Teachers of the future: Teachers’ Voices from an urban school farming project (The Ragi Project)

By Pallavi Varma Patil and Roshni Ravi onOct. 23, 2021in Food and Water

Translated specially for Vikalp Sangam

1: Middle school students transplanting saplings

A group of teachers in Bangalore experimented with the idea of Nai Talim in present times by introducing manual work around the theme of food in middle school curriculum. This was designed as a collaborative project between Azim Premji University and Poorna Learning Centre and was called The Ragi Project (TRP). It ran for two years 2017-19 wherein the teachers taught several academic concepts by getting the children involved in hands on farming of the millet called Ragi/Mandua, growing of organic vegetables in a plot near school, and cooking the farm and garden produce in the school kitchen for everyone to consume once a week. All the teachers involved in TRP had to learn the skills to farm and grow food ecologically. They also tried to corelate the manual work involved with several age-appropriate academic concepts. The demands of such a Nai Talim[1] on teachers were manifold. Teachers designed new classroom content, worksheets, lesson plans and class trips on the theme of food. They invested extra time on weekends and after school hours to prepare the farm; learnt new hands on skills of ecological agriculture before involving the children; managed new logistics and set up new processes not only in the classroom but also in the kitchen and the farm; organized relevant class trips such as a visit to a city museum to learn the history of agriculture tools, visit to an organic farm, to a local Ragi processing mill, a trip to a seed bank, and to an insect exhibition to learn about pest management. These additional efforts were alongside the existing academic timetable and teaching workload that required enterprise, creativity, collaboration, and enthusiasm.

Mahatma Gandhi in the way he conceptualized Nai Talim in the 1930s himself mentions the many expectations he had from the first generation of Nai Talim teachers– “What we need is educationalists with originality, fired with true zeal; who will think out from day to day what they are going to teach their pupils. The teacher cannot get this knowledge through musty volumes. He has to use his own faculties of observation and thinking and impart his knowledge to the children through his lips, with the help of a craft.”[2]

In contemporary times, hands on learning experiments in school education such as The Ragi Project, continue to be heavily dependent on the buy in of teachers in a certain vision of a future and in their enthusiasm and support to create new knowledge and skills.

In this article, we highlight conversations with five key involved teachers of TRP that help us understand their perspective on why they participated and the challenges they faced. The five teachers are Roshni Ravi (RR) who taught middle school social science and language; Sammitha Sreevathsa (SS) who taught middle school social science; Vasantha Kumari (VK) who taught middle and high school science;  Ashwini Patil (AP) who taught language and coordinated the school kitchen activities and Jalajambadevi (JAD) who taught Kannada language and craft work in the school.

The Farm as Classroom: reimagining teaching and learning

  1. What interested you in The Ragi Project? What was your motivation to participate in the project?

RR: This project was an opportunity to grow and learn. I wanted to do something different, something that would hopefully inform my classroom practice. I was also drawn to the idea of doing something around food and waste and something that would lead me to further align my personal and professional lives.

3: Learning to thresh and winnow

SS: On my first day in school as a new teacher, I went to the Ragi field, it was exciting to see so much energy and enthusiasm. It was great to spend the first period of the school day at the farm with teachers & students! This project for me was a way to see the intelligence of our hands and feet, and that farming was an education of the body.

VK: Being from the farming community myself, I felt an ‘aha’ moment with this learning by doing farming. I had never myself experienced a farming cycle from start to end and to find that this could be included in a school space was an amazing experience.

4: Working together on the farm

AP: I was very happy when I heard about the project. I saw my family farming as a child. I was glad that we got an opportunity to do it ourselves. This was a good opportunity to teach children the value of the food, the effort that goes into farming and growing food, to address food wastage so that they are aware and appreciative of the process.  Children in the city think milk comes from a plastic packet!

JAD: My everyday meals always include Ragi. And so, I wanted to be involved in its entire journey– from seed to plate.

  • How did the experience of being part of TRP affect your personal & professional growth trajectory? Did it change you as a teacher? Did it impact your personal life & choices? 

