Learning Out-of-the-Syllabus — Project FUEL

Before every exam, before every test, every student already carries a question with them, one which stirs a mortal dread in their hearts — what if today’s test contains a question from outside of the syllabus? We aren’t taught to tackle such questions that fall out of the pattern of examining. We aren’t taught to tackle questions which do not align with propriety. Teachers aren’t often equipped to handle questions from other than their area of expertise (try asking a History teacher about Sanskrit or Calculus or vice versa). Students aren’t shown how to ask vital questions to people whom they love & trust. And when you get an invitation to challenge that state of universal discomfort then it takes a school like Purkal Youth Development Society to welcome it. It takes a wise organisation like Project FUEL to orchestrate it. That opportunity was called the Out-Of-Syllabus Project.

“Lights?”

“Ready”

“Sound?”

“Rolling”

“Camera?”

“Rolling”

“Action!”

As Deepak says in the video above, (and I paraphrase) teachers aren’t considered to be the storehouse of wisdom & inspiration. Not by students, not by the parents of students & not by most of the members of society. The teacher’s job is often treated as a consolation career. I wouldn’t want to go into the state of the teaching industry but the result is that students might look up to a teacher for expertise in a subject or two but not in matters of succeeding or achieving in life. We invariably position the Elon Musks & Premjis & Gates & Gandhis & Mandelas & Hawkings & Einsteins of the world as capable of inspiring. As if to be functionally & entirely human is not something worth aspiring for. I feel it is vital to provide the moonshot inspirations as well as the quotidian guidance & support. But more important than that is to instill in the child the assurance that inspiration is often in the most common garb around them & that their teachers have a wealth of experience to share & learn from.

With the syllabus of how they present themselves to their wards & the subjects they teach, a team of students asked their teachers questions entirely out of syllabus.

“What brings you immense happiness”

“What does teaching mean to you?

“When were you hurt the most?”

“What is your life’s lesson?”

Deepak Ramola introducing Project FUEL

Deepak Ramola & his team of Project FUEL visited our school about 2 months ago. They discussed with the founder & the principal about orchestrating this one-of-a-kind project with our staff & students. The outline was simple — 10–13 students would be trained (to form what would be known as the Wisdom Club of the school) on videography & interviewing before they interview all the teachers & staff of the school in a manner unlike ever before. They were going to accomplish this (training the students plus 70+ interviews plus framing each piece to be hung on the school walls) in 7–12 days. To be entirely honest, I wasn’t worried about whether it could be accomplished or not; I was worried about students wasting their time on some Hallmark stunt with little to no value. I am glad my worries were proven wrong.

The teachers were in equal measure puzzled & excited. They buzzed around wondering what profound thing to say & were also wondering what could possibly come out of this.

“What should I say? What if my most profound moment is rather trite?”

“I am too young to have a life lesson!”

“I am not going to be able to make any sense & *this interview* will be my life’s lesson!”

Yet, they were all excited. Most people imagine being interviewed and being asked deep questions to which they would put their fingertips together & respond in a smooth voice with something profound. Most people imagine having someone come over & confess to being blown away by what they (the person imagining) had said in an interview. Most people love to be the wind that filled someone’s sails on a voyage of a lifetime. Most people never get that chance.

“We are teachers. What could we possibly have to say about life & other things?”

I recall expressing to a teacher (despite my skepticism about this project) that the most touching, ground-shaking, mind-altering stories of grand personalities are rarely about their achievements or about their moment of earning their trophy or million but often about a seemingly plain gesture or a rare turn of events that helped them go on to becoming the celebrities that they now are. No one tells a story about their gym workout routine or their 9-to-5 schedule; it is nearly always about something deeply human that could have happened to anyone. So, look at yourself not as a teacher but as a human being with a seed of goodness in them. Maybe that meditation will shine a light on some forgotten moment or aspect of their lives.

Mine was scheduled for the 1st day, but it didn’t happen. Not for the first 3–4 days while more than a dozen teachers were interviewed. I thought they had forgotten about me & I could focus on work. I was, I must confess, nervous. I am out of sorts when presenting myself as someone who knows or feels deeply (whatever be the depth) in front of people to whom I am not connected.

I asked the teachers who returned from the library (the venue of the shoots) about their experience — “It was fun, sir!” I secretly rolled my eyes & wondered if the students were learning something in their time away from learning! It isn’t without reason that I’ve been called a mother hen. I find it hard to believe that others can care equally about our children’s learning (not the same as curricular studies). This hen, too, shall learn!

“Would you be free at 9:30, sir?”

I looked up to note her circular rimmed glasses.

“Yes!”

I was hoping they’d forget me. I reached there on time but the earlier interview had spilled over. I used the time to catch up on the students of grade 2 & 3. They could get my mind off anything.

Confidence!

Finally, I sat down in the chair between rows of books, a microphone clipped to my shirt & LED lights brightly illuminating my face. I remember looking around & seeing my kids confidently handle the instruments. The microphone wasn’t a simple tube being held up — it had fine controls for XY mics & compressor/limiters on it & my kid, S, was fluent with reading them. K standing behind the camera seemed like it was his twin brother. A, who was handling the lights, knew how to set them up. A & I were ready to take notes. U was going to interview me. P was directing this shoot. I was brimming with pride. I could have hugged & kissed them all. I didn’t need lights to catch my beaming face.

The next few minutes were entirely out of syllabus for them & they were ready for it.

I have no memory of my interview. I remember saying something in response to a whole bunch of questions U kept throwing at me. Every time she asked a question, I felt a surge of pride. I don’t know how long it went on but when it was over I had to walk over to my kids & hug them. I asked them if they enjoyed it & they all nodded vigourously. What more could I have asked for!?

The team was extremely generous with their compliments. It seems I had said something interesting. We shot a round of pictures. I walked out in a daze. My mind was a mosaic of smiling faces, confidently working with their instruments, not for once asking whether this was Physics or Social Studies. Readers of this blog should be well aware of my aversion for the artificial silos of a reductionist system. And here was an experience, beautifully assembled by Project FUEL, which brought about a learning outside of any syllabus.

Suffer me as I dwell on the magic of this experience. How does one remain unaffected after being witness to tens of interviews with adults who shared intimately? Here they are, young teenagers listening to their teachers share in earnest. How does one retain an unaltered spirit when witness to the heartfelt confessions & conflicts of their stoic teachers? Maybe they didn’t like this teacher or thought that one was bravest & then they witness an unraveling of spirit. How can any student, any child, not be permanently dyed in hues of watching their teacher unfold into human souls? All this while learning the discipline of handling sensitive instruments & carrying the responsibility of creating high quality recordings. And if this, my dear reader, isn’t education, then what is?

Today, the students walk along corridors of the school, pausing occasionally, out of curiosity or hope to read what their favourite teacher had to say. Teachers read each others words & connect a little more with their colleagues. A Maths teacher has become more than that. An English teacher feels closer. No student of our school is the same any more & I thank Project FUEL for creating this wonderful celebration of the learning spirit.