From hub-and-spoke to classroom libraries: lessons from Akshara

India and South Africa could learn a lot from each other, particularly when it comes to education.

Both have made great strides with primary school enrolment over the last few decades, but still struggle with the quality of learning outcomes – with a significant proportion of children in upper primary school who essentially cannot read. Both countries’ school leaving certificates – the SSLC in India, and the NSC in South Africa – have low value and do not signal competence or skills to employers. Both seek to balance the new opportunities technology affords with the reality that the poorest have limited access to smartphones, data and airtime.

This week, I’m in India to see for myself. I’ll be spending time in Bangalore, Mumbai, Aurangabad and New Delhi, meeting with organisations and visiting programmes that are pushing the boundaries in education. I plan to post throughout the week, and afterwards, about some of the things I’m learning.

On day one, I spent the afternoon with the team at the Akshara Foundation. Today I’ll outline the evolution of Akshara’s library programme, from a hub-and-spoke system to classroom libraries, and rave about their innovative way of tracking book checkouts.
Background of the library programme:
The Akshara Foundation was established in 2000, based on the belief that quality education is the undeniable right of every child. Over the last 15 years, its work has touched the lives of more than 1 million children in the state of Karnataka in South India. It focuses on preschool and primary school education.

While most government schools in Karnataka have libraries, these lack age-appropriate, attractive books and a working process. Teachers are not trained as librarians, and view extra work as a ‘burden’ they do not want to take on.

In 2007, Akshara launched a library programme using a hub-and-spoke model, where each “hub” – a physical library with a dedicated librarian – served a number of “spoke” schools, which were visited regularly by a mobile librarian. Books were colour-coded by difficulty, and librarians in hub schools ran additional activities to stimulate learning.

But after a few years, Akshara changed tack. It realised that there was no viable way to keep librarians in schools unless they remained on Akshara’s payroll – which was not a scalable or long-term solution. Usage met expectations: overall, 81% of children visited libraries at least once a month, and in most months, 60% borrowed at least one book. But what if kids could access the books whenever they wanted – not only when their class visited the library or the library came to them? And – while RCTs cannot provide the full picture of a social intervention’s effect – a 2012 randomised controlled trial (RCT) of the programme found no impact on student scores on a language skills test administered after 16 months.

In 2014, Akshara replaced its hub-and-spoke model with classroom libraries – which our South African partner Biblionef also increasingly advocates as the most effective model to get kids reading in schools. To date, they’ve placed libraries in 3 250 classrooms at 1 000 schools.
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The libraries themselves are cleverly designed: foldable book kits (which can be put away overnight) that hold about 100 books. Teachers receive a simple, half-day training in how to use the libraries and monitor usage.

A classroom library has a few benefits, compared to the hub-and-spoke model. First, it doesn’t require an extra person, though the burden on teachers remains low. Second, books are closer to kids, and more accessible on a daily basis.
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And third, progress is public, through an innovative and incredibly simple M&E system Akshara has developed. This got me most excited – as I’ve seen partners struggle to collect and manage data about library use at the school level.

Each library comes with a histogram, blocked out by month, which teachers hang on the wall (usually with a pencil hanging nearby). When a child checks out a book, the teacher – or sometimes the child herself! – marks it on the histogram, noting the month and the level of the book.

Once a month, teachers take and submit a photo of the histogram, which is then captured digitally to enable large-scale comparison and analysis. (What’s more, the data is all public on the Karnataka Learning Partnership – but that’s for another blog post!)

Ideally, as children use the library more often, and as their reading improves, the histogram will show both an increase in the number of books checked out per month, and in the difficulty of books children are reading.

Over the last year, this was indeed the case: the team told me that the average number of books checked out per learner per month rose from 2.5 at the start of the school year to 5.5 at the end of the year, and difficulty typically increased.

One shortcoming of this method is that it doesn’t tell whether one child is a big reader and another isn’t reading at all. Still, this could be addressed in other simple ways, such as reading logs.

Even with libraries in classrooms, closer to kids, schools close at 3:30 pm, which limits access to books. As an experiment, Akshara also hung 50 libraries at village tea shops in rural areas – the social spaces where everyone congregates after school and work. They aren’t tracking this methodically, but they’ve heard very positive feedback: kids read, adults read, adults read with kids. I love this idea of sparking reading in community spaces, simply by bringing books to where people are – and I wonder what the equivalent of the village tea shop would be in rural South Africa.
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Thank you to Ashok, Asha and Vaijayanti at Akshara for so generously sharing your time!

via Head & Heart, by Katie Huston 

THE SCHOOL LIBRARY, NOW IN CLASSROOMS.

