Tag Archives: Education

If You Think Education Is Expensive, Try Ignorance

When Covid closed down Jaipur’s teeming streets, Harmendra Singh, like many other daily wage laborers, panicked. How would he feed his family of six? For Harmendra, a blacksmith who makes INR 300.00 per day and lives in Jaipur’s Dhoongri slum, the shutdown in India was particularly brutal–he needed his income for his family’s basic daily survival. The government took its time stepping in to fill the gap created by a cratering of daily wage incomes, and it was left to local charities to help desperate people like Harmender and his family. 

The charity that came to his rescue was Edu-GIRLS, whose school his daughter, Riya Kaur, and her younger sister were enrolled in. Like other charities across India, the suddenness of the    Corvid lockdown transformed Edu-GIRLS higher mission goals of educating and mentoring girls living in some of India’s poorest slums into more immediate, lifesaving ones.

We adapted fast,” says Anand Seth, who founded the non-profit in Washington DC, in 2012.  (Since then, it has expanded out of Jaipur and taken its successful model of educating slum children to three other locations–Bengaluru in India, Saraswati in Nepal and Kohat in Pakistan).

“From the first day of the lockdown we gathered basic rations and made packets of essentials which included atta, dal, rice, oil, salt, sugar, chai, etc. and distributed them. The girls were put in charge of identifying families in need, and they went around the slum delivering supplies. If there could be a silver lining to something as awful as Covid, it was the way the girls began to be viewed. They were the source of the family’s survival because of their enrollment in our school, and they’ve become a prime asset for their community. 

 As of May 2020, Edu-GIRLS has provided 600,000 meals to 1000 families.

Vimkuti Teachers conduct on-line learning on borrowed phones for 400 girls, 3 hours a day

“We haven’t slowed down,” says Shubhra Garg, the Secretary/Treasurer at Edu-GIRLS, and a hands-on volunteer who communicates regularly with Edu-GIRLS partner school, Vimukti, in Jaipur. “We’ve innovated.”

“In the beginning of the Pandemic we got the girls to make and distribute masks. They made over 4000, with donated cloth. After basic needs like food were provided for, our next emphasis was how to make sure educational time wasn’t lost. The girls had no access to laptops or computers at home and the staff had to innovate to provide virtual learning to them. A teach- by phone- program was initiated during the shutdown––students had to borrow their parents’ smartphones for three hours every day and teachers posted lessons and activities and homework which they were accountable for. This has been quite successful.”

Another consequence of the lockdown has been the urgency to push the digital learning program into high gear.  Edu-GIRLS had already partnered with Khan Academy and the digital education provider BYGU to bring online learning to its upper grades. It now aims to push for a faster evolution to digital teaching for its lower school as well and has begun a Facebook campaign to raise funds towards that goal.

Chatting with the team of Edu-GIRLS board members and volunteers in Washington DC, I see that they haven’t lost any of their pre-pandemic enthusiasm for continuing fundraising and expanding programs, even if they can’t make the supportive visits to the schools in India which used to be a regular feature before COVID. They have gone into high gear with virtual and paper mail alternatives for communicating with the Edu-GIRLS family, and are innovating new formats for fundraising drives.

We were not sure what to expect from our donors when faced with a highly unusual catastrophe like Covid. In fact, we’ve had a surge of interest from our donors—many new ones have stepped forward after seeing the havoc Covid is wrecking on the poor in India. I think the fact that we kept donors extremely well informed throughout of how we were continuing to serve the slum community and on how we had innovated during the Pandemic, contributed to their support.  We raised almost 30,000.00 immediately for Covid relief from 100 supporters,” says Anand. 

Edu-GIRLS goals for 2023 include educating 1450 girls with a 100% pass rate and placing at least 110 in jobs which will double their family’s income.

“We feel vested in these girls,” adds Sangeeta Agarwal, who contributes her skills as a filmmaker towards designing the organization’s media offerings 

We support them from primary school to higher education and, eventually, financial independence. What’s the point of all that education if the girl can’t become financially self-sufficient? So, it’s a particularly satisfying connection from a volunteer point of view because we follow the same children for their whole educational life and beyond.  We look at all the factors that might limit their access to education—transportation, family attitudes, even basic hygiene, etc.”

“Yes, even basic hygiene can be an obstacle to a girl’s education,” Sangeeta says in response to my surprised expression.

 “Many girls drop out of school when their periods start because they can’t afford sanitary pads and they’re ashamed.”

Edu-GIRLS has adopted a Ten-Mantra program that addresses all the invisible obstacles to a girl’s education like the monthly menstruation cycle and safe transportation to school.  There are 10 things they focus on as goals—these include a free, quality, English curriculum, with short school days and a long school year, safe transportation to and from school for the girls, nutrition health and hygiene training, community outreach, exposure to science and math, vocational and college scholarships and performance incentives.

Priti Jain, who organizes outdoor walkathons for fundraising, is currently working on the next one. “I was attracted to the charity by their focus on girls’ education,” says Priti, whose Facebook tagline says, ‘If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.’

 “At least walking is one fundraiser which will involve time away from a screen.  Since we must emphasize safety, we are looking into holding a virtual walk-a-thon. Participants walk on their own at an assigned time and post their miles and contributions online.”

The team is all really pleased with how the girls have risen to the crisis in their communities and have made masks and distributed food while mentoring and teaching the younger children, whether it’s proper COVID hygiene or other lessons.  

“They are the true heroes of their community,” Shubhra concludes. 

Jyoti Minocha is a DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins and is working on a novel about the Partition.


Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents

Image credit: EDU-GIRLS
Riya Kaur  (10) lives in the Jhalana Doongri slums, Jaipur. and is a class IV student.

 

11th Grader Starts Free Virtual Tutoring Service

From all over the Bay Area, students have stepped up to the plate to aid their communities amid the coronavirus outbreak. Here’s the story of a Mountain View student who decided to help the people he knew best – students. Kanav Mittal, a rising senior at the Saint Francis High School, started Free Virtual Tutoring. True to its name, this youth nonprofit organization provides Zoom classes to students of all ages. Since its humble beginnings, Free Virtual Tutoring has established a clientele of 40 students, with 20 math and computer science classes. We had a chat with Kanav to understand FVT’s unique journey over the past few months.

