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. 

Monday, December 18, 2017

Savita Dhanve - the journey of starting her own Balwadi

2:46:00 PM
Ganesh Nagar is a vast slum located in Wadala, a locality in Central Mumbai. It is a cluster of many houses, small shops, vegetable and fruit vendors and some small businesses. It is also a home to many labourers, blue-collared workers, shopkeepers and many people working in the unorganised sector. It is here that Savita Dhanve was spotted and groomed by Pratham to start a Balwadi and inculcate the spirit of schooling, learning and education among the people.

It was the year 2007, and ‘Pratham’ was surveying Ganesh Nagar for implementing its library program, and the survey was to understand the demand for books from the residents. Ms Naina from the Pratham team spotted Savita, who had studied till 12th standard but was shy and chose to remain indoors. “I had not even seen this area properly”, she admits. However, she credits the ‘Pratham way of grooming’ for the transformation in her!

“They reposed confidence in me and asked me to be a part of the survey in the area. As I interacted with more and more people, I became confident, and my interest in the work grew. This is how Pratham grooms everyone”, she says.

The survey revealed that many people in Ganesh Nagar wanted books in English. Earlier initiatives of Pratham and the Municipal Corporation had resulted in parents enrolling their children in school, and the result was an increased awareness of studying and learning in the area. However, increase in school enrollments also increased demand for remedial training for academically weak children. It was here that Savita began interacting with school teachers and this added to her responsibility and confidence. She was now a part of Pratham’s library program, and soon she was given the responsibility of starting a Balwadi. “To my surprise, more than 60 children turned up, and I had to split them into two batches”, she says with a smile.

In 2011, the trend in Ganesh Nagar and the adjoining areas was to enrol children in private schools. However, these schools expected an interview of children before admission.  Savita says with pride that her Balwadi ensured that these children underwent grooming for the interview and almost all of them secured an entry in private schools, as their fundamentals were strong!

“The Municipal School Teachers also admit that children from Pratham’s Balwadis are better equipped in fundamentals as compared to their other counterparts”, she says with pride.
As she completes a decade working with Pratham, Savita has decided to branch out and start a Balwadi by herself. But she says that the foundation and techniques she received from Pratham will always remain with her.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Going back to learning

6:49:00 PM
Going back to the classroom after 21 years is a feat in itself. 38-year old Manjula Bariya set a classic example for all those who feel they are too old to study.
Manjula is an Anganwadi (rural mother and child care centre in India) worker in the Sheopur district of Madhya Pradesh. She dropped out of school in 8th Grade to help support her family financially. During one of Pratham’s mobilization drives Manjula thought of enrolling herself for 10th Grade examination.
She continued with her job and attended classes regularly. With a demanding schedule, she found it difficult to cope with basic concepts and the foundation course. She stopped attending lectures. She was pursued by Pratham and motivated to attempt the preliminary test. She scored well in this test which helped boost her confidence level.
With the positive approach she sailed through the rest of the year. She would work in the morning and walk every day to the centre to attend classes later in the day. She received a lot of support from her family as well. She attempted 10th Grade examination through National Institute of Open Schooling in Madhya Pradesh and scored 61.3%.
Manjula feels that the Life Skills part of the Second Chance program helped in the overall development of her personality along with improving her approach to various aspects of life. She is currently preparing for 12th Grade examination and hopes to continue studying further.

Today she can stand witness to the respect one earn

s with education in the society. She motivated and enrolled her daughter and sister-in-law with the Second Chance program and helps them with the preparation. She encourages other women in the village to enroll as well. 

What is a ‘learning space’?

4:43:00 PM

It is often one of the first questions an architect asks while building a space for education, and the last question a teacher asks when s/he feels their students could do better. Evolving through many discussions over centuries, Google now declares that - “It is a space that the learner and the teacher co-create”.

“It should be open, where children can run wild and free.”, “It should be filled with bright and colourful things”, “It should be a space beyond four walls, undefined by the chairs and desks”. With all these pre-conceived notions in mind, I went on my first field visit to a Pratham Anganwadi in an Urban Center in Lucknow.

