for San Francisco’s seasonally-irrelevant sun, fog, rain, and wind; the paper and water-based materials I had used before were not going to work. The successful infrastructure that was in place on the roof provided the inspiration to use strips of fabric, repurposed plastic, and paint left over from the wonderful murals already decorating the space. We cleared a space on the gate of the chainlink fence separating the child-friendly plantings from the beekeeping area of the rooftop, and used the chain itself as the “loom” to give structure to the tree we would weave.
Our support structure on the roof was the gate of a chain link fence instead of a car-sized wooden loom with 20-40,000 warp strands stretched across it, but we were practicing the same rhythmic in-out movement common to all methods of weaving. The day we painted their travel stories onto colorful plastic leaves, the wind snapped across the rooftop and sent paint into a lot more places than intended. Once they were tied securely onto the ends of braided branches, however, the same wind fluttered the narrative leaves in a way that made our woven representation infinitely more convincing. One girl simply painted her leaf red, white, and blue to show what she considered most significant about her traveling experience; it was the American flag.
Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India
In India, I researched cultural and popular art forms local to my students and facilitated an environment of mutual learning by constantly asking children to teach something to each other and to me – the diversity of language skills, academic literacy, multimedia fluency, and extracurricular talents always provided a wide range of subject matter. I worked with several schools run by the government or by NGOs, but my main affiliation was with a group home on the outskirts of Hyderabad called the Sphoorti Foundation. This innovative and impassioned organization provides education, healthcare, and basic necessities to over 100 underprivileged children. These students, many who come from rural villages throughout the state, presented a wonderful mix of foundational knowledge; some children were accustomed to the same performance traditions that had entertained their families 100 years previously, while some had grown up choreographing their own dances to newly-released movie music. The rapidly changing cultural conventions of Hyderabad, where entertainment is increasingly focused around the film industry, meant that most of the children were not regularly exposed to traditional art forms. When we were able to meet artisans and performers who agreed to share their skills, such as classical dancers, puppeteers, and painters, we were all equally delighted to discover new marvels of human creativity.
A group of students at the Sphoorti Foundation Children’s Home learn gestures of Kuchipudi, a classical dance form of Andhra Pradesh, with a teacher from the JJ Metta Memorial Foundation.
Our decision to weave the collaborative art piece at Graze the Roof honored a unique facet of India’s fight for independence, represented in an education, the handloom cloth that Gandhi promoted as a nationalist alternative to purchasing British-made cloth. Khadi became a symbol of self-reliance throughout India’s struggle for independence.
A child who apprentices to become a weaver learns biology, botany, and economics to grow cotton, motor skills while spinning to make the yarn, carpentry to build the looms, literacy and accounting to market the cloth, and emerges as a highly educated individual who is ready to contribute meaningfully to the community. Seeking independence from the government even in funding, Gandhi controversially proposed that each school should not only study but support itself through producing and vending its craft.
In Andhra Pradesh, the state where the Sphoorti Foundation is located, a village called Pochampally is famed for its handloom weaving in a unique style called ikkat. The method of producing the characteristic geometric patterns is the most distinct aspect of this style of weaving. Instead of switching between weft colors as they weave, ikkat weavers mark and dye unbroken skeins of thread based on a level of mathemathic comprehension that I can only dream of, wind them on to spools, and continuously weave meters of cloth as the pre-planned patterns magically appear.
A partially woven Pochampally sari on the loom.
There have been few schools beyond Gandhi’s personal ventures that include vending students’ projects in realizing his philosophy; sadly, child labor remains a very real and uncomfortably close threat for many Indian families. According to UNICEF, India has the largest number of working children (under 14 years old) in the world. However, Nai Talim students benefit from the functional purposes of craft beyond literal production : practice in concept development, research skills, literacy and math, teamwork, self-motivation, and the responsibility necessary to complete proposed projects. Nai Talim schools today combine these aspects of craft production with other educational philosophies, inspiring the incorporation of traditional craft practices into the On the Move curriculum.
Ramayana, a Hindu epic story, On the Move
At the beginning of a workshop, I always enjoy unwrapping the Kaavad because I’m so impressed by what’s inside even after looking at it for the past seven months. An intricate, carved and painted wooden box, the Kaavad is an onion of illustration containing layer upon layer of detailed miniatures depicting stories from the Hindu canon, a village lineage, or other narratives that appeal to the artist. Modern additions to the list of possibilities include the biblical Noah’s Ark and the Crucifixion.
