Digantar Visit - December 10-14, 2002

Anita Balasubramanian


Section No.   Name

1.                              Introduction

2.                              The Schools/Infrastructure

3.                              The teachers

4.                              Interaction with Abdul Gaffarji

5.                              Some anecdotes at School

6.                              The children

7.                              Training Sessions at Digantar

8.                              Interaction with Rohit and Reena

9.                              Teaching Learning Material

10.                           Suggestion on financials (immediate)

11.                           Impressions

1.       Introduction - Digantar is an organization working in the villages of Kho-Nagorian, 20 Kms from Jaipur, Rajasthan for the last 10 years. It strives to improve the quality of education in terms of academics as well as values and to develop teaching methods that encourage self- learning, co-operation, freedom of the child, the thrill of learning instead of rote learning, fear, drudgery, competition etc.

Rohit and Reena, who started Digantar were trained by David Horsburgh. They were running a free school having 20-25 children for about 10 years from 1978-1988 in Jaipur. In 1989, the society Digantar Shiksha Evam Khelkud Samiti was formed and it began working to provide quality education for the underprivileged children in the outskirts of Jaipur. It currently runs 3 free schools with a total of 460 children in this area. It has trained teachers for the Lok Jumbish program, DPEP Madhya Pradesh, many NGOs and Digantar’s teachers as well. It also publishes a quarterly magazine called Vimarsh. Digantar is involved in all aspects of child education from running of schools to theory building and program formulation.

Two new activities are being planned at Digantar. A new project called Pehchaan, with KALP, an organization in Rajasthan, for providing education to girls in the age group of 8-14 in villages in 2 blocks has started. Most of these girls have not been going to schools, inspite of the presence of a government school nearby. UNICEF will be supporting this work for the next 5 years and the work will be expanding to more than 2 blocks in the next few years. Another project of working with WIPRO on a teacher empowerment project in some private schools in Bangalore for the next one year is also being planned.

I spent 4 days at Digantar and visited 2 of the schools – Bandhyali – the oldest of the schools and Kho – the newest one – a month old. Earlier there were three schools, Bandhyali Shala, Ratwali Shala and the one within Digantar campus, called Todi Shala. The Todi Shala was shifted to Ratwali since there was going to be plans for a new fee paying schools for children from the city. This plan has been shelved because of the new activities that are coming up. A new school has been opened within one of the dhani’s(hamlet) of the village, this is located in Kho. I spoke with Rohit and Reena, Abdul Gaffarji(Program coordinator of EEP), Naurathji (a teacher and coordinator of Bandhyali school), other teachers and the children.


A few children sitting in the sun and working at Bandhyali

2.       The schools/infrastructure – The objective of Digantar’s education is to help the child become an independent and motivated learner. Children should enjoy learning in an atmosphere free from fear, forced learning, forced discipline and competition. Self-Learning and learning in cooperation with friends is stressed upon and each child learns at a pace he/she is comfortable with. There are no exams but rather a continuous evaluation by the teacher. Children are not split into homogenous classes but rather into groups based on their learning levels. There are a large number of children (over 200) in the waiting list to attend the schools. There are government schools nearby, but the parents wait to send children here.

The main campus- The main campus is located in Todi Ramjanipura. There is a main office building with a large room for training. This building has a total of about 11-13 rooms spread over 2 floors. This has the store room, accountant office, computer office, training room, guest room, hostels for training. There is also a separate hostel (with individual rooms) and mess (an open brick structure with tin sheet roofing). 5 of the staff (Gaffarji, Ashokji, Naurathji, Prasadji, Pushkarji) stay in this hostel. Some of the staff staying here moved out due to plans of the new fee-paying school. Reena and Rohit’s residence is within the campus alongside the library. There are classrooms where the Todi Shala used to function. The children studying here now go to the Ratwali Shala. There is also a playground with a volleyball court in front of this school.

