Free The Child!

I happened to meet a few parents of children who were going to a prominent school in Pune city. When asked the reason, promptly came the reply – “The school is focusing more on extra curricular activities and sports rather than academics. How will our children fare in the board exams and the competitive exams thereafter? The entire burden of academics has been transferred to the parents and the school is least bothered about it!”

In a country where educational reforms finally seem to be taking baby steps, a lot of awareness is being created around extra-curricular courses and importance of sports as an integral part of holistic education and inclusion of these in the final examinations, the insecurities of most parents have not reduced. On the contrary, they seem to have increased.

A progressive school in Pune, bravely announces that it aims to create visionaries, musicians, artists and writers apart from doctors, lawyers and engineers. Unfortunately these well educated, well traveled parents interpret this statement as the end of academics and consequently a bright future!

When I asked the children about the change of school, they said that everything was fine in the new school. The only thing they really missed was the extra time that they got in their previous school to practice their music/art/sport. The children were quite unsure why the parents pulled them out from the previous school.

Why can’t adults accept the fact that extra- curricular activities and games increase concentration and build cooperative learning? More often than not, children who pursue these interests are far more likely to excel in life in general. The ability to listen and appreciate, calculate and apply logic will come naturally to them. It was surprising to see how educated parents had such little confidence in their kids’ ability to excel themselves.

I tried to dig deeper and found a few more disturbing secrets. Parents, working or not working had no focused time to spend with the kids. Healthy discussions about the day spent in school was missing. The only conversations were regarding finishing the homework and studies. According to one parent, her kid had bouts of anger at night and would wrestle with his father! Another twelve year old had a bed-wetting problem due to fear of parents if he did not perform! In this article, I write only about a few parents, but such stories are true of many, many affluent or not so affluent families in our country. I would expect the children of uneducated and socio-economically deprived groups to be pushed to perform in academics really hard because that is probably their one and only sure chance to a better life.

What kind of a future are we driving at if the majority of well educated parents still do not understand the meaning of holistic education? Even though the parents’ intent is always to have nothing but the very best for their kids, they must try to bring out the best in their child by giving him/her the freedom to explore and create at their pace. Moreover, children today are much more sure of themselves than 20 years back. They are lucky to have been born in a time where careers related to media, music, arts, sports and adventure are flourishing like never before. In a life that promises more speed, more rush, more stress and more loneliness, the survivors will be the ones who have found and pursued their calling in a free and abundant environment.

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In-sight into the dark world (article published in DNA News paper – 1st Jan 2012)

We are very casual about the power of our sight till we are forced to engage in a ‘Dialogue in the Dark’. Think of those blind persons who have trained themselves to perform various tasks efficiently. Give them an opportunity to earn a livelihood, says Sonali Kothari.

I have a weakness for colours. My rooms’ walls are coloured in olive greens, sensuous greys and melting blues. I spent hours choosing the tones and shades that should surround me.
Sometimes I wonder what life could be without colours. And during my visit to Hyderabad, I had one such mind-shattering experience.
I took an exhibition tour called, Dialogue in the Dark. It was a trip in darkness to explore the power of our five sense organs by shutting out one of them – the sense of sight. It was a test to experience our surroundings by comprehending sounds, touch, smell and tastes. We had experienced guides to help us with navigation. We entered a zigzag pathway from light and gradually and slowly to complete darkness. And then the dialogue began.

“Feel the wall on your right and follow it up the slope and turn along with it. Can you feel the objects around you?”
“Oh! Where are we? In a forest? A park?”
“You’re right! We are in a garden. What can you smell?”
The garden was lined with bamboos, and potted plants — roses and jasmine; there were stones — big ones, here and there; the sound of water flowing nearby. Our guide showed us the way perfectly. We were thankful that at least someone had the vision to see in the dark.

“What sound is that?” It smells like water!”
“Yes, this is the sound of water.”
“Where are we going?”
“Hey, touch this – what do you think this is?”
“Seems like a boat.”
“Yes! It is a boat.”
“Now, we will take a boat ride to the other side.”

The exhibition triggered a series of questions about matters that held no priority in my life till now. Every new question suddenly seemed much too relevant in these times to be ignored.

A good eye is such an overpowering sense organ that it dims the powers of the other sense organs. At times, ironically, limits our vision.

