#WhatIf: A new day at school

Romana Shaikh
9 min readJun 10, 2020

What if Schools are lively, creative, natural spaces of shared connection, exploration and creation that nurture and nourish everyone

Sanjana comes to school with her younger brother Jai each morning a little before 8:15 am. She helped her mom clean the house and get Jai ready for the day. The two of them meet Ahmed, Mihir, Sakshi and Mariyam as they come in. This small group gathers together on the ground, stretching and yawning; still sleepy and some of them grumpy, from not sleeping well the night before. Sakshi whispers to Mariyam that she is scared to do the morning exercises. ‘What if it stains my dress?’

The teacher joins them soon, greeting them with a joyful ‘Good Morning champs!’ Unable to get everyone’s attention in the midst of the chattering voices, Sheetal Ma’am and Raju Sir start singing loudly! Now that worked! In no time the children have joined in the song, screeching and laughing, some awkwardly looking around. A group of students has organized the materials for the fitness routines and the students break into groups choosing what they’d like to do. Mariyam goes to Sheetal Ma’am and tells her Sakshi is not feeling well. The teacher knows her students and has been keeping a note of the girls in middle school; and is quick to guess what may be going on. She goes over to Sakshi and takes a walk with her, thanking Mariyam for looking out for her friend.

On the ground, there are students all around, some running, some stretching, some doing yoga routines. The teachers move around group to group, encouraging students to breathe, be mindful, imagine their muscles stretching and becoming strong. They have taught these routines before and now students are building on them, increasing their stamina and strength.

After a rigorous 45 minutes, students finish up, clear up the materials and move to change into their uniforms and collect their breakfast.

By 10am students have found their way to their community circle rooms. Jai, 10yrs old sits down next to Mariyam, 14yrs old. He asks her ‘Do you tell didi what happens in this class?’ ‘Sanjana is my friend, I share many things with her! Why are you asking?’ Just then the Shabana Ma’am comes in and has all the students jump to their feet. She plays music from her phone, ‘Today’s community circle will start with silent dancing! Find your own space in the room, listen to the music and let yourself move. Be careful not to bang into each other! Start with looking down, get comfortable….’ She continues to guide the group to be comfortable with themselves and then slowly start interacting with each other. In 15 minutes the group is smiling, moving around and connecting with each other. This group has been meeting every morning since school began 3 months ago. Shabana Ma’am knows that they are just getting to know each other. This age group is going through many changes and they can be sensitive at times. So she takes her time to settle them in. The community circle continues with a check in question, ‘What animal do you feel like today? Why?’ ‘Monkey! Because I have lots of energy!’ shouts 12yr old Prajwal. ‘Lion! Because I’m feeling proud of my running time from the morning.’ says 14yr old Savita. ‘Mouse! Because I feel like hiding’ says Jai. Mariyam looks at Jai. Suddenly she realizes that maybe Jai is feeling scared of something. ‘I wonder what happened?’ She makes a note in her mind of this. Not sure what to do with this thought. But it is worrying her now. As the group gets ready to sing their morning song, Mariyam quickly changes her place to stand next to Jai.

Its 10:45 a.m.; students start making their way to their work groups now. Mariyam, Sanjana & Mihir meet in the same working group. Last week, they had started a new exploration: ‘How does food reach us?’ After Mihir had shared with the group that while he was helping his father at the vegetable shop, his father said that they had to charge more money for mangoes than other fruit; because mangoes come from very far. So Mihir said this to the people who came to buy mangoes. But everyone was fighting about the price. Mihir was confused. He knew he couldn’t sell it at a lower price. But when they asked him why not, he could only say ‘Because they come from far’. Since then, his class was trying to understand how different food reached their town. They had chosen different food items and started exploring the journey they take. Some they found come from outside the country even! Can you imagine!

Shabana Ma’am watches her students from the doorway. It’s an exciting part of the exploration they have reached. She wonders what will happen today. She brings the class together and quickly they move into a sharing round, in small groups to discuss one thing they are wondering about. Each group collects the different wonders and chooses the one they want to explore today. They share in the large group the different wonders for the day, ‘Why is the price different in the big markets and small markets?’ ‘How does the price get decided?’ ‘Mango prices keep changing but biscuit prices don’t! Why does this happen?’ ‘Those are such great questions! I don’t think I have the answers! So, if you all are decided then, we will take 3 days to explore these. Today you and your groups can do 2 things — explain the context of your wonder. Spend some time discussing and thinking — put down some examples, facts and experiences to describe your wonder. Second, think about how you want to go about your wonder. Where can you find answers? Who can you talk to? I will come around and check in with you as you work.’

