Monday, February 19, 2018

Building a kaarvaan

11:50:00 AM


Born and brought up in a remote village of Kulgam district of Kashmir, Meenu’s aspirations went beyond just academic interests. She wanted to be a teacher but was also curious to understand the education scenario of her village and state. Back in December 2015, Pratham with the help of some teachers and volunteers, conducted ‘Lakhon mein Ek’ to assess the learning levels of children. One such assessment was conducted in Meenu’s village.

“I was introduced to this assessment by one of our local teachers. I was shocked to learn that the reading and arithmetic competency of children from my village was very poor. It was at that moment that I made up my mind to help children of my village to acquire these foundational skills. I was very confused and I didn’t know how to start. I just knew that I had to engage with the children and educate them, but I wasn’t sure how”, Meenu recalls.

Meenu approached Pratham as a volunteer for the library program. She mobilized the village with help from local school teachers. Her drive to work for children motivated the parents and community at large. The library began at her home and as the number of children grew, she moved it to one of the classrooms in a school in the village.

Every evening now, the kids come together to talk, play, read and share stories. Parents and local teachers of the village act as observers. Children learn new words every day through puzzles and games and Meenu uses fun activities to explain difficult mathematical concepts. There is always room for children to explore their creative side through art and craft. “I guess taking the first step was quite tough, but gradually everything fell into place. I started my class with a single student and now I have to look for more space every few weeks. This reminds me of the couplet from a poem of Majrooh Sultanpuri:

مگر منزل جانبِ تھا چلا ہی اکیلا میں
گیا بنتا کارواں اور گئے آتے ساتھ لوگ
which means - I started this journey alone towards my destination; people started joining and we formed a kaarvaan,”, Meenu says, impassioned.

For so many years, I used to see children in my village wandering about all day, or after school. Their learning levels were definitely low. I do see a lot of change in the children in the library. Not only can they speak with confidence in a class, but can also do basic Math with relative ease! On a positive note, Meenu concludes, “I am not saying that I have completely changed the learning levels of these children, but I continue to try to bring out best in them. Every evening at the end of the class, I see these children leave with a smile and this is what motivates me to continue this good work.”

Monday, February 12, 2018

LEARNING TO TEACH AND TEACHING TO LEARN

12:34:00 PM

13-year old Anjali lives in the village of Anwarpur, in the Unnao district of Uttar Pradesh. She has been a part of the H-Learning intervention, where she has been learning to use the tablets provided by the Pratham teams. This is her story.

When you see a young school girl pointing to a tablet in her hand and explaining something to her mother, you cannot help but feel curious. “I am teaching my mother how to count with this game,” she says with a smile. Her shy mother keeps looking at the screen, waiting to get back to her daily lessons.

It all began a few months ago when Anjali saw two people in her village talking about studying with the help of a tablet. She wondered how one could study using something that looked like a phone. “Aren’t you supposed to study with books?” she said to herself.

Soon a large crowd began to gather around these two strangers, who then asked children in Grades 5 to 8 to form groups. Curiosity took over the children and they quickly formed groups of five. Anjali’s mother, who by this time had joined the crowd of interested onlookers, accepted the responsibility of handling and keeping the tablet with her. However, she first asked the Pratham mobilizers, “When should they have this ‘tablet’?” This naïve question amused everyone. One of the mobilizers explained to her that this was not medicine, but rather a device used for reading. The other one removed a tablet from the bag and showed the gathered crowd how to use it. Within a few days, Anjali’s after-school routine completely changed. Every evening she began getting together with her siblings and a bunch of other children from the neighborhood and studying with the tablet. While earlier, Anjali did not like to study, she now became eager to come back from school and work using the tablet. She began to understand complex scientific concepts with ease and started conducting her own experiments as well. Furthermore, with the help of English videos, she tried to listen to and repeat words and also began participating in role plays with the other children.