RR: The experience greatly impacted me, my practice, and my identity as a teacher and as a person negotiating the ecological challenges in the world today. I was able to witness first hand, the scope that the outdoors held and the impact of hands-on, experiential work, I was able to make active connections between the farm and my classroom, I was able to value different kinds of knowledge and learning and make attempts to bring it together. This experience also gave voice to many questions I encountered during my teaching. As a teacher it really made me think of how to communicate the world’s realities to my students while also presenting them with alternatives and solutions. TRP seemed to be a strong response to a narrative of despair and helplessness-it symbolised for me hope, resilience and strength just like the millet Ragi that was at the centre of it all!

5: Learning outdoors

SS: Personally, I felt like I never thought about food this way before. My choices of how I am as a consumer changed. Even now I think and reflect about what we cook and consume at home. The rhythm of farming also shaped me both as a teacher and as a dancer.  I got a chance to see a farmer’s body differently- how a farmer squats down; moves; uses his tools without an effort.  As a performing artist I appreciated the cultural experiences of this project-involving folk songs and local theatre groups to celebrate harvest. I started to view our body as essentially connected to our surroundings. It is true when they say, you are what you eat!

6: Soil testing

VK: I got two platforms to experiment my teaching: Soil as well as the classroom.  I found a way to include my basic farming skills and local knowledge.  I learnt how to plan well and not just have a romantic idea. I learnt how to derive connections with practical experiences. When we were sharing many ideas, there were some that didn’t work and we together thought of alternatives by watching, listening or reading different things. This process of dialogue led to an increase in my own confidence.  My identity as a teacher became more concrete. It was very engaging but I never felt tired as I could recognise, identify my strengths and weaknesses. 

AP: It has been two years since we first started but I still refer to the farming experience in my classes. Kids also remember this experience. I included new content on plants, farming processes, and seeds. I tried to think of ways to engage the kids more creatively, even on the field. I learnt how to make connections across different subjects. After the first harvest of Ragi, when we celebrated Pongal we had many discussions on why this was an important celebration for farmers, we sang songs and it was almost like Diwali! Personally, we started to eat Ragi more at my home, and tried many new recipes using Ragi. We used to only see the farming processes with my father as children, never used to directly participate. After this experience I feel motivated to get back to farming in my life.  Such a project has given a goal about what to do after I retire. It also made me realise that farming is difficult but definitely possible.

7: Teacher farmers

JAD: It opened new doors and motivated my future plans of building my own farm. As a teacher I had fun exploring new ways to incorporate Ragi in my teaching curriculum.

  • What were some of the highlights of this project for you?

RR: The coming together of so many people-students, teachers, support staff, school management, parents, local farmers, artists, scientists- at different times was definitely a wonderful part of the project. I was able to understand and experience up close how much effort it required from different people in different ways to make this work happen. From making over two hundred Ragi laddoos for a celebration to making sure we had logistics of farm visits planned out- everything was about coordination.  Watching children outdoors, in the farm, negotiating those spaces, learning from each other, making small discoveries were the little-big things that motivated me and my fellow teachers. 

SS: My biggest highlight was to see children on the farm and see the classroom hierarchy shaken-learn to value others and their skills.

8: Harvesting

VK: I never felt that I was alone in a classroom; it was always a feeling of ‘community’. There was no pressure on achieving any “success”. The whole attitude was, ‘come, let’s try it out. Even things that didn’t work we could safely say and acknowledge.  We were using ideas from so many sources- people, local farmers, even dipping into the knowledge of my farmer father!  Also, trying out new and sustainable ways of farming and going back to traditional methods to enrich soil and nurture plant growth.

9: A young ragi plant

AP: Before this project I did not know the English name of Ragi. Once the crop matured I observed it closely and realised that finger millet is an apt name for it! I enjoyed creating new dishes with Ragi- I was supported and motivated by my colleagues to experiment. I liked the time we sowed together, we did everything collectively, sab saath mein kiya, there was always a “khushi ka mahaul”, every moment was of joy – it is so hard to point out one or two moments only.

