300+ Students Gather to Redefine What Activism, Social Change, and Education Looks Like in the 21st Century

New Delhi: Imagine entering into a society entirely run by teenagers, where everything from the chiefs, to journalists, activists, artists, politicians, and administrators are between the ages of 13 and 16. That was the scene during the first ever Club Fest organized by the Heritage Xperiential Learning School (HXLS) and the brainchild of visionary educator, Sankalp Khanna, the senior program’s Social-Emotional Learning and Student-Club Coordinator.

Four years ago Mr. Khanna, a math teacher, began the student-led clubs initiative at HXLS founded on the philosophy that children learn best when, “They can take charge of their own learning and decide the direction of its flow.” What started out in 2014 as five different student-led clubs, each linked with a passionate faculty mentor, has grown into 13 clubs which engage more than 300 senior program students and offer a variety of opportunities for teens to apply their passions in meaningful real-world ways. Dr. Kevin Bradey, HXLS Senior Program Leader, put it succinctly, “learning is more than just scores, learning is more than just syllabus completion, it is about putting that learning to work in ways that are relevant to our communities.”

The Club Fest was a celebration of student leadership and passion, bringing together students from not just HXLS but also from seven other schools from Delhi-NCR — Shikshantar, Shiv Nadar School, Blue Bells Public School, Lancers International School, Shri Ram School DAV Public School, and Heritage Rohini. What made it truly unique and noteworthy, though, was the air of social-justice that was woven into every aspect of the event. Typically at inter-school gatherings such as these, the focus is primarily on competition, status, and intellectual hubris. In contrast, Club Fest, revolved around a different aspiration: to bring active citizenship and civil society to life in ways that reflect the diversity of means democracy and social change thrive — through visual arts, photography, journalism, film, spoken-word poetry, debate, and coming together to wrestle with ethical dilemmas.

The events organized by the student-led clubs were designed to radically honor student voice, autonomy, and their capacity to shine light upon the world’s most pertinent topics such as climate change, mental health, gender-based violence, cyber safety, addiction, religious faith, and geopolitical affairs. This orientation towards social justice was also apparent through the appearance of 12-year-old climate change activist from Uttarakhand, Ms.Ridhima Pandey, who was amongst the 16 teenage petitioners who filed a complaint at the United Nations Climate Action Summit to protest the lack of government action on the climate crisis. Ms. Pandey was invited to HXLS as the Chief Guest and gave a moving call to action during her remarks, “This, all this, it’s not only for my benefit, it’s for everybody’s, it’s going to benefit every single child and every new generation. As a result, we’ll all unite and make the older generation realize what they’ve done with our future. People just keep saying that I’m too young to be an activist, to be fighting with the government and that I should be in my school studying, making a bright future. But the reality is that if I don’t fight, I don’t think that we’re going to have a future.”

Club Fest also departed from the traditional consumption of single-use plastics, deciding instead to provide reusable glass water bottles, biodegradable plantable pens to bring attention to planting trees, and trophies made from re-using plastic materials in order to redefine symbols of prestige and achievement to promote the ideals of sustainability. Ridhimma Sharma, an HXLS student, remarked why this event stands out to her, “the green aspect, be it the eco friendly pens or the recycled trophies, it’s really meaningful and special.” In the words of 11th grader, Aatmaj, who is Student Club Manager, “through these small steps, the student community is trying to make a statement – to do our bit to protect the planet and to save the environment, because when it comes to climate change, small can be big. It will take hundreds and thousands of years to completely reverse the effects of plastic pollution, however, these steps can reduce its effect and fasten the process of recovery.”

This event reaffirms HXLS’s commitment to experiential learning and demonstrates that such learning is indeed possible at scale with senior program students. An event like Club Fest demonstrates that when students are mentored and given frameworks for executing projects of their own, they can form a microcosm, bringing real-world learning to them.

From the moment you entered Club Fest, you were greeted by hand-made decorations by the student art club, music composed and DJed by the student EDM club, and food cooked and sold by the student chiefs from Grub Club. Throughout the day the Organizing Committee made up of five students with the mentorship of Mr. Khanna and the Extra-Curricular Activities Coordinator, Ms. Shweta Singh, bustled around with walkie-talkies ensuring each logistical item ran smoothly. These students had transformed their clubs from interesting hobbies into work that can only be described as containing ‘professional integrity’.

When asked about his aspiration for Club Fest, Mr. Khanna shared, “My objective was to really bring to life voices that are seldom heard, these voices that have great questions for the future. How can we bring them into the larger community? I dreamed kids could feel a sense of achievement, not from competing and winning first prize, but by recognizing they have all these mediums available to them to raise their voices. Club Fest was a celebration of those aspects. Yes, we called some events competitions because that’s the current framework people know, as of now, but this whole day was seeded with the intention of an event where people could come together to start talking, finding common ground, engage with new perspectives through various common artistic languages they understand. It is my belief that for sustainable and meaningful change to happen we need to be moved in our very core and the various mediums of art on display at the Club Fest were meant to give voice to ideas that can potentially begin that spark for change.”