DLRC, The Learning Farm!

By Anjali DalmiaonNov. 26, 2021in Environment and Ecology

Written specially for Vikalp Sangam

DLRC, or DriveChange Learning and Resource Centre, is an intriguing and thriving progressive K-12 learning space in Sus Gaon, Pune. It is situated on a mango farm and is made of reclaimed wooden structures that are completely immersed in nature! It is lush with student-created gardens, a tree grove with giant Anjeer, Neem and Passion Fruit trees (to name a few), reused bottle plant pots, large painted murals, a constantly whirring design lab, and rolling Western Ghat hills on all sides. The learning farm is a space where I grew and explored for 2 years as a student. It has been my home as an alumnus, facilitator, and community member.

Campus Tree Grove
Artwork by Children

DLRC began as an alternative learning space in May 2015 in a little bungalow in Sus, Pune with just 1 student. No one knew what would happen or where it would grow, except for the fact that the founders, Ajay Dalmia, Mona Dalmia, and Pavan Iyengar, had a crazy vision, a strong passion for education, and an innate desire to learn – contagious characteristics which they continue to spread in DLRC through their facilitation, interactions with parents and children, and mentorship. Unlike ‘usual’ schools which have teachers, DLRC has facilitators – they help facilitate learning, for themselves and for students! Facilitation means to guide the search and to embark on a journey of co-learning. It also requires one to be open to learning and humble, but it is not bound by age or qualification – anyone can be a facilitator! The best parts about being a facilitator at DLRC are that we can make mistakes and learn from them with the support of the parents, students, and co-founders. All the facilitators at DLRC have a deep passion towards making the vision of DLRC a reality.

Ajay believes that facilitators bring to the learning table something that they are deeply passionate about, and through this, create interest in students. He also feels very strongly about being self-sustaining for one’s own basic needs and respecting the labour and energy which goes into producing these, and he brings this into the DLRC curriculum. Mona strongly emphasises on ‘knowing our ecological address’; this means understanding and living as one with our surrounding environment, how the social and cultural are related to ecology, and where we, as individuals or as a community, are spatially, mentally, socially, and spiritually located within it. She curates most of the learning opportunities, creative and educational aspects of the curriculum, and experiences for the community. Pavan believes it takes a village to raise a child and that DLRC strives to be such a village. He works on outreach and sustainability on campus, and is passionate about making science exciting and fun!

Mural
High School Classroom

Within the first year of DLRC, the bungalow grew and became a learning space for 10-12 students, including myself. We created a makeshift science lab in the kitchen, painted taxonomy and maps on the walls, grew our own medicinal herbs, and learnt the intriguing ‘why’ behind maths. The DLRC community soon grew and two years later, in 2017, we built a new DLRC space with our own hands on a mango farm! Today, there are more than 300 students at DLRC, while maintaining a 1:12 facilitator to student ratio. Community members, especially students, from a range of socio-economic and geographical backgrounds and across learning abilities are welcome at DLRC. DLRC also has a tie up with Door Step School (a school addressing illiteracy and providing education and support to the often-forgotten children of pavement and slum dwellers, construction site families and many other underprivileged families) wherein some children from DSS join DLRC in middle and high school.

DLRC aims to be a self-sustaining campus and a forward-looking education hub – for continuous experiential learning, cultural immersion and creative curriculum – where learners can discover their strengths, become active citizens, and incubate ideas that create value for the society. “Campus as a Learning Activity”, or CALA as we endearingly like to call it, is one of DLRC’s primary goals. This means utilizing every aspect of the campus to facilitate learning, as well as moving out of the campus space and engaging with nearby farming and village communities. The campus hopes to meet some of the daily needs of the community through interesting learning initiatives such as “Farm to Table”, “Fibre to Fabric”, and the design lab. DLRC also produces a lot of its own vegetables, has bio-composting toilets, and a biogas system, a vermicompost, a Cold Pressed Oil machine and an aquaponics system! Additionally, to facilitate research, reading, literature, and knowledge, the campus houses two libraries – An English and a Hindi library (with a few other languages available too) to the community. Here is a quote from Kishore Ji, DLRC’s resident carpenter and his team: “We love our job. What we love most is the wood. We love getting it, touching it, cutting it, smoothening it, joining it, measuring and marking it, and polishing it. The initial design for the structures [of DLRC] was ours, but I then asked for requirements from the co-founders and asked for my team’s opinions because that’s what teams do. We work together.” Kishore Ji and his team are family members from Jodhpur, Rajasthan, who have been working as carpenters for years.

Bio-toilets
Garden Produce

DLRC helps bring to life self-designed learning for all students and facilitators. DLRC believes in a learning triangle in which students, parents, and facilitators all play an active and equal role. Learning doesn’t stop at the DLRC campus, but is carried home to our everyday conversations, our meals, our living habits, our friends, and our families. DLRC also implements integrated learning with the inclusion of a structured environmental literacy program and a plurality of cultures, languages and knowledges embedded in the curriculum across all subjects. Most importantly, DLRC is not a school; it is a learning space based on the principles of equity, democracy, justice, and diversity.

