02 July, 2011

Whirlwind 1 – Day 3: Vinayaka Gnana Vidya Shala, Mysore

Last issue of the Whirlwind 1 summary, second season out soon! Enjoy!

We arrived at Mysore late, looking everywhere and with Murali asking everyone we passed for the King’s Kourt Hotel. It had a large neon sign on the top, so we found it, unloaded our stuff, and checked in. They wanted to see my passport, I think because I’m Canadian and Canadian passports are famous for their beauty, but I didn’t have it so the desk clerk unfortunately missed out on an amazing experience.

We were later than expected, and had plans to meet some family for dinner at their house. Ever so polite, they had been waiting to eat until we came. Based on my experience here Kannadigas eat dinner fairly late, but it was after 10 when we finally made it to their house so I’m sure they were all very hungry (although my experience also tells me that people here are constantly eating, and I haven’t experienced hunger once in my time here, so hopefully they’d at least had tea or something recently.) The dinner was absolutely delicious.

Afterwards we went back to the hotel, got some Kingfisher Strongs, some Antiquity, and some Peter Scot from room service at almost American prices, and watched the India vs. West Indies cricket match until we passed out.

After breakfast we were met at the hotel by Mr. Jayaram, the secretary of the International Human Development and Upliftment Academy, the NGO that runs and funds the Vinayaka Gnana Vidya Shala School that we were visiting that day. He drove us about 20 km out of Mysore into the village of Mullur. The views of oxen pulling ploughs through the fields were enjoyable as we passed through several small villages before we came to the school.

The administrative staff were happy to meet with us. We were greeted with welcoming arms and cooperative minds, especially on the part of the head master, Madhusudan Rao, Mr. Jayaram, and Suresh, the administrative officer, who combined to answer any and all questions we had and told us the story and history of the school. It started in 1994 with a plea from the villages to Dr. Ajay Kumar for a legitimate source of education in the region. Along with his brother Amar, the two started the school with about 12 children and oversaw its growth and success to include over 400 students from 9 surrounding villages, and operating on a yearly budget of only about 15 lakhs.

The school has actively recruited students from the villages of Mullur, Gopalapura, Thibaiyanahundi, Beerihundi, Devagalli, Salhundi, Beerihundi, Mooganahundi, Yadahalli, and Dhanagalli, alerting parents to the availability, quality, and proximity of the education they offer. They boast a 90% attendance rate, and now accommodate almost all of the school aged kids in the local villages.

Many students have gone on to higher education institutes in Mysore, not only earning degrees but often bringing them back to the village to give back to their family and community through means such as agricultural engineering, resource management, and education.

One former student had even gone on to become a teacher at the school. We were happy to see him teaching the children maths after being inspired to give back so directly to the educational institution that had trained and nurtured him.

Another nice story we heard was of a girl who was excelling in the school and was offered placement at a private school in Mysore. After spending some time at that school, she decided that she preferred the education offered by Vinayaka Gnana Vidya Shala and opted to return to complete her studies there.

Vinayaka Gnana Vidya Shala School had initially offered free enrollment, but found that this detracted from the perceived credibility of the school. So they instituted a nominal fee of about 500 rupees. This conveyed both a sense of value and a sense of commitment to the parents, and remarkably increased enrollment.

The curriculum is not typical, as they emphasize creativity, art, gender equality, environmental awareness, yoga, and nonviolence. Physical discipline through the beating of children with sticks is not uncommon in Indian schools, but Vinayaka Gnana Vidya Shala achieve remarkable student discipline through their method of education. This is partly due to the eagerness of the students to learn, as they are grateful for the opportunity to get an education in an area that would likely otherwise be underserved by a small government school.

One shortcoming they told us about was their English language program. The head master himself was the only teacher they had with both the English speaking, reading, and writing skills to teach kids, and the time available to actually do so. Although several teachers had some skills in English, they lacked a venue in which they could practice conversation with either native or fluent English speakers.

After stepping in to every class at the school, from kindergarten through 10th standard, saying “Hi!”, introducing ourselves, listening to a couple songs by the kids, and saying bye, we took the kids’ lunch break to put together a short lesson in geometry.

Pras took the lead, basing a lesson on a brief description he’d read online about conveying hands-on understanding of the formula for the area of a circle. Geometry, and mathematics in general, are often taught in a context that not only lacks a connection to the real world but also fails to establish an intuitive understanding. Even such a physically relevant subject as geometry seems to frequently skip the part where students measure angles in nature, cut pieces of paper apart, move them around, and build awesome things using the beautiful principles of mathematics.

So Pras and Kat tackled a small part of this problem, using paper, compasses, protractors, razor blades, and hands to draw a circle, cut it out, rearrange it, and construct a rough rectangle with a length of half the circumference of the circle, and a height of its radius, giving an area of π*r*r, or πr², a.k.a. the area of a circle. It makes sense, but I’ve definitely never seen it before and it sure captivated the kids for those 45 minutes. The whole lesson was captured on some flips, so we should have a video of it at some point for you to see.

With that we were sent to the headmaster’s office, for tea, bananas, biscuits, and more bananas. We said our goodbyes and thanks and headed to the house of Dr. Ajay Kumar, one of the school’s benefactors who also runs a cancer research and treatment center in Mysore.

He almost literally lives in a palace. We had another amazing meal in his 150 year old massive, beautiful house formerly belong to the Maharaja and situated at the foothills of the local mountains adjacent to the famous and literally literal Mysore Palace. The doctor was not in but we met his wife and son, learned a little about the various projects they and the rest of their family are involved in, and even got to see some lovely blow-ups of Lake Louise in Beautiful British Columbia. I had instantly recognized the landscape in the picture on the wall when a sense of home and comfort came over me.

Our departure was hastened by Murali’s fear of night driving, so we got back to Bangalore at a reasonable hour. I forget specifically but my experience with assumptions, and for the sake of this account, we can pretty safely say that we were somehow fed heartily before we all fairly instantly passed out, literally dead from the powerful whirlwind we’d drawn across Karnataka over the past three and a half days.

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