It has been 8 months in my project here in Siwan Bihar, and I would like tell everyone about the entire journey, so here it is. Do let me know what you think.
Apprehensions & initial jitters – I had joined my host organisation Parivartan clueless with no idea what was supposed to be done. I surely knew why I came, what my intentions were. I was sent to work in the field of education with no prior concrete experience and expertise except brief exposure in Child Rights & You and Teach for India. I knew i stepped into a sector which i didn’t take formal education in, for which my close ones and nagging relatives showed disagreement, which demanded a complete shift in my lifestyle in every aspect from city dweller to becoming a rural dweller. But I chose to rise above all, to take up the cause of oppressed and sow the seeds of change.
Host organisation – rural Bihar – Parivartan works to facilitate multi directional progress of communities in 36 villages in district Siwan of Bihar in the fields of education and women empowerment, agricultural advancement, community sports for development, theatre-based cultural development, livelihoods and hand loom revival. I spent initial months to frame an understanding, garner an outline of its work, processes and dynamics in its 7 operational verticals before immersing myself fully into the allotted thematic area. It took me subsequent months to understand the demography of the community I was supposed to work with, geography of the surrounding villages, prevalent challenges and the biggest part was adapting to the new minimalist lifestyle having been born and raised in a metro city.
Understanding education at grassroots – Once I built a good understanding of organisation’s work, the idea of self-designed & self-lead intervention was conveyed by the organisation. This meant to first understand the education scenario at the local & institutional level, to understand what & how the community perceives education in general, is there enough willingness among kids & their parents to learn then to figure out the weak links in order to develop an intervention. To study, research and understand the education status i visited many Govt and low fee private schools of in and around areas for interactions.
“By default, we all perceive the quality and efficiency of Government-funded schools low. Do you agree? Yes? I grew up passively experiencing what happens in a Govt aided school from my Mother and a brief hands-on stint in an Urban Govt school through Teach for India. The experience couldn’t change the already formed image much. I then wanted to know the situation at grassroots and that’s how India Fellow happened to me.”
Coming back, in chorus, it was important for me to understand the work already being done in organisation’s education vertical under its 5 sub verticals – बाल घर आँगन | बाल घर किसलय | घरौंदा | विज्ञानशाला | पुस्तकालय before coming up with something concrete of my own. In retrospect, the visits to schools evoked amalgamated feelings. Some were physiologically damaging, some were rewarding seeing the resilience and some were hard to take in & unacceptable. Infrastructure, hygiene, unsafe environment-physical & emotional, joyless learning everything perturbed me. What I saw was a discouraging, demotivating classroom space with least focus on development of a child. I still can’t get off my mind how I used to return to my current home crestfallen during my rigorous field immersion days in the first leg of the fellowship. In a nutshell, face-to-face with the rural Government schools further added woes to the already created/inherited negative image.
The content of interaction – The interactions with children ranged from aspiration mapping to their interests/needs to FGDs to a range of activity based expression. Aspiration mapping was an important exercise to begin with.
I am sure you must have all faced the very popular question time and again like I also did. While growing up i was quite often asked this question “what do you want to be when you grow up”? I remember answering promptly every time “I want to be a doctor”. Not that because it was the most over-hyped profession in India, still is, but over and above that I wanted to keep up with my sister’s footsteps. Even back then I had an answer, however vague it was and changed as time rolled by. We had/have people who cared/care about our aspirations unlike the oppressed ones whose circumstances do not allow them to aspire and chase their dreams. I didn’t need time to reflect on what I wanted to be even back then unlike what i saw here, the inability to respond. It was important to talk to them on these lines. It’s hard to believe that many of these children, especially girls have faced unthinkable obstacles just to attend school. To me and you all who are fortunate enough to read this were given education by default. We never had to struggle and worry when we were kids.
Need assessment – Coming onto the activity based expression, i took up exercises which involved reading followed by expression. In most of the activities the children struggled in the first part i.e reading. This didn’t just happen once but manifold. This urged me to look up for some quantitative report to make sense of my observation(s) through which I came across ASER report. The Annual status of education report is a nation-wide annual household survey facilitated & conducted by India’s largest NGO Pratham through district level partner organizations and volunteers across the country.
The survey reaches almost all rural districts of India and covers children in the age group 3-16. It estimates children’s schooling status and their ability to read simple text and do basic arithmetic. It is the only annual source of information on children’s learning outcomes available in India today. The report highlights that about 50% of class 5 students are unable to read class 2 book. I then had decided to go in more depth and see it myself on a small scale. I assessed the reading level of children from the community, Government schools and low fee private schools using ASER’s standard reading testing tool – Hindi & English which they have divided into five categories depending upon the ability of a child to read.
Can’t read at all | Can read a letter | Can read a word | Can read a sentence | Can read a paragraph
Will you believe if I say 60% of them who are school goers struggled in reading simple English words and some even in identifying letters? Then you can guess what would be the situation in case of reading a sentence. Writing based activities revealed writing is another language skill they need hand-holding in. Every word that they had difficulty in reading & writing, my heart ached at their situation. Don’t you expect class 7 or class 8 children to read words like “my”, “eye” without any error? You do, right? I had the same expectation which was broken almost every time I came across a child who struggled. The observation was minusculely better in case of Hindi language, however, disappointing. Needless to say, ASER’s testing tool added value to the interactions and leveraged the need assessment. Every interaction with children in various forms exposed me to their needs & challenges. Another field story, from an interaction with class 8 girls of village Ruhiya Bangra Govt School came as a shocker. They couldn’t respond when I briefly mentioned about computer while talking to them. Upon asking, they stated “they don’t know what it means”. There were very few who knew, could respond and enthusiastic to learn more. Digital illiteracy was evident at that moment.
