Prepping the teachers for Ganitha Kalika Andolana.

Teacher training under Ganitha Kalika Andolana in Koppal district IMG_1161 I was eagerly looking forward to visiting a centre where the Teacher training was in progress. I got the opportunity in Koppal district, one of the 6 districts in the Hyderabad–Karnataka region, where the Ganitha Kalika Andolana (GKA) is being rolled out by the Government of Karnataka along with Akshara Foundation. IMG_1254 The first visit was outside Koppal town, down a rutted mud road, which deposited us inside the pleasant compound of the Urdu HPS school. The teacher training was in progress and the participants were fairly engaged in doing the task given by the Resource Persons (RPs)– in this case it was a revision of the multiplication process using the Teaching-learning material provided in the Akshara Math Kit. There were three RPs, all of them High School math teachers, who had a clear grasp of the principles behind the pedagogy and were confidently answering the queries. IMG_1259 When the topic of fractions was started, one teacher wanted to know why the fractions in Kannada should not be named as ‘one-fifth’, for instance, instead of ‘five parts of which one’ – to loosely translate the practice in the Kannada language. Finally we agreed that it is best to teach children terminology that is used in the text-book, which also maintains uniformity across all schools in the state. I was touched when one of the RPs picked up the Teacher Manual and told me, “This Manual is the Bhagavad Gita – it has everything we need to teach maths!” IMG_1309 At the second training center we visited, the participants were sitting out under the shade of a tree, since it was a small and stuffy room allotted for the training. Here too there was a High School teacher who was conducting the session single-handedly, with assistance from Ramesh, Akshara’s District Coordinator. IMG_1332 Many of the teachers were in some confusion about converting time on the 12 hour clock to the 24 hour clock; an interesting session on area and perimeter followed. They admitted that in the school the portions relating to geometry were usually hurried through at the end of the academic year. IMG_1211 There was a request for extending the training by one more day so that adequate time could be given for activities. The RP was very grateful that “Akshara has given such a beautiful Kit to students in Government schools.” See how the two days were spent by all these teachers and RPs, in pictures.  – By Kanchan Bannerjee

My first visit to a government school in rural India.

Seeing the schools in Kushtagi and Mundargi was the favourite part of my time with Akshara. Our school visits were unannounced, like the house visits, so we were able to see a real school day in progress, and Akshara was able to check on the students’ progress.

Another reason Akshara came to the schools was to see how, if at all, classrooms were utilising their GKA Kits. These kits contain educational resources for mathematics and English classes, such as counting mats and blocks and conversation sheets, that seem as if they should be standard in every classroom – especially the math tools. These are tools that helped me, as a younger student, visualise operations like addition and subtraction. They helped me learn when I was starting my primary education, so it made me optimistic to see the students in Mundargi and Kushtagi using the same tools so effectively.

When we initially arrived at the schools, the first thing that I noticed was the resourcefulness. The same resourcefulness that I saw in the residential areas is found in schools; class bells are made from small hammers tied to thick metal trays, small pillows are attached to blackboards by string to create erasers. Making do with what you have is a concept that has grown increasingly rare in countries like the U.S. and big cities, where shortage of resources is rarely felt.

Classroom copy

One area where this scarcity is not felt, however, is in style. By this, I mean the uniforms and book bags each student was equipped with, provided by the state government. Regardless of the poverty they encountered at home, every young student was clad in a blue and white uniform.

In the United States, most state-run school systems do not have uniforms, instead opting to set general dress codes (which are usually just lists of ‘do not’s, for example: girls, do not wear skirts or shorts more than four inches above the knee in length. Boys, do not wear your hair long … or shorts more than four inches above the knee). However, in private schools, like the one I attend, uniforms are standard. Most of us private school students love to hate the uniforms impressed upon us by the school administration because we have plenty of our own, more comfortable, clothes that we would much rather wear.

Despite this scarcity, these students thrive when given the opportunity. The bright (and adorable) students in the primary schools of Mundargi and Kushtagi share an enthusiasm for learning and a competitive spirit that shined through the dimly-lit classrooms when the Akshara team and I arrived.

Students copy

Whenever a math problem would be presented to the class, the children would rush to open their notebooks and solve the problem first, handing over their work for checking as soon as they finished. In the event a student was wrong, they would just as quickly start working the problem again. When a passage in English was to be read, virtually every student wanted to show us their ability to read and write in English, a refreshing difference from the culture of primary schools in America, where conformity is too-often valued over exceptionality.

To feed into students’ eagerness and curiosity, Akshara has set up libraries both in classrooms and local tea shops. Each library is stocked with age-appropriate books in both Kannada and English, to encourage students to expand their familiarity with both their local language and one more widely spoken.

