Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Meet Shehnaz Ansari, a Balwadi Teacher from Mumbai who created a positive impact through her work with Pratham.

8:21:00 AM

People often associate the Bandra suburb of Mumbai with plush apartments, multi cuisine restaurants and Bollywood stars! However, Bazaar Road presents a complete contrast to this preconceived notion of Bandra. Characterised by old and dilapidated buildings, this area houses many of the low-income groups of the city, including small shopkeepers, blue collar workers, domestic helpers and many others. However, this part of the city is still home to a number of fantastic change makers, and Shehnaz Ansari is one of them! 

Shehnaz is a Balwadi teacher who started her preschool centre in 2005. She realised that children around her lacked basic, fundamental education. At the time, municipal schools in Mumbai did not offer any preschool facility, and the enrollment of children in schools - directly happened in the first grade. As a result, most of the children could not cope with the school curriculum, since they had no previous base. Many of them were first generation learners as well. And while there were a few private preschool centres around, they were all rather expensive. Through Pratham, Shehnaz decided to fill this gap and consequently began her journey with us. 

One of the biggest challenges she faced at the beginning, was of the attitude of people around her. She remembers that parents back then were not keen to send their children to a Balwadi, with one of the often repeated questions being - " What and why will a three-year-old learn?" As a result, she began to regularly visit households, so as to personally convince people about the importance of preschool education. 

Shehnaz recalls that in her first year, only 8 to 10 children registered in her Balwadi. However, her repeated visits to households and convince people, slowly but steadily bore fruit, with the number going up the following year. 

Today, Shehnaz's Balwadi is a place where there is a constant dialogue with children as well as their parents. Apart from educational activities, the activities conducted help increase awareness about nutrition, vaccination and cleanliness. " Every child in my Balwadi brings a Tiffin that has home-cooked food. No one brings fast food like vada-pav or chips", she says proudly. Many parents often come up to her and ask her for advice - both about their children and otherwise as well. Shehnaz encourages parents to even do some activities with their children at home and has found that children from her Balwadi are generally able to grasp things quickly once they enter school.

 In addition to the children that Shehnaz has directly impacted, one of her greatest contribution has been to influence others like herself to start their own Balwadi. This has only been possible by her efforts on the grounds. 

She truly is an unsung hero of Mumbai!

Friday, July 7, 2017

Chhaya Panchbhai - story of a Selfless Teacher

12:21:00 PM
Sahyadri Nagar is a small locality situated in the Chembur suburb of Mumbai. This, and areas like Vishnu Nagar, Rahul Nagar, Nagbaba Nagar, have a special significance. It was in this region that ‘Pratham’ started its work in the early 90s. Located on a hilltop, near to the Chembur – CST Freeway, this place boasts of many women who have created a positive impact in the process of educational transformation of this region. And lest we forget, their stories need to be told!

Chhaya Panchbhai is one such woman who lives in a small hut at the top of the Sahyadri Nagar Hill. A visit to her house involves a short trek on a narrow road that passes through a settlement of huts, whose occupants contribute largely to the blue-collared service sector of the city. However, her hut has witnessed one of the first Pratham Balwadis, at a time when both Pratham and the movement of literacy had just begun in this region. Revered and respected, she is fondly called Tai by everyone around.   
Chhaya Tai Panchbhai at home
Chhaya Tai recalls that in the late 80s and early 90s, there was no seriousness about education. Children skipped schools as they were at a distance and that led to dropouts. She had to convince the parents to send their children to her Balwadi. However the general 'mood' of the community was 'why to study, as such we have to do odd jobs', and hence initially no one paid any attention. 'Pratham', she says, made sure women became literate so that they spread the movement ahead in the community. The campaign then picked up, and soon many children and grown-ups learned to read and write. She then switched to conducting the library program in her house, and it added to more children coming to her and eventually borrowing books. She proudly said that many children got their basics right because of her guidance and now many of them, after completing their higher studies, have got good jobs and improved their living conditions. 

But what she said at the end was significant. Today, the school has become a part of everyone's life. There is no need to specially tell anybody that they need to send their child to school. If, whether to send your child to school was a question in the early 90s, then the question today is whether to send your child to a BMC school or a private school. This, I felt is a significant transformation in the region.