Today, Anjali’s parents see a stark change in her. The girl has become a source of inspiration for the other children around her. She forms questions based on the videos, looks for answers and tries to think and understand before moving ahead. Not only does Anjali learn herself, she leads and supports other groups of children around her. Furthermore, she often helps her older sister catch up on complex concepts. And now, she has even taken it upon herself to educate her mother! Anjali is learning, so are the people around her!

Friday, February 9, 2018

Volunteering with Pratham

12:40:00 PM

Throughout the 21st century, technology has been greatly advanced due to innovation and design.  From the development of laptops to mobile phones to smart watches, these groundbreaking discoveries have helped to revolutionize society from a global aspect.  Despite these advancements, many people in other areas across the world lack basic computer skills.  Due to my strong desire to teach in my ancestral country, I aspired to help children in India gain a better understanding of modern-day technology.

Upon researching various community programs to make a meaningful contribution in India, I came across Pratham, a volunteer-driven institution that helps students who have not had the opportunity to study in proper academic settings.  Pratham’s mission statement is “every child in school and learning well – drives our focus to make an impact on the lives of India’s children and extends from our leadership to our team in the field”.  After learning about the impact of various programs that Pratham has to offer, I decided to collaborate with Pratham to help children obtain basic skills in computer software applications.  Through my involvement with Pratham, I taught students basic computer skills, including Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Internet browsing, and functions such as Facebook and Email, to thirty students between ages 8-12 in New Delhi.

Before I began teaching, I wanted the students to become comfortable with me as an instructor, and therefore my initial goal was to break the language barrier that existed between us.  Initially, it was difficult for the students to understand me due to my English accent.  I began the first day by reading a short novel to the class and asked the students basic questions after each page.  At the end of the novel, I compiled a list of vocabulary words and reviewed the definitions with the students.  By the end of the class, all of the students had written these words in simple sentences and presented their sentences to the classroom.  Through this activity, the students not only became comfortable with my accent but also realized that asking questions in the classroom is important from a learning standpoint.  This activity helped the students view me as more than just a ‘teacher’ and helped to build a bond with me and each other in order to promote learning in a group setting.  In addition, I was moved by the students’ enthusiasm and desire to learn, which gave me confidence to begin my teaching program. 

The next day I began with my lesson plan; however, I was unsure of how to project my lesson plan effectively as I am usually accustomed to using a projector.  Therefore, I had to use my laptop as a visual, which was difficult as fifteen students were looking off one a 13-inch laptop screen.  Much to my surprise, the students were quite focused and displayed great enthusiasm despite the lack of equipment available. 

Typically, I would teach students for the first 30-40 minutes of class using my laptop.  Next, I would write down everything we went over on the board, and allow students to come up one by one and perform the functions on my laptop in front of the class. 

After each student practiced individually with my guidance, I would have the class work in groups to complete a small project using the institution’s computers.  During this time, I would go around and answer any questions that the students may have.  After this, we would reconvene as a group and conduct a final review.  The students would summarize and detail every function that they learned that day without any notes.  The student presentations were truly inspirational because the students were able to grasp the knowledge presented to them in such a short amount of time.  Although these students may not have had the opportunity to learn computers previously or available resources, they were able to enjoy a proper learning curriculum.

I started by teaching basic functions of Microsoft Word.  We covered operations such as bold, underline, color change, highlight, italics, essay writing, indent, center/position, insert photos, bullet points, strikethrough, spacing, change font, text effects and topography, borders, page number, header, table, watermark, format painter, spell check, and printing and saving a document.  I taught these functions during the first two classes.  To ensure that each student was able to understand the key concepts, I appointed several students who were comfortable with my accent as translators to facilitate the learning session and help me in translating instructions to the rest of the class. 

As I walked into the classroom following Christmas break, the students’ excitement was at its peak.  They could not wait to continue learning computer basics.  We began this class by discussing what everyone had done over break.  They were especially interested in learning about the Christmas celebrations and traditions in America.  Furthermore, I felt that many of the students would have forgotten what they learned last week, therefore, I decided to conduct a review session.  However, to my surprise, all of the students had retained the knowledge from the previous week.  It was very satisfying to know that the students were not only able to grasp the knowledge, but were also to retain this.  This gave me confidence that these students would continue to expand their skills even after the completion of my two-week session. 

