Soon The Earth School founded by myself and my dear friend and partner Esme Davis, will be 10 years old!
It is time to take stock.
If we were to sum up the essence of The Earth School in 2 words it would be ‘peace education’. Children who are fully accepted for themselves and supported in their explorations find peace within them and go on to make up a peaceful society.
The proof is in the pudding though and given that the pudding is still baking, we turn our sights to small occurrences that reveal that peace education is at work. The ‘easy to miss’ occurrences that are sometimes sweet (And Oh! There is such sweetness with children) and often times occurrences that appear to be a 1000 miles away from peace, for our children oftentimes, practice making peace by engaging in conflict!
The first time a young child is able to articulate how she is feeling to a guide, (I am feeling sad now, please sit with me) or an older child takes ownership for his actions while being insightful and gentle with his folly (“I destroyed that because I was feeling jealous. I really should apologize”)
When an entire school community rises up to welcome the youngest entrants to school. By encouraging them with smiles and greetings, keeping an eye out for them and helping them with their belongings.
It is when an older child feels comfortable and safe in our community to celebrate herself on her birthday and writes about her own advances from her first year of life to.her ninth! A birthday celebration becomes a performance piece … a deeply authentic one.
Where an adults love for poetry is supported to become a whole school ‘poem in your pocket day’. Children and parents linger to share poetry with each other.
When a parent body trusts the school enough to support them in their policy of having 2 hours of free play everyday for all children from ages 3 to 12! After a year no child is recommended for Occupational Therapy!
When a child is struggling with reading, writing and arithmetic but is still frequently sought after by peers to help with all manner of drawing, building and problem solving in the environment.
When a child feels the joy of giving a presentation to a peer and with her thumbs up, gestures to an absorbed friend, and whispers to the guide “She is working so nicely!”
All too often children get mixed messages about nature.
On one hand adults romanticise nature to children and expound liberally about how important it is to ‘save’ mother earth and we wax lyrical about the beauty of nature. On the other hand we all too often prohibit them from playing in the rain and slush, use the word ‘dirt’ synonymously for ‘soil’ and cringe when we chance upon a ‘bug’ or worm or ‘creepy-crawly’. When a young child instinctively bends down to pick up a tiny creature she comes across we hasten to get it out of their hands!
The fact is children come unconditioned about the creatures they share this planet with and slowly take on the prevailing attitudes of those around them. This is an important evolutionary step. It is how we learn about our world from the experiences of others. We learn what to stay away from and what to seek. In times long past it was the line between life and death itself!
A parent who delights in the simplest things of nature usually has a child who delights in nature too. I have a young friend, just past 3 years who LOVES ‘bugs’. She enjoys looking at them, handling them and talking about them. They make her world interesting and magical. You don’t have to look far to find out where this fascination comes from. You just have to meet her mother!
Upon hearing the word, ‘worms’ most people cringe, right?
Walk into school and you will find an entirely different mind set when it comes to earthworms! They inspire awe and the children are truly fascinated by them. The child who has found an earthworm wriggling about on a cloudy, rainy day, feels s/he has chanced upon true treasure.
The internal anatomy of the earthworm has been sewn onto cloth and made into soft toys with the shiniest beads used to denote their 5 hearts. Clay models have been fashioned, poems have been written and thick books completed, paying homage to the earthworm.
They are the ‘new’ super heroes at school.
Upon hearing about the great work that earthworms do one child pondered, “Just like earthworms don’t know the important work they do for earth, do we humans also not know some great work that we are doing?”
I recently gave the first great lesson – the story of the universe to the elementary children. This is a period of great excitement, questions and ponderings for the children and well, for me too. I am always especially excited for the children who are hearing this epic tale for the first time. An entire universe is unlocked and ready for their explorations.
The entire Montessori ‘curriculum’ during the elementary years is dubbed as ‘Cosmic Education’. Cosmic Education connects all players in the Cosmic Drama, both animate, as well as inanimate. It is an opportunity for the child to unify themselves with the very cosmos!
Lofty ideals these, but Montessori is ALL about lofty ideals. The primary aged child has the gift of developing a ‘unified self’, the elementary aged child has the gift of ‘unifying with the cosmos’ and the adolescent, ‘unifying with ones fellow beings’.
Each and every year I see these stupendous ideals fleshed out into practical experiences that guide the children on their path.
This year, soon after I presented the story of the universe to the children I saw the movie ‘Agora‘. It’s the fictionalised story of the life of Hypatia– the Alexandrian mathematician and philosopher who lived during the 4th century CE. Living through times of religious strife, Hypatia managed to hold on to her beliefs and till the very end dedicate her life to probing the secrets of the universe. At a time when the mere thought that the workings of the cosmos was anything less of pure perfection was considered heresy, Hypatia anticipated that the earth went around the sun in an elliptical orbit. Now an ellipse was considered an ‘impure’ shape – a base figure as compared to the ‘perfect’ circle, where the centre is constantly equidistant from its diameter. Hypatia was a woman far beyond her times.
