Maybe it is my age — maybe it is coincidence — maybe it is my love for children and the conviction that creativity and values are core to building self worth and strong world citizens. Whatever be the reason, about 7 months ago I decided to devote part of my sabbatical doing something to fill my proverbial cup and bring new learning back to Adobe where I have spent 13 years working. I knew it had to have something to do with youth and creativity.
After extensive research, I discovered Teach for India (TFI). A nonprofit with a mission to foster educational equity for all children in India. I connected with Shaheen Mistri , the inspiring CEO and Founder of TFI, and decided to spend two weeks of my sabbatical learning about the grass roots challenges in meeting their goal of enrolling 1 million students in their program.
I was asked to volunteer at the Dawood Baug Municipal School in Andheri, where TFI is responsible for the 7th and 8th grade classes in the English Medium section (they also have a Marathi and Urdu Medium Section). I was assigned the 7th grade and discovered there was a computer lab TFI students were permitted to use each day.
Yes!!!! I was excited because my main goal was to show the kids how to use computers and software to tell their own stories. Little did I know how hard it would be to accomplish this seemingly simple assignment-and how much these children would end up schooling me in more ways than one.
Day 1, July 2nd: A potato, an egg and coffee beans.
My goal for the day was to observe and learn.
The school day began at 7.30 a.m. with a prayer for the school, teachers and classmates. This ritual was followed by singing the national anthem and a team meeting. During the team meeting, the young TFI Fellow named Harsh reminded the students about the values they had learned the previous week. The children were asked to describe in their own words what the words “empathy” and “grit” mean. The responded with “caring for others”, “do not give up”.
The teacher then reminded the kids about the story of a potato, egg and coffee beans that were faced with the challenge of being put into boiling water. At this point, I was not sure where the conversation was going.
The children went on to explain. We should be like coffee beans. When you put an egg in hot water, the inside is a liquid at first but it becomes hard. Apotato is hard and it becomes soft. Coffee beans are hard, but when put in boiling water they add something — they make coffee. Harsh reminded the kids that this is a lesson they should always bear in mind: “When you face a challenge, face it like a coffee bean and leave things better than before.
“Samajh me aaya? (Did you understand?”)
“Yes Sir” the children chimed in unison.
About 80% of kids are from Muslim families. Physically, they appeared tiny. I learned that most of the children are malnourished and some have learning disabilities.
Prior to the recess we had Geometry Class where we covered the circumcenter of a triangle. We then had Geography where we learnt about the rotation and revolution of the earth and seasons.
After the recess there was a five-minute meditation. The kids were asked to follow their breath. Sindhu, the other TFI Fellow, emphasized that meditation is for their personal growth — and not something they should do for her. “Becoming calm before studying helps you learn better”, she said. “Yes Ma’am” came back the chorus. We then transitioned to learn about adjectives and verbs in English class.
During the recess, I sat next to Rehan and Fayaz, who both appeared malnourished. I realized that Fayaz’s mother had not packed a snack, so Rehan was sharing his lunch with him. As I sat observing their love and friendship for each other, Fayaz turned around and brought a small piece of roti (Indian bread) and sabji (vegetable) to my lips. He looked at me with big expecting eyes, wondering how I would react. I opened my mouth and he fed me with his tiny hands. As I ate the food, I smiled at him…with tears brimming in my eyes.
I learned a lot from these young souls.
Day 2, July 3rd: The Havoc and Joy of Bombay’s (Mumbai’s) Torrential rains
On the second day, I was given the opportunity to hold the class meeting. I was a trifle nervous wondering what I should share with these young minds who were eager to learn. I decided to share a treasure I have learnt from my teacher.
“A Value is A Formula”, I said.
The kids looked at me quizzically.
“What is a formula?”, I asked.
Muskaan, a girl of 11, responded with a beaming smile “one plus one equals two”.
“Yes,” I said, “a formula is reliable, predictable and you can count on the result. It helps you solve problems. A value is the same. It is a formula that you can count on to help solve life’s problems and it is a decision-making tool for life”.
“How didi ?” a small hesitant voice asked (“didi” means older sister).
I hesitated, wondering if I was pushing this too far. But then I went on, “My value is do what is right, not what feels good”. I shared what happened to me that morning. It was pouring cats and dogs, I wanted to skip school and stay home where it was dry and I could enjoy some yummy food my mother was making. But then I thought about the kids at school and my commitment to lead the class meeting so I decided the right thing to do is to go to school.” The class erupted in giggles and laughter.
“Is there any shame in admitting a weakness?”.
“No” they responded in unison. I had made my point.
I asked them to share what value they believe in the most. “Grit”, “teamwork”, “friendship”, “empathy”, “ownership”.
“I want to ask all of you,” I went on . “A very important value is sharing. Please think of a time when you applied a value that inspires you and write it down. Then we will share one example in class.”
“Yes Miss” came the usual cry back. I gave them five minutes to think about their story.
Vicky shared his story in broken English “A few days ago I was on my way home. An old man was struck by a motorcycle. He fell down and was bleeding. No one came to his help. The man on the motorcycle went away. I panicked. I ran to an adult who was talking on his phone and asked him for help. He came with me and called for an ambulance. I think the old man was saved.” Vicky continued, “The value I used was empathy. I would have liked someone to help me if I was hit so I could not leave the old man unattended”.
The entire class cheered Vicky and once again I was left with tears brimming in my eyes, having learned from this 11-year-old boy.
The rain was pouring down really hard. Harsh informed us that a bridge close to the school had collapsed on the Western Railway tracks. Some people were injured and the trains had stopped running. Essentially, it would be a nightmare for a city already steeped in perpetual chaos.
