Inside a learning centre under Badhte Kadam – eyes shining with enthusiasm! The author is in the centre.
“Aapko samosa jyada pasand hai ya puchka?” An attempt at breaking the ice. It’s one of my early field visits and I’m surrounded by little smiling faces. “Samosa! Puchka! Samosa!” answers float towards me amidst many many giggles. “Chalo ab batao, kya aapko school zyada pasand hai ya center aana?” … “Center! Dono!”
“Main school nahi jati hoon.” I almost miss her quiet admission. “Ghar main kaam rehta hai toh mummy-papa mujhe school nahi bhejthe.” She looks about 14, but is in class 1.
“Par center toh bhejthe hai na?”
“Kyunki yeh ghar ke bagal main hi hai aur woh didi ko jaante hai. Didi roz ghar aake bulati hai. Bahut achchi hai. Bahut sikhati hai. Mujhe achcha lagta hai yahan aana.” a slow smile on her face now. “Aapko pata hai? Didi ne mummy se baat kiya aur main ab silayi bhi seekhungi! Main aapke liye bhi suit banungi jisme.” She’s beaming now as she goes on to detail her plans.
It’s a simple exchange, but really speaks volumes about the challenges faced and the kind of impact that Azad India Foundation has achieved in Kishanganj, Bihar. Even six years ago, this child would be more likely to be found working the land or caring for her children than holding a book. Today, she dreams of being a tailor. This may not seem like much to you and me. But, for a young girl in a society that affords no options beyond marriage and housework to women, dreaming of financial independence, is nothing short of a rebellion.
Established in 1998, the Azad India Foundation (AIF) started with one goal – to improve literacy and ensure that every child gets back to school. It wasn’t and still isn’t an easy task. Kishanganj has the lowest literacy rates in the entire country. A myriad of reasons contribute towards this and not all of them financial. To get a better idea of these factors read this first. Still, Azad India has been pushing forward and trying to create a system through which quality primary education can be given to children in these communities. As part of my fellowship, I’ve been working with Badhte Kadam, one of AIF’s unique primary education programs in the Thakurganj and Pothia blocks. Working with this team has given me a first hand exposure to what it takes to really make a difference in these children’s lives.
It’s the end of the session but the children are not leaving. They barely glance at me as they furiously scribble away, trying to solve a math riddle before I do. “Tum haar gayi. Abhi 50 rupaiya nikalo!” I’m only joking of course.
“Kya? Nahi! Abhi nahi. Jab meri shaadi hogi tab dungi!” She flashes me a sly smile. “Achcha? Phir toh har din ka 1 rupaiya jodna padega. Bahut zyada ho jayega. Soch lo!”
“Zyada? Kitna zyada? Rukho main calculate karti hoon.” A thoughtful expression on her face now. She’s intrigued. “Ab mein 10 saal ki hoon. Pehle mujhe matric pass karna hai, 5 saal baad. Phir 2 saal inter. Main science padungi. Phir doctor banungi toh 4, nahi 5 saal college. Phir 1 saal clinic kholungi, phir shaadi hoga. Toh total 13 saal. Ek saal mein 365 din hain toh total …”
I keep adding more complications to the problem and she keeps on solving it in her head as she keeps up her running commentary. We only stop (and that too reluctantly) when the sun starts going down.
Children are always absorbing information and finding avenues to learn. For the children of Thakurganj, these avenues are perhaps fewer than most. Making a difference in the children’s lives here could simply mean increasing those avenues. And this is precisely what Badhte Kadam aims to do. Although Azad India has run several learning based programs in the district since 2008, Badhte Kadam kickstarted in 2013. As part of this program, Azad India has started several learning centres to deliver quality primary education, in the villages that come under the Thakurganj and Pothia blocks. They operate similar to small schools, with thirty students to a class. The centres are segregated along learning levels instead of age groups, going from 1 to 3. On completing level 3, the children are encouraged to return to or join formal schooling. Since the classes are segregated on learning levels, you will find children of several ages, often in the same class. On an average, most of them are between ages 5 and 14.
When it first began, they started with just the level 1 classes in about 10 villages. Today, they run upto 40 centres in as many villages. The hope is that by igniting the love of learning in children, they will take initiative to continue, or even start their schooling. Many a school teacher sing praises of the children who pass through the centres before reaching them.