Last academic year was all about bringing Lakshmi up to speed with complex words, encouraging Mounika to fuel her desire to write stories, teaching Swati how to join letters and form words and pushing Faizan to read whole paragraphs.

How did we manage this? Well, by making them read more, and more of course.

It goes without saying that books are an integral part of developing a child’s reading, writing and communication skills. But not many kids have regular access to books.

Every school has a library. But how often can kids take books from there? Once, maybe twice a week? Is this enough for a child in rural India, who reading and writing skills are way below the required level?

No. In fact, the 2014 Aser Report says that ‘of all children enrolled in Std V, about half cannot read at Std II level’.

Which is why Akshara Foundation took the school library, and put it in every classroom – so that more kids have easy and unlimited access to books.

While we did have a few ups, a lot of work still needs to be done. Let’s hope 2015 is a better year, words-wise. This video aims at spreading awareness of our Classroom Library, in the hope that the more people know about this initiative, the more children we can help.

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A Glimpse of Akshara Foundation

Arunsathyaseelan P, Venkata Rakesh Kolli, Venkateswarlu Linganaboina and Rajkumar T of Indian Institute of Management – Bangalore, share their experience. 
Anganwadi at Konanakunte

We are a bunch of 4 students from the Indian Institute of Management- Bangalore (IIM-B), who had to study the working, impact and day-to-day activities of an NGO as part of one of our courses. When we had to choose we had several NGO’s in and around Bangalore. All of us had really felt that the kind of education that we have received to be one of the best things that have ever happened to us in our lives. We therefore wanted to study an NGO that is working in this field. Once we had chosen the education sphere, Akshara was a natural choice. We had done some secondary research about the organization and we were really impressed. We wanted to know more about the organization. Though, we only have had an opportunity to interact with Akshara volunteers and with two Akshara-supported schools, those interactions have helped us understand the kind of transformative role that Akshara is playing in improving the quality of primary education in Bangalore and in Karnataka.

To start with we first met Mr. Ashok Kamath, the Chairman of Akshara Foundation. To be truthful, that meeting made us think. It made us think deeply. He told us the ground realities about the standards of primary education in India. India ranks 73rd out of 74 countries in OECD’s PISA test. Only 1 out of 2 children can read well. He also explained to us the role of government the corporates and other like-minded individuals in Akshara’s activities. Akshara on the whole, acts as a turn-around artist in our government schools and anganwadis. What the Mckinsey or a BCG does to a corporate company, Akshara does the same to our government schools. Right from developing the content for the children to helping the parents monitor the performance of the children in academics, Akshara is doing the best it can to improve the quality of education imparted in our schools.

Government Kannada Middle Primary School, Kormangala
We first visited a government school in Koramangala. We saw the school’s library which was being managed by an Akshara volunteer. This school is under Akshara’s library programme. It has a huge collection of books which have been developed exclusively for promoting the reading habit among the children. There are books with different color codes signifying different levels of difficulty. The lowest level starts with small words while the highest one has paragraphs. There is one library period per week wherein the children come to the library and chose the books they want to read. There are charts which monitor the progression of students from one level to the other. This helps the class teacher monitor the student’s reading performance. Adjacent to the library there was a computer room with around 5 computers. We also had the opportunity to interact with a few students. They were very enthusiastic and were comfortable with reading in Kannada. They told us about the Lego Habba (An Akshara initiative to engage parents in the child’s learning) which was scheduled to happen the next day.

We also visited an Anganwadi in Konanakunte. Having seen anganwadis in one of our native places, we were really impressed by the facilities in this Anganwadi which was under the Akshara’s Pre-school programme. There were a lot of charts and other teaching aids. The tiny tots were playing with Lego bricks and were well versed with colors. The black board had the month-wise teaching plan. The kids were very active and doing something or the other. We are very sure that these 3-5 year olds would be school ready with all the learning they acquire in the anganwadi. The fact that the kids study well ensures that the parents enroll them for subsequent classes. The visits have helped us understand the state of our government schools and also about the role of Akshara in turning them around. Above all, it has left us deeply motivated and has inspired us to contribute for this cause in the future.

The Lego Habba Success Story

Source: Shikshana Varthe, Sarva shiksha Abhiyan, Education Dept. 
Akshara Foundation’s  Library organized the Lego Habba in the schools in Bangalore. Out of the 135 schools where the Akshara libraries are functional, the event was held in 16 schools. This event was not just welcomed with enthusiasm and zeal by the students but the teachers were equally happy to participate.
The Lego Habba was more than a celebration, it was an effort that brought together students, teachers, volunteers together but also gave them a chance to bring out their creativity in a manner that was fun and enjoyable for all.

