Lucky to be expelled

CLASSROOM DIARIES

It seems peculiar, but the best thing to happen to Totto-Chan during her school-life was getting expelled when she was in the first standard.

Her teachers could not tolerate her restlessness — she would bang her desk-lid often, loudly, and stand by the window to summon street singers to sing for the children in the middle of a lesson, so that the teacher had to stop teaching for a while till the din created by the musicians subsided.

So Totto-Chan was expelled but her mother being a wise woman, did not tell her so. She took Totto-Chan to Tomoe, a school that used abandoned railroad cars as classrooms. Upon arrival at the new school, the headmaster spent four hours chatting with Totto-Chan, listening to anything she had to say with great respect, and accepted her as a pupil of the school.

The decision to move schools worked in favour of Toto, because the new school Tomoe, was a special one indeed, run by a very special headmaster, Sosaku Kobayashi.

Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window is Kuroyanagi’s  (Totto-Chan) own account of her time at Tomoe, the enlightened teaching methods in force there, and the various adventures and escapades she got into which, instead of earning her a scolding, had Kobayashi telling her, “You really are a good girl, you know.”

Set in Tokyo during World War II, the book is a true account of daily life in school – lessons, lunch break, trips and excursions and sports — all made special by a headmaster’s deep insight into child psychology, and his unshakeable faith in the innate goodness of every child. The chapters are short, the language is simple and natural, and the evocative black-and-white sketches bring each anecdote to life.

Readers begins to envy Totto-Chan as they learn more about the teaching methods at Tomoe. The schools did not follow a fixed time-table. Instead, the teacher made a list at the start of each day, of the subjects to be covered that day and the topics to be completed in each.

Then, students were left to their own devices to plan their time — they could start with any subject they liked, spend as much time on it as they wished, and move on to the next subject. The teacher was available to answer doubts individually. If, at the end of the day, each child had completed the work set, the class was rewarded with a nature-walk. As they were allowed to plan their own time, they managed to earn the walk quite often!

Students at Tomoe came from different backgrounds, and there were special-needs children too. Totto-Chan became close friends with her classmate Yasuaki-Chan, a boy afflicted with polio. In a fit of daring, she once helped him climb a tree, heedless of the risk of him falling from a height. Fortunately, the boy managed to climb with her help, and was grateful to Totto-Chan for showing him the wonderful view through the high branches.

There were a few rules that the headmaster had set in place. He insisted on the students chewing their food properly at lunch time, and that they ate a balanced meal. If the child had not brought a balanced meal, the headmaster’s wife provided them with food she had cooked herself!

Another lunchtime ritual that was judiciously followed was — ‘speaking’. Each day, one student would be asked to speak about anything he or she wanted to talk about, addressing the rest of the class while they ate. Most children talked about their day.

When a nervous boy could not muster the courage to speak, the headmaster coaxed him and when, at the end of several minutes, the child managed to utter, “I woke up, brushed my teeth, got dressed and came to school,” the whole class spontaneously applauded. And that’s how the headmaster helped his student become brave!

To ensure that children were physically fit, they learnt eurythmics, which he described as “a sport to refine the body’s mechanism, to enable the body and mind to understand rhythm, achieving harmony between the spirit and flesh, finally awakening the imagination and promoting creativity.”

Parents who happened to visit the school while eurythmics were in progress took pleasure in watching their children leaping about joyfully. Sports were conducted in such a way that differently-abled children could participate in and even win some events! The book, a must–read for all educators, underlines Kobayashi’s holistic approach to teaching.

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