Saachi Pandit is a high school senior who lives in San Jose. At the age of thirteen, she started tutoring Karuna Kadam, a student in Pune, who is a year older than her. The purpose was for Karuna to master spoken and written English. This is the story of how the two girls met, what they learnt from each other, and how they were both transformed by the experience.

Karuna Kadam

When she was in middle school, Saachi participated in a Readathon which raised funds for books for students in India. This is a program operated for Pratham USA and managed locally by Shirish Sathe of Saratoga.

Established in 1995 to provide education to children living in the Mumbai slums, Pratham (which means “first” in Sanskrit) is now one of the largest and most successful non-governmental education organizations in India. In collaboration with governments, communities, parents, teachers, and volunteers, it focused on innovative interventions to address gaps in the education system. Pratham USA is a volunteer-driven organization with fourteen chapters across the United States. Each chapter raises awareness and raises funds in its local community.

As Saachi says, her parents had always stressed the importance of helping, as she put it, “underprovided” people. So, when she was asked if she would be willing to mentor an Indian student, she readily agreed. It was a natural progression for her to go from raising funds in support of education to becoming involved more directly and in a more personal way. She said, “I thought that my knowledge of English could be a factor in furthering one student’s education.”

There is a great hunger among students in India to master spoken and written English.  They recognize that English is the language of professional work in all parts of India as well as on the internet and outside India. So, they are keenly aware that knowing English can open many doors for them and are willing to put in the extra time and effort needed to attain proficiency in English.

The transcontinental Skype-based mentoring collaboration between Saachi and Karuna was a daring and innovative endeavor. For starters, while Saachi knew some Marathi and was fluent in English, Karuna was fluent in Marathi but had only a basic familiarity with English. So, overcoming the language divide was a challenge. Another was their different styles of communication. For example, during their early sessions, Karuna tended to be somewhat reticent and offered short one or two word responses to Saachi’s questions. On the other hand, Saachi had to moderate her American accent and speak at a slower pace to make it easy for Karuna to understand her.

They would begin each lesson by talking about their school, friends, and families. Since each girl is the oldest in her family and has a younger sister and brother, they found it easy to relate to each other. There were profound differences as well and these quickly became apparent. While Saachi did not lack for resources, Karuna says, “…my father is a tempo driver, and so I could not pay for special classes for learning spoken English.” While Karuna knew that she wanted to become an engineer, Saachi was still trying to decide her life plan.

As for the actual English language instruction, although the girls were following Karuna’s school curriculum, they had to come up with new strategies to overcome their stylistic differences. For example, they decided early on that since the purpose was for Karuna to learn English, she should speak only in English. Occasionally, when the need to translate could not be avoided, Saachi would translate a sentence or word using her limited Marathi.

When Karuna’s textbook did not explain some concepts very well, Saachi came up with new approaches. For example, she took pictures of pages from her own elementary and middle school textbooks to show Karuna how something worked. Karuna then wrote her responses on a board and held it up to show Saachi. Gradually, Karuna started to understand every word and became able to complete the assignments. Writing sentences, making paragraphs on different topics, and answering questions on grammar no longer felt like insurmountable challenges.

How well did this project work out? Over the year that the two girls collaborated, Saachi’s command of Marathi improved tremendously. Karuna was in a hybrid learning environment in which she was learning Math and Science in English. As she became more fluent and more confident in her knowledge of English, her mastery of those subjects improved as well. In her board exams, she scored high in English as well as in Math and Science!

Noticing Saachi’s self-assurance and ease with English, Karuna became more confident on a personal level as well as about her mastery of English. Saachi learnt new ways of being as well. “I tended to take many things for granted. Now I am much more aware and grateful for the opportunities available to me. I have also gained a sense of motivation because I have seen how motivated Karuna is.”

Saachi continues to work as a mentor for Pratham. Her new student is Monali, Karuna’s younger sister. In addition, she mentors other US-based kids who are interested in tutoring Indian students. In this project, she is using the teaching and learning strategies that she and Karuna devised!

Karuna sees great potential for collaborations like this one. As she sees it, it is about more than developing language or technical skills; it is about developing life skills. “What we did should be replicated as much as possible.”

With mutual commitment and perseverance, the two girls have forged a friendship while strengthening their language skills – Marathi for Saachi and English for Karuna. What one lacked, the other provided. And they are on track to make this possible for many more student pairs.

Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and cofounder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. Her book, “Radical Spirits,” tells the deeply-researched story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor. 

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Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and co-founder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu....