Covid imposed restrictions on travel. Here is the first detailed site-visit report about the mini-schools by a volunteer. Rajaram visited these schools on Sept 17th and 18th, 2020.
Mini Schools Thiruvallur Site Visit Report – Sept 2020
Click here to see more photos from the site visit report.
I used to travel to Thiruvallur one or even two days a week during normal times. But Covid laid low all that regular travels. The last I had visited Thiruvallur was for a teacher training meeting we had organised just before the first lockdown around March 20th. From June beginning our teachers were running mini-schools. But mid Sept, 35 to 40 mini-schools were being run by Asha Chennai across Tamilnadu. In Thiruvallur itself about 20 mini-schools were running. But the risks to myself and to the teachers/children that I would be visiting kept me from travelling. I had only been interacting with the teachers and in a couple of occasions with the school children over video conferences.
Finally on Sept 17th I decided to go to Thiruvallur for 2 days to visit as many of the schools as possible. Srinivasan also accompanied me for the whole trip. I know the location of most of the schools we support. But since the mini-schools were being held in teachers’ houses, I didn’t know the location of most of these schools. The weather was cloudy with occasional showers. It was very pleasant for travelling.
Before we go into the specifics of the mini-schools, it was a learning opportunity for me about the state of affairs in the villages. The level of activity in the villages in terms of farming was more or less normal. I had heard from the teachers that many of their family members had lost their jobs and were back in the villages. Things were just starting up again and the factory and construction jobs were returning.
Since we were insisting that the teachers should wear masks, most of them were wearing masks at least on the day when I was visiting them. I would say about half the children were wearing masks, once again the percentage was probably higher because of my presence. But in the villages broadly not a single person could be seen wearing masks. Even in local centers with shops like Seethanjeri or Periyapalayam, no one in any of the shops was wearing masks. People didn’t mind meeting a person from outside. The parents felt comfortable about sending the children to the mini-schools.
I reached Thiruvallur around 9:30 and went straight to our office at Kaivandur. The children were already there. Deivanayagi was managing children in classes 1 to 5. There were about 12 to 15 of them and Seetha was managing classes 6 to 8 (about 10 of them). Since there were multiple rooms in the office, there was no problems with space. The children enjoyed coming to the school. Most of them go to PUPS Kuppammal Chathiram. I talked to the younger children about odd and even numbers. How odd+odd will be even etc. They understood me quite well. I then asked the the older children my usual questions 2076 + 3103. Many of the children struggled with place value. I asked Seetha to focus on this and ensure the children were thorough with this.
Then Srinivasan came with me and we drove to our teacher Rajkumari’s house in Pandur. The school was taking place in the front porch. The tin sheets were giving some shade but some of them had come off. We will be fixing them. She had a small black board painted which was helpful given the situation. There were 20+ children mostly going to the free TELC primary and higher secondary school in Pandur. I interacted with the children a bit. They showed me some of the activities they do. I hesitantly had a group photo with them. The children and the teacher didn’t seem to mind.
Then we drove to Thomur where Gayathri and Dharani were conducting a mini-school in one of the buildings in the school premises itself. I first met a couple of teachers at Ramancheri on the way, a middle school that we are supporting. They have been using some the contents we have prepared for the hybrid education model being practiced in some schools.
They were there to manage some small civil work. Our engineer was also there checking the computers. At Thomur too, the government teachers were also there interacting with some of the children. This was also beginning to function like a normal school. They were happy that Asha teachers were also coming every day to teach the children. Since the teachers were teaching shapes, I also decided to talk to the children regarding the same. I talked to them about making these shapes with sticks. But the question on what other shape can be made with 4 equal sticks besides square floored the children. That is also something that they should talk about when teaching these shapes.
Finally we drove to Nemiliagaram. Once again the mini-school was taking place in the school building itself. Earlier the teachers had to walk to children back to their homes in Vidaiyur a couple of kilometers away! This shows the motivation of both the teachers to do the walk 2 times every day and the parents to allow their children to be taken away for that distance. Now the mini-school is taking place in either the Balwadi or the school building in Nemiliagaram itself. Two of our teachers were teaching here. Tamilselvi was managing 1st to 3rd std children and Ishwarya was managing 4th and 5th std children. Both classes demonstrated some of the activities they have been doing. I could ask the children basic questions in English and get answers and they also were able to ask me questions. Then Srinivasan and I had our lunch there. Ishwarya and Tamilselvi (and from what I understand her husband too) had made a wonderful lunch for me.
