The day I met my kids…

A row of serious children sat in front of the screen and stared at me. This was my first interaction with 5th graders at KNB in Phaltan, India but, with several years of Granny Cloud experience, I knew the discomfort wouldn’t last long. Despite the standard response to most of my questions being blank stares, I persisted and, within a few sessions, we were all more relaxed and the children’s confidence and English began to improve.

With the passing of time, the sorts of things we could tackle in sessions developed. From simple topics such as animals and colours, we advanced to searching google maps for places, exploring distances, finding out about languages…

In one session we talked about sports, they told me about Kabaddi and Googled Aussie rules. In another session we looked at art. I introduced them to Picasso, they did their own searching and then produced surreal pictures of themselves.

They told me about their school, their lessons, their families and their celebrations. I shared pictures of my grandchildren and, on one occasion, I showed them the classrooms at my school and they had great fun reading children’s bios on their lockers and noticing commonalities.

Once we did a combined session with another group at a school in Delhi. In the middle of what I’d thought would be an interesting opportunity they sent me a text to say they would rather talk to Edna Granny.

Gradually individuals began to emerge as leaders. I observed Aditya’s particular curiosity and eagerness to learn. I noticed the thoughtfulness in Sanika’s eyes when ever a question was posed. I was delighted by Diya’s confidence in disrupting my plan for a session and replacing it with her own.

And then, miraculously, I had an opportunity to meet ‘my kids’. A few days in Pune for an IB workshop were extended to include time with my friend Suneeta and a couple of very special visits to KNB, once to work with the teachers and, finally, to meet Saniya, Aditya, Diya, Sairaj, Jayesh, Aishwarya and the others… in person.

They waited eagerly near the gate, then hung back a little shyly at first but a couple of warm up activities melted the ice and soon everyone wanted to talk and there was much laughter. They took me on a tour of their little school, showing me each classroom with its stone floor, old style desks, glassless windows and surprising, colourful images adorning the walls, painted by the children and their parents, of honey bees, pandas, flowers and flamingoes.

They took me to the library and we sat in a circle on the floor reading the picture book I had brought them. They sang and danced, we played and talked and they presented me with carefully made cards.

I’m not sure if the photos can capture the magic of our first face to face encounter…

A different workshop…

These are a few of the delightful children with whom I regularly interact via Skype from Kamala Nimbkar Balbhavan, an unusually egalitarian school in Phaltan, Maharashtra in India…

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It’s my first time visiting KNB and I’m excited to meet ‘my kids’ in person, but before the school year starts, the teachers gather for some of their own learning. I’m grateful for the opportunity to lead a workshop here and share learning with this dedicated group. It will be an introduction to the ideas of Ron Ritchhart and Visible Thinking, something completely new for them.

I head into the session far more nervously than usual, uncertain what to expect in terms of their level of English and their openness to different ways of thinking… but mostly concerned that, without being able to understand their conversations,  I might not get a sense of what connections to help them make, how to shift thinking forward or what to reinforce.

My fears turn out to be unfounded. There is enough English in the room for mutual understanding, be it via valiant attempts at self expression, translation by those who do speak English or facial expressions and body language.

There are so many things that make this a unique and special experience for me…

I love the way most of those speaking in Marathi still make eye contact with me (not the person translating), and I can sense the passion as they talk about their school, even if I don’t understand the words.

I like the fact that a small sprinkling of English words in the midst of the Marathi, along with intonation and facial expression, are often enough for me to get the gist of what they are saying.

I’m delighted by the fact that when I am talking, even though I know they are concentrating hard to understand me, I can see the light dancing in their eyes, because they are excited by the ideas I am sharing.

I love the warmth with which they welcome me, their obvious desire to learn, as well as their pride in their school and everything it stands for.

I’m humbled by the opportunity to share learning in a context so different from the well resourced schools at which I usually work and to observe first hand that the most important resources are not ones that money can buy.

I note with interest that in this outwardly simple seeming, rural school, powerful beliefs, not just about learning but about humanity underpin every single thoughtful thing that happens. (Read more about it here)

I remind myself again that, even at my age, after so many years of experience, there is always so much to learn…

Tomorrow I meet ‘my kids’!





