Thursday, May 22, 2008

My experiences with Muskaan -- Philosophy and Hardships

(An old post on my previous blog: posted on February 16th, 2006)

In my previous post, I wrote a brief history of Muskaan. In this post I want to discuss more about what are the aim and philosophy of this initiative and the problems we faced (and still facing) in running an activity like Muskaan.

Recently, I was talking to an group of enthusiasts called Bharat Uday Mission and I wanted to share my experiences with them. Then the first question posed to me was "what is the mission and philosophy of Muskaan?". I was taken back by the question for a moment because when we started to work for Muskaan we never sat and thought about these things. We just wanted to help these kids to the best of our abilities and utilizing the resources which are in our reach. Even though we did not sit and frame the goal and philosophy of Muskaan, to me the following can be said as its motto.

The main motivation for Muskaan is that these the kids, who are disadvantaged due to their economic and social background, do not have suitable environment at home and school for their proper development. Most of the parents of these kids are daily laborers and workers who are not educated. These kids go to Government schools which have lot of problems like lack of proper teachers and lack of proper teaching. Through Muskaan we want to create the necessary environment which helps them both educationally and socially. We teach subjects like English, Telugu and Maths. In addition to it, we have G.K. classes, yearly annual day celebrations, competitions etc which add fun part to their studying.

Another goal of Muskaan is to tell kids the importance of going to school and if there are any school drop-outs, making sure that they go back to school. Initially, we used to insist on this and take kids who go to regular school because we strongly believe that Muskaan can never be a substitute for a regular school. However due to various things, we have some kids who are school drop-outs. We tried to convince their parents to put them back to school. But since they are basically migrant, its not possible. Things stopped at this.
As the tag line of Muskaan: "Muskaan in my life" aptly explains whatever I articulated, we just want to fill smiles in their life. Now comes the hard part, the problems we face while running Muskaan.

- Volunteers: Initially the main problem is to get volunteers to support this initiative. Volunteers form the core part of running Muskaan. During the initial days, most of the volunteers were my lab-mates or batch mates or friends on campus. As days went, more and more people got interested and it because a big group. Typically, a volunteers stays with Muskaan for about 6 months to 1 year depending on their workload and in which year of study they are.

The main problem is not get people signed up for Muskaan, but make them work for Muskaan. On paper, there might be 20-30 volunteers registered but of them about 7-8 people will do the whole work. Since its a collective activity by all the volunteers, co-operation and sincerity among the volunteers is very important. Even today, we have about 80 volunteers registered. But over last few weeks there were some days on which Muskaan classed did not happen because all the volunteers who are supposed to go on a particular day, abscond themselves and do not inform about it to others.

The bottom line is that quantity is not important but dedication and motivation of the volunteers is atmost important. Since they work for Muskaan on a volunteer basis, we cannot demand any such qualities from them and they should come from within themselves. I was part of Muskaan when there used to 7-8 volunteers and at that time things went very smoothly because all the volunteers are well-motivated and responsible towards Muskaan. Today although we have 80 volunteers, I should say things are not going as well as they should.

- Kids: Another major problem we face with Muskaan is the set of kids we deal with. Some of the kids' parents are migrant laborers who visit cities like Hyderabad for work when there is no harvest in the village. When harvest season arrives, they go back to their village. Hence its not possible for these kids to join a regular school in their village nor in the city. Therefore, the set of kids we deal with constantly changes. Of course, there are about 5-6 kids who are there with Muskaan right from its beginning but this is an exception.

- Substitute for regular school?: Initially, we used to enroll only those kids who are going to regular school during the day. This is because we strongly believe that Muskaan can never be a substitute for a regular school since the amount of time these kids spend in Muskaan is about 2-3 hours. We only try to help them with their regular school syllabus. This was our mind set when we got started. But to our surprise, the standards of these kids were very poor. A fourth class student who have poems and proses in his english textbook can hardly spell even simple words. So we had start from basics. We had to start teaching alphabets, simple words, basic arithmetic etc. It was not possible to follow any specific syllabus. We decided upon some basic syllabus for each subject and had been following it. One of the problem here is that the kids keep on forgetting what was taught before. Especially if there is a vacation of 1 or 2 weeks, the kids simply forget everything that has been done previously. As a result, most of the kids are still learning what they were learning a year back or so. Most of the time is spent in revising the old syllabus.

This problem is aggravated by the fact that everyday a different person teaches the kids and its not the same person. At least we have seen to that for each subject the volunteers are fixed and hence guaranteeing some continuity. Even then it becomes difficult to communicate to the next slot volunteers what is done in the previous slot. As of today, we dont know how to handle the syllabus and the continuity problems.

- Method and mode of teaching: Since the set of volunteers keeps changing, different volunteers might teach kid in a different way. For instance, if we were to each addition, one volunteer teaches kid to add using fingers. Another volunteers teaches by drawing vertical lines on the book and yet another using small stones. At the end of it, the kid who is learning addition for the first time, get confused. It might be possible for the volunteers to meet and decide upon how to teach a particular aspect. But doing it regularly for each and every topic would hamper the interest of the volunteers in Muskaan. Therefore, we need some guidelines in the form of printed material as to how to teach small kids things like basic maths, sentence structures etc.

Bottom line: I am still learning based on my past experiences and hopefully will be able to come up with a model to solve the above problems.

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