Professor Mani and the Lotus Tutors
By Glenn Fawcett
Professor Ramu Manivannan is the son of an Indian freedom fighter that worked along with the likes of Mahatma Gandhi to free India of its colonial shackles. He is now the head of the Politics and Public Administration Department at the University of Madras, and the founder and chairman of the Garden of Peace School and the Lotus Tutors program. Mani has just returned from presenting his tome entitled: Sri Lanka, Hiding the Elephant, documenting Genocide, War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR).
Lotus Outreach and Professor Ramu have been working together in service of children of illiterate quarry and weaving labor for more than 10 years. I recently stayed a few days at the Garden of Peace to visit some of the Lotus Tutors’ evening schools with Mani - as he is affectionately known by his many students, friends and colleagues. While LO and it’s partners (currently Guru Krupa and previously LO Germany) have always funded Lotus Tutors, Mani and his family provide largely from their own pockets to keep the Garden of Peace school open for the 160 primary school children drawn from poverty stricken villages and hamlets around Nelvoy Thoppu, in the Vellore district of Tamil Nadu. I have never heard Mani respond to any question about this work without framing it in terms of peaceful social development and it’s evolution.
“We have to look at problems from top and bottom at home and start the work at the bottom, at the grassroots. This is where Lotus Tutors’ work complements the work of the school.” Mani further says, “You cannot separate what is political from other life activities, attitudes to life, environment and education. The Tibetan people for instance chose to prioritize establishing a quality education system even before establishing their government in exile. As a result, the culture and values of Tibet have been entirely preserved, which shows the wisdom in their approach. The Tibetan culture will never disappear from its people, unlike many refugee communities, that have not only lost their land and country, but also their identity. Education is central to ‘identity’ preservation, cultural preservation, and even political preservation. I look at education in that context."
Mani goes on to tell us, “No matter what culture or political and social frame, there is a universality of issues where ‘rights’ are concerned. Education is fundamental to our social, political and cultural identity and we have to learn to work at the local level, from the bottom up to ensure the right of children to an education that inspires and uplifts while also instilling discipline in a very non-violent way.”
Mani always refers to the Garden Of Peace School as an ‘experiment’ in education and has drawn widely on models such as Krishnamurti, Waldorf Steiner and Montessori. Learning through playing, the children interact with the learning material through story telling for instance, is a very important part of evolving an effective and enjoyable learning model. For instance, Mani established the Children’s Parliament, in which the children can bring a complaint against the teachers that must then be resolved with Mani and a larger presiding committee. That gives children confidence that they will not be punished by use of force, which is common in Indian public schools, and it shows them how conflicts can and should be resolved in a peaceful way. The model is certainly working well in both the school and Lotus Tutors’ classes where the children are extremely interested, excited and engaged. In fact, we can clearly see the success of Mani’s intention to impact on larger structures; the grassroots work of Lotus Tutors has started to influence the teachers at the public schools where the classes take place in a very positive and multifarious manner.
The public school teacher at the Alahagu Senaai Primary School tells us, “We are very happy to have Lotus Tutors in our school as the children are now excited and keen to learn, both in the evening and day classes. Our school won an award for best school in the block this year, based on our students’ Arts and Academic performance. This would not have been possible without the children spending time to review their syllabus at the Lotus Tutors classes. Our students’ overall grades have definitely improved since the advent of the Lotus Tutors classes!”
Mani signs off with a big vote of gratitude to Lotus Outreach, “Over the last 10 years, Lotus Tutors has been very much a collaboration with LO and has only evolved to where it is today, based in the larger framework of Right To Education, with continuous technical input, encouragement and of course funding from and through Lotus Outreach. We look forward to continuing this rewarding relationship as the learn-through-play model continues to impact a government school system on which 80% of India’s children rely to secure their future, while including them in the overall development equation of the country.”
