Sunday, July 5, 2015

Education in classrooms in the slums

The following is from the personal blog of Maia Ferdman, a GPM-Entwine Summer 2015 fellow. Maia is a recent UCLA graduate with a B.A. in Global Studies and an M.A. in Latin American Studies. Maia hopes to pursue a career related to education and global conflict alleviation and development. Maia has worked as an opinion columnist for UCLA's Daily Bruin and a journalism intern for the International Rescue Committee's Los Angeles. We think she describes the work GPM does with the children in the slums quiet beautifully...

July 5, 2015

As volunteers with the Gabriel Project Mumbai, we are one piece of an established and dedicated approach to improving education in very poor areas, both urban and rural. Our group works in four classrooms run by the NGO Reach Education Action Programme (REAP) in Kalwa Slum. REAP runs hundreds of classrooms and other literacy programs throughout Mumbai and the villages in its outskirts, striving to provide quality education and stem child labor at its roots. GPM volunteers are present year-round in multiple REAP classrooms, providing daily interactive and fun informal learning sessions. GPM also takes children from various REAP classrooms on “Sunday Funday” field trips, and is working on other nutrition, sanitation, and overall health initiatives (details to come later).

Each day, our cohort of seven takes a sleepy 45 minute train ride to Kalwa, where we split into two
Outside one of the REAP classrooms in the slums
groups. My group – Rena, Molly, Hayeem, and our trusty security/translator/confidante David – first visits a classroom of about 30 children, ages ranging from around 6 to 13 (average ages are between 8 and 11). The 10×10 foot cement-walled classroom is scantily decorated with a small world map and two posters about food groups. Children trickle in slowly, backpacks and notebooks in tow, removing their flip flops at the room’s open entrance. The children’s regular teacher, a middle aged woman dressed in a bright sari, hovers over them as they sit on the ground.

Some children, like Lakshmi, a uniformed girl with perfectly combed pigtails and a soft dimpled smile, sit quietly in the front row, eyeing us meekly and patiently wait for the lesson to begin. Others, like the wiry and bright eyed Sabridi, prance into the room giggling and poking at friends, looking for trouble and attention. Identical twins Rahul and Rakesh always arrive a few minutes late, exuding enthusiasm with collared shirts tucked in, and climb over other other students to find a spot on the ground. Our days in Kalwa always start with a high-pitched and resounding “Good morning teachers!!!”

The brilliant Rahim, always attentive and participatory

Last week’s lessons focused on relationships: self, family, friends, and community. We got to know each other, discussing what makes each of us who we are and teaching the phrase “I am unique.” We discussed different roles in the family, and each student drew pictures of their different sized families. We also discussed the importance of being nice to our friends, and the English word “compliment.”
Some focus on drawing their families, others proudly present their final products

Golu focused on the letter 'A'
Golu, a wide eyed and adorable six year old, had been relatively silent most of the week. He is part of our lively second classroom, which sits next to the train tracks and has tin walls and a low-hanging ceiling fan. During our lesson on family, Golu sat at the edge of the room, head down and fixated on his notebook. I approached him, and noticed he was copying the letter “A” over and over again in light pencil. “Bahut acha,” I told him softly. “Very good.” He didn’t acknowledge me at first, and when I asked his name he told me in a barely audible whisper, without lifting his eyes from the page. Eventually, he noticed me taking a photo of the classroom, and looked at me silently but inquisitively. So I took a selfie with him. A timid smile emerged on his face, and he pointed at the photo. While the class vibrantly discussed what it means to  appreciate our family members, I sat in the back with Golu, silently making faces at the camera and playing hand games.

Making faces with Golu
The next day, learning about compliments, our class sat in a circle, and each child stood up and said something nice about one of their friends, tying a small bracelet on their wrist to go along with it. When his turn came, Golu chose a young and excitable girl called Parvi, whispering an inaudible compliment to her and tying the string bracelet on her wrist with the dexterity of a child twice his age. Other compliment exchanges followed – some straightforward (“I like to play with you”), some detailed (“you go to school every day and are a good student”), and all very sweet (“you have a great smile”). The older preteen Rishma, always setting an example for the younger students, proudly recited her compliment in English. The class, Golu included, departed all smiles, proud of their tokens and the recognition that came with them.

Despite the sleepy starts to our days, the slum smells, and the stuffy sweatiness of the cramped classrooms, the children of Kalwa infuse us with this incredible energy. At the core of their attentiveness and enthusiasm, their uniqueness, their smiles, and their shyness, is childhood, pure and simple. And this invigorating childhood, in the context of education, turns the Kalwa classrooms into small safe havens for exploration and growth. For all of us, teachers included.
Paying close attention
I can’t wait to start our next unit this week; we will be discussing hygiene and health. For now, I will leave this post the same way our classes say goodbye to us every day: with a loud and cheery “see you tomorrow!!!”
Proudly showing off our compliment bracelets