Friday, July 1, 2016

The Tale of Punsari

6:07:00 PM

by Dr. Arvind Amin,

The Beginning

Like many NRIs, I have nurtured a secret longing to give back to my motherland. In my case I
have been passionate about giving back where it matters most – the children of India. More
than 25% of our 1.2 billion population are in the impressionable phase where good education
can seal a better future for them and their families. My passion for educating India’s
children led me to join Pratham USA in 2003. Pratham is the largest education NGO in India
focusing on children from 6-14 years of age.

After reading many stories over a decade and gathering better understanding of primary
education issues, I received a golden opportunity in 2015 when my employer, Intel, generously
gave me a 6-week sabbatical. Instead of gallivanting my family off to Europe or another exotic
location, I decided to spend this time in Punsari - a small village in North Gujarat.  Why
Punsari? I had heard of Punsari as a model village of India in media reports and how it
represented everything about the new “shining” India. The optimist in me wanted to visit and
learn first-hand about this modern Indian village which in my mind was the complete opposite
of the rural India I had grown up in.

After my initial day visit of the village, I came back with an impression that indeed Punsari
is a model village that had finally reaped the fruits of progress India has been striving for
since its independence. The Sarpanch of the Village, Himanshu Patel, was a gracious host and
made an extra effort to show me as well Zee News crew around the village for a couple hours.
He took pride in showcasing the infrastructure improvements in his village. Gone were the days
of women walking miles down dusty cobbled path to fetch water. Instead, Punsari has gleaming
concrete roads, clean drinking water that is easily accessible, toilets and even Wi-Fi access!

He also highlighted the zero dropout rate of the village schools. Mr. Patel’s palpable pride
in his village was contagious and I returned back to US with dreams of returning to Punsari to
conduct research 0n how Punsari’s development model could be replicated across thousands of
villages in India. My goal was to find out how the young Sarpanch brought these changes and
created unheard of awareness on many issues among the villagers with limited resources. What
|was the governance model within Panchayat Raj?

The Reality

I could barely hold my excitement as I made my trip back to Punsari six months later in June
2015. I had done my homework, identified the scope of the project and was ready to set the
ball rolling amidst the gleaming paved roads in Punsari. I was transported back to reality
when I first saw the facilities Mr. Patel had arranged for my visit. Though comfortable, they
were very different from my lifestyle in the US.  I got my first taste of rustic living–
transitioning from air-conditioned comfort to a noisy fan that worked on its own will, a leaky
bathroom that caused puddles of water for mosquitoes to breed on and above all, no concept of
a trash bin!  Yet I realized that this humble abode would be the dream of the majority of
residents in Punsari or any village of India and once again I felt inspired in my belief that
good education is the ultimate tool to end the economic disparity so prevalent in India. I
spent the first few days cleaning the place, buying basic amenities like a clean bed sheet,
trash bin and a kerosene stove for cooking. It was quite a humbling experience!

I set out to explore the neighborhoods, make observations and identify potential
collaborators. During the course of my interaction with youth as well as adults, I sensed a
major issue of an outdated mind-set and lack of responsibility. I could not get anyone to
commit to meeting on-time or come through on commitments that I saw as simple chores for the
village. Despite the claims of Wi-Fi access & availability throughout the village I could not
access Wi-Fi outside the Panchayat office.

I ended up offering a workshop on soft-skill training to all college bound youth as a part of
my exploration. Of the expected 15 attendees only 4 boys showed some interest. The rest did
not care to even collect free material I distributed. I found almost all girls to be shy and
unwilling to discuss their interests or issues. I ended up drastically scaling back my project
scope and focused strictly on primary education.

