Step up Panipat – teaching India’s vulnerable children

Rahul is a 12 years old boy, one of the quietest and most motivated of my students from the school in Panipat, where I teach English and Geography. He gets involved in all activities and also tries to help his colleagues. Dynamic and intelligent, he always keeps his eyes open to what’s happening around him. Sometimes I feel Rahul is too mature for his age and much too aware of his situation at school and at home. He has 6 siblings all under 18 years old, and they all live in one room together with their parents.

Meet Rahul

The whole family survives on a very low monthly income. I have been in their house and, despite their situation, I am always welcomed by smiling faces and offers to eat from their food. Even if they cook, wash and all 9 of them sleep in the same room, their place is always clean and Rahul always wears his few clothes clean. This is not just Rahul’s situation. Most of the families who send their children to our schools in Panipat are in similar situations.

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Our students at home

Panipat is a city 90 km north of Delhi. Humana People to People India, one of the partner organisations of the school in Norway, has developed here a new project called Step Up Panipat. The purpose of Step Up Panipat is to provide education to children from poor families, who cannot keep up with the level of the public schools. During a one year and a half program the Step Up schools are trying to help the children reach a study level according to their age, so that they could be integrated in a public school. The students are aged 6 to 14, with the majority of them being 10, 11, or 12. However, their level is very low. The challenge for them is not the motivation or ability to study, it´s the financial situation in their families. Even though in India education is free up to 8th grade, the public schools are not covering all the geographical areas and parents can’t afford to drop them to school or to cover transport fees. Moreover, many of their parents are migrant labourers, so children have to change schools too often and it gets increasingly difficult to keep up with their studies.

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In June of this year, when I got here, the classes were empty and the groups of students were not defined yet because the project had just started. Therefore, in my first month here I was accompanying the teachers in the slums around the city, trying to enrol the children. In the mean time, I was helping the teachers prepare study materials, organise the classes and paint the walls in preparation for the students. I also started giving short English classes, or sometimes I would just go to school and play with the children. By getting involved in all these activities, I got familiar with the teachers and the children, in a very short time.

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Preparing the classrooms

Now, after a few months, we have lists of the children who are coming daily to school, the teachers have books and they can prepare better for classes, the classrooms look nicer, and everything is running smoother. At this point, our project leader runs 15 Step Up centres in Panipat, which is quite a lot. It would be the equivalent of 15 classes of 25 children each in Europe, and every class of 25 children has one teacher.

The project leader is very nice and gives volunteers freedom to present new thoughts and ideas. Also, there’s a lot of flexibility when it comes to what we want to do in this project. This can be a good and a bad thing in the same time. There’s no list of tasks which we have to do, there’s no particular job description for us. Instead, we have the possibility to experiment and find our own place, we are given the chance to try to see where we best fit in. For example, after things settled down and got much more organised, I decided to go daily to one of the Step Up Schools which is closer to the place where I am living. I chose to teach English and Geography. I made a big world map and I plan to do my best in showing the children different countries and tell them about different cultures, animals, landscapes. I would like to help them have a bigger picture of the world we live in.

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One of our classrooms

By going daily to this school I got to be closer with my students and understand more about the place where they are coming from, about their circumstances. This is how I got to know the story of Rahul which impressed me deeply. I am even trying to help his family get more food and clothes with a small fundraising campaign among my friends.

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However, even after 4 months of being here among Indian teachers and students, me and my other teammates who are also in India, we are still surprised everyday by all the unbelievable things going on around us: the people’s stories, the complexity of their culture, their curiosity about us, the different ways of seeing the world. It’s amazing being here, and yet extremely challenging!

Before coming to India, me and my teammates, we carefully prepared our stay in India. We wanted to get a deeper idea about India’s culture, habits and lifestyle. We did our research, we watched documentaries. However, no other people’s stories about their trip to India, nor other volunteers’ experiences about their projects in India, nor Lonely Planet books, none of these can actually create a picture of what you’ll see, feel and experience in this hugely complex country! Nothing and nobody can prepare you for India, before actually arriving here.

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Happiness

This project is having a huge impact on me. Rahul and other children like him got really close to my heart and I know that it will be difficult to leave. I am trying to help as much as I can, with any resources and energy and knowledge that I have. Even if I can’t change an entire world, I know I can improve some young lives with very little. And in return I let my own life be changed by being here and seeing these children smile everyday.

 

Geo – May 2015 Team

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