My first experience of a thinking routine in Marathi!



Snippets from the SOME…


Manjunath loves cricket. Sukanya is a baseball fan. Lingappa likes to play volleyball. My young Indian friends say their names and their favourite sports, with accompanying actions. To play this game they each need to repeat all the previous names and actions, so by the end the ice has broken, they are relaxed and laughing and I am finally becoming familiar with their names.  This is my forth Skype interaction with my group of Grade 8 students in a SOME session at Ashraya Neelbagh (a residential school for children of migrant labourers 100Km from Bangalore) and things have certainly warmed up since the first.

Marlinga’s favourite sport is Kabbadi, which I haven’t heard of, so I share my screen and show them how I can type the word into Google to search for and then watch a Kabbadi video which comes up. Then it’s their turn to find out about Australian Rules Football. I leave them to it for a while and they take turns to read from a site they find, then share their discoveries with me.  I show them a video of Aussie Rules and they are clearly entertained!


We talk about time differences and adjusting the clock for daylight saving, as I accidentally came an hour early, forgetting about our clock change! I give them the link to Qlock where they can compare my time with theirs and check the time in other places in the world.

This leads us to Google maps. I share my screen and try to place them on the map of India. They are quick to inform me that my positioning is incorrect! So I show them how to share their screen with me and ask them to find themselves on the map and show me. It’s great to observe the process as they explore and figure out what to type in the search box, how to zoom in and out and shift the map around.


I’m a bit disappointed in today’s session… NOT because screen sharing doesn’t work this time which spoils my plans. I improvise and we do other things. I have them look at Google maps again, I teach them a song with actions, they tell me all about their recent exams and the coming festival of Dasara, how they will celebrate and what they will do in the holidays, and we even make origami, but…

Why are they sitting in lines? Why do they keep glancing to the back? Why are they less responsive than last time? Why are they much quieter and more serious?

It takes me a while to figure it out…

There is a teacher present.

Adjusting expectations…

‘Do you have any questions?’

‘No, Ma’am’.

I’m interacting via Skype with Grade 8 students in a SOME session at Ashraya Neelbagh, a residential school for children of migrant labourers near Bangalore and, to my surprise, I’m not finding it all that easy!

When I first began to interact with Indian kids in this way, it took a while to overcome the obstacles, to understand their context and to adjust my expectations. You can read about my early sessions with SOLEs and SOMEs here and here. Once past that initial stage , my experience of such sessions with SOLES  in the past couple of years has usually involved a bunch of enthusiastic, noisy children gathered around the computer, often all talking at once. In one case, it led to a series of valuable learning interactions between some of my own students in Australia and a group at a rural school in Shiragon, 100kms from Goa. Despite the differences in language, environment, culture, economic background, and religion, they found much in common.

This is the first time I have worked with a group in an organized setting such as Ashraya, and it feels more like a school class… albeit a very different type of class than the ones I am used to in my own setting. The children sit in rows on the floor, listen attentively and respond when spoken to with a ‘Yes Ma’am’ or ‘No Ma’am’. They look towards Rajkumar, the volunteer facilitator on their end, every now and again for clarification or reassurance or both.

In my first two sessions, I call them to the camera one by one and ask them individual questions about their families, their favorite subjects at school and the festivals they recently celebrated. They respond willingly and I make a few notes beside their names on my list to help me personalise our connections. I notice 14-year-old Marlinga, right away. He tells me he loves Maths because it’s like a game. It’s different from the other answers, which are polite, short and to the point. He’s the only one who really responds when I ask why a particular subject is their favourite. Is it because his English is better than theirs? Or is he is just a little more confident than the others in interacting with this strange, foreign woman?

When I ask if they have any questions for me, they say ‘No ma’am .’  I share pictures of Australian animals which they appear to enjoy. I show them where I am on the map compared to where they are and they answer my questions about their area. I show them photos of kids at my own school. They seem interested, but have no questions. I am a bit at a loss as to where to head next. I wonder what interests them and how to move past their polite responsiveness.

