When we began this project, there were three questions in our minds. Why don’t Indians question what is written about their culture and history in books with what they see around them? Why are they not proud of their own heritage? Why do they not have heroes in their history that they talk about as “Cool” or want to buy merchandise on or even get cool quotes from?
At another level, the effort was to make History engaging so that the learners are able to dive deep into it on their own, in future. The questions here were: How do we get them excited about the historical evidence in our country where there is so much more to explore? How do we get them to learn to understand the vocabulary used in History but also get them to express it in their own language? (Usually History is tough in school because the vocabulary used there is not the English they are used to and so they learn to cram “Key Words”). How do we get them to refer multiple sources and cross verify facts? Can we get them to open up their minds and ask questions? Can we get them to write about two thousand words?
We had discussions among the three of us. For two of us, history is a subject we ourselves are exploring. One of us has studied history but not taught it in this manner. So this was uncharted waters even for us. We did not know how much material was available and which child required what kind of help. But we were clear that each child would need individual attention.
And what a journey it has been! We have been co-learning with the children. Each child brought out that aspect of the empire that they were most excited about. Not only did most of them write 1500 words or more over a period of a couple of weeks, but also wrote a poem or picked a story about that king and presented it to the whole school. With each child, we discovered unique strengths and we had to figure a way of collaborating.
The First Indian Empire (Mauryan)
The first empire we worked on was the Mauryan Empire. Jahnavi, a home-schooler who has chosen to do History with us, was an avid reader and had already read a lot about the empire. She had written extensively by herself. For us this was an indicator on how this whole project could go. So we had a lot of discussions and arguments between ourselves.
She co-presented this project with a facilitator. After the presentation, we took cues from her writing and helped her organise her writing. We found what had fascinated her about this empire was how they managed to administer this empire so efficiently! She was amazed that they had even conducted what was possibly India’s first census. So we read the Arthashastra carefully and Jahnavi read a part of it too. What a find it was to see how advanced and liberal a book on economics and statecraft written 2500 years ago could be!
As part of this project, we also talked about higher education in India in Universities like Takshila. How so many years ago students from all over the world came to India to study. How the university and a guru had transformed a goat herd into a king.
Writing the first research paper, without any precedence from the peers, was obviously fraught with challenges for Jahnavi. Somehow in the hierarchy of things we think correct spelling comes before clarity of thought or research and writing. Our learning here was that each learner is progressing based on what he or she is paying attention to at that moment. A child who was reluctant to hand in any written assignments had turned in a 22-page paper. Also see her exploration on a journey and the description of it.
Masters of the Silk Route (Kushan Empire)
The next project on the Kushan Empire was done by Aadiya. We leveraged technology extensively. The facilitator and the learner read several papers together sharing the screen. The learner was reluctant to read by herself but could very easily comprehend what she was asked to read and express it in much simpler language, precisely. We learnt to look at multiple sources and reconcile conflicting data. We spent so much time that her mother complained!
When a coin, an inscription or a place was mentioned, we looked up that again. Aadiya was very excited by the documentaries on the silk route. We as facilitators did not know that there was so much material available on Kanishka or how big a role India played in the silk route trade. The pictures of silk route treasures that we found, images of the gold coins issued, pictures of sculptures and art of this period and the traces of Buddhist monasteries along with the maps of the silk route made this presentation a visual treat. The learner presented it by herself very confidently and later even wrote a poem on King Kanishka and that is when we really understood how much she had absorbed!
Mauryan’s Native Successors (Satavahanas)
Avni worked on the Satavahanas. She was keener to present rather than to research. What she was reading and writing was compartmentalised, but when she had written the whole thing, she was able to see the whole picture quite well.
She was amazed at what she herself had done and felt like she was graduating. “I have written so well!” she exclaimed. For her facilitator, this was high because being able to see a learner to appreciate her own success means that we are on the way to creating a self-driven learner.
Avni was also quite excited that Gautamiputra Satkarni had taken on his mother’s name. She was very excited about this empire’s connection to the Mauryan trade route and even titled her paper thus. It was nice to see that she felt that sense of continuation.
She was also curious about why the Satavahanas were called that?
The Golden Age (The Gupta Empire)
We as facilitators were very excited about the Gupta Empire. However, initially we could not get Ivaan to get interested. We had a difficult time and discussed what to do when an otherwise engaged child is not involved. Should we let it be? But that is an important period and peer learning was involved. Seeing his peers having fun with their research, his mentor’s nudge and parents’ encouragement swung the tide in our favour and Ivaan was ready sooner than we thought.
Ivaan turned in a comprehensive project – too comprehensive for it to be feasible to do in two weeks! We had hoped that he would get excited by the brave rulers of the empire and astronomy, mathematics and medicine and delve deeper into that. But that did not happen. We just had to step back and let him present.
