The Patels Visit Udawalawe

Guest post by Yogi & Nikita Patel

We traveled to Sri Lanka to work with Trunks & Leaves in support of schools surrounding the Udawalawe National Park. We first arrived in Negombo, Sri Lanka where we were met by Deepani, who works with Trunks & Leaves, and her friend Jocelyn. We traveled by car to Udawalawe where we were joined by Sameera, the project coordinator. We visited the first Montessori preschool, operated by Sameera’s sister, Chathurika. She was gracious in showing us the school, which was closed for the holidays. She had been hard at work painting furniture and cleaning the classroom and play area for her 18 students. Her school, which is attached to her home, is surrounded by many fruit trees. Her family members supported her passion for educating children in her town.

Our next stop was school teacher Shiromi’s home. We met with Shiromi who greeted us with her family and offered the most amazing homecooked treats. We chatted about her work in the village and her school, Dimuthu preschool. We met with Shiromi again the following day, where we observed the children in her classroom. The parents were very supportive of Shiromi and came to the school with their children even though they were supposed to be on holiday. We got to sing and dance the “hokey pokey”.

Deepani, Yogi and Sameera with the first cohort of preschool teachers whose schools received support from Trunks & Leaves’ sponsors (photo courtesy of Yogi Patel).

The next few days were dedicated to teacher training, held at the Kalawelgala primary/elementary school. The premises were surrounded by trees, monkeys, peacocks, squirrels and many birds. The school is wonderfully open and there is a new screen on the windows that was funded by Trunks & Leaves. The screen allows for a breeze, since it can get very hot, but protects from monkeys that like to explore the classroom and cause some mischief. Each day, 5 teachers came to the training to learn about Montessori methodology and Positive Discipline. Despite there being a language barrier, we were all able to communicate both non-verbally through hand movements and translation by Deepani and Sameera.

The grillework at Kalawelgala lets in the breeze while keeping out the animals (photo courtesy of Yogi Patel).

Montessori teaching materials donated by Kinderhouse Montessori School (photo by Hamish John Appleby).

We also taught the teachers how to use the learning equipment that was donated by Kinderhouse Montessori School in San Diego. Funds raised by Kinderhouse students alongside sponsors from around the world were also used to purchase tables, chairs, rugs, water tanks and other learning equipment that was assembled by the local team. There is a lot of work that still needs to be done in providing equipment, English lessons and training to the teachers who are keen to learn. Out of a total of 44 schools in this area close to Udawalawe National Park, we focused on six. We were humbled to see how much work has already been accomplished at the national park and the wonderful care that is put into taking care of the elephants. With the community’s involvement, we hope everyone including the elephants will benefit.

At the Elephant Transit Home (photo courtesy of Yogi Patel).

Elephant spotting.

On the last day, we went into Udawalawe National Park with the research coordinator Kumara, and his assistant Ravi. They spend spend lots of time following elephants and their behavior. Kumara’s ability to identify each elephant within seconds by looking at their ears was impressive. Deepani and Sameera also work on elephant conservation, with a special focus on the communities bordering the park. We truly appreciate the time they both spent with us and the many aspects of their work.

We also appreciate the time each teacher took to come out for the training. We learned so much from one another – language, educational similarities and differences, cultural values, and much more. The time we spent together was not nearly enough and the teachers were enthusiastic to learn more about Positive Discipline and Montessori principles. Some of the school children also came to the training, along with their parents. They were absolutely crucial in the lesson-giving portion of the training. We are grateful and humbled to have been received with love, curiosity for learning and for being able to grow personally in a heavenly environment filled with nature. The chance to laugh together and connect on a deep and meaningful level is one that we are thankful for.

Yogi Patel is the founder of Kinderhouse Montessori School and a certified trainer in Positive Discipline. Now retired, she is a member of the Advisory Committee for Trunks & Leaves. Yogi & her daughter Nikita visited the project to gain a personal glimpse into how work to strengthen educational capacity in these communities is crucial for long-term conservation.

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