We talk about games and they tell me what sports they play. They mention a game I am unfamiliar with, and Marlinga tries to explain. When I ask if it’s played with a ball, he says yes and there is a bit of quiet laughter. I ask if they can share what’s funny and after a little resistance, they reveal, with help from Raj, that it is not played with a ball. He has simply said yes, because it’s easier than trying to explain. They show me the sort of stone they actually use and when I laugh, they all laugh with me and  the ice seems to have broken… for now. I ask them to demonstrate the game. They get up and kick the stone around, laughing and chattering as they show me. I feel optimistic, but I know that next time they will be back on the floor in rows, listening, waiting and responding politely…

I need to be respectful of their context and of cultural expectations. Communication is somewhat restricted by language limitations, differences in accent and the Skype connection. But I know I need to find ways to get them to relax a little (me too) , to ask questions and to engage in a two-way conversation. And I know I can’t do this the way I would at my own school…

Face to Face

Guest post by Jackie Barrow who has been involved in the SOLE and SOME project for over three years. During that time she has interacted with different groups of children in a variety of locations in India.

My relationship with Khelghar Palakneeti, a charity run after school provision for the children of the Lakshminagar slum of Pune, began well over a year ago. Their unwavering commitment to the SOLE project is what makes it work so well. For one hour a week, the children are permitted to use the office computer in order to connect with me. No, of course it doesn’t always run smoothly! There are all the usual frustrations; poor connections, no sound, no video, no children, no staff, monsoon rains, holidays and festivals at both ends meaning we’re not around. But when sessions don’t or can’t take place for any reason, we let each other know. This continuity has allowed me to build a real relationship with the children and staff.

An opportunity…

Back in April a film crew from the BBC’s Technology Website came to film me Skyping my group at Khelghar and talking about my involvement in the SOLE and SOME project. Following on from this, the BBC’s One Show, a magazine style programme, proposed a trip to Pune to meet and film with my group of children. I am sure you can imagine how thrilled I was. This was an opportunity not to be missed.

I had no reservations about the trip itself but I did have reservations about the filming. I was worried that the cameras would be intrusive and alter the nature of my interaction with the children. We were to visit the slum where the children live and meet with their families. I thought maybe this would seem somewhat voyeuristic and that the slum dwellers might resent our presence.

However, I need not have worried. The two young men who made up the film crew had both visited India before and were as excited as I was about the project. They quickly became favourites with both the staff and the children and although they and the cameras were ever present, none of us felt inhibited by their presence. Well, that’s not entirely true. I did! Not when I was reading stories, teaching felting or just chatting with the children, but I found the ‘interviews’ more difficult and the constant need to try to articulate how I was feeling.

How was I feeling? Well, just completely overwhelmed by the scale of the problems they are faced with and by the fantastic work going on at Khelghar. I will leave you to read more about Khelghar Palakneeti, but let me tell you how inspiring women like Shubhada Joshi and her team of staff and volunteers are. Some have themselves grown up in the slums of Pune but have managed not only get a basic education but to go on to higher education. Not content with just improving their own lives and prospects, they work to support children and their families, helping them see that education is a way out of the trap of poverty. I felt very proud to be associated with these women and to play my own, very small, part in their project.

Meeting the children…

So how was it, meeting the children? I must confess that I began to feel quite nervous. What were they expecting? Would I prove to be a disappointment, this so-called ‘granny’ from England? I learnt later from Suneeta that they were nervous too! Would they be able to understand me? Would they know what to say? But nerves were soon forgotten on both sides. I had decided to just carry on from the Skype session the week before, when we had been talking about the 2012 London Olympics. Within minutes we were on our hands and knees, sorting and matching pairs of cards. I followed this with a story they knew, Mr. Gumpy’s Outing by John Burningham but instead of just reading it, we acted it out. Their level of participation far outstripped what I had hoped for. I had a second session with the children a couple of days later, a practical activity, teaching them how to make felt. The plan was to make some bunting with the word Khelghar. So we set to with wool, water and soap to create and decorate our felt. Once again, the children threw themselves into the session and although we didn’t quite achieve the finished article at the time, they have shown it to me today, three weeks later, over Skype. Fantastic!

