In January i wrote about my expectations and plans for working at Nirvana School, India. I have had three amazing months together with my friend Jakob Pethick, teaching, travelling and producing videos for the school, the local NGO Amaidi and just for fun. I have learned a lot myself, and hopefully my students are slightly better of than when I arrived.
The school encourages volunteers to write up a report on their work to help future volunteers pick up on what you have started and give the school feedback in general. Here is my report:
From January to March 2011 I have had the pleasure of volunteering at Nirvana School teaching an IT course for 5th and 6th standard (8-10 year old students). Meanwhile i have also been shooting a small documentary about the school with my friend Jakob Pethick who has been teaching math during the same period. This is a short report to try and share some of my experiences at the school and give you feedback and knowledge that can hopefully help you to offer your students even more in the future.
The regular meals with Mrs. Samani and Elumelai have been a very nice way of getting a deeper understanding of the school, a great setting for discussing the classes and figuring out as a volunteer how you can help the school better. I think it is very valuable that you take this time to talk to volunteers regularly and help them help you.
Though the school is an English medium school the students generally have large difficulties communicating in English and need explanations of new terms and concepts in Tamil, their native language. A lot of students have an impressive English vocabulary and have learned sentences by heart but they have a very limited ability to structure sentences or understand words from their vocabulary in a new context. This makes it a huge challenge to teach new subjects in English. I have mainly been teaching small classes of 4-5 students and I think you should keep the groups so small to give non Tamil speaking volunteers a chance to get through to the students. I benefited a lot from having some of the students who were best in English explain things to the rest of the class in Tamil. This is something i recommend other volunteers do and I think that you should try and structure the groups so that ad least one of the students with the volunteer is one of the best in his class in English.
The students have learned a lot of computer related theory by heart, they are able to draw a computer block diagram with input devices, processing units and output devices but they don’t know what the terms mean and most of the students have difficulties simply using the mouse and keyboard and understanding the most basic operating system interface.
I tried to put the books away and forget about the diagrams that they can so proudly draw on the blackboard. Instead I focused on using the computer and tried making small tasks that they could only solve clicking around rather than looking up the right answer in their IT book. I think it is really important that you try to focus more on practical IT in the teaching at Nirvana School the ability to use the computer is a lot more important for the students than complicated theory that they can recite from memory.
Meanwhile continuously focusing on the basic use of the keyboard and mouse and the familiarity with the interface i tried to make small tasks for the students making them slowly understand new concepts while practicing. One task that is very important for all subjects is finding information on the Internet. I would write lists of questions and the students would have to use e.g. google and wikipedia to find answers. This task proved very challenging for many of the students but it will be immensely important for whatever they do in the future so I hope that your teachers or future volunteers will continue having the students use the Internet to find new information, not just in the computer-science classes but in all subjects.
During the last weeks of my stay I introduced the students to Google sketchup. It was a huge success, much more than anything else I introduced them to during the first months because they were able to immediately understand the interface and start being creative, an those students still having trouble using the mouse and keyboard found a huge motivation to practice. Google sketchup is free and i tried to install it on most of the computers, I hope you will continue to use it with the kids and also explore its possibilities in teaching for instance geometry in math.
I had a few lessons teaching basic html and found that the students are very adept at learning to put together simple websites. Learning code by hearth is very much like learning facts by hearth which the students are used to. However understanding what html actually is, that it is the way you actually write a website, is immensely difficult and I hope future volunteers will take the latter as a challenge.
Internet access and equipment
Nirvana School has very good facilities, many computers, a reasonable Internet connection and backup batteries so the computers can still be used during the frequent power cuts. If you keep it maintained, and upgrade once in a while, your students have all they need to learn all about computer science.
I think it is very important that the students get to use the Internet as much as possible while spending time with the computers and I think that you should do whatever you can to ensure a stable connection. While I was staying at the school the Internet connection was turned off whenever Mrs. Samani would leave the school for her lunch and sometimes would not be turned on again in the afternoon. Thats a shame and I think you should try to keep it turned on at all times so students, teachers and volunteers can rely on the Internet connection and plan classes dependent on it.
I think you should encourage volunteers and teachers to work together more. Volunteers can benefit from having teachers help bridge the language barrier and teachers would be able to ensure that the work volunteers do at the school is not dropped to the ground when they leave.
Links and resources
- Wikipedia and Google for all things information
- Google Sketchup very intuitive free 3D modelling software
- Inkscape intuitive open source vector drawing program
- Gimp open source drawing progam, a lot more fun than paint
- Google earth browse the earth in 3D
- Mozilla Firefox / Chrome both way better than internet explorer, try to keep your browsers free of all kinds of toolbars and plugins, I found that they confuse the students a lot
- Open Office open source document editor, better than microsoft word
- Scratch an interesting visual programming language for kids, a good way to introduce the students to programming
- Ubuntu open source operating system, with lots of very good free educational programs and no virus headaches, I recommend you look into setting up any new computers with ubuntu instead of windows.
- w3schools a valuable resource for teaching html and web design
- OLPC One Laptop Per Child, Nirvana School could do a project with them. Talk to JV Avadhanulu firstname.lastname@example.org and Sudhir email@example.com they have done a project with OLPC in Auroville at Udhavi School
If I can be of help to you or any future volunteers please don’t hesitate to get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
I have deep respect for what you have accomplished at Nirvana School and all I have been able to learn myself staying with you. I wish you all the best and hope to come back soon.