Chhaya Tai also told another touching story. There was a child named Amol who did not pay any attention to studies and to make him study; she used to tell him that if he studies he will be able to sit in an aeroplane. Years later Amol, after completing his studies, got an opportunity to fly abroad for work and had to sit in an aircraft. Days before his departure, he came to ChhayaTai and told that her Balwadi and reading sessions had made him sit in an aeroplane today. 

An emotional ChhayaTai could not control her tears as she narrated this incident and we all witnessed how these Balwadis have moulded people, but their selfless efforts are unfortunately unsung!

When we asked her where her students live now, she pointed in a direction and mentioned 'in the buildings' and stressed that she is happy that they now have a better life. However, she still lives in the same, small hut. Teachers are indeed selfless, and all they desire is a better life and learning of their students. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Pratham’s Second Chance : Preparing for exams, and now, the results.

12:25:00 AM
Come mid-February in the Second Chance program; there is a sense of commitment that grows stronger, as over 3000 girls and women are drawing close to their Class X board exams. It is the same feeling that parents have when their children appear for board exams.

The diversity in the boards through which the students appear for their exams which include State Boards, State Open Schooling and the National Institute of Open Schooling, makes each state have its own specific preparation for the exams.The learners work hard and to cope up with the exam frenzy, we have seen husbands, mothers, uncles, children and siblings support the learners and encourage them for the preparation. Though they go to the exam hall with butterflies in their tummies, there is also a confidence to write the exam.

After the exams, the Second Chance learners face a lull; there is a void in their lives after a yearlong association with their classmates and teachers. Across the board, there are a number of missed calls from students, the tutor or faculty call them back, only to hear – I don’t know what to do now, I don’t like staying at home, I miss my classes, when will the results be out?  Can we have classes for a supplementary course?  Do you think I will pass? When will we all meet?  Parents and guardians are happy, as they have seen their daughters appear for their exam with confidence and there is hope for them to make it better in life, they say.
Pratham teams take a guess on the results expected, and on the basis of the subject wise feedback from the students, have their expectation of what the results may be!“ If results are good, mobilising the next batch will be easier”, the team says, “Results are also an evaluation of our performance.”

When the word spreads and girls know the date for the results, calls become even more frequent sharing anxiety, nervousness, uncertainty and hope at the same time.  In the months of April-May-June, results are declared in all states. 

With impatience and anxiety, about 300 members of the teaching-learning team gear up for the results, teams distribute clusters lists, and everyone sits together to get the results for the cluster.Some tutors are nervous and wish for their cluster results to be seen first!

Once a Second Chance centre result list is complete, it is shared with the state coordinator for compiling state results. Once the state gets their results compiled, they are shared with other state and national teams, through calls, on mail and snapshots on WhatsApp messages. 

At the same time, students start calling or dropping in at the centre to know their results – their expressions say it all – with happiness and renewed hope!  Some of them come with mithai /sweets on the same day or the next day and thank their Pratham School, for giving them an opportunity which they had never dreamt of.

In the villages, there is a celebration of sorts, for the families, where mothers/daughters/sons/wives/ granddaughters have taken steps forward. The tutor and faculty team of the program feel extremely satisfied if their students move forward – they visit homes and encourage parents to enrol their daughters in the nearby school or suggest open schooling, as the case may be. Second Chance students range between 16 and 45 years – and the older ones could have dropped out of school as long as 30 years back or more.

Earlier in the same environment, there was scepticism regarding Second Chance activity, over the years, as they see the girls move forward, there is a change of both heart and opinion.

At Second Chance, the team believes that if a student has not cleared all subjects, she has a chance to do it again. Not using the word ‘failed’ – the team counsel students and families, making sure they don’t give up, the team is ready to hold supplementary classes for them.

Families are happy, there is a sense of achievement, and there is an encouragement to keep studying.  Parents and grandparents pause in their daily routine of farming, household chores, they smile and show their happiness, saying, what we could not do, we are glad our children are able to do, being educated is a necessity to live in this world. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

Sunil Kumar - From a child labourer to a champion. A story of grit and determination.

12:33:00 PM
Sunil Kumar has made headlines in mainstream media. His performance in 12th Grade has been outstanding, a  First class and now he is focusing his energies to enrol in the Indian Army to defend his country.What makes his mission newsworthy is the fact that 11 years ago, he was rescued from a zari unit in a Mumbai slum and brought to Sitamarhi district to Pratham’s Gyanshala, a residential program for children who have been child labourers. Here Sunil got an opportunity to start a new chapter in life.

