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Thank You Odisha

I have been pushing this post for 5 months now. When I got home from Odisha, there was so much to do as I had come home after a year.Then, Anand and I got busy – first with the  planning and then with the actual travelling- discovering India where we traveled more than 30 different towns and cities.
Yesterday, 1st of April, I saw that it was Utkala Dibasa or Odisha day , it brought back fond memories of the most incredible year in my life. Just as I was reminiscing , I got a call from one of the students to share the news of his admission to a really good school. I just had to write this post.
What a year it was!
There are too many people who made this year the perfect one it was.
Anand was supportive of my decision to go to Odisha and lived all by himself in far off Chicagoland. Both our parents were cool with the  whole idea, and Swat who was suddenly not going to have her hangout buddies made her peace with it too.
SBI Youth for India showed me a path I wouldn’t have dared to take, had it not been for their sound platform and backing.
In Oct 2014, thirteen of us fellows landed in Gram Vikas in Odisha. These guys made me feel like I was back in Suratkal hostel again. Throughout the year, although in different villages, we somehow managed to meet often and built a strong bond.
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The 13 madcaps who went to Gram Vikas

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Nino and Mansi – Created magic in Koinpur and around

My work through the year was in the Gram Vikas school in Kankia village.

The school! What do I say?. As one of the visitors who made just a short visit to the school during my stay said ‘I was here just for 3 days, but I have received more warmth and love than ever before in my life’. The students are gifted and ever-loving. The teachers are selfless and work tirelessly.
Sharing an excerpt from the Abstract of my project report to give you an idea about these children.
‘Bhabani can fix anything you give him. Jasman can build stuff like an engineer. Tilak’s curiosity will leave you speechless. Salim is silent yet brilliant and wants to be a scientist. Sibani is a Kho-Kho champion and also tops her class. Rajesh is ever curious about astronauts and space. Akash loves to read English story books. Biswanath can solve the Rubik’s cube like a pro. Santi wants to be a mechanical engineer. Ten year old Manini plays chess and can beat adults effortlessly. Jyoti and Sana are weightlifting champs winning yeat after year.
The capability of these delightfully talented tribal children , most of them first-generation-learners shocked me beyond belief when I met them. I was lucky enough to spend a year with them. Here’s a brief report of how I spent my fellowship at the Gram Vikas Residential School trying to help these wonderful curious minds get a better platform and exposure, through new and innovative methods of teaching, which opens up an exciting world of learning for them. Today, I hope I leave behind students and teachers who are digitally equipped to embrace the new India, also having cultivated the hunger to learn more every single day. The teachers are excited to take this forward in the years to come.’
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If you’re happy happy happy ….

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Bhima Sabar, the first student studying to be a doctor from Gram Vikas school

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Sushant, class 9 giving a haircut to Srikrishna as his favourite Ananta watches on

I had a great time living with these bright minds, teaching them something and learning so much more from them.

I thoroughly enjoyed my everyday- be it fun with English with the 3rd graders, teaching computers to the teachers and students, making ppts with the headmistress , dancing in the hostel with the girls, watching all the kids perform in the cultural evenings, teaching the students or teachers to make the Va, Sha or Za sounds(Odia doesnt have these sounds-  – finally gave up deciding their accent was cute ), randomly being announced as chief guest on the mic when the actual chief guest bails and making speeches in my broken Odia, learning Odia from the kids, watching animation movies with the kids, watching kids express themselves fearlessly in Kalpanadham(Creative center established by the efforts of Shalini), watching the kids being amazed by various videos which became a part of their e-learning routine, being able to finally make tutorial videos effortlessly in Odia,  eating bhajjis made from freshly harvested veggies in Mili’s backyard, conversations with Joe Sir(founder of Gram Vikas ) which always made me think and gave me new perspective, banter with Jyoti, watching movies with Omm, night outs with the fellows, singing sessions with our rockstars Sid and Nino or chatting non-stop with my roomie Arati and Mili!

 

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Learning through action songs

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Photo : Pranab Kumar Aich/ UN in India

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Learning Math could be fun too!

 

For the first time in my life, work seemed so pleasurable – day in and day out. Not a single day did I feel ‘ Omg what have I gotten into?’. And this wouldn’t have been the same had I not stayed in the school. Having these kids around you all the time really pumps your energy up! If I had just stayed in a village where people are super busy during the day, I doubt I would have enjoyed myself as much.