In another class, Jai meets his working group. He knows all the other 15 children in this group; some are his age and others are younger, 7 to 10yrs old. He goes over to sit with Neha & Ramesh. They have already started discussing what they found out yesterday. ‘Ramu Kaka told me, that when he was small, there were no buildings near LT Marg. It was full of trees.’ Neha was saying. Ramesh added ‘Yes. Even my dadi was saying that my father used to climb trees when he was young. But there are no trees there anymore.’ They looked at Jai expectantly. ‘I… Ya. Even my father said the same.’ The class had started an exploration last week ‘Why do seasons change?’ To connect with the question, they had acted like the different seasons and played games to bring the seasons to life. Around the class was different art work of their season characters, with descriptions and dialogues bringing them to life. This week, they were trying to understand how they change and what they were finding is that they change in an annual cycle; this was because of how the earth and the sun move. Their teacher had told them a story with many different pictures of the earth and the sun. But from talking to their families they were finding that now a days the seasons had gotten stronger — it was hotter, the monsoons were fiercer. But not the winter. It was not so cold anymore, that’s what their parents were saying. They wanted to understand how trees were affecting the seasons.

Arjun sir comes in just then and brings the class together in a circle. ‘Ok! So are we ready to continue our research today? Let’s see what we’ve figured out so far.’ They start with building a story of the summer season — each student takes on the character of a different thing from their surroundings. Neha becomes the sun, Ramesh becomes a tree, Saahil becomes a child and sits down under the tree, a few other students become trees, butterflies and grass. Jai suddenly jumps up and pushes Ramesh down! ‘I’m a construction truck.’ he says. ‘Ok. Jai, can you help Ramesh get up please? Class, what do you think Jai is showing us?’ The children start sharing what they were hearing from their families about how their town has changed over the years. ‘So, how do you think the trees are related to the weather? Let’s watch a movie that will show us the Earth from outside.’ And so the young researchers begin to explore climate change.

It’s the second half of the school day. Neha, Ramesh and Jai race back to class after lunch. They were so busy playing, they were going to be late! They reach the class just after Sheetal Ma’am had started the silent colouring. They snuck in quietly hoping to not be seen. Jai felt a big headache starting and wanted to lie down. Just then he felt a tap on his shoulder. He froze in his steps. ‘Have some water. You look like you’ve been running!’ Sheetal Ma’am said with a smile. After a little more silent colouring, Sheetal Ma’am reminded the class that they could go on to their next activity whenever they felt ready and group 3 was to come sit with her for their language workshop. This was Jai’s favourite time of the day. He didn’t have to discuss or read or think. He went straight to the craft corner and picked up the model he had started making a few days back. He looked at the different trees he had made, different colours on each one. ‘This is my inside out planet’ he thought. Everything is different here. He started to cut some strips of blue, white and grey paper and was wondering how to attach them like the sky when he noticed Abhi sitting across and staring at him. Abhi, two years younger than Jai, strolled over and gave Jai some toothpicks and string. They grinned at each other. They had figured it out! Jai gave him a high five and motioned for Abhi to join him.

Soon it was time for the closing circle of the day. All the students went to meet their community groups. The same group they started the day with. Sanjana was really tired today. She walked over with a sullen face, dragging her feet with Sakshi by her side almost mirroring the feeling. The two girls had spent the previous hour reading and discussing ‘Like a girl’ with Mihir. Sanjana shared how she was helping her mother out with more chores now a days and it didn’t give her time to study. While Sakshi was nervous since now she had ‘grown up’ her mother didn’t want her to be out with friends. She was only allowed to come to school. For now. Mihir had asked if they liked being girls. This left them deep in thought.

Music was already playing when they walked into their community circle rooms. Students knew this was their time to reflect on their day and what they had learned. Some students wrote, some coloured, some just sat. Teachers watched keenly and let students settle down. Through the entire school a calm vibrated, the myriad of thoughts, questions, ideas, emotions, connections from the day coming to a close, a pause. A check out question asked students to take a shape with their bodies, to show how they were feeling. Sakshi put a finger to her forehead, Sanjana hugged herself, Mihir stretched his arms out, Jai stood up straight, Mariyam put her hand on her heart, Shabana Ma’am leaned forward with hands like a focus lens on her eyes. They held their positions and captured the warmth of their friends and teachers for a few moments more.

The bell rang. The day had ended.

As an educator, I’ve struggled with rigid standardized way schools are run. Over the years, i’ve been fortunate to see and hear about examples in the formal schooling space as well as out of school space where a new day really has come!
Teach For India, we strove to re-imagine within the constraints of the system and many of our Fellows and students pushed our vision of whats possible. In the after school space, the work of Dream a Dream and PYE (Global) shows the power of creative process work for transformation. Others like ACT Microschools (Egypt), Big Picture Learning, School 21 (London), SUMMIT Public Schools and many many others are leading deep radical change in schooling.

Do you know schools that have repurposed and reimagined education? Leave links and connections in the comments! I would love to expand my community and learn from more students, educators and communities!