Sunil was born in a small village, Khap, on the India-Nepal border, in the Sitamarhi district of Bihar. His parents were landless labourers, with no resources to bring up Sunil and his siblings. Peer pressure and the lure of Mumbai, the city he had heard where dreams can become a reality beckoned him and his friends to run away from their homes. They fell easy prey to middlemen who search for vulnerable children usually migrants from poor districts of UP and Bihar to employ them in sweatshops in Mumbai and other parts of the country.

Back in 2006, the zari units or sweatshops as they were called employed these young innocent children, as workers to do basic embroidery as well as cleaning and washing clothes for the entire unit. They were forced to work for 16 to 20 hours at a stretch, in tiny rooms with dim lights with only meals as remuneration. In such a trapped atmosphere, they very often succumbed to vices and other unhealthy practices.

At a time when large-scale rescue operations were conducted in these areas, Sunil was one of the fortunate kids to be freed from the shackles of labour. He was sent back to Bihar and enrolled in Pratham’s Gyanshala for a second chance in life. The 'Gyanshala’ program aims to provide education to children rescued from child labour. When the children enter the Gyanshala they are assessed to gauge their levels of reading and basic math. First, their basic foundational skills are built and then they enrol in a nearby government school while continuing to live with other boys like themselves in Pratham’s Gyanshala. Between 2006 and 2008 Sunil went through this process before being enrolled in a school in 5th grade. The boys also play sports and some are trained in music.

Sunil focused his energies on learning and today he is a changed teenager. Out of the 12.40 lakh students, who appeared for Grade 12 or Intermediate examinations in 2017, conducted by the Bihar School Examination Board (BSEB), only 4.37 lakh students or 35.25% managed to clear them.Sunil earned a First Class result with 67%.While regular studies took up a lot of his time, evenings were spent in learning football and kabaddi. His efforts to become a better kabaddi player saw him represent the state and win medals.

What does Sunil dream for the future? His struggles and his fight to overcome them probably influenced his decision to join the Army. Confident and aspiring Sunil has cleared the written and physical rounds of Army recruitment twice but could not make it in the medical test. He is currently preparing for other competitive exams.

In kabaddi, when a raider comes to raid he is alone. He has to touch an opponent and then escape from seven players of the defending team who are trying to catch him. Sunil’s life is an inspiring example. He has come through many obstacles and challenges and yet made it successfully to the other side. 

Monday, April 10, 2017

Padyatra to Champaran by the Pratham Bihar team – March-April 2017

3:09:00 PM
Exactly a hundred years ago, in April 1917, India witnessed its first ‘satyagraha’ under the leadership of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Gandhi later became ‘Mahatma’ and ‘satyagraha’ translated into a nationwide mass movement. The place that was witness to this first ‘satyagraha’ was Champaran, a remote rural indigo growing area in the north-west corner of Bihar bordering Uttar Pradesh and Nepal. To celebrate the centenary year of this historic movement, a series of events are currently happening in Bihar.

The first day of the Padayatra at Patna

The Pratham team in Bihar chose a unique way to pay tribute to the Father of the Nation – through a “shikshagraha” - a “walk for education”! Gandhi always emphasized ‘buniyadi shiksha’ or ‘basic education.’ He also believed that education would make an individual ‘swavlambi’ or self-reliant. To remind people and to revive this message about basic education, the Pratham team undertook a 264 km long walk or “padayatra”. The journey took 15 days; their route took them from Patna, across the Ganga to Vaishali, then Muzaffarpur, East Champaran and finally to what today is West Champaran. This ‘Shikshagrah Padyatra’ began on 22nd March from the Gandhi Sangrahalay in Patna and concluded at Bhitiharwa Ashram, where Kasturba and Gandhi had lived, in West Champaran on April 5.