The Bandhyali Shala has a circular building with more than 10 rooms. It has a library, a room for carpentry, a teacher’s meeting room, a science laboratory area for children taking the 8th std examinations and classrooms for the children. There is also a hand-pump and 2 toilets outside. The land was provided by the villagers and the thatched-roof building was constructed with the help of the villagers. The rooms have low walls, no doors and are not locked. This seems to be creating problems of late. There are some people from outside the village who come to play cricket in the open space surrounding the school over the weekends. There have been incidents of thefts of pencils, pens, erasers, notebooks, crayons, children’s clay work etc. So now they have started to lock them in the cupboard space available. This issue has also been brought up with the parents, suggesting that it is the responsibility of parents and children staying in the villages to keep an eye on the problem of thefts. In this school there are 3 levels in the primary(two levels  representing learning levels of std 1,2 and std 3,4 and one level preparing for its 5th std exams)  and two levels in the upper primary.

The Kho school, which started in November 2002 is situated in the middle of Kho dhani(hamlet). This school was started in this area to provide girls between 8-13 years old in the surrounding area an opportunity of education. The parents were not willing to send the children to school for various reasons – the school is on the other side of the main road where lots of trucks and buses go, need help at home etc. Some of the children go to the nearby government school, but depending on the resources of the family many girls were not sent to school. When a survey was conducted 118 children were found to be out of school. Out of these, 60 children have now been enrolled in this school, majority being girls. There are many potter families in this hamlet. One of the families gave their house for the school. There is one room and a verandah which is used as another classroom. The school has a toilet.

3.       The teachers – There are over 20 teachers (13 at Bandhyali, 2 at Kho and rest at Ratwali). Some teachers have been working for last few months. Some have been working for more than 3 years. Teachers have done their graduate. Many of them travel at-least an hour to come to the schools on time, as the children are also expected to be on time. Overall the teachers felt satisfied about their work and the relationship they have with the children. The interaction among the teachers is very respectful. At the teacher’s weekly meeting, there were some discussions on how actions/activities of some teachers were creating problems for others. These issues were discussed openly. These meetings are a place for the teachers to talk about their achievements in the week and the problems encountered (could be academic, non-academic or attendance issues). They keep a strict check on the attendance rates; an alarming drop in the attendance rates calls for concern – is the teacher not teaching properly, festivals, any other reasons? There was also willingness to take responsibility to present solutions to some of the issues they face – e.g., a story to be chosen for a play later in the week. For problems related to curriculum, difficult topics, if unable to find solutions by discussing with other teachers, Reena(and Rohit whenever possible) are consulted.

In another instance, teachers from the schools were meeting to make a list of songs, poems, dances, skits for their yearly cultural activities of the school on Jan 26th. These were to be finalized after discussions with Rohit/Reena, but the initial list was to be prepared by the teachers. 5 teachers – 3 from Bandhyali, 1 each from the other schools met. Some ideas of what skits they could be etc were put forth. There was some discussion on what kind of songs were to be chosen, songs and skits with some themes. There was keenness and interest amongst the teachers to do this as well as possible. They asked me for songs and skits and I said I would send if I found any. They moved on to the library to find more songs/poems.

The teachers evaluate the learning of each child everyday for every subject and make daily plans for each child. The teachers also write a report after visiting each child’s home. The teacher also makes a monthly plan for each child, based on his/her learning pace. The teachers also have to make a weekly report for their weekly meetings. The school coordinator also fills out a coordinator’s report that includes overall school attendance, comments by teachers, problems faced by the teachers and the achievements, decisions and activities taken up at the school. This report is given to Reena at the weekly meeting. These reports help in planning for each child and following a child-centered teaching-learning process by every teacher. This also means that the teachers work much harder than in normal schools.

At the Kho school, I met Manjuji and Jaffarji who work at this school. Jaffarji has been with Digantar for 7 years, while Manjuji has been with Digantar for the last 2 and half years. They mentioned that many of the parents did not know about Digantar in this hamlet(this is surprising given that some families in the same dhani send their children to the Bandhyali school). Initially, some parents did not want to send their children to any school. Now after seeing the school around for a month, some parents feel that they should have enlisted their children also. The teachers have to go and meet the parents of the child at least once a month. The parents initially wonder why the teachers are after them J, because the government school teachers do not do any of this. The children here are attending school for the first time.

Naurathji(teacher and coordinator at Bandhyali) is from Ajmer and was working as supervisor at a dam site in Rajasthan. Once the project ended he moved to Jaipur and joined Digantar in 1993. In the last 10 years more girls are being sent to school. However after 8th many boys and girls do not study further. The govt school for 9th onwards is about 10 km from the villages. The boys have a lot of pressure to learn the diamond cutting and stone polishing work and are sent to Jaipur.