After walking through the tiny lanes, we heard the loud cheer of students coming from a tiny hall in the middle of the road. There were 20 tiny tots, 2 volunteers and one fellow of the anganwadi gathered in the centre and the children were all sitting in a circle. Most of them sat cross-legged and a few others were perched on their mothers’ laps (naturally, their mothers’ laps were more comfortable and harder to let go of!).

While scanning the room, my eyes caught a tiny body sleeping right in the middle of the circle. The few adults with me were going to wake him up when Zeba, the lady responsible for this particular anganwadi, simply lifted him up and added him to the circle, without disrupting his sleep or even making him twitch. He lay there peacefully curled up, while the other children worked on their activities.

20 minutes later, the children began building pyramids with colourful plastic cups. Raghu, the sleeping boy, woke up and sat up like a spring. He rubbed his eyes one last time, picked up the glasses and started building pyramids too. Active, laughing and thoroughly enjoying himself, he also participated in the storytelling and the tablet session. It was almost unbelievable that this was the same boy who was sleeping a few minutes ago!

We often design spaces according to our interpretations of “free and wild”. Adult interpretations. This experience made me rethink the idea of a learning space. It made me feel that wall or no walls, chairs or no chairs, we need to interpret and create the space for a child to be comfortable. Comfortable enough to curl up, comfortable to learn but most of all comfortable to be oneself. He was given the time and the space to rise and shine. And so he did!
Sometimes, reality can be more colourful than dreams..


Monday, December 4, 2017

Ashatai Rajput - the woman who transformed her village in Nandurbar, Maharashtra

5:07:00 PM
It is said that if you educate a man, you educate an individual; but if you educate a woman, you educate the society! Women like Ashatai Rajput are a testimony to this statement.
When Ashatai Rajput reached Baldane, a small village in Maharashtra’s Nandurbar District, she had no idea that she would become the epicentre of a literacy movement in the village! It was nine years ago, when she, her husband and three children moved from a village in Jalgaon District to Baldane.

Ashatai Rajput with her husband, Komal Singh Rajput 

 Ashatai had always believed that her family should contribute in some way to the village as this was to be her Karm Bhoomi (the place where one works). Around the same time, she came to know of Pratham.

She recalls that at that time, children had begun to attend school. However, the general sentiment in the village was that after school they roamed around and wasted time and they should sit in one place and study! When Ashatai found out that Pratham was looking out for volunteers in the village, she immediately joined. Soon, children started to gather at her house to study. The aim was to make them better understand the concepts of language and math, through fun activities and interactions. Soon enough, Ashatai realised that this work had the potential to transform the entire village!

However, she observed that the number of girls in the village school was low. How could a village be transformed without the education of its girls and women? Ashatai rose to this challenge, visiting every household in the village and asking them to enrol their daughters in school. Education, she told them, will open a new world for these girls, and will give them better opportunities compared to conventional agriculture work. Initially, the women in the village were sceptical about their children, especially girls staying outside the house for long. But this did not deter Ashatai. Using CDs having educational content, she generated awareness among other women in the village. They began to feel curious about what their children were learning in school, and this sentiment led to the women eventually coming together to discuss their financial conditions and their children’s education.

Today, this group consists of 80 women, and everyday interactions among them involve discussion on what their child could do after education. “Even women working as farm labourers are dreaming of enrolling their children in polytechnic colleges”, Ashatai proudly exclaims.

The school in Baldane, however, only has classes up to Std. IV. Hence, children have to go to other villages for higher studies. This was again a cause for concern among parents, who were particularly worried about their daughters. It caused several girls to drop out from school and not pursue higher education. To tackle this, Ashatai convened a meeting of all women in the village, and it was decided that girls would walk to other villages in a group and would bravely face the mischief makers, if any, on the way. This idea was a success, and she attributes it to the trust these women had developed for each other through such group meetings!

Everyone in the village respects Ashatai and calls her ‘Aai’ (Mother). She, however, attributes her success to her husband’s support, using the analogy of revolutionary couple, Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule, who jointly spearheaded the movement of education in Pune in the 18th century.

“Like Savitri had Jyotiba, I have him for support”, she says. Her husband smiles and is happy that his wife is getting the limelight she deserves! Their oldest son is an engineer, and their daughter works at the Zilla Parishad (District Administration) office. Their youngest son is now in Std. VIII and wants to become a doctor. 


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