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

Thank You, Teachers


Thank You cards created by the volunteers

Teachers play many important roles in the life of a child – that of an educator, mentor and a friend. They inspire, discipline, and inculcate values of thinking, reasoning, self-learning and exploration. They are one of the strong influences in developing the child into a responsible adult. And to recognize these efforts of the teachers, this year Target employees decided to do their bit.

As part of the Teachers Day celebrations, over 150 employees from the Marketing, HR, Merchandising, BI and Finance Team of Target and their families, made personalized ‘Thank You’ greeting cards to be distributed to Government school teachers in 360 schools across Bangalore, Hoskote and Mundargi. The whole activity was driven by a core group of volunteers who not only handled distributing and collecting back the cards; they also promoted the activity within their team and encouraged their team members to participate. The whole activity took one week. The end result was 1800 beautifully handcrafted cards.

For some volunteers, this activity was a good break from their desk job and showcases their creative skills, while for others it was a great activity to engage their families. But for most, it was just a small way of showing their gratitude to teachers who work selflessly for the cause of education. This was rightly echoed by one of the volunteers who said, “In this busy world, it was like this wonderful moment which took us back to our childhood and gave us an opportunity to express our feeling for our respected teachers. Irrespective of whom it would go to in person, the feeling of addressing it to a ‘Teacher’ was above all and delightful. The four hours I spent on those cards, though less compare to what my teachers have given me in terms of knowledge and wisdom.  It allowed me to give my respect to the teachers who help us reach where we are, professionally and as a person.

Cards distribution at a school
         
The teachers were overwhelmed by this token of appreciation. Some even went on to say that in their many years of service as a Government school teacher, never have they been recognized for their effort. Mamatha C, a teacher from GKMPS Nagashettyhalli said, “I thank the volunteers for creating greeting cards for us. We are humbled!

Teacher feedback

Such small gestures from the civil society does go a long way in encouraging Government school teachers to do their job well and deliver quality education to children.

An Objective Analysis of Swalpa English, Thumba Fun

Dr. Kalavathi B.K, who is the Executive Director of Anveshna Foundationhas been the Master Resource Person for Akshara’s English Program since it’s inception. Here, Dr. Kalavathi, does and objective analysis of the components of the programme – the Teaching Learning Materials and the Training Package. Shares her experiences of the lasting impact created by Akshara’s Swalpa English, Thumba Fun on teachers, which enables them to teach English with ease in the classes.
 
I have been associated with Akshara’s English programme for the past 4 years, right from its inception of designing the package to its implementation towards becoming “Swalpa English, Thumba Fun”. It is always nice to see Ms Kanchan Banerjee, the Managing Trustee, taking personal interest in the program and striving to improvise and upgrade it from year to year, based on the changing needs of the target group. Now, let’s do an objective analysis of the programme:

Training package: The package includes both Teacher’s manual and hands on training for the teachers as well as departmental Resource Person (RP)s . The Training manual is very simple with clear instructions to the teacher and the RPs; it has “Thematic Graded Content” which is teacher-friendly, based on inculcating Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing Skills. It also instructs the teacher regarding the day to day transaction of each lesson very clearly and also mentions which TLM to be used along with the content. The package contains lot of language games and strategies which will enrich the English language environment in the class.
The training is provided in two phases; Initial Orientation and refresher phase. Initial Orientation phase is for 5 days in the month of May and refresher phase for 2 days in the month of October. This is a teacher friendly training using various strategies and interventions in a workshop mode on a one to one basis. The training not only enhances the English Language skills of the teachers but also boosts their self confidence and motivates them to implement the package in the classrooms. It also provides them lot of extra tips regarding implementing the package in the classroom. The Statistics of the English Language Program of past 2 years clearly indicates the success rate of this program and can be validated as it is drawn through a pre-test and post-test design. The program has inbuilt evaluation as the teachers have to plot on”Pragathi Nota” at the end of each lesson.

Teaching Learning Materials (TLM):The TLM includes- Flash cards, Flip over Charts, workbooks, Reading Cards and High Frequency Sight Vocabulary Chart. Each Lesson from the teachers’ manual has been divided into two parts, namely-
  • Rhymes
  • Conversation and TPR Activities.
     
They are supplemented by Stories, Alphabet Phonic Songs, Reading and Writing Material. The rhymes are supported with mobile rhymes to make the teachers recollect the way the alphabet songs and rhymes were sung. The workbooks have been differently graded for classes I, II, III and IV. The material developed has been simple, graded, attractive realistic and suitable to the grass root level- both for the children and Teachers. The print material used is also long lasting and child friendly. Measures have been taken to introduce the vocabulary which is familiar to the rural children. It has been upgraded and improvised on the felt need and feedback received by the stakeholders annually.

