Rajaram visited most of the mini-schools running under Project Sangamam during mutliple trips in June-July 2021. He was also accompanied by our Maths trainer and Science content expert during these trips.
Mini-school Visits – June/July 2021
Click here to see photos from the site visits.
Asha Chennai has been running mini-schools all over Tamilnadu during this pandemic from June 2020. This academic year too as the schools continue to remain closed, Asha Chennai has continued to run these mini-schools wherever we have a presence.
In Thiruvallur where we run project Sangamam supporting 68 schools with our staff of 40+ teachers, we are running more than 30 mini-schools. I visited most of these during 3 trips to the area on 25th June, 17th July and 29th/30th July. Here is a description of my visits and the schools I visited.
After the second wave, Tamilnadu started reopening in June. Rural areas that were less affected by Covid started opening up in early June. In Thiruvallur the first schools started opening by June 14th. I made my first visit there on June 25th. We also conducted our annual teacher evaluation test on June 26th. My trip was also for conducting this test. On 25th I visited several mini-schools. Srinivasan our project Coordinator at Thiruvallur also accompanied me on the trip.
There are brick kilns in the outskirts of Old Thirupatchur. Our mini-school at Old Thirupatchur serves the children of migrant families who live inside the brick kilns as well as families settled outside of the brick kiln who work there on a somewhat permanent basis. These people are typically the poorest of the poor and often work in conditions of bonded labour. As you can imagine with a community such as this, attendance, nutrition are all problems. We started our nutrition program (Project Arogyam) here. Two of our teachers Tamilselvi and Iswarya work here. We just have a hut that can accommodate about 15 children for this mini-school where 50+ children come. One of the teachers use the space in the hut and the other ends up taking the mini-school on the road under a tree! I was asking the children some Maths questions. The children were very reticient and did not talk much to outsiders like me. Their learning levels were also very low.
This is a hamlet of Kaivandur. Kaivandur is where Project Sangamam started. There is a developed part of Thozhudhavakkam but most of the children come from an Irular settlement a little way down from there. The school functions from a temple and the front-yard of a house. Two teachers, Deivanayagi and Santhasophya teach here. I talked to both the batches of children. The children were quite bright. I tried teaching the older children 100s compliment and how that can be used in doing fast mental arithmetic. They caught on quite fast.
We had two teachers teaching two separate mini-schools in Pandur last year. One of the schools was yet to start because the our Asha teacher there had contracted Covid. I visited the mini-school run in the house of Seetha. I was once again talking to them about 100s compliments. There was one very bright boy studying 8th std in the mini-school. He understood the concept even before I talked about it. He really could do fast mental arithmetic. I had to ask to not answer my question while I taught the concept to the rest of the children.
Srinivasan had arranged for lunch for us at the residence of our teacher Poonkodi. She served us a very good lunch. I really appreciated her efforts despite being pregnant and running behind a very energetic 6 year old son! After lunch I interacted with children from her mini-school. Her mini-school was running from a corridor in her house. As this was not the normal time of the mini-school, some of the children came in late. I tested the children’s knowledge of place value and also talked to them a little about shapes. The children were also quite bright. Here too the children were a little reticient to talk to outsiders.
We then went to our teacher Soundariya’s house. She was running the mini-school in the backyard of her house. It is a nice green environment when the weather is good! I have always found the children here to be very interactive. This time too, they told me several stories and interacted with me about the story I told. I also talked to them a little about shapes and also about seeing patterns. The idea is to make them count circle that I draw in some pattern. Young children will just count it but as they grow older they will start seeing patterns and start using the skills they have acquired in addition and multiplication to do the work faster! They enjoy the game as well!
We then went to the house of our teacher Geetha. She was taking a mini-school from her house. She was travelling to take one batch of mini-school at another place, Annanagar. She was taking the evening batch at her residence. The mini-school had just started two days earlier. The children were not that comfortable with the subjects and also were unsure about the schedule of their mini-school etc. The basic regular habits that schools help inculcate in children is also very important.