The process that I have narrated so far was not as streamlined as it is stated but rather unsequenced. I was groping in the dark in search of a way while I was in that phase. Nevertheless, the process did allow their needs to unfold gradually and that’s how the foremost step of my stint need assessment was carried out. Extensive visits to Government aided institutions (schools and anganwadis) followed by documenting & recording the observations, conversations, dialogues post every visit helped me to connect the dots and gave a clearer picture.
Proceeding towards planning phase – Points that emerged very clearly from these discussions made me realize the sore need of an intervention where their twin needs – language competency & digital empowerment could be taken care of. I contemplated to work on language deficit prevalent among kids by integrating technology into the learning process. Coincidentally, Parivartan had a dysfunctional Computer Lab when i had stepped in, a decently furnished deserted room with 11 computer systems placed well on round tables which appeared to me like a gold treasure. It was a sheer wastage of a significant resource in a resource poor rural setting where people are technologically illiterate and otherwise also educationally backward. I couldn’t just let that go in waste but other factors like power outages and internet access had to be taken into consideration before moving forward with this idea. I shared the rough outline of it with the ED of Parivartan to which I got a heads up.
But this wasn’t enough. I had to think through, weigh everything possible and plan out/develop a concrete logistically plausible Digital language program for a rural setup. First draft of the plan was an amorphous mass with most of my thoughts expressed in a jumbled form. Logistical requirement, mobilization of the community the intervention would cater to, schedule & how often to begin with, which digital platform to opt for from the pool so that it challenges the mainstream rote learning everything had to be planned out. A good amount of time was spent in researching for the most apt digital platform for first time computer learners to decipher comfortably, inter alia, which doesn’t use much internet bandwidth. Every draft was a result of extensive research, discussion with peers, feedback from the community and improving thereupon. Several drafts were made & exchanged before I started off with program’s implementation phase in November 2016.
Implementation phase – After the planning phase was over, I had walked out to nearby communities to work with keen learners.
“Life in rural India for children doesn’t mean attending exorbitant private schools, doesn’t mean being pampered and spoon fed by parents, doesn’t mean taken to malls & places every weekend, doesn’t mean given materialistic pleasures. The children here are not raised profusely as the privileged ones in cities. In addition to school, those who manage to attend, they support their parents by working on agricultural fields throughout the year, take cattle to graze, help in every sort of household chore which means their life is as busy as the grown-ups who learn the lesson of hardships quite early in life.”
Coming back, to begin with, community sessions were conducted to reach out to as many as possible and spread my idea. After a rapport was built in the community, I had urged them to visit Parivartan for further sessions. Gradually more groups were formed from schools and villages for full time sessions. Majority of them were first time computer users but since they were school goers they had little basic idea. However, i had to start from the scratch, literally hold hands to make their hand mouse and keyboard friendly. Upon familiarity with the basic functioning, i moved onto the next step where i introduced them to the world of Internet and using Digital platforms to pick-up language skills. I struggled along with my kids in the beginning but I could see their confidence building up as months rolled by. It was satisfying to see them work independently and comfortably.
Jharokha – looking beyond just a program
Significant moments out of stream of events shaped and formed झरोखा. To sum up, in Jharokha, digital platform is being used for developing language competency where we use e-learning pedagogy supported by blended learning, combining instructor led training (ILT) and computer-assisted language learning (CALL). This program caters to children ranging from grade 5 to grade 8 from low fee private and Government schools. In the process of learning language digitally, the program has enabled them to get comfortable with technology. The digital platform has gamified their process of learning language where they receive instant feedback on their work, improve upon and self-learn. Jharokha|झरोखा, by its literal meaning, means a small reticular window on the wall|दीवार में बनी हुई जालीदार छोटी खिड़की. How a window has got the ability to light up a dark gloomy room, offer a range of new possibilities & opportunities, analogously, this program is an attempt to light up the lives of as many as children i could reach out to who are raised in poverty and are educationally deprived in the village communities of rural Bihar. Jharokha is a safe space where we do not cast every child in a common mould rather give them the space to learn at their own pace. Jharokha believes in a child centered approach that attempts to meet a child’s need on all levels. Also, we let children work in heterogeneous groups to facilitate peer-learning
This has been a journey of experiential learning in the true sense, from where Jharokha is to where it needs to go makes me realize there is still a long way to go. I see Jharokha years from now a space where children are given ample opportunities to work in collaboration & reflect, where they are handled lovingly, thoughtfully and patiently. Coupled with, a space where indistinguishable regard shall be given in sensitizing children towards others, make them aware of the injustices existing and conscious of their responsibility. Through my experiences in conceptualizing, building Jharokha and working with kids here, i have learnt to repose great faith in the child, respect the child as a person. However, i am looking for answers, as I continue on my journey through education.