Discovering students’ wisdom in classrooms

I (Samidha) was facilitating a session with grade 5 students on forgiveness. I asked them, “write about some of the situations where we were able to show forgiveness towards other people.” 

A student shared that it was difficult for him to forgive his friend. He added, “I felt really bad when he did that action”. 

Then I curiously asked him, “what was so difficult about that?” 

“Because I share a great bond with him and I have done so many things for him and still, he hurt me. That’s why it was difficult for me.” 

“And you still forgave him. What made you do the act of forgiveness then?” 

“He is my friend and I want to be with him”. 

This conversation made me reflect upon my own experiences of forgiving things and acting patiently. It reminded me why the act of letting go of the hurt and not holding grudges may be difficult for us at times. 

Initially, when I used to enter the classroom I used to think that my students would get to learn about relationships and it would help them ahead in their life. In conversations such as these, I recognised students are also having certain wisdom within them. And it made me rethink that, do we need to always teach students? 

The above conversation shows how students bring their own experience into the classroom and how facilitation helps them to build comprehensive understanding. On the other hand, it also shows what are the things which we may forget as an adult and we relearn in the presence of students.

John Locke, a philosopher, used to believe that children were born as “blank slates”. However, what we discovered in our experience is that “students are not a blank slate, they have their own wisdom.” 

As reflecting on this statement and our mutual experience as part of our journey to understand Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) for students, we discovered that as an adult we often feel trapped in our own beliefs and become rigid in our day-to-day life. As we observed students, we realized that somehow we forgot to be free, expressive and playful. 

In my ( Priyanka)  childhood, I experienced that I was learning from adults who were nearby me, be it family members, teachers, or any grown up one. In my childhood most adults were opposed to my actions and always used to say don’t do this, don’t do that. For example, Do not talk to any stranger, don’t share your things with other people, do not express yourself to other people, do not go outside of our building gate to play. While some of this was from a child safety lens, which I only understand now, This societal pressure influenced me in becoming less social. This negative reinforcement also influenced me to be in my own self zone. This impacted me a lot and I do not even remember, when was the last time I played as an adult!

I strongly feel if I got an opportunity in my childhood to explore I would have been a different person altogether. I would have worked on my social emotional skills and now it has helped me to live my life. 

As a facilitator when I entered the classroom, my expectation was to create a safe space for our students and prioritize their wellbeing. So that they can freely express themselves.

At Apni Shala, we believe that by creating a safe space, students are at ease with themselves and focus on the learning. With the safe space they open up and express themselves, trusting that someone is there to listen to them which helps them in developing a safe and emotionally healthy individual.

Our curriculum is also based on the approaches of constructivist learning & Narrative Practices, where we believe that students learn and construct their knowledge from their experiences and humans define their experiences within the context of narratives.

In this article, we will share some insightful sharings from our students which became a learning experience for us as a facilitator and as adults.

1. Students Expressing love,affection freely towards facilitator

When I (Priyanka) enter the classroom for a session, students get very excited and happy. They welcome me with big smiles. They come ahead to hug and shake hands with me (and my other colleagues). One such afternoon, a student said when I went to the class, “Yayyyy!!!! Didi Aa Gayi.” (With big smile and giggles) Didi aap kaise ho? Hum hamesha Wednesday ka wait karty hai (Yahoo Didi Came (with big smile and giggles) Didi How are you? We always wait for Wednesday)

Our sessions start with asking how students are feeling at that moment or with activities to check their energy level. Students share their emotions in a circle. Often when I ask about students’ wellbeing, they also ask me about our emotions and wellbeing. Often my colleagues share, during check-ins in the session, many times students share that they are feeling happy and energetic because a facilitator came. A students once told me, “Didi mai aaj khush hu because aap aaye ho hume maja aata hai jab aap aate ho (Didi I am very happy because when you come, we have lots of fun).”

Sometimes some students also share that they are angry or sad because facilitators do not come every day. There are days when the energy of the students is very high and taking sessions with students becomes difficult due to a lot of noise and distractions. At that time, students talk to their classmates to keep quiet and listen. Once a student lovingly said, “Mai bahut sad and gussa feel kar rah hu kyunki hum aap bas ek hi din aate ho and bas 1 hour ke liye aap roj aaya karo na didi (I am feeling angry and sad because you come only once a week and only for an hour to our class.)

During lunch break students come and ask us, the Apni Shala facilitators, if we had lunch or not and they offer their tiffin. One of my students once asked me, “Didi aapne khana khaya kya? Aa Jao hum sath mai khate hai. Hum aapko khichdi lake de kya didi? Wednesday ki khichdi bahut tasty hota hai. (Didi have you eaten something? Come, let’s eat together. Can we get Khichadi (mid-day meal) for you dido? Wednesday’s Khichadi is usually very tasty)

As a facilitator, when we experience and hear the above statements from students in different situations, we realize as an adult that “we often miss out on expressing our love and affection towards other people and even if we tried we found it very difficult. We always created a thick boundary for ourselves. We learned from students that expressing love and taking care of everyone is ok, and is often such day-to-day things. 

