March 12, 2007

Thulir : Some reflections

Its almost April and it is anniversary time. As usual, it is time for reflection. Of course we just put up a news update that talked in detail about the activities at Thulir, so this note is more to summarise it and add how we see ourselves currently and where we are headed to.

Well, as things stand now, these are the various groups and set of activities currently taking place at Thulir:
  • Evening Sessions are being attended by about 55 children [even as we write this the past two weeks have seen fresh children coming in. But on an average we have about 25 to 30 children attending. We have now arranged them into 3 groups [age and ability wise]. We have introduced more ordered exercises after feed back from the students. Apart from this we have the usual activities of basic language, Math , General knowledge, art and crafts and General topics, viewing documentaries and feature films.We have recently started computer classes .We are also seriously thinking of starting a sort of film club with regular screenings followed by discussions as we realize that a lot of their current thinking is deeply influenced by mainstream Tamil movies and therefore it is important to make them aware of this impact and to show alternatives. Apart form this activity, we are currently working on how we could organize the academic learning part more effectively. This is a big challenge and source of many of our frustrations currently, as the students are not very regular and come for a short period of time everyday.

  • The Basic Technology course students are continuing to do their mix of academics with technology skills. Some of their sessions are invoking interest from the other students and we are considering doing some of the skills activities with the evening session students too. We are truly amazed at the positive benefits working with the hands has on their self confidence levels and there is a subsequent drastic improvement in academic skills. Ideally this should be available to all students and this might become the biggest challenge in the coming years for us. In a small way we have started this process for the evening class students and hope to work forward slowly. Perumal, Senthil and Balu [along with Mohan who should be joining us back after he recovers from Surgery] being our first batch, need more time than the one year that would end by June. We feel they need a bit more of "hand holding" time, before they are ready to move on to either taking up a job or going for higher level skill training. So we are postponing taking in a new batch to the end of this year.

  • Sreyarth and Bharathi continue with their "home" learning using Thulir resources. Twice a week, Ragini who is 6 years old and whose parents work at our hospital , also joins them. This group in the coming years may grow, as we have other parents in the hospital whose children are in the 0-5 age group.

  • The exam batch : A group of 5 students are currently preparing for their 10th boards, They are here full time and apart from organizing their preparation we have introduced some general discussions classes for them. Some of these students could continue to come to Thulir even after the exams and we are looking closely now at what sort of a programme might benefit them.

It is obvious we dont have a conventional structure [say like that of a school with classes], and things look a bit too varied/ unorganised/ hap hazard. In fact part of our frustration is not being able to look at it with some sense of order, and especially in not being able to communicate this. It certainly seems we dont have a "target group" or "focus".

It is however getting clearer that what we are, is a Learning Resource Centre that is open to a wide age group. The way this is working out now is that Individuals are either ,at the one end, getting motivated to learn and/or on the other , actually learning skills [both academic and vocational]. We wonder if it could be in some sense like students going to a University [in US?] and choosing her/ his credits and pace of completing the credits. For this to happen properly two factors are crucial :
  • 1]. the ability of students to decide what they want to learn and when; and
  • 2] that we are available with time/ energy and the right resources for them to be able to do this. In a sense this is what we are doing and with this clarity we may be able to a] evaluate ourselves better and b] perform better in future.

One of the important learnings from the Basic Technology Course is also that in a group, not everyone is ready to undergo a shared experience of learning and the specifics of what is taught/ to be learnt may not suit some individuals [which explains our drop outs from the course]. It would of course be ideal to open up the place for "any day admission". [In a sense we are that right now, except for the Basic Technology Course where we had a formal date of starting]. It is not too radical a thought as the National Open School now offers the possibility to write exams on demand [one can walk into any of its Centres on any working day, pay the fees and take an exam!!].

Some questions that arise are:
  • Can we leave things to individual students to come up and say " this is what I want to learn now"?
Yes, we can. this is beacuse for one, most students come to Thulir on their own: they are not compelled by parents to come. Secondly, after 3 years, we now have a core group of students who are motivated and therefore have created an atmosphere where by newer students get motivated much sooner.
  • So once we accept this what about organizing learning for so many different students at different times/ different paces.? How is this to be done?
This has been our big challenge so far and it hasnt been easy. But given our peculiar situation of an institution where students do not come regularly, there is no other way to do it. It doesnot mean that we cant have classes for a group. Where it is appropriate, this does happen. Given our scarcity of teachers, we need to encourage students themselves to teach each other. This will lead to higher confidence levels as explaining a concept to another person really clarifies ones own understanding.
  • How do we evaluate our performance / students performance?
The probable way to do this is to have individual portfolios where all the work of the children and occasional tests that they voluntarily take are all filed. Along with the dates and their attendence records this would make it possible to have a fairly clear idea of how a particular student has progressed. These records would also give a pointer towards our efforts in organizing materials as well as teaching sessions that were involved with each individual. Apart from this, we could also include our notes on sessions we take for the children and notes on activities that happen here. This does seem a lot of work, but some of it we already are doing and so it requires the additional effort of streamlining this process.

