Social and emotional learning with Vincent Van Gogh, Monet and Piet Mondrian
Cosmo India explores the idea of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) through art with Saturday Art Class founders, Chhavi Khandelwal and Manasi Mehan.
“When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.” This scene from the film Wonder is all the inspiration we need to look within and practice kindness, compassion, and empathy. When the class teacher Mr Browne begins the class with an introduction to precepts—rules, quotes, or activities—that will help inspire and motivate. Together, they begin reading these precepts every day and end up practising a few of them, too. Learning comes in all shapes, sizes, forms, conversations, and experiences.
When you think about it, it’s quite simple really. We spend so much time focusing on learning about the sciences, mathematics, history, and geography that often our ideas, imagination, and emotions go unnoticed. For a long time, learning was confined to curriculums and textbooks directed towards achieving excellence in academics. Today, the lines become blurry as we speak about an education that goes beyond the walls of a classroom and involves more heart and mind of each student. The concept of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) has been prevalent for a while and is now becoming an increasingly popular conversation. The concept stems from an educational need to help children identify their feelings, communicate with others, build strong relationships, and have an empathetic approach to various situations.
SEL is a powerful tool not only to enable children to improve their problem-solving and other skills but also to help in emotion regulation. Emotional intelligence comprises four key elements including self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, and relationship management. It is defined as the ability to manage your own emotions and understand the emotions of others. Implementing SEL programmes at the school level would enhance the mood, self-esteem, and stress response of students.
SEL programmes can be implemented across age groups and in numerous ways such as mindfulness activities, encouraging journaling or goal tracking, and a daily round of questions and answers through academics and even art. Cosmopolitan India sat down with co-founders of ‘Saturday Art Class’ Chhavi Khandelwal and Manasi Mehan who started the non-profit organisation with an aim to encourage social and emotional growth through art and visual expression. Khandelwal has had nearly a decade of experience in the field of art and design and has created art curricula for various schools, orphanages, and paediatric cancer specialty hospitals. Mehan is a social entrepreneur and has been involved with organisations such as Teach for India and Seeds of Peace. Together, the two seek to create a safe space for underserved children to enable them to express and emote through art.
Excerpts from the interview.
Cosmopolitan India: Can you tell us about Saturday Art Class and how it came about?
Chhavi Khandelwal: Saturday Art Class was started in a Grade 3 classroom, in a local government school, with a simple yet powerful intention—to help build a safe space for expression within the classroom using a medium that surpasses all barriers—Visual Arts. It was started as a pilot project in 2016, with a classroom of 30 children, where Manasi was a Teach For India fellow and I was an art teacher volunteer. Their voices and expressions were so powerful that it gained momentum enough for us to build an organisation—Saturday Art Class, where all children are inspired to create with confidence.
Cosmopolitan India: What is the importance of social and emotional learning?
Chhavi Khandewal: I think it is now common knowledge that skills and competencies such as creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, emotional intelligence etc. are in high demand across workplaces today. However, there is a lack of focus on holistically and creatively developing children, especially those from underserved communities. Instead, academic growth has almost always taken precedence. Furthermore, pedagogical methods used in public schools and affordable private schools are outdated and have not kept pace with the changing world. This is because there continues to remain a gap in the teacher-training infrastructure to implement holistic education effectively. Certain reforms exist within the National Education Policy 2020, but their implementation is possible only by 2030-2040, and it is possible that current factors of learning would not remain relevant.
If we have to look at this problem from a student’s perspective, they don’t have an outlet to voice out what they truly want in their education journey. They are not exposed to working with tools and methods that feed into creative thinking, imagination and collaboration. They often grow up to experience low levels of confidence. They often struggle with communication as well as building and maintaining healthy relationships and collective problem-solving.
Even educators today feel helpless not knowing how they can create safe and joyful spaces of learning for their students. They are overburdened by numerous responsibilities and find themselves unable to learn and grow. This is due to the lack of contextualised resources and training that restricts them from adopting and practising innovative learning methodologies. This results in a gap between an educator and their students, unable for them to understand their students' needs.
Cosmopolitan India: Why such focus on visual arts?
Manasi Mehan: Art is the most universal language. The subjectivity of art provides a peek into how children think and how they express themselves. At the same time, art creates a space for children to think and create freely without being bound by rules, and informs them that there is no right or wrong way to approach the medium. Through art, we have been able to create spaces that are safe, free, and engaging for children to create and share which has, in turn, guided us to closely understand their needs and what they want in their journey towards learning.
Cosmopolitan India: What are some of the methods you use to implement SEL with art?
Manasi Mehan: Our approach works as the bridge to solve problems at the systemic level of Indian education and problems faced by children. We have various programmes such as Art For Educator: Our year-long training program for schools and organizations across India for educators that is designed to equip them to be able to become visual arts and SEL facilitators. We also have Art-a-Day—a short format workshop that openly provides children, educators, para-educators, caregivers, and youth a space to engage.
Cosmopolitan India: What have been some of the most significant and memorable moments so far?
Chhavi Khandelwal: we believe that our career as a social entrepreneur is sprinkled with little moments of joy, impact, beauty, satisfaction, elation and learning. A cumulation of these moments is what makes our journey with the organisation, Saturday Art Class, an impactful and satisfying one. Seeing a 10-year-old student derive more meaning and learning out of a Piet Mondrian painting than any adult that I have come across, makes me believe in the power of giving children access. It is impactful moments such as these that realign my belief in building space for creativity within education.
Manasi Mehan: I think such an impact created is most fulfilling.
Cosmopolitan India: What have the challenges been?
Chhavi Khandelwal: There already exists a lack of awareness about art education and an archaic mind-set of the arts. And stakeholders in the system such as teachers/educators/para-educators are already overburdened by other responsibilities. This creates many hindrances in getting the investment of stakeholders to understand the need of an arts and social-emotional intervention for children. The lack of access to materials such as art supplies also restricts from engaging in art. Any new programme takes time to be adopted. There is still a lack of standardisation with respect to the arts and how it can impact a student.
Cosmopolitan India: What would you like to share about your journey as entrepreneurs in the social development sector that could be valuable lessons for our readers?
Chhavi Khandelwal: To begin with, implementing any programme in the development/social sector requires patience and empathy to understand the needs and problems faced on the ground. Each problem is linked to multiple factors and as anyone working in the sector, awareness of this interwoven-interconnectedness is essential. With respect to operations and processes to implement a programme, standing brave against uncertain challenges and being able to adapt to constant changes will be required of you. When we plan to do anything more or new, we always keep in mind what one of our advisors shared with us: ‘Be married to the problem’ because it is important to be aligned with why and what we are trying to solve, and more importantly, who we are solving it for.
Cosmopolitan India: What are some of your goals going forward?
Manasi Mehan: We want to reach more children and educators across states in India to provide them access to visual arts and SEL via our flagship programme. As an organisation, we believe in the power of partnership and collaboration with organisations and non-profits in the sector to create reach. Over the next five years, we are looking to develop a strong partnership with the Government of Maharashtra, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai and the Pune Municipal Corporation. Our 10-member team consists of people who come from various backgrounds and experiences in teaching, psychology, sociology, architecture, urban planning, graphic design, play-based learning, mass media and literature. We are strong believers in diversity and inclusion. Saturday Art Class is led by women, men and non-binary team members.