Fifth Grade Students who participated in learning level assessment
.My first education meeting was with 5 heads of primary schools under the Punsari Panchayat. I
broached my objective of conducting learning level assessments during the meeting and this was
welcomed by all. I decided to focus on 5th standard across these schools in Punsari for my
assessment. The assessment tool used was the basic ASER assessment, to gauge reading abilities
and basic mathematical abilities. I assessed the children on a graded scale, from a simple
story in Gujarati to paragraphs, sentence reading, words and alphabet recognition. In
addition, I used Pratham’s learning camp math tool for 8th standard. The assessment results
were surprising and disappointing for the optimist in me. Here is brief synopsis of my

Key Findings –

In the village of Punsari, 50% of 5th standard and 25% of 8th standard didn’t meet the targets
set for 3rd standard. A lack of reading skills was clearly evident as over a quarter of 5th
graders couldn’t read simple stories. The problems compounded from primary to upper primary
school as only 10% of students in 8th grade understood and differentiated the properties of a
rectangle or circle. This poor academic performance stems from key systematic issues such as
absenteeism (>10%), high student/teacher ratio and use of valuable teaching manpower in
administrative activities. Half of the 5th standard and a quarter of the 8th standard children
are below the 3rd standard level.
Eighth grade students showing off the maths test!

The End

Spending six weeks in Punsari was a worthwhile experience despite my unmet expectations. The
media hype of Punsari as a model village could have been avoided if one of the reporters had
spent some time in the village asking the right questions beyond short interviews and
listening to the development claims. For example, where are the Panchayat members doing the
hard work? Are there any young leaders groomed for long-term development? What is the
utilization of Wi-Fi? As seen in my learning level assessment, Punsari turns out to be an
average Gujarat village. There is no upkeep of the infrastructure when property is damaged and
equipment fails.  There are many other villages in Gujarat which have similar or better
development stories. I would have liked to see impact in neighboring villages of the “Punsari
Model” such as sanitation, street light or best practices of the Panchayat.  Punsari is a
great success story of how a good PR can fool media. I’m left with one simple question: Who is
going to continue to tell visitors the PR story when Mr. Himanshu Patel moves on?

In midst of this bad news, the silver lining was the importance of education that is widely
recognized amongst parents as a key to their children’s better future. Many parents believe
sending children to private schools is the answer to the poor public school education. At a
grassroots level, both parents and children are hungry to get a better education and break
from the generational poverty cycle. In fact, this desire for better education spurred me to
find a silver bullet. But alas, there is no one such fix – there needs to be a group effort
for India’s millennials to get the quality of education they deserve. From government support
of infrastructure to a better quality of teachers, India needs it all. The bright young minds
of India deserve our efforts. Pratham’s role for improving learning levels with teacher
training certainly will make an impact but I wonder if it is just a drop in the ocean.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

MY FRIEND ADITI: A Glimpse Into Delhi Summer Camps

5:50:00 PM

By Rukmini Banerji

It is just about eight in the morning. Lots of children are gathered under a big tree in the school yard. Yoga is going on. Two young teachers started the exercises. Then the principal took over. Finally some of the volunteers who had come to help did one or two of their favourite ones too.  In a little while, the neat rows of yoga children merged and a long line appeared that streamed into classrooms in the main building.

It is middle of May.  School holidays have already begun. So why are these children in school on a hot Thursday morning? Ah ha!!! That is the hot news. This year, Delhi Government announced something new – Summer Camps for sixth standard children. Many children all around Delhi go to municipal school for their primary grades. After completing Std. 5, they enroll in the nearest Delhi Government School which usually goes all the way from Std. 6 to Std. 12.  Coming in as the junior-most class in a big school can be intimidating. Therefore, the camp this summer is a lovely way to welcome the incoming new and youngest cohort of the school community. 

The camp seems quite different from usual class during normal school time. Here, children are all in groups. Groups of five. Yesterday was the first day of the camp. Most of the time was spent in getting set up. Groups were formed. Each group chose their own name – Champion, Adventure, Rose, Enjoy Art and so on. In our class there were already six groups but today more children have arrived so there is a new group. Three boys and two girls. Within half a second they named themselves “Genius”.  Each group has made an attendance sheet for themselves and they are keeping track of who is coming and who is not.

