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School of new thought

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By An IIT-IIM graduate runs a private school in Suri, Birbhum, with novel teaching methods rather than standardised textbooks and rote learning. Samhita Chakraborty reports
  • Published 14.09.14
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Arghya Banerjee enjoys a laugh with students at his dream project, The Levelfield School. Pictures by B. Halder

Grey clouds hang low over green paddy fields as far as the eye can see. A lone single-storey school building stands in the middle. A bunch of young boys and girls are sitting in class, learning history. The scene could be just about anywhere in rural Bengal. But not the students. Ask them a question and they’ll reply in fluent English, solve analytical math problems in a jiffy and make a computer presentation all by themselves. And they dream of becoming everything — from businessmen to journalists to writers to politicians.

This is The Levelfield School, in Hosnabad, 5km from Suri, the district headquarters of Birbhum. It was started in 2010 by Arghya Banerjee, an IIT-IIM pedigreed young man looking for a good school for his little daughter. “Most of the schools advertised their infrastructure — five-acre campuses, air-conditioned classrooms — but nobody really talked about how they were going to teach. So I decided to set up this school, where learning would be real life-oriented and also enjoyable,” said Banerjee. To start the school, he dipped into his own savings and took out a bank loan.

A class in progress in the senior section and (below) kids work their grey cells over Othello, a Japanese board game

An alumnus of Ramakrishna Mission School, Narendrapur, and IIT-Kharagpur, Banerjee was much impressed by the innovative teaching techniques used by IIM-Ahmedabad. The other trigger for this school was the talent crunch he faced while recruiting for an equity research outsourcing company he had co-founded after his IIM days.

“The candidates may have the qualifications on paper but they don’t have basic skills like communication, ability to explain something logically or writing a simple email. We designed an extensive training programme for them but I felt it was quite a late intervention. There had to be something wrong with the education system. All this should be taught at the school level,” said Banerjee, walking around the senior school campus.

This campus is new, built according to CBSE specifications. Banerjee will apply for board affiliation next year, when his oldest students move up to Class VIII. “You can apply for CBSE affiliation only when you have reached Class VIII. We roughly follow the CBSE syllabus but we teach the kids our way,” he explained. And the board isn’t really interested in the students till about Class VIII, so “we get away with a lot”, he laughed.

Banerjee and his wife Asima have designed the material for the junior classes themselves. “Instead of standardised textbooks at the primary level we focus on development of skills — reading, writing, speaking,” he said, adding that reading skills cannot be developed if the children read just one textbook throughout the year.

The school’s aim is that a student of Class I should read 20-25 storybooks in a year. Since so many age-appropriate storybooks weren’t available, the Banerjees started rewriting and simplifying old classics like Gulliver’s Travels, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Prince and the Pauper. So, by the time they are in Class VI or VII, they are able to read Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park or Stephen King’s The Shawshank Redemption as part of the curriculum.

The new teaching methods and fight against rote learning have attracted young men and women from Calcutta to come and teach at Levelfield.

Sayoni Ghosh, a 24-year-old sociology graduate from Lady Brabourne College, has been teaching here for three years. “We treat the children like mature individuals. The environment is much freer and more creative, not like the way we have been taught. I also get to learn a lot of things on the job. For history they don’t have to mug up dates, they watch movies and documentaries and read biographies,” she said.

Sayoni goes back home to Salt Lake on alternate weekends and says she doesn’t miss the big city. “The school takes up a lot of our time and, frankly, I would rather have an interesting conversation with these kids than roam around in a mall. Also, the pay is quite good,” she smiled.

Banerjee admits that he has to offer a higher pay packet to attract young, dynamic, city-bred teachers to the district town. While senior school teachers make around Rs 30,000 a month, junior teachers receive between Rs 20,000 and Rs 25,000.

Levelfield does not require a BEd degree, nor experience. “In fact, we discriminate against experience. We look for smart people and conduct a case study-style of interview. An example of a question we’d ask at the interview would be: A top cricketer like Dhoni earns around $10million in a year. However, Tiger Woods, a top golfer, would earn around $100million in a year. What accounts for the difference? The answer would be the type of viewership. While more common people watch cricket, a richer audience watches golf,” Banerjee explained.

Dipanjan Das, who has a degree in English literature from Calcutta University, returned to teach at Levelfield this session, having left a couple of years back. “I tried my hand at content writing in Calcutta but I wanted to teach, so I came back. The progress of these kids is better than even some Calcutta schools, in terms of thinking, maturity, ideas and overall performance,” said the 28-year-old. According to Das, it’s the curriculum, method of teaching and the exposure the kids get that give them the edge over other children of district towns.

To determine how much his students are learning under these novel methods, Levelfield makes its students routinely take the ASSET tests. Banerjee is happy to report that his students score well above the national average.

But not everyone is convinced of Banerjee’s “crazy ideas”. Banerjee’s family is from Suri and he is well-known as a state rank-holder in classes X and XII. “Those things are really important in these towns. That gives you immediate credibility when you are setting up a school. So people came forward initially but they became sceptical when they saw there were no standard textbooks,” said Banerjee. “They want someone like me to run a school, but not my crazy ideas,” he smiled.

One of the things that converts sceptical parents is the fluent English of Levelfield students. “Right from LKG, we are very strict about speaking in English. Even if these kids meet one another outside school, they speak in English,” said teacher Sayoni.

The children, too, are aware of the importance of English. Class VII student Shruti says very seriously that “English is essential. It is very important in interviews”, while Rhea of Class VI feels, “If you want a well-paying private job, you must speak English well.”

The school doesn’t come cheap, though. The annual fee for the senior classes is Rs 45,000 a year and from classes I to V, it’s Rs 35,000. “That sort of fees is unheard of here. The reason parents pay is because they understand the value of this education,” said Banerjee.

Swati Mukhopadhyay, a local resident of Suri, is delighted by the progress her son Aadrita, a student of Class I, has shown in his three years at Levelfield. “I have myself studied in an English-medium school in Jabalpur. But the way my son speaks in English or solves maths problems, I couldn’t have done when I was his age,” she said. She and her husband, who works as a personnel manager in the Eastern Coalfields, decided to send their son here after Arghya Banerjee took a class to explain his teaching methods.

After setting up his dream school Banerjee is now dreaming bigger, of taking his school and his “crazy ideas” to other cities across Bengal, including Calcutta.

DO IT DIFFERENTLY

Name: The Levelfield School
Location: Near Suri town, Birbhum
How far from Calcutta: 220km; four hours by road
Started in: 2010
Classes: KG to Class VII (till now)
Medium of instruction: English, with Bengali as second language
Number of students: 300
Number of teachers: 10
Special mention:
• Focus on reading. From simplified classics like The Prince and the Pauper in the junior section to popular fiction from authors like Stephen King and Ken Follett in senior classes
• Teachers fluent in English take special care to develop students’ oral command over English
• In maths, stress is on solving analytical problems rather than common sums
• lThe weekly news is compiled and given to students every Monday to keep them updated
• In Bengali, the screenplay of Hirak Rajar Deshe is used as one of the texts
• To learn about history, students watch movies and read biographies and historical fiction rather than memorise dates and events
• Students are taught basic computer and Internet skills

Do you know of other schools like Levelfield in Bengal? Tell ttmetro@abpmail.com