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Saritha Vijayakumar is a rare teacher who prefers to think outside the box than adhere to the prevailing norms and methodologies of the academic arena. She found the COVID-19 lockdown as the perfect opportunity to explore ways to engage children in more creative and healthy pursuits than just sitting at home and getting bored!
“When the government implemented the lockdown, I noticed a lot of children in my neighbourhood were sitting idle. They couldn’t even go out and play with their friends. I then realised that this is the best time for children to explore new skills and farming is something that can come in handy anytime,” shares the 44-year-old teacher with The Better India (TBI).
Since Saritha has been an avid backyard farmer for most of her life, enjoying fresh veggies from her home’s garden, she thought of teaching this useful life skill to her students.
The Senior Hindi teacher at the MarThoma Public School, in Kakkanad, Kochi, Kerala, created a Whatsapp group with 35 of her Class 9 students and has been giving them farming lessons for free for the past one month. The dutiful teacher encourages the young gardeners to cultivate their gardens by providing them with tips and tricks.
Each day, the children share their updates through pictures and videos, and Saritha provides them with the necessary advice.
The Sprouting of an Idea
Once school students became homebound, Saritha and her husband, Vijayakumar, an engineer at the Fertilisers and Chemicals Travancore Limited (FACT) started online coaching classes for science stream subjects and current affairs. Although their idea was to coach about 30 odd kids in their neighbourhood, the number of registrants kept going up.
“On seeing the rising number of students that registered for our online class, I realised that children were super interested in learning something new. That’s when I thought to incorporate something useful like farming into the online classes,” Saritha adds.
After speaking to the administration and the principal of the school, Saritha created her Whatsapp group. One of the first problems she had to give a solution for was the lack of space in the houses of her learners. “As most of the students live in apartments and have very less area, I suggested grow bags and terrace cultivation to compensate for the lack of space,” she says, “it’s amazing to see the developing interest in children for farming. Each day they update me with the kind of growth their plant has attained, the natural fertilisers they use and also enquire about where they should place the plant for adequate sunlight.”
Farming At School
Given her interest in farming, Saritha has been actively implementing farming activities at her school. For the past ten years, Saritha has ensured the cultivation of a variety of vegetables, herbs and fruits in the school compound with active student participation. She has also initiated a recycling drive at school for the collection of plastic bags and used pens. The collected items are either repurposed or taken to a recycling centre.
Additionally, Savitha is the school coordinator of the Student Empowerment For Environmental Development (SEED) programme started by a media house in the city. The initiative aims to create a green culture and an awareness to protect the environment among students.
“As part of the initiative, the school has set aside one period every week for the 8 and 9 classes. During this hour, we taught the students various cultivation methods, grafting techniques and gave them a general understanding of the maintenance required for everyday plants,” explains Benzy Thomas, a retired teacher of Mar Thoma Public School, who had been working closely with Saritha on the project.
Saritha has been farming for more than two decades now. With the support of her daughter Sandra, a 12 standard student and her husband, she has managed to cultivate green chilly, tapioca, spinach and tomatoes in just 35 cents of land around her house.
“After my online classes, I take around 2 hours to maintain the small farm around my house. Thanks to the cultivation at home, we’ve barely had to step outside to get vegetables from the market,” she explains.
Saritha often shares her farming experience as well with the students and gives unique tips and techniques on developing natural fertilisers and composts.
Talking to TBI about the online farming classes and unique tips they learn, Anagha, one of Saritha’s students informs, “I think one of the best pieces of advice that ma’am has given us is to use rice starch as a pesticide. The insects get stuck on the plant because of starch’s sticky nature. I found this to be a great alternative to chemical pesticides.”
“As a teacher, I’m trying to fill the gaps in our curriculum through the online farming classes, and I’m glad to see that today’s generation is showing interest towards such skills,” she concludes.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)