The mini-school at Nedumbaram was one of the few schools that was functioning at the odd time of 12:00 to 2:00. So we visited the school after lunch. It was taking place at our teacher Madhumitha’s residence. The room was a little cramped for the 12 children there. It was heartening to see the family also cooperating with this and supporting this school. I interacted with the children a bit. The children were full of energy and will be a handful for Madhumitha.
We then drove through small rural backroads to reach Goonipalayam. We visited my nephew’s farm in that area for half an hour and then drove to Placepalayam, the further point beyond which it will be Andhra Pradesh. I have usually seen only the main village where the school is. The colony was where our teachers lived and the school was running inside a church which was partially constructed. The space was huge. Most of the children go to the CSI run school within the colony itself. Here too the children had a lot of energy and despite two teachers there (Sheela and Nishanthi), they were struggling a bit to control them. They showed some of the activities and games they have been engaging the children with.
Then we went back to Goonipalayam. The mini-school was in our teacher Vanitha’s house. Jothi was also teaching there along with Vanitha. The school is usually held in the front porch area of the house. That area is quite spacious. But as it was beginning to rain, the school was moved indoors. Since there were about 20 children, both the rooms of the house was completely taken up by the school. Once again I was filled with gratitude and appreciation to Vanitha and the family for allowing this. I interacted mostly with the older children. They all go to the government school at Goonipalayam. Though the children I interacted with were mostly from 6 to 9th std, none of them understood fractions! I talked to them a bit about fractions.
As our last stop we went to Ramanadhapuram, to our teacher Anusuya’s house. She lives in a village near Periyapalayam. But during this lockdown she has come back to her mother’s place. Her mother is a teacher at Single-teacher-school run by Swami Vivekananda Mission. I am not sure why, but they were closed down during this time of maximum need! But they had built a nice room for the school which was helping us with the mini school. It was past 6:00 pm by the time we reached there. So the children were assembled outside. There were about 20 children from 1st to 12th std. Even the higher class children didn’t know basic things like place value and our teacher was focussing on that. There was also a small panchayat union primary school in the village (just 12 students) and the teacher there was also welcoming our initiative here.
Then I dropped Srinivasan at Seethanjeri junction and then drove to my hotel on the Periyapalayam side. I had a comfortable stay there.
I had a relaxed stay at Grey Suit hotel. I had requested Srinivasan to see if he can arrange me to meet some parents in a couple of the schools. I also got to meet some parents today because of that.
After a nice breakfast, I went to our first mini-school at Ariyapakkam. The school was being conducted at our teacher Thenmozhi’s house. Though the house was right next door to the Panchayat Union school at Ariyapakkam, we weren’t able to conduct our school there. There were more than 15 children in the house. As soon as I entered, a bright UKG kid come up to me to shake my hand saying “Welcome to our mini-school Sir”. I had to hold back my hand and explain to the child about Covid and how it can spread. How sad! I then interacted with the children. I showed some Maths activities for younger children with counting the width of the room by measuring their steps. This improves their counting and also gives them good sense of numbers. I then did an activity with patterns in clapping with the older children. By this time Srinivasan had also joined us.
I then went to the school. The HM and a teacher were there at the school. I once again explained to the teachers about the contents that Asha is creating for hybrid education that can be delivered through the school during these times. She was also keen to start that process. The school has seen a big increase in the enrolment. This was something that I was hearing in many of the schools. The increase was mainly because the private schools were also seen as doing nothing but charging a lot of money. Our engineer Anand was once again here maintaining the computers at this school.
