Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Visit to Thenur

*** I had gone on a school visit to a school in a hamlet of Nathakadu, near Trichy, to spend time with a primary school Head teacher and understand his roles and challenges...the following is a report on the same***

Nathakadu primary school
Pachamuthu from Payir (, who takes care of providing assistance to government schools in Thenur and its neigbouring villages, drove me through a single lane dirt road in a TVS-50, past vast swathes of sunflower fields and tens of kids by the roadside gaping at the newcomer to the village of Nathakadu in Perambalur district, TN. He drops me at the Nathakadu Adi Dravidar Primary school and wishes me luck as he leaves for the high school nearby to teach math. He is a support teacher appointed by Payir and moves around different schools teaching math.

The Nathakadu school currently has two rooms, one serving as the Head Teacher’s room as well as a classroom, and the other being used as two more classrooms and the kitchen. It is a school for the Adi Dravidar (Dalit) community and has 78 children. The Head teacher (HT) is currently one of three teachers in the school. The other two are staffed by Payir temporarily. I was introduced to Mr Selvanayagam - the head teacher for the past four years - who was quite a garrulous personality and had no qualms in inviting me in and making me feel at ease. He of course was keen on hearing why I was there and I explained that I wanted to learn about the schooling system and the challenges faced and the roles played by Head teachers around the country.

The room at that time had about 30 children, from the 4th and the 5th standards, and all of them were amused by my presence and were working overtime to catch my attention and to giggle and salute a ‘Good morning’ sir. The girls all had a single thread of jasmine hanging in their heads and sat by one side of the classroom while the boys sat at the other side. 

The HT took some time in explaining to me the setup of the school – single or two teachers most of the time, not enough government support in hiring new teachers, parents that are largely illiterate and either don’t care or don’t have enough time to care about their children’s education, how they barge in most of the time and blame him for not ensuring that other children didn’t steal pencils and books from their children and so on.  He was clearly agitated at being buffeted on both sides – from the government and by the parents – and expressed helplessness. ‘I want to help, I want to make this school world class, but I come to school daily unsatisfied and knowing that nothing good is going to turn up, and leave the place empty knowing that nothing much has improved.’ 

When he finally started his classes, he made the 5th standard children sit atop two benches on either side of the classroom while the ones in the 4th standard remained seated on the ground. Phonetics was the theme of the morning and he started off by writing the alphabets and asking everyone about the sound each of those letters made. He had to shout quite a bit in order to be heard above the din of the next class, the two rooms were separated by three-fourth of a wall leading to easy sound transfer between the classes.

His tone was quite rough most of the times, but at the same time, that isn’t to say that the kids feared him totally. They carried on their gay ways of talking incessantly, bullying each other, and even doing things totally unrelated to what as being taught in class. And many were not scared to get up and volunteer for answers – right or wrong – when he threw questions at the class, this again indicated to me that somewhere deep inside, the Head teacher had indeed built a good rapport with the kids.

Children were asked to write down words that were new to them from their textbooks and then to come up to the         board and pronounce them. The first word was ‘Surrounding’ and the HT made all of them pronounce the word syllable by syllable. Slowly he could see a pattern emerging where children came up to the board and blindly said ‘Sa-Sarround-Sarround ing.

He saw through the pattern of how they were just copying the sounds made by the earlier kids. He chided the class and said that they should pronounce each syllable…‘Ss-ssa-ssar-ssaro-ssaroun-ssaround-ssaround ing’ so that he knows that everyone understands what they are saying and how each letter’s individual sound plays a part in bringing about the sound for the word itself.

Though this was a good exercise, I felt that he could have gone on to other words and not stuck to the same word for almost 30 minutes. Not only did the kids, despite his efforts, see a pattern and just parrot what everyone else was saying, there could have been more learning about more letters that sadly didn’t happen. There were multiple instances where he tended to get stuck on to a single example or idea and spent a lot of time working on that. Most of these ideas did not warrant that much attention.

Soon it was time for an interval (11 AM). One of the girls got up and rang the bell prompting an instant burst of energy from both the rooms.

Post interval
The children again assembled in the class and one girl was taking time to settle down. Unfortunately for her, she was right next to the HT who spotted her fidgeting.

‘Radha, did you have a bath today?’ he asked the poor girl who forgot all about fidgeting hearing his voice.

‘Yes, sir,’ she said barely audible to anyone.

The HT caught her by her head and pulled her to the center of the classroom.

‘Is this the face of someone who has had a bath?’ he asked looking at me. I silently prayed he was not expecting me to answer that question. Honestly, she did look very dull, but I am no one to judge if she had had a bath or not.