For everyone who has played with the Lego blocks will agree that the first thing they ever made out of the blocks were nothing else but a nice tall tower. The same was the case here.  The bright vibrant colourful Lego blocks brought out colourful smiles and creative ideas out of everyone.
The whole idea of this festival was to trigger the thinking processes in kids with creativity. They had to draw inspiration from all the things they had seen around them, read in books, maybe watched on television, heard to people talk and simply imagined.

The purpose of this Lego Habba was to teach the children some important traits like team spirit and leadership skills in a lucid manner that they understood the significance and importance of these terms. This was also an excellent medium to ensure student-teacher interaction.

The Habba was conducted on every Saturday in November and December 2012.  The first 15 minutes were allotted to creating a story. The teachers along with the students had to create a story and create characters and themes for the same. Once this was done 45 minutes were allotted to form the story setup using the Lego blocks. Once this was done, the remaining 30 minutes were given to them to exhibit their creations and talk about it.

Lego Habba  would not have been successful without volunteers. A number of corporate came forward with their employees who happily volunteered. A big thanks to companies like Robert Bosch, CGI, Fidelity Information Systems, Inventure Academy, Hibu and iGATE for their help and volunteering. This programme would not have been possible without the help of the school teachers and the school authorities.


This was one of those events which had put a smile of just about everyone’s faces. With positive reviews and comments from everyone it was obvious that this effort had been worthwhile and the event a major success. What made this event stand apart from other activities was the fact that it involved the whole community. This wasn’t just a thing for the school children but an opportunity for the entire community to get together and celebrate creativity.

Kudos to the Library team for all their efforts in making this event a grand success! 

Campaign on Ice: A working trip to Ladakh

Recently Arvind Venkatadri, who heads our Library programme was in Leh to train around 100 Heads of Government Primary schools, where 17000 ft Foundation has set up school-based Libraries. Akshara is their knowledge partner in this initiative.
Read below Arvind’s travelogue to know more about this exciting trip and working in Leh in sub zero temperatures.

Welcome to Kushok Bakula Rimpoche Airport, Leh. The temperature outside is -12 degrees Celsius”. I had arrived in Ladakh, but a Ladakhi welcome had already been bestowed on me the previous day at New Delhi airport, where I was met by a smiling Stanzin Norbu from the 17000ft Foundation. I was here at the invitation of Sujata and Sandeep Sahu, founders of 17K, to help them provide a training-orientation to Heads of some 100 Government Primary Schools, where they had set up their School Libraries as part of their programme with rural Ladakhi schools.
It seemed at first sight that there were just two things in Ladakh: ice, and space. From my bedroom window, on the ground floor, I could gaze upon the sunlit spires of mountains on the far shore of the Indus. I had been given a list of clothing material to buy and I got it all from Decathlon here in Bangalore, the most important part being a Goose-Down-Jacket-with-a-hood. I had thermals and skiing-gloves and fleece sweaters and fleece caps and a balaclava and skiing clothing ( form-fit trousers and shirt ) and a baggy waterproof pair of trousers. I had been asked to take Diamox tablets for altitude sickness and I felt no ill effects whatsoever.

I spent the first day getting used to all the clothing I was wearing and took a walk into Leh. All that rustling of clothing made me turn around more than once, but I was alone. Never have I seen snow-swept, sunlit streets so desolate: there was not a person in sight, it could have been a ghost town. I did trudge up into the market street to finally see some cars and people. Breathing was not easy that first day, and it was not just the cold. The words “thin air” took a new, precise meaning for me once again.

The training began the next day and I spent two days lecturing in Hindi to the Heads from Govt Schools there; some of these schools are located at 15,000 feet ! Training began at 11.20 AM (after the first period; it is after all a college for Teachers) and ended at 4 pm on both days. Most of these HMs are were very young, the average age must have been 25-30 not more. Schools in Ladakh are shut from December to February; that is when the Teachers complete most of their training for the new academic session. The training was held at the DIET (District Institute of Education Training). The training rooms had hot stoves called Bukhari-s, three of them, with chimneys leading through the roof. All the Staff members sat in groups around the bukhari-s and every hour or so, a woman would come in and add firewood to the stoves. Lunch was a strange tea-and-bun affair of 20 mins; on both days we hit the town restaurant for lunch at 4.30 PM. I had some interesting food, the best being a thukpa, a spaghetti laden soup with veggies; very satisfying “winter” food.