Kannigaiper – 1
Kannigaiper is a somewhat big Panchayat. We are running two mini-schools here. One of our teachers Nadhiya was running a mini-school from her terrace. I interacted with the children and once again did the 100s complement exercise as well as the counting the dots in the patters exercise. The children here were really good! They quickly understood the advantage of complements and could even apply the idea of complements to something as complex as 288 + 135 (288 + 12 + 35 – 12). They also did the patterns work very well. They also showed me some of the craft work they had done in recent days. As is usual for this mini-school, the work was of a very good quality.
Kannigaiper – 2
My final stop for the day was at the second mini-school in Kannigaiper run by Aruna and Santhameena. It was running from the terrance of Aruna’s house. As I was coming there, they had assembled both the batches there. I first interacted with the younger children. I tried standard word problems and also asked the children to tell different word problem for the given sum. They did a good job. With the older children I tried the patterns question. The children were able to understand and find the number of dots fast using addition and multiplication.
Nadhiya also came to Aruna’s house. Aruna, Nadhiya and Santhameena were doing group study for the Asha teacher evaluation test we were conducting the next day. The teachers were a little stressed for that. I tried to reassure them a bit and then I left to stay the night at my usual place there.
I once again went for one day of site visits on July 16th followed by a day of teacher meeting. This time Ms. Purva Bhatter who has created materials for teaching science for use in our Asha Kanini Science lesson plans and my daughter Kavita also joined me for this trip. This time the schools we visited were often situated in the poorest of the poor areas. This was partly because we visited schools where the nutrition program was running and those were areas most under the thread of nutritional deficiency in the students. As our science content expert was travelling with me, I had requested all the schools to show us some science experiments.
Ramapuram is very poor hamlet close to the Thiruvallur town. There is a unfinished temple which we use as our mini-school. Our teacher Nirmala teaches there. The children there are very friendly and easily talk to visitors. They had also seen me a couple of times last year. Nirmala had the children show us a couple of experiments. They showed us the experiment where cooling air compresses and thus pulls in an egg into the bottle. In this case it didn’t pull the egg in but it tightly sealed the egg to the mouth of the bottle. They also showed how to use a candle as an alarm by sticking a nail to its side and when the candles burn down, the nail will be released and drop a ball on to a plate! Couple of kids wanted to sing a song for us. We enjoyed that as well. We then distributed some Pori Urundai as nutrition snacks for the children.
This is a very remote village right behind the Poondi Reservoir when coming from Thiruvallur. It is quite inaccessible. Last year we were teaching at the school there. This year as the school building was not available for us, our teacher Ezhilarasi took the initiative to find an unused (unfinished as well) house inside the Irular colony for us to take the class from. This was a hamlet inside the reserve forest area. Our nutrition program is also running here. Another teacher of ours, Dhatchayani, is also working there.
When we went there, Ezhilarasi showed the children how white light splits into multiple colours. We also talked to children generally about their level. We tried the counting the dots in a pattern activity with them as well. We finally gave them peanut candies as snacks before leaving.
We have been supporting the school at Rajapalayam. Children from Gollapalayam a good 3 Kms away come to the school at Rajapalayam. Gollapalayam is once again situated inside a reserve forest area. We got an unused Balwadi building for running our mini-school. Our teacher, Vanitha, who lives in Goonipalayam some 6 Kms away comes here in her Scooter. Vanitha had not had the time to prepare to do a science experiment for us. We interacted with the children a bit. We asked the children about finding time in an analog clock. We then played the “Simon says” game with them. The nutrition snack for them today was steamed “Pasi Paruppu”. We distributed that to the children as well.
Compared to the three villages we had just been to, Ammambakkam is a well-off village. We are running our mini-school right within the normal school. All the children going to the school are coming to our mini-school. And because of our mini-school, even the children who used to go to private schools have come to the government school! We are running the school with two batches with 2 teachers as well. When we went there, one of the usual teachers, Radhika was not there. The other teacher Sulochana was there and another teacher Sheela had been temporarily assigned there. Sulochana showed us several science experiments. The children showed us how lemon floats in salt water but sinks in normal water. Sulochana showed us and the children how balloons are pulled closer when air flows between them (Bernoulli’s principle). One girl made a needle float in water. Purva also took the opportunity to show them how friction is different on different surfaces. The children also gifted us some nice craft work they had done with Thermocol.
