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

Thursday, March 30, 2017

बिहार पदयात्रा - सफ़र का 8 वाँ पड़ाव

1:01:00 PM
सफ़र की तैयारी :-जैसे ही घंटे की सुई 3 पर जाती है,टीम के लीडर अचानक बैठ जाते हैं और फिर जोर से कहते हैं – “गाँधी जी का यहीं था कहना|” तुरंत ही नींद से बोझिल पलकों को मलते हुए 10 लोगों की प्रतिध्वनियाँ आती है- ‘’अनपढ़ बनकर कभी न रहना |” लोगों को जागने और तैयार होने का कोई संकेत मिल गया हो | जैसे रेल को हरी झंडी का सिग्नल मिल गया हो |सभी लोग फटाफट तैयार होने लगे | 

सभी अपने बिस्तर को समेटना शुरू कर दिए |विश्राम स्थान था –उच्च विद्यालय मेहसी,पूर्वी चम्पारण | तबतक चिड़ियों के घोंसलों में भी  शोर-गुल शुरू हो जाता है | पूरब में भी लालिमा का असर अब दिखना शुरू हो जाता है | शायद कारवाँ को अपने गंतव्य के तरफ़ कूच करने का सही वक्त आ गया | अपनी-अपनी मच्छरदानी,चादर और दरी को समेटकर लोग तैयार हो जाते हैं मिशन पर जाने के लिए | शिक्षा के महान प्रहरी और प्रचारक (11सदस्यीय टीम ) पूर्वाहन 4:25 बजे गैस की रौशनी में  निकल पड़ते हैं अपनी मंजिल की तरफ़ |


स्वास्थ्य परीक्षण :- 8 दिनों तक तीखे धूप और भीषण गर्मी में रोज लगभग 20 किमी तक पैदल चलने के बाद  आज टीम के सभी सदस्यों
का स्वास्थ्य परीक्षण जननायक कर्पूरी ठाकुर पुस्तकालय, चकिया के प्रांगन में करीब 7:30 बजे स्थानीय डॉक्टर के द्वारा हुआ | सचमुच अगर ईरादे नेक हों तो लोगों का आशीर्वाद सीधे अल्लाह के दरवाजे तक पहुँचती है | स्वास्थ्य परीक्षण में सभी की स्थिति सामान्य पाई गई | स्वास्थ्य परीक्षण उपरांत दुगने जोश के साथ कारवाँ आगे बढ़ गया |  


मतवाले राही :- कारवाँ अपनी मंजिल की तरफ़ गुजरता जा रहा था तभी रास्ते में कुछ बच्चे ट्यूशन जाते हुए मिल  गए | फिर हमारे लोगों ने अपने कमीज पर लिखे हुए टेक्स्ट को पढ़वाना शुरू कर दिए | देखते ही देखते लोगों की भीड़ इकट्ठा होने लगी | लोग अपने-अपने बच्चों को पकड़कर लाने लगे |सभी को मूल्यांकन करने के तरीकों और पढ़ाने की विधियों से अवगत कराया गया |फिर लोगों को इस पर आगे काम करने के लिए संकल्प भी दिलाया गया |




कुष्ठ आश्रम का दीपक :- पिपरा प्रखंड के रास्ते में एक साईकिल सवार मैट्रिक पास युवक से मुलकात होती है | यह लड़का जमुई के सिमितुला आवासीय विद्यालय से इस बार मैट्रिक पास किया था | पदयात्रा के उद्देश्यों को जानकर वह आग्रह करके  पूरी टीम को एक मुहल्ले में ले गया | वहाँ पर केवल कुष्ठ रोगी (Leprosy)   थे |उनके बच्चे भी साथ में थे | | यहाँ पर रहनेवाले लगभग 30 लोगों को कुष्ठ की कोई न कोई बीमारी थी | बातचीत करने के बाद पता चला कि इनके बच्चे स्कूल नहीं जाते हैं |स्कूल से भगा दिया जाता है | समाज के लोगों का मानना है कि अगर स्कूल जायेंगे तो और लोगों को बीमारी हो जाएगी | लोगों में भ्रम  कि इनके द्वारा सतुआ खाने-और खिलाने से ये रोग फैलता है | यह लड़का समय निकालकर इन बच्चों को पढ़ाने आता है | इसके लिए उसके घरवाले मना भी करते हैं मगर इन्सान की सेवा भावना के वशीभूत नि:शुल्क पढ़ाने आता है | हमारी टीम के कार्यों को देखकर वह अंदाजा लगाकर कहा  कि “लगभग 1,00000 (एक लाख) लोगों में से लगभग 99,999 लोग ऐसा नहीं सोचते हैं और करते हैं | आपसे हमें आज और प्रेरणा मिली है | मैं निरंतर समय निकालकर शिक्षा दान करता रहूँगा |” फिर उसको मूल्यांकन के तरीकों और गतिविधियों से भी अवगत कराया गया  |