IC: What prompted you to start FVT? While there are a plethora of tutoring services in our area, few offer free classes. Why (and how) do you teach at no charge? 

K: A couple of weeks after schools shut down in response to COVID-19, I read some Nextdoor posts from parents who were frustrated at how the school district was handling their students’ learning. Elementary-schoolers seemed to be the worst affected, as it is quite difficult to transition to online learning at such a young age. Knowing that many elementary schoolers were struggling and falling behind, I wanted to help, so I contacted my friend with an idea for a free virtual tutoring service. Free Virtual Tutoring was born.

We teach at no charge because we want our service to be accessible to everyone during these times of crisis. We want any student struggling with the burden of school closures and catching up in schoolwork to be able to come to us and seek help, and we don’t believe that money should be a barrier to this. 

IC: What is your teaching philosophy? How do you structure classes and curriculum? 

K: Our teaching philosophy is to build relationships with the students and teach concepts in a fun, engaging, and interactive way that takes advantage of these relationships. Why do we focus so much on relationships? Partly because many students, including us high schoolers but especially elementary schoolers, may be feeling isolated during this time. We hope that through Free Virtual Tutoring, not only can we support students academically but we can also support them emotionally by just being there to help them and by trying to connect with them.

Our classes, which are one hour long, consist of presentations, lots of practice problems, and a fun Kahoot! to wrap it up and review. Throughout our classes, we always try to relate to the students, putting in funny memes or cracking jokes that get students excited about learning. Interactive discussions and practice times during the classes allow us to engage the students more deeply in the concepts.

While creating the curriculum, we look at our old workbooks and consult our younger siblings for advice, some of whom have just finished up elementary school. We can also draw on our own memories – elementary school was not that long ago! Our curriculum is based on reviewing concepts taught in school and introducing more advanced topics to prepare students for the next step in their academic careers.

IC: What challenges did you face in founding FVT? Was it easy to build a consistent clientele? 

K: At first, it was quite challenging to figure out a system for how we would offer classes. What times? How would they be structured? How would they be conducted? Nevertheless, these questions were naturally resolved as we went through our first few weeks and became more skilled at running classes.

Another major challenge that we faced was outreach. As our team is just high school students, many times people do not take us seriously. To compound this, when it’s free, people often don’t believe in the quality. Therefore, it has been difficult to conduct successful outreach efforts and tell more students about our service. However, after receiving excellent testimonials from parents, and after parents have told their friends about our service, we have received many more signups!

Speaking of outreach, it was not easy to build a consistent clientele at all! Again, people would often not take us seriously. However, through our unflagging dedication to students’ learning and wellbeing, we have been able to build a group of students who consistently come. Since we see these students every weekend, we have basically become friends with them! 

IC: Your group teaches students from different age groups and learning capacities. How do navigate this kind of diversity, and make the material accessible for all? 

K: In each class, we have a minimum of two tutors, so while one tutor is presenting, another tutor is available to answer any questions via Zoom chat from the students. If a student is having a hard time on a concept, they can chat with our other tutor, who can work with them individually. On the other hand, if a student finds a concept too easy, our tutors can provide them with challenge problems to keep their minds stimulated.

Our individual drop-in help time is a great time when any student of any age group in K-8 or any learning capacity can come in to seek help. Just like during meetings, we not only can help students who have trouble understanding concepts but also help students who are looking for more challenging work. 

We also share all our materials with the parents afterward so that they can work on it with their children. We create worksheets that have dozens of problems with varying difficulty so that students of different age groups and learning capacities can all practice their skills. 

IC: According to your website, your tutors primarily focus on subjects such as computer science and mathematics. Are you planning on branching out into more fields? If so, which subjects can we expect to see offered at FVT? 

K: Yes! We are planning on branching out into more fields. We soon plan to begin advanced math classes (problem solving i.e. competition math) and advanced CS classes (Python). Perhaps in the future, we are looking into adding world language classes (Spanish and Chinese) and public speaking classes. The world language classes would focus on conversational skills to prepare students for middle-school and high-school level world language. Finally, we are very open to suggestions for new classes from parents and students.

We also offer individual drop-in help time, when we can help in almost any subject. These subjects have ranged from Spanish and writing lessons to learning how to play the game Roblox!

IC: With the coming academic year, schools are considering many possibilities in terms of teaching styles, attendance, etc. What are your thoughts on another year of distance learning? Should schools in the Bay Area open their doors? 

K: Obviously, distance learning has its disadvantages. From personal experience, I preferred in-person learning much more than distance learning. In-person learning allows for a deeper understanding of concepts through the face-to-face interaction students have with teachers – something that is difficult to replicate in distance learning.

Nevertheless, I feel that distance learning can improve. Most of the systems put in place by school systems from March onwards are likely going to be improved during the summer, as officials discuss how to best structure another potential year of distance/hybrid learning. 

Schools in the Bay Area should only open their doors if it is safe to do so, whether through a fully in-person or hybrid model. We must prioritize the health of everyone during the COVID-19 pandemic.

IC: Do you have any advice for students who are trying to adjust to a virtual learning system? 

K: It is essential to stay organized. If your school does not have a designated schedule for classes, make one yourself, and do your work in the assigned time slots for each subject. 

One of the best things about in-person learning is the relationships you build with friends and classmates, so keep that going in a virtual learning system! Email or text them, or video call them to work on a project. It’s super important to stay in touch with your friends during virtual learning.

Finally, don’t be afraid to seek help. We’re living in crazy times, and virtual learning is no exception. So, if you need any assistance in your schoolwork or in life in general, don’t hesitate to ask your teacher or parent, or you can come to us by signing up at freevirtualtutoring.org!

Kanchan Naik is a rising senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. Aside from being the Youth Editor at India Currents, she is the Director of Media Outreach for youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak, the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper The Roar, and the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton. 

Students of Color Take a Playground Slide From Schools to Prisons

Public education needs to be at the core of the Revolution.

Understanding the function of hegemony is critical in identifying why public education in the United States is the key factor in revolutionizing ideology and challenging power structures. The concept of hegemony as an enforcer of the oppressive condition is explained best by the metaphor of a ripple effect in the water after a single drop. While moving solitarily, a single drop of liquid into a larger pool creates a succession of rings around it. Liquid large distances away, echo from the agitation of the single drop at the epicenter.

