Environmental Education--Hope and Transformation

--Teaching at The Valley School, Krishnamurti Foundation of India, Bangalore.

Experiences shared by Vipul Shaha

-What is the role of education in turning around the mounting environmental crisis in today's world?

-How would the youth of today develop & express their deep care for nature?

-Can they be active young citizens engaged in environmental action? 

-What would education look like when the world is our classroom and our life is the curriculum?

-What if learning is fun and not a drudgery?

These were some of my motivating questions when I embraced an opportunity to teach environmental science (EVS) at the Valley School in Bangalore (Krishnamurti Foundation of India). Having had no formal academic training in this discipline was to be a challenge and a great learning opportunity for me.

My only qualification to take up EVS was my growing concern & interest around environmental issues from my interactions with several karmayogis in the field. I had also been spending time with tribal communities in various regions, which was really an eye-opening and humbling experience


When I expressed my interest and willingness to take up EVS, the school offered me much needed trust, autonomy and support in shaping up an innovative EVS program. It was really helpful to consult with my mentor-colleagues, Sudha aunty and Skanda, who had been teaching EVS for many years at Valley. My background in curriculum design, pedagogy and educational psychology proved useful as well.

A bit about the context: all my student-friends at Valley (Grade 9 to 12) had opted into the study of Environmental Science (EVS), which means that they chose to study EVS from various other subject combinations/offerings.

Out of the total of 25 students who took EVS in my classes, there were 22 girls and only 3 boys.  This skewed gender ratio may be owing to the fact that EVS is offered as an option to what are generally perceived to be more conventional career subjects such as physics, accounts or psychology.

Recognizing the gravity of the current environmental crisis however, we all strongly felt the need for everyone--children and adults alike to get a comprehensive and rigorous exposure to EVS. We also soon realized that this cannot be treated as just another 'academic' subject to be studied for exams and to be forgotten later, but something that we all need to be deeply concerned about and actively engaged with in our daily lives.

Given that the students themselves had chosen to study EVS ensured greater interest and engagement and a much smaller student-teacher ratio--our class-size remained very small--10 students at maximum. This definitely helped in holding more discussion-oriented circles in our classes.

The Valley School lends itself as an ideal setting for the study of environment--a beautiful forest campus spanning over a hundred acres of wilderness and a living laboratory for various green initiatives. Most of our classes were held outdoors, under the trees (sometimes even on the trees!)  Since EVS is offered by only a handful schools, not much was found available in the market in terms of quality resource material/textbooks aligned with the board curriculum. We turned this into an opportunity to put together our own 'resource-kit' while adapting the curriculum to suit our interests, needs and the context.  We relied on some of the classic books from acclaimed authors, such as 'Small Is Beautiful' by E.F. Schumacher & Environmental Studies—From Crisis to Cure by R. Rajgoopalan. The Bhoomi & Down-To-Earth Magazines and the State of the Environment Reports (Center for Science & Environment) offered many insightful articles, adding much value to our classes.

A class on the Banyan Tree!
 
We also found great benefit in referring to topic-specific case-studies, watching various thought-provoking documentary films, reading up latest news articles & research papers from around the world, holding interactions with experts in the field, going on localized field-study visits, taking up hands-on projects and carrying out online research etc.

Valley, in general, is a community of environmentally conscious parents and ex-students who are engaged in some really incredible work in environmental domain at the local, national as well as at the international level. Many of them came forward and very generously offered their time, skills, expertise and insights in taking forward our collective learning. My role, therefore, happily extended to being a connector, coordinator and facilitator in creating learning opportunities for my students.

Shared below are some of the highlights and key themes, which emerged from my teaching- learning as a fledgling environmental educator. I hope that they may be of some value to others in the field.  Under each theme, I have also shared some concrete examples of activities we carried out.

Any ideas and suggestions would be most welcome! 

1. Love for Nature:

“Have you ever woken up in the morning and looked out of the window, or gone out and looked at the trees and the spring dawn? Live with it. Listen to all the sounds, to the whisper, the slight breeze among the leaves. See the light on a leaf and watch the sun coming over the hill, over the meadow; and the dry river, or sheep grazing across the hill. Watch them; look at them with a sense of affection, care that you do not want to hurt a thing...watch with all your eyes and ears, your sense of smell. Watch. Look as though you are looking for the first time...When you have such communion with nature, then your relationship with another person becomes simple, clear, without conflict…if you hurt nature, you’re hurting yourself.”--J. Krishnamurti



A group hug to Banyan Tree on campus

I have come to believe that for anyone even remotely concerned about environmental issues or wishing to get involved, the fundamental requisite is to restore our lost connection with nature. I say 'lost' because it really is innate to all of us and comes so naturally to little children. Somewhere in the process of growing up and academic/career pressures taking over, we tend to lose that connect, leading to what is now being called in the West as 'Nature Deficit Disorder'.  Our patterns of consumption, strategies for reform and approaches to environmental action would be drastically different if we shared deep love and a sense of oneness with nature.  This calls for a direct contact with nature infused with silence, contemplation, leisure and constructive action.