Yesterday our class not only made groups but they also moved the furniture around. All the activities in the summer camp are to be done in groups. That means that everyone in each group has to talk to each other all the time. Sitting in desks and benches facing the teacher and the blackboard will not help. Also every now and then, all children get up and do some physical activity. The teacher said that such activities are called “energizers”. Space is needed for that. So desks and benches have been rearranged and turned around to make sure that groups can sit facing each other. Two groups are sitting in the middle of the room on the floor. But this way everyone in the group can see and easily chat with the others.

Today the groups are reading a story. The story is about a girl called Aditi who is always hungry. When she comes home from school she eats a snack but as soon as she comes to play she wants to go and eat something more. Aditi is always thinking about gol-gappas and aloo chaat. The narrator of the story who is Aditi’s friend is fed up with her. So one day she takes Aditi to her grandmother. Dadi gives them both a tasty plate of guavas and cucumbers to eat. Later Dadi makes a plan. The next day, Dadi keeps Aditi back while everyone goes to play. Do you know what they do? Dadi teaches Aditi to make tasty snacks. So now Aditi makes delicious things for herself to eat and for everyone else too. 

In our camp, each group seems to have a different way of reading the story. In one group, each person read one paragraph and the others listened. In a different group, children know who the best reader is and decided that that person will read the whole story aloud. While reading the story, many children chuckled and laughed. Everyone seems to have a friend who is like Aditi. Some “Aditis” are in our groups in the classroom as well. Stories are being told about them too. 

After reading the story, groups have some tasks to do. Every task requires discussions and decisions. First, some words have to be selected – one word to be chosen by each person in the group. Then you have to write the meaning of the word and finally use the word in a sentence.  Selection of words is a tricky business. There are some words that are so common that it is hard to think of how to explain them in other words. One group chose the word “tang” (तंग). “Tang” is “tang”. How can you think of anything else?” Then with much chewing of pencils and scratching of heads, the group decided that you could explain the meaning of “tang” with the word “pareshaan” (परेशान). Another group was struggling with “nichodna” (निचोड़ना). “It is impossible to find another word”, they declared. Think, think, think. Okay .. finally a word came to one of them – “pichkana” (पिचकाना). They wrote “ras wali cheez ko daba kar ras nikalna” (रस वाली चीज़ को दबा कर रस निकालना). Roughly translated it would mean “to press a thing which has juice in it”.
A more philosophical discussion was taking place in one of other groups in the middle of the room. One of the words they had picked was “khatam”(ख़त्म) – finished. First, they agreed that one way to explain this was to say “the end”. A curly haired boy was more thoughtful. Softly he said there are two types of “khatm” – one is like gol-gappas which can get over (बाकी नहीं रहता है) but more can come. Then there is another kind of “khatm” – like when someone dies when they cannot come back.   

Soon it was time to move to the next activity. But before that an “energizer” had to be done. Everyone piled out of their desks and chairs. Those who were on the floor, dusted themselves and got up. There was a demand to play the game that they had learned yesterday. The teacher agreed. Here is how it went. The teacher said “Nagpur” and touched her nose. The children followed her. “Kanpur” and she held her ear. “Singapore”.  Two fingers on top of your head like little horns. And finally, “Jaipur” where you fling out and raise your arm as if you are saying “jai”. The game quickly picks up tempo and of course is very noisy. The trick is to listen carefully to the leader and do what she says rather than follow what she is doing. One wrong move and you will be out.

The children return to their groups but alas I have to leave. Through the main gate and into the narrow crowded lane, past the stretch where there are more wires and electric cables than anyone can count. Soon I am on the main road. On the other side is the main gate of JNU. What happens inside JNU is so much in the news. But just across the road, in my school, only a few people know how much fun the new sixth standard class is having this summer.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Thodi Masti, Thodi Padai

3:01:00 PM


 By Karthik

 I had a slightly rocky start to my participation in the Delhi Summer Camp this May – I couldn’t locate my school!! After going through the back lanes of East Kidwai Nagar and South Extension I finally reached my destination – Govt. Boys Senior Secondary School, Kidwai Nagar. Frantically I ran in to the school not knowing what to expect and who to meet !

