Ratna's Reflections on Gyaan Ghar, Spring 2017

I was lucky to be able to visit our learning center this week, even if just for a few days. Though I wasn't there long, I wanted to share briefly my thoughts on where we came from, where we are, and where we're going.


What we've achieved

It strikes me every time I go back to Ludhiana how amazing it is that Gyaan Ghar is still running. This may not seem like a big deal, but the consistency and enthusiasm with which teachers and students alike approach Gyaan Ghar is admirable, and major credit for the ongoing success of the school goes to my grandmother, Amrit Kaur, who supervises the organization's daily operations.

I am always so thrilled to see faces we had in our original class of 20 students in 2008 still present, nine years later! 2018 will mark Gyaan Ghar's 10th anniversary, and I couldn't be more grateful to all of you for your support in making that happen.

Varinder painted this poster advocating
for conservation of our natural resources.
Apart from the sheer fact of its existence, the thing that impressed me the most during my visit this year was the creativity and innovation with which students approach their academic and extracurricular work on a daily basis. I remember vividly when I would plead with the students to "paint whatever you want!" in the early days of the school and would be met with blank stares, since individuality is simply not a focus of the education system under which they study. This spring, the students not only pulled together a talent show in three days (with each student performing a piece they prepared independently, with feedback from fellow students), but also took a day off of rehearsals to just do a relaxed day of painting and drawing (mind you, this was all during their spring break).

Teachers gave no direction as to what they should paint; and each student's painting turned out different. Again, this doesn't seem that big a deal, but drawing or painting without a ruler, exact dimensions, and step-by-step directions was unheard of for these students even a few years ago. In fact, watching them all recite the answers they had memorized by rote in the early days was one of my first motivations for wanting to make sure we emphasized art and creative activities at the learning center. So this progress gave me much joy. (One student even chose to make as his project a poster advocating for environmental protection -- a man after my own heart!)

What we need to work on

The next big thing Dadi and I are focusing on is how to connect Gyaan Ghar alums to opportunities beyond high school. We just had our first graduate, Surinder, get admitted to college for Commerce, and we have a number of students in 10th grade who are studying Commerce as well. We are looking for mentors in our New Lajpat Nagar community who can provide advice and guidance for students, as well as firms in the neighborhood who would be interested in connecting with students from our alum network in the future.

Alum Surinder serves samosas to younger students after the talent show.
This week, we asked Surinder to visit the group of 10th graders periodically to share tips on the college application and selection process with his former schoolmates.

We also selected one of our older students Varinder, who is interested in photography and design, to run social media for Gyaan Ghar on the ground -- so keep an eye out for posts from him on our Facebook page!



The vision

I've had many different goals for Gyaan Ghar over time. It was originally only going to be open to girl students; at one point we were only going to teach the arts. I would say the learning center has evolved based on what the community has voiced that they've wanted (for example, parents preferred that students focus first on preparing for board examinations, and work on creative activities over their holidays since this would set them up for success at their public day school -- so that's how we currently structure our curriculum). I'm most pleased that Gyaan Ghar staying open means 65 students have a safe space 365 days a year where their only job is to be curious and creative and to learn, for as long as they can attend classes with us.

And the motivation for me continues to be to use Gyaan Ghar as a place to pass my privilege on. I sadly still get too many questions on why I focus on "social work" now that I've graduated from Harvard. My answer to that question is always: who else should focus on social issues? If the people born into the most privilege aren't willing to give their time and attention to sharing that privilege with other people, then who will? It may be polarizing (and the fact that I can say this is a sign of my privilege in itself), but in my opinion, it's the only way to live a life.

--

I thank you for your ongoing support, and welcome any questions and ideas you may have on this quick post reflecting on my recent visit! Please feel free to reach out via email or leave a comment below.

Gyaan Ghar in Glimpse Magazine

A huge thanks to columnist Rohan Bir Singh Dhaliwal for this lovely layout in Glimpse Magazine. Check back soon for the web version, but for now check out these great photos of our students and teachers over the years!


Seven Gyaan Ghar Students Selected for Prestigious National Cadet Corps Leadership Program


We are proud to welcome back today seven of our students, who were selected from a Punjab-wide pool to participate in the National Integration Camp held by the National Cadet Corps of India.

15 students were to be selected from the city of Ludhiana, and all 15 were selected from the ranks of Malwa Khalsa Senior Secondary School. Of these 15, seven are enrolled in supplementary classes at Gyaan Ghar.