The training was on Libraries: how to set them up, how to grade books, match these to children and their reading abilities, and how to measure that the Libraries have impact. We also talked of the various creative activities that we could conduct in Libraries. At the end of the two days, the Principal of the Institute Angmo Phuksong gave me something I was not prepared for: she honoured me with a long silk scarf, called a Khatok, which she formally hung around my neck. It is a very Ladakhi way and also a very big deal, I was told.
 I was reading Pankaj Mishra’s An End to Suffering: the Buddha in the World, an apt book for this place. The travels and thoughts of the author mingled with my impressions, as I saw Abbaley and Ammaley, our hosts, sit in the sunshine working the beads and reciting the Name four lakh times. There were shrines with large red and yellow prayer wheels at street corners; a steep hill in upper Leh seemed to have a monastery on top, but it seemed beyond me to attempt to get there. I contented myself with listening and humming Manasa Yetulortune in that lazy morning sunshine and talking to the two house cats in Tamil, who insisted that I part with some of my puri-s.

It snowed on two days, both times in the morning and continuing through most of the day. It was not snowing at 6 AM when I awoke, and the garden was bare; by 6.30 AM, there was a carpet of white that grew 2 inches as I watched. Across the Indus, the mountains turned completely white that morning. On both days, when the sun went down, it very rapidly grew really cold. Folks, the geese know what they have on. The goose-down jacket kept me completely comfortable, as did the thermal leg-wear. My shoes however, did not prevent my toes from freezing, despite the double layer of woollen socks that I was wearing ! Blankets in the room were two very heavy razai-s; plus a sweater, a head cap and the room heater was on. After a while, I either lost my head completely or I got “used to” the cold perhaps or the thukpa was working, for I was walking around barefoot in the room and to the tiled loo and even washing my feet each time with cold water. Water was delivered to the room; two buckets of ice-cold water and a half-bucket of hot. Brushing, shaving and laving myself with the cold water was, well, fun. On the last day, the bucket had pieces of ice floating in it too!

The day before I left, we were free, so we drove 30 kms to Nimmu, west along the Leh-Kargil highway. Stupendous scenery with vast open fields and slopes and towering red-brown mountains covered generously with snow. Nimmu has a Bihari-run shop that sells deadly samosas but sadly, the joint was closed that day. While we waited for our friend Dawa to catch up with his friends here, we wandered across the street, the highway that leads to Kargil in the west. An Army truck with snow chains over its wheels was parked there, the driver looking like a Telugu man for all I could tell. Across the street, a tiny and brilliantly coloured J & K Transport bus was parked and ready to go, the driver insistently honking to coax the reluctant passengers out of the tea-shop. Must have been just the thin air, but I thought I saw Mithun Chakraborty drape a blanket over Anita Raj’s shoulders as they both climbed up and sat on the freezing roof-top. Koi shaque? The bus disappeared in a flurry of snow and I hummed Zeehaale Muskin mukon baranjhish, but my voice would just not come out in the cold. My nose was also hurting with an insistent bleeding, a common affliction for me when I visit cold places.

A short drive and here we were at Sangam: the Indus, flowing from the South-East, meeting the Zanskar, coming in from South-West. The already broad Indus was almost completely frozen over but for two 20-feet wide streams separated by icy islands; the Zanskar was laden with pieces of ice, and even the water had a different colour! Paani da, rang vekh ke, Akhiyan jo hanjhu rul de….certainly the sparkling sunlight, the champagne air, the untouched snow and the immense peaks around me had my eyes streaming. I walked as far out on the ice as I could; I swept away the inches of snow to see the frozen ice-glass water of the Indus. And took a GPS reading that put me dead in the middle of the Indus (34.165305N, 77.332089E ). Lovely!

Ladakhi girls are good-looking. Period. And the children are adorable! As I departed, my host’s little grand-daughter culled some “apples” from her rosy Kashmiri cheeks and offered them to me as a parting gift. Abbaley gave me a hug and Ammaley, a handshake.

I know that I will go back there again, to be once again part of the Campaign on Ice.”

LEGO Habba begins with a bang..

The LEGO Habba kick-started with a bang on Saturday, 3rd November 2012. The first set of schools to participate were GKHPS Siddapura, GKHPS Handenahalli and GKHPS T.C. Halli.  Around 300 children, 80 parents and 32 volunteers participated in these schools. While employees from Fidelity Information Services organized the Habba in Siddapura, children from Inventure Academy ran the show in Handenahalli and T.C. Halli. The theme revolving around the Habba was “The Land of Stories” and each class had to come up with a model depicting a story using LEGO blocks.


Come Saturday morning and all the locations wore a festive look. Shamiyana, music, colorful festoons created the perfect atmosphere for the Habba to begin. The event started off with a brief welcome to the children, parents, teachers, SDMC members, volunteers and department officials. Soon, teams were formed with each team consisting of a volunteer, teacher and an Akshara librarian. Each such team would coordinate the Habba in each class. It took a while for volunteers and teachers to gently persuade parents to tell stories to their children.  Soon we saw the whole group interacting well with each other to decide on the story and started building different components of the selected stories using LEGO blocks. In a lot of instances, it was so heartwarming to see parents and their children guiding each other and joining hands to build models together.