As a class, we enjoyed ample nature walks in the Valley forest, wrote poems, engaged with some nature-inspired art-work, talked with nature, climbed trees, sat by the lake, cooked on a Chullah gathering firewood in the forest.  Some of the students voluntarily looked after two injured dogs residing in the community.

It was heart-warming to be part of a special burial the students of class 9 offered to a little bird they found dead during one of our nature walks. Another set of kids were quick in trying to rescue an injured bird on a different occasion.

Students appreciated the depth and calm they experienced during 'Shin-Drin-Yo-Ko' (Japanese method of 'Forest Bath') facilitated by a friend of Valley--Pradeep.

A Forest Walk with students

As and when time permitted during our classes, we found great joy in experimenting with some of the nature games & activities compiled on http://www.healingforest.org

A group of us spent 2 immersive weeks at Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in Wayanad, Kerala with Suprabha Seshan--an ex-student of Valley. It's an incredibly inspiring rainforest conservation initiative. Students described it as a life-changing experience in their study & understanding of the environment.

We also explored some of the writings of J. Krishnamurti on nature and pondered over the ideas of 'Deep Ecology' embedded in it.

A couple of classes were held during which the Class 11 students paired up with Class 1 students and went on independent nature walks in the Valley forest. The idea was to immerse ourselves in nature with a sense of wonder and curiosity that our little friends always seemed to be bubbling with. It was a mutual learning experience that everyone seemed to have really enjoyed.

2. Optimistic / Hope-giving:

As we begin to touch into the study of environment, it becomes inevitable to recognize the alarming ecological crisis the world is currently finding itself in.  It can be hard-hitting to face the sheer facts about mass species extinction, the dangers looming over from climate change, the continued degradation of soil, water & air, the loss of biodiversity, the threat to the survival of forests, the wildlife and the indigenous communities and the various resultant conflicts arising from the 'development’ paradigm. It can be overwhelming to grapple with the complexity of these seemingly intractable issues. One could easily fall into despair. 

I had to exercise caution while conveying many of these 'inconvenient truths' to young minds that were always full of energy and idealism.  I certainly did not wish to paint too grim a picture of reality. For no fault of theirs, the youth of today are inheriting a world fraught with so many problems (albeit with many possibilities indeed)!

While a clearer understanding of the current scenario is important, my constant intent and endeavor was to balance it by highlighting the various counter-currents of people's movements rising around the world, the bright-spots of communities taking charge of their livelihoods in sustainable ways, the positive stories of citizens' initiatives, the success stories of revival, restoration and conservation, the innovative localized techno-socio solutions gaining momentum etc.


A field-visit to Puttanahalli Lake Conservation Initiative


As they prepare to enter adult life and the world of work, I found it important to instill in young minds the optimism and the confidence that they have an important role to play in making this world a greener, kinder and a just place to live in for ALL.

Many of the students are already amazing artists, musicians, poets, writers, designers, outdoor and animal enthusiasts etc.  How do we encourage them to hone in on their natural talents & channelize their innate potential (Swadharma) towards greater good is the real task of education.






Listed below are some of the activities we carried out:

--We hosted Ashish Kothari from Kalpavriksh who talked about 'Radical Ecological Democracy' and the 'Alternatives' emerging in various fields.

--Kalyan from Proto Village shared his journey of living without money with the tribal communities and now restoring a barren piece of land in one of the driest regions of India.  His Proto-Village is highly inspiring!

--Gopakumar Uncle (a Valley parent) shared about his Otter conservation efforts.

--Ranna uncle (another parent) hosted a very informative presentation on solar-power at his completely off-grid farmhouse.

--We visited the Puttanahalli Lake and learnt about how it was revived through citizen initiative.

--We were kindly hosted by Anvaitha at 'Go Native' who shared her green business model and offered us some delicious vegan-organic snacks!  A class was dedicated to vegan/organic cooking. One of the students created a booklet on sustainable and vegan food.

A visit to Go Native

--Renu, one of the Valley parents, shared her journey into the alternative medicine and traditional healthcare practices in India whereas another parent--Smitha had a session with us on 'Spiritual Ecology'.

--Prajna from Anaadi Foundation conducted a very interactive class on United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

--Deepak, a professor from IIM Bangalore held a thought provoking class on the 'Paradox of Efficiency' with a critical analysis of technology, energy and consumption.


