Friday, 23 September 2016

Transforming the KG classrooms: Venturing into 'adapted' Montessori Methods

"Bacchon aise dheere se jakar yeh rakhna hai, or apni pasand ki cheez uthakar wapas apni ‘mat’ ke paas aana hai. Miss ko dekho!!!", (roughly translates to "children you have to walk noiselessly and keep it there and pick out something you would like and place it on your mat. Look how your teacher is doing!!!"). 
And I was pleasantly surprised, to see Rizwana ma'am tip-toeing dramatically in order to drive home the point that in the activity space everyone has to be quiet. For your information, the audience, consisted of a bunch of three feet tall tiny human beings, myself and my colleague, Pallav. This was the same teacher who often expressed displeasure earlier when students would not listen to her. As she and her co- teacher Afreen ma'am gushed on about the tiny success stories during their three days' stint at using the Montessori Method in the classrooms, my faith in the success of the programme was reaffirmed.

Dr. Maria Montessori was a true visionary who researched and created a whole different educational approach to child development- the Montessori system. This approach thrives by creating a match between the child's natural interests and the available activities. This approach intends to give the child his/ her space and encourages him/her to learn from the experiences created in a Montessori classroom.

Every day, as we passed by the Kindergarten classrooms, we were at loss as to how to bring quality education to these tiny kids who often smiled at us sweetly, beckoning us to play with them. We had neither experience nor expertise in the area of early childhood development. Luckily for us, we chanced upon Mrs. Nandini Prakash from the Indian Institute of Montessori Studies. Her extraordinary levels of knowledge about early childhood development and passion to reach the children who weren't privileged enough to experience this revolutionary educational space blew our minds. She kindly agreed to guide us through the process of setting up a Montessori space and training the teachers to conduct Montessori activity hours.

In their own words,
"The Indian Institute for Montessori Studies was started in 1996 with the main objective of providing quality Montessori teacher training from Bangalore, India. It also aimed to bring back the ideas and methodologies of Montessori as applied to Primary Education, long forgotten in our country. Keeping the basic principles the same, the training program was adapted to suit the needs of the children and teachers here, by adding elements of Indian languages, culture and History."

As I watched these little ones in my school crawl towards their teacher eagerly for approval for a work done well or folding up their mats and screwing up their eyes in concentration, my heart warmed at having such a venture piloted in two of our partner schools.

I am reminded of the fact that children are exceptional ‘workers’. They work till they get perfect at doing something. Have you ever noticed a child trying to climb stairs? S/he will do it once, fall, then try it again and again and again till finally, s/he is able to climb. And s/he would still not stop; rather would come down and climb again till s/he is satisfied and confident about doing it.

For those of you who have supported Mantra through its inception, thank you! We are grateful to you for keeping us in your prayers, for it is that and more, what keeps us going and continues helping us see the programme through its success; and in turn, bring this world class 'adapted Montessori' learning system to 19 other partner schools that we will be working with. 

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

Thursday, 22 September 2016

A Summer of Transformation

- This blog post is written by Ms. Megha Sreekanth - a high-school student from the US who spent the summer with us at MANTRA as an intern.

The Preparation
For as long as I can remember, I wanted to go out and serve the under-privileged, but I always thought of it as something that I would do in the future when I had free time and some money. However in spring’16, when my cousin Aishwarya mentioned going to India to help “Mantra4Change” teach under-privileged kids, I jumped at the chance. For the next couple of months, I became engrossed in researching and preparing materials and lesson plans to use at the school. I prepped myself for the challenges of teaching kids, along with Aishwarya and Naina; we even learned a little Hindi to be able to communicate with the children. I landed in India feeling prepared, but I did not foresee the challenges, learning, experience and transformation in those three short weeks at Florida English School.

