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We live in a media-saturated culture, a culture of paradoxes, where the information explosion co-exists with shrinking spaces for public debate. The communications revolution has tended to serve the interests of the powerful. More than democratizing access to knowledge, it has worked towards spreading consumerist cultural values. Avehi is an organization, working to facilitate community access to relevant media resources. Avehi, an audio-visual resource centre, was launched in 1981 as an initiative of the Avehi Public Charitable Educational Trust. It was founded by individuals from various fields, committed to empowerment through education and to using the potential of audio-visual media to facilitate rational thinking, social awareness and social change. Avehi works towards promoting values of equality, social justice, gender sensitivity, secularism, communal harmony and human rights.

The Avehi-Abacus Project was initiated in 1990, to develop a supplementary curriculum for schools. The founding inspiration behind the project is renowned educationist and theatre personality, Smt. Shanta Gandhi (Padmashri recipient). 

Educational Philosophy (Presentation by Deepa)

We have been working for last 12 years, developing learning material. (We) primarily work with municipal corporation schools. Education should not be broken up into different subjects. The world around us is one and so we need to learn everything as a whole. That’s the way children learn naturally. If children cannot apply what they learn at school when they go home, it is forgotten as soon as exams are over. Education needs to give them skills that they require, skill to make decisions, weigh options, skills to find out information (rather than just giving information, since it keeps changing). Education not only happens at school, but also at home, with parents and in our surroundings. We work with children through the teachers. Since the teachers themselves have been through the same system, they have to be trained to become a part of an interactive process, so that children can come out with their experiences and express it through whichever way they want to - poetry, debate, drama, writing etc. We decided consciously to work with the system. Unless it is incorporated in the existing system, it may die out when the first set of people leave. It has been a long process. By and large given something new and more interesting, teachers have awakened within themselves a joy for connecting, sharing and using what they have learnt in other subjects as well.  Material we develop is extremely visual and attractive, since this caters to the municipal school children who don’t have a library. The teachers are also involved in many administrative works like inoculation, election, etc. So the material should be attractive and interesting for the children to see and react to but also for the teachers to use.

Most of the children live in chawls with different communities, castes. Our modules are activity based. What they learn in our sessions, the children use it in their life. We get very good material in English, but not in regional languages. But the kids deserve it in all languages.

Educational Methodologies  (Presentation at the conference  by Noella and Deepa)

The year was 1952 and place was on the banks of the Narmada river. The name of the village was Nikora. The idea of Abacus was conceived here. Shanta Gandhi, our founder, was working with adivasi and non-adivasi children in an atmosphere which was totally informal, nothing pre-planned and no curriculum. She started with their questions relating to their surrounding and in exploring answers to these questions through drama, dance, songs, she began discussing various themes, various topics like evolution, how life emerged, why we are what we are and how we have reached here. This was the beginning that was taken up by Bal Bhavan New Delhi.

In 1990, Avehi in Bombay took up this program and called it Abacus. We have had 3 phases since then. In 1991-95 the municipal corporation gave us permission to implement it in one Hindi medium municipal school, a 5 year program for children from class 3 to class 7. This meant our facilitator going there for one hour every week taking the session. The feedback from the educators, children and teachers helped us modify and refine the program. In 1995-2000, we got permission to expand it to 25 different schools in 2 wards in Bombay; 10,000 children and 500 teachers were involved. In addition there were 35 NFE centers with children of construction workers, street children and children of sex workers. At the end of this 5-year program, the research wing of education board, sanctioned us to work with 2 wards – in the phase we are in now, 180 schools -  B South and B North.  This meant expansion and we had to adapt the 5 year course to a 3 year course which we call “Sangati” now. It’s a kit of 6 different themes. We have finished 3 and yet to produce 3 more. We have recently started working in some more blocks of Yawatmal and Chandrapur districts in eastern Maharashtra recently. We produce manuals for teachers in two languages - Hindi and Marati. The worksheet for children is in 8 languages – Hindi, Marati, Urdu, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, English and Gujarati. We are currently working with 13000 children in 5th and 6th class. Next year it will be reaching children in 5th, 6th and 7th standards.

