September 8th is International Literacy Day – outside Government schools, alternative learning is helping underprivileged kids join the mainstream. Angarika Gogoi has more.
Padmaja Ramaswamy still remembers the day when a young man visited the Dream School, where she is a teacher. She recalled the well-dressed youth who got down from his car and walked towards her.
“He told me that he was a former student at the school,” said Ramaswamy, adding, “He was into event management and wanted to know if there were any students who would be interested to pursue a career in the field. I cannot recall his name now but seeing him come back as a successful person and offering to help other students made me extremely happy.”
Ramaswamy is a coordinator of educational programmes at the Bengaluru-based Association for Promoting Social Action (APSA), a child-rights organisation that works for the empowerment of the urban poor, especially children. Prior to becoming a coordinator, Ramaswamy taught English at APSA’s Dream School – an institute that offers alternative education to underprivileged kids to get them back into the mainstream education system.
Burden of supporting families financially
“APSA initially started out as a shelter for rag pickers and orphaned children in the city. But we slowly expanded. Some of our students wanted to have an institute for themselves and that is how the Dream School was built in 2003,” said Lakshapathi Pendyala, a social worker and founder of APSA, who has been working with slum children for over 25 years.
Empowering marginalised children, he added, is often steeped with challenges. “The environments where they live are unpleasant. For many of their parents, education is not a priority. Children are forced to take up the burden of playing economic roles to supplement the family income,” Pendyala said.
In order to provide improved learning for underprivileged kids, Ramaswamy added, there is a need for a curriculum that would aid their all-round development. As a child, she had grown up living in various parts of the country. “I had to be home-schooled sometime around the 1960s while my father was posted in a remote corner of Assam. This made me realise the importance of having schooling systems,” she said.
She further added how alternative methods of education work best to prime children living in slums for a mainstream education. “Kids of all ages and backgrounds come to the Dream School. There are several gaps in their educational history and our aim is to bridge it so they can join regular government schools,” Ramaswamy said.
The Dream School has various learning activities in addition to having a regular curriculum. To improve communication skills, the children are engaged in debates and what are called ‘just a minute’ speeches where they speak on any topic for one minute. The older children are also given vocational training.
“Our focus is on thematic learning where children are taught several concepts using one theme. To give an example, we pick a festival and teach children about its history, customs and traditions. Such learning methods facilitate community-building among children. We also teach them life skills and value education. There is a self-reflection class too where they are encouraged to speak about themselves,” said Ramaswamy.
Need for skill-based education
Pendyala also said how many of these children are extremely intelligent, in spite of their distressed socio-cultural and economic backgrounds. “If a child is naughty, we ask her or him to ‘handle’ the class. These children have great leadership skills and we simply need to nurture it. A case in point is this boy named Ravi, the child of a migrant worker, who had joined our school some years ago. Once he shifted to a government school from here, he was made the leader of its ‘Swachh Bharat’ programme. The school was later declared as the cleanest in the city. Ravi had accompanied his principal to collect the award in Delhi. When we met later, I asked Ravi how his first experience in an airplane was and he told me that it was like being in a lift,” said Pendyala, with a smile on his face.
Issac Arul Selva, editor of Slum Jagatthu, a magazine by and for slum dwellers in Karnataka, said, “The slum communities are mostly skill-based but the Indian education system fails to understand this. Children are often forced to prove themselves by performing well in exams.”
He emphasised on the importance of ‘learning from doing’. “While some kids have better memorising skills, others will learn better via practical methods. They understand by putting things into practice. It is crucial to devise a learning system by taking into consideration their cognitive abilities,” he added.
Ramaswamy also mentioned how there are several components to alternative education. “You must have heard the saying that necessity is the mother of all inventions. When the child realises that whatever is being taught to her or him is going to be of use, they become eager to learn it. We have taught child rag pickers both math and hygiene at the same time. They have shown willingness to understand both,” she said.
“Education should not be made a nightmare for children. They should not be running away from it,” Padmaja added.
(Angarika Gogoi is a Guwahati-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)