Classes under trees; lessons on WhatsApp, TV as schools go on in MP

Written by Iram Siddique
| Sehore |

October 19, 2020 1:59:09 am

‘Mohalla’ class under a neem tree in Sehore’s Ambdo village. (Express photo by Iram Siddique)

UNDER A neem tree in Ambdo village in Sehore district about 90 km from Bhopal, 25 children sat on a bright red tarpaulin sheet spread on the ground on a recent Saturday, as 51-year-old primary school teacher Kamla Gaur hooked her cell phone up to a loudspeaker – which crackled to life with ‘Ek chatur kauwe ki kahani’.

From a rope tied above the children’s heads, hung drawings of the chatur kauwa – the cunning crow. “These stories are my favourite,” said nine-year-old Deepika Korku, busily sketching the crow putting pebbles in the vase of water.

With 91.56 lakh government school students of Classes 1 to 12 shut out of classrooms by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Madhya Pradesh government has reformatted the curriculum for all subjects into hour-long audio and video clips that are shared on WhatsApp, and broadcast on All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan. The video links have been designed and curated by a team at the Rajya Shiksha Kendra, the state’s Education Department, and are sent in accordance with a time table – thus, Mondays are for math lessons, Tuesdays for science, and Wednesdays for languages.

Every teacher has been asked to create a WhatsApp group of their students at the village level. The links are sent to the teachers at 10 am, and the teachers share them with students on their WhatsApp group. The clips for older students of Classes 9-12 are aired on Doordarshan at 10 am; for younger children, there is the state government’s Dakshata Unnayan program on AIR.

But in villages like Ambdo – with a total 125 households of mostly Korku and Barela tribals – mobile phones, radio or a TV set are not universally accessible.

Fifteen-year-old Neha Mehra who wants to be an IAS officer one day, said the single mobile phone at home has to be shared among four siblings — that too only on days their father does not have to go out of the village, taking the phone. Neha said she had heard of the classes on TV, but could not find the channel. According to numbers provided by the state government, 50,000 WhatsApp groups have been created, connecting about 12 lakh students. But daily views of the links sent over the messaging platform do not cross 6-7 lakh.

The numbers of those accessing the lessons on TV are lower. Santosh Dhanawde, a middle school teacher in Narsullahganj block under which Ambdo falls, said many children do not have a TV at home; also, power cuts are a problem. It is in this situation that the classes like the one under the neem have become popular. The loudspeaker mounted on the thickest branch of the tree was paid for by the panchayat, an initiative taken entirely by the villagers, Dhanawde said.

“Now”, said primary school teacher Gaur, “the students have begun to enjoy the sessions so much that they often ask for a story to be repeated. It is because of such programmes that the tribal children are comfortable in Hindi.” In villages like Ambdo, teachers have been encouraged to hold “mohalla” classes for students in groups of 10, headed by a volunteer identified as a “Shikhshadoot”. The volunteers have their own cell phones to show students videos and clarify their doubts — however, one cell phone among 10 children often means the screens are too small and the lessons barely audible.

To solve the problem, Asaram Solanki, headmaster at Ambdo, tried to arrange equipment such as mics and portable Bluetooth speakers. And when that seemed too expensive, an innovative alternative was found with an old, rigged-up DVD player.

Lokesh Jatav, Commissioner of Rashtriya Shiksha Kendra, conceded that nothing could replace in-person education in school. However, there has been an increased effort from parents to allow their cell phones to be used and open up their homes and temples to hold these mohalla classes, he said.

Many villagers like Dayaram Kalme have given their cell phones not only to their own children but also to others in the neighbourhood. “Jis tarah se bachche padh rahe hain, ummeed hai ki kuchh ban jayenge. (The way the children are studying gives me hope for them),” said Kalme, whose two children go to these mohalla classes every day.

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Zeeshan Laskar

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