After that we went to Neyveli to the house of our teacher Geetha. As we drove through the village we could see a group of 10th std students sitting under a tree and studying. It was nice to see them taking their studies seriously. None of them were wearing any masks! Here again I appreciated the teacher and her family for providing their home for this mini-school. For a while in July there were several Covid cases here and a medical camp was held right in the village. The mini-school got closed and reopened after 3 weeks to a month. Our teacher was also ill but with Dengue and not Covid-19. In the midst of all this to open their house for the school was really nice of them. I interacted with the children for a bit. I also spoke with a parent. She was very happy with the school and as it was a person from the village they felt comfortable sending their children here. Without this school the children would have just been roaming the streets.
Then we went to Athivakkam. The mini-school was being conducted at our teacher Soundarya’s residence. Since there was a large number of children coming, she was conducting it in two batches! Soundarya further has just returned from maternity leave and had a few months old baby with her. The area in the back of her house was where the school was held. It was a nice pleasant and green area. I talked to the children who were all happy for this school. I conducted a “Simon says” game with them. The children enjoyed it greatly. All the children go to the PUPS Athivakkam that we support. Older children go to the Kannigaiper govt higher secondary school.
Then we went to Alapakkam. This was a new mini-school and the location of the mini-school had not stabilised. Most of the children are from the Dalit colony and their parents wouldn’t send them to the main village area. Our teacher Poonkodi lives in the main village area. She held it in an open area when the weather was good. With the weather turning rainy she is holding the classes in a church. But they wouldn’t allow her to open and use the church. So she was just using the front verandah of the church. Situated in the middle of green fields, the place looked beautiful but must be difficult when it rains.
A small girl sitting in the front boldly asked me “What is my name?”! I decided to check the English of the children and asked them various questions. They could also ask questions to me. That small girl, Nisha generally started yapping with me and telling me how this bad boy calls he “Karuppi” (the black one) etc. Though I felt sad for her nickname, I felt happy to be chatting with children like her. We then went to Poonkodi’s house to have lunch. The lunch was completely prepared by her and it was really good. Srinivasan and Anand also had lunch there.
After lunch we crossed the Kosasthalayar to reach the other side. We first went to Arkampattu. We weren’t running a mini-school there. But the school HM was keenly working with Asha to distribute our contents and was trying out our hybrid education contents. Srinivasan and I talked to the HM for a bit and then went to Guruvoyal. Two of our teachers Vijayakumari and Priya were living in the village. The mini-school was taking place in Vijayakumari’s house. They usually have it in the terrace but today because of the rains, they were indoors. The room was fairly spacious. I interacted with the children a bit. I once again talked to the children about shapes. Some of the older children this time were able to find non-square and non-rectangle shapes with 4-equal side and 2 pairs of equal side resp.
After that we crossed the Kosasthalayar again to come to Kannigaiper. We have two mini-school in this big village. We first went to Nadhiya’s house. That area of Kannigaiper is some 1.5 Kms from the main Kannigaiper which is where the school is. There is another free school (govt aided) run by the CSI church. Children coming to the mini-school mostly go to that school. The mini school was held at her terrace. Nadhiya’s mini-school usually does a great job with various activities and craft work. I could see that in person during the visit. The children gifted me couple of things they had made. They showed me some of the activities they do. I also talked to a few parents there. They were also very thankful for our running the school and were very happy that the children’s education is not disrupted.
Then we made our last stop at the other mini-school at Kannigaiper. Two teacher live in the main part of the village – Aruna and Santhameena. They run the mini-school from the terrace of Santhameena’s house. There are more than 20 children there. A number of parents were also waiting to talk to me. They more or less said the same thing the parents at other places said about how useful this mini-school is for them. They also gifted me and Srinivasan a photo frame each! I then spent some time talking to the children. They showed a science experiment to me. I explained things in some more detail. Then I decided to do a small thing I had learnt from Arvind Gupta on how to made sound making reeds from plastic straws. The children were just fascinated and they were also able to make their own reeds. When it got dark and I was ready to leave, I left for the sounds of lots of reed toys!
On the whole I really enjoyed the trip. It was a blast of joy to spend these two days with the children and the teachers. It was heartening to see that our experiment with the mini-schools has been successful. The credit goes to the teachers who have spared their homes to run these schools and innovated to implement a curriculum under constrained environments. There is a crying need for education in all these villages and the mini-schools are successfully meeting that need in some limited manner.