After completing Microsoft Word, we focused on learning internet functionality. Upon teaching the class how to browse the internet, I showed the students various websites including: weather.com, amazon.com, and youtube.com.  The students were especially excited to visit youtube.com, as we even started singing along to Bollywood songs.  Additionally, I demonstrated how to create an email and Facebook account to connect with me after I return home.  After class, several students friended me on Facebook.  Furthermore, I showed the class pictures of my school, family, and friends, and was able to connect with these students at a personal level. 

The students realized how much information is available on the Internet and the benefits of being on the “information highway”.  Though this class was highly successful, I believe it could have been more informative if not for the lack of resources.  Since there was only one computer with internet, no student was able to practice on their own, unless they had Wi-Fi and a computer at home.  In fact, the next day, a student named Manish approached me and indicated that he had seen my Facebook and school on the Internet.  It was uplifting knowing that students were able to learn despite the lack of resources.

The students were very interested in American culture and often asked me questions regarding the differences between America and India.  In fact, one student pointed out the diversity in my social group.  This was a very interactive and entertaining lesson that allowed me to show that although I live in America, I am not that much different from these students.  Like a typical student in the US, these students at Pratham had a drive to succeed and a desire to study further.  Going forward, I am hopeful that my course will provide a basic understanding of computers and the confidence to continue to learn in an academic institution and further their education in junior high school.

                The next few lessons focused on Microsoft PowerPoint and Excel.  Though it may seem ambitious to cover two applications in a short time, the enthusiasm and drive displayed by these students made it possible.  Since many of the students had never seen or heard of PowerPoint before, I thought it would be best to first present a completed PowerPoint presentation and explain its significance.  Then, I reviewed the steps that are required to create a basic presentation and highlight the different features that PowerPoint has to offer.  We covered functions such as title, author, bold, italics, underline, change font and size, slide design, new slide, insert picture, transitions, animations, and slideshow mode.  To ensure that they understood PowerPoint, we created a PowerPoint presentation about Pratham as a class.  After this exercise was completed, the students practiced Microsoft PowerPoint in groups.  For the students, PowerPoint came easy, as many of the functions are similar to those of Word.  After this session, we reconvened and completed a final review of PowerPoint. 

Following the Microsoft PowerPoint lessons, I started to teach Microsoft Excel.  To create basic graphs, we collected data on the number of brothers and sisters that each student had.  I thought that this would be a fun and effective way to make this lesson more interactive and help explain the various features of Excel.  After covering charts and graphs, I taught the students how to analyze graphs, which was initially challenging for the class.  Lastly, I taught the students how to perform advanced features such as pivot tables and lookup functions.

Although I intended to come to India to primarily teach students basic skills in various computer software applications, I also learned a lot about my life and myself in general.  For instance, these students taught me that life is not simply about purchasing the latest smart phone and MacBook Pro.  Though this may seem cliché, this sentiment remains true.  When I asked the class what they enjoyed about Christmas break, they replied, “Spending time with family”.  They did not mention “presents” or an “exotic vacation”.  In fact, many of the students purchased their parents and siblings gifts and did not receive anything in return except for the satisfaction in seeing their family’s happiness.  In addition, I learned how much I take for granted, in living in America and attending an affluent private high school.  A student of mine, named Muskan (pictured left), lives in a village and therefore has received minimal education.  In fact, she only came to Pratham to attend my computer classes.  At the beginning of the session, she was very quiet and hesitant with me.  However, after one week, she became a top student in the class and even assisted other students because she was determined to learn and succeed. 



In retrospect, I am thankful to Pratham for providing me the opportunity to teach basic computer applications to students in India.  I am satisfied in knowing that the students were able to grasp the key concepts presented to them in the two-week session.  As a class, we were able to overcome a substantial language barrier and had a great experience together.  The students had a strong desire to learn and displayed great enthusiasm throughout the session; it did not matter that there was no projector or a shortage of computers.  Thinking back to the first day of class, I could feel a sense of hesitation between the students and me due to both the language barrier and cultural differences.  However, after two weeks, this feeling dissipated, as we became much closer.  In fact, on the last day of class, we were listening to both Indian and American music together.  In addition, I was moved by the appreciation that the students had for me.  I received many thank-you cards and hugs.  In fact, as I started driving away for the last time, a group of students stopped my car and asked to add me on Snapchat.