After 70 minutes, the outcome was  astonishing and satisfying. In front of us, there were highly creative models. Beautiful LEGO models told us stories of ‘Simha Mathu Mola’, ‘Mangoose kills the snake’, ‘Monkey and the Crocodile’, ‘Punyakoti’, ‘Onake Obavva’ and many more..

The models were then displayed and one could see parents beaming with pride. One parent told us that so far, no one had invited them to the school to play. This event helped them to know their child better as they were unaware of their child’s talent. For once, they could interact well with teachers for  a reason other than academics.


The Cluster Resource Person from the Education department Mr. Govindappa, who participated in Siddapura said,”It was a very well organized event. By looking at the LEGO bricks, I was half-tempted to join the children (which I did too) and play with them. And I was surprised with the presence of Parents for such a long period. They are not willing to get back home. So, I thank Akshara Foundation team, and all the Volunteers and School Staff for such a fabulous event.”

The event concluded with the distribution of gifts and snacks to all children. Each school was also gifted with a LEGO box.

Overall, the Habba, as the name suggests was like a Habba in the School, and was powerful enough to pull along parents, teachers, children and volunteers to come together to celebrate creativity !! We hope, this Habba is a gateway for better involvement of the parents in their child’s education and will initiative the demand for quality education in the future.

Arvind Venkatadri, Head of Akshara’s library program, participated in the Habba in the GKHPS Handenahalli. Below Arvind shares his joyous experiences of the Habba.

” I reached Handenahalli at 9:10 AM, well in advance of the start time of the Habba, planned for 1130. I was immediately impressed by the level of preparation by the HM, Shri Bhaskar and his staff: a very colorful shamiyana was already up, the LEGO Habba banner was flapping in the breeze over the main gate of the school and the HM’s voice could he heard testing their PA system! The ground was spruce and clean and very soon I spotted Akshara’s Librarians, all smartly dressed for the occasion: Deepa, who works from this school and her colleagues Renuka, Pushpa, BhagyaJyothi, Lakshmi, Manjula and Pankaja from other schools in Anekal Block. 

The SDMC members arrived and so did teachers from the neighbouring schools, Bikkanahalli, Sollepura and Kotaganahalli; I recognized and was greeted by Shri Lakshmipathi of Bikkanahalli.  For this Habba, we were expecting a whole bunch of volunteers from the Inventure Academy, an International School located near Dommasandra. Lavanya Vimala, a teacher at Inventure, called me to tell me they were on the way and soon enough the Inventure bus came rolling to the gate of the school. They were greeted by Shri Bhaskar and welcomed to the Habba. There were some students of Inventure and some parents as well, who were curious to see what this Lego Habba was all about. One of them, Anjana, started a very detailed shooting of the entire event, complete with interviews of participants. By that time a good few parents had also gathered, some grandparents too and were engaged in charming conversations with the Librarians. 

We quickly briefed them as to the plan; Prabha from Inventure agreed to be the compere and took charge at once. She kicked off the Habba by welcoming the assembled parents and the staff members of the neighbouring schools and the SDMC members. She gave a lovely introduction to the Theme of the Habba, “The Land of Stories”. Everybody was excited with the prospect of making Lego models to show off their stories. The children came streaming out of the classes to take their parents there; the teachers quickly took charge, along with atleast one volunteer from the Inventure group. Soon there were keen discussions in many of the classrooms: Children telling ” ajji” to decide on a good story and in some cases, children telling stories to the adults and exhorting them to adopt these as their story for the Habba. The volunteers helped create some wonderful talk: Prabha was very effervescent, as were many of of the other teachers. The Inventure Children sprang their own surprise: they had brought charts and banners of their own, handmade, which they decked up in the classrooms and also on the central stage in the courtyard. 


The stories were decided upon fairly quickly: the Thirsty Crow, the Rabbit and the Lion, from the Panchatantra and The Village Fair, a popular story in our Libraries. People decided upon how to build the stories: what creatures to make and what the surroundings were like and of course, deciding on the main event to depict. The Akshara Librarians then brought in the buckets full of Lego and upturned them on the floor. The surprise and utter delight on the childrens’ faces was a joy to behold, and they cheered as they dug in to get hold of the pieces they needed. The volunteers helped some of the shy adults to come out of their shells and make the models; the Inventure students thoroughly mixed with the children here and helped create some intricate models.                                                       

Soon it was time to bring out the Story Models and display them on the stage. Librarian Manjula had drawn up areas on the stage where each class would arrange its Story Model. 