The boys have returned having learned valuable lessons about discipline and respect, and look forward to applying their knowledge and experience to their lives back at school, and to sharing their knowledge with their peers.

Students Participate in March for International Day of Older Persons

This October, the students of Gyaan Ghar joined the Senior Citizens' Welfare Association of Ludhiana in their annual March for the International Day of Older Persons, holding signs bearing slogans such as "teach me your experience," and "we want to serve you."
Gyaan Society President Amrit Kaur is also Vice President of the local Senior Citizens' Welfare Association, and was keen to involve the students in this display of respect for their elders. Students led the charge on this two-mile walk from Park Plaza Hotel to Punjab Agricultural University, garlanding the seniors at the starting point of the walk and proudly displaying their "Gyaan Ghar Learning Centre" banner at the front of the line.

Happy Earth Day!

The students came over at 10 this morning for a celebration of our planet! We opened with a discussion on why our Earth is important -- which led to follow-up questions on the importance of planting trees, and the negative effects of pollution upon people, animals, and the planet itself.


Next, we addressed the "is one person enough to make a difference?" question and talked about how if each person -- from a young student to the owner of a huge factory -- were to clean up after herself, there would be no issue. But since this is not the case, we often have to help clean up other people's messes as well. I challenged each student to promise, starting now, to leave behind the mentality of "it's not my trash; why should I pick it up?" (which was clearly prevalent at our Awards Ceremony yesterday).


I then explained the "Design Your Own World" project we would be doing, and showed the students examples of such globes from the Rio exhibition where I got the idea. We went through all the photographs, noticing different details, and the range of designs in the collection -- and yet when I told the students to get started, they seemed a bit confused. They weren't sure exactly what to make. I got many questions like, "Didi, can I make a mountain and a river and some trees?" and a lot of confusion when I responded, "you can make whatever you want!" The concept of following one's imagination wherever it goes is really foreign to these kids, and most started whipping out their rulers and drawing geometric houses at first.


But when they saw their Didi pasting dried leaves to her globe, and dripping nail polish over them, I think they started to understand what I meant when I said they could do anything. It was then that the doors of creativity burst open and we got some great results.

Manav and Amandeep weren't afraid to work the sparkly nail polish.















The girls used some of Ratna Didi's decorations after her balloon popped!



Rahul, Vinay, Jasdeep, and Hardeep filled the world with flowers.


Miss Ritu got into the spirit, and made an Earth Day rangoli in the classroom!













The fun went on and on into the afternoon, and included an Earth Day photo shoot heavily staged by Manav, the future photographer and my bodyguard.


Students headed home around 3, after receiving the Earth Day goody bags so kindly donated by Mrs. Nita Jain -- thank you, Auntie!

3rd Annual Variety Show and Awards Ceremony

We started the program with a prayer . . .















 . . . followed by my welcome speech. 















We heard about respecting one's classmates . . .













 . . . and taking care of one's health.













Students' voices rang out, "we will be successful!"

 













and, "never hurt anyone!"
















Some kids dressed up as flowers and insects . . . 
















. . . while others played the roles of Lord Krishna and his wife Radha.


We enjoyed a dance form from the state of Punjab . . . 
















. . . as well as one from Uttar Pradesh.
















Students even performed a play on the importance literacy!


Dadi and I are happy that the show was a success . . . 






















. . . and the students are thrilled that all their hard work has paid off!


Audience members say the show couldn't have been better! 

A Reminder

"Our mission is much deeper than it sometimes seems -- in addition to empowering less privileged sections of the society, we must mobilize its more privileged members to respect and honor their fellow citizens. Stereotypes are like really stubborn blackheads!"

17 April 2012

We started class with the students' daily 10-minute meditation.


We had another rehearsal today, this time giving especial attention to entrances and exits. Click below to see our youngest students' contribution to the show. This video is worth watching just to see how they all jump in on the last line and pretend they knew what they were doing all along -- reminds me of high school Choir class! :)

video

I definitely broke a sweat during today's practice, and was acting a bit short afterward. Despite my nippy attitude, Dadi and I managed to have a successful meeting with Sodi Auntie to finalize the order of acts. I find any such work dizzying, but I think we finally have a perfect sequence!

The Butterfly and the Wasp

We practiced Anapana (concentrated breathing) for 15 minutes today before the students got to work polishing their various dances, songs, poems, and plays for this Saturday.

One interesting skit we are preparing depicts a butterfly and a wasp fighting over a flower -- the moral of the story, of course, is how to resolve a conflict effectively. What’s funny is that two of the three students participating in this item actually tend to quarrel very often!