The artisan with his creation - a large wooden Kaavad painted to illustrate Hindu epic stories.
The Kaavad that I carry tells the Ramayana, Sanskrit for the “story of Rama,” with thumb-sized carvings of the main characters tucked in the heart of the wooden box. To start the workshop, I swing open all the painted panels to reveal Prince Rama, Rama’s wife Sita, and his brother Lakshman and explain how trickery in the kingdom of Ayodhya culminates in the king banishing his eldest son for 14 years. Sita and Lakshman choose to endure banishment along with Rama, and they journey into the deep jungle to build a pastoral homestead. They live for mostly peaceful years until demons come their way, and more trickery results in Sita’s kidnapping by the ruler of another kingdom called Lanka.
By now the delicate details of painted scenes on my Kaavad are blurring together in half-pint pairs of eyes, so I switch to a different visual shortly after Rama and Lakshman set off to rescue Sita from Ravana, the demon king of Lanka. As they march south through the jungle, a strange creature suddenly leaps at the group, two-dimensional and translucent, it’s limbs swinging with the sudden movement. Unless you already know the story it’s hard to guess that this character, carefully colored on stiff leather, is the monkey god Hanuman. The piece is a traditional shadow puppet known as tolu bommalata, a narrative style that originated in Andhra Pradesh. Hanuman decides to help the brothers when he hears their story, and they continue south with an army of leaping monkeys until, out of nowhere, a bear roars onto their path. Like Hanuman, he decides to help Rama and Lakshman and brings an army of his people on the journey south. So Rama and Lakshman and Hanuman and Jamvanta the king of bears and the formidable army of monkeys and bears run south and south and south towards Lanka until they come out of the forest onto the beach and look out over the waves to Lanka and there they stop. This mighty army, unlike many elementary school students in San Francisco, did not know how to swim.
Presenting a hand-painted leather shadow puppet of Hanuman, a monkey god in the Hindu pantheon, during an On the Move workshop. Image credit : Oberlin Early Childhood Center.
Determined to rescue Sita, who has been defending herself alone in the heart of the kingdom of Lanka through all this time, they discover a way to build a bridge of boulders across the ocean to Lanka and careen across to battle with the defending army of demons. The most detailed source material that I can present at this point is the same way that millions of Hindu children around the world learn their mythological stories : the comic book. Amar Chitra Katha
was a project begun in 1967 to educate Indian children about their own cultural history as a response to an educational system that, at the time, privileged the mythology and history of Western Europe. They have published over 400 stories in 20 Indian languages, all presented in a comic book format that is equally engaging in India and in the United States. In the kingdom of Lanka, with heroic feats of loyalty, flight, and hauling entire mountains from one place to another, Rama’s army triumphs and crosses back to the southern shore of India with Sita. Realizing that nearly 14 years have passed since leaving the kingdom of Ayodhya, they bustle north through bear territory and through monkey territory, saying their goodbyes on the way back to the kingdom where another princely brother has been guarding the throne for Rama’s return.
With the closure of an ever after, the questions bubble up from the audience. Some children in San Francisco were impressively familiar with Indian culture, but each class wanted to ask plenty of questions after hearing all this about monkeys and bears. Our discussions frequently incorporated linguistics, religious and cultural identity, styles of dress and styles of snacking, and the distinction between reality and invention – a line that is blurred in the Ramayana. The defining lines between mythology and history are fascinating for children, because their hypotheses about what is a real-world possibility haven’t entirely been confirmed yet. There were many days in India when I felt just the same way, my expectations of what was a real possibility overturned. Culture shock, when an adult has to learn to navigate a new place, new rules of conduct, and a new language, feels a lot like the adjustment of going to a new school - for the same reasons.
These, and every other shared fascination, became the most important lesson of the workshop and the most illuminating aspects for me. Whether or not the children had ever traveled outside of the Bay Area, they were constantly discovering new phenomena in their expanding world. By choosing the content of our learning together in our discussion and our artwork, we built each On the Move workshop specifically to the most pertinent shape for its participants. I happened to come into the classroom with stories and a perspective from 9 months in India, and each child arrived with their own stories and a different perspective. Each of these was equally important.
