Written by Shirish Khare & B.Sivaraman

The Covid-19 pandemic has wrought a severe crisis in education across India due to prolonged closure of schools and the high costs of online education.

Interestingly, it has also given momentum to several ongoing and new experiments in alternative schooling, especially aimed at rural and underprivileged students.

Though it is still too early to tell, at least some of these initiatives have the potential to address problems of both lack of access to schooling and poor learning outcomes plaguing the Indian education system.

Wall Magazine
Wall Magazine / Credit: Wall Magazine Campaign

In Uttarakhand for example the concept of learning through ‘wall magazines’ is  proving to be popular, despite disruptions caused the Covid pandemic era, as a  low-cost way to keep children creatively engaged.  The initiative involves children putting up their stories, poems, reports, drawings and other works on a common village wall for collective reading and discussion by their peers. Throughout this process, children get opportunities for observation, reflection and imagination, the three most important qualities for knowledge-creation.

COVID Response Watch LogoMahesh Punetha, a teacher associated with the campaign, which started from, says that wall magazines are becoming a means for children to maintain the culture of reading, writing and critical thinking during the Covid lockdown.  Typically, as part of the effort, children go through a process of choosing a topic to compile information, writing, editing, publishing, displaying, observing, discussing and suggesting reference materials.

The novel learning method was originally launched at the Kunjanpur Government Primary School in Pithoragarh district in 2000 and championed over the years by a network of enthusiastic teachers from both schools and colleges. The wall magazines, with names like ‘Ghughuti’, ‘Explorer’, ‘Pankh’, ‘Bal-Udyan’, ‘Itihas-Bodh’, ‘Yaadein’, ‘Dharohar’ and ‘Navankur’ are being brought out from small villages in different parts of the state.

“Our children are boldly doing ground reporting about the events in their society” says Shankar Singh Baseda, a proud parent. Some reports are very moving and  One report  titled ‘Bitter cold and children picking up garbage’  by schoolgirl Jyoti Kumari’s depicts the harsh living conditions of the children themselves and the dire poverty of the families they belong to.

Home Library
Children’s Folk Literature / Credit: Tahir Ali

Another experiment in education for rural children during the pandemic comes from Bhil tribal-dominated villages of Pali district in South Rajasthan, where some non-government organisations are setting up libraries inside the homes of children.

Under the ‘home library’ concept, currently operating in over 28 villages, efforts are being made to provide  children with an environment to study and write at home. Normally 30-40 books are given to a library, which are replaced with new ones after the children have read these books.

Navneet Nirav, manager of ‘Parag Library’, an initiative supported by the Tata Trust,  says that the home library not only provides books and stationery items but also supports many other activities for children to participate in. At least two days a week, teachers from nearby government schools visit the home library and carry out reading, role play, story writing, painting, art and craft sessions with children.

Folk Linterature
Home Library / Credits: Navneet Nirav

In Barwani, a tribal district of Madhya Pradesh, children in primary schools are being given new opportunities to diversify course content in their mother tongue during the pandemic. Books with more than two dozen folk stories, in Hindi, Bareli and Bhilali languages, ​​have been delivered to the children of over 550 government schools by  ‘Room to Read’, an organization working in improving literacy in rural India.

Tahir Ali, senior program officer of the institution, says that in March last year, when schools were closed due to the lockdown, the children did not even have reading material in their homes. In such a situation, the folk literature produced by his group was made available to the children through government school teachers.

Under this program, there is an impact on literacy among rural adults also  because when the child reads a story in the local language the entire family of the child is automatically involved in the learning process. Children are also encouraged to contact  the families of ten other children every day to motivate them to join in the learning.

The Covid pandemic period also saw the innovative concept of  ‘micro classrooms’ emerge in Tamil Nadu where some language rights and schooling activists figured out ways to get around the logistical difficulties posed by the Covid lockdown and restrictions due to social distancing norms.

The initiative involves dividing up an existing school into a dozen and more micro-classrooms, making them easier to manage and operate.  In Tindivanam district for example a school with 172 students was broken up into many micro-classrooms that were then hosted by people in the community with large houses, that allowed the classes to be held in their corridor spaces or covered terraces.

Each of these classrooms have 15–16 students, who are taught by teachers appointed with funds raised through community donations, that are also used to provide free mid-day meals.

“These micro-classrooms have successfully increased attendance from Dalit and poor OBC students and girls for more than one year without any case of transmission of the virus” says Prof. Sivakumar, formerly President, Tamil Nadu Government College Teachers’ Association.   The better teacher-student ratio  in these micro-classrooms he says has also helped in improving personal care in education and completing the primary school syllabus successfully.

“Instead of sending the teachers to do panchayat poll duty, the government should send them among the poor to teach in informal makeshift schools during the pandemic” says renowned educationist Dr Anil Sadgopal. He called for more such efforts in taking education directly to the people instead burdening them with expensive options like online classes.

Shirish Khare has been associated with rural journalism for a long time and has been continuously reporting on the economic, social and health impacts of rural life during the Corona pandemic.

B.Sivaraman is an independent researcher based in Allahabad (Prayagraj). He can be reached at sivaramanlb@yahoo.com


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