Consider interpersonal racism. One is taught biased and discriminatory ideas (often at young and formidable age) about anti-blackness, which then becomes cemented in ideology through experience, choice of social circles, and participation in the capitalist economy (jobs, buying/selling goods, etc). While beliefs and bias socially may impact the narratives one is exposed to, with the addition of the institution, those beliefs become rooted in power structures of politics, ultimately reinforcing them into tangible and measurable oppressive actions intersecting with gender, sexuality, class, ability, religion, and age. This is how a concept or thought of otherness, or anti-blackness, transposes into a ripple that now is rooted in the environment. This practice, often measured through economic means (part of the problem because we center conversations around capital and not humanity), shows a clear institutional racial bias that has rippled into every industry of our society (military, health care, sports, education, etc).

As someone who has dabbled in many areas of community organizing, I realized my calling was with the youth. I know, without a doubt, that my purpose on this earth is to work with and give space for youth to validate themselves. Working within the system is a concept many have discussed. To fix something within implies you have the power to flip a structure rooted in hundreds of years of oppression. As a 21-year-old, I was naive. I was a public school teacher at a  “low income” school with a majority being students of color, for 10 years. I taught 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 8th grade. I know for a fact that I was able to spark ideas, shift thought, and validate hundreds of students over the years. But did I change anything from within? Did I fix the cog in the gears that weren’t working properly?

No. Instead, it broke me, and many others with bodies and minds like mine.

I’d argue too that after gaining all of my experience and this knowledge that there isn’t any validity in attempting to “change” or “fix” something from the inside. Especially when schools are the core of the perpetuated hate. It’s 2020 and several people were hanged from trees in California. Nothing has changed, because the schools haven’t changed. They are functioning exactly as intended, and it’s working. People are dying.

ASHA educating through poetry.

My story is not dissimilar to others. I could reach kids in ways that others couldn’t, and students found safety in my classroom regardless of enrollment. I taught histories that exposed institutional bias, we held space for healing, and students developed agency in a matter of months. Each year the impact of my teaching improved as I focused on my craft, but so did the impact of how the district targeted and abused me.

And without the support and allyship, the mission to “change the system from within” just isn’t sustainable.

My career started by just doing my own thing in my four walls. I would literally close the door, turn the blinds, and talk to the kids with authenticity and honesty. They saw me for that too. Even young students knew I was treating them with more respect than education had ever provided and that felt affirming to them. They knew they could take risks with me. Then I was challenged by a coworker to expand my practice and offer to train others, allow peer observations, and train the staff, because then the impact becomes exponential. I was certified through Teaching Tolerance and did several trainings when admin found it useful for their public relations. Even though there was occasional push back, I felt like I was doing good work.

Slowly the admin write-ups and reprimands began to add up. Essentially the “radical” work I was doing at the elementary level validating students’ identities was “not age appropriate”. I was being pushed out. Because I didn’t want to continue to fight against my admin, I decided to move up to the middle school level in the same district. Since I taught 5th grade at the time, that meant following my students to middle school. I was so excited to continue to do the work and build, and now, I had confidence that I could start on some institutional practices as well.

The first year there was amazing. I facilitated several trainings both at my site and regionally, including one for administrators on restorative practices. I felt validated and affirmed. But with a change of administration brought a change in leadership ideology and now, the new mission of the person in power was to cut off my mic. They immediately let me know that the path I was on was not going to continue. I fought. Hard. Union. Grievance. All of it. I won, too. But I didn’t realize the toll it took on my mental health and that the road was only going to get harder.

The year after, I watched student after student be criminalized, marginalized, suspended and expelled, and some, locked up. The same students who had found refuge with me for a decade. I stopped having anything positive to say to them. How could I tell them it was going to get better? I realized very suddenly, it wasn’t. Then, the district really waged war against me when I spoke out, and sought media attention, because atrocities against students were being ignored. They isolated me, silenced me, and removed me from the one thing that reassured me of my purpose, my time with students.

Speaking out against police abuse on a school campus was like trying to call the cops on the cops. Participation in the public education system requires complicity in causing harm against the most vulnerable. Teachers of color become sacrificial to the cause of supporting youth of color as they navigate the system themselves. It’s just not sustainable.

The concept to describe the relationship between the success of students of color in schools and the prison industrial complex is the school to prison pipeline. However, in 2020, it has undoubtedly turned into a playground slide. The increase of police presence in schools whether as an SRO, community partnership, or some fake notion of safety like with the “Safe Schools” program, has exponentially increased the rate at which students of color are criminalized. The pipeline has been shortened into the slide and even painted a bright color to attract youth. Any teachers that stand in the way are subject to severe injury.

Defund and dismantle the police. Abolish prisons. Abolish ICE. But honestly, without a complete overhaul of teacher staff, redlining, curriculum, anti-racist training, restorative practices, school design, libraries, and community resources, the single drop of racism will continue to ripple throughout society; through friendships all the way to board rooms. If we don’t directly focus on rebuilding public education in the United States, none of this will change.

In Hindi meaning hope and Swahili meaning life, ASHA is an Artist, Educator, and Revolutionary. Through her decade of teaching, performing poetry, and speaking at community events, Asha consistently uses her platform to voice out against injustice and to speak up for those who have been marginalized and silenced for centuries.

No Academic Competition, No Problem!

Eighth-grader Navneeth Murali was “totally shattered and devastated” when he learned in April that the Scripps National Spelling Bee to be held the following month was canceled. He has aged out of the competition and under current rules cannot participate next year. Like other competitive spellers, mathematicians, geography whizzes, and young scientists, it was a season of disappointments, as practically all academic competitions have been canceled.

When competitions are stopped and there seems nothing to win, it seems the students committed to these institutions do not stop studying.

We often think of studying after school to be a chore. The assumption is that youth want to do “fun” activities rather than academic ones. A school principal I spoke with said, “I can’t believe you’re going to find kids who are passionate about long division. I just don’t believe it.” The cancellation of these competitions presumably would give these kids a reason to finally relax.

