Literacy needs of slum dwellers in light of NEP 2020

Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all

Children have the right to be listened and heard; it is critical that as educators we let the children know that their opinion is valued. While pursuing Masters in Education at the University of Kashmir long back, I and my co-investigator Maria from Sociology Department had an opportunity to work on a project ‘Literacy and developmental needs of slum dwellers’. There were already inter-departmental research collaboration activities in our University of Kashmir which were later recommended by NEP 2020 policy. Classical research methodology using questionnaire was not feasible in this type of study. So we decided to conduct this ethnographic study with the help of qualitative research methodology using Max Weber’s Verstehen technique based on the principle of empathy.

We joined the slum school at Maharaj Gunj as non–formal teachers mostly providing them home tutoring. Parents of these children were mostly engaged in scrap collection business least concerned about the education of their children. When we showed genuine concern towards the education of their children they reciprocated with immense respect and love. Children helped us to filter out important books, magazines from the scrap collections for school library. We administered some standardized tests to these children which could assess the mastery over the basic tools of learning at the foundational level. The results revealed that slum children struggled with basic literacy skills which resulted in wastage, stagnation and high dropout ratio. There were few regular teachers working in this school who had the prejudicial notion that these children lack genes to study and approached them with an eye of revulsion.

Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all. Literacy is a gap  between misery and  hope. The ability to read and write is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. Let us remember: One book, one pen, one child, and one teacher can change the world. Our approach was based on love and kindness towards these hapless souls which clicked. Whatever we tried with the children seemed to rivet their attention, although it was difficult to tell them that we are here to collect the case studies for our research. I took a backseat because Maria was so amazing to watch with the kids. She was a natural in the sense that her love for these unprivileged children was contagious. It was time for us to leave because we had collected the required data. It had been an amazing experience but also an exhausting one in which I could barely stay on my feet. Maria bent down and picked up each child in turn and hugged him or her in her own arms, rocking back and forth, planting a kiss on the forehead and showing the most glorious smile. Each child felt bathed in love and seemed to float away, eyes full of tears. I watched the scene unfold trying to stifle a sob in my chest. I was incredibly moved by the power of Maria’s touch and her love for these children.  Maria had unpunctuated faith in these lovely kids and defended them when others chose to be mute spectators. Yet it was here I and Maria discovered the truth that poor, under-privileged children have admirable qualities very different from those of middle class children –qualities which can bloom in the proper educational setting. I shall give an example. Maria once put some candies in a box under the tree and told the students to make a queue. She organized a race and told them who comes first will be gifted a box of candies. What surprised her the children caught hold of each other’s hand and started running in the same pace. On getting the box of candies they distributed it among their friends rare to see in big schools where focus is on individualism and competition. One boy cited the reason that if my friend is unhappy how can I be happy. 

I shall share another case study. One of the slum child, Abid was working in a workshop at Babdem during evening hours where they used to disassemble the old, expired vehicles. He had good experience in reassembling the vehicle parts. In physics paper he was asked to write about the working of an electric motor, due to language barrier he could write the answer and failed, concerned teacher labeled him weak in the science paper despite the fact he had practical skill and mastery to unwind and reassemble the electric motor. He did not give any weightage to his experience. The big irony in our system is we do not follow constructivist model in our pedagogical discourse as advocated by NEP 2020. Constructivism is a school of psychology which tells us to acknowledge the experience of the learner in building his knowledge base. This case study brings to light that many people have mistaken belief that those who have not gone through formal school are uneducated. Yet for many of those who have not been to school, the sheer experience of struggling to survive has given them a level of maturity and wisdom which has often enabled them to face life more competently than those who have theory based formal education.  Let me share another case study with the audience. Ms Khursheed   retired as a bank manager after a long service of over 30 years; post retirement she opened a free academy for socio-economically- disadvantaged group in Ganderbal area. She made extensive visit of the slums and was pained to observe non -local and children belonging to Bakarwal tribe sitting idle in groups, few playing cards and even chewing tobacco. It pricked her conscience; she decided to empower them through education. To learn about child psychology, she got enrolled for BEd programme through Directorate of Distance Education.  The effort saw 30 children getting enrolled in her academy. She observed that students at the slum are sharp and intelligent and just need a proper atmosphere to grow as good citizens. 30 children got enrolled in her academy which was finally opened at a makeshift tin-roofed shed, erected by her with free labor by slum dwellers. The people in the slum are happy with her efforts and deeply respect her. But there is grim side of the story also.

In my Barzulla residence there is a neighborhood school where mostly children from Socio-Economically Disadvantaged group are enrolled. Physics teacher has left in the middle of the session and students are suffering. Since in this area there are significant number of highly educated retired senior citizens, very well off. As a social obligation I went from door to door and requested them to teach physics for some time till the school makes some permanent arrangement. Citing one or the other excuse I left disappointed. Now coming to my experience as a teacher educator over the years, my “domain” has significantly expanded. I have watched students’ accomplishments with pride, knowing that in some small way I have been part of their journey, a guide along the way. For some dedicated and passionate professionals like one of my senior colleagues Dr Habibullah Shah at Directorate of Distance Education University of Kashmir, teaching is far more than just a job—it is a divine calling. Regardless of what teaching does to serve others, it does so much to enrich our own lives in a multitude of ways.

In spite of all the benefits and joy that accompany a teacher’s journey, there are also incredible challenges like disruptive students, unappreciative students, parents who undermine our efforts, few colleagues who seem mean- spirited, rigid and controlling administrators, or who just don’t seem to care. Students aren’t the only ones learning in the classroom: One of the gifts of teaching is that we are privileged to learn almost as much as our students. Every day presents opportunities to increase our knowledge, our understanding of the world—to get not only a deeper appreciation of the lives of children, but also a greater understanding of ourselves. The skills that make us effective teachers involve persuasion, explaining things in comprehensible terms, connecting with others in building empathetic relationships, inspiring students to work harder and reach the unreached by leaving our comfort zones. Interestingly, these are the same attributes that make us better friends, family members, partners, and parents. With seniority and experience come new opportunities to expand your repertoire. You become more involved in leadership roles, mentoring new teachers, revising the curriculum, advocating on behalf of issues you consider important.

My favorite time in the classroom is not when I’m doing something routine which I have been doing before but rather when I try to accommodate the experiences of my children in my pedagogical discourse. I always have a plan, a fairly detailed one that I can adapt in many different ways, depending on the students, their mood, their interests, their readiness. Rather than thinking that every class is the same, I’ve learned to be more humble and less argumentative about some things. I try to treat each student, each group, as unique. I look for surprises—and welcome them when they occur— rather than feeling upset when things don’t go as expected. My students keep me young! I plan to keep teaching until I fall over—or they put me out to pasture.

(Note: Dedicated to my teacher Dr Abdul Hamid Zargar ex faculty PG Department of Education University of Kashmir. ) 

Dr Showkat Rashid Wani, Senior Coordinator, Directorate of Distance Education, University of Kashmir

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