This is another very poor Irular hamlet. This belongs to the Katchur Panchayat and is located right on the highway from Thiruvallur to Uthukottai. But it is still among the poorest places we work with. There is a new building constructed by Agaram foundation. They have allowed us to use this building. We didn’t have much time as it was well beyond lunch time. We just dropped in there for a few minutes and interacted with the children. We also gave them their snacks of Kadalai Urundai before leaving again.
After a late but good lunch at a restaurant near Uthukottai, we returned back to Pondhavakkam. As I had written in an earlier report, this mini-school taking place below this magnificent tree was probably our most beautiful mini-school. All the children in the mini-school, close to 70 of them were there. The weather was windy and just looking to start raining. It was just an amazing experience under that tree. The children were also wonderful. They showed us their science work. Many of them showed their leaf collection and could talk about them with confidence. One boy showed us a battery-operated fan. They also showed us some more experiments. I tried the usual 100s compliment with them and some of the children were really sharp and could answer all my questions. The children had brought us gifts of fresh brinjals, spinach, drumsticks etc. That was very sweet of them. We really enjoyed the time at this mini-school. We took a nice group picture under the tree. As we left, the rain also started!
Two of our teachers Nathiya and Ramya are running the mini-school at Nandhimangalam. It is functioning within the school building. The school had only about 25 children. The mini-school has more than 40 children. All the private school children and also some from neighbouring village are coming here. When we went there, the children were drawing pictures and telling stories around them. It was very nice to hear their own stories. They also showed us a couple of science experiments. One girl showed us invisible ink with lime juice. Another boy showed us a bottle that shoots off like a rocket if you burn a bunch of hand sanitiser inside it!
We then went to the residence of our teacher Radha at Uthukottai. Purva had to get back to Chennai and therefore she couldn’t spend time at Uthukottai. Srinivasan had arranged a car from Uthukottai to take her to the Thiruvallur railway station. From there she took a train back to Chennai. My daughter and I spent some time with the children at this mini-school. Radha has just returned from her maternity leave and has started this mini-school. She was taking two batches from her own home. The children that we interacted with were the older children batch. There were even children in 10th std. One boy showed us a demo of a projector made from lens made of a water filled bottle. This worked quite well. In a dark room they were able to project the screen of a phone a feet or more away and it was enlarged and quite visible! One girl also showed how refraction makes a pencil look like it is broken when dipped in a glass of water. Another boy showed how we can see three reflections of an object when held in front of two mirrors at an angle with each other. I used this opportunity to talk to them about reflection and refraction. I also then did the 100s complement activity with them. After that we left and went to the room we had booked at a nearby hotel.
On July 29th I was accompanied by Mrs. Meena Suresh, our Maths trainer and Mr. Vish Bhardwaj a new volunteer. This time we visited schools in the Thiruvallur – Thirutani route.
Thirupatchur Periya Colony
Our teacher had got married and moved to Thirupatchur Periya Colony just before the pandemic. She started a mini-school at her place. It was like an apartment and there was good area in the ground floor where she was running the mini-school. She had stopped this for a few months early in her pregnancy. She is now late in her pregnancy and will shortly take her maternity leave. We are arranging another teacher for the mini-school. A good 20 children were there in all ages. Only a few were continuing from last year. There was a good churn. Meena mam tested their basic knowledge of numbers with Ganit Mala. I also did my usual 400 + 3000 = 7000. They struggled to catch the mistake. Similarly, they struggled to explain why 3 x 5 is not 14 but is 15.
This is a new mini-school started this year. Our teacher S. Nathiya was teaching a mini-school at her mother’s place in Penalurpettai last year as she had just returned from her maternity leave. Now she was running a mini-school from her own home at Veerakoil Street in Thiruvalangadu. There were about 15 children in the school. There are a total of about 20 children in both the batches here. We asked Nathiya to show us what she is teaching the children. She was teaching them basic place value and addition. Meena mam asked questions to see if the children recognised the operation for a given word problem.
