Saturday, 27 August 2016

Meet the Power Couple..!

‘Power couple’ was the first phrase that came to my mind as I read the brief about them - Janhvi Maheshwari Kanoria and Samvit Kanoria.
Janhvi is currently serving the Ministry of Qatar as their education expert. Samvit, on the other hand, is a partner to Mckinsey. Did anyone let out a low whistle like I did? They were here in Bangalore to volunteer for MANTRA. Wow.

My current hurdle was to make small talk and engage people who were clearly extremely knowledgeable and sensible. For someone who has feared conversations with strangers in the past, you can only imagine the thoughts flitting past my mind. However, the car ride with Janhvi and Samvit turned out to be pleasant as opposed to the hard work I had thought it would be. As we traversed the Bangalore traffic to reach our partner school in Goripalya, they were visiting, I was humbled by the kind of work Janhvi had done and the perspective that Samvit brought to our conversations.

Just to let you in on a bit of our conversation, this July, Janhvi worked with a low income school in Kolkata where she discovered that a kindergarten class room had close to sixty students, one teacher and a helper (a very typical scenario in our partner schools as well). This often resulted in an extremely tired teacher, an agitated helper and a bunch of chaotic kids with little or no learning happening in the classrooms. A visibly excited Janhvi gushed about how she created various domains in the classrooms and divided the kids into each domain/ group while each of the adults handled the domain that they were comfortable with. The domains ranged from developing motor skills in children to literacy and math. Her logic was, and I completely agree, that why should the teacher handle all the kids alone, when there are so many skills to be taught to these early learners and some of it can be delegated to low-skilled people as well.

Samvit opined that certain corporate practices may help people in the social sector to be more organised and that his interaction with MANTRA would be fruitful only if he can show us structures and systems that can be put in place for a budding organisation to work smoothly.

Well, it's true what they say, everyday you learn a little something. That day I learned more than just a 'little' and little did I know that I would be learning a lot more the next day.

Janhvi and Samvit, during their stay with us at MANTRA, conducted an interesting workshop for the team on topics relevant to our work, e.g. feedback, problem-solving, time management, Mindset & Behaviors etc.

We will ensure that we share the nuggets of wisdom with all of you out there. So make sure that you grab your note pad, pen and a bottle of water to wash it all down as you read our next blog in this series.

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

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

And I witnessed the unfolding of transformation this summer.

Ms. Aishwarya Suresh - a high-school student from the US who spent the summer with us at MANTRA as an intern, shares her experience in this blog piece.

"It seemed as if the students, teachers, and parents were becoming more invested and were collaborating together to enhance the learning experience for the children. One parent even approached us and asked how she should help her son learn outside of school. This was incredible to witness, and warmed my heart."

 In the Spring of 2016, I found out about Mantra4Change. The organization focuses on School Transformation and Empowerment (STEP), and works strategically and tirelessly to achieve its goals of improving the education system in the low-income areas of Bangalore. Three months later, the loud chatters and giggles of children filled my ears as Megha, Naina, and I pulled into Padarayanapura, Bangalore for a three-week internship with Mantra4Change in one of their partner schools.

About our internship
Our placement school is a low income private school located in Padarayanapura in Bangalore. With the help of Mantra, this school now practices a more effective and forward curriculum, which uses aspects of the Montessori and Creative Curriculum. During our month long internship period, Megha, Naina, and I focused on transforming the curriculum in the Lower Kindergarten class, by teaching the students, explaining our curriculum to the teachers, and training the teachers on how to teach with it. Prior to collaborating with Mantra, the school followed a curriculum that focused mostly on memorisation, writing, and repeating after the teacher. Though some aspects of this curriculum were helpful, we felt that a majority of the syllabus made it difficult for the students to understand and process the classroom content. To enhance the learning system, Mantra introduced visual aids, collaboration, creativity, cleanliness, and encouraged enthusiasm in teachers, helping form strong bonds between students and teachers.