The school closed early. The kids were overjoyed. Fayaz started doing cartwheels. Some other boys started doing handstands and walking on their hands. We were all laughing as we waited for parents to arrive and take the children home.
The next day I was going to introduce the kids to Spark, Adobe’s web based app for creating graphics, videos and web stories, to tell their own story based on the values we had discussed. I had a lot to think about.
Day 3, July 4th: A taste of creativity
I got to the school at 7.30 a.m. to check on the computers in the lab. An Adobe partner, ILFS, maintains the school lab. Two PCs with internet connectivity were set up as servers with 5 other machines connected to each. I tried to login and discovered that the keyboard was not functioning. Rakesh, the ILFS technician, replaced the keyboard rapidly. Five minutes later I was still unable to login as the internet was crawling. This would not work for what I had planned. I spoke to the technician and we made a plan B. He would try and get two more computers directly connected to the internet. Harsh and I would bring my laptops so we would have 6 computers and assign 5 kids per computer. All this would come together by Friday July 6th.
As far as the class was concerned, I made a quick decision to use my laptop with the wireless hotspot I had and have the kids guide me as I made a Spark video that captured Vicky’s story on empathy.
Chaos ensued with several kids giving me a variety of instructions about which photo, music and icons to use. Chaos notwithstanding, we had a lot of fun making our first Spark video.
Many of them wanted to touch my MacBook Pro and use the search bar. I let them do so and made some young friends as a result!
They got a taste…and they were ready for more..I promised that they would be able to work on the computers on Friday to create their own stories!
Day 4, July 6th: Hands on Fun and A Dose of Reality
I was back at the school at 7.30 a.m. full of anticipation for the day! First, I went and checked on the lab. The keyboards were working — and I was informed so was the internet for the four PCs. I was uncertain about my plan to have five kids per PC.
When I got to the class, all the kids were excited to go to the computer lab. “How many of you have completed your homework?” I asked. Only 10 kids raised their hands. I was disappointed but figured it was a blessing as we only had four PCs. I decided on the spot to take only those kids to the lab who had done their homework.
There were immediate cheers from those who were chosen to go to the lab. I looked at 28 sullen faces and promised before heading down “If you use this time to write your stories down, you can go to the lab tomorrow”.
In the lab two kids worked on my MacBook Pro, two on Harsh’s PC, and the rest were at the workstations in the lab. The story creation process started.
The good news was the kids were engaged.
The bad news was the internet speed on the lab computers was horrifically slow. The work was not saving and the kids were getting restless and frustrated. The kids on Harsh and my machine were creating their stories with no interruption. In a desperate move, I logged into Spark on my cell phone and gave it to the kids having internet woes. That is when the real fun started with them using their voice and creating the stories they had written.
After an hour of creativity, we came back to the class and found that the school had lost electricity! The classroom was hot and sweltering and everyone’s discomfort was exacerbated by the intolerable humidity.
After the break was the routine meditation. The teachers were screaming loudly — “Breathe deeply. Follow your breath. Your mind is calm”. We were all sweating profusely. Our attempts at meditative were decidedly unsuccessful.
Following this, the kids were required to go through a class on mental health, focussed on symptoms like anxiety and uncontrollable restlessness, taught by members of a visiting NGO. The kids were understandably restless, and I think we all came pretty close to feeling like we had a mental health issue ourseleves. But with no other option, everyone suffered through the rest of the school day with no electricity.
Although the day turned out nothing like I had hoped, I took some solace in the knowledge that a few of the kids were able to interact with Spark successfully and had a sense of accomplishment.
As I went back home in my unstable auto rikshaw (tuk-tuk), I was pondering how I would get 40 odd kids to create successfully with the horribly slow internet — and what if the electricity was not back!
I could not bear the thought of disappointing all the kids who I knew would come to class with their stories written with the anticipation of using Spark.
With that thought weighing on me, I called the technician Rakesh from ILFS. In desperation, I resorted to speaking in Hindi “Rakesh, please kal sab computer or internet theek se kaam karne chahiyen” (“Rakesh, please make sure the computers and the internet is working tomorrow”). “Yes Ma’am, it will all be ok”, he responded with surprising conviction.
Day 5, July 7th: It all (mostly) worked!
As I stood in front of the class, 28 expectant faces looked at me. Before I could finish asking “Did everyone finish ……?” “Yes Miss,” was the resounding response.
I had already been to the computer lab at 7.30 a.m. and tested a couple of the PCs. The internet speed seemed reasonable. After much agitation with representatives from ILFS, Rakesh had managed to install a wireless router in the lab.
We went down in a single file. We sat two to three kids at each computer and creativity started.
There were excited cries of “Miss”, “Mala Didi” (older sister in Hindi); “Mala Ma’am” with questions ranging from how to search for photos; how to add change the music and how to spell some words (note to self: we need to add spell check as a feature).
After an hour of working on the project, I realized I could have done things slightly differently. Had I checked their stories and spellings in advance we would have wasted less time. Also some of them who had not actually written a story — would not have floundered to create a story on the fly. All that said, I was excited to see their excited faces as they hit play and saw their creations.
Day 6, July 9th: A wash out
It had poured all night, and thunderstorms were in the forecast. I arrived at school at the usual time and learned from Harsh and Sindhu that the kids may be sent home early. It didn’t seem like we would get an opportunity to go to the lab.
By 10:00 am the principal decided to close the school. We started calling parents to pick up the kids.
Another day lost. Note to self, “The Monsoon season is not the best time in the year to work on a project with school kids in Bombay!!”
My glass-half-full take: Something had worked the previous day — pretty much every kid I interacted with wanted to know if we will be back in the computer lab to work with Spark!
(Please check out part 2 here)