My direct experience in the training classroom: The teachers as well as the RPs initially started with an attitude to mean- “Oh! another training!” Later, as they were made comfortable with icebreakers they settled into the comfort zone and got involved in the program. As the training was in a workshop mode with many strategies, they all willingly participated with interest. They found the rhyme sessions very interesting and asked for more new rhymes, they asked for the rhymes between the other activities as a warm up. They enjoyed the individual activities more than the group activities. In their session end feedback they said that they would look forward to more of Akshara English training program as it empowered them to use English in their classrooms. They also felt the workbooks and lessons were simple and realistic. It would help them to transact better as it was graded and attractively presented. They wanted more of Grammar support and to fulfill this requirement Akshara’s monthly worksheets helped them a lot. On the whole the teachers as well as the RPs actively participated in the training. Each one came forward to enact the stories as role plays and enjoyed it. They enjoyed the whole training program and said it was like going back to their school days. It was seen that by the end of the 5th day they were more empowered with spoken English and they also affirmed it by saying that it had built in the confidence and capacity to handle their English classes better, in unison all of them said that they would want this training again and again. They were also in touch with me during the break in between the initial orientation and refresher programs and it has continued to be.
During the refresher sessions most of the participants of the earlier training sessions were present and they said they were looking forward to the refresher training. They said they enjoyed teaching alphabet phonic songs and were equally liked by the children and it made their job of associating the sound –symbol association, easy. They said this training has helped their children more and the children also were motivated to learn more. In the refresher session I noticed all of them spoke in English with confidence though some with errors. I also noticed that the errors had come down.
At this point, I need to share a particular incident which touched me deeply, this happened during the first training program, where I had to train teachers of Bangalore North. The trainees were an assorted lot of all ages and backgrounds. There were elderly people who were about to retire too. The training program was rigorous and all of them had to be treated equally and I did it. The last day, a very senior teacher, who had all the while hesitated to participate freely, and who was not very fluent in English, came voluntarily and told me, “Beti, you are like my daughter and you have done the training very well and this has helped me. I will use it in the class for my children. I pray Allah to Bless you”, and that too in English. My day was made and I was overwhelmed with emotion and this action showed me how successful our training program was. I strongly believe “Action speaks louder than mere words”. Doesn’t this anecdote speak loads about the program?

Response of teachers/ RPs in both sessions:
As I have mentioned in my direct experience, though the teachers and the RPs started with an “attitude”, they quickly realized the simplicity and ease of use and implementation of the program.

They opined :
The way the training was being given (individualistic) had empowered them to speak English and had given them the confidence to take it forward and teach/ train their children/ trainees. The many strategies which were used during the training sessions had given them clear picture regarding how English could be taught in a play-way method in the class. The package was realistic and simple and the training funfiled and interesting which motivated them to actively participate. The rhymes and stories selected were simple and teachable to their students. They also appreciated the “mobile support”. The TPR activities with language games were interesting. The conversation was useful as it involved simple day to day vocabulary. The TLM was attractive and easy to use. The workbooks were well graded with simple but attractive pictures helped them to motivate the children to write.
Changes in teachers by 2nd session:
There was a visible change in their English speaking skills by the second session. They were also eager to learn more English and implement in the class. They asked for clarification regarding the grammar doubts they had collected. They interacted freely and confidently. They shared their happiness regarding how their classrooms were charged with a fun filled English environment and how their children loved the English period now. Their sentence structures had visibly improved.

Interaction with participants during activities:
They found the rhyme sessions and role plays very interested. They also opined that picture reading and story building were highly suitable for their classroom. They said individual activities like pick and speak, dialogue extensions, division of attention activities helped them a lot to enhance their attention and confidence. They found the language web an interesting way to teach grammar and sentences.
They also said that they liked the way hands on trainingwas being provided for each trainee which helped them in carrying over it to the class as well as the training sessions.

Myoverview of the scenario in Mundargi:
We entered the BRC center in Mundargi for the 2day refresher session, only to be welcomed by bright faced trainees who said were very happy to see us back. They spoke in fluent English but ofcourse, with minor errors! Their level of confidence surprised me, each one was eager to share their training experiences as I started asking informally. Infact, we did not need an icebreaker to start the session but as it was in the manual we started, only to get the use of their imaginary money spent in funny ways and some did even say they had spent it on buying books for their school children. They all had used the past tense correctly!