Having interviewed dozens of children who compete in spelling bees and/or math competitions in elementary and middle school for my book, Hyper Education: Why Good Schools, Good Grades, and Good Behavior Are Not Enough, it is clear that they are passionate about what they are pursuing. Yes, studying is tedious. Even the most committed youth feel staring at worksheets can become “utter toil” at times. They put in hours each weekday and weekend — on top of homework — to these pursuits. 

But while many start their academic pursuit because parents drag them, those who stick with it have a sincere interest. As one spelling contestant at a national finals competition told me, “I just viewed it more as fun than work.” Years later, former contestants appreciate how much they learned not just in their particular subject but also about the process of learning. They had confidence that they could tackle major challenges.

Stopping would give the wrong message, that the only reason to bother reviewing German-origin words and quadratic equations was to win the championship. Educators know that the emphasis should on the studying process and effort, not the outcome. The best way to alleviate the sense that all that studying was a waste is for youth to keep studying, for it affirms the fact that the youth has an interest in the subject and gains through the process of studying.  

Just as a child should not stop practicing baseball or softball in the backyard because their championship game has been called off, the same applies to those training for academic competitions.

Rather than stop preparing, kids should study in a more relaxed manner. Children should find a new routine, one that dwells on the enjoyable parts of the subject rather than geared towards what weaknesses they need to work on in order to win. This should be a time to remind them what they enjoyed about their academic pursuits in the first place, before the pressure of the national competition came on, just like the ball player remembering what playing catch in the backyard used to feel like before the drills and practices for the big game got intense. 

What’s more, one never knows what the preparation will lead to. A few weeks after feeling devastated, Murali was crowned a spelling bee champion in a national virtual bee hosted by two former Scripps National Spelling Bee finalists. He has another chance later this summer to do it again in another national bee. The South Asian Spelling Bee (which Murali won last year) may also host an annual competition this summer.

Take it from a former Scripps National Spelling Bee finalist who has since coached spellers. Dev Jaiswal offered, “My advice for current eight-graders is to continue studying at a comfortable intensity. I would have been very disappointed if the spelling bee was ultimately canceled, but I would not think of my extra time spent studying as a waste.” 

Pawan Dhingra is a professor at Amherst College and author of Hyper Education: Why Good Schools, Good Grades, and Good Behavior Are Not Enough. He appears in the Netflix documentary, Spelling the Dream.

Complexity of a Modern Father

To be a FATHER in the “yesteryears” was easy because he heard only “yes” to every command he gave. Easy but not healthy. It actually kept our culture somewhat stagnant by keeping a father walled off. On the contrary, I consider the modern father to be a lot luckier. 

Education is no more gender-specific.

Father may know the best” but not on all subjects and matters. Women of today, plunge, and successfully so, into almost every sphere of study. Medicine, Law, Technology, Aerospace Engineering, whatever profession you can name, has seen an increase in female involvement.

A few years back, I questioned my medical students about an anecdotal enigma of a young man who was hit on the head by an automobile and was admitted to the ICU.

The Neurosurgeon looked at the patient and exclaimed in agony, “ This is my son!”

The young man, however, said, “This is not my Father.”

“How is that?” I asked the class.

What the older generation of the medical students could not answer was at once answered by the current generation. The Neurosurgeon was his MOTHER.

Hopefully, we should hear more dialogues like, “ Son, I do not know the answer to your science question. Go ask your mom.” With joint help from both parents, children will learn a lot more about not being gender specific., 

Feeding the family can ALSO be a father’s privilege since both parents are usually working.

This applies to other household responsibilities like changing the diapers, bathing children, nursing them when they are sick, etc. Why should hungry, sick, or hurting children always have to run to the mother? My daughter, when a child, always wanted me to shampoo her hair. I am very happy to have done that because that privilege was taken away from me when she grew up.

At the time of our marriage, my wife was busy with her Ph.D. studies. I went to India by myself to buy the wedding clothes and the matching accessories for the occasion. Throughout my journey, I was busy praying that my choice of purchase met her approval!

The gendered myth relating to right and left brain dominance needs to be readjusted.

Boys and girls, alike, gravitate to STEM in their educational upbringing. We need to dispel the earlier notion that boys should lean on science and girls are good only for arts. These young people are our future parents who will need to learn and teach both in their real life. It should be remembered that Corpus Callosum, the wide web connecting the two brains, is going to be the focus of our future, controlling and coordinating the functions of both cerebral hemispheres. 

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) will need STEAM (A for Arts) to nurture the coordinated growth of our future generations. 

 What could be the main reason why children rush to their Mother when in need?

A modern father has to effectively incorporate both sides of his brain, so that children do not differentiate between the two parents. Our concept of Lord Shiva as an Ardhanaarishwara (Half man and half woman) was conceived at a magnificent moment of this perception. The word female incorporates the male in its body anyway.

When the roles of father and mother get reasonably reversible, fathers will feel fortunate to experience their children in an unprecedented way. At that point in time, there may not be separate celebrations of Father’s and Mother’s Days but a combined Parent’s Day, much to the chagrin of the Business community.  

Till then, have a meaningful Father’s Day!

Bhagirath Majmudar, M.D. is an Emeritus Professor of Pathology and Gynecology-Obstetrics at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. Additionally, he is a poet, playwright, Sanskrit scholar, philosopher, and a priest who has conducted about 400 Weddings, mainly Interfaith.

The Bioma Project Brings Nature into the Classroom

As the climate change crisis threatens the world as we know it, it becomes the new generation’s responsibility to spread awareness and foster action. Large-scale organizations like UNICEF have been handing their social media handles to youth environmental activists. Half a million teen advocates have fought climate change by requesting government grants for their communities. According to the UNEP, 73% of surveyed youth from a global population say they feel the effects of climate change. Young people everywhere are demanding action — with and without access to the voting booth. It is amid this environment that Bay Area students are promoting environmental education through a national collaborative, the Bioma Project. With more than two thousand students and 40 supporting schools, the Bioma Project aims to “change the way young people think about the environment”. To find out more about what that entails, we had a chat with Raghav and Krishna, rising seniors from Monta Vista High School and co-founders of the project’s Cupertino chapter. 

What made you decide to start a chapter of the Bioma Project? 