 मैट्रिक फेल लड़कियों का दर्द :- ग्राम गौरे के स्कूल में लगभग 11 बजे पंचायती राज के प्रतिनिधियों के साथ और स्कूल के  शिक्षकों के साथ बैठक होती है | बैठक के बाद गाँव में भ्रमण के दौरान मैट्रिक फेल लड़कियों से उनकी दिनचर्या के बारे में जानकारी लेने की कोशिश की गई |  उन लड़कियों का मानना था कि मैट्रिक में  फेल के बाद अब लगता है कि  वे जिन्दगी से फेल हो गई है |आगे बस अँधेरा ही अँधेरा नज़र आता है |फेल हुए लड़कों को तो दुबारा मौका मिल जाता है मगर हमें परिवारवाले मौका नहीं देते हैं |अब आगे क्या करना है उसको लेकर बच्चियों में  या उनके अभिभावकों में कोई विचार या प्लान नहीं था | हाँ आगे शादी करनी है यह बात अभिभावकों ने ज़रूर बताई | मूल्यांकन करने और बातचीत करने के बाद ये बात ज़रूर निकलकर आई कि बुनियाद मजबूत नहीं होने के कारण अपेक्षित परिणाम नहीं मिल पाया  | लोगों ने स्वीकार किया कि बुनियाद मजबूत पहले करनी होगी तभी आगे महल खड़ा हो सकता है |



 जीविका एक आशा :- आज भी  जीविका समूह के महिलाओं के साथ अपराहन 2:00 -5:00 बजे के बीच दो गाँवो में उत्साहवर्धक बैठक और सकारात्मक बातचीत हुई |पदयात्रा टीम के लोग दो ग्रुप में बंटकर दो गावों में जाकर मीटिंग कर रहे थे  | इसमें जिला स्तर से लेकर प्रखंड स्तर तक के जीविका के अधिकारी मौजूद थे |  अच्छे कामों में हाथ बटाने वाले लोग मिल ही जाते हैं | इस बैठक में भी ऐसी महिलाएँ/लडकियाँ  निकलकर सामने आयीं जो हमारे मैटिरियल और गतिविधियों से बच्चों के साथ आगे करने को भी तैयार हुई | इस गाँव में साइंस की गतिविधियों  को भी किया गया | बच्चे साइंस की गतिविधियों में बहुत रूचि ले रहे थे |



आत्मकथा का वाचन :- गाँधीत्व को गहराई से समझने के लिए टीम के सदस्य प्रतिदिन गाँधी की आत्मकथा –“मेरे सत्य का प्रयोग” किताब का सामूहिक वाचन करते हैं | आज 8वें दिन तक इसके 165 पेजों को पढ़ा जा चुका है |

कुल दूरी :- आज पूर्वी चम्पारण के मेहसी,पिपरा और चकिया प्रखंडों के विभिन्न गाँवों और कस्बों की यात्रा करते हुए कारवाँ द्वारा 36 किमी (इस पदयात्रा की अबतक की सबसे लम्बी दूरी ) की दूरी तय की जाती है |

