Classrooms that center Students’ Expertise: Team Apni Shala

Pallavi during an SEL session at the Khoj Community Learning Center

In our conversations with children and young people, for many of them, school is a space they have constant access to, that can help establish notions of what safety or a sense of belongingness feels like. Schools and classrooms are striving to be more nurturing and safer spaces for children, and the team at Apni Shala has been instrumental in bringing these intentions and practices to the community of educators using SEL framework and narrative ideas. 

We spoke to Vanisha, Priyanka and Pallavi, all of who are SEL educators at Apni Shala and they share their journey as educators, their intentions and values in their work with young people, their know-hows and struggles, practices they have discovered in collaboration with young people, with one another.

Vanisha works with the senior kindergarten group at  Khoj Community Learning Center  and also conducts SEL sessions with different organizations. 

Priyanka works with grade 1 students at Khoj Community Learning Center and facilitates academics with social-emotional integrated sessions. She also facilitates SEL sessions with youth. 

Pallavi works as a Grade 2 teacher and curriculum support at Apni Shala. She has been working to develop a Social Emotional Learning-based curriculum at Khoj Community Learning Center. 

Three of the educators speak about values of compassion, collaboration and building safer spaces in the classroom spaces and much of their work today is informed by their personal experiences of being in classroom spaces. 

Priyanka shares her experience during her younger days in school. “I was academically performing well in all my tests and was loved by all but now when I think back, I feel there was no fun in the way I was taught, there was no space for me to talk about things happening back at my home, I couldn’t share how I felt when people body shamed me.” As someone who has had difficult experiences in her school life, Vanisha asserts the importance of what she calls as “extra efforts” on the part of educators by doing ‘little’ things like emotions check-ins, striking up casual conversations with children, going that extra mile to help a child engage, being mindful to make visible the efforts the child is making to respond to difficulties. 

Priyanka in an online SEL session with students

What did they hope for (or not hope for) for the children to experience in their classroom? What did working towards building this space look like? As Pallavi shares, “I had expectations from myself and the children I was working with, which took form of self-criticism and sometimes criticism towards the children I was working with. To break this pattern, I decided for myself the need to have a compassionate outlook towards learning and growth. Learning and growth achieved out of an insecure, harsh perspective may give the push but can steal the joy of doing.” As Priyanka creates a safer space for her students in the classroom, she hopes that it is constantly a collaborative process wherein everyone engages in creating a compassionate space for themselves and others around them. To constantly work towards building a space together where everyone can feel heard, safe and loved.

They recount classroom stories of holding on to values of love, compassion, children as holding expertise, relationships that are non-blaming and holding close the idea of safe spaces and that people are not the problem. I personally hold these values strongly though it’s difficult to be conscious of everything every time. When students in my class don’t participate and hit each other, for me to not label that child as a ‘troublemaker’ and instead invite focus on discussing with the child and the family to understand more of why this child is behaving in a certain way? What might be happening? How can I create support for that child? reflections on such questions becomes more important for me.” As they all agree on witnessing children’s expertise and centering that in the classroom practices, Vanisha shares how children know what they want in the class, how they want to respond to a distress situation and when educators hold on to this, it makes possible a space of less hesitation, more expressing and how this can transform the idea of classroom structures for children who are a part of it. 

Pallavi reiterates the importance of a collective accountability of everyone involved in building safer spaces for each other and co-creating a classroom culture to enable that. “Children show support for children who struggle with finishing or understanding a task. I remember this particular instance of a child with diverse needs who was struggling with communicating and developing friendships with fellow classmates. While some children teased and at times made fun of this child, there were also others who offered support by sitting beside this child, explaining instructions when the child did not understand or explaining possible consequences of a particular action.” 

The team at Apni Shala uses SEL practices and integrates them with narrative ideas in their work with school-children and communities around them. To demonstrate what some of these practices looks like, Priyanka shares, Young people are the experts of their lives and giving that agency to students to choose what they want in their class choosing not to talk if they don’t feel like, stepping out when needed and are all agreed classroom structures that we follow. To center their voices, some of the practices that we follow are emotional check-ins with students, taking their perspective on the things happening in the class, asking them their likes and dislikes and trying to consider them whenever possible, understanding their context and family members. Taking some extra efforts with some of the students, understanding their physical, emotional needs, their learning style, and catering to them. I think I have created that space for students where they can give me feedback and state something if they don’t like a particular thing.” 

Vanisha, Priyanka and Pallavi find a lot of resonance in holding on to the idea that people are not the problem, that problems are located in structures, and sometimes in classroom norms. The team recognizes this work to be really important since the single-storied understandings can result in placing all the onus on children or families that can result in sanctioning of behaviours typically seen in classrooms. One of them shares responding to a very common classroom instance that often disregards structural barriers or other difficulties that students experience. “When a child is arriving late to school a number of times, the immediate response would be to ask the child and the caregiver why they were late and how it is not ok. However, with the attitude of problem being separate from the person and structuring care, we started in small ways to demonstrate to the child that they are cared for, by inviting the child in first, letting them settle and gently asking them ‘I noticed you arrived late to school today, what could have been the reason? Were you experiencing any challenge? If the child stated any difficulty, we have also tried to ensure that difficulty or challenge has been acknowledged.’” 

The team Apni Shala acknowledges this work of creating safer spaces as a constant and a conscious engagement. “In this work, I hope that along with students, we make mistakes, own them and learn from them because I think until we fail, explore and experiment yourself it is difficult for us to understand things. This is the way everyone creates a compassionate space for themselves and others around them”, shares Priyanka. It also requires a conscious challenging of dominant stories about children that adults are recruited into. To help educators understand this, Pallavi says, “When working with children with difficulties, labels unfortunately become dominant as the perspective is often about ‘something that needs to be fixed’ rather than ‘something that we need to deeply understand’. There were some conscious efforts required to look at what are the other aspects of this child? What does this child bring to the classroom?” The sanctioning of children that often manifests in the form of correctional measures for them is something Vanisha does not want to adhere to, “I always want my students to be free and comfortable while talking to me.” 

The school community represents a potential for a collaborative space wherein all the voices involved can help in building up a safer space wherein diversity is invited, a sense of belonging can be experienced and a space for alternative stories about students, educators can be rescued. Pallavi demonstrates this by talking about her relationship with children and caregivers, “The children and families that I work with always provide me with insights when it comes to creativity, innovations and me as a human. Our interactions and the impact of those is a key to understanding what helps have a flourishing environment vs what might be some communication flaws that are not healthy.”

“In one of the recent online sessions, when I asked them (students) to share things that they like about their home one student who lost his dad showed one of the toys his dad gifted and shared that he misses his dad” for me creating this kind of space for students and seeing them express certain difficult emotions was a reminder to do what we do.” Priyanka signs off. 

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