Tuesday, 19 January 2016

What I learned from a conversation with a Grade 1 Student

This post is about Arkam. He is a Grade 1 student of a government school in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. 


Context: I had gone to his school to observe a Grade 2 classroom. All Grade 1 students were at the back of this classroom because their teacher was absent. Grade 1 children had been given some work while the Grade 2 teacher was teaching the Grade 2 students.  


I was silently taking notes about the class that I was observing. I was sitting at the end of the class. Arkam comes and sits next to me. I notice that his uniform is torn and that his bag is very old and the white sweater he is wearing had turned almost brown because of the dirt. He was looking over the notes I was writing and probably wondering why a non-teaching adult was in the class. 

Arkam asked me about fifty questions in the 20 minutes that I was around him in the class. I told him my name is Salman Khan. This is something I usually do to make students more comfortable around me. He asked me where I lived and what did I do. He also asked me if I had been to school and college. He then went ahead and told me where he lived. He told me who all were there in his family and also informed me that this was his first year in the school. He had gone to a different school before this. 

He asked me if I owned a car and when I said no he asked me to save money and buy a good one soon. I had an iPad in my hand and he was very curious to check it out. He asked me if it had games that he could check out. When I said no he asked if the iPad could record videos. He wanted to see a few videos that I had recorded but I politely declined.

After this there was like a minute of silence. He went and got his bag which had a fancy buckle. He asked me if I could try and open it. I opened it. He seemed very surprised that I could do it so easily. He asked me if I had used this kind of a bag before to which I said yes. He inferred and thought out loud that maybe that was the reason I could do this successfully in the first attempt. 

He very proudly told me that his mother made Dosa yesterday night. He said he loves Dosas especially the ones that his mother makes. 

At this time, a couple of other Grade 1 students had come near us to see what the conversation was about. Arkam did not stop. He kept asking questions about my life and kept telling me about his. It was a very effortless conversation for the both of us. Please remember that I had never seen or talked to Arkam in my life. 

Arkam asked me if I had flown kites during Uttrayan (Makar Sankranti). When I told him I did, he asked me if I was able to do it well or did my kite get cut very easily. He told me how he had managed to catch a lot of kites. The conversation then moved on to the lanterns that people attach to kites. I would like to quote this part of the conversation word by word.

Me: Yes, I know about those lanterns. 

Arkam: Kya aapne uddai koi tukkal? [Did you release any of those lanterns in the air?]

Me: Yes. I did. 

Arkam: Aree. Narendra Modi ne mana kiya tha!! Kyun kiya apne? [Oh Narendra Modi had asked us not to use them. Why did you do it?]

[At this point I could not control my laughter and Arkam gave me a look which was like 'Why would you release the lanterns when Narendra Modi asked you not to?']

Me: Why should I not release the lanterns?

Arkam: Jab wo niche aati hai to usse kapde jal jaate hain! [When the lantern comes down, clothes which are put out to dry get burnt.]

At this point, I was in awe of Arkam and did not know what to say to him. I started talking to the two three other students who had dared to venture close. Arkam was listening intently to everyone and would occasionally smile if someone said something funny.  

One of the kids who had recently joined school was crying and sitting with his bag. I went to him to ask him what had happened and maybe convince him to start doing the work that was assigned to his group. The boy kept crying and did not say anything.

Arkam, who saw this boy cry, came close and gave the boy a water bottle asking him to drink some water. I was very surprised. He had found a way to make the boy feel better in the simplest of ways. The water idea had not even occurred to me. Now that I think about it, it seems so simple and obvious. 

The recess bell rang a little after that and I gave Arkam a high five a left. He went on his merry way and left with a story I would cherish for a long time. 

What did I learn:

1. Children are curious when they are born and even when they enter school. Unfortunately, we somehow manage to reduce that curiosity by calling their questions 'irrelevant' or 'stupid'. 

2. Empathy and love are two things which don't need to be taught. Children exemplify them everyday in everything they do. Also, children love to give advice and are pretty good at it too. 

3. Kids are amazing at conversations as long as they feel comfortable. They usually have really amazing views about things and they don't hesitate to share them. They are very authentic and straightforward.