One concern amongst the teachers was the funding for the schools. Since the school does not charge any fee from the children, there is dependency on external funding. One teacher mentioned that the payment of salary for some teachers was delayed by 3-4 months when there was a shortage in funding.

There is a need for 2 more teachers in the 3 schools. The teachers recruited 4 years back, used to get training for 6 months, but now the training time has been reduced to 1-2 months. After the training, they work with an experienced teacher for a few months and are on probation for 6 months. (How the reduced training period affects the quality of teaching is a concern). The basic practices of not beating the child, friendly relationships with the child, not ridiculing the child and encouraging the child to question are followed by all teachers.

The worksheets and the books have been used for the last few years, and the teachers feel a need for revision of the worksheets. Some teachers are not conversant with English and are unable to work with the children on improving their spoken and written English. The teachers have requested for English workshops. There is lot of concern about the children’s English levels. The children are able to read and write simple English sentences and words, but they have a problem with grammar. So far the need for spoken and written English was not felt by the children. Now with the 8th std exam in English, the children also feel this need.

4.       Interaction with Gaffarji - Abdul Gaffarji is the coordinator of training programmes at Digantar. He joined Digantar in 1993. The independence, the challenging and interesting work, the equality of interactions and dignity of labor at Digantar are what he finds extremely satisfying and motivating.  Some things he mentioned -

·         There have been instances of children from these schools going to the govt school questioning the teacher if a teacher beats them.

·         Government school teachers are paid more (Rs 6000-8000 per month).  While in many ngos, teachers are paid much less. Similarly when it comes to building schools in cities a lot of money is spent and good buildings are built, but when it comes to village schools, villagers are asked to pitch in atleast 50% to show there is community participation. Why are these differences present in the system? Education/schooling should not have these differences. The quality of educational structures also should be the same.

·         Much of communication these days happens in English and there is a huge body of knowledge in English. A person who cannot converse in English is still considered inferior. The opportunity of expanding one’s knowledge base is very limited if one does not know English.

·         One girl’s father told his daughter’s in-laws that she would be sent to their house only after finishing the 8th std exams. Sending girls to school and completing 8th std has become a norm. Earlier girls were sent to their in-laws when they were 9 years old. Also the girls who studied at Digantar schools are now putting their children back into Digantar schools.

·         Religion is a very integral part of teacher’s training. It is closest to everyone’s heart and is the strongest belief one has. In every training there are sessions questioning the role of religion in teaching. What are each of our’s faith and beliefs? Should they be transferred to the children? Only if the teacher is clear about his/her own ideas and beliefs about religion and god, can one talk to children about it. Every school starts everyday with a prayer about God. Many schools adopt the policy of saying every religion’s prayer. In the training sessions, questions like: What is the need for prayer?  What the message we want to give to children through prayer?, etc are raised. Questions of rebirth, the consequences of acts committed in earlier life etc are also raised. He feels that without the discussion about religion and god, any teacher’s training would be incomplete. They have refused to do training for some groups, who did not want to have this component in the training sessions.

5.      Some anecdotes at the schools 

·         Each group is assigned a certain responsibility in the morning when the bell rings. Some picked up brooms, some went to fill water and some others to dump garbage. The teachers also joined them. The whole set of activities seemed extremely well-coordinated. Each child knew what he/she had to do. When all the activities were over, the children went into their respective groups. Each group started with songs, poems which the children want to sing/recite. The other children follow suit. I went and joined a group – an upper primary group. Some children sang songs from their book, one recited a poem he had written, one sang a song from the Koran. Everyone repeated after the child who was leading. The teacher then asked the children to recite English poems and the children obliged with 2. Each poem or song was sung after understanding its meaning. So it was decided to sing one of the new song another day. It was very refreshing to see these children vocal and not subdued. Each group was also doing a similar exercise and so there were multiple poems and songs being heard. The children were concentrating on what was happening in their own group.

