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"You are not going into that area alone. That's it."
When I approached my parents in Kolkata in India with the idea of going to Kidderpore, and helping with an after-school education support programme for the youth there, they looked concerned. Brought up in an environment where my parents did not ever discriminate between my brother and me, this one time, they reminded me that I was a girl. "Kidderpore has one of the worst crime records in the city. I fear for your safety,"my Dad said. The matter was to be considered close.
It is amazing what a plethora of information can do. I pulled up brochures, videos, websites, arguments, including phonecalls from the Program Manager to convince them that it was okay. Volunteers routinely helped out, and I would not stay there beyond daylight. Many were girls.
On a sunny summer day, I landed at the Kidderpore Police Centre. Not because I had broken the law, but because I was working with Child Relief and You, an NGO called Vikranshila, and the Kolkata Police Force, in a program called Nabadisha (a new direction). "Nabadisha focuses on building self esteem and confidence of street/slum children through recreation education and WASH programmes," explained my supervisor.
The station officer came out to greet me. He was a short, stocky man, with an air of authority, with his hands in the pocket. "We have a vested interest in providing space for these programmes. When children are in school, they keep out of gangs." Indeed, the police station has loaned space in its premises to build two make-shift rooms which had red-colored mats, a mid-sized blackboard, a side table for books, and a clay water pot.
My class had fifteen to twenty children, all of different ages, between 10 to 16. Some of the children had dropped out of school due to poor performance, and some were stuck in the same grade for 1-3 years. Motivation levels were low, as was the appreciation for education. Many were also day laborers. Among the children, only 20% were girls.
I began with introducing myself. I spoke in Bangla since all of them spoke Bangla, only a few spoke Hindi. The first task was to get to know them, what their academic needs were, and then go on to an organized method of segmenting the class by what needed to be taught, the timelines, how to best get them to feel motivated, and aspire to return to mainstream public schools. The trickiest issue I felt, was getting the children involved in part-time or full-time day labor to return to schools, and the programme.
A few strategies helped. Conducting classes during evenings when the children who worked would be free. Involving the mothers would ensure that absenteeism was low, and homeworks done. Including recreational activities like story telling and singing between an hour of mathematics and science, helped to maintain interest. And finally, adopting a very organized approach to segmenting students, analyzing their academic need gaps, speaking with their public school teachers - all helped in developing the right day-curriculum for them.
My experience working with the children, (and sometimes, their mothers who would visit the centre) was no less than transformative. I felt I received as much from them, if not more than what I imparted. Patience, clarity, friendships, and a sense of doing something real. They in return, learnt how to do algebra better, write small compositions in Bangla, and understand how photosynthesis works. There was fun too. During the month of August, the children did march-past, and put up a skit, celebrating the freedom fighters of India. 15th of August is the Indian independence day.
A student in New York studying public policy now, I want to go back to that community one day. Right now, I am learning the links between education and development in emergencies and marginalized communities through courses at SIPA and Teacher's College, hopefully to be able to drive change through both implementation and policy action. It's been a great experience so far!
I am attaching a link to the programme above - http://cidwestbengal.gov.in/special-units-navadisha.php