The truth is that the particular slum community that we have been targeting in this project, does have a couple of community schoolrooms that are sponsored and run by NGOs. But these are used by only a few children in the especially privileged anterior part of the community. The peripheral, poorer parts of the community have access to little; they have neither adequate housing, nor avenues for local schooling, nor easily accessible sources of clean drinking water. Further, these few schoolrooms are operated sporadically, and the teachers are young women from the community who have had little exposure themselves so they only provide very basic education.
Discussions with the community revealed that a small learning centre that would provide educational support, and also exposure to newer skills (such as computer literacy), is a centre that would be much in demand.
- Starting Up
- Demand for Computer Literacy & English
- Trial Period
- Negligent Schools and Poor Education
Quick examples of learning lags include the following:
- None of them had been taught the fundamentals of counting, and they had only learnt 1-100 through rote. They didn't understand the concepts of unit place digits, ten place digits etc., and they didn't understand 0 as a number.
- A few older ones who were studying in Std. VIII and IX (ages 13-15) found it difficult to write their own names in English
- English reading skills were nearly nil for all, regardless of age
- The school report card for some of the older children (Stds. VII - IX) indicated that they had passed the previous year with about 60-70% marks, but almost all of them failed to compute any problem where 0 was divided by a number; many failed to compute problems where a number was multiplied by 0; a few couldn't even solve problems with 1 as a divisor.
My individual sessions with the older children led to:
(1) a few revealing comments by them such as: "The teacher reads out the answers before the exams"
(2) the revelation that the children themselves were bright, and eager to learn new skills especially if it involved computers - and most importantly, computer games - and ...
(3) the realisation that if I phrased a math problem using real life examples (like 10 oranges divided across 1 box vs. 10 /1), they were almost always able to solve the problem.
Top Left: The computers just arrived, furniture just set up.
Top Right: Toward mid-March we started asking interested parents from the community to come speak with us about enrolling their children in this program.
Middle Left: Children signing up using our forms. It also gave us a chance to quickly check the English reading and writing abilities of the older children.
Middle Right: Students spend the first half of every class working on arithmetic and English exercises; we also help them with their school homework.
Bottom Left: Children have started spending the second half of every session on the computer, getting familiar with the setup, & learning to navigate browsers and programs.
While the digital medium is fantastic for juggling multiple tasks simultaneously (hence practicing complex skills), I am personally keen that we spend time on identifying and honing the many other skills that these children possess.
This child for example, is a fantastic sketch-artist (he is about 7 years old), and also does really interesting caricature sketches. During our trial period, we made kids do multiple activities to test their response. This kid entertained the entire group for an hour by drawing cartoons of his classmates, at surprising speed.
At present about 35 children are enrolled in our after school program (we "officially" started on 1st April), and we plan to increase that number to 50 within the month. While the demand for such a service was high among our project's target beneficiaries, I strongly preferred to establish a system for creative and effective teaching of these children before I expanded the scale of the program.
We now have one young woman who administers the entire program and also teaches the children (we run two batches of 15-20 students each); she is helped by another young woman who has mainly worked as our project supervisor all of last year and herself is from our target urban poor community.
My role is to design the overall strategy of this learning intervention, head its related outreach efforts, and help shape both the curriculum and the administrative details.
Everybody loves this intervention!
The greatest advantage of this program is that everybody loves children! Everybody volunteers their time, even if they have just five minutes of it sometime during the day. At least two of our student's fathers are themselves college graduates, and have been instrumental in launching this program; one of them is part of our core project team. One can often find these two gentlemen volunteering their time during class hours, sitting with some of the younger students to help them through their assignments. So our program is off to a very participatory start, even without designing it to be thus!
Management from Centurion University (our parent institute and our primary funder) have been incredibly supportive - donating computers, furniture, making sure the teaching room is air conditioned, getting university students to volunteer their time for teaching and helping build our digital learning library - and been very generous with their time and resources.
A great accomplishment has been to get the children excited about coming to us. Mothers report that their children start asking "Is it time yet?" at 3 pm, for a 3:30 pm session! Since I remember how reluctant many of these children were when we started the program just 2-3 weeks ago, how little they engaged with us, and how apprehensive we were about the dropout rate, this is a deeply reassuring start for us.
What do we teach? Where do the children go?
Our biggest challenge at present is curriculum development. We are interested in creating a pedagogical system that is engaging, draws the children in, and ensures that they truly understand - and retain - what they are taught. While wonderful initiatives all across India are working to implement such systems (and I love reading up on them), it is even more important to us that we make the content as relevant to the children's context as possible, content that genuinely helps them as they navigate what shall be a difficult economic life. They're so young that right now all of us are satisfied with their playing brain games on the computer games, and doing visual comprehension exercises after watching YouTube videos.
But I worry about the difficult life these children will start having, not too many years from now. Financial pressures, social taboos for girls, pressure and precedent to make dropping out of school the easier choice, few viable economic options even after completing secondary or even higher secondary education, and in all of this, the health and nutrition challenges brought on by low household income, low access to medical services, low information about hygiene and sanitation, the difficulty of finding cheap housing in sanitary conditions, the high probability of anemia for pubescent girls...
....so many hurdles that these young children will have to face in a few years.
These are not problems that I can solve even partially, or for more than a few families that I personally help. But while I may not be able to remove these hurdles for the children, it feels like my great responsibility to teach these children some skills that enable them to navigate these hurdles the best they can, and win despite the stacked odds. I'm not sure what skills those are, I have not lived through the hardships that I anticipate they shall have to face. But I believe it is worth the effort to think deeply about those skills, identify and impart them, and not lay faith in our current system of formal education as being anything but the least effective solution.
My core guiding principle in curriculum development shall be information and exposure, and more information and exposure. We live in the age of information, we live in a digital age; it is these two things that together have made this an age of egalitarianism. It shall be a great achievement if I can bring even 50 children from this slum community into this age.