The experience
As we stepped into the colorful rooms of Florida English School, we were first greeted by the boisterous chanting of 80 plus lower-kindergarten (LKG) students. Their voices melting into each other until eventually the words became incomprehensible. As the weeks progressed the children opened up to us more and receptive to our new curriculum, particularly because it included coloring and playing with building blocks. We provided more hands-on activities so the children can develop their motor skills and learn to enjoy school. In addition, all of the children were taught how to introduce themselves in English, and in a couple of weeks the default way of introduction was in English. When we asked one child what his name was, instead of just saying his name as we expected, he fully stated “My name is ______”, gaining applause from all of the teachers around him. By the end of the three weeks the children were well versed in introduction, colors, numbers, and letters. Furthermore, the children became more independent and self-determined, as Aishwarya, Naina and I watched the seeds of transformation building roots in all of them. 

At the beginning of our internship the teachers did not understand the curriculum and regarded it as games instead of work. They also insisted that we alternate classrooms so the children can have one day of learning and one day of fun. The teachers tended to harshly punish the children if they were not behaving or if they did not understand the concepts. After 2 weeks, with the improvement seen in the children, teachers slowly started to believe in our new curriculum. We also requested that the teachers start encouraging the children instead, of punishing the children. It is from the teachers, who taught the children with their limited supplies and training, that we learnt how to make do with the finite supplies. From them we started to use colored backpacks to teach the students coloring and to use students to help the children to understand that numbers are values, and understood that it does not take fancy materials for the students to learn. Along the way we always had the support and guidance of Santosh, Khushboo, and Amrutha, our mentor at Florida English School, who gave us advice when asked and always encouraged our own growth. They encouraged us to use a trial and error approach to our teaching; if one method did not work we moved onto the next method of teaching.

The learnings
Throughout our time in Florida English School, we began to understand the challenges of a teacher and learnt to be more patient and persistent, in addition to learning many useful skills. As the weeks progressed, we earned the confidence in our methods and respect and this resulted in small and sure transformation of teaching methods and delivery in the teachers.  

At times, it was distressing when the progress in the children was slow and the teachers were resorting to old methods of punishments and rote learning. We learnt that it took an outstanding amount of patience to teach the students, as there were always students who were slow learners, were trouble makers, or were always crying for their parents and we had to keep our calm and continue to teach all of the students. Throughout our time with Mantra and Florida English School, we learnt that you have to be steadfast in your efforts and if you want something you have to go get it. We wanted to change the way the students were being taught, and we soon figured out to change anything we had to do it with our own persistence. We used hands-on methods, encouragement and continued to teach the students even if they were not showing drastic improvement. To be steadfast and patience is the key to success - We understood this from Amrutha, teachers, principal and the Mantra team who worked tirelessly to improve the standard of education in spite of numerous challenges.


All in all, this experience grounded me and I am very thankful to all of them for teaching me so much in those three short weeks and for allowing me to be a part of the efforts to help India’s education equity. I set out to have an experience in volunteering in an under-privileged neighborhood, but in the end it was I who was transformed and inspired after witnessing the triumph of human spirit to educate and uplift with limited resources, challenges and true sense of sacrifice. 