The map of the 264 km long Padayatra 

The Yatra team members were -Dilip Kumar, Jaglal Ram, Amresh Kumar, Amar Kumar, Mohommad Mudassir Alam, Dinesh Kumar, Ram Shankar Singh, Mukesh Kumar, Shivkant Tiwari, Gunjan Kumar Gupta and Sanjay Kumar.
The objective of the yatra was to interact with villagers, representatives of the Panchayati Raj, teachers, parents, self-help groups of women, understand their views and perspectives on children’s education and discuss the key importance of schooling and learning in today’s times. In addition to these discussions, the team also demonstrated some basic techniques of learning language and maths, They also spoke extensively about Gandhi’s thoughts and values. Daily, the team along with villagers from the village that they were in, together read sections from Gandhi’s autobiography, My Experiments with Truth.

The idea of this padayatra came from within the Pratham team in Bihar. It was unanimously agreed that this was the best way to reach the masses and discuss Gandhi’s ideas of basic education. In many ways, Gandhi’s views align well with Pratham’s philosophy and work. The team plotted the physical route carefully, figuring out what would be their daily destinations and night halts. Mentally, they began preparing for what they would do and what they hoped to learn during this journey.

Padayatris undergoing health check-up. It was a very long route! 
Typically, the day for the team would start before dawn, and after a few moments of reflection and prayer, they would start walking. Soon slogans related to education would start followed by singing Gandhi’s favourite bhajans. Curious onlookers would want to know who these people were and what they were doing. This would lead to discussions and debates on the need for a strong basic education, basic reading, arithmetic and learning for children and also on Gandhi’s views on this issue. Everywhere, villagers welcomed the padayatris and engaged in discussions wholeheartedly. The Pratham team focused on the difference between merely going to school and actually learning and getting educated.

The villagers, at times, would say that they have done their part by sending children to school and now it is the teacher’s responsibility to teach. In such a situation, our team would work patiently and convince them about how their mindset and approach needs to change and how they as parents and community members need to get involved actively. In some villages, the villagers would get annoyed when our team members used to ask some of the children to read or solve arithmetic sums. However, repeated conversations would ultimately make people realize that it is only with a strong foundation, that children in their village will be able to go ahead. And that this universal basic learning is needed not just for their own children but for all children in the village.

Pledge for quality education
The team observed that people, especially youth are programmed to think that a government job is the only way for a secure future. There is a lack of awareness about possible other different opportunities out there. In some villages, 12 -13-year-old children - sons and daughters of small farmers and landless labourers - were seen working in fields to support the family. On asking in more detail, our team often found that the children’s schooling was stopped as they were not making any progress. The Pratham team stressed the importance of buniyadi shiksha. If the children had learned to read and do basic arithmetic, they would have developed and progressed on their own; and been able to develop the confidence to deal with the bigger world around them! 

Sanjay and Shailendra, our experienced colleagues from Team Bihar recall that women in most of the villages they visited were keen to know about education and the opportunities for their children. While men were keen to discuss politics and daily happenings, the baton of education was firmly in the hands of women! On the ninth day of the march, a curious onlooker from Pipra Kothi village asked the team members which caste they belonged to. Everyone was unanimous in their reply that their caste and religion are education and we have abandoned our caste and religious identities for this larger cause!

The Padayatra concluded at Bhitiharwa, District Pashchim Champaran

Are the villagers aware of Gandhi and his significant contribution towards the country? Sanjay replies that they are but they only know a few things. School children are aware that he brought us freedom, whereas the youth sees him as an influential figure. Some small children also related him to currency notes! But, everyone did lend a patient ear to the team when they talked about his principles of buniyadi shiksha and swavlamban.

So what does the team feel after the successful completion of the Padayatra?

Most of them agree that this amazing experience has come with a huge amount of learning. One of the big things they learned is that we have to listen to people and their problems about their life. Often their basic needs are not met, like health, food and shelter. This along with their daily struggle for livelihoods is an obstacle in supporting their children’s education. The team felt that it is critical that all Pratham teams interact much more with the people whose children they work with and try to understand and relate to their issues. It is not that people are not serious about education if we expand our reach and understanding about these issues, then we will be able to help them support their children's learning much more. 

The inspiration
The padayatris met many people en route who are ready to work for the cause of education. The team has planned to engage with them and provide them with the necessary support so that they start work in their villages. This, as Sanjay, the leader of the team says, is the ‘biggest lesson from the grassroots Journey'. Going forward, Gandhi’s words which motivated the team to start the Padayatra will continue to drive their efforts in going forward. The “march for education” will continue.

Gandhiji ka yehi tha kehna,
Anpadh bankar kabhi na rehna


Pratham Education Foundation

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