·         In a primary math class the children were all doing different exercises, some doing addition, some subtraction, multiplication and division based on their pace of understanding. The teacher while giving out the workbooks of each child assigned them work for the day. Each child was to correct the mistakes done the day before and continue working on the next topic. The teacher then started working with children who he felt needed help. Some other children approached the teacher for help. He directed them to other children in the class who could help. And they would willingly help. Some children preferred to wait for the teacher. He would again encourage them to go get help from other children. I sat down near one group that was doing multiplication with more than 2 digit numbers. The children were waiting for the teacher to help them. I asked them if I could do something. Initially they said no. After a few minutes, they asked me to look at their book and see if they had done a particular exercise of multiplication correctly. I was working with them for a while. There was some confusion on whether to add or subtract when you multiply. Multiplication with zero was confused with addition with zero. I explained the difference and then the teacher explained further. Some children were working on addition and subtraction. Some children went out to work in the sun. One child was helping another with subtraction using stones. In this case it seemed like the child helping was just giving the answers to the other child. Some children interrupted the teacher asking how to do a certain exercise. The teacher asked them another question in return and they would answer that and realize how to work on it. The teacher started explaining division to another child and some children gathered around to look. One who knew how to divide was also adding his comments.

·         I saw 4 boys sitting in the sun and writing something. I sat down with them and one said they were writing sentences in Hindi. Each one would tell a sentence in Hindi and they would write it. They showed me had written. I asked them to write a few sentences and they obliged. Before I could talk with them further they went into their groups for some other activity.

·         Refraction was being introduced in an upper primary group. The experiment of a coin being visible when water is poured, a stick looking bent in water was demonstrated. Everyone wanted to see it before believing the teacher. The coin experiment was not very clear and the children were not satisfied with it. The stick experiment was easily and clearly observed by the children. The teacher encouraged them to do these experiments at home and started explaining why this was observed. The children already knew about the concept of dense and light medium. The teacher drew the picture of a ray of light bending when it moves from a dense to a light medium. He then said that’s why the stick is bent. This was not very clear. Some children asked him to explain it again and the same thing was said. Some children asked him – if the stick was actually bent? the ray of light is bent, but the stick is actually not bent, so why does it look bent?. Some asked to explain the coin phenomena. The answer that the same concept can be used to explain it was given. The children were not very satisfied, but the teacher quickly moved on to the concept of concave and convex surfaces. Concave and convex lenses were shown.

·         On Saturday, the children enacted a play which was enjoyed by school and the teachers. After the play, the children moved to their groups. In each group children put up their art work for the week on the display and file the ones they had put up last week. Overall cleaning of the classrooms is also undertaken. In one of the groups the teacher was reading an editorial about government’s efforts to catch Veerappan. The editorial had a photograph of veerappan and one child quickly asked why he wasn't captured when the photo was taken. An explanation for this was given.

6.       The children – Children in some groups were curious to know who I was, while other children were working on something with a lot of concentration. Many people visit these schools and so they children are no longer curious about visitors. I asked the children till what grade they would like to study, some answered - Till whatever my parents would allow me to study. Some of the girls wanted to study beyond 8th, but were worried if they would be allowed to commute to schools. One replied that now that they know cycling, they can go on the cycle. The others wondered how they could go alone. For which another suggested that they could go together. Another commented that this would be difficult as they all stayed far apart. The discussion went on for a few minutes like this. 

Many children proudly showed me their art file. Each child has an individual art file that is used to file their art work from the time they join the school. Many a times the children keep drawing flowers, mountains, houses. So in one of the classes the children were told to try and draw something else. The children enjoy these sessions and do not want to stop. Their file has spray paining, thread painting, collage work, water color work, crayon work and more. The children in the upper primary also enjoyed carpentry. The person in charge of carpentry takes turn in going to the schools and also takes care of basic needs of the school like cupboards, shelves etc. Some children stayed back to do carpentry after the school was over.

I asked some children how many siblings they had and most said between 7-9. I asked what work they did at home – the boys replied – I play, I eat, I take the animals for grazing etc. The girls said – they cook, take care of siblings. During lunch time, all the children were playing. The children insisted that I play with them and I played for a while. Overall children enjoy their schooling experience and are eager to come to school. They love taking their workbooks home, working on it on their own.

Children doing art work in a group at Bandhyali School

7.       Training sessions at Digantar – I attended various sessions, on language, needs of a child, rights of a child, what are the things one looks for in a school, which led to discussion on evaluation of learning, discipline, teacher-student relationship etc. The training was intense and the stress of the training was to encourage critical thinking, analyzing and questioning as opposed to believing what is told. The trainees were also encouraged to articulate their thoughts, ideas and beliefs as well as possible.