4. Happiness doesn't need a lot. A simple Dosa cooked by your mother can make you feel happy and loved even though you might not have a lot of other material comforts. We should celebrate what we have rather than be sad about the things we don't. 

5. Happiness can come from the most surprising of sources. Some people look for it. Some people don't see it. The happiest are those who create happiness for themselves and for people around them. 

In the end, all I would want to say is: Be like Arkam. 


Arkam's fan!

P.S. - If you want to give Arkam and thousand's of other kids like him, access to an excellent education, please consider applying to the Teach for India fellowship. You can access the application form here.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Why should you do the Teach for India fellowship

We like to complain a lot. 

All of us complain multiple times in a day and if we look at what all we complain about, there are trends to it. We complain about the traffic, how insensitive people have become, how corrupt our society has become or how our education system is completely screwed. 

I was someone who kept complaining about the education system because when I joined college, I felt like my schooling had done nothing to prepare me for the real world. Unfortunately neither does college. We are just a bunch of machines which our factories churn out. Quality education, if I can call it that, has become more and more exclusive instead of being inclusive. 

The percentage of our children who get access to a quality education is reducing everyday. My definition of quality education is unfortunately very very basic and we still miss the mark by a lot. Quality education, at a minimum, would entail, being taught something new by a teacher everyday and learning how to use those knowledge and skills in real life. 

Majority of our children don't get it even this basic education. I am not even going into the quality of teachers or the infrastructure of the school or the extra-curricular activities. Unfortunately for our country, those things are a luxury. 

So yes, I complained about how the education system, which according to me is the corner stone of everyday society which wants to prosper, is well and truly screwed. 

On day, one of my teachers or someone I worked with, shared a photo which read "What are you doing about it?

That question hit me really hard. I couldn't figure why this question bothered me so much. I then related it to my complains about the education system and that's when my journey began. I started looking around for things that would give me an opportunity to contribute in some way to improving or atleast trying to improve the quality of education. I interned with the education department of my state and then one day, by chance met Shaheen Mistri, the CEO of Teach for India. She is inspirational to say the least. 

I was intrigued by the proposition of the fellowship and surprised at how no one else had tried this before. Two years after that meeting, I became eligible to apply for the fellowship and I was on my way to being a Teach for India fellow. 

I did not fully understand what that meant at that time. I read a lot about the fellowship, visited classrooms run by TFI fellows and ended up doing the fellowship. 

I am not exaggerating when I say, it was one of the best decision of my life and those two years have been the most satisfying years of my life. 

I taught an amazing bunch of 90 students in their 7th and 8th grade. I think I learned more I taught. I became a lot more aware about the challenges that the education sector faces. I got on the ground updates of different aspects of the sector. I got a chance to get my hands dirty and got amazing guidance while I was doing it. 

I realized a few things over the two years of the fellowship:

1. Every child has potential to do great things. Every. Single. Child. 
2. The assumptions we have about education sector are sometimes way off for eg, government teachers are lazy, infrastructure solves most problems . 
3. Income inequality and societal equality can only be reduced if we reduce the inequality in opportunities that are accessible to the student. 
4. Never to go in with the assumption that everything needs to be changed.
5. Understand others before trying to make them understand. 
6. Empathy is my best friend. 
7. Every child deserves unconditional love. 
8. Everything is possible.

These are eight random points that come to my mind when I think about the things I have learned. I am sure I have learned a lot more. It keeps coming to me when I dealing with different kind of situations in life. Its funny how teaching a bunch of kids in class can teach you so much and have such a great impact on your life. 

All of this and you get to put your own small dent in the education sector. Teach for India is one of the only organized, well planned and structured way to get involved in the education space in the country. 

Do it only if you want to. No one should push you to do something like this. The fellowship is very hard and will take a lot out of you. It will make you cry and make you laugh at the same time. It will break you emotionally but will end up making you stronger. You can't go through all this just because someone convinced you to do it. You must want to do the fellowship. 

The next time someone asks me,"Why should I do the Teach for India fellowship?" 

My answer to them would be,

 "Why not?"


The fellowship application form can be accessed here.

I am running the Mumbai Marathon to raise funds for Teach for India, please consider donating. The money will go straight to the Teach for India account and you will get a tax exemption certificate for the donation. To donate, go to the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon page.