This experience afforded to me has not only allowed me to become closer to India, but also allowed me to grow as an individual.  The two-week program was a very rewarding experience for me from both a personal and an instructional standpoint and I look forward to re-connecting with my students through social media once I return home. 

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The story of Laxmi Gurjar

1:20:00 PM
Laxmi Gurjar lives at Simrol, a small village on the Mhow-Indore highway, in the state of Madhya Pradesh. She is one of the many beneficiaries of our 'Second Chance' Program in the Mhow block of Indore District and like many of them has a unique story to share! Before she heard of our program, she was an ASHA worker in her village.

"My father was an agricultural labourer. There was no guarantee of a fixed job or a fixed income. Though I did not complete my education until 8th grade, there was no scope for higher studies. Our financial condition was one reason. The other reason was the social custom prevalent in our village where girls were married at an early age", she begins her story. As she continues, we realise that she did some small-scale jobs after she dropped out of school and continued with them after her marriage. She also worked as a farm labourer and then from the money earned, she bought a sewing machine and took up those assignments as well. It was a decent support to a family of five - she, her husband and their three children. "I was happy with what life was offering me", she says. But I still felt incomplete. The feeling of not completing education persisted.



"But I felt that thinking about this is useless as I had lost this opportunity long back when I was young", she admits. And then she came to know about Pratham's Second Chance Program from one of the girls in the nearby village, who after some years of a gap in her studies, had completed her 10th grade. However, initial excitement gave way to anxiety and worry. "Will I be able to resume my studies after this huge gap? How will I study with girls almost half my age? Will they accommodate me?" She also admits that the thought that immediately came to her mind after this mix of excitement and anxiety was of a promotion at her workplace. And this was the motivation that made Laxmi a student again, after a gap of twenty years!

Then we talked about her experience in class with teachers and fellow students. "Every girl in our class had a story to share. Some girls had dropped out of school after a gap of two years, whereas some of them had a gap of a longer duration. Some of them had a backing of their family members, while some others took it as a challenge with practically no support from anywhere! However, I was the eldest of them all, and hence many of them looked up to me for advice." As the conversation moves ahead, we visualise the classroom of a Second Chance Program. It is a place where Individual stories, struggles, dreams, aspirations, pains are weaved into one common thread and objective - completing 10th grade! A special bond develops between these girls and women, and it holds them together till their examinations. "Though we are of different age and background, we become friends once inside the classroom", she chips in. 

Laxmi is also grateful to the faculty of this program. It was difficult for someone like her who entered the classroom after almost two decades and hence had to start from the basics. She had lost touch with all what she had grasped as a child."I am thankful to the teachers here as they were patient with people like me who took time to understand. However, learning in a group was an extraordinary experience! We became more familiar with each other as we studied and interacted in a group and this made many of us confident and helped us understand things better", she says.

With this positivity in mind, Laxmi appeared for her 10th-grade examination and cleared it in 2015. Her efforts bore fruits as she got promoted at her workplace and is now an ASHA supervisor, with 12 villages under her supervision. The smile on her face as she completes the narration of her story is a testimony to the success that she achieved after her struggle. Does it mean that her life is now complete? She says yes, but after a few seconds quickly adds that now she wants to complete her 12th grade. Her husband - who is sitting beside her as she narrates this story - smiles when she acknowledges his valuable support and encouragement. Together they have educated their three children. Laxmi's eldest son is a professor in a college whereas her younger son works at Inox. Her daughter has completed her D.Ed and is a school teacher.

