How the unique pedagogy of Montessori is transforming the lives of kids at Jivapar

It is said that children are like little plants. You can bend them the way you want when they are young and that’s what they grow up to be. So, getting them on the right path in their formative years is very critical to grow them into responsible citizens of a country. It is this philosophy that makes Munira Nagji, recipient of 2010 YMCA Peace Medallion by YMCA Calgary, fly from Canada almost every 3-4 months to her mother’s homeland, Jivapar, in Gujarat.

Located about 20kms east from Jamnagar, Jivapar is a little known name even in Jamnagar itself. A small village of about 3000 people, kids of Jivapar and some of the villages around it, have something more than just another day to look forward to. Every day, more than 40 kids of the village explore this incredible world in an incredible way of Montessori teaching – extremely rare in Indian education system.

What is Montessori Education?
Montessori education system was developed by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori. Key principles and characteristics of the Montessori education system includes:

  • Freedom within limits to kids to learn on their own
  • Respect for child’s natural psychological, physical and social development
  • Mixed age classrooms of children from the age 2.5 to 6
  • Choice of activity to each kid from available options
  • Use of working models to learn concepts instead of direct instructions
  • Specialized educational material
  • Work time instead of study time
  • Emphasis on self-discipline instead of rewards and punishments

As it is said, “Charity Begins at Home”, Munira started her mission 10 years back by converting her living room into Montessori for the less privileged children, mainly from Afghanistan, to teach English as their parents didn’t know English and the kids felt behind the curve in their schools. Today, every Saturday, her living room turns into a free Montessori for the kids who cannot afford any form of preschool on weekdays.

The Beginning
In December 2013, she transformed a playschool into a Montessori preschool at Jubilee Cultural Centre in Jivapar, managed by Kathiyawadi Education & Welfare Charitable Trust, Jamnagar. The name was the same as her school in Canada – Starlight Montessori Preschool. Alocal resident, Nizar Hemnani, has been instrumental in the operational management of the preschool since the inception. Nizar has also been helping the Trust in running many women empowerment activities such as sewing classes, beauty parlor courses etc., in the same premises to enable the women of Jivapar and the villages around, be self-reliant financially.
Munira, with Preschool/Kindergarten Montessori Teaching Diploma, invested the initial time of about three weeks in training two teachers on Montessori style of teaching so that they can keep the school running in her absence and also are able to earn for their living. Initially, she also faced many challenges in terms of making the locals understand and follow the concepts of Montessori style of education. As it is something very rare, even in urban India, to incorporate that culture in villages was a big challenge.

Children learn through models instead of textbooks

Children learn through models instead of textbooks

The initial batch was limited to 25 students but with more students pouring in, about 41 students are a part of this pre-school, currently, spread into two batches of 25 and 16 respectively. Limiting the number of students is critical to the success of this mission because large batches reduce the attention per student.

Self-Discipline
These children have developed the sense of discipline which can make urban school kids envy them. Every student coming to the Montessorienters the classroom and keeps his/her bag on one of the hooks behind the classroom. The student, then takes out the small mat from the box kept at one corner of the room, rolls it on the ground, picks up his/her model that he/she feels to learn on that day and plays with it. Once the time is over, the student puts the model back to its original place in its original form, rolls back the mat and puts it back to the same box from where it was picked up, takes his/her bag from the hook and leaves. During the entire process, teacher acts as a facilitator to the child and not the instructor.
The impact of this freedom, coupled with self-discipline is that these kids have a head start when they go to regular schools as they have understood the concepts better, are able to identify things more easily and quickly and have developed a habit to learn on their own. This is a very important trait in a country with languishing rural schooling system, marred by inadequate number of teachers, poor teaching quality and very low attention per student.
According to Munira, “Children learn by watching. If you want to teach a child, don’t say it. Just do it.” So, a teacher has to lead by example in a Montessori set up and do what they expect children to do.

A Step for Street Children
In January 2015, taking a cue from the “Masti Ki Paathshaala” initiative at Carter Road in Bandra, Mumbai, Munira dedicated a separate room for teaching the underprivileged street children whose parents are either beggars or daily wagers. Another idea behind doing this is that these children do not have any chance of a bright future, given the environment they live in. Being at a lowest end of the socially, they do not have access to the kind of education, regular kids have. They get hit the most. They wear dirty clothes and people don’t like them around. They are not treated well. It is this environment that is the breeding ground of criminals. Tapping these children and giving them the right kind of environment that shows them a bright future will make them take a step towards prosperity.

Munira (right) with street kids coming to the Montessori

Munira with the street kids coming to the Montessori for a brighter future

Asking about the greatest challenge she is currently facing, Munira instantly replied, “parental support”. In various ways, support of parents is very critical to fully reap the benefits of Montessori education. Whatever kids learn at school also needs to be followed and implemented at home. Inculcating the same discipline among the parents is an additional task for the preschool to ensure that the kids get the same environment at home. For example, parents are asked to pack the kind of food which children can eat easily and does not create a mess or dirty the classroom so that hygiene is maintained. With monthly parents-teacher meeting, each child’s progress is shared with the parents and also the input regarding the kind of environment that needs to be built at home is given. However, local member support helps in convincing the parents and gaining their trust.
Thankfully, Munira doesn’t face much of a problem with getting girls into the school due to significant Gujarat government push for many years now on girl child education. At a donation of Rs.50/- once, it is not a huge burden for the parents as well. For the street children, it is free. However, Munira makes it a point to get the same stuff for the kids in Jivapar that she uses for her Montessori in Canada. Her visits to India are marked with excess baggage for the big suitcase stuffed with the children material along with her own luggage.
Having spent her childhood in challenging conditions, financially and socially, before gaining stability with 7 years in Dubai and then relocating to Canada in 1988, Munira attributes her actions to the inner drive to give back something to the village her roots are from. Today, she has a happy five member family with three adolescent children. She speaks good Kutchhi, thanks to the efforts of Kutchhi NRIs who migrated to Canada but made a point to keep the language alive among the English. However, her village has migrated to contemporary Gujarati and finds it amazing to listen some good Kutchhi from an NRI.

Future Plans
Munira has recently purchased a land, few kilometers from Jivapar where she plans to build up an orphanage. The idea is to adopt the orphans and even the street kids and build an environment which is conducive to their growth. For the street kids, parents will be asked to deposit some amount every month in their kids’ account which will be accessible to the kid once he/she turns 18 so that they have something to start their life with when they enter the mainstream world. Parents can meet their kids once in a month so that they know how their kid is progressing.
The drive to make a difference in the lives of the kids and help them grow into responsible citizens of tomorrow will keep Munira motivated for her acts of love in future as well, as it has in the past. She can be reached at info@acts-of-love.com.

Source: Wikipedia, Montessori Institute

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