8.       Interaction with Rohit and Reena – Reena takes care of most of the coordination work of the 3 schools. She meets with the teachers and discusses any problems they have. She is also involved in training the teachers after every semester. Rohit does a lot of consultation work with various organisations, evaluating educational programs.

He felt that working with the government on various training programs is easier if the government approaches the organization than vice versa. He also mentioned that they did not know many ways of working with the government directly and were naïve when it came to interactions with the government. In the new program Pehchaan launched with the help of UNICEF, the interactions with the government is facilitated through UNICEF, while the trainings are conducted by Digantar. The response of the government to renewing funding for the 3 schools has been slow. The government officials are transferring the application from one department to another department. This is similar to what happened before Digantar got funding from MHRD in 1991.

They would like to hire a management consultant to help coordinate the new and existing activities. They also recognize the need to train a core team of people who would be able to provide training to all the teachers in Digantar and outside as well. This would enable Digantar become independent of Rohit and Reena.

9.      Teaching Learning Material I bought a set of Digantar’s teaching-learning material. I found their math books to be extremely good. I gave the Hindi books to some children who come home to work on their homework and had difficulties with reading Hindi. They have now started liking reading in Hindi and their Hindi has improved significantly. Digantar has a set of workbooks each for Hindi, EVS and Mathematics for the primary level. These workbooks are numbered and each workbook covers certain topics. Once this child has finished a workbook, it starts on the next workbook. The children love to take them home and work at home also.  Once the child finishes the set of workbooks, the child is given the textbooks of 5th std to prepare for the 5th standard board exams.

10.   Suggestion on the financials(based on discussions with Rohit and Reena) –  Asha-Seattle had allocated $40,000 for the year 2001-2002 for operational expenses of the 3 schools. We have sent $25,000 so far. MHRD has sanctioned funds for 6 months of 2001-2002. So the remaining installment of $15,000 is not required for 2001-2002.  The proposal for renewal of MHRD funding for the 3 schools is still under consideration. At the same time there is a possibility that ICICI may support the 3 schools, the resource center and Vimarsh. Depending on the response from ICICI, if needed the installment of $15,000 can be provided for teacher’s salary for the year 2002-2003, till other funding arrangements are made.

11.  Impressions – It is extremely refreshing and wonderful to see a school that is lively, where children interact without any fear with the teacher, like coming to school, are curious and are not afraid to ask questions.

·         The teachers at Digantar are highly motivated and enjoy working with the children. The teachers visit the homes of the children and are respected by the villagers. The teachers know each and every child in their group, their background, the problems they have and so proper attention is given to each child.

·         The day to day working of the school is independent of Rohit and Reena’s involvement. This I think has been possible because of the extensive teacher training when the teacher is recruited and the systematic documentation and evaluation of every child’s work everyday. Monthly, half yearly and yearly inputs are needed regularly, which Reena and Rohit provide.

·         Involvement with the community has been at the level of encouraging parents to be involved in their child’s education and getting to know the child’s background. The parents help in providing space for the school, building the school etc. Most of the interaction with the parents is via the teachers, who visit the child’s home, resolve problems if the child is not coming to school etc. On an average I think each teacher spends at-least 9-10 hours every day on the school activities. The Hindi material in the library is well used and teachers do a lot of reference work in the library.

Suggestions for working with Digantar –

·         Digantar’s teaching learning materials are something that we could buy for the groups in north we work with.

·         Teacher training can potentially be organized for groups needing training in pedagogy and teaching-learning methodologies.

·         Subscribing to the quarterly magazine Vimarsh at individual levels as well as encouraging groups conversant in Hindi to subscribe to this magazine

·         Help in developing a website for Digantar

Suggestions from Rohit on things Asha can do to enrich the educational scenario in India

  1. For each group supported by Asha for say more than 8000$ a year, request the group to write a paper based on their work, elaborating the practical aspects of their work. This would help in documenting and generating usable, practical knowledge from the work each group has done. Organize a conference where these papers are presented and bring them out in the form of a publication.
  2. Analyze government policies and provide inputs to the DIET colleges, since they form the basis of teacher training in government schools.

Have workshops where groups working on alternative education can network, learn and understand each other’s work and philosophy.

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