Then I came across a group of boys (20 odd) doing exercise in the school courtyard instructed by the School Principal (Mr. Malhotra) and the Guest Teacher (Pankaj Kaushik). After introducing ourselves, we proceeded to the classroom. The classroom walls were bare, with few charts showing the grouping that had been done. The boys were looking at my inquisitively, wondering if I will play a game or let them play their favourite games – Carrom and Volleyball. The summer camp material had not been photocopied and all the shops were shut at 8:30 AM and so Mr Kaushik and I contemplated what to do next!

As the boys had already grouped themselves based on their favourite IPL teams, we decided to tell them to make Flags representing their group for the next 3 weeks. The kids were kicked and immediately started conceptualizing their flags. Most of the students were meticulous about how they would design their flags. Majority used scales and pencils to get the exact image right, all selected different colours and started designing their flags. What came out was surprising, most kids drew some variation or the other of the Indian Flag! Regardless, each flag was unique and represented something about each student in each group. By the time this activity was done the material for each group/ student had arrived and we were off with the Summer Camp activities.
Food was the theme for the week and kids immediately started relating it to their own favourite foods at home and around Delhi. Some of the kids were quick to pick up and some took time to understand the material; however all of them had dogged determination to complete the activity and get a rank based on who completes the activity first! Whatever may be the motivator, the kids enjoyed the activities, discussed quite a bit with one another. All along screaming and shouting at the top of their lungs! After every activity we discussed what we learned and related them to real life experiences. Overall the day was hectic but made enjoyable by the kids unlimited energy and curiosity!

I was able to visit the school for the next two days and we did a range of activities based on the summer camp material. Even though the activities went as planned and the kids were able to easily understand and solve most of the problems – the biggest takeaway for me was that the kids discussed a range of interesting things with me, the guest teacher and each other.

Although I attended only a few days at the beginning of the camp and the last two days, I did develop a certain rapport with few of the kids. There was Dipankar – a naughty, shy kid who all the other kids hadn’t really opened up to. He would also not take part in the activities and would be disinterested in what the other kids were doing. I would chat with him and try to involve him in all the activities when I was there. When I came back after a gap of ten days, Dipankar was still naughty but showed more interest in the activities and was chatting with me as if I hadn’t left. On the final day when kids were performing for parents, Dipankar (although not part of any group) decided to recite two small English poems in front of a packed class. His delivery was flawless. He had attended almost every day and I am sure just being around his classmates in a fun and easy-going environment led to him opening up!

Other fun experiences that I had with the class was when we made a chart with all the different types of food items we find in “Hamari Dilli”. I asked each group, if I would come over to their house, what they would offer me. I got the most diverse answers ever. Some limited their offerings only to drinks – water, juice, tea, coffee, cold drinks and some decided to convert their house in to a sweet and chaat shop offering Jalebi, Aloo tikki, Samosa and the works. Another fun activity was when the kids made the chart showcasing the different usages of an Umbrella. Besides stating the obvious usage of an umbrella, they also demonstrated how it can be used to shield themselves from external threats.

Although I wished I had attended the camp longer; the time spent with the students was memorable. Mr Kaushik was also very helpful and invited us (another team member had also visited the school on days I didn’t attend) to his home in Kurekshetra.

Halla Gulla With Studies

2:28:00 PM
halla Gulla With Studies, a blog written by Aamir Khan for Pratham Education Foundation.