The experience led me to Poona Blind Men’s Association’s Technical Training Institute (TTI) in Pune. Located in one forgotten corner of the city, this is home to visually challenged students from all over Maharashtra. It is interesting to see that most of the students use Microsoft Office as efficiently as any of us do and use cellphones with equal ease. They are trained to use computers and are taught physiotherapy, music and stenography. But lack of accessibility and acceptance is keeping them away from joining their so-called biologically abled counterparts.
TTI’s chief executive officer Dr Homiyar Mobedji, who is also a physiotherapist, feels that the demotivation and disinterest that has set in among the inmates is partly due to the feeling of rejection and pity that they face in public.

The physically challenged are in the minority. Why would someone invest thought and money in designing infrastructure to cater to this population? How does it matter if these people do not show up in public spaces, theatres or restaurants? How many of us are ready to get a massage done by a blind physiotherapist? How many of us have ever imagined that there could be a visually impaired person with equal competence for a particular job?

The time has come for inclusive design of the world around us. In the West, a lot of progress has been made in terms of accessibility. Traffic signals with audio enhancements, ramps in public places, differentiated use of textures, providing railings and edge cues are some of the things that have helped liberate this section of society.

According to a WHO report, out of the 45 million visually challenged people in the world, over 33.3 million are from developing countries of which, nine million are from India.

It is time that we realise that these young people are capable of contributing to society much more than they are perceived to be dependent on it. It is time that we are ready to meet a visually challenged physiotherapist, a receptionist or a shop-assistant working as efficiently as anyone else.

For me, Dialogue in the Dark became an enlightening experience only by the assistance of the visually challenged escorts at the exhibition.

(Sonali Kothari is an assistant education manager at The Akanksha Foundation, Pune, and founder of ‘Innishari’- Do you remember!)

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A dialogue in the Dark

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On being a teacher…

I get up every morning with the pink light of dawn entering the non-stop musical in front of my eyes starring my little devils at Akanksha. The first thing on my mind,.. “Lets see what I can achieve today?” I am not exaggerating one bit!

One day inside the Akanksha classroom can change your life forever. Teaching is addictive. Teaching is experimenting. Teaching is learning to see things from the eyes of 30 children and then trying to build a connection to the different view points. As a teacher, I have learnt that there is a very solid reasoning behind every answer that a child gives, behind every action that a child does, behind every expression that a child shows. There are no right or wrong answers. It is the process that leads to the answer which is important.

Kids are kids.. in my house or in the slums – full of wonder. They have similar needs.. the need for attention, the need for security, the need for love and the need for a good education. That is any child’s appetite across the world!

Being a teacher to me means to continuously explore and push myself out of my comfort zone to become an ‘effective’ and ‘complete’ educator. It means to create a sweet bond with the child, to extend that relationship to the child’s family and community. To me it means to build the capacity to be able to accommodate an unexpected situation without a frown. It means to try and cater to the learning needs and learning styles in a mixed group. It means to continuously try and improve every lesson to increase engagement.

Being an Akanksha teacher gives me continuous access to best practices and teaching methods around the world. It allows me the freedom to systematically experiment with new ideas that have the potential to improve the learning.

Above all, being a teacher means to be able to smile after a rough day, to be able to share and reflect with a wonderful team and to be able to celebrate the smallest of victories!

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The Garden of My Life…

It isn’t as if it’s new
For years it grew and grew
I heard them only today
The trunks and leaves that say
Give, Forgive and Believe-
And Thank while you pray.

I walked the path of joggers
Deliberating at every step
Comprehending the silence of nature
Unleashing my long discomfiture.
With love and abundance all around
How can I be sorrow bound?

There is one very old and tall
My pillar of strength that says it all
Hold on to the ground with all your might
Lest a storm push you away in flight.
You have chores to accomplish
And a life to sweetly nourish.

There is one all coiled and curled
A little deceiving, I wonder
No beginning no end
A new maze at every bend.
Find the order in each twist and turn
For life has just but begun.

There is yellow and purple and blue
Glimpses of pink and orange are few
Swaying in happiness and merrily singing
Unaware of passersby with mobiles vibrating!
Technology is irrelevant dear-
This is a world of NOW and HERE.

There are many greens and reds
Lining my path to the flower beds
Every step I pray..
Let all be blessed who tread this way
Every dog or bird or worm or man…
Every stone or pebble or frying pan.

You watch me now and then

Trodding on your leaves and stems

Shattering the silence with every step

You smile and engulf me in your arms.

I am overpowered; yet safe and secure.