Sunday, 18 September 2016

"There is much to celebrate": An afternoon with Mr. Avinash Kumar

Have you ever stepped out of a meeting/session with a feeling of being liberated and thanking the stars and the people who helped you be in that place at that moment?!
That was exactly what transpired in my head when I came out from a meeting with Mr. Avinash Kumar, a software engineer turned educationist, currently heading the WIPRO Fellowship Program at WATIS. How and why?! Let’s find out!
There are usually two kinds of responses from people when they find out that I am a software engineer turned ‘person working in education sector with an NGO’. 
The responses being:
(a) “BUT WHY?!” (b) “Such a NOBLE THING! The country needs more youngsters like you”. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with either of the responses, it is definitely overwhelming and not to mention confusing, when one is seen as a saviour, especially that of a wicked problem such as the state of education in our country.
So here comes a person who starts off the talk by saying that what we are all doing is honest work that might not be astoundingly successful (I could feel a brick being lifted off my chest at that point). He then goes on to talk about what is and can be perceived as success in an education intervention and how we are generally harsh on ourselves about such things.
He flips my thoughts on how probably nothing worthwhile has happened so far (exceptions being RTE, Rishi Valley and other widely known endeavours) by mentioning that the enrolment rate in schools was just ~12% in 1947, whereas now, it is almost 100%! It makes me realise that I and quite a few of us weren’t really appreciating the stupendous work that happened! The numbers written above indicate a cultural shift that took place and it isn’t a small thing by any measure! He goes on to talk about the status of gender disparity then and now. About how people who couldn’t think of sending their girls outside the four walls are now sending them to schools, and the way civil society played a major role in these phenomenal transformations.
We go onto speak about what Education means to each one of us and the tricky topic of expansion in this sector. He mentions how the experimentation at Hoshangabad (popular as HSPT), started in 1972 by Eklavya was the seed for Science Curriculum in NCF in the year of 2005. In the same breath, he tells us the story of David Horsburgh, a British-born educationist who first came to India in 1943 while serving with the Royal Air Force. This man eventually founded ‘Neel Bagh’, a school in Madanapalle district of Andhra Pradesh in 1972 and lived there till his death in 1984. During his years spent at this school, he trained far less than 100 people. Would you term it successful?

Probably no. But what if we tell you that out of those whom he trained were Malathi, Amrutha Mahapatra, Rohit Dhankar and many more who went on to contribute to education by setting up schools such as Digantar, Sumavanam, Vikasana and more importantly in helping state and central governments in programs such as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan.
By mentioning how the direct impact of this school was probably not scalable and yet its long term impact is something that was mammoth, (Mr. Avinash Kumar) gave us food for thought about what exactly we are aiming at when we talk about scaling and expansion in this sector. Made me think of how even a number such as ten or five or even 1 school is meaningful, important and unignorable!
Before signing off, Mr. Avinash Kumar mentions how there’s a tipping point for visible change to happen and if we haven’t reached that tipping point yet, it doesn’t mean that there was no work done. Something to keep in mind and also something that leaves us free to experiment within reasonable limits, right?
By the end of this interaction, I felt visibly light- so light that I could feel a spring in my feet. It gave voice to my thoughts on how what I and many others are doing is not just about changing the current poor state, but also, and probably more about continuing the good work that has gone in so far.
It turned out to be one of those very rare interactions that showed me the possibility of how some simple observations when presented in the right way helps one look at things with a fresh lens even when he/she isn't ready for it. Something that I should be conscious of while working with my set of teachers.
P.S. Elisha, if you are reading this, please know that as soon as I stepped out, you were amongst the first who I thought led me to him. Thank you!

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

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Celebrating the teachers..!

It is almost a cliché that teaching happens to be one of the most thankless jobs in the world. Why would you thank a person who is trying to make the world a better place; why would you thank a person who is crazy to pull an all-nighter just to make a class of half-grown homo-sapiens make sense of something that could probably help them throughout their lives; why would you thank a person who smiles through all the chaos and has the patience to answer a million questions; and most importantly, why would you ever thank a person who never expects to be thanked..!

Turns out, Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan found a solution to this. When a group of individuals approached him to celebrate his birthday, he in turn requested them to celebrate his birthday as teachers’ day and thus, a day was born to celebrate those individuals who are never thanked enough - A day when teachers are showered with gratitude that they truly deserve and love from all the students.

The students at Citizens high school (a partner school with MANTRA) had been planning teachers’ day for a long time. They took it upon themselves to make this day a grand success (which it was). Past two weeks looked very normal to the teachers - they were teaching and the students were learning, but what they missed to notice were the secret hushes, the small group meetings and the hidden smiles among their students. As a spectator to all the happenings in the school, it gave me an immense sense of pride to witness the amount of energy, effort and enthusiasm that these tiny people were putting in to make their teachers feel special.