सारांश :- आज दिनभर के सफ़र और गतिविधियों के बाद निम्नलिखित चीजें निकल कर आईं ----
v  भविष्य में इस काम के लिए जीविका को आशा भरी निगाहों से देखा जा सकता है |
v  स्कूल की समस्या सम्बंधी लम्बी सूची शिक्षकों और लोगों के पास है मगर उपाय पर कोई बात नहीं करता है |
v  लोगों का सरकारी स्कूलों से मोह-माया खत्म होता जा रहा है और और ट्यूशन पर ज्यादा जोर दे रहे हैं पर स्थिति ज्यों की त्यों बनी हुई है |
v  अभिभावकों के उदासीन रवैये के चलते स्कूल टाईम में भी बहुत सारे बच्चे  गाँवों में घुमते हुए मिले |
v  एक ही जगह पर दो प्रकार के स्कूलों का दर्शन हुआ जो हमें इण्डिया और भारत के अंतर को बताता है और बीच में हम लोग  दिखाई पड़ते हैं | प्राइवेट स्कूल चमचमाता हुआ  था और बच्चों से भरा-पूरा था वहीँ सरकारी स्कूल में बहुत ही कम बच्चे दिखे  | इन दोनों स्कूलों के बीच प्रथम शिक्षाग्रह का कारवाँ गाँधी के सपनों को साकर करने निमित आगे बढ़ता जा रहा था |
v  आज भी लडके-लड़कियों की पढाई में भारी असमानता है | लड़कियों के फेल होने के बाद आगे के लिए रस्ते बंद होने जैसा है |
v  मैट्रिक में फेल होने के मुख्य कारणों में बुनियादी शिक्षा की कमी निकलकर  सामने आई |
v  आज भी समाज में बहुत सारा भ्रम फैला हुआ है | जैसे कुष्ठ रोगी के बच्चों से बीमारी फैलने का |
v  आज भी एक-दो युवा साथी हमारे जैसे सोचने और करने वाले  धूमकेतु की तरह कभी कभी दिख जाते हैं | आज कुष्ठ बस्ती में मैट्रिक पास युवक से जो मुलकात हुई थी वह समाज की बातों को परवाह किये बिना शिक्षा का अलख जगा रहा था |
v   पदयात्रा के दरम्यान समाज को आगे ले जाने के बहुत सारे रास्ते दिख रहे हैं मगर इतना ही काफी नही है | अन्य लोगों को कुछ और भी करना होगा |

विश्राम स्थल : दिनभर शिक्षा का अलख जगाते हुए लोगों के साथ-गतिविधियाँ करते हुए शाम ढलने के काफी देर बाद सड़क किनारे लगे हरे-भरे पेड़-पौधों से आक्सीजन लेते हुए लगभग रात  8:30 बजे  कारवाँ आज के विश्राम स्थल खैरिमल पंचायत के मुखिया जी के घर (प्रखंड,चकिया,मोतिहारी)  पहुँचता है | यह पंचायत आदर्श सांसद ग्राम पंचायत है जो हमारे देश के कृषि मंत्री श्री राधामोहन सिंह का संसदीय क्षेत्र है | पेड़ों पर बसेरा करने वाले विहंग भी दूर-दराज से दाना-पानी  लेकर अपने परिवार के साथ अपने-अपने घोंसलों में आश्रय ले चुके थे | 



मगर इन शिक्षा के मतवालों का यहाँ पर अपना परिवार है कहाँ ? हाँ हैं न! दिनभर जो अलग-अलग लोगों/बच्चों से  मुलकात होती है | इनके लिए तो सारे बच्चे और उनका परवार ही अपना  है | शिक्षाग्रह पदयात्रा के लिए तो बस सारी धरती ‘वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम’ है | शिक्षाग्रह के वीर पथिक अपनी-अपनी मच्छरदानी को रस्सी के सहारे एक-दूसरे से बाँधते हैं और धरती को ही चादर और बिस्तर बनाकर चाँद और जुगुनुओं की रौशनी में सो जाते हैं | जैसे तपती धरती को बरसात का बेसब्री से इंतज़ार रहता है उसकी प्रकार निद्रा रानी को भी इन कारवाँ का बेसब्री से इंतज़ार रहता है |बिस्तर पर गिरते हैं निद्रा रानी इन्हे कसकर अपने आगोश में ले लेती है और एक सुन्दर और खुशहाल समाज के मीठे-मीठे सपने दिखाना शुरू कर देती है | कोई भी इन लोगों के सुप्तावस्था के चेहरों को देखकर आत्मसंतुष्टि,सुकून और विजय के भाव को एहसास कर सकता है |  

- शैलेंद्र सिंह, बिहार  

Monday, March 27, 2017

CHESS IN THE CLASSROOM: CHAMPIONS OF CHINCONQUIACO

9:29:00 AM
The first-grade classroom was tucked away in the back of the school. Thanks to the cold, the little children were dressed in bright blue track suits instead of the school uniform that the older children were wearing. It had been raining continuously from the morning. The children could not leave the classroom. They were peering through the windows curious about the visitors.

We had left Xalapa early morning so that we could get to the school in time.[1] But the rain and the fog and the wet, winding roads up and down the hills and valleys delayed us.The distance from the town to Chiconquiaco village was about fifty kilometres, but it took us almost three hours. By the time, we reached, the children and the teachers had been waiting a long time. Maestro Morales travelled from Xalapa with us.[2] Morales is a public school-teacher, who along with a friend had started using chess in the classroom not only for teaching children how to play chess but also using chess as a mechanism for improving reading and arithmetic and for developing spatial skills, reasoning, logic and problem solving. The teachers feel that chess develops children’s capacity to predict and anticipate consequences of actions and to think through various alternative strategies. Morales was keen for us to see how the whole thing worked with children in a classroom setting.