Climate change, in the past few years, has become an increasingly prevalent issue in society. And there’s a good reason for it. The average global temperature has been steadily rising for the past 100 years, which in turn has risen sea levels, and increased the frequency of natural disasters like heat waves and flooding. But what’s worse is that the problem doesn’t seem to be going away. It’s worsening. And although there have been and still are a myriad of efforts directed towards raising awareness for climate change and pushing for legitimate change in society, we believed that there was something missing in our local community. There is an abundant amount of attention paid toward various sciences in the Bay Area(CS, Mathematics, etc.), but we were convinced that a larger emphasis on the environment and climate change awareness- specifically directed towards elementary and middle school students – in the Bay Area was something missing in our community. And we saw the Bioma Project as a valiant effort in promoting a positive change in our community. The Bioma Project maintains the belief that people can only care about a certain issue if they have been educated about it, which is why we direct our efforts towards younger students who will be forced to confront climate change in the coming years. Students, who are the generation that will have to face the brunt of climate change, should learn about the current state of our Earth, and what they can do to play a part in mitigating the disastrous effects that are currently scheduled to affect us. 

The Bioma Project’s website mentions how “students weren’t given the autonomy to run their own projects and enough field experience.” Could you elaborate on this concern, and how your chapter addresses the issue? 

Bill Tong, Founder of Bioma Project

Founded in Maryland by high school student Bill Tong, the program became popular and has been incorporated into forty schools in Maryland and is in the process of getting implemented into 3 classrooms here in the Bay Area. We offer two programs: one consists of placing a fish tank in a classroom and effectively constructing a stream water ecosystem in classrooms to allow students to understand various aspects of an ecosystem and understand more about the environment that surrounds us through a set of lesson plans; the second program consists of a lecture-style program in which teachers are provided an amalgam of presentations on different areas of the environment(such as an introduction to climate change, a presentation on fossil fuels, etc.) and activities that allow students to interactively learn more about our Earth. 

What kinds of activities are included in your program? 

Kid’s learning using the Bioma Project Model.

An example of an activity is a kid-friendly mining lab where students would have to “mine” chocolate chips out of a chocolate chip cookie without making a mess, which is used to simulate safe mining practices. We believe that by gradually introducing elementary and middle school students to fun activities like the one mentioned above induces learning and improves the reception of serious topics. Teachers have the option of choosing either program(or even both!), and we are willing to accommodate and customize lesson plans for teachers who prefer to incorporate the lesson plans differently. In addition, the lessons can be taught at the speed the teacher prefers to teach them at; each lesson plan spans between 15 to 45 minutes and teachers can allocate a fraction of their teaching time for the activities.

How has the coronavirus outbreak impacted your program? Will you continue your efforts virtually?  

Although the coronavirus pandemic has prevented us from expanding in the way we had envisioned, the Bioma Project has not stopped putting in an effort to reach a larger audience. We recently recruited few people in the Washington D.C metro area and Dallas, Texas to introduce this program to more students, and we are currently planning to create some form of a virtual continuation of the program in case school does not reopen next school year. In the meantime, we are continuing to email teachers in school districts all around the Bay Area to work out ways in which teachers can utilize the resources we provide to educate their students about the environment.

What advice can you give to other young teenagers who want to change the public’s perception of environmental science? 

 To any students or parents who are reading this and are interested in this program, we strongly encourage you to ask your teachers if they would be willing to dedicate a little amount of their time to teach their students about the environment and refer them to our website, https://www.biomaproject.org/ or email us at [email protected]. To any teacher interested in this program, we would love for you to visit our website, email us, and discuss how we could help you incorporate this program into your classroom.

Kanchan Naik is a junior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. Aside from being the Youth Editor at India Currents, she is also the Editor-in-Chief of her school newspaper The Roar and the Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton.

Tooth and Claw, Knee on Neck

Mesmerized, my son and I watch the television screen. Somewhere in the vast plains of the Savannah, a leopard lies in ambush to capture his prey. In the dimming light of the late evening, his spotted coat blends in with the surroundings. Crouched low, he inches forward in stealth towards a herd of gazelles, who oblivious to the imminent danger, quench their thirst at the watering hole.

We lean forward in our seats as the leopard nears his quarry. Quiet, lithe, brutal hunger in his eyes, he prepares to pounce. Just then, a faint rustle alerts the herd. They take off. Gazelles of all ages. Terror in their hearts, swift in their stride, and with a deep desire to live. But can they outrun the leopard?

A fierce chase ensues as the savage beast bounds across my screen flying like the wind determined to kill. I feel my pulse quicken. Which one in the group will he target?

I watch helplessly as a calf, confused and frightened separates from the herd. Deftly, the leopard swoops in on his prey. The calf struggles, fights back but is pinned down in a moment. It is no match for the predator’s prowess. A quick bite on the calf’s neck ensures its life is slowly sucked away. Breath by breath. A tender life short-lived.

The leopard famished, victorious stands majestically with a paw on its vanquished kill. This poignant visual of the hunter and the hunted so reflective of Lord Tennyson’s sentiments in his words “Nature, red in tooth and claw.”

I cannot help but feel the pain of the mother who has lost her fawn that night.

I hold my son close and I know all across our country mamas of color, young and old, hold on tightly to their sons as their television screens replay the merciless murder of George Floyd, pinned helplessly down by a white officer, his knee on the victim’s neck. Their hearts bleed as they watch the life ebb out of him breath by breath. The hunter and the hunted. Could it be their son next?

Indeed, nature is savage in her ways. The leopard kills to sustain, yet, what justification can the police officer offer for killing the vulnerable? Where do you go if the very ones you trust to protect you turn against you? Why was George Floyd killed?

This has to end.

Our country is hurting deeply as the disease of prejudice is preying upon us. Riots and vandalism may not be the solution but staying silent isn’t either. Mamas of the world, we need to unite and fight this together. We need to speak up now for those who cannot and as we awaken from the slumber of the lockdown and an epoch of indifference, each and every one of us needs to question and examine our own biases and beliefs so we can begin to heal together. We need to first believe and then inculcate the value in our children that every life is significant.