JAD: I enjoyed working with the children, exploring different ways of using Ragi in my cooking and cooking more with Ragi because of this. It was nice to know how throughout the project everyone stayed positive and enjoyed every bit.

  • What challenges did you face personally and as a group of teachers?

RR: Helping students build a relationship with the farm and the work was challenging, suddenly being outdoors for long periods was a change that they had to get used to. Embracing uncertainty in farming and coping with the reflection of that uncertainty in the classroom was a challenge. We had to often think quickly on our feet, for example – drawing connections between what we did in geography and what was happening on the farm! Teachers often had to dig deep; childhood experiences, stories, songs and art were important tools and mediums to share this knowledge.

10: A student’s Worksheet with drawings of insects seen on the ragi farm

SS: I felt it was to make everyone involved feel included all the time. Getting all the students enthusiastic and participative was also a healthy challenge. To see some children disinterested was difficult as a teacher but I felt I needed to find a way to encourage them.

11: Trying new recipes with Ragi

VK: Documenting the lesson plans and recording my work. And learning to agree to disagree in a collaborative space.

AP: At times, I wished there was much more support of this kind of teaching and learning by the school management. I also wondered at times if we were able to give a complete picture of the realities of farming to children?

JAD: Being a teacher every day is a challenge. During TRP we were all focused about learning new techniques and enjoying everything we did. Though sometimes it was hard to complete a planned task; some younger children also lost interest; it sometimes took time to make sure everyone was in agreement but despite all the ups and downs we had fun.

  • What do you think is the role of projects like The Ragi Project in today’s world?

RR: I think such projects are important because they expand worlds and visions for students and teachers. A pedagogy and approach like the one employed under TRP allows for any space to become a classroom, for teachable moments to appear and be highlighted in everyday interactions, allowing students, teachers and parents to see the relevance of what is being learnt and taught in schools. These are life-altering experiences with lessons that are internalized and that have the potential to impact decision-making and life choices like what we choose to put on our plates. 

SS:  We visited another alternate school called the Puvidham school in Tamil Nadu that also includes farming in their school curriculum. When the founder said that her intention was preparing children for the future where growing food was the most important skill. To see TRP in the light of future happened in that moment. I feel children & adults today have a problem solving attitude to everything, this may not be the best. I used to find it hard to argue this. Children also talk about this whenever a problem arises. For ex: Delhi air pollution, smog- air purifiers, masks. Instead of causing this problem, how can we change oneself and change the way we live our lives.  This gave different ways for children to think about ecological problems around them and gave them a way to understand these issues.

VK: Everything is so fast in today’s world, but this kind of project and space teaches you to not go fast, but slow down.  You have to learn patience, if we want to grow and experience the world. It also teaches all of us to value food, where do we get it from?  Food wastage will automatically be less if you understand the effort you put in. Your relationship with food will be nurturing the nature and farming becomes an integral part of this relationship. It opens up avenues, opportunities in this (farming) field – and break myths about this kind of work. “I should take care of my land!”

Any teacher who wants to upgrade her skills should do this kind of work. And even a little bit of engagement is a success. Also, I think soil is the best medium to learn, you cannot cheat soil.

AP: In urban schools – I agree that farming is not very practical. But in rural areas it needs to be encouraged, and everyone needs to value the environment around. Even in my family we have farmland but our family kids don’t know anything about farming. Even a farmer’s child is disrespecting the profession. It is important to be aware and notice things and have dignity of labour for all work. Such projects give us practical skills for teachers & children. I think it also reduces stress levels, children are happier when they see new flowers, small tomatoes, mooli leaves!

JAD: Such a project reminds us not to forget our roots and it brings awareness towards healthy farming and eating habits.

