Do tell us about yourself, where you are from, and your work
I’m Grace Paljor, running a school (St. Paul’s International Academy) for girls and boys from Nursery to Class 10 in Srinagar, Kashmir.
Are you a birder? What about bird watching excites you?
Yes, I’m an avid birder. Identification of birds by their calls is something I love rehearsing as I try to spot birds around my house, on walks around the river bund and on nature trails around the valley of Kashmir or while travelling. I love observing birds and their unique relationship with the changing seasons, since we experience four distinct seasons here.
When and how did you get interested in bird/nature education?
I was fortunate to be brought up in a family who were closely connected with nature. My grandfather worked in the Forest Department of J&K and played a big role in the development of the Hokersar wetlands as well as the social forestry project of the Shankaracharya hillside. Learning about nature and birding was very much a part of growing up. When the Streaked Laughing thrush called, my Nani would say, ‘It’s going to rain.’ The bird is called Sheene-Pippen in Kashmiri and has folklore surrounding it, believing that the reason for its call is expected rain or snow.
We were raised in a home with no TV but plenty of books, especially National Geographic and Children’s magazines like ‘CUB’. Our holidays included nature-related activities at home where we were blessed with a lovely orchard perched on a hillside overlooking the river.
What do you hope to achieve through your education work?
I hope I can spark an interest in my students to learn about the rich flora and fauna of Kashmir; so that they will be responsible citizens who value biodiversity and work towards the preservation of the environment. Maybe even opt for other interesting professions related to nature, wildlife and the environment, rather than be run of the mill ‘Doctors and Engineers’.
Why do you believe it is important for children to learn about birds or connect with nature?
I believe the connection a child has with nature is natural instinct. A child loves to play with sticks and leaves, jump in puddles, play with mud or in the rain. Children are filled with awe and wonder when they see an insect, bird or an animal. Stories are told and songs are sung to them. We cannot deprive our children of their birthright.
What tools or resources have helped you in teaching about birds? Can you describe an approach that has worked exceptionally well for you?
In the past 22 years I have used all sorts of tools, resources and methods to instil values and interest in learning about nature, and the birds of Kashmir in particular, for all ages.
- Songs, stories and skits
- Creative writing and poems
- Drawing and colouring of birds
- Making nesting boxes
- Counting sparrows
- Birdwatching with binoculars and using bird books for identification
- Nature walks and visits to Hokersar wetlands, Dachigam Wildlife Sanctuary
- Nature camps
- Our school notebook even has the birds of Kashmir printed on its covers so that the students familiarize themselves with the birds and begin birding from a young age
Have you encountered a significant challenge as a bird/nature educator, how did you overcome it?
I am convinced that birding must be part of the school curriculum. Students are usually ‘marks oriented’ due to the pressure from the parents. If marks are awarded for nature studies they will take more interest. I have compiled a section on flora and fauna of Kashmir in a 3 part series.
Do share any memorable moment or experience you have had in teaching kids about birds/nature. Can you recall any insightful instance that shaped your perspective?
The best part of being a nature lover is that you don’t miss a teachable moment. As we have our morning assembly in the school ground which has a lot of trees around, I had to pause the assembly as I saw the paradise-flycatcher with its white ribboned tail flit across. For a moment everyone strained their eyes to follow the bird as I explained where and what I had spotted, and then our morning assembly continued.
While teaching the students the common names of the birds I realised there were Kashmiri names for the majority of the birds. So I began compiling pictures and Kashmiri nomenclature from subject matter experts which wound up as a 3 part Nursery rhymes series of folktales of Kashmir comprising folklore of birds and animals called the ‘Shaheen-Pippen Series’! In it is a General Awareness section whose themes spanned birds, flowers, insects, animals and insects found in Kashmir with names in English, Kashmiri (romanised) and Kashmiri script as well. Printing of the Shaheen-Pippen series is currently underway and will soon be made available.
Have you noticed any changes in your learners after they received exposure to birds and nature-based learning?
I believe the changes will be visible when they give back to society as adults and are making an effort as kids too. As children they are excited and look forward to nature- based activities that are conducted throughout the school year. It has increased their sensitivity to the use of plastic bags and its harmful effects to nature and animals in particular. They also make an effort to learn the names of birds in Kashmiri and English.
What message would you have for your fellow educators, or somebody starting out in their nature education journey?
You’re never too old to learn birding! It is a rewarding and a thrilling experience to observe the wonders of nature and learn so much about their role on planet earth. As educators, it is our responsibility to ignite passion in the hearts of our children to explore and grow into curious learners who are positive contributors to the world at large. There is no end to learning and I too find myself learning something new as we explore and discover the wonders of nature together with my students.