Sunday, 31 July 2016

Why go far to seek inspiration..!

The blog piece has been written by Ms. Amrutha Krishnan, who works as the School Transformation lead at Mantra4Change.

My thoughts strayed and for a minute or two I was completely unaware of the scene unfolding in front of my eyes. I felt like I was back in Chennai, in my classroom amidst my children. The topic I had thrown at my kids chalked hastily on the black board and I would be armed with a chalk piece in one hand and a white board marker in another, ready to be used once the black board gets filled with their thoughts and ideas. During one of those sessions with my kids I had strayed just as I had now, thinking back to those initial few months when these kids, who were now confidently opining their views, had met my questions with blank stares and shy smiles.

I am sharply tugged back to reality, to that brightly painted room, as Nadiya and Saba – 20 years old girls from the conventional Muslim community- stare at me expectantly. They were waiting for me to throw them the next guiding question that would help them lead the session to conclusion. The evening sun glowed dimly on the faces turned up towards me- the faces of teachers for whom I had been conducting a session on planning and execution of a lesson. Yes, as a project lead at MANTRA, a large part of my work involves teachers’ professional development in schools that cater to low income communities. I remember Khushboo (a colleague) explaining to us, the newly recruited team, about MANTRA's project TARGET (Talent Recognition, Engagement and Training Program) with much excitement. "We train youth from the community to go back into classrooms and teach the children". The excitement was palpable and all of us were pumped up.

The extent of impact that TARGET had on the 'community youth' became evident to me only after I met the vivacious, energetic power houses Saba, Nadiya and Arshiya. These young girls, in their own ways, are challenging the status quo and are proving their mettle against all odds. TARGET had meant that after their morning college classes (or as fresh graduates), they rush down to the school to teach children of their own community. This funds their own higher education and takes a huge burden off the school management's shoulder because finding dedicated teachers in these communities had always been a problem that has eluded solution. In spite of their packed schedule, these girls religiously plan for the lessons to be taught the next day and prepare for their college classes.  The amount of grit and courage in these girls amaze me every single day. And now when they stand up and talk to other teachers on how to plan their daily lessons, I stand looking on like an awe struck bystander.

In hindsight, I learnt a valuable lesson.

You don't have to go far to seek inspiration. There is always a Saba or a Nadiya to show that people with determination and passion still exist in this topsy-turvy world of ours. When, during one of those days, I feel low thinking about the state of education, waste management, moral situations and the million other problems that boldly parade down our streets, I think of these girls. They don't have a fancy schooling or money to boast of. But their work is rooted in their reality and their determination to make it in this world in spite of their grim circumstances blows my mind away and I know that the world has a few safe hands that shall guard it.

Friday, 29 July 2016

How these wonderful LKG children enriched my Bangalore stay..!

This blog piece has been submitted by Ms. Naina Mishra - a high-school student from the US who spent the summer with us at MANTRA as an intern.

Situated in a small slum in Padarayanapura (Bangalore), Florida English School (FES) teaches hundreds of students from low-income backgrounds. Although it is still a small school with limited resources, FES boasts of colorful classrooms and a community dedicated to providing the best education to its students.
Three weeks ago, I began my month-long internship with Mantra4Change. Dedicated to servicing the local community and transforming education in low-income schools, I flew to India for the first time in nearly five years. Since then I have been working with the lower kindergarten children and the teachers at FES.
The challenge
When I first visited the school, the students were bursting with exuberance and an insatiable desire for high-fives. Workbooks clasped in their hands, they wandered around the classroom and yelled for the teachers’ attention. Those who had mastered the learning objectives for the day crowded around their friend's desks, stealing pencils or fighting. Much to my disappointment, those who were unable to complete the classwork sat on their chairs disillusioned and lacking confidence in themselves. Heartbroken by the incessant distractions and sense of helplessness in the classroom, Aishwarya, Megha, and I organized some activities to transform the learning at FES.
Discovering the solution
On the third day of our internship, we learned that the children loved to color. We brought some poster paper and crayons to the class, and the childrens’ eyes shone with excitement. Suddenly, students who once clutched the school gates crying were sitting in a circle; enthralled by the letters and numbers strewn across the paper. Students who once struggled to write were grabbing crayons and forming haphazard lines. Class participation surged, and the activity turned out to be a huge success; students were having fun while learning rudimentary writing skills. Apart from coloring, another successful activity was circle time. Seated on the floor, we asked students for their name, and they replied in full sentences. Eventually, we began to review numbers, colors, and body parts in the circle formation. Both students and teachers were engaged and relaxed in this new learning environment. We designed a curriculum for the class and worked along with the teachers to implement it.
The progress
My favourite thing about teaching at the school is seeing the children each day and then seeing their progress as the week goes by.  I am happy to see the teachers conducting circle time on their own and implementing our advice in the classroom.”

