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Sunday, June 20, 2021

A pedagogy of reform


High up in the survival-challenging climes of Ladakh, education was less of a priority and more of a concern, until SECMOL came along… Zubair A. Dar finds out more…
Issue Dated: August 9, 2009
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A pedagogy of reform In April 2008, when the class 10 results showed Tsering Tsomo failing in Urdu and Mathematics, possibilities of higher education appeared bleak to her. She had appeared in the examination with best possible instruction and guidance her village school at Shayok, 140 kilometres east of Leh town in Ladakh, could offer. Still the effort had failed to bring desired results. Tsomo knew that the place to go for better instruction and guidance was Leh. But her father could not afford the expenses. “My father is a porter. He takes his horse and brings petrol and other things for the Army,” says Tsomo. “So he could not afford to send me to Leh.”

For Tsomo, the only ray of hope came from a non-governmental organisation – Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL). The organisation not only provided accommodation for students near Leh, it also brought in new methods of tuition to prepare students for examinations. Tsomo soon joined in and now looks forward to attempt her class 10 examination again in October.

Like Tsomo, 41 other boys and girls have come to SECMOL this year from the remotest areas in Ladakh – Nubra to Zanskar. Avenues of education in these villages are limited by inaccessibility and lack of other educational infrastructure. At SECMOL, however, these students find their lives completely transformed through better tuition as well as an exposure to a broader world view. But the management ensures that the connection with their traditional way of life is kept intact.

At its campus in Phey village in the Indus valley, 18 kilometres from Leh town, students take part in one of the most comprehensive educational programmes in Ladakh. While the school engages students in tuitions about English and Ladakhi languages, mathematics and basic sciences, it also takes students through the cultural and political history of Ladakh. “I am doing a two year foundation course where I learn English grammar, spoken English, basic science and mathematics,” says Tsomo. “I did not know speaking English (sic) before I came here. But now I am learning to speak good English.” At the campus, Tsomo’s teachers are James, a volunteer from Vermont Intercultural Semesters (VIS) in USA, and Aune, a volunteer from Germany. Every day, after the morning exercise and breakfast, students assemble in the main hall of the campus where James teaches English language by explaining each word through actions and other explanations. “I have been coming to this school for three years with my students. This year I came alone to do some voluntary work,” says James. VIS sends 12 high school students and three teachers for a semester of intense cultural exchange twice a year. The spring semester is accredited and aimed at high school students from Vermont, while the fall semester is a gap year programme open to all high school and college students.

“The students stay at SECMOL and take part in all the activities and work alongside the Ladakhi students,” says Youdon, SECMOL’s administrative manager and teacher. “These visiting students help the Ladakhis learn English, while they themselves learn about Ladakh, India, solar energy, and research.”

The SECMOL campus, developed between 1994 and 1999 and inaugurated in 1998 by Dalai Lama, is a unique blend of traditional Ladakhi way of life and relatively new solar technology. The fresh batch of students that arrive each year to the school from remote villages for better educational opportunities learn to manage their own affairs by helping the school management and sharing responsibilities of maintaining the solar infrastructure to milking the cows to buying the food for the kitchen to cleaning – a self sustaining measure.

“The campus comprises of three residential houses, 20 small 'cell rooms' and a large school building, all solar heated. More than a thousand trees have been planted around the campus besides a vegetable garden,” says Youdon. “From time to time, we host training workshops and youth camps for up to 100 additional people.” A pedagogy of reform The three buildings that form the campus have been built with low cost and locally available materials and techniques. Rammed earth and arched windows, which reduce the use of expensive, imported wood, form the main structure. It gives a pleasing Ladakhi style and appearance to the campus. The main building hosts the solar heated teaching hall, bedrooms for students, and other classrooms and offices. The kitchen and dining hall in a separate building is the main hangout for the people on campus. In the kitchen, students prepare meals with the help of a cook. “Sometimes, people from other countries prepare meals and we learn from them what they eat in their places,” says Tsomo.

On each side of the kitchen is a row of small cell rooms – each six feet long by four feet wide – that serve as living quarters for volunteers and staff. “Their small size provides the necessary protection against harsh winter in Ladakh,” explains Youdon.

A bathing block with eight private showers that run on solar heated water has been linked to a storage tank built by the students. Dry composting Ladakhi toilets serve as source of manure for fertilizing vegetable garden – a self sustaining measure taken consciously to reduce use of water in the desert climate.

“Our goal is to be as self-reliant as much as possible in food and energy, and for our campus to be an example,” says Youdon. SECMOL chose the cleanest sources to meet energy requirements of this campus located in a region as climactically difficult as this. A photovoltaic (solar electric) system provides 24-hour electricity for lighting, TV, computers and tools, as well as for pumping water up from the Indus River around the year. All SECMOL buildings are heated through the winters solely by passive solar design.

In the campus, students, volunteers and staff live together, creating a rich and lively atmosphere perfect for inter-cultural exchange. “It is great experience. They are very friendly people and very welcoming,” sums up Aune, the volunteer from Germany.
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017