Problem with rote-based curriculum?
As the students are around the age of three, they have not yet developed their fine motor skills or the muscles in their hands. This makes it difficult for the children to hold a pencil, which prevents them from being able to write. The children were also unable to understand the concepts of the lesson through memorisation, and were just simply repeating after the teacher. Do not get me wrong, repetition is very helpful and the teachers were very smart about their approach. However, given the students were not fully familiar with English, repetition activities in english did not allow them to use their memory as a way of learning the concept and instead was a chance for them to repeat after the teacher while zoning out. To explain it more clearly, envision yourself repeating a pattern of sounds which have little or no meaning to you. In this time, it is likely your mind is elsewhere, though you may still be repeating the pattern. When the student was asked a conceptual question based on what was taught that day, he/she was unable to answer it.

Prior to leaving for India, through intense research, visits to local schools in the US and communication with teachers there and study of the Creative Curriculum helped us find a solution for some of these problems. We incorporated more motor skill tasks to strengthen the hand muscles of the students, changed the classroom layout  to support the new structure and curriculum, introduced play time to encourage physical activity, and introduced Circle Time. Circle Time is a daily interactive learning session when the students are asked to sit in a circle for about thirty minutes. In this time the teacher can use different activities, games, audio, and visual aids to teach the concept, while capturing the attention of the students. This new curriculum helps the students build social skills, confidence, creativity, and discipline while thoroughly understanding the concept of the day.

Challenges: Resistance
The internship opportunity proved a great learning experience for us, and was a truly one-of-a-kind opportunity where we had fun while meeting amazing people and having a chance to help the community. However, throughout the process, we encountered some challenges which were somewhat difficult to overcome. One challenge we faced was resistance from the community for adapting our new curriculum. As many teachers were new to our curriculum, they were ambivalent about the positive effects of some aspects of our new syllabus. This caused them to initially to be apprehensive of practising it, which therefore made the curriculum ineffective. To overcome this challenge, we decided to begin teaching our curriculum and hope that the positive effects causes the teachers to be more enthusiastic. This proved to be a success, as by the end of the internship period, the teachers were actively suggesting ideas and new aspects for the new curriculum, and added their ideas and flavour to the overall form.

Challenges: Discipline
Another challenge we encountered was the lack of discipline among many of the students. There would be constant talking, screaming, misbehaviour, and disobeying of directions. To overcome this challenge, Megha, Naina, and I practiced some discipline activities with the class. We initially established a set of classroom rules, and asked the teacher to repeat and explain this to the class on a daily basis in both English and Urdu. We also established a list of consequences for misbehaviour, such as not being allowed to participate in the activity, or time outs. This also helped to promote discipline. Another idea was to enforce behaviour logs, where the teacher gives the student a daily behaviour report which gets sent to the parents. We also played space recognition games, and discipline activities, such as “Simon Says”. Megha, Naina, and I also brainstormed with the teacher on effective ways to handle misbehaviour, and encouraged talking to the students, giving them appropriate consequences, and allowing them to think about their actions rather than being punished forcefully, which was used prior. Research shows that forceful punishment deters the students’ confidence and social skills and establishes fear between the students and the teachers. However, as the students lacked discipline, many teachers felt as if it was their only resort. We hope the teachers take our suggestions and eventually stop this form of punishment as it is truly detrimental to the students’ development. Altogether, enforcing rules, discipline activities, and allowing the student to think about his/her actions helped enforce classroom discipline and etiquette while maintaining a safe and happy environment for the students.

Personal Highlight:
I loved interacting and getting to know the students. Every day we would learn a little more about each child, and over time we were able to communicate with them more, which was truly incredible. We formed so many bonds with many students and teachers. The high point of my trip was seeing the curriculum work for the students and teachers. We saw the teachers leading circle time on their own, using visual aids, and encouraging the students. The students slowly began to speak more English, collaborate with one another, and become more confident and disciplined. It seemed as if the students, teachers, and parents were becoming more invested and were collaborating together to enhance the learning experience for the children. One parent even approached us and asked how she should help her son learn outside of school. This was incredible to witness, and warmed my heart.