Of course conventional pointers are always available...such as number of children passing 10th Std exams and so on.We also intend exploring other alternatives to the private candidate in the state exam mode that is currently being used. These could be various possibilities under the National Institute Open Schooling exams with certificate exams in various vocational streams, apart from the 10th equivalent academic/vocational 10th exams.

We would be very happy to hear from you what you all think and any suggestions/ comments would be very valuable. We look forward to hearing from you all.

A Test for Thulir

The review we did of Thulir with the students was called "Thulirukku oru paritchai" [a test for Thulir]. There were many questions each person had to answer. The following questions were some of the questions asked:
  • How long have you been coming here?
  • List the things you have learnt here.
  • What else do you want to learn?
  • What do you like most here? what do you not like?
  • Shall we have sessions only on weekends and holidays instead of having sessions every evening on weekdays?
  • What other rules should we have in Thulir?
  • Should we be more strict generally and about attendence ?
  • Is the supplemantary snack we have in the evenings necessary or shall we stop it?
  • Should we have written excercises every day?
  • Is the way of teaching here OK or should it be changed?
  • Do you know why some girls have stopped coming to Thulir?

It was heartening to see all the children sit down and write answers to these questions. Most of them when they first came to Thulir could hardly write [even Tamil]. Of course they still make a lot of mistakes, but have progressed to the stage of confidently attempting to think and write on their own!

Among the things they have listed as having learnt are
  • Tamil and English [to read and to write],
  • Math,
  • General knowledge,
  • Talking to new people with confidence,
  • and learninig about the outside world from them,
  • reading books,
  • drawing, painting, crafts like knitting etc,

All of them have said they like it here. 4-5 of them have said specifically that they are happy here and that they have been able to learn here only because there is an affectionate environment around. Some girls [we know they have a traumatic family situation] have said that they are able to forget their troubles here.

Most children want sessions every evening and during weekends also! 4 children have said that they dont like the fact that we dont have evening sessions on Mondays [right now we keep Mondays for admin work, maintenance of the campus and buildings, and for planning and preparing classes]. Some older children expressed that they are expected to work in their family fields on school holidays and therefore not to have sessions on holidays.

Two boys have said we should hit children when they do wrong! [we asked this question as this is something we discuss often with the children and also right now a controversy is raging in Tamil Nadu as the Govt has removed the right of the teacher to hit...yes, it was sanctioned in law!]

Everyone has said they would attend Thulir even if we stop the food supplement.

Most want more spoken English classes and computer classes. Two older children [boy and girl] want sewing lessons.

Most have said that the teaching methods and teaching environment in general need not be changed.

All children want to do some written work every day.

Two children have expressed that the play time has been reduced nowadays and that it should not be done.

Most said that children should be asked to come more regularly but if they have work in their fields then they should be excused.

The older children have said that the reason for some girls stopping was the attainment of puberty and the death of a boy in the stream.

We hope to keep this dialogue going and take on some of their suggestions.Already some measures have been put in place, for instance, writing exercises every day. We are happy that we did this exercise with the students as we have a better understanding of the way they perceive Thulir's activities. It has helped us clarify in our minds too what we ought to be doing in future.

Thank you all for writing in.....

Our last news update in this Blog has elicited such an overwhelming response.

We now know that so many of you read our Blog [even such a long and possibly rambling one as our previous blog !]. But we have been moved that so many of you have shown concern that we wrote about feeling low. We have been moved by your expression of concern; and by your sharing of similar experiences [ we now know from you that these things happen and one can overcome with perseverance!].

Thanks to your writing in we dont feel anymore that we are in some remote place facing challenges alone..... we are truly fortunate to have so many friends who care and are willing to express support. Thank you all so much.

We are also happy to say that we are feeling a lot more positive and optimistic. The Thulir children have played a major part by their positive feedbacks and by being responsive to our efforts of late.

We have had a hard look at Thulir and what we have been doing and have posted the thoughts as " Thulir -- some reflections". [One more post for you all to read :)].

Thank you all once again for all the support.