2. Find alternate possibilities of hope

I (Priyanka) have been observing a friendship between two students (let’s call them A and B) who are very different from each other in their ways of being. ‘B’ actively participates in all activities while ‘A’ brings a lot of energy and finds it challenging to focus on an activity for a long time. I have noticed in my class that ‘A’ usually does not participate in group activities & he wants to do everything with his friend ‘B’ Only in that process he becomes playful. ‘A’ often teases ‘B’ while doing any group activity. As we observed, ‘B’ shows acceptance for his friend for being playful in the group activity and he supports ‘A’ in all possible ways . 

Once, they were working on research. They have decided to do their research in a pair. ‘A’ is not able to write but he is very good at giving ideas. ‘B’  is able to write. Both of them are very different from each other but as a pair they used their skills, created a topic and worked towards it.

I was very curious to know why ‘B’ is still supporting ‘A’, when he is not responding to the activities in a participative way.

I reflected on it & realized, I would not have helped or worked with A for group activities as more pressure is coming on me. Instead of working in a group I would have worked alone. 

When I interacted with them individually I got following response from them:

B said, “Mere friend par sabhi log bhut chidchid karte hai jo bhi aaye use gussa karte hai ya marte bhi hai, sabhi log bura bartav karte hai agar mai bhi vaise hi karu mere friend ke sath toh mujme & unhme kya fark? Mai uski mera acha dost manta hu & mujy lagta hai ki vo dil se bhut acha hai.Mai usko ache chi ke liye support karunga kyonki mai use mera bhut acha dost manta hu (Everyone gets irritated at my friend & scolds him. Everyone behaves very badly with him. If I also behave in the same way what is the difference between me & them? He is my friend & I feel He is very good. I will always support him to do good things because he is my best friend).”

A said,“Didi friendship mai itna chalta hi hai and mujhe pata hai mera bhai mujhe kabhi nahi chhodega and vo mereko roj school lata hai, force karke. (Didi in friendship that’s fine and I know my friend (Brother) will never leave me and he only brings me school forcefully everyday.)”

I felt surprised and proud of my students after hearing the above conversation. This made me realize how I can be observant and think about people’s positive points instead of thinking or talking only about their negative things. Most importantly managing friendship relations with so much love & support.

3. It’s ok to show what we feel; embrace whatever you are feeling.

In one of my (Samidha) classes there is one student who always says “ didi I don’t want to talk to you and I don’t want to participate in any activity.” 

I asked her, “why?” 

Making an angry face, she said “you go to sixth grade class twice a week and for us you come only once a week”. 

Then I explained to her the reason. But she was not at all convinced. She went and sat on the last bench. And almost in every session, she did that. One thing I noticed about her is that even if she doesn’t sit with us in a circle, she pays attention to what I am saying. And during the recap, she raises her hand and explains. 

I am reminded of how students aren’t afraid to talk and express their feelings if they find a safe space. They may get angry and roll their eyes during the session because that’s what they are feeling. But also many times some students show us that it’s possible to not let those feelings come in the middle of their learning. As an adult, I have found myself carefully assessing the situation and often bottling up anger, frustration or fear and also getting stuck in those emotions or feeling embarrassed. Sometimes students teach us that there is no shame in expressing our emotions as it’s what makes us human. 

Closing note

Coming from our life experiences, we used to believe that students are blank slates and we as adults need to teach them about life.

As we discussed above, the experiences of facilitating SEL, and developing a practice of listening to our students’ voices, has helped shift such a belief system. It helped us in deepening our understanding regarding students; we understood that they bring their own wisdom. They do know about their own self, their emotions and their own relationships with others and themselves. Earlier we were focused on the idea that we will teach something to students; we got to realize that we do not always teach them., Rather, if we create an environment where learning happens by itself, students find ways to discover, resurface and make sense of their lived wisdom. Many times we also realized that students helped us in recalling, relearning many areas which we somehow forgot in life and also realized certain wisdom to use in life. We also recognise that as a facilitator, we are not to enter the classroom with the expectation to learn from students. In the context of education spaces, it’s indeed our work as facilitators to prepare, plan and facilitate students’ learning. And at the same time when we see students as co-creators, they bring insights and experiences that contribute towards our own growth as people and facilitators/teachers. That’s a balance a facilitator learns to bring about in their practice. 

We wonder, what if all teachers create a space where students can express themselves? What if all teachers believe that students are not a blank slate?

About the Authors

Priyanka Kale has completed her masters degree from TISS Mumbai with the specialization in Children & Family (MSW). She has been working in the development sector since 2016. She works as Programme Lead at Apni Shala. She loves to facilitate sessions with different age groups.When Priyanka is not working you will find her spending time with herself and enjoying her own company.

Samidha Kamble has completed her masters degree in Psychology with specialization in Clinical psychology from Mumbai University. She is a fellow at Apni Shala. She facilitates SEL sessions in MCGM Schools. When Samidha is not working you will find her trekking & traveling.

Acknowledgements/ Gratitude

We are very grateful towards our students’ experiences with them and helped us to reflect and write this blog . We could not have undertaken this journey without the support of our reviewer Pankaj & Rohit. We would also like to thank our colleagues who have shared their thoughts.


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