1

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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16

The computer lab conundrum

There are less than a couple of months left before I leave Odisha and I am already sad about it every other day. It sucks to answer the kids, when they ask me why I have to leave. Also, There are so many things to do and I am finding it hard to prioritize.

Thanks to lack of internet connectivity in the school, I also stopped blogging, but I am writing this post to ask all you people to share your ideas and recommendations.

My work here took a bit of a turn when my co-fellow Srikrishna decided to run away to the Himalayas either seeking more peace or challenges, I know not what. While he was here, his plan was to create a knowledge and learning centre at the school with the ten computers that were received as donation.  Before it took shape, he was gone. And since the children were more very very eager to start learning computers, I couldn’t let them be disappointed, I had to take over the responsibility of the learning center.

In the new academic year, I took responsibility of the lab and after much coaxing, the folks at the school agreed to include computers as part of the regular time-table for all classes. Now, every student (500 of them!) gets to attend computer class once a week.

Now, that I had a functioning lab with me, and kids more eager than ever to start learning, it was an easy task to get things going. It was pure joy to see them excitedly hold the mouse for the first time, go hawwww when they could draw, grin when they could make animations on powerpoint and  be amazed when they could just copy and paste stuff!

Thanks to a co-fellow Ashish , we even have a lovely little computer book in Odia – hand illustrated by children of another Gram Vikas school.

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Wonderful hand illustrated book created by kids of another GV school under the guidance of co-fellow Ashish

Children of all classes are now learning basics of computers, how to use MS office tools like Word, Power-point, Excel etc. and are super happy to be doing so. There are going to be tutorial videos as well in Odia so that the dependency on the teacher is not very high.

Kids learning to type

Kids learning to type

This is all good, but does someone really need to be taught how to use Word, Excel or Powerpoint?  They are all intuitive and can be self-taught. Shouldn’t the purpose of a computer lab be much beyond that?!

I read somewhere, Technology is tool, and not a learning outcome.

Learning computers is not the end but just the means to opening up a world they didn’t know existed.

So, we decided to introduce use of e-learning material, videos, images related to the lessons being learnt; also interactive e-stuff to make learning fun and also more effective. It is well known that the use of images, along with words, diminishes the overwhelming nature of text and increase retention. E-learning also allows self-paced learning and gives students the power to choose what they want to learn.

As a result, now, we have a repository of materials for most topics of subjects across classes.  Teachers take these materials on the laptop (donated by a kind stranger who saw a related tweet) and show it in the class during the lesson. The repository would also be made available on the computers in the lab and the children can view them in the computer period.   It feels good to see the kids excitedly asking for videos of Mangalyaan or the Human eye or Kapil Dev – stuff they are learning about in their everyday lessons.

Kids saying Thank you to Ganesh Pradhan who donated his laptop to the school

Kids saying Thank you to Ganesh Pradhan who donated his laptop to the school

I feel there is so much more that can be done in the knowledge center . Introducing programming and useful software would be the next logical step.I am planinng to start with MSW Logo which is really simple to pick up. Khan academy, code academy are wonderful but internet, right now, is a challenge. We only have mobile data which is very poor and efforts are being made to get better internet.

I know there are tonnes of possibilities. I am not even an expert in education to know or decide what’s best.

So, my request to you folks reading this, is to pour in your suggestions on how to make best use of a computer lab in a residential rural school to make it both fun and effective. Do keep in mind constraints of poor internet connectivity, no expert computer instructor and also poor English comprehension skills.

If you have kids going to school or if you can just spend 5 mins to think about this , help me with recommendations on how best to use the lab. It could be anything related to:

  • Computer Games that can be introduced
  • Interactive e-learning material (Math and English, if other subjects- has to be in Odia)
  • Simple Programming – which languages to start with?
  • Useful software you would recommend be taught
  • Best way to use mobile apps on desktops – tonnes of useful mobile apps for Math and English available
  • Good movies and videos (there is a huge repository of animation movies, planet earth etc already)
  • Anything else I am unable to think of

Less than two months to go and there are tonnes of things remaining to be done. The hope is that finally, the learning center makes learning more fun and effective, and picking up basic computer skills prepares these kids better to thrive and grow in a world where a new born first holds a tablet in his hand.

3

Kemiti Achanti?

One of the fears I had before coming to Odisha was about dealing with the language barrier. “How would I be able to work with people if I cannot speak their language?” I thought. The YFI team consoled us that the NGO folks would help us interact with the communities. I still wasn’t convinced. Tanay , a friend who is from Odisha had even offered to teach me Odia in exchange for authentic south Indian lunch, But I found no time to do it before leaving Bangalore. 😦

Once I got here, I realized that most people in the rural regions here do not understand or speak Hindi. In a typical hamlet, there could be 2-3 people, who might understand and speak Hindi because they migrate to other states periodically for work and pick up some Hindi. However, most people speak only Odia.