The enthusiasm and energy with which every festival and every event was celebrated was mindboggling. Pretty much all of the 500 students and all teachers got involved in some way or the other- prep for dance and music programmes, making a really big clay idol if its a Hindu festival, decorating the entire school, fetching bamboo and building the stage, helping with the cooking , cleaning – well, sooo many things! And then the actual celebration- complete with song , dance, feast, bhajans – whatever the occasion demanded. The high school kids would take complete leadership and ownership and even spend some sleepless nights so that its all set to perfection, the younger ones would do smaller jobs like collect leaves and flowers for decoration.
Children building the stage

Children building the stage from scratch

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The entire set up including the big Ganesha idol was made from scratch by the students

 

My parents who were worried about me living in a far off village were more than just relieved when they visited – they loved the place and the kids!
Whenever I needed any help for my work , I did not even have to look beyond friends and family – all of you supported me. Be it with the sets of books for the libraries, English teaching material, the Math kits for all the Gram Vikas schools, the headphones for the knowledge center, printing the hand-illustrated computer books(made by the kids) and tutorial videos, the generous supplies for art in Kalpanadham, ideas for the knowledge center ( which finally went to on to be a super success) or board games for the hostels- I always had support.
Odia folk on twitter especially were also very supportive – getting a laptop from a stranger (all the way in Chennai) who was looking to help, was icing on the cake and the laptop is being used by teachers regularly now.
Thank you Akshara foundation, IDEK, Pratham books, Amar chitra katha, Genki English and so many others whose teaching material we used successfully in school.
Thank you Seshi mama, Suman, Supriya, Nagamani, Girish, Nirmal, Anisha, Stallone, Anjali, Sandesh, Nihar, BbsrBuzz, Anand, Swat, Reeja, Khyati, Ramya, Raghu, Navu, Appa, Amma, Swat, Anand for helping and supporting through the year.
Thank you Mili, Arati, Geeta di, Urmila di, Jyoti, Joe Sir, all the students and teachers and so many more people.
Thank you Srikrishna, Mansi , Nino, Varun, Shalini, PV, Sanjay, Mrigs, Sid, Souvik for all the good times.
Thank you Geeta ma’am, Shuvajit and Sadaf for running the YFI programme so diligently and passionately!
Sincere apologies, I know I am missing some names
More than anybody else I think I have to thank Mili , younger than me – but behaved like my mommy taking care of me, ensuring I had my meals and being there for me always.
Mili

Mili.

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The kids who made the computer book

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Watching videos in the knowledge center

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Cover page by Jasman, Class V made using MS Paint

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Cover page by Hrushi, Class V made using MS Paint

Like the happiness quotient wasn’t high enough , to add to it,  Odisha is such a beautiful place!

The Gram Vikas campus was so beautiful , the hills around the school made it just perfect.

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Paddy fields next to the school

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What a location for a playground eh?

The sky was so different and beautiful every single day – I could never pick a favourite!
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Lake on Gram Vikas campus

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A house in the heritage art village of Raghurajpura- a must visit in Odisha

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Simply cannot miss – the original Rasagulla at Pahala – DIVINE

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Looking back, the year spent in Odisha has definitely been more than just a life changing experience for me, and I am not saying it just like that. I am short of words to describe what it means to me. It has changed my perspectives in so many ways and taught me so much ; as clichéd as it may sound – It did really teach me to appreciate life and the small joys it has to offer.
I just want to say – THANK YOU ODISHA.
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PS: Apologies for repetition of pics in the blog as the laptop which had all my pics is currently gone for repair and I can’t access them 😦
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The truly unsung heroes

I am back in Odisha after a short vacation in Bangalore, the school was closed for summer holidays. Before I left for home, during the holidays, we had organized a week’s training for the teachers of all the Gram Vikas schools. It was designed to train them on using computers and use e-learning material in their everyday lessons as a first step towards keeping up with the rest out of the world where toddlers hold tablets and computer classes start at kindergarten.

What I realized was that I always spoke about the students in the blog and seldom about the teachers.

Teachers from Gram Vikas schools mostly come from small towns or villages and modest backgrounds. All our schools being residential schools, teachers are more than just teachers. They play the role of a parent, teacher, guide, mentor, warden, administrator, accountant, just about everything. A look at the schedule of the school will give you an idea of a day in the life of these teachers.