Meet Ritesh Kumar - Future Electronic Engineer
Ritesh Kumar, a Lotus Tutors graduate, is now pursuing his bachelor degree on Electronic Engineering, already day dreaming about following it up with a masters degree. Ritesh attended Lotus Tutors’ classes for two years at a school in Nelvoy Thoppu town where his family still lives, working as farmers. Ritesh is the first generation of his family to be so highly educated, no one in his family has ever graduated university.
Glenn Fawcett: Tell us about your experience as a tutee in the Lotus Tutors program.
Ritesh Kumar: The school I studied at had many computers. In 2008 and 2009 we had two teachers from Lotus Tutors who were bachelors in Science patiently teaching us, and giving us a lot of attention. We were in a remote village, without those two teachers we would have missed the chance to learn with the school computers. There were 10 computers in the school lab. The students were expected to use them for learning, playing games and getting used to the computer technology in general. Our families couldn’t afford computers. In fact computers were simply not available to us otherwise and now here I am, studying computer engineering!
GF: How does your family feel about what your academic achievement?
RK: It’s been a challenge for me to come as far as I have, because my parents did not study beyond the 10th grade. My family is very happy for me. It was their dream for me to be well educated. Given our economic and social situation it’s really a big achievement, so we are all very happy. After finishing my Bachelors degree I would like to complete my Masters in Electronic Engineering, but that will depend on how I can afford that. Perhaps I can work and study, I’m not sure, but I will do my best.
GF: What does it mean to you, in terms of your future, to be on the verge of graduating university?
RK: For me it is a rebirth into a world of possibilities the boys I grew up with could never imagine. They are stuck working as labors and doing other menial tasks, and I feel saddened that they were not able to pursue the level of education I have, and the future I will secure that will change my life and the life of my entire family. I will always remember the support I have been given and work to assist others in any way I can toward furthering their education.
GF: Is there anything you would like to say to Lotus Outreach and the Lotus Tutors supporters? (Ritesh really came alive when I asked this question.)
RK: I really should have conveyed this at the beginning but now you’ve asked, I want to thank Mani, Lotus Outreach and the Lotus Tutors teachers, in fact all those that have in any way sustained this program. But for this support, I would not have been able to complete even my high school studies.
From the Field: Lotus Tutors
The Lotus Tutors program in Chennai, South India, serves 8 schools with daily afternoon supplementary classes for 1st through 5th graders. Glenn Fawcett visited each school this April and was thoroughly amazed with the impact the program is having on 313 lives of children from lower-income, illiterate families.
It is very encouraging that parents are acutely aware of the Right to Education law in Tamil Nadu and do not dare to remove their children from classes before 8th grade. At several of the schools where the Lotus Tutors runs, almost 100% of 5th graders are continuing on to 6th grade, a crucial transition point that was unreachable just years ago for many children from low-income families.
At the Yettukkudaisai Panchayat Union Primary School, to which Lotus Tutors classes migrated from stone-quarry and weaver communities in March 2013, 29-year-old Sophie, who holds an MA in History and is the teacher of the afternoon supplementary class, shared her experience:
“I assist the children to be on top of their formal subjects and also pay attention to social issues such as alcohol abuse. We use life stories of the great Indian thinkers such as Mahatma Gandhi, Kamaraja (who established primary education for all), Pandit Nehru, Abdul Kalam, and C.V. Raman (physics, study of nature of light). A major impact of the classes on the children is that they gain discipline in their studies through regular attendance and activity based learning. They are able to stay on top of their studies and therefore remain confident and engaged. Being children of illiterate parents, they would not otherwise be able to keep up with the curriculum and would study less and less and drop out at some point.”
At the Pattankulam Village School, Glenn remarked that the children there are possibly the most capable he has seen yet and was astounded when they demonstrated their ability to recite by heart the names and qualities of 100 ancient flowers and of 60 years of astrological signs. The enthusiasm and energy of the teacher, the coordinator and the children at the school where the program has been running 6 months is really inspiring.