You give me the strength to move ahead

In the direction where suffering ends

Where love and faith is all that matters

Acceptance and forgiveness go hand in hand.

Every morning,

You teach me something new

You , the Garden of My Life.

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The Magic Box

On May 15th, I was witness to a great musical experience – that set afire a series of questions and answers; that made me look once again at my idealist outlook with renewed conviction. The show was well timed for me as it came at a point when I was at a moral crossroad – when I was fighting with myself on my ideals and principles. The cause of the conflict lay in my inability to ‘be the change’ in a particular slum community in spite of being a part of a system that holds strongly to belief and hope. Our mission is to provide an education that will help build knowledge, skills and character in these kids so that they can lead empowered lives. On one hand there is promise of belief and hope; on the other, there is an equal, if not a much greater possibility of frustration and failure. How does one deal with kids who have broken families, who are hit by their parents, teachers, community members; who are forced to get into manual labour outside their homes; who fall into bad company and get caught up in incidents of thefts, eve-teasing, sex scandals and sometimes child abuse? We carry the huge responsibility of being the change in their lives, so that they see opportunities that will help them lead better lives.

‘The Magic Box’ brought to life the lives of slum children and their perception of happiness. The hour long musical portrays the journey of three students in search for the ‘key’ to ‘the Magic Box’ of happiness. The difficulties that these kids face during their search brings them close together and change their perception of happiness. The values of sharing, caring, honesty and integrity are portrayed very carefully in the well-written script. The care free, yet sensitive disposition of the characters portray the charm of innocence in the midst of too much unwanted knowledge and street smartness. The impact of school and learning is brought to light in the conversations where the characters draw parallels from classroom to real life; when they try to apply their knowledge in the real world.

Above all, for every person present, the musical was a complete entertainer. The little actors from the school did full justice to the excellent script and professional choreography. The teacher, a Teach For India fellow- Mansi Panjwani and her students at Pujya Kasturba Gandhi Vidyalaya at Koregaon Park deserve full credit for showing Puneites what ‘every child’ is capable of when given the rightful chance. Every child has the potential to do great things, to go great places – only you need to believe in them and help them look towards a beautiful future.

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Shyamchi Ayi – An Innishari Experience

Shyamchi Ayi is a collection of stories about a mother and her son written by Sane Guruji, the son. Originally written in Marathi, I found a very simple English translation with beautiful illustrations. I started off thinking I’d do 3-4 stories (a story is just 2 pages) everyday as a listening –speaking activity which would last for a week or so. As it turned out, this lesson happened to be a turning point in my role as a teacher at Akanksha-Crispins 3 and hopefully for my little girls (12 year olds) who listened to it through wet eyes till the end.

The story is about a little boy who lovingly remembers his mother by telling us incidents about his life through childhood and schooldays. The book presents a very vivid sketch of his mother through the eyes of a child and his childhood, the hardships face by his mother and how she taught him to be courageous, strong and a man of character.
There are instances where the family had to leave a luxurious life, when the family was in debt; a simple night scene when the mother and son are gazing at the night sky when they witness a falling star ( considered a bad omen ), stories of positivity and integrity. There are times when Shyam thinks that his parents don’t like him and how his mother makes him realize what love is. The end of the story when illness takes away his mother while he is far away from home to study is very sensitively portrayed.

We discussed every incident in class and tried to find similar pictures in our lives. Every child could relate to Shyam’s life. There are children in my group who have a single parent and those who have only God and friends. There are some whose parents have left them for years and have not come to see them ever. There are children who have grown on railway stations without knowing what family means. There are kids who come from very close knit families who live far away. Whatever their background, Shyamchi ayi , I felt, did, to some extent plant a little seed of love and belonging and realization of reality with positivity because at the end of the novel every single child (including me) had tears in the eyes.

This lesson created a special bond between us, I felt.

I came home and started reading the story to my son who is 7 years old. It was the same story and the reactions were not different at all. Today it has been many many days since I first read the story but the impression of every single incident remains as fresh in my mind as if it is all happening in my life all the time.

Let us also try and document such little instances so that when we look back we will be able to find these invaluable pearls and thread them together for our grandchildren and many more generations which will need them as much as we do.

(Pandurang Sadashiv Sane (1899-1950) wrote this novel in five days while he was in jail in Nasik. A very prolific writer, a socialist, a Gandhian to the core, he was arrested for participation in the civil disobedience movement.)

