I spent last month in Shigar, Baltistan volunteering at the Abruzzi Teaching Garden School, helping to interpret curriculum in new ways to incorporate educational and artistic activities in the garden. In my own educational experience, I have learnt that some learn from books, others through conversation and discussion, yet others through working with their hands and designing experiments. No one method can be privileged over the others, they must all combine and coalesce together to form a complete education. Designing and using the garden as a teaching space comes from this multifarious approach towards education. During the summer camp that I co-organized at Abruzzi School, we tried to build such an environment.
The camp was grounded in the pedagogy of expanding learning beyond the classroom. The focus of the camp was on raising awareness and building sensitization to environmental damage, and practicing sustainability. Daily activities paired lessons with activities in the teaching garden, for instance we started with a lesson on different soil types and then conducted soil tests in different parts of the garden, followed up by digging a compost pit aided by local volunteers. We studied river irrigation systems in Punjab, and discussed how best to irrigate the vegetable beds in the kitchen garden and discussed water pollution, ending the day with experiments on water soluble and insoluble agents of pollution. The continued theme of education needs to prioritize decreasing collective and individual carbon footprints, sustainability such as building a lunch program from the kitchen garden, opening up the garden as an accessible community space, making organic compost on site at the school and connecting a recycling program at the school with the compost.
There were two field trips organized as part of
the summer camp: the first was a trip to Shigar Fort, for a tour of their gardens and the museum, followed by a half hour of undirected garden time where the students were free to take photographs, make sketches, roam and discover the place. The fort hosted iftar for the students and the teachers, and the evening ended on a high note with a surprise performance by a guest, Shiraz Nasir, tour operator and fire dancer visiting from Lahore. He shared his art and skills with us by giving us an informal showing of his pui dancing routine. The second field trip was a visit to the tissue cell lab at the department of agricultural in Skardu, arranged with the help of Mr. Zakir Hussain, and transport costs generously borne by Raja Adeel Khan. The participants learnt how to juice apricots, participating in the pulping process, and in making candied apricots. We were given a tour of the various aspects of the plant, tunnel farming and a visit to the lab to see how they are making disease-free potato seeds from in-vitro fertilization. Field trips as educational activities alongside leisure time need to be a more regular part of the school schedule.
Through summer camp, I tried to challenge various manifestations of gender stereotyping, such as involving the boys in cooking, and doing math sums with quantities of ingredients used, and involving the girls with burning hay to build an outdoor oven. In order to function coherently as a coeducational institution, there needs to be consistent effort made towards maintaining equality for all students, equal participation in classes, sports, activities. Additionally, the girls need to be encouraged more to participate inside and outside class in school activities. Mixed group activities wherever possible need to be designed, so that the girls and boys are able to share and learn collectively. There is great social resistance to this, but if the school remains coeducational it must not provide segregated education.
The most exciting aspect of summer school was the prospect of the older students teaching and helping the younger students, and the multilingual nature of workshops and activities. Balti, English and Urdu were spoken and switched in and out of. In future, there need to be more directed activities in English, with reading time and more language games. Holding specific language workshops would be helpful as an additional teaching tool.
We dug a compost pit in a corner of the school garden, helped and guided by local volunteers. Initially the students were asked to bring scraps from their kitchens (vegetable peels, egg shells, nothing dairy or a product of meat) and khaad from home, alongside grass and dead leaves from the school grounds. I hope that a recycling program at the school can be connected to the compost pit, so the school can reduce its waste and carbon footprint. An idea that was floated at a meeting I had with a parent, was to build a desi outdoor toilet to aid production of desi khaad/organic manure.
All too soon, we were wrapping up summer camp and regular school was re-opening. I spent my last few days in Shigar, rallying the teachers and students to continue working on the garden, securing it and sustaining it. The school is starting a fundraising campaign to extend the boundary wall of the school garden to secure it from goats that are left to wander (and graze) during the fall months. There is much work remaining to be done, lots of community mobilizations needs to happen, to build a teaching garden the school and local community must have ownership over it. The community at Abruzzi School must build this garden and the community will build itself around it. It must be this way, or not at all.
Now that I am back in Lahore, and thinking up ways to grow and dry tomatoes on my roof, and plant mint and onions, and begin composting, I am grateful to have spent a month in the valley of Shigar, learning and absorbing and inspiring myself to go back and build myself an urban garden. I continue to be disoriented by the cultural and social distance between the world here and there, and hope that an initiative like a teaching garden at a local school can provide opportunities to bridge that educational gap.