  • Do you see this as a response to climate change and other issues plaguing the world today? In this context, what is the education of the future? And who are the teachers of the future?
12: Teachers at the farm

RR: I think projects like TRP that are local in practice but global in vision are crucial for us to ensure that the stories we tell are solution-focused, action oriented. Children are experiencing the world changing rapidly, as adults we are often in despair and it is easy to highlight the problems leaving students only with fear and anger. Initiatives in small communities, schools are definitely part of the solution, giving meaning to what students are learning and how they choose to live their lives. I see teaching-learning in the future to be local and connected to the land and its people. The focus has to shift from the 3 Rs to the 3 H where skills gained directly help people live fulfilling, self-sufficient lives. The teachers of the future have an important task of making sure that they are connected to the land and to the communities they work in.

13: Sowing millet seeds

SS: What I know is that everything we are doing in schools today is not going to work for long. One thing I learnt is this takes a lot of time, to convince oneself and the children. We are born into a world where practices are not eco-friendly, we cannot expect quick change or judge or force. It is time to be alarmed like Greta Thunberg says but it is a challenge to know how to inculcate and teach these things without being coercive – how do we achieve this balance between a call for immediate action and change and the knowledge that change does take time. The teacher of the future is someone who can reflect and be sensitive, who can contextualize and is attuned to local needs.

VK: A teacher of the future has to be informed, aware and connected to events around. She has to be open to unlearning, be willing to experiment, and be reflective of her teaching. She also should enjoy mutual learning with other teachers.

AP:  The teacher of the future is one who herself tries to practice self-sufficiency in producing and consuming food. Children follow what teachers do, practice what we preach, so we need to walk the talk. The teacher of the future in order to try to change thinking also has to herself think of what are our food choices. Farming, cooking are important skills. The children know what else to do with land other than building structures on it. It enables them to understand the motive behind planting trees on land. Or treat their land ecologically.

14: Weeding and foraging for greens

JAD: It is important that the children know where their food comes from, projects like this help widen a student’s mind which increases their options and capabilities for example: some of the kids towards the end of the project spoke about how they felt farming was a new way to feel refreshed and some even said they would love to pursue it as a career or a hobby if they could.

Conclusion

The Ragi Project allowed its participants to engage with issues around small-scale organic farming. It gave its teachers a sense of a larger purpose of some form of meaningful contribution towards oneself and for the society. It allowed the teachers to reflect upon and question their own notions about manual work in formal education. Most importantly, it allowed them to think of education as a Transformative Process.

E.W. Aryanayakam, who spearheaded the first Nai Talim school in Sewagram along with Asha Devi and set up the first teacher training institute of basic education in Wardha had this to say in his Presidential address in the Gujarat Nai Talim conference on 19 March 1954:

No one has ever claimed that Nai Talim is easy. It makes high and continuous demands on physical energy, on mental resourcefulness, on spiritual strength. But in one place the real Nai Talim teacher will find reassurance and reward, and that is in the response of children to the natural human interest and the stimulus and delight of such a way of learning. Let the challenge and the opportunity of such days spur us to fresh efforts.”

Sixty odd years later these words ring true!

The authors would like to thank all the children, the teachers and the school community who made this Nai Talim journey a very special, rewarding experience with their time, effort and enthusiasm. We hope our experiences at The Ragi Project continues to find its way into more food conversations in a school space and continue to affect our personal food choices.

15: Ragi seeds

Disclaimer: The views expressed in these interviews are personal to the participant teachers. They do not reflect the opinions or views of either of the project host institutions – Azim Premji University or Poorna Learning Centre.


[1] Nai Talim is defined as an education through work for a vision of Swaraj.

[2]As cited in Prakasha Veda, (1985, p. 58), Gandhian Basic Education as a Programme of Interdisciplinary Instruction at the Elementary Stage: Some Lessons of Experience, UNESCO: Paris.

Contact the authors


Pallavi Varma Patil teaches at Azim Premji University (APU), Bangalore

Roshni Ravi works with the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF)’s Education and Public Engagement Programme

स्वराज की दिशा में – भविष्य के शिक्षक (Swaraj ki disha mein – bhavishya ke shikshak – in Hindi) – is a version of this article published by Shiksha Vimarsh in its Special Issue on Nai Talim in October 2021

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