In Mexico, any public event is associated with formalities and rituals. Despite the delay, we could not go into the classroom directly. We sat on benches in the open space of the covered playground cum basketball court and listened to speeches by the school teachers and officers of the local education authority. Then there were two dances by the older children of the primary school. It was only once the performances were done that we could go to meet the first graders. There are chess activities in every grade but Morales wanted to show how it all begins with the little ones.

As we walked into the classroom, we were greeted in English. The children were amused to know that the visitors did not understand Spanish. Boys and girls sat in rows perpendicular to the white board. The chairs were meant for grownups. Practically every child’s legs were dangling way off the ground. There was a suppressed air of anticipation and excitement in the air. 

A young teacher, who was almost as impatient and as excited as the children, started the activities. Right next to the white board was a large chess board fixed on the wall. The teacher began to stick chess pieces onto the squares; some older children followed her. Others went around the class handing out small chequered and laminated chess boards to each child. Another set of children began to hand out chess pieces from a big plastic box. Everyone seemed to know the routine. Instructions were not needed. Closely following the teacher, boys and girls began to place their own chess pieces on to their personal chess boards. 

A boy walked up to the board. He began to slowly write. Big black uneven letters on the white board. “Rey Negr”. The teacher added an alphabet to complete the word to “negro”. Black king. Under the black king, the list began to grow. One by one children came up and tried to write names … "reina blanca" ” (white queen), "caballo negro” (black horse), “peon blanco” (white pawn), "alfil negro” (black bishop), "torre negro” (black rook) and so on. Every now and then, children corrected the spellings of their friends or they called the teacher to check what they were doing.

Soon the big chess board hanging on the wall was again the focus of attention. It had numbers and letters marked for rows and columns. “Okay” said the teacher “who will give me the coordinates?” A girl with a big pink ribbon in her hair jumped up. Her name was Margarita. “Se tres caballo negro”, she said. The teacher nodded with a smile. The girl ran to the board and wrote “C-3” next to the black horse. Within minutes, all the chess pieces were located on the number-letter grid, their coordinates neatly listed on the board. 

Now it was song time. Every child jumped up and came to the empty centre space of the class. A lively song began. Maestro Morales joined the group. Everyone sang together. It was a song about how the pieces move. Some dancing ensued – sideways, diagonal and of course everyone wanted to do the jump-jump-jump of the horse. The class was warm now with all the action. It did not matter that it was a dreary, cold, rainy day outside. 



After the song and dance, the young teacher was chatting with Maestro, but the children knew exactly what came next.  Long tables were pulled out. On each table, there were black and white squares – two chess boards had been painted on each table. One of the mothers who had been watching from the sidelines stepped up. She was Alicia and her son, a small boy with glasses was Alberto. She spoke of how difficult Alberto had been as a young child; aggressive and restless, never able to concentrate. The chess in the classroom seemed to have calmed him down a lot. Now he could sit and play a whole game. Alicia and Alberto demonstrated a math game on the chess board. Each square had a number and depending on how the game went, quick addition and subtraction calculations had to be done.

I was invited to come and play a game. I have not played any chess in at least twenty years. Seeing my hesitation, a tall boy called Mauricio reassured me. We sat down. Benches on each side of the table. Within eight or ten moves, the young first grader had vanquished me. From the many victorious smiles around the room, I could tell that there were many more “champions”around me.  To encourage me to not give up, I was given one of the personal chess boards to bring home.
                                                                                                                                                                                        
Rukmini Banerji
CEO, Pratham Education Foundation
Mexico, March 2017



All pictures were taken by Sahar Saeed ASER Pakistan.
For more details about MIA’s activities, see https://ciesasgolfo.wordpress.com/medicion-independiente-de-aprendizaje/ 
The chess activities are also inspired by the Kasparov Foundation.


[1] Xalapa is a city in the state of Veracruz in Mexico. We were in Xalapa to attend the meetings of the PAL network (palnetwork.org). This is the umbrella organization for the groups that are doing ASER like citizen led assessments in different countries. For this meeting, the Mexican group called MIA (Medicion Independiente de Aprendizaje) were the hosts. MIA is based in Xalapa in the University of Veracruz and in a research centre(Center for Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology or CIESAS).Like ASER in India, the MIA group in Mexico also works closely with partners across many provinces in the country.One of these partners ran programs in the school we were visiting.
[2] In Spanish, a teacher is also called “maestro”. 

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