We have been supporting the school at Thomur for a long time and the children there usually do well. Our mini-school has also been continuously running there and most of the children going to the school have also been coming to the mini-school. Two of our teachers Dharani and Gayathri are teaching at this mini-school. The teachers showed us an activity where children have to pick a 4 digit number from 4 cards and show it to others by actions and the other children have to find the number. They did this well. Meena mam noticed that they had 3D shapes there which were just used. So she talked to the children about the 3D shapes. The usual problem of only recognising standard representations of the shapes was a problem here too. The children did not recognise the clock as a cylinder or a shape with square base but not as tall as a cuboid. But when I tried the 400 + 3000 = 7000, they caught me immediately! They also recognised the operations for word problems. I also played the count the number of dots in the patterns. They did that well too. On the whole the children were doing well.
After lunch at a restaurant on the way we went to Nedumaram. This was also a larger mini-school with two teachers – Madhumitha and Sailaja. We asked the teachers to show some activities. Madhumitha showed the children and us a Maths magic where the children think of two numbers, do a bunch of operations on it and get back the numbers. Meena mam then did an activity with them. They will tell a number and Meena mam will tell another number. They will do this a few times and they have to figure out what operation Meena mam was doing. They struggled a bit but for basic operations, they were able to figure it out.
This is one of our longest running mini-schools. It started back in June 2020 and has been continuously running. Two of our teachers, Kumari and Eswari, come from this village. The village is quite well off with most parents educated and that also shows in the learning levels of the children. It was taking place in a local Balwadi. They showed us some activities. The younger children did the jump into the circle if the number is an odd number and jump out for even number. They also showed us some science activities. A four-way phone with threads. The older children understood how vibrations travel on the strings. They also showed a plastic bottle with 3 holes. No leak if the cap is closed and strongest flow from the bottom hole. Meena man did the Maths machine activity. The older children got it very well. They found the operation that Meena mam was performing even for tough ones like x^2 and things like 2x+3.
With that our day came to an end. Meena mam and Vish returned back to Chennai. I stayed back for one more day of visiting mini-schools. I drove over to the Periyapalayam side to stay over at the Hotel Grey Suit. The drive was late in the evening as it was getting dark and through the reserve forests. I enjoyed the greenery all around. These are mostly just thorn bush forests and usually look dry and brown at this time of the year. But this year, thanks to the abundant rain, the whole place wore a green look.
I started the day with the mini-school closest to the hotel at Ariyapakkam.
This mini-school was functioning from the house of our teacher, Thenmozhi. Another teacher Anusuya was also joining her in this large mini-school. Though this was right next door to the PUPS Ariyapakkam school we had not gotten the permission to run our mini-school from inside the school. There wasn’t really adequate space with shade to run the mini-school properly. The teachers were somehow managing. The school was getting a good 25+ students in each of the two batches. One batch comprised of students from the local area and the other from a hamlet near Periyapalayam.
I interacted with the children in classes 1 to 3 first. I checked their basic counting skills etc. Then I interacted with the class 4 and 5 children. I checked their knowledge of place value. I asked them to add 2076 + 3103 orally. Only some of the children got the place value right. I then gave them word sums and asked them to find the operation. They struggled a bit with this. The interesting thing for me was the fact that the children who got the place value correct did not get the word problem correct and vice versa. Attendance was a bit of an issue here as well. They were giving leader title and badges for the children with perfect attendance. I also gave a badge to a girl with perfect attendance.
Palavakkam Erikarai Colony
I then drove to Palavakkam. Srinivasan met me there somewhere on the highway. I walked past a power station and there was a set of houses for EB workers and then behind that was this Erikarai Colony. It was just a collection of huts scattered there. It is quite probably an “illegal” settlement even though these Irulars have been living there for decades. There was absolutely no governmental facility there as it was just 20 odd huts there. I also saw the Eri or pond that gives this hamlet its name. The people living there do not own any land (even the land on which their houses are). They work in the neighbouring farms and do various other manual work. The last year has been especially difficult for them.
