With hands-on and total connection with nature, a school in Bali talks about sustainability, linking education to life for a better, greener and a more creative generation.
In June 2009 I enrolled my son Tiago (then 5 years) in a public school in the beautiful city of Porto, Portugal. Two years later, in May 2011, I was working in my office when I saw on Facebook, a link from a friend which caught my attention. It was a lesson from an English teacher, Sir Ken Robinson talking about education.
“How to educate children in a fast changing world? How to prepare children and youth for globalization while maintaining their cultural identity?” asks Ken Robinson. Mr. Robinson then goes on to demonstrate that the current education systems were designed for a past reality (the times of the Industrial Revolution) that do not fit into current reality. “What we need is not evolution, but revolution in education. It has to be transformed into something else, innovating, stimulating creativity of each individual, rather than seeking to standardize and leverage the knowledge of everyone,” explains Robinson.
When I got home, I looked at my son playing on the computer. He was surfing on the Internet totally absorbed by the virtual world. The school in Porto was good, public, for free, from 9h to 17h, but I noticed that it was slowly killing the creativity of my son. No longer did I see him involved with brushes and crayons, scissors and glue kid. In fact I barely saw my son at school, where, for 181 days a year, I had placed him at 9h a.m. and collected at 5h p.m.
These thoughts blew up my mind. I shared Ken Robinson presentation with my wife, and we noticed that there was a link to another video about an innovative school in Bali. We have to be careful with which buttons we press on the internet.
So, I pressed the button to that school in Bali and was immediately engaged. I was hunched over for two hours at the Green School website. The smiles on the face of those children, the teachings projects, everything Ken Robinson spoke was already happening. We emailed the school. Yes there were vacancies. My wife started to pack. Two months after, our plane landed in Bali.
On the 20th of June 2011, I drove the car through narrow roads in Balinese traffic, stepped through the town of Ubud, the cultural heart of the island surrounded by rice fields, and twenty minutes later we were in the middle of a typical village in front of the Green School gate. We crossed the river by a magnificent bamboo bridge and entered the school. The kids were on vacation. But my son’s eyes shined like diamonds. We decided to stay.
Two months later, on August 18, the school year begun. Inside a large bamboo structure, named Sangkep, sat 272 children (from 3 to 18 years old) from 50 nations (10% of them native from Bali with a scholarship programme), parents and teachers to receive welcome from the co-founder of the school, John Hardy.
John Hardy was born in a small village in Canada. He was one of those little boys who cried when he had to go to school. “My school was built by the same people who did the hospital and the asylum, with the same materials. None of us were allowed to think outside the box. I hated studying,” he said.
In 1975, aged 25, John moved to Bali, met his wife Cynthia and set up a small jewellery store. The business grew, reaching Hong Kong and New York markets. In 2006, he sold the company, retired and started to live large. Then Cynthia invited him to go to the cinema to watch Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth. “That film ruined my life. I thought if only a portion of what Al Gore said could come true, my four children would not have the same life that I had. That day I decided to spend the rest of my life fighting to improve their chances getting cleaner.”
John and Cynthia invested in education. Dreaming with a green school, linking people's lives to education, he summoned Balinese architects. The school needed to inspire and serve as an example in every act with the utmost respect to the local community and its customs. “How can a school talk about sustainability with students sitting on wooden desks, when these are practically extinct in Bali?” John thought about bamboo. “Why not bamboo. I can’t promise wood forever. But I can promise bamboo. It takes only three years for a bamboo grows up from the soil to the height of a coconut tree. With additional three years it can be harvested “says Hardy. And so he created the bamboo school.
Those who visit the Green School are delighted with its urbanism, architecture, landscaping and sustainability. The main building in the center of the 20-acre campus is a giant bamboo structure composed of two spiral towers, 33 meters high. It's called the Heart of the School, or the Bamboo Cathedral where much of the activities happen. Bamboo also serves as a framework for other classrooms, the goalposts of the football field, the children's swing, the basketball hoop, chairs, tables, and support for boards that are made with cars windshields. Students move from one room to another stepping in volcanic rocks. The spaces in between classes are full of trees or edible gardens, cultivated by students. Some of these vegetables are intended for lunch, others are sold to parents.