One of them burst into tears today and the other refused to put his arm around the student at whom he is angry. I saw this as a perfect counseling opportunity and touched base with one of the students today to hear her side of the story, and plan to follow up with the other tomorrow -- third grade drama!

15 April 2012

I awoke this morning to the sound of my students -- what could be better? We started today’s class with 15 minutes of Anapana (the first step of Vipassana meditation), which is designed to concentrate the mind. I have never seen meditators more still or focused than these children! After teaching them the technique, I told them we would be starting every class like this from now on. Meditation is a wonderful tool they can take with them wherever they go, and they are lucky to be starting at such a young age!


As the class broke into groups and started practicing numbers for our upcoming Variety Show, I caught up with a few students. Vandna, a sophomore and our oldest student, was supposed to pick her academic stream (cf. major) a few weeks ago, but had been waiting for my return to consult me before making her final decision. She is most interested in commerce and dreams of holding a high position at a bank one day, but her family is advising her to take liberal arts, which has less requirements and comes more easily to her, so she can also help her mom clean houses on the side. She was willing to take commerce if she could have a tutor to help her with the time commitment, so I wholeheartedly encouraged her to do what she loves, and have found a college student in our neighborhood who will be willing to give her lessons in commerce for free.


Manisha, one of my most observant and forthcoming students, gave me the most insightful advice today. She noticed that I was much more measured and poised before leaving for Mumbai, whereas I seemed more animated and jovial today, to the point of almost being flippant (she said this all in Hindi and it sounded much better). Her feedback, though, was that although she finds it more fun when I am in a silly mood, she prefers my reflective and dignified advice to help her grow as a person. This was advice from a 9-year-old. I was so, so grateful to Manisha for sharing this, and told her that true friends are the ones who appreciate you when they like what you do, but also call you out when they think you could change something. I have very few friends like this -- in fact, most people do -- and am glad to have found another one! What a thoughtful girl. After class, she and I spent the next hour catching up. I tried to be more dignified during this time. :)

A New Perspective


Your birthday cake: $20

Your balloons: $15

Your dinner party: $100


My class's education for a day: $8

Job Opening

WANTED: Qualified, experienced, motivated female teacher interested in working with underprivileged students to teach academic subjects and extracurricular activities at Gyaan Ghar free charitable learning centre in New Lajpat Nagar, Ludhiana. New and innovative approach to education and TRUE learning with children's support and empowerment. Timings 2:30 to 4:30pm (flexible). Supplementary classes for students from standard 1 to 6 in addition to life skills, confidence-building, environmental consciousness, etc. Call 9803444766 to schedule interview.

60 New Lajpat Nagar
Pakhowal Road
Ludhiana, India

You can find Sisters' Circles around the world!


Left: a 2007 birthday party in Great Falls, Virginia
Right: a 2012 breakout discussion in Ludhiana, India

I guess some things never change.

Left: Ratna at 3 years old in Atitlan, Guatemala
Right: Ratna at 18 years old in Ludhiana, India

Parting is such sweet sorrow . . .

After an hour of exam preparation today, students flocked to Ratna Didi and started asking questions.

"How long will you be gone?" "How long is three weeks?" "Can you come back in one day instead?"

We then had a small ceremony in honor of my departure and Jaanoo Bhaiya's birthday -- some students had even made him lovely cards! I served the children parshaad and they recited a five-book Punjabi prayer for me (only two books of which I have memorized myself).

"Ek onkar, satnam . . . "

I then gave each student a writing utensil to remember me by during their exams, before it was time for photographs. I'm always scared to hand one of these kids a camera (because each of them wants to practice taking pictures), but they are always so enthusiastic they win me over. Manav (to my left below) had requested a photo with me in front of our sweet peas, and I had to fulfill his wish!

A lot more requests came in afterward . . .

After the whole class had been photographed in groups of two or three (I have no patience for photographs!), I had to say goodbye. I walked as far as I could with the last group of kids who left, but there came a time when they all turned the corner.

"Peace!"




    
I have had a truly wonderful time with our students over these past few weeks, and I immensely look forward to returning to them in April!

29 February 2012

As some of the older students trickled in this morning, they requested me to quiz them on English verb forms. After staring at the daunting list in horror for a few minutes, I thought of the funnest way ever to test their knowledge -- CERTAMEN! Certamen is a trivia game used to test knowledge of Latin language and culture in schools across America. Turns out it works just as well for English grammar!