It is indeed credit to our teacher Divya that she took the trouble to find this hamlet and start a mini-school here when the building where we were running the Palavakkam mini-school was not given to us this year. It was serving a bigger Irular hamlet called JJ Nagar a couple of Kilometers away.
I spent some time with the children. They have had absolutely no education for the last one year. Even earlier these would have been the weakest children in Palavakkam, already one of our very weak schools. Even 4th std and 5th std kids could not write their own names in English. They could barely write it in Tamil. The 4th std kids missed a few letters when I asked them to tell me the alphabets. These are the kind of places we really need to serve. I distributed the snacks to the children here (biscuits). We were implementing Project Arogyam here. I also distributed the notebooks to the children.
I went around the village to see their fragile state of existence but surrounded by beautiful green fields and the lake. I also talked to a couple of mothers who appreciated our mini-school for providing some education and bringing some discipline to the children.
Asha has been working with Annanagar, a big Irular hamlet in the Thirukandalam Panchayat for a while. Our mini-school here has been running from inside the library building that we have built for the school. I also met the teacher at the school Mr. Nehru. He is also personally doing his bit to help the children by providing food for them when he can. He also regretted the long school closure and appreciated our mini-school effort. Two of our teachers, Nadhiya and Geetha, were coming here for one batch in the morning. Both of them were also taking mini-schools at their own homes at Kannigaiper and Neyveli in the evening which I had visited on June 25th.
I then interacted with the children. The younger children could count alright. The older children were also OK with the word problems. The teachers showed me an activity with the children. The children had to do Tic-tac-toe game in 2 teams but to put a cross or a circle in a position, they have to tell a word that starts with the letter written in the square. They were telling the words but did not get the strategy of the game. After this we distributed the nutrition snacks (Banana and Pasi paruppu sundal).
Srinivasan and I then went to Guruvoyal. We first had lunch at our teacher Vijayakumari’s home. The lunch was wonderful!
Vijayakumari and Priya were running a mini-school here. A month earlier they were running this in one of the school buildings itself. But then the HM asked them to stop using the facility. Sometimes the school teachers even come to our teacher’s home to teach at our mini-school but don’t dare to teach the children at the school. What a tragedy! The school is just running from the corridor next to Vijayakumari’s house. This also gets too hot because of the sun. We decided to put up a tarpaulin sheet to protect this place from the sun. We went to the terrace which had more space but was very hot. I did the usual 400 + 3000 = 7000 and 3 * 5 = 14. They struggled and then found my mistakes. I asked the children to count the circles in the patterns I was drawing. The children were very enthusiastic in interacting with me! While all the children were in classes 1 to 5, there was one 7th std girl who was the sister of another person in the mini-school and who was very bright and interested. We have abandoned the education of many many children like these through our misguided school-closures. I am glad our mini-schools were serving at least a few children and kept their education going.
We once again drove through the Vengal reserve forests to go to Goonipalayam. We went to our teacher Vanitha’s house for our last mini-school of the day. Some 15 children of classes 1 to 6 were there. Two older girls in 12th std (our teacher’s own daughter and another neighbour) were watching the proceedings! Their own education has also been completely abandoned and the only focus of the government has been on how to issue them board marks / certificates!
I interacted with the children. The children showed me a small song/dance. Then, I did the Maths machine activity that I learnt seeing Meena mam the previous day. The children kind of got it over time. The 12th std girls got it very easily and answered after the other children couldn’t answer. ! I also did the counting the circles in the pattern activity with them.
Over these few days I got to cover almost all our mini-schools in Thiruvallur. The teachers were continuing to do wonderful work under very adverse circumstances. The devastation to education among the children was apparent to see, especially in the newer mini-schools. In the midst of this, our mini-schools were doing their small bit to keep education going for at least some of the children.
I also got to see our Project Arogyam doing a bit to address the nutritional deficiencies among the children in the poorest areas. Some of our new initiatives this year to stablise/improve attendance and improve the writing of the children by distributing notebooks were implemented in all the mini-schools.
I really hope that the schools open soon and start the arduous task of reviving education for all the children.