‘Please tell the truth, did you really have a bath?’

By this time Radha had psyched out and answered even more softly. ‘Yes, sir, I did.’

There were other occasions too when he embarrassed children in front of the class and the victims, unable to do anything about it, squirmed and tried everything to avoid the harsh spotlight of shame. The HT was considerably sarcastic when he spoke to the kids and had a loud voice that perennially sounded angry, though I suspect he was not really angry all the time. I guess the children too understood this and so were not scared of his voice or sarcasm. But every once in a while he flares up and this either heightens his sarcasm leading to him shaming children in public or he goes BAM and lands a heavy one on someone’s back.

School was let off for lunch at 12:30 pm and resumed at 2:00 pm. Afternoon was devoted to math where he taught the concept of the unit’s digit. Once he was considerably satisfied that they understood, he moved on to adding single digit numbers.

‘Their basics are very poor,’ he told me. ‘What they needed to have studied 2 years back they are struggling with even now. In this situation, I feel very depressed that I am unable to make my full contribution to the class as I have to first build their basics and only then move on to what I need to teach them at this level.’

Halfway through the class, it occurred to me that considering the harsh conditions the man was putting up with, his ability to focus for long periods of time was pretty incredible. Not once did he even show signs of wearing down or feeling sleepy. His energy level during the last hour was the same as what it was during the first.

I then asked him about the classrooms and if the government is considering upgrading to new classes. There has been some progress in this regard and the government has sanctioned Rs 20 lakhs for new classrooms and there is another private donor agency that has agreed to donate Rs 10 lakhs. So the HT has, along with the help of Payir, started construction of the classrooms. He had also, in the year 2009, overseen the construction of toilets in the school. This project was assisted by Payir which had convinced the District collector into spending Rs 20,000 for the project and had convinced a few other NGOs to pool in money for the remaining Rs 12,000. 

The HT tries to maintain good relationships with everyone around him and this stands him in good stead when he needs help for the school. No wonder his school is one of the major recipients of aid from Payir.

Interesting conversation with a parent

A parent comes up to the HT. (She has two daughters and one son, and except for one of the daughters, the other two children have been skipping school for long)

Mother: ‘Saar (sic), someone stole my children’s notebooks.’

Saar: ‘Is it? When and where?’

Mother: ‘Don’t know when but Abirami and Rahul* didn’t bring the books back home.’

Saar: ‘When was the last time your children came to school? Only Mozhi has been coming to school regularly,’ he said pointing to a girl sitting in class.

‘Mother: ‘I know it has been two weeks, but I have been trying to send them to school. They will come from tomorrow for sure.’

Saar: ‘So why are you not disciplining them at home?’

Mother: ‘I am, saar. HE (Spoken as ‘Avar’ in Tamil, respectfully referring to her husband and head of family) whacks them daily, but nothing seems to be affecting them. You should also be more careful in school, saar. And keep an eye on who is stealing and misbehaving’

Saar: ‘Amma, I did not even know of this theft. Mozhi, come here. Did your sister or brother tell you about loss of books?’

Mozhi (walks up to the master and folds her hand tightly, almost at chest level): ‘No saar.’

Saar (with triumph in his eyes): ‘Your children did not tell me about the theft, nor did they tell this girl. Then how am I even to know about the loss?’

Mother: ‘But saar, still you should keep a keener eye in class.’

Saar (A brilliant argument hits him suddenly): ‘Ok, tell me this. How come the one child of yours that is most regular to school has never lost her books and the ones that hardly enter the school campus have both lost theirs?’ He pauses for effect, which is not lost on the mother. She knows that saar has a point here and grins sheepishly.

Saar (not wanting to lose momentum): ‘yes, smile now. It is easy to blame “saar” for everything, but if you are strict at home, all these will not happen. Ask HIM (referring to her husband again) to whack the kids a little bit more, meanwhile I will check if someone has taken the books.’

Meeting dismissed!

Next two days

Day 2 begins with complaints from the children to the HT. Complaints seem to be the order of the day.

‘Saar he is kicking me’

‘Saar, he is taking my pencil’

And believe it or not

‘Saar, he is not clapping hands when you told everyone to clap’

Morning session is on Environmental studies where animals and their natural habitats are discussed. But before that, the HT seems to be in the mood for a pep talk so he asks the children why they don’t study at home and why they don’t read their lessons on time. He then asks them when they can complete reading a lesson he had asked them to read the previous week itself. He points at a girl who says that she will complete them by 2 pm that day. He then goes around the entire class asking them the same question. Each child gets up, folds his or her hands and mentions a time broadly ranging between noon and 3 pm. But by the time the HT was assured about the reading exercise, 25 minutes were past and he unhurriedly got back to Environmental studies.