Meditation in the tree grove

The DLRC Curriculum!

Curriculum, according to DLRC, is a combination of pedagogy, syllabus and assessment. DLRC’s pedagogy is child-centric and ecocentric, and based on concepts of ecological and social justice. This includes an equal emphasis on the head, heart and hand, inquiry and project-based learning, learning approached with abundance, small class sizes, and a balance between experiential, emotional and theory-based learning. As a student, I felt that the equal emphasis on head, heart and hand was one of the most important aspects of my learning and exploration at DLRC.

Painting Head, Heart, Hand

Head: creativity, critical thinking, and imagination! We learnt through inquiry-based learning methods, which encouraged all of us to discover and explore, rather than be spoon-fed information. Our learning was immersive, individualised, and deep, both inside and outside the classroom – we created our own pathways based on our interests, grew as a collective with our peers, and found curiosity and fascination in everything around us. We critically questioned the world and its structure in which we function, and discussed alternative ways of co-existing with the world. 

Heart: emotional wellbeing, empathy, love, and individual growth! Most of our classes were mixed age, which helped build our self-esteem, removed competition, helped collaboration flourish, and individualized the pace of learning. Each morning, we would start our day with shramdaan and a prayer that resonated through our hearts and the trees. We ended our day with sharing circles about our day’s learning. During class, we were consciously aware of and in-charge of our work habits and ethics (which we formally called ‘HOWLs’, or Habits of Work and Learning). This is also incorporated with the assessment framework of DLRC to ensure holistic and student-driven goal setting, rather than a top down, punitive assessment scheme.

Hand: creating, building, growing, and nurturing! Through project-based learning, we learnt how to form interdisciplinary connections and to practically apply what we theoretically learnt, in real world situations (why must learning not be the ‘real world’ anyway!?). A strong balance between theory and experiential learning which incorporated the visual, auditory, reading/writing and the kinesthetic (this is known as the VARK model, founded by theorist Neil Fleming) helped us grow in all ways possible. But most importantly, we learnt through spending time touching and playing in the soil, watching seeds we sowed grow into baby saplings and then harvesting the flourishing plants, hammering nails into homemade clocks, scavenging bushes for the perfect flowers to extract colour from, painting the school walls, learning how to cook recipes passed down through generations, falling and scraping our knees, stitching our own aprons and folding little newspaper bags (just to name a few!).

Gardening

DLRC has a primary, middle, and high school, each with a vibrant curriculum and a variety of activities. Across the school, DLRC is a dynamic centre for Hindi language and literature. Namita Kichlu Di, who has been a Hindi teacher and storyteller for over 30 years of her life, has brought Hindi drama and literature to life at DLRC through weekly storytelling, drama productions and interesting Hindi classes which inculcate a love of the language amongst the entire community. DLRC has also begun expanding this enthusiasm and awareness to Marathi and some of the other local dialects in the region.

At the primary school level, DLRC focusses on children working with their hands, caring for others, and learning through play. Children sing a lot of songs, grow their own plants, and spend much of their time outdoors. Middle school (5th-8th grade) is a beautiful transition phase wherein children open up and develop inquiry, a sense of identity and belonging, vibrant thoughts, and community spirit. There is a lot of hands-on-experimenting, problem solving, creative expression and logical thinking through sports, art, hand-work, volunteering, drama, yoga, gardening, design lab and more!

Sports Day at School

I find the high school program particularly interesting. Usually in schools, starting 9th grade, young adults are stripped of all non-academic activities and our lives revolve around board exams, entrance exams, and college applications. Yet, these are the years of our lives in which we can grow and explore the most. DLRC recognises this, and so the high school program not only includes research and project-based academic learning, but also:

Student facilitators: for example, I taught art to high school students after I graduated from DLRC – some other alumni have been teaching mathematics, sociology and dance too. Additionally, older students sometimes facilitate classes for younger students, which helps them put their own learnings in context.

Learning Fairs: one of the DLRC facilitators, Meghna Bandyopadhyay Di, says, “Learning fairs allow children to take charge of their own learning, showcase their work and tinker. DLRC is all about tinkering; tinkering with earth, mind, and hands. Through learning fairs, design labs, and art, DLRC allows us to not just become literate, but to open up our minds. At DLRC, students question us, facilitators, and make us think and grow every day.”

Drumming at learning fair
Learning fair exhibition

Farm to Table: in this, students use the produce which they grow themselves to cook their own food! Here is a short quote from a parent:

“This week my son and I made paneer and set curd. My son, who hates cooking, really enjoyed it. And guess what – from a litre of milk – simply with some curd and lemons – like a fairy godmother – Mona Ma’am guided him to create his very own Paneer! And this noon as our family sat at the lunch table and treated ourselves to yummy Paneer ki sabzi, one young man couldn’t stop grinning! What a beautiful and unique way of developing interest and teaching life skills.”

Children Planting Rice
Grinding Rice

Fibre to Fabric: in this project, students learn how cloth is made, where raw materials come from (and the impacts on the environment), how to make their own cloth, and how to stitch! Some of the students, even those who hate arts and crafts, have made beautiful patchwork quilts using scrap cloth.

