Helping children fulfill their dreams

When I was going on a visit to an Akanksha school, I thought my visit would take me back to my college days when I used to volunteer with Akanksha. As it turns out, I was transported back to my school days instead! As I sat through a standard 5 Maths class, I began thinking of Mrs. Khullar, my 3rd grade Math teacher. Because the manner of teaching subtraction, which was the topic in progress, was exactly the way I had been taught in school. (The background these children being more difficult than mine is the reason why they are learning in standard 5 what I did in the 3rd standard, at the private school I attended, many years ago.)

I was at the Akanksha school at Shindewadi in Dadar East. Similar to Shindewadi, Akanksha runs 7 more schools in Mumbai. Their structure has changed from the time I used to volunteer with them. At that time (2001-2002), they ran centers and not schools. The difference being that a center runs as an after-school model to effectively fill the gaps of the school system. The reason for this switch was because the school-model, the organisation could aim to achieve sustainable impact.

“Where are your answers?” quipped the teacher as she moved from student to student, checking their work. “Can zero borrow from one?” as she went back to the Board to complete her explanation on subtraction by borrowing. “I will not entertain any requests for water or the toilet. There’s just 10 minutes for breaktime.” How typical! I couldn’t help but smile, reminiscing of my school days as I observed the class in progress.

Similarly, in the 3rd standard classroom, I observed a Biology lesson in progress. The topic, the day I visited, was germination of seeds. In a very interesting teaching technique, to demonstrate that plants are living creatures, a week ago, the teacher had left 2 baby plants in the class cupboard – without water and sunlight these has wilted away. While the plants had unfortunately died, the children had understood the concept perfectly! Like this, Akanksha does a lot of practical experiments and uses a great deal of audio-visuals – all done to ensure that the children are truly learning!

During the 3:10-3:30pm interval, I interacted with some of the school’s teachers. I was pleased to learn that Akanksha’s model allows teachers to continue teaching students as they move from one standard to the next. This is done not just to maintain but strengthen the bond between teachers and students. The organisation realises that adjusting to a new class can be difficult for both teachers and students – this step makes the transition easier. Moreover, this way, teachers know their children better – their weak points, their character and most importantly, their family backgrounds – thus being in a better position to understand their mental status in the classroom.

Of course, it’s no piece of cake to manage a class – as the Akanksha teachers make it out to be. These are children from poor backgrounds – a missing parent, no parents, an alcoholic father, fights between parents – the backgrounds of some of these children can be quite harsh. Infact, one of the teachers shared with me that 10 out of 35 of her students had major family issues.

What I really appreciate is Akanksha’s stress on English skills. I guarantee you will be able to converse fluently in English, with a grade 3 student. While the accent on certain words may be off and maybe even an occasional tense, s/he will have no difficulty understanding what you say. The importance of speaking good English only gets highlighted when one enters the working world, and it is heartening to know that this will not be a problem area for an Akanksha child. A teacher also shared with me that the childrens’ written English matches their conversational English in the later years only.

The children come from nearby slums (At the Shindewadi school, it is from Gautamnagar, Siddharthnagar and Naigon slums.) Given this background, they are “generally rowdy” – as one of teachers explained. “It’s what they see back home. You can’t blame them.” So jumping over desks instead of walking from the side, being a little pushy for the teachers’ attention, is not an uncommon sight. But really, not too bad a display of behavior, given their backgrounds.

It is for this reason that volunteers with the organisation are sometimes asked to help out in the classroom. In fact, in the Math classroom that I sat through, the class was divided. About 10 who could do sums on their own had little supervision; 10, who were at the lowest level of understanding got complete supervision from the teacher; and 10 at medium-level understanding were being collectively supervised by a volunteer (who was playing the role of a duplicate teacher).

Akanksha gets tons of volunteers from colleges across the city. During my visit, I interacted with some volunteers from JaiHind College. As part of their social work requirement to spend 60 hours at an NGO, they had chosen to spend time at Akanksha. While they can’t play the role of the main teacher, they play a supporting role at school. By preparing charts and other educational aids that will help make lessons more interesting and the school premises more lively. It’s help that goes a long way, especially since an Akanksha teacher’s day is long – 10am-6:30pm. And as I saw, even during the breaks, they get asked tons of questions or other requests from the children.

But it’s all worth it. Because Akanksha students have gone on to college as well as the workforce. The Shindewadi school in in fact their first school that’s gearing up for the SSC exams. Yes, it’s a big milestone that the organisation should achieve with flying colors. I’m sure you’d think the same, if you visited too.

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