    Next, the class was divided into five groups to share their experiences and each group was asked to brain storm and discuss on- rhymes, flashcards, TPR activities, story telling and workbook, which they effectively did and raised lot of questions, keeping their training perspective in mind and gave their opinions on:
  • How they used the TLM in classroom?
  • Why is TLM important in language learning?
  • Has it helped children learn the English language?

And feedback was collected regarding their usage of TLM and its effectiveness with children. It was surprising to see all of them boldly giving out their views without any inhibition.

The main objective of the refresher course was to orient on reading skills for which the trainees had to use reading cards to blend associated phonic sounds. They clearly asked their doubts regarding blending and enquired why the blend has to be like this and why not like the way they wanted to use, which came as a pleasant surprise to me. It was a proud moment to see the “thinking and assertive teachers” who were showing their professionalism. The session also made the “self” engulfed to reflect and see why a particular activity should be done a particular way, there was also a query regarding the pronunciation of “the” with the vowel sounds and consonant sounds, which was dealt meaningfully and the trainee was contented and happy with the rationale. They also enquired whether we could have a teleconference with them every month to help them further better their English.

The most precious moment was when even the most silent and withdrawn trainee of the previous session had opened up and expressed that the English training program had instilled confidence in him and he had carried it forward to his students and was happy when he saw them speak English with confidence! Isn’t that a wonderful gift?

All good things have to end so did Mundargi’s refreshers session which would go a long way down the memory lane! 🙂

Teachers Training : An important tool of Akshara’s In-school programme

This year Akshara Foundation’s Inschool programme, focusing on basic numeracy and literacy skills in lower primary grades between 1 to 5, is going on in full swing in over 600 Government schools in Hoskote, Devanahalli, Kushtagi and Mundargi blocks in Karnakata. The programme is impacting over 43,000 children.

Training gets Delivered

 

While the Akshara team has designed child-friendly Teaching Learning Aids, supporting the programme through constant interaction with the Teachers and measuring the programme through various assessment strategies, the programme is delivered in classrooms by Teachers themselves. A comprehensive training component is developed at Akshara focusing on basic English and Math knowledge that can aid teachers in the classrooms. The training is delivered in a cascading fashion through the education department Master’s Resource Persons (MRPs). A 5-day training in the beginning of the academic year is followed by a refresher training later in the year. This year, over 1500 teachers have been trained in the Akshara methodology and are currently delivering the programme in the classrooms.

“Akshara Foundation’s Training has Given me a new Approach”


We have received overwhelming responses to the trainings. The teachers are very happy with our training and feel the programme will surely benefit the children.

Sridhar, a primary school teacher who teaches English in Std I-VII and has a command over the language, said, “I have undergone so many English training programmes in my six years of service, but Akshara Foundation’s training has given me a new approach and I can teach my students in a simple way.”
Shailaja Patil from the Government Higher Primary School, Nidasheshi, said, “I have never tried speaking in English before, but once I started attending Akshara’s training I got the confidence to speak in English. I assure you that I will do my best in class.”
Mehaboob Sahib, a Master Resource Person, said that he has imparted English training for many teachers, 13 batches of them. “But I enjoyed imparting Akshara Foundation’s training package the most. This package has been designed keeping teachers in mind. Simple and the best.”



A few teachers who underwent our training in the Devanahalli block went a step ahead to compare our training with the British Council training and had the following points to say:

1. British council training was in lecture mode where as the Akshara Foundation training was activity based.

2. The Charts, Flash cards, Teacher’s guide etc provided by British Council were not up to the mark. The Akshara teacher’s guide, cards, charts flash cards etc provided by Akshara Foundation were very good. These are very useful for children’s learning.

3. Importance was not given to the communication skills of the teachers in the training program of British Council. In Akshara Foundation training program importance was given to improve English spoken language abilities of the teachers and English grammar.

4. The techniques of developing basic language skills among children were incorporated in Akshara Foundation training. Akshara Foundation training caters to the needs of improving teacher’s skills in using English language.
  • The methods of reciting rhymes and storytelling models were discussed.
  • The Akshara Foundation gives good guidance.
  • The basic grammar points have been covered. But some more grammar activities could have been included.
  • I feel that this type of teacher’s guide, kit and training for teachers may be given to all the teachers in the state.
We are thankful to all these teachers for finding value in our training and we believe that they will create a positive impact on the learning levels of children.