This second session took place in the slum. Khelghar has two small buildings there where they hold classes for groups of girls and younger children. I thought that entering the slum might feel quite intimidating. The piles of rubbish being picked over by birds, cats and people, and the volley of barking from the thin, scabby looking dogs, is hardly welcoming. However, once again, I need not have worried. Whether it was the presence of the cameras, or the respect with which Suneeta Kulkarni and the staff and volunteers from Khelghar, are held within this community, I am not sure. We were greeted with friendly curiosity. People waved, called out greetings and warned us of holes, puddles and mopeds. It was wonderful to see how Suneeta was greeted by the children of the slums of Pune, one little girl rushing down the hill all smiles to throw her arms around Suneeta Tai. Children walked with us up the steep, treacherous lanes between the dwellings.

Homes tend to be a single room, sometimes with a foundation of stone or brick, generally finished with wood or corrugated iron. They house the cooking equipment, sometimes the moped, a small shrine, some clothes storage and a large wooden family bed with a thin mattress. There is no running water inside, though an unreliable electricity supply is delivered across a tangle of wires. The people are construction workers, often the women too. The mother of one of my regulars, a woman of 36, is ill and waiting for her husband to be paid before she can collect her medicine. She has spent the last twenty years carrying bags of sand and cement on building sites. She would be beautiful if she were not so thin and drawn. She is determined that her son will finish his education and have opportunities that she and her husband have not had. In an interview with him earlier, he told us that he wants to be a car mechanic, which is certainly achievable.

So what the BBC’s One Show viewers will make of my experience, I’m not too sure. I hope that the films will not only give a true idea of the vision of Professor Sugata Mitra but will do justice to the efforts of all those who make such a difference to the lives of children on a daily basis. As for me, well I count myself extremely lucky to have had this opportunity and hope very much that I can use it to further support the work of the project. And of course, I will always have a particular interest in the work of Khelghar Palakneeti and in the futures of the children I have met there.

Related posts:

Play House

Opening New Vistas

Teacher as learner

Student Centred Breakdown

Travelling and spending time with family means a few weeks away from social media.

This is a moving guest post by Clive for my series on learning in different contexts.  It first appeared at his blog, Clive Sir, a month ago and he agreed to let me post it whenever I liked. As I’m still away from home and not writing posts, it seems like a good time to share it…

I had a chat with someone the other day, talking about teaching styles. It brought back memories of my time in India, circumstances when my student-centric approach broke down.

We had a lad I shall call Aneesh. About ten years old, he was the son of one of the traders down on the beach. The NGO I was working for had encouraged his parents to send Aneesh to school rather than have him work in their shop. For parents it’s never a case of simply finding a public school to take their children. They have often missed so much schooling that the kids fail the admissions tests. Families are then, usually, left to their own devices to seek private education. In families where little importance is attached to education, where the cost of books is significant, and where the child brings in some income, they mostly don’t bother.  My organisation had its own school and provided books, transport, food and clothing, totally free of charge. It paid parents a small fee to compensate for lost income and the children received a small allowance for each day attended, as an incentive. The idea was that they would be brought up to speed over a year or so. The organisation would then fight to get them placed in mainstream publicly-funded school, while continuing to support them by covering all incidental costs. The parents would justify it in terms of doing the organisation a favour: by supplying their children in return for some money the NGO could continue to exist.

Aneesh was a real character. Highly popular with his fellow students, he was always making them laugh. Somehow, miraculously, the organisation got him immediately placed in a local English-medium public school. Maybe because he bluffed his way in or for some other reason, whatever, he got in.

The policy was that all such kids would come back to us for tuition after the school day. Being one of our “tuition kids” had several advantages: we would get to hear how they were doing at school and what they were struggling with, so we could then focus on the weak areas. Coming from poor families, these children were frequently bullied; by giving them the opportunity to talk about it we could try to do something to help, even if it was only to take them back into our day-time school. Finally, home environments were often not conducive to studying or doing homework, maybe because there was no table or space or light, but sometimes because of abusive family members; a few hours in afternoon tuition meant the children got some necessary support.