As we leave her house and wish her all the best, she says, "Now as I supervise over 12 villages, I come in contact with girls and women in these villages. Many of them have a similar story. I talk to them about the Second Chance Program and try to motivate them to complete their education." Laxmi will now become a catalyst for educational change, and we hope that more and more girls and women around her will get motivated to complete their education and find back their voice which was lost due to a variety of circumstances and reasons. 

Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Case of Auraiya

3:52:00 PM
Pratham's learning camps are an effective way for demonstrating the impact of our approach - convincing governments and other organisations that change is possible, even in a short span of time. The following is a small incident, a few months into my joining Pratham, where I had the privilege to experience this first hand (2016). 

Pratham's learning camps are an effective way for demonstrating the impact of our approach - convincing governments and other organizations that change is possible, even in a short span of time. The following is a small incident, a few months into my joining Pratham, where I had the privilege to experience this first hand. I sometimes forget how large the state of Uttar Pradesh is. Not just in terms of size, which is about the same as a small European country. But in terms of population. Which is about the same as the United States of America. With hundreds of millions of people split across religion, caste and class, I am often forced to wonder, what impact can a few hundred people have? However, on a warm summer day in Auraiya, a small district in a corner of Uttar Pradesh, I finally realized the answer to that question - quite a fair bit.



It was the month of April and we were organizing a small event to mark the closure of the program. It had been a long year, with camps organized in 100 schools. Not an insignificant number, mind you, but not a lot considering the district had about 1,000 government primary schools. And I only needed the back of an envelope to estimate that we would need to work in Auraiya for at least half a decade, if we wanted to reach even half that number. But improving learning outcomes for 7,000 plus children was a good year's work no matter how you looked at it and the people that day deserved to commemorate closure for organizing and supporting such a successful program.

Who were these people though? There were Pratham staff, who had conducted the intervention and were now organizing the event. There were the donors, whose generosity and support had made all this possible. There were a few children and teachers who we had interacted with over the course of the intervention. And then there were some government officials who had allowed us to do all this work in schools.



The event started as all events do (for the organizers anyway) – in a fair degree of chaos. And the chief guest (as chief guests do)was running late. Unfortunately, the guest was no ordinary person without whom we could begin things and continue as we wished. She was the district magistrate – essentially the senior-most government official of the district – and we could really not get things rolling without her. In her absence most of us were getting uneasy, wondering if she would turn up at all. But turn up she did and once present, the magistrate was most gracious in all her interactions - right from the donors to the children.

 It was during one such interaction, when she asked a small girl to read a passage about a hare and a tortoise.

Now, this was a girl who at the start of the intervention had been unable to read words and who we were now proclaiming to be able to read basic stories. And so I was fairly confident that the girl would be able to read the passage. The only thing I was slightly unsure about was if she would be unnerved by what was by then a fairly large audience (I knew I would be had I been in her place).

But the girl read the passage. And read it well she did.



Suitably impressed, the magistrate then asked the girl what she learnt from the story.

If earlier I had been unsure how the girl would handle the audience, I  did not have any idea what she would say. And for a split second, I thought neither, did she? But the girl thought for a moment. And she replied saying that she learnt that you should not be arrogant. That you should not be overconfident.

The magistrate was floored by her response! She became extremely nostalgic, speaking about her experiences from her own childhood and how her teachers had helped her over the years. Having witnessed the impact firsthand, she expressed her appreciation for Pratham’s approach and even enthusiastically invited us for further discussions to explore how we all could potentially collaborate together.

 And it was as a result of all this that from 7,000 children across 100 schools in 2015-16, we reached over 60,000 children across 1,000 schools the subsequent year. The only difference? It was government school teachers themselves who implemented the approach - the Pratham team of 25-odd people having evolved from implementers to mentors.



Looking back, it is easy to think why I was sceptical of the impact that a few people can bring about. But after having witnessed first-hand the visible and demonstrable impact of our work, I can confidently say that never have I been happier to be proven wrong – or more accurately have the back of an envelope calculations made void!

 From Auraiya district, Uttar Pradesh.

The author is Arjun Agarwal. He is a member of Pratham’s national Program Management Team. He supports the Uttar Pradesh Pratham team in managing all their education programs. 

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