Ques: How many of you are designing material?

Ans: Our design team has 8 of us preparing the course and learning materials. In addition we have supervisors who visit the schools and ensure that the materials are used properly. We will give you more details a little later.

[This part of the presentation by Deepa]

Very early on, we decided very consciously to work within the system – this way we can reach out to the greatest number of children. We decided to work using the existing space in the current system and after obtaining the co-operation of the teachers and the municipal authorities. So after the initial experimental phase, we went to the Mumbai municipal corporation and told them  “You have seen our program. There have been several independent evaluations of our program, your evaluation, those by TISS (Tata Institute of social sciences). We are not asking for extra time. There is already time allocated to SUPW (Socially Useful and Productive Work) in municipal schools. Give us this time and we will use it. This is time for socially useful productive work and is not being used currently.” 

We take up following themes in the 6 kits

1.        Myself, my body and our needs: Understanding that I am unique; I have unique needs, unique emotions, unique way of looking at the world; but we are all unique and share common needs; seeing the connections with everyone else. All of us are interconnected.

2.        Understanding the world and the web of life. It helps in understanding that all our needs are fulfilled by the earth.  The topics explored include our being on this earth, understanding our world and web of life that binds us all together - living and non-living.

3.        How societies developed? Where have we come from? This helps in understanding what we were, where we came from, the mechanizations that get people together, what were the structures set up, which in turn helps in understanding our society today. How we operate in this world today.

4.        The way we live. Where are we today? What is the role of social institutions like family, state, class, caste today? What role do they play in our lives today, how relevant are they, how do they influence us? Having understood them - what do we accept, reject or challenge?

5.        Exploring changes - change is inevitable. We can either be passive and react to the change once it happens, or if we understand change - learn how to be proactive, hasten a change that is good  or resist a change that is not welcome

6.        Where are we going? What do I want in life? What will I be encouraged to do? What will take me further? What will determine the future of the place I live in? What will determine my future and the future of the world around me?

 All of these sounds like extremely difficult topics to tackle and sometimes it does get daunting.  We take these themes in one hour sessions. First 10-15 minutes is an introduction of an idea through a story, flip-chart or discussion. Then there is discussion or an activity to connect what is discussed to their own lives. Then there may be group activity or worksheets and taking it home to relate it to their own lives. The values that are very important to us are and which guides our work - working together, respect for each other, dignity, co-operation, respect for labor, peace, respect for all other living things. These themes keep coming up. One of our strengths is that we let children to discuss complex contentious issues in the class, where these issues are not discussed or do not even find a place in the curriculum. These include for example issues related to development. The children discuss it by putting themselves in positions where they debate and come up with solutions.

 An Example - There is a block of flat on one of the main roads in Bombay . Next to it there is a whole slum that has come up in the past 20 years. 25 years ago, the planning department had earmarked these slums as a municipal garden. Now the people in the flats want the slum to be removed to have the garden. They want this since their children have no place to play and playing on the road is causing lots of accidents. We divide the class up into 3 groups. One group is the building dwellers, second group is the slum dwellers and the third the BMC municipal officials. We ask them to discuss this and come up with a solution.  The children immediately assume the roles and attitudes of the people they represent.

Building dwellers group- these people should go! They are dirty. They have to move as out children need place to play (the children representing the building dwellers are also from the slums).

The slum dwellers group - We have as much right to stay here. You are rich. You shift. Don’t our children have a right to play?

The municipality group – in true bureaucratic sense wrote a letter to vacate the houses. In 15 days you have to empty your houses.

We said this wont do – you have to come up with a solution. The groups started discussing this.  The building people realized that - if all the slum dwellers leave we will not have people to clean cars, work in our houses etc. So we will clear our garages and let these people stay and rest can go.

The slum dwellers said - Who do you think likes to live in slums or dirty places? You give us place. Give us a place that has jobs near by, sanitary conditions, schools for our children and then we will move. Give us these facilities and we will go.

Another suggestion that was put forth – re-house us in the same area with low level housing and one flat roof covering all our houses. You can then build gardens on the top and both children can play!

Children from municipality said - we will discuss this later.