The plan was skilfully crafted out, the tasks were divided equally and everyone held each other accountable for their jobs. It surprised me to see the amount of maturity and professionalism with which these children took up their jobs. There was a decoration committee, an arts and craft committee, a logistics committee a performance committee and obviously, the fun committee. I was also given a task to take pictures of their teachers in class as they wanted to create a photo gallery of their teachers as part of the surprise package.

As the “D-day” started approaching, the intensity of their work also started increasing; of course, there were many glitches in the way, but this did not dampen the spirit of these children. They planned and they rehearsed until it was perfect. They ran, they jumped, they skipped and they danced but not once did they run out of energy. They happily did their jobs and kept nagging for more.

Finally the day had arrived and you could sense a weird mix of nervousness and pride in the air. The school ground got a makeover with a splash of colours in the form of balloons and streamers and the beautiful teacher gallery. Students were busy making the day perfect. The teachers started entering one by one and each one of them had a big wide smile on their faces. They stared in disbelief at the work their children had put up. The program they had put up was splendid and the teachers participated with a lot of enthusiasm. The school vibrated with fun and energy.

This day made me realize something - teaching might not be the most rewarding job in the world but it is definitely the most satisfying one.

The blog piece has been written by Ms. Revathi Menon, who works as the School Transformation lead at Mantra4Change. It captures the moments from teachers' day preparations and celebrations at a partner school.

Friday, 9 September 2016

The Joy of Research

‘Yesterday, my view of geography and how to teach it changed. It is actually so interesting and relevant every day.’ 
Imagine the goose-bumps you would get when a social sciences teacher comes up to tell you this..! When a teacher’s view of the subject improvises, the impact can be seen on literally hundreds of students in the years to come. I am deeply indebted to Dr. Chandra Shekhar Balachandran (Founder & Director, TIGS) for conducting a workshop on ‘How to Conduct Research in Geography’ at one of our partner schools. Though the target audience for the workshop was the students and the idea was to present them with the opportunity of “International Geography Youth Summit” (IGYS), this is the mindset shift that happened in one of the four teachers, who attended. 

Moving on to the students now, during the workshop itself, I witnessed the passion for research shine into students’ eyes. They were seeing what they could do, the things they could find; more importantly it was one of the rare occasions when they were told to put efforts in things that really mattered to them. I clearly remember Sai Mahima from that day and how she spoke about the problem of garbage in her community. She saw it everywhere, she said. She actually went ahead to think if her research could create an impact.  When 15 year olds of a community start thinking this way, something good is bound to happen there.

A few days later, students started coming to me with the general problem of being unable to ‘choose their topics’. These extremely bright and interested students were genuinely struggling with choosing what they wanted to study. I feel, in our Indian Education System, the liberty to choose comes too late. Even when it comes, the impact of the decision is usually huge due to a plethora of ‘reasons’ like the economic condition etc. and hence, students don’t end up being the completely independent decision makers. Hence, it wasn’t exactly surprising when the students struggled at this point. We had a discussion and a round of elimination of topics with the teams and viola, there has been no looking back. 

One team has chosen to study the drainage system in their team mate’s community. There are open drains in Headmaster’s Layout and he faces frequent problems; another decided to study how an industry is interacting with the environment in the Bommasandra Industrial area and Sai Mahima’s group is obviously working on the effects that garbage has on the people in her community.

Each day these 9 students (from the 3 teams) come to me with new findings, struggles and ideas. Their resolve to conduct and find solutions to their research problems is intensifying with each passing day. Sometimes, their faces now reflect the ‘joy of finding things out’. After all, it is the insatiable curiosity that bells the learning cat. I feel extremely privileged to be able to witness this in these nine souls. As for the teacher, I can only imagine the magnitude of positive impact that she is now going to create for generations of students to come.

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