Uh oh! Bunking I-Day is not cool!
The HT has contrasting ways of handling children and I am positive that he is oblivious of this. On the one hand,, he not only encourages the children but also forces them at times if he finds them too reluctant, to walk up and face the class. On the other, there seems to be an unwritten rule where every child should fold his or hands when talking. And the kids fold their hands so tightly and close to their chest that I doubt if they are able to focus on anything else but that activity.

The assembly session on the 16th of August sees him give a dressing down to the students that missed the Independence-day ceremony of the school in order to attend the one at the Government High school nearby. Further questioning made the HT understand that the movie songs that were allegedly played in the other school attracted the kids there. He let off the kids with a severe warning not to do this again and to respect the school in which they studied.

About the HT

He is a man of habit when dealing with school affairs. Being in a village, buses leave and arrive exactly at the appointed minute and that enables him to reach the school by 8:45 am, a good one hour journey from his home. He gathers a group of boys and girls and gets them to clean the classrooms. The girls know exactly what to do; they gather the brooms and dust the floor, some of them open the windows. The boys go out and smoothen the land outside the classrooms and pick up paper scraps. This ends at around 9:15 and though the teachers report by 9, they hardly seem to be/want to be in control and are quite content in letting the HT conduct the proceedings. Assembly follows next and the kids gather inside the classroom to escape the severe heat outside. After prayer songs, three out of six children standing at the head of the group shout out ‘Stand-at-ease’ and ‘Attention’ alternately a couple of times. The remaining three take turns in stating a verse from Thirukkural, saying a proverb and a general knowledge fact.

The Head teacher then explains the kural and elaborates a bit on the proverb. The teachers try to shoo the restless children into silence and usually this is in vain. Once back in class, he cleans the board, changes the day and date on it, and starts off writing with a ‘Pillayar shuzhi’. On a similar note, he leaves school exactly at 3:45 pm to catch the 4 pm bus back home.

His desk is almost always neat and clean, attendance registers (there are 5 of them, one for each class) are kept in impeccable condition, and all the stationary are locked up in the almirah. Students hit the bell using the mallet announcing interval and lunch breaks. There are some that are even being trained for doing this, they made mistakes a couple of times gonging the bell thrice instead of twice bringing in immediate censure from the HT. But at the same time, good behaviour like finishing homework on time, bringing to school a sibling that has been bunking classes for long, following what is being said in class, all earn the students extra stars, apparently for CCE.

Both in the way he teaches class and in the way he talks to children, a good understanding of child psychology would go a long way in him being more effective. Right now, his efforts, no matter how noble his intentions, were proving to be counter-productive as the children either feared embarrassment when he spoke to them or could not see his point at all and just stared at him and nodded whether they understood a concept or not.

There are quite a few examples which displayed the HT’s desire to improve the way the school functions and also the learning of the children. During my last session there, the evening of the 16th of August, he suddenly requested me to start up the PC that lay dormant in a corner of the room and teach the kids basics of computers. Since there was no power, I ran the machine on UPS and taught for exactly 30 minutes before the UPS died. Fifteen minutes before closing time, he dismissed the class and urged me to ‘advise’ the teachers to perform better in class. I told him that they were the more experienced lot and that I was in no position to comment on their performance. He bought that reluctantly but still gathered the teachers together and we had a general discussion on how we could make the school better.

All said and done, the man works under intense pressure and quite a bit of constraints few of them listed below:
  • ·         Severely under-staffed
  • ·         The two teachers that are present need to be trained in the art of handling children at the primary level
  • ·         Lack of interest from the villagers to school related activities
  • ·         Poor infrastructure
  • Lack of electricity for most part of the working day (Heat was up at 40 degree Celsius)

Some pictures from the trip:

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Visit to Arasikere

Arasikere is a small block in Karnataka (district of Hassan), around 230 kms from Bangalore. Azimpremji Foundation conducted its Education Leadership and Management (ELM) program in some of the schools in the district and this has lead to a few changes in the way some schools work in the region.