The students loved the game, and I encouraged them to use it to quiz one another in the future. Who knew my favorite high school game (varsity sport) would come in handy in a classroom so many miles away?!

When a number of younger students had arrived, we assembled in a circle and had a group discussion, using a ball of yarn to track who spoke in what order. I first asked a question: each student was to tell me his/her favorite thing about Gyaan Ghar. I held the ball, which I tossed to a random student. After he replied, he wrapped the yarn around his finger once and threw the ball to a classmate, and so on. After each student had answered this question, there was a complicated pattern of string on the floor. I then asked the student who had received the yarn last to tell the class his least favorite thing about Gyaan Ghar. Once he had done this, he tossed the yarn back to the student from whom he had received it, and so on until the ball was fully re-raveled.

In the process, I got some good feedback from the students, which I definitely plan to incorporate into our program. Oh, what tangled webs we weave!

Miss Ritu and Miss Gurpreet arrived just as we were wrapping up (literally) this game, and I worked with a few groups of students on exam preparation. I sent the third graders on a color scavenger hunt and designed a way for our fifth grade students to help one another learn English-to-Punjabi translations.

After class, I met with our two teachers to discuss the progress of individual students and the learning center as a whole. Once this meeting was over, I found the students playing in the park. I stopped by for a bit, and when I tried to leave, they wouldn't let go of me! Manisha actually burst into tears on several occasions, but I promised I would arrive back just as their exams were over.


For once, I am not looking forward to class tomorrow -- I simply don't want to leave!

An Afternoon in Our Life

We come a kilometer from school -- some of us ride our family bikes while most walk.

















We climb the steep staircase to Gyaan Ghar.













We open the creaky door of Wisdom House.













We do our homework -- we study English, Hindi, Punjabi, Maths, and Science.















 We learn new games and play until it is time to go home.


25 February 2012

After the students had 2.5 hours of exam preparation today, we played a few games in the park. The students first introduced me to Water&Ice, in which one person is "it" and anyone who is tagged by him has to freeze like an ice sculpture until freed by another player, who must touch the frozen friend without being caught by the person who is "it." Some students enjoyed making me into a sculpture, and others displayed their chivalry by coming to rescue their Didi in Distress.

Next, we played Follow the Leader with a new set of rules to make the game more exciting. And lastly, we played Hide&Seek, the Indian version of which is much more interesting! Players who are hiding must sneak up behind the seeker and tag him to end the game. How cool.

Once the other students had been dismissed, I worked on English with Sonu (5th grade).


Specifically, he wanted tips on how to remember the answers to English questions on tests. What I soon learned was that once he knew what was being asked, he was able to write the answers with only minor mistakes. But he had trouble recognizing the wording of the question itself. For example, he has an upcoming assessment on the following 7 questions:

1. What is your name?

2. How old are you?

3. In which class do you study?

4. What is the name of your father?

5. What is the name of your mother?

6. What is the name of your brother?

7. What is the name of your sister?

He can easily write "I am 13 years old," but has trouble reading the questions themselves, and therefore knowing which response to write. My "tip" to him was to look for the terms in common between the questions and answers. For example, the word "old" is present in both the question and answer above. It seems obvious to us, but he had never noticed this before!

Sonu, thankfully, understands phonics, so I was able to get him to sound words out, but I have noticed that some students can spell "cat" but don't know what sounds the individual letters make; only how to write the word. Another of Sonu's strengths is his Hindi, so I was able to remind him that that "c" makes a क sound, "a" a ए sound,  "t" a ट sound, etc. This seemed to really help him, and it was a good review of my Hindi writing as well. :)

I think this is a perfect example of how rote memorization in Indian education is so, well, rote. For us in the US, "cramming" means studying non-stop the night before a test. Here, it means cramming information into your brain even if you don't understand it at all. Sonu just expected to memorize all of this without noticing any patterns, which seem like "tricks" to him -- this is normal to him, and truly shocking for little me, a product entirely of the American education system.

At the end of an hour and a half together, I was very pleased with our progress. A boy who couldn't recognize what he was even being asked when he walked in walked out knowing how to read and respond to the 7 questions. But of course, I will review this again with him tomorrow. And that's what's different about the work we are doing with our students. At his public school, the teacher would write each sentence once and tell him to copy it a number of times and bring it back to school the next day. I'll instead remind him of the patterns we discovered, so that he will be able to make similar connections when he is taking an assessment. And I'm not even an experienced teacher -- this is just the type of attention we are used to in America, and the type all these students would be getting if they had had the random fortune of being born into a different environment.