Anyway, Aneesh struggled badly in all subjects and eventually I was assigned to help him. Language wasn’t a barrier – he and I could communicate quite effectively because his spoken English was good, most likely a result of speaking with tourists in his shop. I concentrated on maths and computing with him and I quickly discovered that he was only surviving because he was copying his neighbours’ work. His friends didn’t mind because he was amusing, always acting the buffoon and mucking about but, in the strict, Victorian-disciplined day school he now found himself, he was no longer getting away with it.

After a week he told me that he was really worried about an imminent computing exam. I had a look at his text-book – it was essentially a learn-by-rote work-book, typical of the way many Indian kids learn.  It was pretty dreadful, expecting kids to simply repeat unexplained words and phrases. I could do better. With only a few days till the exam I decided that the most effective way to get him to grasp the concepts was to work one to one, discussing and explaining the things to be covered, and trying to encourage questioning, thinking and understanding. He actually seemed to improve so I thought he’d stand a chance of doing reasonably well.

Aneesh sat it and got his marks back almost immediately. He was very weepy when he showed them to me. What stared out from the sheet, in big, red letters, was “3/25″. Worse, the teacher had written down the page:

“V.V.V.V.V.V.V.V.V.V.V.V.V. Bad.”

I didn’t count them – I was too dismayed. There were probably more. I guess that gives you an idea of the quality of teaching some Indian children encounter.  Teachers are not all like that, of course, but the existence of even one is one too many. Pure punishment. Where were the gentle words of encouragement?

After I had calmed down I thought about it some more. What I hadn’t realised was that firstly, in all likelihood, the teacher didn’t understand his subject. He was lazy and was playing safe by following the work-book to the letter. Secondly, the exam followed exactly the same format: words had to be memorised and quoted verbatim. There was no leeway and any understanding was incidental. It didn’t matter what “input” meant, it just mattered that that was the word to be fitted into the blank.

I blame myself. I should have known. I hadn’t made the connection. If I had spent time getting Annesh to repeat and regurgitate the words then he would have passed the test. Educationally a meaningless test, but that was lost on Aneesh and he was the one who mattered.

My recommendation was that Aneesh should be taken out of that school and brought back to us. He was just too weak and had way too much ground to make up. Management didn’t see it like that, driven by the belief that the public school was an opportunity not to be wasted. Perhaps he was better in other subjects but I doubt it. I questioned my ability to help any of the Tuition Kids because I saw no value in working like that. Aneesh was taken away from me and given to a more conventional teacher. They persisted for a few months until after I left India. I heard through the grapevine that he eventually returned to the NGO’s school where he would have received the nurturing he so needed.

Discussing educational reform…

Do you think schools sometimes take themselves too seriously?  Are you perturbed to see children in some societies being pressured to succeed at an early age? How would you like to see the school system change? What are your views on play based learning?

These were the sorts of questions that came up in my discussion with Sachin, one of the interesting people I met in Pune. Sachin is the taxi driver who met me at Mumbai airport and drove me to and from Pune. It’s a three and a half hour drive each way so we had plenty of time to chat. We talked about India and Australia, about music, films, cooking and families… and, surprisingly, about education.

Sachin has a 6 year old daughter and the educational system worries him. He’s pleased that his child attends a good English medium school, but worries about the development of her mother tongue, Marathi. Without any prompting from me, he shared his concerns about the pressure to get high marks in Indian schools and talked about the importance of play in childhood. He hates seeing his daughter lugging a heavy bag of books and doing homework at an age when he feels she should be playing. He’s convinced that learning takes place through play. He shared that he’d seen a CD of learning through songs and poems and wondered why school learning (in his context) couldn’t be more fun and engaging. I asked him if he knew that teachers around the world think about many of the same issues that he does. He responded that it’s just common sense...