Everything in school is ruled by sustainable principles: the toilets, for example. You pee in one, and just add a bit of water to flush. The second one, instead of porcelain, is a bucket. After use, you place straw or ground sawdust to cover the “deposit”. It is not smelly. An employee removes the bucket that turns into composting. “Our environmental impact is almost zero,” says Chris Thompson, Director of Development for the school, which is also a success in energy. Thanks to solar panels, the school generates 80% of the energy it uses. “Also because the whole school lighting is natural light. We don’t need bulbs,” says Chris.
During lunchtime, more sustainable practices. Two tables are placed at the Heart of the School, one with Indonesian food, another with an international menu. Both are served in straw baskets lined with banana leaves we called ‘Ingke’ in Balinese. After eating, everyone has to sort their food waste in different buckets for composting. Only cutleries are washed.
All parents are welcome at school. They can move around public areas on the campus, take their devices to connect the Wi-Fi, enjoy coffee at the organic shop, owned by a parent, enjoy raw food with the kids, or get involved in sustainability projects. Once a week there is a general meeting with parents, teachers and students; and every month, parents gather to undertake new projects. “With so many cool people, it would be a waste not to use this to leverage collective community projects that make a difference for a better world,” says Chris Thompson. The projects are as diverse from renewable energy to helping endangered animals to banning plastic bags from Bali.
Another concern in Green School is the approach with the community around the school. “We always want to go local. Look at all this Balinese tradition around. It is amazing to have all them here inside the school. That’s why we have gamelan classes, Balinese dance, music and arts. We are not here to teach the villagers. But to learn with them, and promote their millenary culture as much as we can,” says Tim Fijal, who takes care of the named Kul Kul Connection, bridging the gap between these two worlds.
When we arrived in Bali in 2011, we thought about staying six months in Green School. But now we are still here four years later. The school has changed not only my son's life, but ours too. And it happened with many other families. “The school has a wonderful mood, a kind of magnet that inspire people,” affirms
Chris Thompson who left 23 years working for a multinational company, Electronic Arts (EA) after meeting with John Hardy along with his wife. “In one month I dropped everything and brought my children here. People ask how I had the courage. Well, that was the easiest decision of my life.”
In August 2014, starting its seventh year, Green School might be considered a success, with 410 students and 50 international teachers enrolled. In 2012, it was recognized with the award of the Greenest School on Earth by the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Building Council. Last month, the students received important visits, like the Indian activist Vandana Shiva and the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon. Delighted with the environmental, Moon said “I've been to several schools in my life, but I have never seen one like this, so nice and engaged in making a better world, discussing, debating, and searching for answers to some of the world's greatest challenges: ending poverty, protecting communities, ensuring fairness, and sustaining the natural environment.”
For being an organic school, the curriculum and the methodology are always changing. But the focus is always the same: student centred from a holistic perspective, with four basic assumptions forming the educational base, what they like to call “the big four”: physical, emotional, intellectual and kinaesthetic abilities. Despite all academic subjects, the students always works with thematic classes that challenge and develop their skills, it doesn’t matter in what level they are. And all the thematic classes bring a deep focus on sustainability and environmentalism.
The schedule of classes that start at 8:15 and finish at 3:15 a.m. is divided into three pillars: common proficiencies, like English, mathematics, science; arts such as drama, painting, music, dance; and green studies. But none follow a standard model. In drama lessons, students can recite Shakespeare in the woods. During a Green Studies class, my boy Tiago goes to the rice field, but not without makes the Hindu ceremonial, asking for a bless before planting with the Balinese farmers. “Everything they learn is in practice. The focus is not to memorize everything. The most important thing is not what we teach but how the students learn,” says Chris Thompson.
After 4 years of our Green School experience, we are all still in love with it. I saw my boy open his mind, being flexible like a bamboo, engaging himself in green projects and cultivating some respectful values. Of course he still likes to play with iPad. He is a digital native. But much greater is his connection with Mother Nature, learning by doing.
The other day he told me about the rice cycle, from seed to harvest. “Papa, do you remember that little baby rice that I helped to plant? They are ready to go. The field is golden. You should come and see. It is so beautiful!” Perhaps I tell him that we might go back to our country in the next year, his eyes fill up with water. And I love what he is imagining.
“Father, can I keep going to Green School by a Teletransporter?”
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