This is an example of an issue taken up in class which many of our children face. This was a very adult issue, but they were able to solve it in a very friendly mature fashion. We then gave it a little twist to see how they would react.

“Suppose this place was earmarked as a hospital, what would you do”? The children representing the slum dwellers said - if it is for the benefit of the larger society then we will vacate. Building dwellers said - We don’t want a hospital. Who wants blood, dead bodies around us?  Then we extrapolate and ask children if this has happened in their area? What did you do? This is an issue that faces many of our cities today. Using role play we were able to explore complex topics relevant today.

We have devised the teacher’s manual to be stand alone. Any teacher anywhere should be able to read the manual and take the class. The manual consists of preparation before the class, main ideas that are taken up, materials needed, session at a glance, flip charts used, and questions to be asked after the flip chart, how to carry the discussion and what the activity to be carried out after this is.  We give a lot of information and often the teacher herself is the best aid! The good teacher simply takes off from here! The worst teacher conveys at least 60-70% of the material. Even if this is followed as it is a lot is conveyed to the children. Once this happens, even teachers feel how different these sessions are different from any other periods in the class.

Typical class strength varies from 35-60. The flip chart is large enough for the children to see. The teacher wanders around to give the children a chance to see the flip chart. Each Sangati kit comprises of one manual, flip chart, posters, materials to be shown in class, worksheets. In conventional schools homework is what we have already done in class. Here it is an extension of what was done at school and relating it to their lives. Typical assignments include interviewing someone in their locality, finding out number of shops in their area, asking parents of an anecdote when they were young etc. This is some way in which they learn about the world around them and also include parents in the education process. Education is not just in school and that it happens in our surroundings. Education is a combination of all the structures that influence us - in school and outside. 

Ques: What issues do you take up?

Ans: We take up issues like caste, class, gender, religion, development in our classrooms in a way that is interactive, so that the children don’t feel personally threatened.

Ques: What about reactions of the regular teachers?

Ans:  There have been very interesting reactions. Many teachers in the beginning at the very outset were resisting. BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) told them they have to do it. It was an extra thing for them. But after taking the first month attendance in classes the day our sessions were taken up shot up from 65-70% to more than 90%. Parents were getting interested, they started coming to school and asking what is this that my children are doing at school?

One teacher said – “In your sessions I encourage the children to talk, discuss, tell me what you think and after this hour is over, I have to go back to the history/geography lesson and I tell them keep quiet and listen. I have a dilemma.” We asked her – “so what do you think you should do?” And she said “I think I need to change my other classes.”

Teachers now make it a point to attend our sessions to do a little bit of their classes. Many of them are using these materials to teach other classes since there is a little bit of history, geography in the material. We also teach them how to make charts etc. Many teachers have also changed their world view, which goes even further.

Ques: Who does the worksheets?

Ans: Children do the worksheets. They take them home. They form a file for the children. Worksheets are not corrected. There is no right or wrong. In 2000 when we launched of our new printed material, we called some of the children we worked with 5-6 years earlier. Some were working, some finished schools, one was married. We asked them – “do you remember the things that we have done.” This guy said “When I met my wife, I showed her 2 things - One is my photo album and the other my Abacus file that I did in the sessions. Because these are what define me.”

Ques: What additional areas do you work in?

We work in the schools we have mentioned before and an additional 100 schools in Eastern Maharastra . There are 35 NGO’s whom we are working with. We also work with schools in Gujarat , Poona (5-6 organisations), Goa , who are using are material. Since it is the same small group developing the material and looking after expansion, we have developed materials in standalone manner. The materials take up issues and not on topical information and so can be easily adapted, since the values and the issues remain the same. Whether it is gender, class or religion, where ever we live, the problems remain. We urge the groups to adapt it according to the place they live in. If there are any further problems and assistance is needed then we try and fulfill those requests. As far as training goes, we have mainly given training to the government/municipal schools.

Contact information

Noella, Deepa, Ms. Simantini Dhuru
3rd Floor, K.K. Marg Municipal School,
Behind New Shirin Talkies, Saat-Rasta, Mahalaxmi,
Bombay 400 011
Tel: 022- 3075231

Please click here to see article from Avehi.

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