I visited the villages on the right day because I was present for the inauguration of one such library, an event that attracted the Gram Panchayat of the village, as well as parents and students to the small café. Each person present was given a few books to put in the library, so no one was left out of the celebration. The concept of tea shop libraries is, I think, brilliant; the availability of books in both tea shops and schools expands opportunities to read for both students and parents and encourages parents to read with their children.

Tea_Shop

These visits to Mundargi and Kushtagi showed me a side of life I could never have imagined. They made me thankful for my plentiful life in the United States and optimistic about India’s future. India is a complex country with a variety of cultures and traditions. To lead in tomorrow’s world, it needs something or someone to help it achieve its vast potential – a good education is that something and Akshara is that someone.

– Ajay Dayal

Beautiful. Warm. Resourceful. My first visit to rural India.

No American visiting India for the first time really knows what to expect. The India that one visualises from the descriptions of travel websites, friends, and relatives is one of stark contrasts between clean and polluted, modernity and tradition, rich and poor.

So, before I came to India, I didn’t know what to expect. My name is Ajay and I am an Indian-American high school student on his first visit to India. On this trip, I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to join the Akshara Foundation on visits to the villages of Mundargi and Kushtagi in north Karnataka.

The rides to the villages were long and bumpy on roads that varied in levels of maintenance. For much of the ride, I had my left hand firmly grasped around the ceiling handles of our SUV and my eyes glued to the window, seeing life in a rural area for the first time.

The countryside can be very beautiful. Agricultural fields cover the sandy landscape with green crops and bright yellow carpets of sunflowers. These fields seem to stretch forever, only briefly interrupted by the villages they sustain.
Sunflowers
The villages have their own beauty, with the vivid colours painted on the walls of homes and local shops. Buildings are constructed into small, but pleasant and reliable, structures from the materials readily available, such as wood and mud brick, showing the resourcefulness of these poor communities.

The members of these communities were warm and welcoming to us, opening their home to us in an instant. I’ve never been a big tea or coffee drinker – I’m fairly energetic on my own, without caffeine but by the end of the two days I was in rural Karnataka, I was converted.

Everywhere we went, either tea or coffee was generously offered (and how can you pass up South Indian coffee?). The beverages not only literally warmed my mouth (I think I actually burned my tongue on the first day – helpful tip: when drinking a hot liquid, don’t keep it in your mouth in hopes of it somehow cooling down), but also, metaphorically, my heart; despite their daily struggle for food and water, these villagers offered me tea/coffee and biscuits without hesitation.
Tea
However, these same villagers, the parents of the children we visited in local schools, did not seem to understand the full importance of their children’s education. During their house visits, Akshara conferences with the parents about the importance of education and convinces families of why they should be involved in their children’s education.
VIllage
When basic necessities are scarce, it is understandable that parents can find it difficult to prioritise homework over harvesting. But a good education is a necessity. Certainly not of the immediacy of food or clean water for basic survival, but education is a necessary investment we make today to ensure that these children do not have to worry about things, like food shortages, in the future.

In the United States, parents are, unfortunately, also often distanced from their children’s education. Some parents work too much to be able to find time to monitor their child’s learning. Others simply can’t be bothered. Either way, the effects on the child’s education are the same: the parents’ lack of involvement is an impediment.

While in both America and India, parental involvement is generally directly correlated to income level, the difference is that in America, the trade off is rarely – if ever – between survival and education. Americans, in general, have more than enough to survive.

The young students in Mundargi and Kushtagi dream of becoming teachers, doctors, engineers – not farmers or labourers that struggle to get by. This is why it is important not only for the students to have an education available to them in school, but also for the parents to support their children’s quest to build a better life for themselves and, eventually, the villages they come from.

And this is why Akshara’s work is so essential. By building relationships with the communities in which they work, Akshara is able to make meaningful change at the deepest, most fundamental, levels. They invest time and effort into providing an education to children today, and changing attitudes and mindsets to ensure the next generation will have an education tomorrow.

– Ajay Dayal

Lessons from the Field : Hoskote and North Karnataka


It was the morning of September 5, celebrated in the country as Teacher’s Day in memory of the well respected former President of India, Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan. A day dedicated to the teacher and all that she symbolizes.

The drive from our office in Bangalore to the small village of Marasandahalli in Hoskote Taluk took all of forty five minutes. Marasandahalli is a little hamlet with a population of 650 people. It has a Lower Primary School (LPS) with a strength of 35 children. The school building looks solid.

