In 2014, a classroom in Vidyaniketan School Chennai, transformed into a fashion show. Nathaniel Seelan divided his students into groups of choreographers, models and designers, and took them through the entire procedure of organizing a show. But why bring fashion into the classroom?
After graduating from the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), Nathaniel spent three years in the fashion industry. As he went from designing clothes to providing brands with creative direction and fashion forecasting, his interest gradually shifted to process design. Mulling over pursuing his Masters, Nathaniel decided to try his hand at teaching. “I was taking a break, so I applied for the Fellowship. Because the way I looked at it, teaching was a process also. The plan was to get back to my Masters and design if I didn’t like teaching. But I fell in love with the work that happens here and the creativity and design that takes place at Teach For India,” he says.“Design has got a lot to do with problem-solving.We are taught to arrive at the best solution given the constraints. At Teach For India, I had a bunch of kids, we had a bunch of problems to solve, and it was all about thinking critically and being creative,” he states further.
During the summer break between the two years of his Fellowship, Nathaniel was a resident volunteer at the sadhana forest in Auroville. Apart from taking up environmental protection activities at the reserve, the volunteers spent four hours on weekends with children from the local community, practising a method known as ‘unschooling’.“The children were given practical, hands-on experience with the environment. Some days they were taught how to grow pineapples or take care of baby rats! We also had sessions to discuss topics like politics, to encourage an exchange of ideas,” explains Nathaniel.
His experiences at Sadhana and in the mainstream education system shaped his current vision of creating a legitimate middle-ground by taking the quality of alternative education to the scale at which mainstream education is functioning now. After his Fellowship ended in 2015, Nathaniel spent six months as the Chennai City Coordinator at Youth For Seva, an organisation that mobilizes volunteers in health, sanitation, education, environmental protection and women’s rights. “I realized that each sector is massive and has multiple battles to fight. So I decided, after dabbling in all of them, to focus on education. I felt like we could impact all these other sectors via education,” he says.
In January 2016, he went back to work with Vidyaniketan as an assistant school leader and has been there for the past year and a half. Quite early on in his Fellowship, Nathaniel had begun to see that the education system was not as much broken as it was lopsided. “There were kids in my class who were academically inclined – ones who were good with numbers, or languages, or at memorising stuff; and the system catered to them fairly well. But I felt like there were these other kids, with different skill sets, that the system just refused to see,” he explains.
It was this imbalance that he went back to try and correct. After conducting research, he discovered that talent exists mainly in three pools – academic, artistic and athletic. “The reason academics is taken so seriously is because it is assessed,” he says. His goal is to move towards a fairer system – one where all three pools could be at par, be assessed and help spot potential.
This is, of course, a complex task. It was at this time that Nathaniel came across RASA: an organisation in Chennai that works with special-needs individuals through theatre. He collaborated with RASA to devise an assessment rubric, dividing each pool into further sub-pools. The arts were categorised into music, visual arts, drama, and movement. “With music, for example, we broke it down into rhythm, tempo, form, and other elements. We assessed each aspect to determine the student’s aptitude.” The school ran this pilot program for the fourth and fifth grades, and explained to the parents that their children would be receiving three report cards that year – one each for academics, athletics, and the arts.“We wanted the parents to understand that their child shouldn’t end up becoming a mediocre engineer when he/she could’ve become an excellent something-else!” says Nathaniel.
He managed to reschedule the students’ timetables in order to devote more time to arts and athletics. He believes that “for the system to be truly fair, we have to work towards exposing kids the same or similar amount to arts and athletics as they have been to academics.”
This year the goal of his project, ImpART, is to develop intricate rubrics for each aspect that they focus on, create more transparent assessment procedures, and design a solid arts curriculum in consultation with professionals. Through this initiative, they also aim at providing support to artists who want to teach. Orchestrating such change was not an easy task. “My biggest strength is ideation and planning, and I feel like the Fellowship contributed a lot to it,” says Nathaniel. “My execution was relatively pathetic. I have now come to appreciate the people around me; I realized that I could not do all of this alone.”
This spirit of collective action is what’s helping Nathaniel and others like him work to give every child an opportunity to shine!
Written by Ananya Damodaran – Communications at Teach For India.
Applications for the 2018-2020 Teach For India Fellowship program are now open. Please visit apply.teachforindia.org to submit your application by September 3rd, 2017.
To learn more about Teach For India, visit www.teachforindia.org.