3. Project-Based and Hands-On:

Our constant endeavor was to bridge the gap between theory and practice to the extent possible.  Towards this end, my classes involved several student-led projects on topics that interested them and were found relevant to our coursework.  Students came up with some really interesting projects ranging from topics such as eco-architecture, eco-tourism, music & nature, sustainable menstruation, urban wilderness, plant phenology, animal rehabilitation etc.

While looking into our role in causing water pollution, we had a class on making our own natural bio-enzyme. We used discarded lemon peels from school kitchen.

We also made natural cosmetics and natural soaps. It prompted some of us to experiment with these practices at home as well.  This was a project initiated by Swetha--an ex-student and a parent at Valley.



A class on making natural bio-enzyme and natural cosmetics with Swetha


Murali Krishna--another parent, helped us to assemble a solar cooker on the terrace of the school dining-hall. It was followed by an engaging discussion on benefits of solar cooked food and solar energy. He also offered us a session on up-cycling coconut shells.


A class on Solar Cooking on school roof-top!

Eight girls of EVS Class 11 carried out a yearlong project on the theme of 'Waste'. This involved weighing the total waste generated on campus in a month's time (nearly 500 kgs!). They also designed a survey to capture data on waste generation & disposal habits within the Valley community. Awareness posters were created and workshops were held in junior classes in order to create more awareness and share our learning with the wider school community.


We later went on a daylong field-study tour around Bangalore city to understand various challenges and grass-root solutions about solid-waste. A similar field-tour was taken up to understand the water and sanitation situation in the city.  Both were found to be quite an eye-opening experience by the students. 

Getting our hands dirty, so to say, was really important for original insights to emerge and learning to be internalized. I remember some of the students reacting with displeasure after being invited to put their hands in the compost pit. They slowly got comfortable in carrying the compost across campus and spreading it around in a vegetable garden.


Getting our hands into school compost-pit!

In one of our classes, students were given a design challenge--to gather any items from the 'waste-room' and create something meaningful/useful within an hours' time. Two teams set about the task in full zest and came back with very creative outputs. "If we start thinking out-of-the-box, there is nothing called waste", remarked one of them at the end of the activity.

4. Relevant and Relatable:

Our attempt was to make learning as relevant and as relatable as possible for all the students. This was important in order to grow and sustain their interest in topics being covered.

Nothing could be more effective than finding a personal connection with the subject matter.  It wasn't too difficult to draw from our collective exposure and experiences given that environmental issues are all pervasive now.

I encouraged them to connect with local NGOs and initiatives, take interviews with people engaged with socio-environmental causes, share personal stories of their experiments and challenges in leading eco-friendly lifestyle etc.  Students of Class 11 enjoyed creating a scrapbook of weekly news articles focused on environmental topics of their interest.  They had to write and share their reflections based on what they were reading in the article.

We often took up local issues for our discussion based on the topic at hand.  For example, when studying Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), students analyzed, discussed and debated the pros and cons of a new hostel building being constructed on campus and a new flyover coming up in Bangalore city.

Our class once had a video-call interaction with their counterparts at Sahyadri (another Krishnamurti School in Pune). The purpose was to exchange ideas and share learning.

During another class, the students could instantly relate with the urge and angst expressed by Greta Thunberg--a 15 year old Swedish girl. In her speech at the United Nations she appeals school students around the world to go on a school strike and has launched a youth campaign on climate change (Fridays for Future).

5. Inter-Disciplinary Learning:

As I began to familiarize myself with Environmental Science, what I really appreciated about the subject is that it stands at the cross-roads of various fields--biology, chemistry, economics, politics, law, business, psychology, geography, history, culture, sociology and spirituality etc. As we looked more closely into some of the intractable environmental problems such as climate change, it became evident that the study of EVS calls for an expansive and holistic understanding of our world.


A poster on climate change by Aarti and Sunayana

More than ever before, we need to break the artificial walls of academic & professional disciplines and be able to engage together in solving them as one global community. Within the microcosm of our Valley community, their friends were often poking at the EVS students ‘to take care of the environment’--as if it were a job to be outsourced to a handful few. It is this sense of division and topic specialization that we need to transcend when it comes to environmental action. I was keen that young minds in my EVS classes engage with diverse points of views, to act upon their understanding and to learn to be patient with the results, to share their learning and create wider awareness and to appreciate the underlying tensions arising from various interest groups when addressing a problem.

In order to serve this purpose we once held a whole class (40 students) debate on 'whether Bangalore should have Metro rail or not'? Dividing themselves in smaller groups, students assumed various roles and presented their case as politicians, investors/businessmen, ordinary citizens, Environmental NGOs, lawyers etc. It turned out to be a serious and sincere debate bringing to surface finer aspects and complexities of the issue.

