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

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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Kathe Helu Aata Aadu !


“Kathe Helu, Aata Aadu” was designed as a part of the World Literacy Day and Teachers Day celebrations.  All the planning had been done in a single week and it was now time to execute the plan. While the Library team and Asha spent time finding the right schools and co-ordinating with the volunteers, I was looking for volunteers over the social media. We got a good response and we were all set to get the ball rolling.

15th September felt a little different from most other Saturdays. After the usual peek-a-boo with the clouds, the sun had decided to shine up warm and bright. The volunteers were excited and so was the Akshara team. While Lakshmi and I missed our way, we eventually found the school just behind a magnificent Banyan tree.

Seeing the school building immediately brought smiles on our face, not because we found the school at last but because this school had a playground, which is indeed a rarity these days.  Around 9.45 am the volunteers started pouring in. Soon there was a bunch of twelve volunteers, 11 of them from Hewlett Packard and one independent volunteer who was back to Bangalore after a long gap of 3 years.

After a quick round of introductions, hi’s and hellos and a brief about the event the volunteers were all set to get the plan into action. They formed groups and entered the respective classrooms.  The same book was read out to all the classes but the activities planned were different.

Volunteers first began with the story telling session which lasted for about 30 minutes and the remaining 60 minutes were dedicated to the activity that was planned. While Class 5 were engrossed in making LEGO models, Class 6 got busy with their collage sheets and the kids of Class 7 happily enacted the story.

What dominated the atmosphere was excitement and enthusiasm, both from the kids as well as the volunteers.  The children chattered happily with the volunteers, each one eagerly talking about their hobbies and their aspirations.

Once the story telling and activities were done, the volunteers distributed stationery and books to the kids and this not just added to the twinkle in their eyes but also brought out big broad smiles.  Post the event, kiddies kept telling the volunteers to come back again the next Saturday.

The event definitely brought a lot of smiles and joy to the volunteers and the kids, as for us it was a learning experience. Inspite of the confusions, the chaos, and the last minute changes we had managed to pull off the event decently well. Of course it all doesn’t stop here, we need to be more organized and execute the plan well and yes we are all charged up to learn from our mistakes and make sure we don’t repeat them.

A big thank you to the Library Team at Akshara for putting up all of this in such a short time.  A bigger thank you to the big group of over 60 volunteers from HP, Robert Bosch and Target for making this event a huge success.  Special thanks to Anu, Asha, Ramesh and Nirupama for all the lovely pictures. We are pretty much inspired to continue this trend and have many more such events. So keep reading our blog for more information!

More pictures here.

Kathe Helu Aata Aadu with Akshara Foundation!


Akshara Foundation takes great pleasure in celebrating Teacher’s Day and World Literacy Day differently this year. Akshara would be organizing “Kathe Helu, Aata Aadu” – a combination of story-telling and activity sessions in school libraries. The idea of this event is to advocate reading skills and creativity amongst children.

A different activity will be organized in each class depending on the grade – story telling + collage (replicating / based on the story), storytelling + skit (depicting the story) and storytelling + building LEGO landscapes(depicting the story).

The event will be held on 14th September 2013 between 10am and 1pm.

For more details email us at volunteer@akshara.org.in

LEGO Habba 2012 : A big success !!



A Big Success
 
The LEGO Habba, happening every Saturday from October 2012 to December 2012 in selected government schools in Bangalore, concluded recently. The event had been been conceived with the aim of having Parents, Teachers and Children engage in a creative LEGO brick activity in school. This was good way to ensure that Parents and School Staff build a good relationship to ensure that they jointly do the best for the child.

From schools in Siddhapura, Austin Town and Harappanahalli, reports streamed into Akshara from the library resource team about the festive atmosphere the Habbas were generating, the light, happy mood of children, their buoyant creativity and the quite unbelievable models they designed, the parental participation and the support of volunteers and school managements in making the Habbas a huge success.

Groups of children made thematic models from stories that came out of their memory trove, stories they could best represent through art, design and construction, with the hundreds upon hundreds of bright, multi-colored, interlocking LEGO play-and-learning material before them. Children joined and fixed and connected the LEGO bricks, set elaborate stages for the characters that would live in their stories, the trees and animals that would inhabit them and built towers and forts and simple dwellings.

The Stories They Chose

 
At the school in Austin Town the children of Std. I, II and III chose The Thirsty Crow from the Panchatantra for their model.
For Std. IV children it was The King and the Parrot, again from the Panchatantra,  its characters a bit more complex.
Soleman from the cartoon serial was a more tricky concept to represent, but that is what Std. V children chose to depict.
Std. VI children came up with The Golden Axe, a well-remembered story of theirs, and had a forest ready for the tale of the honest woodcutter who was gifted the golden axe by the river god.
The children of Std. VII did something unique. They devised their own story, made animals their protagonists, assigned each a role and character and had them play out their parts in sequences. Their story was almost similar to The Royal Toothache published by Pratham Books.

“We Loved the Event”

Thirty five parents showed up at the Siddhapura school and though they were all shy and disengaged in the beginning, not knowing what to expect, Akshara staff and Fidelity Information Systems (FIS) volunteers thawed the ice and brought about a great artistic commingling.
One parent remarked that no one has ever invited them to come and play with their children in school before, referring to the library resource team’s ingenious invitations that went out to them from the school managements’ side. “We loved the event,” the parent said. “It helped us to get to know our children better and also helped us interact with teachers for a reason that was different from academic results.”
Cluster Resource Person (CRP) Govindappa said, “It was a very well-organized event. Looking at the LEGO play material I was half tempted to join the children (which I did too) and play with them. I was surprised by the presence of parents and that they stayed on for such a long time. They were not willing to get back home. I thank the Akshara Foundation team, all the volunteers and school staff for such a fabulous event.”

Pride in Achievement


It was all over in one short hour, the flying sparks and the bursts of ideas translating into solid substance, and the children stood under the marquees with their models, full of pride and achievement and ownership, surrounded by an appreciative and applauding crowd of parents, HMs, teachers, volunteers, School Development and Monitoring Committee (SDMC) members and Akshara staff. They spoke enthusiastically about what they had so spontaneously created, their stories, their models, and how they went about it.



Over 130 volunteers from various organizations like FIS, Robert Bosch, CGI, Hibu, iGate and schools like Inventure Academy organized the habba at 16 schools over Saturdays. Thanks to their high enthusiasm and passion, the habba was a great success !!

As Sharath from Hibu, who had volunteered for the Habba at the Harappanahalli school, noted, “This was an amazing event. I am very excited by the creativity and the talent shown by government school children. My team has volunteered for some events with children before, but the sense of satisfaction and entertainment this event gave us is immense. I wish to participate more frequently in Akshara Foundation events in future.”

The last habbas

The last two LEGO Habbas were conducted at the Community Education Resource Centre (CERC), or community library, at two Bridge Schools run by Samruddhi Foundation. It is an Akshara – supported CERC, run with donor contributions from ING Vysya Foundation. Around 160 children from a local rag-pickers’ colony attend the community library and the team had introduced them to LEGO’s learning and creative opportunities early in the academic year.

Watch the Habba in action

Here’s a wonderful video created by Inventure Academy on the habba. The video tells you the story of the habba and how the children, parents, teachers of GKHPS Handenahalli and the students of Inventure Academy participated in it as a single community.

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 !! “