While viewing the movie (which had it’s good and bad points, but this is not a film review) I couldn’t help but see a parallel between Hypatia and the elementary child. Both probe the secrets of the cosmos and ‘touch’ it with their gift of imagination, are sensitive to issues of fairness, cannot help but ask BIG, philosophical questions and attempt to find answers guided by their reasoning mind.
I often meet adults who have completely lost touch with the child they once were. Philosophical questions, the awesomeness of the universe and all the many splendours out there, leave them unmoved while they plod along life’s path miserable in their day-to-day existence.
My hope is that children who have received cosmic education will, no matter how old they get, always have the child they once were alive in them. No matter what difficulties life throws in their path, and there surely will be many challenges, they will never cease to feel wonder at this truly majestic universe that we inhabit, never cease to ask questions bigger than themselves and never fear to look for answers.
In short, my hope is that the Cosmic Education they receive will last them a lifetime.
“Cosmic Education is intended to help each of us search for our cosmic task as a species and as individuals. To do this, we must understand ourselves in context. It is only against the background of our place in the universe, our relationships with other living organisms, and our understanding of human unity within cultural diversity, that we can attempt to answer the question, ‘Who am I?’”
~ Micheal Duffy and D’Neil Duffy – Cosmic Education – Children of the Universe
To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.
Each time I heard about the food forests that were planted, the townships that had metamorphosed into edible landscapes and the wonderful things people were growing on their tiny terraces, I felt intrigued. I also felt ignorant. My experiments with gardening were limited and at best, free form. I had done some planting with the children in previous years but not as a sustained effort.
I knew that we really ought to be gardening with the children… growing veggies, herbs and other plants. Through this contact children would be inspired to observe and understand the interconnectedness of all things; to experience the power of nature and her cycles. Even with my most cursory readings on the topic of permaculture, I could see the connection between permaculture, cosmic education and education for peace that we strive to follow in Montessori schools. BUT I felt inadequate to guide the children. I hesitated and failed to follow the enthusiasm and fascination children display in natural processes. This was a big, gaping missing piece at school.
Thanks to committed and passionate parent volunteers who have taken on the job of preparing our outdoor environment the missing piece has been found and put into place. They have opened up new ways for us to look at things – educating and guiding us.
I have only just started learning about different aspects to permaculture and am excited with this door that has been opened.
This is my attempt to document our learning and our plans.
A week ago we made three raised beds along a passage wall outside our kitchen.
First bags of cocoa peat, compost, soil and rolls of cardboard and tarpaulin were brought in.
Wood from our woodworking room was converted into frames for our raised beds. Additionally, discarded coconut shells were purchased from the neighbourhood coconut-water seller to make even more raised beds. The first time we saw this was during a school visit to Vanastree where they also used the coconut husks to make steps around the farm!
To make the raised beds we first lined the concrete on which the beds were to sit with tarpaulin, then inside the wooden frame sat a layer of corrugated cardboard and in went the rich soil, compost and cocoa peat.
All that was left to do was the sowing.
We planted all manner of treasure – 2 varieties of chillies, brinjals and tomatoes, lemon basil, turmeric, sunflowers, maize, marigolds, capsicum and drumstick, using companion plants as much as possible.
On top went a light layer of mulch.
It was such a happy experience for us.
Already the corn, capsicum, tomatoes and chillies have germinated.
In the meanwhile we have found that the soil in the gardening patch for the children is seriously depleted. It lacks aeration and has too much of clay. We have done a ‘double dig’ and planted leguminous seeds to do their magic. Observing the soil and how things are going, the patch is going to need some more time and care to get things going. Eventually we plan to have a ‘keyhole’ design utilising the edge effect.
Most of our hanging baskets are no more filled with just ornamental plants. They have been converted to herb baskets, holding plants like ‘Jalla Bhrami’, Mint, Thyme, ‘Ajwain’ or Bishop’s Weed, interspersed with a few ornamental flowers.
Around the coconut trees we have planted gourds which should climb up toward the sun.
And then there are other features planned:
A water body in the front garden made using a recycled child’s bathing tub. Hopefully it will demonstrate an aquatic eco system and bring in the frogs and birds. I have been promised some papyrus cuttings from a friend which should do nicely in it. (The children are going to be thrilled with the papyrus. Not only because of their fascination with all things ‘Ancient Egyptian’ but also because it has a triangular stem!)
A spot for our cacti and succulent garden. This is will grow slowly, getting filled over time.
A tiny tepee in the back garden, sitting close to our banana plant. Creeping and entwining through it will be a bean plant.
This summer break I have been busy with making the ‘missing’ timelines for the elementary environment.
Having already oriented themselves to their immediate environment in their first plane of development from 0 to 6 years, children in the second plane of development from 6 years to 12 years, seek to orient themselves to the entire cosmos.
