Close the books, open the minds

Vinaya Patil
Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Manjushree Patil, founder-director of Aatman Academy, speaks of the needs of children with learning disabilities and the idea of inclusive learning

Special kids need special attention’, we often hear. Not so true, believes Manjushree Patil, founder-director of Aatman Academy. ‘A school for customised learning’ as she calls it, Aatman Academy, caters to the individualised learning needs of children with learning disabilities (LD) and difficulties. “These students are able to experience the strong co-relation between ‘efforts’ and ‘success’ — often for the first time ever in their lives,” explains Patil, who founded the institute in 2010.

“I began as a teacher at a pre-school after which I did my post graduation in special education. I have closely worked with Dr Anand Nadkarni of the Institute of Psychological Health (IPH). I decided to start a school for special kids after learning how they are treated in regular schools,” Patil narrates on the sidelines of the Pune International Early Childhood Edufest (PIECE) hosted by the Early Childhood Association in the city recently.

Patil’s career spans almost three decades and includes teaching at the preschool and middle school levels and leading training programmes for more than 20,000 special education teachers across the globe. When she became the head of an international school, she realised that children with LD not only need inclusion, but also need to be integrated into an educational system that makes learning easy, uncomplicated and fun.

The Thane-based Aatman Academy has a dedicated and supportive team of around 24 facilitators who ensure that the students’ strengths are developed and weaknesses are remedied. This makes way for high self esteem and lasting self confidence. It is a place where “the joy of the journey is as important as the drive towards the destination!” Patil exclaims.

As of today, Aatman has over 70 children from Thane, Kalyan, Mira Road and Mulund, Bhandup and Kanjurmarg areas, studying there. The school adopts the Maharashtra state board curriculum and has celebrated the success of 46 Class X students who cleared their exam with distinction in the last five academic years. “At every step, our core philosophy has been to provide the students with whatever they need to improve their learning and never compromise on the respect and sensitivity they deserve, while doing so,” says Patil.

Aatman ensures that learners are happy and safe, both physically and psychologically, as they go about their learning journey in a joyful way. “It is the only school of its kind in the entire state,” Patil says. The three core models on which the school works are the ‘hospital’, ‘hospitality’ and the ‘pre-school’. 

Explaining the models, Patil says, “We ensure that the child is treated with as much care as a patient is treated in a hospital. And, just like the hospitality industry works, he will be treated with respect and politeness. Nobody complains about a child’s behaviour here. The pre-school model indicates that the techniques of teaching used at pre-school are continued right up to secondary school, so that learning continues to be simple and fun.”

She says that the students at Aatman do not use any textbooks up to Class VIII. ‘Close the books and open the minds’, that’s the concept. The first week at the Aatman Academy is called the Aatman Welcome Week (AWW) where children just have fun. They are asked what they want to learn. Out of which, three to four areas are chosen and then the entire curriculum is designed around them. “From Maths to Geography, everything is taught through the lens of their interest areas,” Patil explains, giving an instance of how a group of students was taught a topic while they were drawing mehendi designs on each other’s hands.

The focus is on experiential learning and the exams are project based or open-book. “We ask students what they would want to create and conceptualise it at home. They then get all the material they need to school and make it here. Based on their project, they have a viva. This is their exam,” elaborates Patil.

She adds that the kids show considerable progress in overcoming their learning disabilities. “We look at disability in a very matter-of-fact manner. Their disability is neither brushed under the carpet nor focussed on. Disability is simply less ability, we tell them and let them be,” Patil says. 

Patil has also approached the state government in a bid to promote this model of education. She is now an educational consultant to the Maharashtra state education department and will soon visit all eight administrative divisions of the state, training around 50-60 teaching professionals in each division. 

“The idea is to adopt a universal design of learning. People need to be taught inclusive teaching. I will train one person in each division to monitor the process so that s/he can take over the role of Manjushree Patil there,” signs off the optimistic lady.

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