A group of 40 of us visited the block to find out the results. We visited the Government primary school in the Somenahalli village where a group of children formed two long lines parallel to each other and awaited us eagerly. They broke into a welcome song after which the teachers, lead by the Head Teacher, requested us to plant a sapling. Thus a beautiful coconut tree sapling was planted in a pit. The school was beautiful to look at with a spacious playground. Good quality toilets were being built, the MDM (Mid-Day Meal) kitchen was neat and hygienic, and the classrooms though small were well maintained. One more striking factor in the place was the compost pit that was built and maintained. The manure obtained from here was used to fuel the growth of the many beautiful trees and plants around.

We then got down to a small discussion round with the teachers and the community members from the village that had turned up in good number (around 22). We took turns asking questions which were answered alternately by the school administrators and the community. One of the members from our team was translating from Kannada to Hindi and vive-versa. Some of the salient points of the discussion that brought out the benefit of the ELM program are highlighted below:

  • ·         School mapping is being practised in this school. At the beginning of each year, three teams are formed in the school – one comprising of students, one of teachers, and one from the community. These teams go around the school and note down the current status of the school. They also dream about the ideal school and write down the facilities that should be present in an ideal school. They then compare these two schools and write down the differences in facilities between these.
  • ·         Zero plan – This is the first draft of the school plan that is compiled at the start of the year. This includes details of the school mapping and ideas that can be explored in order to address the shortcomings. This plan is prepared by the school administration and the community members including the parents.
  • ·         Community mobilization techniques have been so effectively used here that many items in the school have been donated by the villagers themselves. Examples can include the school gate, plates for the MDM and so on. Even a part of the school land was donated by a member of the community.
  • ·         It is a known fact that has also been proven time and again by research that children whose parents actively take interest in their activities in school will do better than others whose parents do not. The administration has prepared a checklist for parents that helps them to spend time focusing on their children’s education. They encourage their parents to follow a schedule that resembles the following:
  • o   4:30-5:00 pm – Child to relax after a long day in school and freshen up
  • o   5:00-6:00 pm – Play time
  • o   6:00-7:00 pm – Helping around the house
  • o   7:00–8:00 pm – Homework
  • o   8:00-9:00 pm – Dinner
  • o   9:00-9:30 pm – Math work
  • o   9:30 pm – Lights out
  • Now how do you ensure that the parents actually check the notes of the children regularly? All parents are called to the school once a month or once in two months, the books of all the children are displayed in a row, each parent has to go through the notes in the books and identify his or her child’s handwriting. Very innovative indeed!

 ·         A parent lived in a neighbouring district with his family. Not satisfied with the quality of the government school in that place, he enrolled his boy into a private school. Once he was in Somenahalli to meet his in-parents-law when he chanced upon this school. He was so impressed with the facilities here that he instantly moves his son to this school. ‘Free food, free education, and above all, wonderful facilities and administration, why would I spend my money on a private school? And my wife has to get up early, prepare breakfast and lunch.’ is what he had to say.  ‘Plus the private schools charge around Rs 400 for transport daily, this amounts to around Rs 8000 per month if you assume 20 parents send children to that school. A part of this money that we save every month, we want to invest back into this well-run public school,’ is what another parent had to say, and this was followed by applause that didn’t end for about a minute.
·         The shift in attitude of the school administration is very evident as nowadays, they visit the community when the community is free i.e in the evenings after school time. Earlier the community had to come to the school when the school was functioning, and that was also the time when people had to go to the fields to work. So attendance was poor and there was hardly any interaction between the two parties.

Considerable changes have happened in the course of the last two years and these surely are a good start. There would be roadblocks on the way, but the administration seemed to be confident and ready to take on the challenges.

Later in the day, we met some senior education representatives in the state. ‘One of the main problems,’ they said ‘is the threat posed by the private schools to our enrolment. Since government schools do not start from Kindergarten, parents who enrol their kids in LKG and UKG are used to the private system and do not want to shift to government schools in the first standard. So they stay where they are. To counter this, we are experimenting with providing kindergarten education too. Few schools in our district have started LKG/UKG classes and we are hoping this will improve enrolment. We offer variety of activities for the children like yoga, music/art classes, indoor games etc.’

Mindblowing? Read on for more…

‘We have started the concept of Open libraries.’ Till now, books used to reach schools and lie rotting in their unopened packages as teachers fear that the kids would tear them or lose them. So we started Open libraries, wherein books would be spread out across a room and kids could come and take whichever books they wanted and how many ever they wanted. All they had to do was let the library in-charge know and she would make an entry. This has improved reading/learning skills to an extent and in a few schools, even the community is encouraged to borrow from these libraries.’

