Days 1 & 2 at Nai Disha in Delhi

Hello to all again! It has been an incredible journey to India and back, and I’m reporting with all the details of the project I completed over winter break.

December 20th, 2010

Arriving in Delhi, I think about the circumstances that brought me half way around the world, the furthest I had ever been away from home…

Education is touted as the universal equalizer, the tool that reduces poverty and inequality within any general population. Thus, efforts to increase access and availability of schooling have been a priority for many nations. India has expanded its basic education and school enrollment has shown significant improvements. The number of children not attending school was 25 million in 2003, and by 2009 it was estimated that only 8.1 million children were still not attending school.

Though this amazing stride has shown progress in India’s education programs, it may not accurately depict the true nature of basic education in India. Attendance records are spotty and drop-out rates are high, sometimes motivated by family views that academic degrees are unnecessary for the often narrow vocational choices open to students of lower socio-economic classes.

This conundrum led me to join SARSA to discover and participate in the Indian education system on their service trip to volunteer at Nai Disha in Delhi, India. Lo and behold, I found the Nai Disha Learning Center to be place where it is easy to be inspired. Sangeeta Malik, the director of the center, is an extremely affable and admirable character. She informs us of the inner workings of the school and reminds us why we are there. Nai Disha is a very innovative learning center, encouraging students from lower classes to attend school through incentives such as free uniforms, lunch meals, and stationary/school supplies. Moreover, the school is actively addressing high discontinuation rates by building a vocational program that would directly prepare students for jobs.

Understanding that we were small parts of an incredible movement here at Nai Disha, we were ready to meet the students and make the 5 days we had with them as valuable as possible. The memory of my trip will most definitely bring back the moment when I met the students for the first time through a camera lens. The students were having a school-sponsored meal of curry and rice, sitting in a makeshift lunch area. From my station, I started taking photos of them, and soon enough, the children saw that I had a camera so they rushed over in a stampede. I was soon surrounded by a restless group of little children hugging, screaming, and jumping up and down for attention. “Maam (teacher), please!” they all shouted at me. I would take their picture and they would beg to see the image on my camera’s LCD, then they would giggle and demand another photograph! I was pleased that they were so enthusiastic about cameras and photos! I had a surprise in store for them later in the week as part of my project for USC Global Health 🙂

When it was finally time to meet the students my partner Jessica and I would be teaching throughout the week, there was no hesitancy as I attempted my crude Hindi skills and introduced myself, “Mera naam Amanda hai”. This would be a reciprocal learning experience, so I wanted to show the kids that misprounouciations and silly mistakes were all part of the process of learning, so they shouldn’t hold anything back in class. After introductions, the class teacher told the children in Hindi that if Jessica and I could learn Hindi, then they too were capable of learning English!

One of our learning activities was popcorn reading- we passed around a fun pop-up book and students had to read a sentence each. I was extremely impressed at the students’ reading capabilities. They can sound out any English word; but no matter how good their phonetics was, it was apparent that only several students could synthesize the meaning of the sentence. Improving the students’ knowledge of English from their rote memorization skills to speaking and understanding simple sentences would be the overreaching goal in our lessons. And as if our task wasn’t hard enough, managing a group of first graders had been a greater challenge than Jessica or I had ever expected! They have enough energy to run to the moon and back, literally. When the school bell rang, we could finally hear our own thoughts and resolved talk over class management issues in our nightly lesson planning. We’d need guidance from Ganesha, the Hindi god known as “the remover of obstacles”.

December 21st, 2010

After a great night’s sleep, I was recharged for the busy day. During the morning we went to the Administrative Center of Nai Disha and were assigned a task to make resource material for the school. The teachers wanted to teach the human body and use the topic as a springboard for health, hygiene, and nutrition. They needed help creating cut-out pieces of the human body that the students would piece together like a puzzle. Their teaching methods, they explained, would be moving away from book-work and reading towards more activity-based learning.

Interactive methods of teaching… sounded like a great idea, so Jessica and I devised a classroom activity with our students to teach them verbs. We laid out action words such as sing, dance, jump, spin, clap, and laugh on the field and ran around to the different “stations” with the students and performed the verb. The game was a good starter for our second lesson of the day. First, we made sure that the English vocabulary for emotions was established so we wrote words on the board and had the children act out each emotion (happy, sad, proud, sorry, excited, confused, calm, and mad). We wanted to gauge the students’ ability to perceive emotions, so as we acted out various skits that caused different emotions, the students were asked to record their observations individually. I was very impressed at how preceptive the students were; they understand emotions and how one person’s behaviors can evoke emotions in another person.

I noticed that children love coming to school because for some, it may be the only time that the students have access to a playground. Every time the children get a chance to, they spend it on the slide or monkey bars—even on supposed “bathroom breaks” the children sneak in a ride down the slide before they come back to class.

Children facing a childhood blighted by hunger and illnesses or whose minds are not stimulated by adequate interactions with families and their surroundings are disadvantaged in school due to mental capacity deficits. These children are more prone to enter a downhill path of doing poorly in school, dropping out, becoming illiterate, and therefore being marginally employed. The diverse and engaging environment that children are exposed to at school, and even in their long walks to and from school, is highly crucial to their psychosocial development.

The Mobile Clinic would come to school on Wednesday to give the children their free, routine check-ups. The clinic provides generic medicines and nutrition supplements (especially to combat iron and protien deficiencies). Physiological needs, including physical health, form the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; but screenings for psychological health disorders should also be given attention and priority, especially because they also affect learning. In the first de-briefing session we had together as a group, we discussed some children in our classrooms that had displayed some symptoms of depression. They become intermittently reclusive and unresponsive. When we raised our concerns to the school director, Sangeeta Malik, she told us that she has noticed such behaviors, and when the behavior persists, she personally talks to the children’s parents to understand the behavior and tries to find ways to accommodate for it. I admire Sangeeta maam for being so involved in her students’ education, but in public schools I know it is a completely different story. Is there a way psychosocial and behavioral problems be addressed systematically?