Design Lab: Design lab is a space where students engage in activities like origami and crafts that help them refine their fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. Students can also build and apply what they have learnt in their lessons through woodwork. For example, students constructed a model of the trachea, alveoli and the lungs to understand and visualize the process of respiration. In High School, all three sciences have integrated lessons with the Design Lab. Students use the lab as their medium to solve many problems and visualise difficult concepts. Here is a short piece written by one of the current students at DLRC about the design lab:

Thud, thud, thud. The periodic hammering rang out through the open structure, also known as the design lab. We were sitting in clusters of two and three, wiping the sweat from our foreheads as we worked decisively on constructing wooden frames. While one hammered, the other demarcated the nailing spots into which the nails were going to be placed. Initially, we didn’t really know if we wanted to participate in the activity, but this was replaced very soon by zeal to learn and know more because of Shivaji Sir’s enthusiasm and love for creating and building. Today we were just nailing things into a wooden block, but sometimes we’ve made toys from trash, cool scientific gadgets that we’ve even used in class, and paper cutting flowers to list a few!”

Tinkering Lab, Cutting wood

Door Step School volunteering: many of the high school students volunteer to teach English to and learn Marathi from Door Step School Teachers (www.doorstepschool.org).

Life Skills training: this includes sessions on financial literacy, plumbing and carpentry, applying to college and figuring out one’s passion etc. Rolling up your sleeves, and getting your hands dirty is ingrained in DLRC culture.

Social Impact Projects: SIPs are a crucial part of the high school curriculum! During my time at DLRC, our facilitators helped us to set up an initiative to raise awareness of sustainable and equitable menstruation among all sections of society. This project, The Project Amara (https://linktr.ee/theprojectamara), is still active 6 years later. Students have started many initiatives as SIPs including seed balls, illustration and logo design, mental health awareness through drama, horticulture and rooftop gardening, and many more! SIPsare extremely important to ensure that students engage with the world and ecology around them and become active citizens. SIPs are also enhanced by sessions on rethinking development (conducted by Sahaj Foundation, https://www.sahajfoundation.in/) in which students spend entire weeks in simulations and real-life situations to rethink what development means and how we can move towards more self-sustaining and equitable models of development.

Planting Rice: A fun activity

Growing as Facilitators:

Read more about the team here: https://dlrc.in/whats.php?title=Facilitator-Profiles

Facilitator PD Session

DLRC actively works with its own faculty team as well as teachers from other schools to improve facilitation methods and creativity. Within the DLRC team, facilitators have a professional development (PD) session every year. The theme for 2021-22 was ‘abundance’. Activities and sessions on form drawing, education and ecology, experiential learning in application, pedagogy of worksheets and notebooks, closing and opening circles, group reading circles, collaborative learning, autonomy + capacity + accountability analysis, habits of mind, storytelling, and Bloom’s Taxonomy were some of the interesting sessions in 2021-22. Along with this, facilitators spend at least 20% of their time planning for their classes and taking up self-learning projects. In regards to external teachers, DLRC recently held a skill development workshop with teachers from various schools (nationally and internationally) to inculcate better facilitation methods within regular curriculums.

Meghna Di mentions,

“DLRC caters to a neglected population of India – the teachers. Teachers would, ideally, love to move out of the factory system and teach creatively, but there are not enough avenues and spaces. At the same time, spaces like DLRC are also a welcome challenge for facilitators, as facilitating requires a bucket load of creativity and a whole bunch of unlearning.”

Facilitator, Student, Parent Collaborative Drama

Kalpita Kshirsagar Di (Middle School Social Sciences, High School History and English, and ‘Share with dignity’ facilitator) says,

“The first thing that clicked for me was the open setting which reflected in the working of DLRC as well. I find the non-hierarchical setup exciting, as it encourages me to take true ownership of my work and the quality of teaching and learning. This, coupled with new ideas floating around every corner of campus, is a perfect mix for me to grow as a teacher. Spaces like DLRC are necessary contradictions to the current factory models of education. Spaces like DLRC are also, through their character, posing critical questions about how learning happens and how the educator – child relation looks like when it is centred around learning and not authority. Education which cultivates a habit to think for ourselves is the need of the hour. We need to learn to not be afraid to put everything to the test of rationale and logic and to make our own connections. Only then will education truly bring about progress for all.”

Wari Celebration on campus, Dancing

I believe Kalpita Di’s quote captures the democratised, decentralized nature of the DLRC space, wherein hierarchies and divisions are replaced by community spirit, inclusivity, freedom of expression, respect, and diversity. A space of alternatives which maintains eco-regenerative processes, respects ecological limits, and infuses ecological wisdom and ethics within the structures, both material and social. It is extremely important, now more than ever, that we, the youth, are provided opportunities to explore, grow, think, feel excited, and question the world around us. Ecological & social justice, climate literacy, empathy, and self-awareness must be an integral part of our curriculum in order for us to reconnect with ourselves and our surroundings and tackle the many challenges which face us. We need more thriving education spaces like DLRC so that we may come together, rethink and take charge of our education, and become kind and active members of the world.

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