The centres operate along the lines of if the child doesn’t go to school, then bring the school to the child. This is why all learning centres are located in carefully scouted locations in the heart of the village or hamlets. This is especially important in isolated hamlets as the nearest school could easily be a few kilometres away. Keeping the centres inside the community also ensures that they get integrated into community life. Parents often pass by and peek in to see if classes are running smoothly, sometimes even offering chai and nashta to the teachers. It also makes it that much more difficult for the child to wander off.
Centre timings are also carefully crafted to mitigate the inconvenience caused to the community lifestyle. Each session is only three and half hours long, which gives the children ample time to engage in other activities to help the family. The sessions run from 6 to 9.30 in the mornings or 2 to 5.30 in the evenings depending on the convenience of the children. Since the centres neither clash with the madrasas (which typically start at 10) or the schools (timings tend to be 10am to 2pm normally), children can typically pursue more than one avenue of learning. Many children attend the centres in the morning and then head on off to madrasa or school or vice versa. This has been instrumental in obtaining the support of the Maulanas as it’s not seen as a replacement to Deeni Taleem.
I strike up a conversation with a teacher at her centre. The sun is high in the sky and we’re sitting around sipping tea in the courtyard as we wait for the afternoon session. “Aapko pata hai, mera centre bandh hote hote bachch gaya!” Her eyes wide to emphasise her point.
“Kyun? Kya hua?” She’s piqued my interest.
“Abbu chahte the ki main centre bandh kar du. Aap ko pata hi hai ki mujhe roz sab ke ghar jana padhta hai bachchon ko lane, toh log uske bare mein kuch kehne lage aur Abu ko bura laga.”
“Phir kya? Maine Abbu ko samjhaya ki main koi galat kaam nahi kar rahi hoon. Padhane ka kaam toh sabse izzatdaar kaam hota hai. Aur phir bachchon ke parivaron ne bhi baat kiya. Abu ko maanna hi pada.” A shy smile.
“Main bahut mehnat karti hoon. Aur hamare centre mein jitna padhate hai, utna yahan ka government school mein bhi nahi padhate. Mere class 3 ke bachche school ke class 6 ki bachchon se bhi zyada jaante hai.” A hint of pride in her voice.
“Mujhe teacher banna achcha lagta hai. Main soch rahi hoon ki graduation ke baad main B.Ed kar lun. Maine Abu se bol diya ki mujhe abhi shaadi nahi karna.”
“Khud ki bhi kuch hona chahiye na?” Her determination shines through.
“Everyone should have something of their own” is what she told me. Usually that’s a sentiment that is only reserved for men in her part of the world. But through the learning centres, not only is Badhte Kadam equipping a future generation to challenge that status quo, it is also enabling the young women of those communities gain some agency over their lives. Since centres are set up in the heart of the settlements, the teachers too are sourced from the same communities.
Preference is given to young women, usually those who have just completed their 12th grade. And all of them are encouraged to complete their college education side by side (none of the colleges run actual classes, it’s mostly through distance education). Many like the one above, look beyond their graduation as well, with some even going on to holding teaching and managerial positions in other institutions.
Having a local community member teach has many a benefit. First, the community is reassured and put at ease. They are more prone to trust one of their own to not have ulterior motives in teaching their children. Since the teacher has an existing rapport with the people, it becomes easier to get and keep track of students in the centres as well. Second, it gives these young women (and men) a taste of financial independence. Many of them fund their college education with their salary, many more contribute to their household with a sense of pride. And usually, this means that they are able to stand up for themselves and avoid an early marriage. Third, it gives the teachers a sense of pride in their work. All of them gain respect within their communities and within their own families. Parents become more prone to valuing their opinions, hence giving them agency over their own lives.
Lastly, it gives the little ones someone to look up to. Having a role model from your village, your community, your own house becomes a powerful incentive to complete their education. It tells the children, if she can do it, then so can I. Children aspire to be what they see around them. Walk in to any of the centres and you’ll find at least ten future educators!
I’m sitting in the library corner with a group of 8 year olds all vying for my attention.
“Didi! Kya aapko bagh (division) karna aata hai?” I shake my head out of curiosity.
“Bahut easy hai didi, main sikhata hoon.” Patting my head reassuringly.
“Agar humko 216/6 karna hai toh pehle 2 sau ka bundle chahiye, 1 das ka bundle, 6 khule moti. Phir hum pehle sau ke bundle se shuru karte hain…” his excitement is palpable.
“Sau se kyun? Das se kyun nahi?” I’m curious to see if he knows.