Vidya Murlidhar is an essayist and the author of the illustrated book, “The Adventures of Grandpa and Ray”. Her work has featured in Mothers Always Write, Grown and Flown, Chicken Soup For The Soul, Life Positive and other places. She is passionate about teaching kids and conducts online workshops from her home in Charlotte, NC. 


This post was previously featured as Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw and was one of the prize-winning entries in an online writing contest organized by FB group “Did You Read Today?”

Environmentalism Through Kid’s Kathas

Living in the world that all of us do today, it goes without saying that children across the spectrum need to read books that create awareness surrounding the environment and its inhabitants. 

When I think of an Indian publishing house for children, the name that first comes to mind is Katha. What sets Katha’s books apart from others is that it is known for facilitating learning through the power of storytelling. Storytelling is a beautiful way to address some of the most pertinent issues related to the environment and climate change, and the 32-year-old publishing house has time and again called for attention towards our planet through this distinctive approach, in books such as Tigers Forever!, The Mysteries Of Migration, and Polar Bear

Books that Make You Fall in Love with Nature

Sonam’s Ladakh

One of the most effective ways of getting children to care about the environment is to simply help them fall in love with it. Some of Katha’s older books instill a love for nature with their stories and themes. Each of their books has a varied message: In Run Ranga! Run!, one gets to explore the grasslands with the fearless baby rhinoceros who needs a friend; Walk the Rainforest with Niwupah and Walk the Grasslands with Takuri are tours of rainforests and grasslands with a hornbill and an elephant, respectively; On the Tip of a Pin Was… uncovers the science behind wormholes; The Gift of Gold is a mythical story from South African folklore is about a little girl who saves her village from drought. 

Manish Lakhani’s Sonam’s Ladakh tells a story through exquisite photography about a girl belonging to the semi-nomadic Changpa tribe, wandering shepherds in Ladakh. Young Sonam informs readers about animals in the Ladakh region that are her closest friends and “better than boxes of money”. She mentions goats, dogs, her father’s pashmina herds of sheep, and yaks that help grow food and whose wool make their tents. She also points out other animals in the region—the rare Eurasian otters, horses, and Himalayan wolves. The story that is bound to fascinate most children with its sheer novelty and imagery. The books ends with a section that discusses Ladakh’s many glaciers that are gradually melting due to the earth’s global warming, increasing pollution levels and the cutting of trees. The questions posed are aimed at making children think of ways in which all of us in our own way can contribute to caring for the environment.

Keeping it Simple

In a world filled with an overwhelming amount of information on environmental degradation, young children are most likely to gain sensitivity about the situation most through personal experience. Katha’s books have constantly aimed at bringing out simple storylines with characters that relate to most children.

In Who Wants Green Fingers Anyway?, Geeta Dharmarajan explores a mother’s obsession with her potted plants kept in her verandah. When her plants start mysteriously wilting and drooping, her husband researches the subject of how to keep them happy, leading him to attempt re-potting them. What follows is a comical saga, however, the key message has been surreptitiously slipped in—that the roots of plants get tangled up when their pots become too small for them.  

More recently, in The Mystery of the Missing Soap, Tobakachi, the wicked Asura and GermaAsura, along with their Coronavirus Army, make soap disappear in Dakshinapur, one of the happiest villages in the country. By tricking people in this way, they ensure that no one washes their hands, which makes them all very sick. That is until the helpful elephant, Tamasha and the fearless girl, Lachmi, show everyone how to make soap in order to win the battle against the Virus Army. The story, beautifully illustrated by Suddhasattwa Basu and Charbak Dipta, is followed by a simple recipe for making soap at home using reetha berries. By explaining the importance of washing one’s hands in order to prevent coronavirus, the book then dives into Katha’s famous “TADAA” (Think, Ask questions, Discuss, Act, and Take Action for the community) section which details what coronavirus actually is and what one can do to prevent oneself from getting it.

Big Ideas with a Heart

After getting kids to fall in love with nature through simple stories—and hence, getting them to care for the environment—the next step is to focus on concepts that help them think about pressing environmental issues that are affecting the world. Every narrative in Katha’s books is filled with common themes—or what the publisher likes to call ‘big ideas’. For instance, all of Katha’s environment books have recurring themes such as empathy, affection, kindness, collective action, and cues to switch to alternative eco-friendly habits.

Ma Ganga and the Razai Box weaves environmental concerns like pollution, soil erosion, and desertification with mythology. The Magical Raindrop humanizes and gives emotions to Mother Earth, formulating her character in a way that the readers feel she’s a person who feels happiness, sadness, anxiety, and joy just like all of us. Katha’s Thinkbook Series has been designed in a way to introduce young readers to big ideas such as “climate change, gender, and kindness through stories that inspire, aspire, and engage.” 

Educating through Stories

Katha’s founder, Padma Shri Geeta Dharmarajan, is an award-winning writer, editor, and educator. Her published works alone include more than 30 children’s books, many of which are Katha publications. Needless to say, environmental issues are very close to her heart. She is credited for having created Katha’s unique concept of StoryPedagogy, which combines India’s oral traditions and the 2,000-year-old Sanskrit text on the performing arts, Natya Shastra; an idea that she has seamlessly integrated with an earth-friendly curriculum.

While the stories get children to empathize with the characters and their situation—and thus, understand and imbibe an environmental concept—Katha’s final goal is to make children think deeper and take initiatives to act and make a difference. The insightful exercises that appear at the end of each book are created using the SPICE model (Student-centred, Problem-based, Integrated, Community-based, Electives, Systematic) as well as observations, teachers’ feedback, and research among children in the Katha Lab School.

Katha Lab School is a model and a center of creativity for the slum cluster of Govindpuri in New Delhi. Thus, Katha takes the storytelling approach a step further beyond its books too. The Katha Lab School, for instance, uses no traditional textbooks or a one-size-fits-all syllabus. Instead, its system of education is based on StoryPedagogy, a technique that is delivered through Active Story-Based Learning, which helps children to learn language, science, and mathematics, while developing general awareness and critical thinking skills through various stories and activities.

Katha’s StoryPedagogy is the new age of education – one that we can all benefit from adopting.

Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. 

Ajjibaichi Shaala: Let’s Go to Grandmother’s School!

“With a roar, rise, and fight for your right to education.