Los Angeles, California, USA
One of the crucial philosophies feeding into the On the Move workshops is called popular education, in which classroom relationships are restructured so that all the participants critically analyze their social environment and generate the tools of their own education. Popular education, its tenets most famously articulated by Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), has centuries of history as an important component of global workers’ rights and other social justice movements. Learning from each other within a framework of genuinely democratic ideals, participants develop thorough comprehension of oppressive structures and recognize their own capacities to take action. The goals of On the Move are fundamentally aligned with popular education in both conceptual and practical goals. The basis of this pedagogical style is to trust people, including children, to define and create the world they want to live in.
In downtown Los Angeles, the Instituto de Educacion Popular del Sur de California(IDEPSCA)
is a not-for-profit organization that actively practices this methodology in their work with disenfranchised immigrant populations. Aprendamos
is a branch of this organization serving kindergarten through 5th
-grade children with after school, summer school, and interim programming to compliment the schedule of the LAUSD public school system. They have worked inside of public schools and community centers, and the 2010 summer school session was housed in the Central American Resource Center
, a community center in the Westlake neighborhood. The 60 students who participated in the workshop are almost all members of Central American and Mexican families, some having migrated to Los Angeles within the past couple years. Speaking with these students during the final weeks of their experience with popular education was palpably different than presenting the On the Move curriculum to any other group. Having practiced discussion skills, self-determination, and critical reflection throughout the Aprendamos curriculum, they were incredibly respectful listeners who engaged critically with the material and brought their own experiences to bear on our discussions. “It’s a matter of just sharing stories and that’s something they’re all good at,” pointed out Aprendamos teacher Samyrha Saba. The children were equally excited to learn about India and to teach me about their own cultural backgrounds.
Surrounded by a community of mutual trust, some students at Aprendamos chose to express difficult personal and emotional experiences in their drawings and discussion with the group. In the 5th grade class, one boy’s story centered around a visit to Mexico for a family reunion, playing and laughing with aunts, uncles, and cousins, and going to the airport to fly to California with two of those cousins. Then the student’s tone of voice changed, and he sounded quieter and slightly confused as he continued. His parents didn’t go with him on the plane. He said that they had to go across the border instead, so… he took the easy way and his parents had to take the hard way.
A drawing of the plane flight one student took to travel.
Kadiri, Andhra Pradesh, India
The purpose of this workshop series is to practice self-expression, and reciting a major Hindu epic provides only the first examples of communication strategies. Simply speaking with people about events in their lives produces the compelling stories that concern us the most every day. After telling the Ramayana, the next segment of the workshop is to share a personal travel story from my own experience, with a whisper of mythology.
Andhra Pradesh, the state where I lived in India, is home to the world’s largest banyan tree. A banyan starts out like any deciduous tree, sending up a slim trunk until it stretches out branches and unfolds leaves, but the growth pattern soon becomes unusual with roots trickling from the underside of all the branches. The tendrils grow steadily downwards, and burrow to become a genuine root system wherever they touch the ground. The exposed root, with its additional source of nutrients, strengthens and thickens into a bole that looks and behaves exactly like a tree trunk, except that its branches grow roots... In a workshop setting, photographs make the thick mass of trunks and roots grouped under the green canopy more intelligible.
A stretch of banyan tree roots. Image credit : Fergus Ray Murray, Creative Commons license.
The banyan spreads like a grass to cover stretches of land with the illusion of a forest. The world’s largest, Thimmamma Marrimanu, entangles 11 acres of land and is estimated to be nearly 600 years old. It shades a temple dedicated to Thimmamma, the woman whose loyalty to her family, it is said, caused the tree to sprout from her ashes. The mala beads I bought at this temple are a tactile connection for children in San Francisco to this far away reality that inspired our group project at Graze the Roof; the string of hard, intricately wrinkled, spherical seeds are absorbing subject matter for fingertips as they ponder this strange, quiet story about two individual women.
Oberlin, Ohio, USA
The mala beads, the Kaavad, the shadow puppets, and the multimedia art express tactile and visual dimensions of each story, making them approachable through diverse learning styles. A theory of Early Childhood Education known as Reggio Emilia emphatically incorporates these strategies to help children investigate theories about the world and their place in it. Reggio Emilia originated in post-fascist Italy when the people of one municipality determined to raise a generation of citizens who would take a stand against governmental abuses. Students, their families, and the larger community are all perceived as necessary elements of this educational system, in which preschool-aged children research their environment through series of projects. As they develop social and cognitive skills, children describe their discoveries through a multitude of “symbolic languages”, a term which may incorporate any form of creative expression.