“Kyunki woh sab se bada hai. Aur bade ko hum thod sakte hai. Dekho 2 sau ka bundle matlab 20 das ka bundle. Phir hum usme…” he continues his animated explanation. By the end of that session they’ve taught me addition, division and patterns. Again, they’re 8.
All those future educators, as well as our current ones, need the support of a good curriculum as well. They say the best way to check your understanding of a concept is to teach it to someone else. Well, in that case these children are far ahead of the curve. And a lot of it is thanks to the unique curriculum employed. Nalanda Charitable Foundation (NCF) introduced AIF to the Gyanshala teaching module in 2017. Gyanshala is an NGO working towards developing a quality alternative schooling system for out of school children from economically weaker communities. While their focus is primarily in urban centres, their team has graciously shared their curriculum, teaching materials and training with the team at Azad. The curriculum and teaching methodologies employed are in keeping with the latest pedagogical findings. The curriculum places higher emphasis on the child’s ability to learn than the teacher’s ability to teach. This is especially done so as to not be constrained by the lack of trained teachers.
A specially designed teachers’ guide assists the teachers in understanding the best teaching practices and every child gets their own workbooks with easy to understand yet highly interesting exercises. Most of our children race ahead and complete their work long before the teacher has explained it to them.
The teaching style incorporates plenty of games, songs and activities to keep their interest alive. The emphasis is on understanding concepts and not just rote learning. Concepts are taught in a manner that focuses on all learning styles (visual, auditory, kinesthetic), with the use of lots of guided play. The teaching method also carefully incorporates a combination of group and individual work. Even the worksheets are designed to reinforce their understanding and not their memory. And it’s clearly working. All these years and even i didn’t really know why we start with the largest place value in division!
It’s a bright Saturday morning as I gaze around at the men and women who surround me. I’m at a community meeting, just to observe. “Aaj hum aap se bachchon ki attendance ke baare mein baat karna chahte hai.” Twenty heads turn towards the facilitator.
“Par usse pehle bataiye, kya aap ko centre ya teacher se koi shikayat hai?”
“Nahi…na…” 20 heads shake in tandem.
“Hamein koi shikayat nahi, hum toh bahut khush hai ki yeh ladka (gesturing at the teacher) hamare bachchon ko padhata hai! School se behtar padhata hai!” A village elder hobbles forward.
“Yahan school door hai toh main pareshan tha pehle, abhi nahi.” Several nods and murmurs.
“Main nahi chahta ki mera beta bhi mere tarah reh jaye. Main jab bhi tankwa lene jata hun, to chaapa daalta hoon. Bahut sharm hoti hai. Mera beta sign karega. Mere tarah nahi reh jayega.” Several more nods and murmurs.
“Aap ko jo bhi madad chahiye, main dunga!” He sits down to roaring applause.
The facilitator takes charge again.
None of this can be achieved without the support of the communities themselves. All learning centres are set up after careful discussions and full collaboration with the community members. The entire tola or gaon comes together to discuss and decide if a centre is warranted (the answer has almost always been a yes), where to set up the centre and who will contribute to its upkeep. All centres are put up on land donated by the communities and it’s members donate both material and labour to build it up. Depending on the area and economic prowess, centres can range between a simple bamboo structure to beautifully painted mud huts to concrete rooms.
Sometimes the local Anganwadi or Samudayik Bhavan (community hall) are used where possible, to reduce the infrastructure cost. But no matter the type of structure, there is always a sense of ownership for the community. Meetings are held not just to discuss the infrastructure but also for student attendance, teacher’s performance as well as any other issues that might crop up in the day to day running of the centres. Gatherings are often organised by the field team, but many times by the teachers themselves should the need arise.
I turn around during a teacher training session and suddenly notice, three pairs of bright twinkling eyes gazing at me from the window. “What are you doing didi?” pipes a voice laced with giggles. “Teaching your teachers” I reply. “Good!” An emphatic nod and more giggles. “You should teach her lots and lots because there’s so much we want to learn!”
Those twinkling eyes are a testament to the work put in by the Badhte Kadam team since 2013. Many from that first batch are sitting their boards this year and even with all the workload, still find time to drop in to chat with their old teachers. The ones that started them on this pathway to learning. Today, with 40 centers, in as many villages, the program is equipping about 2500 children with basic literacy and math skills. But more importantly, it is igniting curiosity and making them fall in love with learning itself.