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The rigorous daily schedule at the school

Wake up in the morning before the students, make sure they are up, campus cleaning, drill, morning classes, breakfast, classes, lunch, post lunch classes, farming, yoga, prayers, evening classes, dinner, health checks, sleep. And when I say lunch, dinner, its not just eating lunch or taking a break- they have to manage the whole process and its no joke when there are 500 students in the school! The teachers also have to prepare for their classes, take care of accounts, prepare teaching material, organize events, procure material for the school – be it for the mess, stationery, to fix a tap or clean the water tank.

I am amazed at their energy and how they have been at it for such a long time now- some teachers have been around for 25 years now and counting! When I stay in the school, I am exhausted by the end of the day as I find it impossible to keep up with the pace at which these people work.  Now that I am planning to shift to the school to stay, I hope to learn a thing or two from these teachers.

So, when we were requested to help with training these teachers, we wanted to make sure they took a break and had a good time while they also learnt something. We’re no experts at teaching, our training programme included mostly what we could help them with- basic computers, internet, using e-learning, teaching English, the newly procured Math kit and the best of all – team building fun activities.

It was awesome to see these teachers participate with great enthusiasm in everything we did- be it dance or sing or do a computer quiz.  We even had a small trip to the nearby beach and spent an hour there and that was enough for them to have a ball – that is the only excursion they had for the entire year!

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Teachers learning to use the newly introduced Math Teaching Learning Material (TLM)

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Learning to use a computer in the new computer lab

Our super enthu teachers with Nino

Our super enthu teachers with Nino

Trip to Gopalpur beach

Trip to Gopalpur beach

Having visited the villages where our students come from, I know the difference these teachers have made to these students; pretty much completely transformed their lives from what it would have been otherwise. If not the teachers, who could one give credit to, for all students of a rural tribal school passing class ten with flying colors?

A few years ago, once the govt started opening schools in all villages, Gram Vikas closed its non-residential day schools that were opened in all the project villages. However, students would not let them close one such school at Gatida as the teacher there was so good- loving, fun and simply exemplary at teaching.  The students come from villages as far as 6-8 kms  just for this teacher, through hills and streams on foot.

I was lucky enough to meet this teacher, Bhagya didi and fell in love with her!

The adorable Bhagya didi

The adorable Bhagya didi

Mili, the sweetest teacher in my school

Mili, the sweetest teacher in my school

Oh I am just blissful that I have been able to work with these wonderful, loving and simple people.

They are truly champions!

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How I Learnt Unlearnt Relearnt

Since I had not written for so long, I was wondering what I must blog about… I finally decided to write about some truly ‘Learn-Unlearn-Relearn’ moments that I have experienced here.

Not so long ago, I was completely against the caste based reservation system that exists in our education and government system. Like many others, I argued that it works against the merit system and thought that one shouldn’t be given any opportunity unless he deserves it by virtue of his merit.

When I went to B school, Azhar Khan our economics professor always tried to convince us on why the reservation system was necessary – ‘As these people were oppressed by the society for a long time, they are not on the same platform as others, It would take years for them to be brought on to a level playing field with others.’ I always argued against it, at least in my head and was never convinced.

Now that I am living amidst tribal children who hail from small villages in the hills and jungles, I truly appreciate the opportunity that this reservation system gives them. The school that I work with currently has more than 95% tribal children. What’s so different about them you may ask?  Here’s what :

Most of them are first generation learners – their parents never went to school.
To make things worse, their parents do not know the benefits of education and have other problems to worry about.
They hail from villages which are not easily accessible.
They hail from villages which mostly do not have functioning schools- either there is no school or no teacher or teacher is no good.
They hail from villages which have no healthcare.

As I am writing this, I remembered Bhima who is a student from our school currently studying medicine. It is a matter of huge pride for him, for his village and our school. He was a topper in class X in our school, but wouldn’t have made it to the medical college had it not been for the reservation for Scheduled tribes. The hardworking and sharp boy that he is, I am sure he will make a great doctor, one day.

From our school, the number of students who go on to study post class XII is not many, there are many barriers – lack of family support, money, language barrier (most UG courses are in English), lack of awareness, lack of interest even! So, when the few determined and hardworking students who want to go ahead and study- completely self motivated, imagine a situation that they are not able to because of their low income or not meeting the extraordinarily high cut off marks?