They were astonishing, the models. The Lion was a sheer delight, with mane and tail, as was the reflection of the lion in the water inside the well. The trees in the forest had been made with a lot of care, and foliage looked very real. The Crow looked very good too, cocky and street-smart. The Village Fair was full of detailed pieces: a merry-go-round, dancers, shops, games, even a mobile tower near the village. Prabha invited children from each class to present their story; each story was cheered by the closely pressed group. Parents delighted in the attention their wards were getting; I also met parents from the nearby anganawadi who had come in to find out what was going on.

Finally, it was time to wind up the show. Prabha made the children cheer when she announced that there were gifts for everyone. The children quickly lined up in a crocodile as they streamed towards the gate. Akshara Librarians smilingly handed out goodies and snacks to each child, from both Schools. Some tiny tots from the anganawadi came up timidly asked for the biscuits too and gleefully accepted the gifts.

It was deeply satisfying. The Children, the Parents,the Teachers and the Volunteers: it was just perfect. I think we will see similar efforts being made by th Govt School teachers themselves at other places, on their own. That will surely make the future Open School Days in Govt Schools a very different and noisy affair !! “

Volunteering at the GKHPS, Doddaholluru, Hoskote


The Spirit of Volunteering

For people who volunteer for a cause it is the ultimate sublimation. Volunteering is activity on a higher plane, an attempt at an idealized world – the involuntary instinct for the level playing field, breaking down barriers of inequity and deprivation, giving everybody a fair chance, the belief in bringing about systemic change in a system that under-performs, simply drags its feet or outright fails. It is an act of betterment and uplift. Those who have giving to those who do not.
  • Akshara regularly facilitates volunteering in education in Bangalore – at government schools, anganwadis and community libraries, or prepares the ground for homework support classes, English teaching sessions, a sports event. Akshara galvanizes the corporate sector, parents, the student community and citizens and is looking to expand the volunteering base exponentially.
The Larger Question

But looking at the broader scene in the city, is volunteering a case of isolated largesse? Will it remain the occasional wholeheartedness, the odd abundance, not a continuous stream of the spirit?
  • Says Ashok Kamath, Chairman, Akshara Foundation, “For many years Akshara talked about doing learning programmes for children, about building a relationship with government schools. That alone is not enough. If we can get people who have had the privilege of education – teachers, parents, citizens – aligned to a common goal of equitable access to quality education, we can make an impact.
  • The problem is we always think of our glass as half-empty. Can we look at our Indian situation positively? Can we do something? There are 95 lakh people in Bangalore. If 40,000 people could go into a thousand government schools on a regular basis can you imagine the difference it will make? The larger question is: How can we together make the world a better place for government school children?”
What can be done to enlarge the volume of contribution and make volunteering a self-sustaining movement of substantive results? This is what two of the Target India employees who volunteered recently at the Government Kannada Higher Primary School (GKHPS) in Doddaholluru, Hoskote Block, giving freely of their time, energy and resources, had to say.
  • Ann: “Not many people like us know that such opportunities exist, that government schools need such diverse inputs. Everybody wants to help, but we do not know what we can do or which platform to go through. If there is a volunteers’ group that can propose volunteering projects to companies and facilitate the process, or encourage employees to participate in large numbers, that would be great. The message should reach people, and 99% of us – you can even say 100% of us – would come forward to help and support.”
  • Keshav: “We do something like this once in a while and sometimes forget about it. A more consistent approach is called for. A more dedicated approach – the same pool of volunteers in the same school repeatedly so that children and volunteers can come together. So that children can look on us as somebody they can count on. We’re setting all this up in this school – a library, a science room. But we don’t know how these resources will be used by the school and its students. We must come back. We want to come back.
If urban children come here and see for themselves the deprivation they will value everything they have much more. I think students in the city must volunteer. A lot of parents would want their children exposed to the other side of the world, the larger fact.”
  • Asha Sharath who handles donor relations and volunteering activities at Akshara says, “Every small step a volunteer takes is a great stride. A day makes a difference. For long-lasting impact, volunteering has to be on a regular basis.”
  • The crux, however, she says, is to connect citizens to schools. Akshara is positioning itself to do that through the Karnataka Learning Partnership (KLP) framework. What Akshara has learnt from experience is that schools are wary of arbitrary goodwill. They have specific deficits they would like enriched – a drop in Mathematics, language failure, or, as in the GKHPS, Doddaholluru, a library in decline or a thriving science laboratory with no place to call its own.  
  • Says Asha, “KLP intends to bridge this gap in communication with a platform where schools can upload their requirements and interested volunteers can pick up from there and give them what they need. KLP is thinking of coming out with a prototype soon.”

A Quiet Sense of Purpose

It is the 17thof September. A remarkable instance of volunteering is taking place at the GKHPS in Doddaholluru. The thirty five Target India employees who are volunteering here are enablers, providers of opportunity that day, as they go about restoring to pristine condition an old, disused library in the school and a room for science.