A senior corporate lawyer (and an ex-parent from Valley) Mr. Vishwanath, shared his views and experiences about how political & public interest negotiate with each other in trying to abide by environmental regulation. He presented us with case studies on buffer zones around lakes and forestlands in Bangalore.  

On another occasion, we hosted former secretary, Ministry of Forests and Environment, who offered us a big-picture view on how environmental laws have evolved and are being implemented in our country with a particular focus on Forest Rights Act.

We sometimes held combined class with students of Sociology. It was helpful to exchange perspectives on some of the issues of our common interest.

When studying 'pollution', some of the students expressed a concern about the light pollution at night on school campus. Their concerns and ideas were welcomed by the school administration.


An outdoor cookout with our 'Eco-Warriors' class

One more aspect around inter-disciplinary learning needs a mention here--that of striking a balance between structure and fluidity during our classes.  My colleague Skanda and I would walk into the class with a broad plan about what needs to be covered in terms of content.  We would ensure that ample space was available for students to share what may be predominantly occupying their mind-space at any point of time. It wasn't too difficult for us to build off of whatever was emerging through such open discussions and link it with environmental studies.  Our starting point could be food security for example, leading us to critically analyze McDonalds or Monsanto and their impact on agriculture, the latest TV ads from food industry, a local millets food festival in the city or an eco-resort a student may have just visited etc.  Such flexibility helped us co-construct our learning as a more organic process.

Rather than mere transmission of information, it allowed us to broaden the scope of our understanding beyond what was prescribed in the curriculum.

6. Inside-Out Change:

As part of the coursework we studied various theories, scientific/technical tools, frameworks and concepts in order to get a sound intellectual understanding about the environment. At the same time, it was important for us to be constantly checking-in with ourselves on how we are applying what we are learning in our day-to-day lives.  In other words, are we being the change or are we falling into the trap of becoming armchair environmental activists? 

On this front, my young friends were my greatest inspiration--they really seemed to 'get it' and were enthusiastically willing to make the necessary changes in their own lifestyle. It reinforced my belief that only a rise in human consciousness, particularly from a young age, would be a significant necessity if we were to meet the incredible environmental challenges being posed to us in the coming decade(s).

When we watched 'Earthlings'-a documentary on animal cruelty for example, many of the students decided to go vegetarian/vegan at least for some time.


"Be A Radical Alternative" a poster by Shanaia

With help from Shriram & Sowmya, Valley parents, we carried out a carbon-footprint study (self-assessment). We also ran an energy and water audit for our families. It was revealing to experience how, by simply bringing more awareness towards our consumption habits, our relationship with it can undergo a sea change.

Some of us really enjoyed taking up the 21-Days Eco-Living Challenge hosted on https://www.kindspring.org

Dr. Kulkarni (a parent from Dharwad) conducted a session on 'Sustainable Menstruation' for senior students, which received a very positive response.

As a teacher, I had to be extra conscious as to whether I was practicing what I was teaching.  Students would instantly catch me if there was even tiny bit of food-waste on my plate after meals or if I used a vehicle to get around on Valley campus (instead of walking).  In other words, I really had to 'walk the talk'!

In conclusion, I can say that, within the constraints of a school system, class-structure (approx. 2.5 hours contact time per week), board syllabus and exam pattern, multiple academic & non-academic demands placed upon each student, we were able to bring alive the study of environment in a fun-filled and practical manner.  The two years that I engaged in teaching-learning & co-exploring EVS with my students turned out to be a fulfilling and transformative experience indeed, somewhat reminiscent of my earlier teaching experience as a Teach for IndiaFellow.

At the end of my two-year stint, I decided to move on with the intention of expanding the frontiers of teaching-learning for myself and other young folks. 

Even as I continue to explore what it means to 'educate for life and from life', I am more than hopeful that the many seeds & saplings we planted together at Valley (literally and figuratively) would gradually grow into large trees and provide nurturance to many more in the years to come!


Documentary Films for reference:

  • Timbaktu Collective
  • Story of Cosmetics
  • Modern Times
  • Ancient Futures
  • Home
  • Killing Us softly
  • Homegrown Revolution
  • Schooling the world
  • India’s Healing Forests
  • Economics of Happiness
  • Once Upon A Forest
  • Before the Flood
  • The Century of the Self
  • An Inconvenient Truth
  • The Queen of Trees
  • Nero’s Guest
  • Water-Every Drop Counts
  • Coconut Revolution
  • Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain
  • Story of Stuff
  • Cuba: Power of Community
  • Story of Solutions
  • BBC: Planet Earth