The Class X results are out today, I will soon know how our students have fared. I am expecting a couple of them to cross 85% which is a very big deal! These boys want to study in a good school in Bhubaneswar, but will they get a seat with their marks? I truly hope so.

My point is this, had they been in an urban school, they would have probably scored 95%+ like the toppers there these days do. But with the kind of exposure, the school and the teachers they had, this is the best they could have done.

These students who gave their exams in Feb this year came back to school to learn computers. The school received a donation of 10 computers and the lab was functional starting March and these students did not get the opportunity to benefit from it while in school. They came back to school, during their holidays when the rest of the children their age were just rejoicing having completed class X board exams – only because they were highly motivated to learn. Our infants in the cities today are born with tablets in their hand, parents can’t even imagine feeding their babies without their favourite videos from youtube and these sixteen year olds were just happy to touch a keyboard for 20 odd days!

There is a boy in class VI who told me he has to walk 50 kms from the nearest motor-able road to reach his village. He takes two days to walk to his village, (most of it a steep uphill climb) after the bus drops him off on the nearest road. Can you imagine how inaccessible his village is? And we expect him to be able to be just like you and me?

My biggest learning here is that:

Children everywhere have the same potential; it’s just the opportunities and platforms that are different.

Wouldn’t it be unfair if a child has to continue to suffer just like his forefathers who were denied equal opportunities? The reservation in education system for these children has the right intentions; you may argue that it’s highly misused, that these children wont be able to cope with the tough courses, that politicians use it for vote bank politics, meritorious students lose out etc.
The problems that are to be tackled are far more complex. The reality of the situation is that unless we are able to bring the education experience of these children on par with the urban system, until they get the same opportunities as the privileged, we cannot talk about doing away with reservation.

Also read post by a fellow-fellow Shriya Rangarajan who shares her thoughts and experience on the same topic.

Girls of class VII - super smart and eager to learn

Girls of class VII – super smart and eager to learn

Children excitedly playing with Taka who was visiting from Switzerland

Children excitedly playing with Taka who was visiting from Switzerland

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When appa, amma and doddi decided to visit me

It has been a long time since I wrote a post, really long. I had started writing this one about a month ago. I left it mid-way as my access of internet has been very intermittent. But that’s no excuse really!

I realized I was not doing justice to my poor blog where I was to capture all my experiences. So, I sat and completed the post I had started. Here goes..

Swat wrote a post about her experience home alone for 15 days while my parents traveled in the East of India . What she did not mention is that they also visited me! Yayyy 🙂

Appa, Amma and Doddi visited me in Odisha and we had so much fun, I wish they never left 😐

The first two days , we visited Bhubaneswar,  visited the sweet Kittu tatha and his wife (Amma and doddi were meeting them after 40 years or more! ), enjoyed the best rasagullas in the most unexpected places, shopped till appa’s wallet was empty at the colorful Peepli, loved the beautiful Konark temple ruins and managed a hello to Puri Jagannath too.

The colorful Peepli- Image courtesy : Indianholiday.com

The colorful Peepli- Image courtesy : Indianholiday.com

When I got free pearls in exchange for speaking in Odia :D

When I got free pearls in exchange for speaking in Odia 😀

(Did you know? Rasagullas are originally from Odisha and not from West Bengal B-) ! I had my doubts about it, but having consumed the best rasagullas ever in a non descript restaurant in Bhubaneswar, I have no doubt about it now 🙂 )

After two days of visiting touristy places, we finally headed to Barhampur, the closest town to my village, Mohuda. Appa,amma and doddi got a taste of how most of India travels, with at least 25 people squeezed in, in a compartment meant for 8! Luckily though it was a short ride and being the nice people they are, they didn’t complain at all 🙂

After the 3 hour train ride and a an hour’s ride in our good old Marshal, finally we were home. I was so happy I could finally show off my cosy little home to them. They were more excited than I was!

Appa being appa got to fixing things as soon as he arrived! Within the first hour, my ventilator through which Musa (Odia for mouse) was visiting us was fixed. Within a day, my shower which never worked was fixed, my cycle which was as noisy as a motorbike was fixed, and my garden got a makeover!

Appa rescuing the jasmine

 

Some rest after all the cooking, cleaning, gardening and fixing

Some rest after all the cooking, cleaning, gardening and fixing

Amma and doddi were so excited to see the neem and mango trees that mavinkai gojju and mavinkai uppinkai were ready in no time! Neem leaves and flowers were procured and packed for Ugadi which happened to fall on the day they would be back in Bangalore.