It was late at night when we drove through Bombay and we took a few wrong turns on the frantic roads. Noisy trucks, cars and auto rickshaws were everywhere, weaving in and out, horns honking continuously. Sachin stopped several times to confirm that we were heading the right way. Sometimes getting back on track involved reversing on one-way roads and unnerving u-turns, but there is a system to the way the drivers maneuver in the chaos and miraculously there were no collisions. Once in a while he would ask with a grin if I was worried yet.

Dropping me at the airport, he invited me to visit his home next time I come. I look forward to it.


(5th in a series of reflections on my recent visit to Pune)


Play House…

A group of kids is using a set of hanging scales to weigh various objects, while another group estimate each others’ weight and then stand on a scale to check. Sounds like it could be a standard lesson on measurement in any classroom, doesn’t it?

The difference is I am at Khelghar, an after-school centre for slum kids in Pune, and these particular children would never be learning this way at the local school. They’d typically be sitting in rows facing the teacher and perhaps filling in answers to questions about measurement such as how many grams in a kilogram.

Khelghar  provides a place for children to play, read, learn and create. There is little time, space or opportunity for such things in their normal daily lives. It caters for kids of all ages, providing academic support for the older students as well as an informal self-development program.  I’m introduced to the serene Shubhada who runs the place and she tells me her story…

She is an architect who worked as an interior designer till deciding that she didn’t want to work for rich people for the rest of her life, preferring to do something more meaningful. She’d been involved for some years in publishing a magazine about social parenting and decided to pursue this further by putting the ideas into practice in a way that could make some small difference.

The initial project involved a program for local slum kids to experience learning through play. The only available place was Shubhada’s own home, so that’s where they went. As the numbers of children and volunteers increased, they spilled from the crowded living room onto the veranda, till it was time to seek funding and search for a more permanent venue. The current home of Khelghar is up 3 flights of stairs, in a building near to the slum in which the children live.

The ratio of adults to kids is deliberately high, and there seem to be almost as many volunteer workers as children. Shubhada tells  there are other visitors today, observing the way children learn through play, so that they can develop similar programs in other places. It’s encouraging to hear that the model is being used in other settings and there are apparently other Khelgars (it means Play House) springing up gradually across the state of Maharashtra.

One of the best parts of this story is that of the group of young adults who attended Khelghar themselves who, in turn, provide similar opportunities for even less advantaged children, from an even poorer slum than theirs. They regularly organize games and discussions for the kids, using the principles they learned from their own experiences at Khelghar.

I’m inspired by Shubhada and others like her whom I met in Pune. There is no sitting back and saying ‘I can’t change the world so I’ll do nothing’. They simply decide not to be deterred by the overwhelming inequities and problems around them. They know they want to do something and they do.

A small group of thoughtful people could change the world.  Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. Margaret Mead.

(4th in a series of reflections on my recent visit to Pune)


Conversations about life…

I’m proud to say that I can now cross the road by myself. That’s no mean feat in Indian cities where crossing a road means negotiating your way through more cars, buses, auto rickshaws, dogs, bicycles, scooters, fruit-carts and people than you usually see in a week. (not to mention the occasional elephant.)

Every time I step out of the door in Pune, it’s a learning experience! I’ve been here four days and it feels like four weeks because of the variety and intensity of experiences. The highlight has been finally meeting Suneeta, who I first connected with online through the SOLE project.

She has shown me so many sides of Pune. She has introduced me to all sorts of interesting people, some of whose stories I will share in future posts. I’ve seen an experimental play at Pune University as well as music and dance performances at Symbiosis College.  At the other extreme, I have visited a SOLE at Yeoli village and met the group at Khelgar,  where kids from a local slum gather after school to learn through play.

I’ve ventured out into the city, both on foot and by auto-rickshaw, usually with Suneeta’s son Anand as my cheerful guide, sharing his colourful stories and helping me cross the roads.  He needs constant reminders to slow down so that I can absorb everything around me… unfamiliar and now-familiar sights, smells and sounds.

Best of all, Suneeta and I have had endless conversations about education, culture, language and religion, about disability, poverty, inequity and making a difference, about theatre, books, food and saris… conversations about life.

I can’t wait to come back.