Charlotte Leech, writer of this piece, co-founded Loka together with Sanat Kumar. Paul Salopek visited Loka on his walk across Northern India, and later met up with the Out of Eden Learn research team there.
Once upon a time there was a Small School with Big Dreams called Loka. It was tucked away along the Punpun river in Bihar, North-India. This school was not just a building with classrooms. It also had a farm, a flower garden, lots of trees, fields to play, pets and was surrounded by endless farming fields, chimneys of brick factories and other small villages. Children learning at Loka lived with their parents in mud huts or simple unfurnished brick houses. They were mostly small-scale farmers and labourers. At school the children learned many things, not just from books, but also by exploring, creating, imagining, tinkering and through dialogue and reflection. At the end of every school day the children cleaned the campus and made sure to keep their surroundings neat, colourful and beautiful.
One day a man and a woman arrived at the gate of this remote school or free space. The man was Paul Salopek and he was accompanied by his walking partner Bhavita. Paul came walking all the way from Ethiopia and was on his way to Patagonia. He was curious to learn about people and places across the globe and write stories about them to share with the wide world. His long traverse was called ‘Out of Eden Walk’ and brought him to many unknown areas, just like the village where Loka’s school was emerging. Paul spent some days with Loka’s students, and the children were amazed by his journey. “Why walk by foot, why not use a car?” a puzzled student asked. Another wondered what Paul thought about Bihar – a state often depicted in mainstream media as dangerous, corrupt and poor. “Bihar is Beautiful” he said, “and the people are kind and welcoming.” Everybody at Loka was inspired by Paul’s story and presence, and his choice to give up everything and live a different life. Likewise, Loka had touched Paul’s heart, it seemed, as just over a month later he returned with a wonderful group of researchers from Project Zero, a research center at Harvard University. Every couple of years Paul met with them to have a conference about Out of Eden Learn (OOEL), an online platform for cultural exchange the researchers developed which is linked to Paul’s Walk.
During their stay at Loka, three Project Zero researchers, Shari Tishman, Carrie James, and Liz Duraisingh, organised a learning walk.
Students went in pairs on a slow walk and were given the assignment to look closely at something they never looked closely at before.
Students carefully observed:
- An ant walking over their hand.
- A mango tree. Its flowers.
- A mud oven. Good to boil the paddy.
- An eggplant. Its leaves are rough.
- A hole in the field. Possibly a rat’s home. When looking more closely, it looks
- like a well.
After the slow walk, everybody shared their observations and responded to each others’ findings through ‘Appreciations’, ‘Wonders’ and ‘Connections’.
Dinesh: “Somebody wrote about the eggplant; why the flower comes first and not the fruit. That made me wonder.”
Sanatan: “I would like to say something about connection. Many children started their questions with the word ‘why’. That is a connection.”
Liz (researcher): “I want to congratulate your spirit and the way you did the activity. It was very beautiful to see.” (Appreciation)
Everybody at Loka learned a lot during the visit of Paul and the Project Zero team After their departure, students started to participate in OOEL. Imagine children who, until 5 years ago had hardly met anyone outside their locality, were suddenly involved in an international online cultural exchange! Through OOEL, Loka’s students started to slow down, look more closely at their surroundings and share stories of their neighbourhood. They would also respond to stories, photos, videos and other assignments of their ‘walking partners’, children of other schools from all other the world. One of the assignments was to make a neighbourhood map. Some of the maps were created so attentively by Loka’s students that after posting them online, they received many appreciations. One boy from America commented on Dimple’s map: “Could you share some drawing tips?” Dimple never had proper drawing classes, so he explained how he imagined an image that he kept in his mind while drawing. There were also funny moments. For example, when somebody commented on LittiChowkha’s1 introduction post: “Cool that you live in India” and LittiChowkha (1) replied with: “It’s not cool in India, it’s hot!”
After Loka’s students completed their first learning journey, the list of things they said they had learned turned out to be endless. They mentioned practical skills such as improving their English, conducting an interview, making a video and writing an email. They also made observations that were especially interesting coming from children who, until then, had little access to the rest of the world. “Not everywhere is the same as in our village” one student observed. “I learned about the rest of the world by sitting in my school” another added. Other learning points mentioned by students included: how to make a slow walk and observe the big things and small things; looking more deeply; understanding the meaning of the everyday, and learning new words never used before which can make stories more interesting.
This is how a visit from a walking storyteller and a team of highly intelligent people deeply interested in education enhanced the mission of a small school with big dreams. What about the future? Students are eager to start their next OOEL learning journey. Besides that, the school will soon be enriched with a Maker Space through which students will be equipped to uplift their surroundings and–on village scale–create the kind of world we would all wish to live in. And how that world will look? Imagine the Impossible… because that is what children do.
(1) Username created by student especially for OOEL.