Ivaan’s presentation began in a monotone, predictably. But as children started asking questions, Ivaan held his own and explained in his own words. He was able to think, reason and answer. Even though he hadn’t written much on the rulers or sciences he was able to recall his readings and think on his feet. What made the presentation lively for other learners was a quiz that he had made. That got all other children involved and it became a standard that they adopted and everyone built in a quiz at the end of their presentations. So sometimes the learning is not in the area that we want but there is learning nevertheless. What we noticed is a gradual change in Ivaan as the presentations progressed. He is actually excited about India’s history in the final assessment. In his words, “I got to know how India was a rich and advanced country. I also got to know India was beautiful and created things used in the modern world”.
A Righteous Emperor (The Vardhana Empire)
Shiv Mittal did his project on Harshavardhana. He was so sincere that he and the facilitator, read several papers on the dynasty and the king thoroughly not sparing a single line or nuance – this, everyday over two weeks. Shiv would read a sentence and stop at every word that he did not understand and discuss the word and the line carefully. We must have read over seven different research papers and also looked for maps and other evidence mentioned in each paper. He also wrote each idea in his own words and checked back to see if he had captured it right.
To Shiv, Harsha was a role model because at just sixteen he faced a lot of difficulties but yet took on the challenges. We were also able to capture many nuances of how the society changed during this empire because we read so carefully. For example the king began giving land grants to people with the agricultural workers and a feudal system set in.
The Sea-faring Kings (Chola Empire)
The fourth project was on the Cholas! We expected this to be tough for Ved had declared at the outset that he could not write. But what we discovered was quite the opposite. He would schedule his meetings, ask for pointed help, and read and write by himself with ease but he needed a facilitator to chat to at the other end. He was so excited by the Naval expeditions and the ships of the Cholas that he declared that he would make Lego models! He kept track of all the source links and mentioned them meticulously at the end of his paper. He was also quite excited about being “Co-facilitator” and was at ease in the role. At the end, he thanked Raja Raja Chola and Rajendra Chola for being such cool guys because of whom he had had so much fun.
His excitement was infectious and caused the lone historian among the facilitators to remark “You have inspired me to learn more about the empire!”.
Now Forgotten Empire (Karkotas)
Aditya who worked on the Karkota Empire and their prominent king Lalitaditya Mukhtapida was the most reluctant. He did not want to take up an obscure empire. He wanted to work on the Mauryas! But that was taken.
But as he started working on it, he got excited, in fact very motivated. Aadiya, his twin who is also in the class mentioned to us that he would pipe up every now and then at home about what Lalitaditya had done. He mentioned in his presentation that he felt let down that so little was known about this huge empire which was at least three times the size of the Mughal Empire at its peak.
We realise how much sensitivity we build in children when we read History in a way that they can connect. Lalitaditya built the Martand Sun temple in Kashmir which is now in ruins. Aaditya was upset that Bollywood had used the place for a film rather casually.
Aditya was so excited about Lalitaditya that he composed a poem about him with his mother’s help, dressed up as Kalhana, the poet who wrote Rajatarangini, Kashmir’s history in verse and recited the poem with a lot of emotion.
The Inclusive Rulers (Rashtrakutas)
For Madhav and his mother, this project was an occasion to bond! And he mentioned during his presentation that he liked working on it but his mom was excited about each detail they discovered together. In fact, he has written that he liked to see his mom having fun.
They have spent a lot of time together because it is a comprehensive project with a lot of details and pictures. This was heart warming for us because we as facilitators feeling learning should be joyous. Long afterwards, this is the memory that stays and becomes an attitude.
Madhav was very tentative about his presentation but he did hold forth quite well even though there were a lot of questions and cross talking during his presentation.
We had not worked with him closely but we got our feedback in the final assessment paper. This is what he had written:
“Yes I did enjoy learning about ancient empires. I understood a lot about ancient empires. Here is what I learned:
- Map of Bharat kept changing with different empires until our current map.
- People focused on education back then. They built their first ever university called Taxila University. There were different scholars and advisors like Amoghavarsha, Aryabhatta, Sri ponna and Chanakya.
- There were 3 religions that were popular back then these religions were Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and each empire built many temples on it.
- Languages that have been popular were Sanskrit and Prakrit.
- India has been the land of science and literature.”
The Art Loving Rulers (Pallavas)
Jaiditya presented on Pallavas and culminated the discussion with a culturally mighty South Indian empire. He had finished his research long back with the help of his parents at home and was confident about it. He presented well with Dolly didi’s help.
Never Say Die (Chalukyan Rulers)
Our second last presentation was on the Chalukyas by Sakshi. The facilitator gave her some papers and she read them and wrote her paper in her own words. She had structured the long paper herself.
She was very keen about art, architecture, coins and evidence and looked up a variety of resources. She shared many of those images of temples and coins with us. She was nervous about her presentation but she pushed herself and presented a visual-rich paper.
At the end of the project, we facilitators are quite satisfied. We had got each child to read, write, present, listen to other children and ask questions and then write a poem! A long journey! More importantly we felt that we had managed to instil a sense of India’s rich and long history. A few days later, to a question on what they learned about India’s heritage, we were pleasantly surprised to see the responses ranging from Indian Mathematics to medicine to Sanskrit to temple architecture to Kalidasa’s poetry!
With warm regards,
Dolly Sharma, Vidya Viswanathan and Rahul Batra