11 July 2016: Day Seventeen

In the morning today, I visited Dr Smita and Sameera Ma’am in the clinic and had a conversation with them on why students liked coming here, and also why they liked to come here too. Here’s what Dr Smita had to tell me.

“At Asha, we have created this feeling of a family. I tell the children all the time that this is a family, and all of us are a part of it. I do not go and manage them all – I tell them to manage themselves. I always tell the children “Asha is yours. I am only a facilitator, not a principal or anything. We do not have one main principal of this center.” The senior children do not ever bully or take advantage of the juniors. We do not tolerate any such behaviour here. Everyone is made to feel responsible for the place. I give them the freedom to use the wifi, and explore the internet whenever they want. Yes, we maintain some level of discipline with regards to what they browse, but we still give them that opportunity to explore. On Saturdays, they watch some videos on the TV – and we know our students (Santosh, Digvijay and the others) will ensure that the kind of videos they watch are appropriate.”

“I tell the children that Asha is always thinking about your good only, and so you should do the same. We have given our children the care that they deserve, and we see them giving it back in so many ways now. Satyam, Digvijay, and the others only ensure the center is clean, mopped and that there is no dirt on the floor. These guys also see that desks and tables are in order. They even keep record of the finances. I’ve given them that much of freedom, and I’ve put the power in their hands to make decisions like these. They all have told me that – “We have built our confidence after coming here.” – and I think that this is also very important.”

“I follow some very fundamental democratic principles. I do not run this place. I merely coordinate activities and some work, and I organize and arrange for funds. Yes, I will use my authority as and when required to ensure that things are in order, but otherwise not take advantage of it. Kids need some kind of novelty too – they are bored of the rote learning. And they deserve some different kind of opportunity to learn. We try to give them that through the tablets and computers.”

“There is a culture of giving a student personal attention. Tushar needs to get admitted to a semi-English school. I did all his paperwork the other day for that so he can get admitted there. I handle Digvijay’s health issues – he has some stomach/eating issues since a young age. Even when children misbehave, we explain it to them slowly and with love. We don’t expel them from the institute.”

“There used to be a lot of politics that happened with the teachers and students before. Very recently actually. I cleaned all that up. Once there was a Hindi versus Marathi group-ism that started, and teachers got involved in it too. We ensured that all that did not get out of hand. Even with love affairs – there was a teacher and a senior student who started to get very close to each other here. We told them to do this outside the center – and Asha is not a place for all that. We’re always trying to create a good and healthy atmosphere to learn and have fun only.”

“But you should also know that parents don’t always like this. So many parents go around with the opinion that – “Oh, I’m not going to send my daughter to Asha – there that Dr Smita gives children too much freedom.” – or – “She lets boys and girls to talk with each other, and they only have fun there, they don’t learn anything.” So many parents do not like to send their kids here too because they think both boys and girls get to interact with each other a lot. I keep trying to tell students too to not look down upon the other gender, which is what they generally do a lot. I try to get them to work together, and have conversations with people outside of their gender too. I am still not too happy with how this aspect is even now at Asha – but I am working on it.”

“Regarding why I do all this work – I have always had the deepest interest and passion to give back to the society I live in. I always felt that there is something drastically wrong with the society I live in in many ways. I have always wanted to contribute in some way or the other, but since childhood, I never got the opportunity to do so – I did medicine, got married, had children and other things. Finally, I decided to set up this learning center ten years ago, with the help of some Asha contacts, and we got this happening. I am very, very passionate about education and teaching children from underprivileged backgrounds, and I have always wanted to do this kind of work from the beginning. I have gone through many movements and other NGOs, but I finally settled for something more direct and concrete, where I can directly give children an education.”

“There was an Asha Mumbai chapter in Matunga, but they only did fundraising. Then there was this IIT professor who came from Chennai, and we together started this school/center. And the Matunga office closed, and this became Asha Mumbai. We also talked to Sandeep Pande, the Asha founding member, and he helped us too. My husband is also involved in social work too. That passion I had from within to bring change in society drove me to do all this.”

“Teachers, in my opinion, do not see much about all this. They are mostly here for the money. Yes, Rekha Ma’am is an exception, and so are a few others, but most are getting paid. They either come to Asha because the have a need for money, or because they are truly passionate about teaching and especially teaching students from this background. There is a third category too of teachers – those who come for the experience, and they use Asha as a staging ground to move to a better paying job. We organize the funding for all our teachers through external funding sources only. The Asha trust sends us some money too which we use for this, paying the rent for the center, and other things.”

“We currently have Mr Suranjan and Abhishek with us – we pay them both collectively 28 thousand. They’re both IIT-B PhDs and they have been doing such volunteer teaching for a long time. Now we roped them in to give our senior students some more focused coaching. So they get to do what they had already been doing, but now in a more structured way. Suranjan is a very devoted man – he goes to slums to teach children all the time. So he was ready to work here with us. I want these students who cannot afford the coaching-type of education to get it here for free – because they deserve it.”

“I also hope that there is a chain of giving back and passing on skills that happens here. You can see that so many students come back here to help. I want this kind of relationship to exist always. I keep telling the students, especially the very hardworking ones, that – ‘You are being supported, and you do not need to worry about your xyz finances.’ – and they appreciate this kind of comfort. It makes them more attached to this place. This is the cycle/chain that we have to create among the students.”

