Monday, November 30, 2015

The joy of learning

Very rarely do I write about my job, and quite honestly I think it is because I love it and hate it with equal intensity. I work with a small NGO in the field of Education and my primary job role is to raise money for the work we would like to do and ensure that we spend it for its intended purpose. It is a crazy job on most days but its hugely rewarding; working for a small organisation helps me see the direct impact of what I do on the kids at the back of the classroom. It also comes with the flexibility of being able to visit a project site to trial some of our new materials if I feel inclined to do so.

This is exactly what I did a few weeks back when I took a trip to Jharkhand; we are working on an English language programme here in 170 government primary schools where the teachers either don't exist or don't come to school. A group of para teachers have been hired and trained to ensure that the 7000 children enrolled in these schools receive at least a semblance of an education while they are there.

Our work is spread over three blocks of Khunti, Torpa and Murhu which are predominantly tribal and heavily affected by conflicts between Maoist groups. The only way to access the schools is on two wheelers (motor bikes or cycles) and in some cases you also have to carry the cycle across a river to finally reach the school. Most of the kids and teachers speak one of several tribal languages are not even comfortable with Hindi but the Jharkhand Government expects them to study and write exams on the same English text books used in high end English medium schools in Delhi! So we have the very challenging task of simplifying these texts and to contextualise them to Jharkhand.

Khunti, about 50 kilometres from Ranchi is where we have our project office and it was where I would stay for a week; in a guest room two floors up with strict instructions not to come out after 6 pm. On my first day there as I rode on a bike away from the project office and into the countryside with fields on either side of a dirt path and forests as far as the eye can see, I could not help but be awed by the success of India's Sarva Shikha Abhiyan programme.  Even where there were no roads and no electricity we have managed to build schools. And these schools are organically part of the villages and the community is deeply with them. In one village, every home contributed one log of bamboo so that the school could build a boundary wall. Often you would not be able to tell where the school ends and someone's house starts, head teachers go to the homes of the students to ensure they come to school, kids bring their younger siblings to class with them and dogs, cats, goats, ducks are all welcome. 
The best part in any school of course is the kids, and these kids were beyond amazing; full of energy and eager to learn.

On my first day in the school in Anigarha, we learnt to describe our feelings in English, essentially I was trying to understand students of Class V could read and recognise words like happy, sad, angry, shy, hungry etc. While their level was far below the age level expectation, their enthusiasm was way beyond. They would try fearlessly to read and not be put off by failure. One little boy cam running outside the class behind me to confirm that he remembered the word hungry correctly.

Day 2 was at Hassa Harijan Toli and Ganaloya; these schools are further away from Ranchi, absolutely no power and no mobile network. We did a small activity with the tiny tots here where they had to trace the outline of their palm and write their name inside it. The kids absolutely loved the activity and were so eager to show their work to me. It was here that I was moved to tears by two little girls who recited the alphabet, their arms entwined with each other, smiling from ear to ear! The school had also introduced a system of giving the students blue ribbons to pin to their uniforms for coming to school everyday and the little kids were so proud of their blue ribbons!

Day 3 was a celebration of Teachers day and I have never seen it being celebrated like this. The entire village was invited to the school; all the programmes were planned, organised and paid for by the students. The teachers were felicitated in a warm friendly manner and all the people who had gathered for the event were given refreshments, including the black doggie who spent all morning under my chair!

This visit was so enriching for me in terms of seeing the kids in action, understanding their needs, knowing the real level at which they are in comparison to what is expected of their age, to see schools being an integral part of the community and teachers and head teachers receiving the respect for shaping the lives of the children. I cannot wait to go back to Jharkhand to meet these lovely children again and share the joy of learning with them!

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