This curriculum transformation proved to be effective on a whole, as we observed more communication, confidence, and understanding among the students. A parent even approached us and said she observed changes in her son’s understanding and saw him count on his own while they were walking. I am very grateful for the help and cooperation from the teachers and administration of the school. Though we faced multiple challenges through the journey, this internship was one of the most amazing, valuable, and unforgettable experiences of my life, and I am very thankful for Santosh, Khushboo, Amrutha, and the Mantra team for giving me this opportunity.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Tryst with an icon

Leadership interaction with Mr. S.D. Shibulal, ex-CEO and Co-founder, Infosys

"S. D. Shibulal better known as Shibulal was the chief executive officer and Managing Director of Infosys."
..boasted the Wikipedia page about the founder of the company whose representatives had flown down to our college for recruiting the best of us into their team. It was the placement season and being a fourth year student, I was trying to feed my tired brain with as much information as possible about the companies that were arriving for recruitment. Infosys was one of the first ones. It was the mother of all companies who caught the fantasy of many a youngster like me. The story of the company that took the IT sector in India by storm and its seven founders was the fairy tale that my generation and the generation before us grew up hearing.

Fast forward three years, life had taken a different trajectory and I chose to be in the education space. During the first few weeks at Mantra4Change, the NGO I work for currently, I discovered the very man I had googled three years ago is the man who is funding the organisation I work with. He however still remained a mysterious figure in the shadows that I could never approach. I mean, how could a twenty something nobody meet a man who led a blue-chip company. 

This was until I saw a Google invite pop up in my mail asking me to either accept or ignore dinner with Mr. S. D. Shibulal & family and Mr. Murali Krishna (ex-CIO, Infosys). "Ignore? Are you joking", I asked out loud to my innocent laptop! I was beyond excited and the several text messages on our team’s Whatsapp group confirmed that, so were my team mates.

Mr. John Prakash and Mr Ansal Scarria, principals of two of our partner schools waited graciously along with us to meet the team. As we trooped our tired yet excited selves into the brightly lit conference room, it was clear that we were at loss for words. I remember Khushboo's voice ringing through the room as she made the initial introduction and a pealing silence that followed. This however lasted for a just a few seconds and then, when Mr. Shibulal had broken the ice himself, Team Mantra (including the school principals) couldn't stop reeling question after question at the man.

The discussion started with challenges in scaling an organisation like Mantra, moving onto policy changes in education and eventually closing off with setting up organisational culture. The man was crisp and to the point, typical characteristics of a CEO.

Here is the wisdom chronicled for the aspirant entrepreneur who happens to read this piece, go ahead the world is at you feet when armed with knowledge and wisdom. Mr. Shibulal spoke about the three hurdles any organisation would face when scaling namely, finding the right talent with commitment to the cause, maintaining consistent quality throughout (Standardise, he said) and finding the right leadership group that can take the organisation forward. To paraphrase Mr. Shibulal,
"For any organisation, especially the one like yours that focus on social impact, three points are of immense significance:
·       Practice your idea. Go to the ground and work damn hard to show the feasibility and impact of your idea.
·      Policy changes can take your idea to every place in the country and make it sustainable. Once you have the proof points, influence the policy makers, get the policy amended.
·       Papers will help you spread your idea. Spread it. Let others use it as a model, for now you have proof and there is policy backing. Nothing stops you now except yourself."

The discussion moved onto various challenges faced by the education sector and the lustre and romance that the field, once held in high regard, has lost. It was rightly pointed out by the team of mentors before us that the respect needs to be brought back to the teaching profession. Once called "the backbone of the country", the typical teacher of this era has to survive a rather thankless society.

As we touched upon the topic of setting up organisational culture, Mr Shibulal was again crisp and short. Here I am, again, quoting the man who brought an entire organisation of thousand odd employees into the company on time every single time.
"The culture has to be penned down and articulated, the leader has to lead by example and finally appreciate the rule advocates and penalise the rule breakers. This induces the network effect which capitalises on the mob mentality of human beings. Nobody would want to be the black sheep and be singled out for being the culture wrecker."
As we took our places at the dinner table, the glutton in me took a break when Mr. Shibulal elaborated on the various endeavours his family had ventured into and how much the family has contributed and continues to contribute to the society at large. On being asked what keeps him going, Mr. Shibulal answered, "When you gain from the society, you need to balance the equation and give as much as you can. When you consume more resources, the bigger is your responsibility to serve the society."

Memorable, indeed that night was with great food, a warm company and wisdom beyond my age and of course the tryst with an icon.

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