And I witnessed the unfolding of transformation this summer.

– Ms. Aishwarya Suresh – a high-school student from the US who spent the summer with us at MANTRA as an intern, shares her experience in this blog piece.

“It seemed as if the students, teachers, and parents were becoming more invested and were collaborating together to enhance the learning experience for the children. One parent even approached us and asked how she should help her son learn outside of school. This was incredible to witness, and warmed my heart.”

 In the Spring of 2016, I found out about Mantra4Change. The organization focuses on School Transformation and Empowerment (STEP), and works strategically and tirelessly to achieve its goals of improving the education system in the low-income areas of Bangalore. Three months later, the loud chatters and giggles of children filled my ears as Megha, Naina, and I pulled into Padarayanapura, Bangalore for a three-week internship with Mantra4Change in one of their partner schools.
About our internship
Our placement school is a low income private school located in Padarayanapura in Bangalore. With the help of Mantra, this school now practices a more effective and forward curriculum, which uses aspects of the Montessori and Creative Curriculum. During our month long internship period, Megha, Naina, and I focused on transforming the curriculum in the Lower Kindergarten class, by teaching the students, explaining our curriculum to the teachers, and training the teachers on how to teach with it. Prior to collaborating with Mantra, the school followed a curriculum that focused mostly on memorisation, writing, and repeating after the teacher. Though some aspects of this curriculum were helpful, we felt that a majority of the syllabus made it difficult for the students to understand and process the classroom content. To enhance the learning system, Mantra introduced visual aids, collaboration, creativity, cleanliness, and encouraged enthusiasm in teachers, helping form strong bonds between students and teachers.
Problem with rote-based curriculum?
As the students are around the age of three, they have not yet developed their fine motor skills or the muscles in their hands. This makes it difficult for the children to hold a pencil, which prevents them from being able to write. The children were also unable to understand the concepts of the lesson through memorisation, and were just simply repeating after the teacher. Do not get me wrong, repetition is very helpful and the teachers were very smart about their approach. However, given the students were not fully familiar with English, repetition activities in english did not allow them to use their memory as a way of learning the concept and instead was a chance for them to repeat after the teacher while zoning out. To explain it more clearly, envision yourself repeating a pattern of sounds which have little or no meaning to you. In this time, it is likely your mind is elsewhere, though you may still be repeating the pattern. When the student was asked a conceptual question based on what was taught that day, he/she was unable to answer it.

 

Solution:
Prior to leaving for India, through intense research, visits to local schools in the US and communication with teachers there and study of the Creative Curriculum helped us find a solution for some of these problems. We incorporated more motor skill tasks to strengthen the hand muscles of the students, changed the classroom layout  to support the new structure and curriculum, introduced play time to encourage physical activity, and introduced Circle Time. Circle Time is a daily interactive learning session when the students are asked to sit in a circle for about thirty minutes. In this time the teacher can use different activities, games, audio, and visual aids to teach the concept, while capturing the attention of the students. This new curriculum helps the students build social skills, confidence, creativity, and discipline while thoroughly understanding the concept of the day.
Challenges: Resistance
The internship opportunity proved a great learning experience for us, and was a truly one-of-a-kind opportunity where we had fun while meeting amazing people and having a chance to help the community. However, throughout the process, we encountered some challenges which were somewhat difficult to overcome. One challenge we faced was resistance from the community for adapting our new curriculum. As many teachers were new to our curriculum, they were ambivalent about the positive effects of some aspects of our new syllabus. This caused them to initially to be apprehensive of practising it, which therefore made the curriculum ineffective. To overcome this challenge, we decided to begin teaching our curriculum and hope that the positive effects causes the teachers to be more enthusiastic. This proved to be a success, as by the end of the internship period, the teachers were actively suggesting ideas and new aspects for the new curriculum, and added their ideas and flavour to the overall form.
Challenges: Discipline
Another challenge we encountered was the lack of discipline among many of the students. There would be constant talking, screaming, misbehaviour, and disobeying of directions. To overcome this challenge, Megha, Naina, and I practiced some discipline activities with the class. We initially established a set of classroom rules, and asked the teacher to repeat and explain this to the class on a daily basis in both English and Urdu. We also established a list of consequences for misbehaviour, such as not being allowed to participate in the activity, or time outs. This also helped to promote discipline. Another idea was to enforce behaviour logs, where the teacher gives the student a daily behaviour report which gets sent to the parents. We also played space recognition games, and discipline activities, such as “Simon Says”. Megha, Naina, and I also brainstormed with the teacher on effective ways to handle misbehaviour, and encouraged talking to the students, giving them appropriate consequences, and allowing them to think about their actions rather than being punished forcefully, which was used prior. Research shows that forceful punishment deters the students’ confidence and social skills and establishes fear between the students and the teachers. However, as the students lacked discipline, many teachers felt as if it was their only resort. We hope the teachers take our suggestions and eventually stop this form of punishment as it is truly detrimental to the students’ development. Altogether, enforcing rules, discipline activities, and allowing the student to think about his/her actions helped enforce classroom discipline and etiquette while maintaining a safe and happy environment for the students.
Personal Highlight:
I loved interacting and getting to know the students. Every day we would learn a little more about each child, and over time we were able to communicate with them more, which was truly incredible. We formed so many bonds with many students and teachers. The high point of my trip was seeing the curriculum work for the students and teachers. We saw the teachers leading circle time on their own, using visual aids, and encouraging the students. The students slowly began to speak more English, collaborate with one another, and become more confident and disciplined. It seemed as if the students, teachers, and parents were becoming more invested and were collaborating together to enhance the learning experience for the children. One parent even approached us and asked how she should help her son learn outside of school. This was incredible to witness, and warmed my heart.
This curriculum transformation proved to be effective on a whole, as we observed more communication, confidence, and understanding among the students. A parent even approached us and said she observed changes in her son’s understanding and saw him count on his own while they were walking. I am very grateful for the help and cooperation from the teachers and administration of the school. Though we faced multiple challenges through the journey, this internship was one of the most amazing, valuable, and unforgettable experiences of my life, and I am very thankful for Santosh, Khushboo, Amrutha, and the Mantra team for giving me this opportunity.

 

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