Breaking the chains of tradition, go get an education.”

– Savitribai Phule

India’s first school for girls was started in Pune, Maharashtra, by Savitribai Phule – a woman who spearheaded the movement for female education in India.  Almost two centuries later, the flame continues to burn bright in Maharashtra, as a new institution, the first of its kind, is set up. A school that Kantabai More, at the age of 74, can proudly say she attends twice a week. Where she gets scolded for not finishing her homework by her teacher, Sheetal More, who also happens to be her daughter-in-law. A school where all her peers are of her age. A school for the ajjis (grandmothers) of Fangane, a village in Maharashtra.

On March 8th, 2016, International Women’s Day, the Ajjibaichi Shaala (Grandmothers’ School), was set up in Fangane at the demand of the ajjis. “

The idea for Ajjibaichi Shaala came to me in Feb 2016, when we were celebrating Shivaji Jayanti,” says the founder Yogendra Bangar. “The ladies in the village were reading out of a ‘paath’ (a holy passage), and I heard the senior women say that they wished they, too, could read the text. That’s where the idea of a school for them came from, and the whole village rallied behind it.”

After having spent their entire lives dedicated to family by tending to the fields, the harvest, and the business, the ajjis have, at long last, decided to turn to their own lifelong desire—to go to school and get an education. 

The crew of Virtual Bharat, a 1000 film journey of India initiated by filmmaker Bharatbala, attempts to capture the ajjis in action, as they don their bright pink saree-uniforms and head to school together to learn their rhymes, math, alphabet, and art—and like any other students, complain about homework and tests. In a four-day shoot in Fangane, living amidst the grandmothers, the team saw that telling the story of the Ajjibaichi Shaala was more than filming the classroom and the uniforms. It had to be about capturing its incredible spirit.

As Sitabai Deshmukh, an 85-year-old ajji—the oldest in her class—tells the crew, school, for her, is about more than just the letters that they teach (which she forgets before the next class anyway); she cannot even really see the blackboard or comprehend much of what is taught to her. For her, school is about living a life she never thought she would have access to. A life she has ensured that her children and grandchildren experience. A life that she too can now proudly say she has lived. The Ajjibaichi Shaala is a Maharashtrian grandmother’s dream and now serves as source of pride.

Watch the short film on the link below!

Virtual Bharat in collaboration with India Currents will release a monthly series highlighting the stories Virtual Bharat is capturing in India. Stay tuned for more!

Virtual Bharat is a 1000 film journey of untold stories of India spanning people, landscapes, literature, folklore, dance, music, traditions, architecture, and more in a repository of culture. The vision of director Bharatbala, creator of Maa Tujhe Salaam, we are a tale of India told person-by-person, story-by-story, and experience-by-experience. The films are under 10 minutes in length and are currently available on Virtual Bharat’s Youtube Channel

School Closures Hurt Families and Children

Millions of Americans are experiencing threats to their health and economic security during the pandemic, says Mayra Alvarez, President of The Children’s Partnership, but it’s “especially true for children from immigrant families” who have been severely impacted by the lockdown.

Covid19-related school closures are hurting children who have traditionally relied on the safety net that schools provide.

Schools play a critical role in offering education, physical activity and enrichment activities for children across the country, says Alvarez, but many children from low income and families of color also rely on school meals for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks.

“For many families, schools are a key source of childcare.”

School closures mean months of lost time in classrooms, but they adversely impact vulnerable children who have lost access to low-cost or free school meals, the community of their teachers and classmates, and other benefits built into the educational infrastructure.

Covid-19 is likely to exacerbate the inequities in learning opportunities that have existed for far too long for marginalized children, Alvarez said.

Along with a panel of experts, Alvarez was discussing the pandemic’s effects on minority communities and the implications of going back to work after the lockdown, at a telebriefing organized by Ethnic Media Services on May 1.

What school closures mean

At least 55.1 million students at nearly 124 thousand public and private schools have been impacted as the majority of US States have ordered or recommended school building closures for the rest of the school year said Alvarez.

But, as schools transition to remote learning environments that offer a ‘multitude of distance learning resources’, children from underserved communities may not be able to access web-based academic instruction and enrichment activities during the closure.

Many of them will lose months of normal instruction. As a result, children who are already academically behind and underserved will suffer without the support schools offer them and their families, said Alvarez.

It’s an “unprecedented risk to education and wellbeing,” she said, particularly for the most marginalized children who rely on school for education, health, safety and nutrition.

Families are Struggling

Immigrants and their families who are being excluded from federal relief efforts face increasing economic hardships and health risks, Alvarez pointed out.

In a recent survey by the Children’s Partnership and Education Trust West, a poll of 600 parents across California showed that more than half of parents with young children (aged 0-5) were uneasy about personal finances. More than a third were not confident about being able to pay for basic needs like food, housing and healthcare.

The results were ‘not surprising, but deeply disheartening’ said Alvarez. COVID 19 is threatening the physical, mental and emotional health of families

About one in three parents are skipping or reducing meals so their kids don’t go hungry, a number that increases significantly among new parents with a child one to six months old, low income parents, Latinx parents, and families in some Los Angeles counties.

Less than a quarter (18%) of families are currently able to access their doctor through telehealth and nearly 1 in 3 parents have missed health appointments for their child due to Covid19,

Researchers also learned that 72% of families (57% of black, 76% of Latinx) are worried about mental health, and 23% of parents worried about the impact of substance abuse and domestic violence.

Results reveal that young children under five are facing significant mental health risks at an age when their brains are rapidly developing and are most at risk from trauma and adverse childhood experiences.

The coronavirus has been incredibly disruptive, risking the heath and wellbeing of parents and children across California, says Alvarez.

As families struggle with financial and food security, access to health programs and web-based support, their challenges are made worse by existing inequities for low income families and families of color in particular, says Alvarez.

“‘It’s clear from the data that the children whose families are being hit hardest by this crisis are the same children that our systems of education, health and social services have long failed to support. We can and must do better” urged Alvarez

How will children emerge from this crisis?

In California, Governor Gavin Newsome has issued a roadmap for reopening the state, its schools and childcare centers.