They loved the campus and our little home , but what they loved the most was my warm and welcoming kids at school!

Appa was all prepared for engaging the children at school. He had brought with him a Buddhist prayer wheel that rotated- powered by solar energy and a simple parachute that could be launched from the ground. Appa was elated when the class VI kids (my favourite class 😛 ) explained the working of the prayer wheel upon seeing and examining it B-) .

They loved listening to the kids sing, dance and ask them numerous questions.

Class IV 'Happy' kids

Class IV HAPPY kids

 

At home with Shalini, Zo, Souvik, Siddharth, Srikrishna

My favourite class VI

My favourite class VI

My daddy strongest

My daddy strongest

 

Gram Vikas Mohuda office

Gram Vikas Mohuda office

 

Of course, we didn’t miss an opportunity to shop again at Barhampur where cotton sarees where purchased by the dozens!

What fun it was ! Their visit made me re-realize how kickass, chilled out and fun our family is. Such happy and warm people!

It was also a relief that they were more than happy with where I live, the people I work with and loved the school .

Thank you Appa, Amma and Doddi, you guys can brighten up any place!

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Bridging the gap

A couple of days ago, we visited four villages around our school, riding through lovely mountains and valleys. What an amazing experience it was!

When Debendra Sir said, Kya ghati pe gaadi chalaa loge? We gave him a resounding, “yeah of course”. Little did we know that he meant kaccha stone-laden paths carved through mountains with several streams in between! Our poor new Activa-i made for city roads didn’t let us down though. Shalini rode it like a dirtbiker. And Bhagwanji’s splendor galloped only a couple of times 😛

We remembered to click a selfie only at the last kutti stream

We remembered to click a selfie only at the last kutti stream

So let me tell you why we went to these villages. Every year, the Gram Vikas School identifies students for admission to class III for the new academic year. (School starts from class III since it’s a residential school and younger kids may not be independent enough to live by themselves.) We first have a bridge course for three months for the children to bring them up to speed to class III. Those who are not yet ready for class III or are not able to take care of themselves, go back home after the bridge course and may come back the following year. For the final admission to school, the school gives preference to orphans, girl child, poorest of poor and first schooler from the family, in that order.

Lingaraj Sir with the kids at Bethajhari village

Lingaraj Sir with the kids at Bethajhari village

In their villages, these children are usually enrolled in the Government schools. The condition of government schools in these remote villages is appalling, and I don’t mean the building – most villages, even hamlets have at least a school building thanks to the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan.

So most schools have one or more of the below challenges
• The teacher is like visiting faculty we had in colleges, comes once in two months since the village is usually remote and difficult to access like I had mentioned in my post here
• Teacher is regular, but parents don’t care about education and don’t let the children go to school
• Children stay back at home to help their parents on the field or shop or at home
• Students come to school just for the free mid day meal and run home post that
• Students do come to school, but the learning levels are very very low
• School building used for storage and other purposes, neither teacher nor the village cares about the children learning

So even when they have the opportunity to send their children to a full-time residential school like Gram Vikas’, not every parent is keen, as they do not value education.

Like Debendra Sir pointed out, “a lot of these people in the villages are more economically sound than me, but they do not know the importance of education.” Rather unfortunate state of things, don’t you think?

When I saw children in these villages, I could not believe that the students currently in class III at the Gram Vikas school were actually like these kids hiding behind their parents just a year before. I could see a world of difference between the two! The kind of change that the school is able to bring about is heartwarming and it was quite overwhelming to be able to actually see it.

Something else that amazed me is how Gram Vikas has reached these remote tribal villages and ensured they have water and sanitation and dignified houses.Mind you, the mud paths we used didn’t exist before and the field staff walked 30-50 km to reach villages.These were just four of villages that we visited; other teachers will be visiting other villages to identify and coax parents to send the children to our school.

I am so glad I got to visit these villages , helps understand the roots of the children better.
I really look forward to seeing these new little boys and girls come to the school next month.Exciting months ahead! Tra la la la la 🙂

The very picturesque Sarakata village surrounded by mountains on all sides

The very picturesque Sarakata village

 

Pretty house in Baniamari village

Pretty house in Baniamari village

 

Every evening looks something like this

Every evening looks something like this

All pictures courtesy Shalini and her phone .. Thankoo!