At the Reddipalayam Village School, Lotus Tutors teacher Thamel Selvi explained the method behind the Lotus Tutors’ highly interactive activity based approach: “I spend 80% of the time on the four main formal subjects, English, Tamil, Science and Math, and the rest on story telling and games. However, even with the formal syllabus, I am teaching learning through activities such as giving a letter as the third of five and asking the children to build words around it. Similarly we have games for Math and other subjects. I try to focus on self discipline and study skills, which is extremely necessary for children of illiterate families that are not able to help their children study.”
At Alahagu Senaai Village School, the program uses several interactive methods like drawing, music, dance, drama, and speeches. The students are doing so well that the school won a prize for being “the best school in the block” last year. When Glenn visited, one of the girls gave a stunning speech about the work of a great Indian poet who speaks about the importance of education for girls and how nothing can keep girls down! Alahagu Senaai is truly exemplary of Lotus Tutors impact on the standard of the school and the formal teaching staff. The school principal cited the fact that grades at the school are better than ever and the administration is convinced that an activity based learning approach must be implemented into the main curriculum.
The Empowered Cambodian Woman
Srey-Pov is a proud Non-Formal Education graduate. Her journey to complete Lotus Outreach’s Non-Formal Education program and put the skills she learned into practice has been long, and she has had to fight every bit of the way. Like so many of her countrywomen, the young 27 year-old from Mittapheap village, in the municipality of Phnom Penh, has experienced plenty of hardships in her life.
In second grade she had to drop out of school to take care of her father who was suffering from AIDS and near death. By the time she was 15 both her parents had passed away, her three brothers were scattered to the wind, and Srey-Pov was married and pregnant. Once her child was born, her husband quickly became abusive. After enduring his brutality for a few years, Srey-Pov left him and went through a difficult custody battle for their child and a divorce that left her penniless. With no income, no parents, no husband, and no education, Srey-Pov found herself with no other option but to seek work at the karaoke-parlor brothels endemic to Cambodia.
Srey-Pov quickly became weary of the drunken indignity and powerlessness of karaoke work, and so she signed up for the Non-Formal Education class at the karaoke parlor where she worked. In 2010, at age 23, she learned to read. She studied hard, finishing the Non-Formal Education course with excellent grades, and quickly adopting the life skills taught, such as saving money. After finishing the NFE literacy program in 2011, she started to learn sewing through the NFE skills training. However it wouldn’t be for another two years until she would be able to leave the karaoke bar.
In March last year Srey-Pov was able to find employment at a clothing factory, where she can put the skills she learned into practice. Around that time, Srey-Pov also found love. A young man, who earned a living as a taxi driver, fell in love with her. The couple was counseled by Srey-Pov’s NFE teacher on how to sustain a happy family life, and continued to receive the teacher’s guidance up until their wedding in May of 2013. Srey-Pov shares of her NFE teacher, “My good teacher is like my mother. She helps me with any problems I face.”
With her new employment, and a kind husband, Srey-Pov decided she was ready to bring her daughter to live with them. For the previous 2 years, her daughter had been living with Srey-Pov’s estranged older brother. The decision was met with resistance by Srey-Pov’s sister-in-law, who depended on the girl to help babysit her children. Srey-Pov sought her dear NFE teacher’s advice on the matter. The teacher spoke of the importance of bringing her daughter so that she could ensure her education. Not only that, Srey-Pov would have the chance of being a loving mother and developing their relationship. Filled with encouragement from her teacher, Srey-Pov pushed on and brought her daughter home.
On the opportunity of attending the NFE classes, Srey-Pov states, “I am so happy to have attended the classes and to have learned sewing skills. In the future I want to save money to buy a sewing machine and sew garments for an extra income. I can only dream of that because of the skills I learned there!” Srey-Pov is at last moving forward into a hopeful new period in her life. This empowered young woman is now able to ensure that herself and her daughter lead better, safe and healthier lives.