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Sunshine Around the World

Sunshine Around the World…                         

An apple pudding with bits of green chillies!                            


I wondered what everyone at Akanksha was talking about when they mentioned Sunshine Around the World. This was almost 11 months ago. I had joined as a teacher at Crispins 3 at Nal Stop. Without any experience of formal teaching I dived into a commitment of teaching English to children in the age group of 10-13.

Teaching has been an exciting learning experience. The emphasis of planning a lesson  to the last detail cannot be overemphasized. That too, in such a way that it should not feel like a lesson being taught. Children just need to absorb and react to the experiences in the classroom. 




Today, a little nervous and a little excited while waiting to see our kids go out and share with the people outside, their learnings and imagery of their partner country.. I stop to think of the days from the inception of this idea…


The project – ‘Sunshine Around the World’ started as an attempt to widen the perspective of the participants by exposing them to different cultures and traditions across the world. 

The idea was to engage schools from other countries and let the Indian children exchange information about their countries with students from a foreign country.


It was big idea. And it needed a whole lot of serious planning.


Akanksha had 23 centers functioning at different levels of learning. It was decided to take all kids at Level 2 and above into the project and a suitable learning plan for each levels was to be made. The learning plan would have to first include an appropriate understanding of the Indian Culture and the Indian System. And then the interaction could begin.


The idea took off.


The communications team jet started by shooting emails to schools in different countries that seemed possible partners in the project. Though it seemed to be an easy task, it was far from being that. Till a few months back we were still struggling to establish continuous interaction with some countries.


The project educational co-ordinators did extensive and exhaustive planning of the topics and lessons to be covered over a period of 2 years. In addition ‘events’ were planned to acknowledge and test the learnings of the students from time to time.


The teachers had the massive  responsibility to take them through a journey across India before introducing them to their partner country.  It was decided that only a few hours in a week should be dedicated to this project. The lessons would cover history, geography, culture, festivals, language and currency of India as well as the partner country.


The excitement of the kids knew no bounds. I remember I had to explain to the kids that they will not be meeting their partner kids in real! But they would be writing letters to them individually and they would possibly get replies to their letters. And that they did.


And on various occasions, I have found to my great satisfaction that most children lighten up at the mention of their partner countries and it is a pleasure to see them talk with some degree of confidence about a new found first-hand knowledge coming from the communication with their international pen-friends.




Partner Countries


Today we have eight schools from eight countries with established communication with Akanksha through ‘Sunshine Around the World’. These are Japan, Switzerland, USA, UK, The Netherlands, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Japan. Akanksha centers were aggregated into clusters (of 2-3 centers) – each cluster sharing a partner country.


Japan was one of the early participants in the project and it has been a wonderful learning and thrilling experience for our kids, reading the colourful letters by Japanese kids.


The Grand Finale


To showcase the learning of our kids from Sunshine Around the World, we decided to  put up an exhibition where the Clusters would put a stall depicting the history and culture of their partner country. In addition, each cluster would also put up a dance and drama  specific to their partner country. Kids would learn and make traditional handicrafts that could be sold at the exhibition.


The Making of SAW


The process for the Grand Finale started sometime in June, 2008. SAW meetings were called and preparations were planned. I had been given the responsibility to make audio-visual presentations on History, Festivals and Currencies of the eight countries. Likewise there were groups who were made in charge of Drama and Dance, Costumes, Logistics, Public Relations, Handicrafts and so on. One could make out that it was going to be a big event for the Akanksha children.


Many a time, I stopped to think – ‘Why can’t big, established schools have such programs for their children when it would be a cake walk for them in terms of resources! I guess it is just a matter of priority and creativity in education.


A Day in the Life for me as a  SAW Volunteer


Let me picture this for you – Get up in the morning….do a bit of Yoga (to stay away from promising back aches all set to arrive)…. A cup of tea with  The Indian Express…..on the Net to browse for an hour…… make food for the family…. Get kids dressed up for school……..go back to the Comp….compile the morning’s find…. Prepare Akanksha daily chit… hunt on the phone for volunteers to help make props and choreographers to teach dance!….  go to center… teach….. practice if you have the music in place…… go home…….fight with your kids for the comp!!!….. eat food…. Play with family and CRASH!!!……SAW Dreams… or call them Nightmares!!!!


The scene would possibly be more or less the same –except for the research mode for most volunteers working on the Project.


As days passed by, the SAW structure became clearer and looked more real with sponsors and resources clearly in place….

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