As time progressed, Aishwarya, Megha, and I witnessed significant development in the skill sets of the students. Coloring and playing with blocks strengthened their fine motor skills and thus, penmanship improved. Students are now successfully able to recall and write the alphabet and numbers 1-10 with crayons. As the year progresses, students will begin to write with pencils and learn small words. FES will continue to follow the creative curriculum and take an activity-based approach to learning. We are positive that these teaching methods will have a drastic improvement on the students’ education.

The laughter and smiles of the children at school enriched our stay in Bangalore, and we will miss the memories created on this trip as we return to our routine life in America.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Science means unlimited fun!

- This blog piece has been submitted by Ms. Revathi Menon - a School Transformation Lead at MANTRA.

As I enter 7th 'A', my attention falls on Maaz, a chirpy enthusiastic kid, blowing his lungs out into a piece of straw. I shot a glance at the rest of the room only to find a bunch of other kids doing a similar action; another set of kids were making tiny holes in their tiny straws and trying to squeeze in another straw through it. I look around for the teacher; she was silently observing the class. My attention is then suddenly disturbed by a strong yet calm voice saying “are you doing it correctly”, and from the crowd, I see a tall, thin gentleman rise from the bench where he was seated and he was smiling amongst all the chaos and clearly happy with all the attention he was receiving.

Suddenly, Nadiya runs up to me and squeals with excitement “ma’am, look my toy is working.!” and dips her straw into a glass of water and blows from the other end and the toy squirts out some water in a circular motion that seemed like a sprinkler to me. A few of her friends gathered around her to examine the toy and questioned her on how it worked so perfectly! Nadiya replied with a clear hint of pride in her tone, “did you not see sir place the straws? The angle needs to be right, come I will help you” and she goes skipping with her friends tailing behind her.

This is just one of the many happy classroom stories. Science classes have gone through a radical change in the school. Gone are the days where science classes were all about the million definitions, the book back exercises and neat note books. The school always had a vision to provide a holistic education to children and Mantra envisions to make this a reality, hence Partnering with Innovation and Science Promotion Foundation (ISPF), we have found the perfect way to make the science classes come alive in the classroom.
ISPF is a foundation that helps children learn the various concepts of science through their various toys. They set up labs in school where they provide all the materials required to make these toys. They conduct regular ongoing training sessions with the teachers to map the curriculum with the toys and help them with instructional support.
Someone once said, “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge”. Science cannot be contained within the four walls of the classroom or in their textbooks, science makes sense when a child is allowed to experience it.  With the involvement of ISPF in the classrooms, science now seems like a fun class to be in.
To Quote Shabir (a student), “ma’am lets have 2 periods of science everyday”. 
Now this is where I see my purpose of education.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Taking responsibility to reinstate parents' faith in education

The blog piece has been written by Ms. Amrutha Krishnan, who works as the School Transformation lead at Mantra4Change.

Aisha ma'am comes forth to practice her welcome address; teachers, the HM (head mistress ) and I wait patiently often coming up with words of encouragement when she fumbled with her piece of paper with the welcome address on it.

Let me introduce you, my friends, to the setting. 
The setting is a classroom around late afternoon. Teachers and the head mistress have come to the room and are enthusiastic about what was happening. 
The context: a parent-teachers meeting to be held three days after. This mind you, is the holy month of Ramzan. Everyone, with an exception of myself, are undergoing the rigorous fast that Muslims keep in order to feel the hunger pangs of the poor so that they are more empathetic to them in the coming months. For most teachers, it is the first time that they had to speak in English in front of an adult crowd. But they were willing to, to reinstate the parents' faith in education.

You know that there is a slow but steady metamorphosis happening when the staff at your partner school stays back after school hours, instead of waiting to bolt, just to practice their part for a parent -teachers meeting. 

You know priorities have shifted from questions over breakfast menu to questions about their child's education when parents turn up in tens at a time to attend the meeting. 
You know the focus has shifted from taking offence at statements to improving the delivery of education to kids when the entire staff cocks their ears and listens intently to the concerns of the parents.

You just know that you work in an organisation that works with a passion to change when the head mistress of the school delivers a powerful speech on how education can't be bought, but has to be shared; and you have goose bumps on your hands. 

The icing on the cake is when the founder of the school does not talk about money, but patiently explains to the parents that recruitment of teachers is not based on caste, creed or colour, rather on their ability to impart wisdom to "our children". OUR CHILDREN. That was one of the highlights of the meeting. That is a power packed phrase.

For, to take responsibility is the first indication that the plan is working!