Step by Step
Dream Class is an ongoing creative learning journey that supports the educational ambitions of a group of girls from a
leprosy community in India.
As opposed to writing a formal update about the conclusion of the latest, ’16-‘17 Dream Class, this is going to be more of a personal reflection. The class is rendered in a family spirit and is not a professional project. More than a learning journey, it is a sharing journey void of any particular objective.
As some of you might know, early in 2014, I got inspired by a really dynamic group of girls who had all made the relatively radical decision to pursue higher education, despite criticism from their families, financial challenges, and a cultural heritage that states that education is the domain of men.
On a whim one day, I asked if they wanted to “circle up” a couple days in a week and work together on their dream. They agreed. We called that experience “Dream Class” and, miraculously, several of the members are now on the verge of graduating from college—the first females in the history of their community since 1968 to do so.
Then I spent over a year in retreat in the US and returned to India late in 2015 thinking I could pick up where I left off with an entirely new group of girls who, I heard, were inspired by the original class to go through the program.
So much in me had changed during that time away however, it was not possible to pick up where I left off, though I tried (an entirely new approach was required). There were also several external factors like deaths in the community, festivals, and the marriage of my co-facilitator, Aruna, which made it quite challenging to create a good flow.
After toughing it out for six months and numerous lessons learned, Aruna and I made a plan for a new and more disciplined approach to Dream Class in the form of a yearly schedule and monthly topics, and we committed to start over again in July of 2016 with the same group, plus a couple new members.
Our plan ended up working and the past seven months with the fourteen girls, ages 13-16 (Std. 8 - 10), who made up the ’16-’17 Dream Class, was a joy and ended up going exceedingly well.
Our Curriculum Emerges
Journey is a much more accurate term than class to reflect the nature of the time we spend together.
When we started (even with the 2014 group), there was an intention to support the girls around their education but there was no map, and no specific final destination. So week after week, we got together and made up the class ourselves based on what naturally emerged. Sometimes serious subject matter. Sometimes community service activity. Sometimes laughter yoga, and so on. Some things worked, others didn’t. It was a real pastiche of activity.
After all this time though, I noticed there were some reoccurring themes and topics that kept surfacing. Last month, I made this handout to reflect them.
When I share about the class, people tend to ask, “What do you teach?” In response, mostly I answer, “Nothing in particular.” While that has historically been true, still, what I would talk about was communicating some basic premises and values, which are now illustrated and put into context in the handout above.
The image, I realize, is the Dream Class core curriculum and result of three iterations of facilitating this program. No doubt, it will prove useful for teaching future versions of the class.
Our Basic Tenets
Even if you don't read Hindi, you can probably understand what is going on in the image. I won’t go through each concept one-by-one but let me translate the text beneath the question mark, which reads, “How will I reach?” because it speaks to one of our most central tenets.
This is, perhaps, the most important adjustment for a participant of Dream Class, i.e., whatever your dream/calling is, developing the habit to ask, “How can I reach there?” The opposite, which we discourage, is not asking any question of the sort, which is roughly equivalent to declaring the dream impossible and putting an X where there otherwise would be a question mark.
In light of some of the poverty challenges the girls face, this turns into a relevant discussion since they can easily say, “My family doesn’t have enough money for my education.” We teach: question any question long enough with an honest heart, and answers will start to reveal themselves—no matter what. This just seems to be a fundamental law of the universe and we have ancient maxims like, “Seek and you shall find” and “Ask and you shall receive” that point to this understanding.
We say in Dream Class, “Ask four questions (e.g., Who... can help? What... can I do? How... will I do it? Why... am I doing it?), not for things.” Generally speaking, asking for things is a kind of begging and leads to dependence, while asking those four questions about your dream or any missing piece of information, often leads to self-realization and empowerment.
We also talk about HEALTH as an acronym for Happiness, Energy, Attitude, Love, Thoughts, and Hygiene (defined broadly) and being the most important tool on the journey because without your health, you can’t constructively work on a dream. In a slum environment that has a number of associated health risks and culture of not paying much attention to personal well-being, it becomes an even more essential topic.
We define what education is and put it in a particular context. At the start of this most recent class, I asked the group, “Why are you in school?” Considering the girls spend so much time there, I figured they should know why. There was quite a bit of silence, then a few offerings like, “To learn” or “Because I have to,” but not much clarity.
Education we define simply as any process that answers a question. That’s why we go to school. To answer questions because more knowledge means greater ability to choose. Going back to our handout, we then see that education — answering questions — is the second most important tool on the path.
I have consistently brought service activities and values into Dream Class. When following a dream, you need good luck. I like to ask some variant of this question, “Who do you think is going to be more on the receiving end of good luck? Somebody who spits, liters, is unkind to others, doesn’t ask questions/doesn't care, and fools around? Or, somebody who ask questions, is kind to others, picks up trash when she doesn’t have to, and is generally willing to help out?”
Without further explanation, unanimously, the girls intuitively understand it is the latter type of individual who is most likely going to be on the receiving end of good luck. Those who serve, care. Unselfish caring attracts favorable circumstances. As facilitator, I try to inspire care for the sake of caring.
Lastly, the symbol of a sun for a dream is not by accident. We talk about how the sun seems far, far away but, at the same time, it sends its invisible rays to us and this planet. Dreams are like that. They may seem far away but they also call out to us invisibly, and beckon us to undertake some journey. Dreams also feed us and give us a reason to live.
As I've shared before, though our "on paper" focus is academic education, we approach that by going several levels deeper, toward the ground floors of the human journey and experience. By nurturing those roots, I find the rest takes care of itself.
What Did I See?
During our final session of the term, I shared to the group how we do a kind of gardening in Dream Class.
Gardening has two fundamental aspects. Planting/nurturing and letting go. Growth happens in the letting go, i.e., it happens in the absence of activity, similar to muscles. Muscles grow, yes, mainly because of training stimulus, but equally so in the recovery time and on rest days.
As such, it is nearly impossible to see results in the class itself. I usually hear about changes in the girls later, and tangentially at that since I don't make much of a determined effort to find out. However, I wouldn’t continue to invest and meet with them week after week if nothing was happening.
What I was able to observe was a group that solidly bonded together, significant development in both maturity and self-confidence (especially) in all participants, as well as a certain “brightening” in the girls’ faces. There were also a few who really distinguished themselves through perfect attendance, thoroughly understanding the subject matter, and participating in activities with greater motivation and enthusiasm. I will be keeping an eye on these few, as another dimension of Dream Class is providing support to families for these types of students who show a lot of potential.
During this concluding session, I also said that this was not “the end” but more like “to be continued.” As far as I can tell now, we will reconvene in July to go through the core curriculum again from a different angle, and we should also be welcoming some new members to the group.
It's a journey, no less for me as well and I feel privileged to be a part of it.