In a Montessori environment, the universe itself is opened up to them through ‘Cosmic Education”. The lietmotif of Cosmic Education is the interdependance of all things, both animate and inanimate, and the gratitude that arises from this understanding.
Looking back in gratitude to all the participants in the drama of cosmic evolution is a subtext that plays constantly in the background of the elementary classroom.
The absence of easy accesibility to a vendor who stocks Montessori timelines in India has in fact been a boon. I have always found my understanding of a work crystallise when I am engaged in making the material myself. Moreover, the connection of the ‘hand’ to the material becomes more evident to the children.
Over the past two weeks rolls of cloth have been examined, measured and cut. An enterprising, and possibly only ‘alteration tailor’ in Bangalore has been befriended. Skeins of silk embroidery floss have been pulled out of dusty drawers and the tape measure has become my constant companion.
First Stop was Khadi Bhandar, where the fabric was purchased. The patient salesman heard our request for unusual measures of cloth. Meters upon meters of black khadi, strange measures of blue, brown, green and red khadi were purchased.
SREEDHAR’S SHOP ON WHEELS AND THE BLANK TIMELINE OF LIFE
I have to admit this is the first time I have come across this particular piece of ingenuity. Sreedhar, an evidently enterprising gentlemen drove up to school in his tailoring shop on wheels!
For the next 6 hours he helped us put together the blank timeline of life. After hearing me wax lyrical about the timeline and explain the idea behind the colour coded strips of cloth, Sreedhar was sufficiently charmed by the idea of making it.
We had blue for the Paleozoic Era where life predominantly existed in the waters of earth, a brown strip to represent the Mesozoic Era where life invaded the land, a green strip for the Cenozoic Era where grass, mammals and birds evolved and finally a tiny strip of red to represent humans on earth.
The blank timeline is a blank replica of the timeline of life which charts the evolution of life. Children place pictures, labels and cards of information on pre-historic life and paleogeography onto the blank timeline to construct their own timeline of evolution. By engaging in this work they discover many inter-dependancies – the plants, the animals, the rocks, the oceans, the mountains, even the ice-ages, all interdependant, forming the web of life.
The sliver of a red strip at the end, represents humans. It visually communicates the short time that humans have lived on earth, as compared to all the other players.
The child eventually comes to see herself as the beneficiary of cosmic gifts.
Each year I hear, “Earth has been home to the jellyfish, amoeba, sponges etc etc, so much longer than it has been our home!” or “It is amoeba who are really our ancestors!”
THE LONG BLACK STRIP
The story goes that the idea of the black timeline came to Montessori when she was residing in India. She had recently had a conversation with a child who had told her that there was nothing that he could learn from someone in the West as India had the oldest real civilisation in the world.
Later she observed workers in the heat and dust of Madras laying black cables in the ground.
From these two things was born the idea of the Long Black Strip – 300 meters of black cloth that represented 3 billion years of our universe’s history. The last few centimeters were coloured white to represent the time that humans have lived on earth.
Today we have reduced the 300 meters to 30 meters, and replaced the white strip with a red one.
Though the timeline does not precisely respresent the current accepted date of 4.5 billion years, it is an attempt to create an impression of the miniscule time that humans have made Earth their home.
The Long Black Strip is a compelling lesson in humility.
THE HAND CHART
The hand chart creates an impression about the importance of the hand – of work – to humans.
It is a black strip of cloth representing 7 million years of human evolution. Bang in the center is a picture of a hand with a stone tool. There is also a slim red strip right at the end that represents the birth of writing and recorded history.
All throughout the history of humans, it is their ability to work that has helped them survive.
Here echoes a message: be grateful to those of previous generations who have faithfully, lovingly, and expertly done their work in the world so that you may have life and the benefit of their knowledge!
People say that narrow paths are difficult to walk about, yet, once you have narrowed down the whole, the vast and the big, to its least denominator, the narrow path is simple,
About a month ago, we at the elementary were lucky enough to catch a splendid, magical show, ‘Saltbush Cheering Carpet‘, that was visiting our city. It is was about 2 aboriginal friends that journey across Australia and learn the secrets of their land.
Since then the elementary children have been researching all things Australia and a web of Australia has filled our environment.
The children have studied human migration routes, paleogeography and crustural plates, Australia’s political and economic geography, it’s the flora and fauna, how people satisfied their fundamental needs – then and now, indigenous Australian art, and of course, dreamtime myths.
Finally, as a consolidation of everything they had been working on, the children produced a play.
They chose from the stories they had written in the style of dreamtime myths, through a secret ballot.
The story they voted for was “Why The Kangaroo Hops”.
Each afternoon for a week, they practiced their play. Each evening they worked with their parents to make their costumes.
Finally, they performed the play for the entire school on the day of our christmas celebrations!
Though I have worked with the elementary children for 10 years now, I never know where an experience will take us. A month ago as we sat mesmerized by the show, ‘Saltbush Cheering Carpet’, no one had any idea that our christmas celebrations would have in it rainbow serpents, kookaburra’s and goannas!