One option for working with the community was to work with interpreters – those villagers who could speak Hindi. Of course, there was a fear of not even knowing how much would be lost in translation. And what about that personal connection we wanted to establish with people?

In the school, the story was the same; a few kids in class, who probably watched more TV, knew a bit of Hindi and helped translate. English, of course, was almost out of question as I have mentioned in my earlier posts.
Soon, I started picking up some Odia by listening to people around me. Also, while teaching at the school, I would speak in English/Hindi and the kids in turn would tell me the Odia translation. The learning process was still slow.

Then I saw that Mansi, Ninoshka and Varun – three awesome fellow-fellows, who work in another school of Gram Vikas, had started learning to read and write Odia. Whoa!

I could barely manage to speak and understand tikke tikke Odia (little little Odia), while these kids (ok all 20 somethings are kids are according to me 🙂 ) were easily managing reading, writing and speaking Odia! I was astounded and really proud of them. They even coolly gave speeches at the school and the village communities in Odia!

Mansi writing Odia

Mansi writing Odia


My writing

My writing

Mansi's writing

Mansi’s writing

And what do you know, I was all inspired to learn to read and write Odia myself.
I borrowed a book from a Class III student at school and started learning to write. I can now manage to read and write a bit. I hope to be able to speak fluently in the near future.

There is always joy in learning a new language. Sometimes it’s an unconscious process, like how you just pick up the language your neighbours speak – Swat speaks fluent Marathi and Konkani and I can manage to speak a bit and understand most of it. Some other times though, when time is less and it’s a necessity, you have to make an effort to learn it. I guess an HR job wasn’t attractive enough for me to learn Dutch while in Amsterdam; but being able to interact comfortably with the kids here definitely is a huge incentive to learn Odia.

And Odia is such a beautiful language!
I love how proper Sanskrit words are part of the colloquial vocabulary. Imagine using kintu for but, asuvidha for problem, vartaman for now. I only remember listening to such words in the Ramayan or Mahabharat TV serials. I feel scholarly when I use such words.

A lot of the vocabulary is also similar to Hindi, the Aa sound becomes o or aw. Like Ghar is pronounced Ghawro, Rama as Rawmo. I was quite amused when I realised Ponda Babu is actually Panda and not Ponda! So if you know any Odia person with Panda as surname call him Ponda next time you meet him 🙂

I’m loving every bit of it.

Until next time. Asuchi.

Kemiti Achanti (pronounced Achonti) is How are you ?
Asuchi is used while saying bye- similar to Bartheeni in Kannada or Poyittu Varein in Tamil

3

The Classroom Conundrum

Happy Class IV kids

Happy Class IV kids

It has been a while since I blogged. The reason is this. Everyday, I go to school –  I learn, understand or realize something new. I come back and pen it down. The very next day, my thoughts about the same thing change completely and I am in a totally new direction of thinking!

I write in this post one such example.

So, I am teaching spoken English in the Gram Vikas school at Kankia village. I started this after I saw that the kids here could read and write in English but couldn’t speak or understand a word when spoken to. However, I am in constant dilemma wondering why it’s important for these tribal kids to be able to speak English. A language is just a medium of communication and learning Odia or their tribal dialect should be enough. I felt that I was considering doing something totally useless and trying to drag them into ‘mainstream’ without putting any thought into it. I wrote about it.

Soon, I meet an ex student of the school – Bhima Sabar who is currently pursuing MBBS(a post about him later) – the only student from this school so far who has started studying medicine. When I called him to check if I could meet him, I was struggling with broken Odia and Hindi, and to my surprise, he said he would be more comfortable speaking English. Even Class X kids in our school who have decently tough lessons in their English text book cannot manage beyond a What is your name or How are you?  and this guy here was conversing in very good English!

I later learnt that his MBBS course is completely in English and luckily he managed to learn some English in college (XI and XII) before MBBS since he went to a college where speaking English was mandatory.

He says if he hadn’t done that, he really would have struggled with his medical course.

I came back home and deleted my previous post.

I realized that just like Skill based training like masonry or tailoring gives people opportunities that they didn’t have earlier, learning English could also open up avenues for them which they didn’t already have.

I am not saying the confusion in my mind is resolved, but am glad there is truly some unlearning, learning, relearning everyday and the cycle goes on.