By Aamir Khan

समर कैंप सबको पता होगा कि समर कैंप कैसा होता है और समर कैंप में क्या-क्या होता है। मैं जब पहले दिन समर कैंप गया तब में पहली बार ऐसा कुछ करने जा रहा था जिसका मुझे अनुभव भी नहीं था।
वैसे तो मुझे मज़ा करने में तो बहुत मज़ा आता है यह मज़ा करने के लिए प्रथम ने समर कैंप बहुत अच्छे से शुरू किया। जब मैं पहले दिन गया 12/05/2016 तो में कक्षा के दरवाजे़ के पास खड़ा था तो मुझसे एक बच्चे ने कहा ’हमसे तो कहा था कि ख़ूब मस्ती कि जाईगी मज़ा किया जाएगा लेकिन यहां तो पढ़ाई कराई जा रही है‘ फिर धीरे-धीरे उस बच्चो को लगने लगा कि यहाँ पर पढ़ाई के साथ-साथ बहुत मस्ती भी की जा रही है तो अभी वह बहुत ख़ुष है और उसे लगने लगा कि उसने समर कैंप में आकर कोई ग़लती नहीं करी क्योंकि यहाँ बहुत सारे रोल प्ले, चित्रकला, मजे़दार गतिविधियों के साथ पढ़ाई की समझ मिल रही है। इस समर कैंप में कोई बाधा नहीं है। मुझे भी समर कैंप बहुत अच्छा लगने लगा है। मैं वो सब भूल गया हूँ जो मैंने पहले दिन कहा था। आज 31/05/2016 मैंने उस बच्चो से पूछा कि अभी लग रहा है तो वह बोला कि समर कैंप को एक हफ्ते और आगे कर दें और समर कैंप को हर साल के लिए जारी कर दें।
इस समर कैंप से मुझे एक गाना याद आ रहा है,
बारिष, है ख़यालों में सब धुल जायेगा
रोषन, रसता नया एक खुल जायेगा
धूप के मकान सा यह है सफर ढ़लान सा यह मोड मेहेरबान सा है यह...

Summers. Camps and Shikanji

2:08:00 PM
Summers, Camp and Shikanji, a blog written by Mansi Nanda on summer camps in Delhi for Pratham Education Foundation

by Mansi Nanda,

“Garmiyon mein jab dhoop se ghar aao aur Shikanji mile to saari thakawat door hojaati hai”. The Home Science teacher is addressing 6th standard girls while explaining the quantity of lemon that needs to crushed in one glass of water. It’s the second week of summer camp in of GGSSS, Ambica Vihar and the ongoing theme of this week is WATER.

It was an interesting sight; a bunch of children, sitting in groups trying to make the best lemon drinks, carefully listening to each and every instruction given by the teacher. Sugar wrapped in small newspaper pouches, the smell of lemon in the classroom, noise of spoons and giggling faces. A few of them in a group struggling with the right quantity of lemon required for the drink, others thinking about what to do with leftover sugar.  One of the girls’ in an attempt to show off to her friends that she knows how to make shikanji, crushed the two lemons she got in half glass of water before the teacher started explaining the procedure. The next moment we hear the teacher saying “Ek glass mein aadha nimbu daalo”. Soon after realising her mistake of mixing more lemons in less water, the girl hurriedly runs outside to get more water. She counts something on her fingers and very cleverly tells the teacher that she made 4 glasses of shikanji with half lemon in one glass of water exactly how the teacher had asked them to do.
A few days later, on the open day I got a chance to meet a few parents in the summer camp. It was a delight to talk to one of the mothers’ whose daughter has been attending the camp. I curiously ask her what makes her send her daughter to the camp to which she replied “Ek din school se aa kar mere liye Chanda ne Shikanji banaayi and mujhe bola ki mummy aap dhoop se aaye ho to yeh piyo. Ismein meri mam ne kaha hai ki Vitamin C hai jisse energy milti hai.  Ye sunn kar main itni khush hui and mujhe ehsaas hua ki bache khel kood mein bhi kaafi kuch seekh jaate hain”
All this was because while teaching the girls how to make shikanji, the teacher was also explaining them the advantages of having lemon water and how it is useful for the body.
The shikanji recipe turned out to be a huge success that day. In my knowledge this is what the essence of the summer camp was to teach the children in a way that they enjoy and learn.

School: Government Girls Senior Secondary School, Ambica Vihar


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