And here’s all that Sameera Ma’am told me.

“At Asha, I think the students get affection and love. When I teach children, they have fun with me, and they always come and give me a hug. They get affection and love which they do not get in school. In school they are beaten up. And looking at the background they come from – nobody plays or chills with them; nobody puts in any kind of special interest in them. Also when they come to Asha, they get to also work with technologies of different kinds – tablets or computers – which they do not get to use at home or in school. So they definitely look forward to that. In some capacity, doctor [Smita] also tries to inspire them to think beyond the classroom and also to engage more with the technology. She ensures to financially support some of them as well, and that is an incentive too.”

“Doctor and I always refer to them as ‘children’ or ‘beta/beti’ [son/daughter], and when they hear that all the time, it also affects them and makes them feel more comfortable. You know Aditya, if a child has an idea, we encourage that idea, and we give them that room to discuss and think about it further. We do not tell them to shut up and say “you’re wrong”. You’ll notice that children do not misbehave – they are naughty, but they do not back-answer, hit each other, or say anything uncouth or mean.”

“Karan went to school and recited a hindi poem and everyone asked him where and how he learnt this – and he told everyone that he did it in Asha! – Karan told this story to me only yesterday. They are very proud of the institute too. It is also my opinion that the more restrictions you put on a child, the more the child will do those things. My mother passed away when I was 7, and my Daddy was the only one who raised me. He gave me so much freedom – and I respected that freedom, and today I see that it made me a more confident and capable person. We want to give our children that kind of freedom, and some parents are very against that kind of thing, and they take away their children. This is a very prevalent mentality, and there is nothing you can do about it. There is also a lot of ‘male ego’ that exists with all fathers, and some of the male students too. They think that they are superior to women, and that they have the right to be loud, brash and they can be sloppy about some things. And this is not a stereotype – but it very much exists among many male students. I try to break that too, and make them (and girls too) more conscious of the other gender in the room.”

“Most teachers here at Asha come for the money too. Yes, there are a few who are truly in love with the profession, but that is not the case with all of them for sure. I know so many of the teachers – even teachers of my nephew, who goes to Bombay Scottish, a very ‘good’ [mocking tone] private school – who are just so emotionless, and it feels like they are teaching only because they need the money, and nothing else. It is very sad. They have a plastic smile and that is all. There is no warmth with the students that they have, and I believe that these are the teachers who will leave first. You can see the cold relationship the child and the teacher have. You know – you can tell how the teacher is just by looking at the child’s body language in class.”

When I reached the Asha center, I chatted with Komal, who was part of the DIY workshop on Saturday. Komal showed me what they did and talked a bit about how she felt about the entire exercise.

“We were so interested and involved in the exercise that we didn’t even realize that half our afternoon was over. We didn’t even play music or anything – it was just so much fun. We struggled with making the holes for the lenses, but after two tries, we figured out a trick and a system to use the knife to pop two holes first, and then cut the desired shape. It was too much fun – I was thinking all along, that this thing is actually manufactured by Google, but right now, I am making it out of a Dominos pizza box! Felt wonderful to be making this. We lost track of the time completely – and we were so excited to have the finished product. Santosh and Digvijay made one, and I made the other, all on my own. Mine didn’t come out as sturdy as theirs, but I don’t care – I’m very proud of what I made! We can very easily teach the other kids how to do this. It is not difficult at all, only time consuming. But also very interesting!”

“I went home and told my elder brother that I made this and he was very impressed. But he also told me not to use it too much because it is bad for my eyes. Is that true? I told him that it is the same with a TV – you shouldn’t watch it for too long. I don’t mind not using mine for too long; I am just very, very excited that I got to make it!”

I showed Digvijay and got him started with the MIT App Inventor tool, and he was instantly hooked onto it. He is currently in the process of making an Android application for the Asha center. I’ll look forward to seeing what he comes up with! I encouraged him to google questions/doubts he had with regards to implementing a specific feature, and he slowly got comfortable with the ability to locate good websites and resources that would address his questions.

Later in the afternoon, I sat with Rekha Ma’am, and we created an eight-day lesson plan for both class 6 and class 7 that includes the Google Cardboard VR Expeditions Field Trips. We struggled a fair bit with doing this, and it was a complete hour-long process. I have made a separate blog post with our eight-day outline. Below is the feedback.

Rekha Ma’am struggled with finding more relevant Field Trips. Took a lot of brainstorming to come up with this list. Rekha Ma’am is experienced, but we do not know if any other teacher would have spent this much effort to come up with this lesson plan.

“Others would have just done more GK, and selected random topics – because some of them are very beautiful and they attract the attention of the children. Or they would have dropped the entire idea of using Cardboards, and they would have just used the tablet to google for images.”

“It was especially hard to find Field Trips for class 7. I struggled a lot with it. There was nothing at all relevant to many of the topics in class 7. Thankfully, for science, a lot of the content involves performing practical activities, and so we can use those as a good and equally (if not more) engaging substitute for the VR expeditions field trips.”

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