Modifications include an early start to the next school year, class sizes cut in half, staggered schedules and expanded childcare facilities. Safety measures feature protocols for protections, physical distancing and limiting the number of students during meal distribution, PE classes or recess.

However, there remain many unknowns, says Alvarez, and a timeline is still unclear.

What is clear is that families and children, especially in marginalized communities, need a level playing field as communities reopen.

How children emerge from this crisis will depend on how they are affected by the choices parents and caregivers make about basic expenses, Alvarez suggested. That means:

  • Parents and caregivers need financial resources, so they don’t have to worry about basic expenses or make choices on what to spend on in this crisis – healthcare, food or housing.
  • Students returning to school need support to address emerging academic, health & psychological needs.
  • People need web-based support and free online resources to access distance learning or virtual storytime, so they don’t fall behind.
  • Families need support to access telehealth and health professionals for their health and wellbeing; It is critical that they get childcare arrangements and parenting support they need.
  • Providing meals for families with food insecurity need (EG: Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer) critical in reaching vulnerable communities.

“Our response to the pandemic must ensure that of children of color, dual language learners, and children from low income families are at forefront of priorities”  says Alvarez, as California and its schools start to think about reopening and rebuilding their communities.

Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents

Photos by Charlein Gracia on Unsplash

 

Youth Assemble for Grassroots Education During Quarantine

In the light of school closures due to the Coronavirus, two high school seniors, Uditha Velidandla and Sarika Sriram, set up a free online program for elementary and middle schoolers through the Almaden South Asian Women’s Association

After learning about the 3-week school shutdown on Friday, March 13, Velidandla and Sriram put in more than 24 hours over the course of two days preparing lesson plans and the technology needed to go live on Monday, March 16th, the first day of the shutdown. Their main goal?

“To give parents enough time to find an adequate replacement for formalized education”

Over three days, their volunteer-run program grew from 6 students per grade to more than 50 students in each grade. In the second week now, the program includes over 400 students and 90 volunteer tutors. 

All classes are run on Zoom, an online video conferencing platform. “By using Zoom”, Sarika explained, “the social aspect of class is still present. The students and the teachers can see each other, and lessons are more interactive.”

For elementary schoolers, the program consists of lessons taught by high school student volunteers from 9 am to 3 pm. The curriculum is based on various sources, including textbooks used in local elementary schools, and state standards. “We wanted to ensure that we were keeping the kids engaged while helping them refresh concepts learned in school earlier in the year. We know from experience how easy it is to forget material over an extended break.”

The successful first week included classes such as mathematics, reading comprehension, creative writing, and also STEM-based experiments and activities, Hindustani and Carnatic music lessons, and an arts class.

Udyat building a spaghetti tower for science class.

They announced this week that they have expanded their program to include a middle school.

“There was a high level of demand for a middle school program. We are fortunate to have enough volunteers who are willing to teach the middle classes.” says Uditha. “None of this would have been possible without the help of our dedicated volunteers- they have spent countless hours with us along the way, from planning the curriculum to teaching classes and responding to questions on our behalf. Both Sarika and I are very grateful for all of our volunteers.”

They are also trying to work with the San Jose Unified School District to make their lesson plans available to children in San Jose who are unable to access e-learning.

“It is heartwarming that we have been able to contribute to the community that has given us so much. We hope to be of similar assistance to communities that do not have easy access to e-learning infrastructure. We are proud of the fact that we hit the ground running and that the program has continued into its second week”, they say. 

They have received positive feedback from parents, receiving messages and emails that are similar to this one parent’s experience: 

I’m amazed how all the kids and tutors have progressed so well, to get comfortable with the online learning concept, with order and respect, in just 4 days of classes. Today WhatsApp has been very quiet, which is awesome! Congratulations to all tutors, organizers, and students. And I must say my kid is quite eager to attend classes and loves ‘seeing’ his friends and future middle-school friends in the e-world. Thank you all.”

It has not been all smooth sailing for the two founders. They continue to spend 12 to 15 hour days bringing this service to the community. “In addition to adapting our communication styles, we have had to iron out technical issues and assist tutors in managing online classroom behavior. We have taken the help of parent volunteers to ensure that the classroom is a welcome learning environment for everyone.”  

If you are interested in learning more about the program or donating to their cause, Sriram and Velidandla encourage you to send an email to [email protected], and to explore the ASAWA website.

Suchitra Patri is the founder and president of the Almaden South Asian Women’s Association. She is an accountant by profession and enjoys reading and spending time with her family in her free time. 

Falguni Pathak Sings for Local Bay Area Charity

This season of Navaratri brings with it garba, dandiya, music, masti, and hordes of Indian Americans ready to celebrate! Traditionally, garba/dandiya is associated with the region of Gujarat, however, all over America, this practice has been adopted by all. Uttar Pradesh Mandal of America (UPMA) is one such local Bay Area organization that has used the love of garba and dandiya for a good cause. On Friday, October 18th, at the San Jose Convention Center, UPMA held a benefit garba, Festival of Life “Dandiya Dhoom”, with world renowned singer, Falguni Pathak. UPMA has used the money they have raised over the past year from such events to build 10 daycare centers in Chitrakoot and helped 15,000 underprivileged women become empowered and get married. I was lucky to attend such an event on Friday October 18th; it was a night of synchronization, music, energy made unforgettable by Falguni Pathak’s infectious energy. 

“Every penny earned [by UPMA] is sent back to India.”

From left to right, Ashish Rastogi, Kiran Pandey, Manju Mishra, Nilu Gupta.

UPMA’s light and energy is sourced from founder, former President, and current Chairperson, Nilu Gupta. Nilu Gupta and Prakash Agrawal co-founded the organization in 2006 when they saw a gap in knowledge and retention of UP culture in the Bay Area.

As a Hindi professor at De Anza Community College, Nilu Ji also runs one of the few college credit Hindi courses in California; she is trying to inspire the next generation of Indian Americans to grasp their native language and keep it alive.

UPMA is not without a team of volunteers and the current president, Ritesh Tandon, is working tirelessly to keep the organization vibrant. Attending events like Festival of Life shows support for Indian culture in the Bay Area and allows us to be civically engaged transcontinentally. To learn more about UPMA, to volunteer, or to find out about upcoming events check out their website http://upmaglobal.org/.

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