There were many (at times cynical) questions posed regarding the impact these changes have had on the learning outcomes of children, but for me, more than the learning outcome (this will take a longer time), it is the attitude shift in the educational system and in the community that is remarkable. Ideas and ideologies are long outdated, people have resigned to poor standards of education in fact event elevating it to the status of ‘acceptable’, and so the malaise is deep rooted. Head teachers and educational functionaries well into their 40s just want to complete their tenure and retire with benefits, not attend workshops and training sessions and try to change things around. In this milieu, bringing about enough perspective shift to achieve what has been stated above, to me, is a win.

Let the wheels keep turning, the pace will improve, slowly….surely!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Kondattam 2012

Six schools, 200 children, 30 volunteers all made way for one big sporting event on the 28th of Jan, 2011 at the inaugural Kondattam inter corporation school sports championships in Chennai. The day began quite early for some of the volunteers as we had to assemble at the SRMC grounds at 6 am, after hurriedly wrapping up pending work till 2 AM the previous night. Registration desks were setup, a live blogger (Rajarajan who posted updates using my facebook profile) was identified, another guy took charge of scoring the day’s events, some had to write the bib numbers for the participants, some did certificate writing, and a few more went around the ground identifying the spots the different events would take place.

Luckily we had a lot of folks who could handle all this and the incharge of the microphone went to the able hands (or should I say, throat) of Natarajan. People who are not regular DI volunteers, utilized this wonderful opportunity to be a part of one of our events and help out the whole day at the ground.

After a few initial hiccups, we assembled the 200 children in different locations in the ground (It took about 10 van trips in all) after registering them in with breakfast (bun, butter, jam and bananas). The event began with Ms Shiny, a sports nutritionist, declaring the meet open with some encouraging words and before you knew it, the boys were off the blocks competing for the 100M gold! A few seconds later, one of them sliced through the finish line and fell to the ground gasping for breath, followed in quick succession by the others. The games were on!

The other events - 100M, 200M, 400M, Long jump, Discus throw, Shot Put - followed in rapid pace and glasses of Glucon-D were consumed rapidly. The unfortunate event of the day came when a junior girl ran the 200M race and had a sprain in her leg. Luckily an X-ray at the hospital itself revealed no apparent fracture, just a two day rest was suggested. Mr Dobson, a physiotherapist, stressed the importance of stretching, wearing good shoes, and warm-ups before any such race. ‘Competing in such hot temperatures with bare foot and with no proper technique to warm up or stretch is a recipe for such injuries,’ he said. One of our volunteers immediately met the school teams individually and conveyed the message to them along with teaching them some basic warm-up, stretching exercises. This is also a lesson for the Physical Directors of all the schools to lay stress on such finer aspects of training the children.

The exertion of the day so far resulted in the lunch packets being gobbled up quickly. Kho-kho was up next and the Valasarawakkam girls school proved to be utter professionals easily outwitting all the others and standing a class apart by winning the finals 8-1. Cricket, introduced in the event, in order to provide audience enjoyment, proved to be drab. With wide balls being bowled more than legally correct ones, the only thing providing some entertainment was the funny commentary given by the two of our volunteers. The volunteers though, got a break as they relaxed under the shamiana and watched three utterly boring cricket matches. This would probably be the last time cricket will be played in Kondattam.

One of the more touching scenes of the day was the sight of children from Vasantham ( giving it their best try in all the athletic events. They finished every event and won the hearts of all present. They then performed a 3 minute drill session at the end of which the audience could not help getting to their feet and applauding their wonderful performance.

The Chief Guests for the day were Mr Meenakshi Sundaram, former Tamil Nadu hockey player and Mr Srinivasan, mentor and leader of the Action2020 groups, which is an umbrella organization housing more than 30 organisations like Dream India . They distributed the prizes to the individual winners amidst loud cheers from the respective schools. The rolling trophy for the boys’ events went to Alappakkam High School and the one for the girls’ events went to Government High School, Valasarawakkam. As the sun set, cooling things off, the winners took a victory lap around the ground and also hooted cheers to Dream India and all our volunteers.

Participation sure matters, but in future, Dream India aims to help these schools improve their sporting infrastructure, to identify budding talent, and produce champions. This was a first step, we learnt a lot from this outing, and will try to conduct programmes all throughout this year to improve the skills of the children. We thank all the volunteers who braved the hot sun and made the games a success. We thank people abroad who not only contributed generously to the event, but also helped in organizing by involving in writing down rules for the different events, preparing templates, and so on.                We also thank the dean and staff of Sri Ramachandra Medical college, for not just sponsoring the ground for the entire day, but also arranging for markers, and assisting with organizing the different events the whole day.