The school wears a discreetly festive air. There is a quiet hum of activity and purpose. Visitors are streaming in and Harshita and Manjula, Std. VII students, welcome them with a single red rose and a shy smile and fade tactfully away. Today it is the volunteers who are unwittingly centre stage as, with a hushed sense of mission, they take to completion their self-appointed task.

A Targeted Intervention

The Science lab before the make-over
  • The library used to be a picture of rundown depletion, sadly, for a school with no obvious infrastructure deficits. The volunteers are painting it and stocking it with books. The science room, once painted and invigorated, will accommodate the many projects the children undertake under the guidance of their tireless science teacher, Basavaraj, a live wire of a person. It will be a place for experimentation and discovery, for unravelling science, a subject that is one of the school’s singular strengths.
  • This is example-setting volunteering. Guru, the Target volunteer in charge of reconnaissance, made three fact-finding trips to identify and assess the school’s requirements. The day’s endeavour is a targeted intervention to provide something the school needs and will, hopefully, make use of. Not random goodwill.
An Image Make Over

  • An image make over is in progress in the large, light-permeated library. A preliminary coat of thinner has been applied, but the soiled walls show through the thin translucence, scooped out or peeling in places, which the volunteers have scraped and filled in even-handedly. A painterly landscape dominates, with brushes and big hammers, screw drivers and rollers, and large cans of thinner and synthetic enamel. Mugs half-filled with cloudy blue paint for the room’s many metal windows jostle in the assortment.
  • All bought through volunteers’ contributions, including the elegant, red metal racks and the 2012 books that will go on them. The number 2012 is significant. It signals the year of the library’s resuscitation.
I too Have a Part to Play in their Growth”

  • It is a thoroughly professional approach, not least the painting, though most of the volunteers are first-time painters. Like Stephen, with a protective bandana round his head, about to go up a step ladder to paint the upper reaches with an intuitive sense of the work at hand.
  • A seasoned volunteer, Stephen says, “Volunteering is all about enhancing the next generation, making space for children to learn, providing opportunities for them. I too have a part to play in their growth.”
  • Mormita, part of the painting crew, says, “I feel strongly that what we’re getting we should give back. Everybody should, in whatever way, big or small. I feel satisfied and happy seeing the smiles on children’s faces.”
It’s a Pleasure Doing This”

Outside the library a section of the verandah has been unofficially cordoned off. There, on sprawling mats are the 2012 books meant for children up to Std. VII. They are in Kannada and English primarily, and some in Hindi, straddling fourteen classifications – stories, comics, General Knowledge, science, computers….There are books that build skill-sets too, in grammar and essay writing, for instance. 

 
Every book is being labelled with a unique code that will ensure that they do not all end up in a disorderly mélange where nothing can be found. Thick, plastic-coated brown paper is being fitted on the racks and the books will be arranged on them.
  • It’s a pleasure doing this,” says Samyukta who is leading this group. “Children come up and say they didn’t have access to such books before. I believe that knowledge shared is knowledge gained. Even we are getting to learn a lot.”
  • Shivaprasad who is sorting and labelling the books echoes much the same sentiment. “I have a passion for volunteering. There is self-satisfaction and fulfillment. I enjoy giving back to society. When we were young we got so much.”
The library was a crumbling institution in school. When this ensemble comes together – the fresh newness of paint, the scenery charts, hand-painted inspirational quotes on education, the gleaming books on smart racks – it will symbolize renewal and create a space for children to read, learn and grow.

I will Improve my Knowledge”
  • Kantalakshmi of Std. VII is excited about the new ordainment. “I am happy. I am looking forward to reading in the library. I will get to understand from library books what my teacher tells me in class. I will go there and find out. I will improve my knowledge. What I don’t know I will get from there.”
  • Harshita has to be goaded into thinking about the benefits of a library by her teachers. She begins hesitatingly and is nudged along. “Library books will be useful for reference, as guides to class lessons. I like reading jokes and short stories very much.”
  • Jayalakshmi who teaches all subjects, including Kannada and English, in Std. IV, V, VI and VII says, “It is good to have a library. Every class, I-VII, has a library period once a week. Library books are important for children to learn language, improve reading skills, for understanding and communication. The English books in the library will be particularly useful. Children will learn different kinds of words, difficult words. English is their second language. They have an English period every day.”
Different Hues
  • In volunteering there is also the not-so-exalted department of the mundane – the logistics, the hot food, the cold drinks…… All the eminently forgettable nitty-gritty at times like this. Anantha volunteered magnanimously to organize and provide and clear up. “Too many challenges in that,” he says affably. “What to source, what to provide, at what time. I got beverages, but how would I keep them cold when the school has no refrigerator and there has been no power the whole day?” He worked his way ingeniously around that constraint.
Anantha overlooked nothing – not the drinking water or water cups, the plastic spoons, paper plates or napkins, not the first aid kit. Then there is the humdrum everydayness of garbage, which needed some astute planning. Anantha will take ten bin bags with all the day’s debris back to Bangalore for disposal.

