Our Little Study Center
About a year before COVID happened, we had noticed a new informal settlement crop up under a flyover that we have often used to reach our centers. We had reached out to that community during the first wave of COVID. The community’s primary occupation being that of municipality garbage collectors and ragpickers, they had managed to keep their families running. Post the third wave, we actually got a chance to finally work more holistically in the community. We started running our Made in Maidaan (imparting 21st century life skills education through play) sessions here in February 2022. Soon enough sights of frisbees flying and children cheering for their teams became commonplace. However, all this while, there was a desolate structure looming in the background. It was an abandoned school, run by an organization that had started work in the community before us. Their visits had become infrequent, before they completely stopped coming to the slum completely. Within the first week of our work itself the children and their parents had started requesting that we start running the ‘school’ too, since most of them have not been going to school. We were always clear since the beginning of our work, that we would work towards scaling deep to respond to the needs of the community. So, we promptly evaluated the skill pool we had available through our team and decided to run a functional literacy programme in the community.
Luckily, the accumulated knowledge from doing play-based learning for years would also apply to teaching inside the school. We still had to create a joyful learning environment and a safe space for children. We still had to follow the principles of experiential learning and being child-centric in our approach. Also, not too long ago we had successfully run and then paused a literacy programme called, KHELshaala. We finally had a chance to implement our learnings from that experience to create something more effective. The children were keen on spoken English at a basic conversation level. For English, we set our goal for our children to be able to read sign posts and for Math, our goal was set on handling transactions, budgeting and taking measurements, all of which would be of great practical help to our children.
Two and a half months on, our space in the study center feels a lot similar to our play space. The atmosphere is an extension of the community life in the slum. You would see children bringing their younger siblings to ‘school’, because there is no one to take care of them at home. On occasions, a random chicken strolling past through the group and scaring the hell out of the facilitators would cause a hilarious disruption. The structure itself is made of bamboo, the roof is covered with a huge flex and the inside is decorated with sarees, just like any other hut in the area. On the floor we have repurposed old flexes as mats and the children take responsibility of taking them home and bringing them back in time for the next class. If you were to randomly visit this study center, chances are you would see our children engaged in colorful activities that encourage them to move, create and mingle with each other. We have four classes – Egg, Caterpillar, Pupa and Butterfly. All our children are either in Egg or in the Caterpillar class. We are learning alphabets through tea cups, learning shapes through crafts and learning numbers through colours. We start our session with a mindfulness activity and sing English rhymes at the closing of the session. Often, parents and relatives watch our sessions curiously from outside the center. They smile as they watch us sing and dance and if one odd child misbehaves, we don’t even need to say a word because the parents step in to get that child in line. The most beautiful part for us is that the relationship of our children with ‘abcd’ or ‘1,2,3,4’ is not that of dread, but a relationship of curiosity, fun and laughter.
Decisions regarding timings, teaching methods and rules of the classroom have all been made keeping in mind the needs of the children and community members. Most of the children here either go for work with their parents or have domestic chores to take care of, and the place of academics in their lives comes only after that. We decided the timings according to the convenience of our children The choice to make the space colorful and playful is because the only thing binding children to this classroom is the joy they experience here. The choice to incentivize cleanliness and give points for our children washing their hands and face before coming to the school, was done to establish the school space as sacred. On our part, we ensure that none of us wear our regular play session clothes, but dress up as teachers in a school, even though we are the same people in both spaces. As we started coming to the study center regularly, day after day, the parents started saving bags that they would have found in the trash they had collected, to give to their children to bring to ‘school’. When we enter the community, the youngest of siblings and the oldest of grandparents send word that the ‘Sirs and Ma’ams’ have come! Our children run to wash up, dress and pack their bags for class. The love and the support from the children and their families has been amazing.. Also, our school has no door. The structure belongs to the community, we have only taken part ownership in maintaining and keeping it clean, so the times that we are not using the space, children from the slum come over and play. The adults in the community are very respectful of this space too. Before we started our classes here, they would use the space to keep the trash that they had meticulously sorted, or store firewood. Now that we have started our classes, they are mindful that no one takes up that space for anything else except studying.
However, we have also realized that as time passes, we may encounter a lot of different challenges. Creating such an energy is one thing, but maintaining it session after session requires a lot of thought and labour. Our children may not love their ‘school’ as much on some days. Some days, the ‘school’ might represent something other than joy, monotony even. Sometimes, it is just too hot for them to live in houses without fans and then come to a school to sit and study and other times there might just be a little too much pressure in the home front to do somethings. We have to be prepared for every such day. Punctuality is a value that that is of immense importance to us, so, on somedays we have to be strict with children who were just too lazy to reach school on time, but there are also some who get late while finishing a chore at home. It becomes tricky to draw a balance between customized rules and blanket ones. There is also a looming threat of eviction for being an unnotified slum, so we don’t know how long we can continue to meet them. For now, we are looking at a 6-month plan and if we all manage to stay together, we will chalk out another plan for the second phase.
Our children are able to associate emotions of happy, angry and sad against certain experiences. Parents miss us if they haven’t seen us for a couple of days, our children ask us why one facilitator hasn’t come on a certain day. They express they are sad if a facilitator is on leave and share how they are happy when the same person comes back. The names of teams from our play-based sessions have evolved from ‘Tota’ and ‘Maina’ to ‘Elephant’ and ‘Tree’, based on the words that they learned in school. Their mothers have expressed how they would want to learn to be able to write their names. Our children come with requests to help them write the names of their family members, and once done, there is a twinkle in their eye, reflecting a pride they feel at being able to do something that their parents cannot. Pen drawn tattoos on their arms have shifted from cartoon characters to their names written in English. One interesting thing we saw is that they address us as ‘Didi’ and ‘Bhaiya’ in our play-based session days and as Sir and Ma’am on the study days! As of today, for anyone who visits this community from our organization, warm greetings of “Hi! How are you?” are heard from different corners, as our children run down towards us. There is also a welcome sign hangs at the entrance of the school. Our children have made it. They know how to write alphabets, but they’ve only started learning alphabet sounds recently. The signboard starts with E and ends with W. Yes, it’s ‘Ulta’! We are waiting for the day when they realize for themselves why the spelling is wrong and we hope they spare us for not telling them earlier!
I like how you responded to the need expressed by the community and also how you address the aspect of all days not being the same in terms of joy and motivation.
I would think, to sustain an initiative the most important thing would be to acknowledge that all things may not be bright and beautiful all the time.
My name is Vidya and I work in an International school as an English and Theory of Knowledge Teacher. If you would need any support that I can offer, in my free time, I would be glad to pitch in with it.