We were visiting to test and validate the theory that schools will work and children will learn if all stakeholders participate. And this was a learning institution where we got the best proof of the concept. It has two teachers absolutely devoted to the school and its children. One of them was present that day, the other was indisposed and could not make it. Every working day they travel 35 kilometres each way from their homes to this school. They walk the last 3-4 kilometres through village roads because the bus stops only on the main road. It does not daunt them; neither does their day disappear in traveling to and fro. These teachers are there for the children all the time. 

The parents and members of the School Development and Monitoring Committee (SDMC) are equally cooperative. They ensure that the teachers are not inconvenienced in any way and that they get a ride from the main road to the school on tractors or motorcycles most of the time. In fact, the parents had a clear statement to make to us, “We have requested the teachers to retire in our village when they do retire.” What more can one ask for?

And the results speak for themselves. As children graduate from the fifth grade, which is the highest grade taught in the school, they appear for competitive tests that secure them admission to the Morarji Desai Schools and KGBV Schools and almost all of them make it there.

  After spending nearly an hour talking to parents, SDMC members, children and the teacher we walked away from the school with Lesson # 1: Teachers who carry the children, parents and SDMCs along with them make the greatest difference but these kind of teachers are rare. 

The next day saw us in Mundargi Block of Gadag District in North Karnataka. This is a place where human development indices are low. Our strategy in visiting a few villages here was simple – we would follow a routine of first talking to parents and SDMC members, usually a meeting that would take place in the village square. We would then follow it up with a visit to the school, meet the teachers and then talk to the children. Akshara has been supporting these schools with a Math and English component and intends to be here for all of three years to ensure that learning levels are lifted and that children grasp essential competencies.

The first village we visited was Dambala. The villagers and the SDMC met us in the village square and we had the first good conversation of the day. We began by asking the oldest member in the congregation how old he thought the school was. “About 60 years,” came the answer. 

Our next question was, “What about engineers and doctors?” They were considered to be great jobs as well. Finally we said, in the last 60 years there have been many children who graduated from their village school. Do they remember anyone who made it to these “good jobs?” That set them thinking. Slowly they started opening up and said that initially they did not have enough teachers, but one day 24 of them went to the Block Education Officer’s office and demanded that their school be assigned teaching staff. It paid dividends. They were allotted two teachers.

The SDMC is very active in this village. The SDMC President himself is at the school every day and makes sure that the teachers are there and that they are all teaching.

We then walked to the school – a Higher Primary School (HPS) with 450 children; went to Std. V and started talking to the children about Math. We gave them simple sums in the presence of the teachers, SDMC members and parents and the children did better than we thought they would. The parents were very excited – this was the first time in living memory that they had actually gone to classrooms and seen for themselves how their children studied. It has given them confidence and they told us they would continue this practice periodically.

So Lesson # 2: Schools work better if teachers, SDMCs and parents work together.

That same afternoon we decided to visit a school by giving them only an hour’s notice. When schools expect us we always hear what we would like to hear and I for one have always been suspicious that we do not really know the truth all the time.

Our first glimpse of the school told me we were in for some rude shocks. The school yard was filthy and there was stagnant water. While the teachers were polite to us it was clear that they did not have a positive story to tell us. They started with complaints – how parents do not understand the value of education, how they were under-resourced and so on. To us the message was clear – it was an under-performing school. And when we started asking questions we learned that the SDMC was not functional, which means there was literally no one to keep an eye on the way the school was managed. This was the only school that asked us to write our comments in their school visitor’s book. No other school we went to had asked us to do so.

The following day we visited a similar school in Kushtagi Block of Koppal District and saw pretty much the same symptoms.

It became clear to us that Lesson # 3 was: There must be a robust, functioning SDMC to make the school work.

During these visits we noticed some interesting patterns: 
(a) Enrolment was high but the attendance of children was typically 70-75%, which meant that either on an average school day more than 25% of the children are absent or the enrolment number is wrong. (b) The ratio of male to female children in the schools that were poorly managed was highly disproportionate – schools that were well managed had near parity in the gender ratio.

While conditions are certainly far from desirable it has to be said to the credit of the government and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) that there was adequate infrastructure – nowhere did we see dilapidated schools. It was also clear that when a demand for better schooling was articulated by the community, the system found a way to get what the schools needed.

So, to my mind it then becomes a question of deciding if the glass is half-full or half-empty. If the former, then teachers and SDMCs and parents do manage to find ways to leverage existing investments and improve the schools but if the attitude is that the glass is half-empty and we cannot move till it is full, then the schools and the children lose out. The challenge for all of us would then be – how do we manage to improve the quality of demand, start from what we have and build on it? This is something that Akshara will work hard to achieve and we need the support of everyone in society to make this happen.
 
Ashok Kamath,
Chairman,
Akshara Foundation