A Science Room – “It will Instil Scientific Discipline”

  • At the far end of the rambling school building is the Science Block, announced in thick, black, declaratory lettering. It underlines the scientific temper of the school, personified by the motivated Basavaraj who leads his students in curiosity-driven exploration. He teaches in Std. V, VI and VII.
  • Propelled by Basavaraj, his students have creatively designed a water recycling plant, a mobile phone tower, a hydel power generating dam with smaller check dams along a river stream to harness water to the fullest. And many more items, besides.
  • Children crowd around their projects eager to explain the scientific principles of each. Now there is a room Target volunteers are recasting and assigning to science. Says Basavaraj, “We did not have a place for all these projects. Earlier I would take the material to the classroom to educate the students. Now there will be a room in honour of science where students can gather and learn. A specially designated space will help children; it will instil scientific discipline.”
I Like Science”
  • I like science, “says Kantalakshmi, showing off the periscope she and her classmates have made. “It is used underwater during war. I learnt how the heart functions also.” Basavaraj was instrumental in spurring the children to make a simple instrument out of a plastic bottle, straws and a piece of fabric. “All low-cost material,” affirms Basavaraj. Kantalakshmi blows through the straws, then takes an inward breath and the pleated folds of the fabric in the bottle expand and contract, simulating the operations of the heart.
  • Harshita too confirms that she likes science, her earlier reticence melting in a flood of words. “I like learning about the heart, about health and nutrition. We carried out an experiment in class that demonstrates the force of air and water. I observe things through the microscope,” she says in wonderment.
I Enjoy the Act of Giving Very Much”

The Target team is in an act of consecration in the science room, dressing it up, painting it. Samir, Anu and Noor also team up to embellish with their art the two pillars that jut out, hand-painting the universe, the earth, a space ship, a rocket taking off.
  • Samir is in Development at Target. He has a speech and hearing impairment. This is his first experience of volunteering. “I am an artist,” he says, hands flying in communication. “I want to do art with children in schools.” A paint-flecked khaki smock over a long-sleeved, dull red shirt bespeaks a heightened awareness of colour. Samir is painting a half-sun on the edge of a pillar in the science room, a yellow semi-circle with dancing orange flames – half the world in light.
  • I like it very much,” he says. “I enjoy the act of giving very much. I am extremely happy doing it.”

Citizen Engagement : Tanya Bali

September 8 is celebrated as the International Literacy Day. Its aim is to highlight the importance of literacy to individuals, communities and societies. This year, on the occasion of the International Literacy Day, one of our volunteers, Ms. Tanya Bali and her two sons conducted a Story Reading session in the GKMPS Akkithimmanahalli. Ms. Bali’s sons study in Inventure Academy, who is a great supporter of Akshara Foundation‘s initiatives and their students regularly volunteer with our Library Program. In the below article, Ms. Bali summarizes her experiences of conducting the reading session.  
 

Inspired by a visit to the Akshara Foundation, having met Arvind Venkatadri, Head of the Library Program, and armed with a hundred Kannada story books from Pratham Books, we landed at the Kannada section of the Government School, Akkithimanahalli, near Nanjappa Circle, Shanthi Nagar. It was 10am on the Saturday morning of 8th September 2012.
It was a day when the teachers had gone for a training program and the head master and a helper were manning the whole school of a hundred odd kids of grade 1-7. As they were expecting us, the headmaster welcomed us and accepted the books. I told him that I wanted Sahil and Varun to read a story to the kids of grade 1-3. He entered the classroom where the kids of grade 1-3 were all seated together.
The boys read out the Story of a Bubble to the children, in English. I helped translate some parts in my broken Kannada. The children were very happy to have us around. And it was probably a new experience for them and a welcome break from their monotony.
We took some group photographs. They were mesmerised by the digital camera I carried. By this time their mid day meal (sponsored by ISKCON) arrived and they ran to queue up. Before they left they asked us to come back “tomorrow”………! 
Minimal facilities, from their homes and in their school….these kids mostly from slum homes around the area were somehow being taught something. Our children, so privileged with limited value for everything they have. What a contrast! Varun, Sahil and I had a sizzling discussion on the way back home.
The time has come for a sensitivity to be aroused in children who have so much, of what they can contribute, at their level, to those who have not!!