Haplessly Embedded

For me, monitoring & evaluation is a push and pull between being social—getting to know the program team whose work I’m studying; and remaining solitary—reading, analyzing, writing. I’m fairly comfortable with the solitary side thanks to years of practice keeping my distance when evaluating organizations, and being introverted anyway. But this is my first time studying a social justice program (Bhasha’s Vasantshala, an alternative education program to address gaps for out-of-school children from tribal families) while living and working closely with the people who carry it out. On the one hand, the closer a relationship there is, the better you can understand the staff’s process and identify challenges and changes that make sense. On the other hand, building relationships takes a lot of time and is hard to ‘schedule,’ and being embedded makes me feel like I’m making trade-offs between doing objective research and feeling like a part of a team. I also find that the closer I get to the program, the more I question my research questions.

Let me back up a bit. My project is to study the extent that Vasantshala prepares its students to transition to government schools, and that such schools make use of Bhasha’s tribal language materials. My usual route has been to spend hours in the overflow library room that is my part-time workspace, get a grasp on education theories and promising practices in India, and compile data on past Vasantshala students, which is tedious but necessary. I can also observe the teachers’ classes and gain insight into how they and students interact, but there are language barriers. But recently, ‘work’ has shifted to playing games with the kids, lending my phone so they can take pictures, opening a blank document on my laptop so they can type their names. I can venture through the campus’ open spaces, interact informally with the teachers, and perhaps very slowly crack open our language and cultural divides. Maybe in this way I can better understand what the teachers value about their work, and what motivates or really enables kids from tribal families to stay in school.

Secret photo of the author
I was surprised to find this photo of myself on my phone. I thought the girls were taking selfies. Photo by Vasantshala students at Bhasha Adivasi Academy.

I know time spent on research will bring tangible benefits. So will interacting with the teachers and staff, but sometimes the benefits are harder to see. The time passes so quickly! How do you fit research between the spaces of roaming and relationship-building? Then again, there is a limit to how many inquiries about their processes I can make in a day. I can feel a quiet but perceptible drawbridge rise after a certain number of questions. I find myself wondering, how much is this due to their unwillingness to cooperate, or to me stumbling to build trust without speaking the same language?

Feeling thwarted in my attempts to get answers to my questions reminds me of a scene from Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (Rowling, 2005). In it, Harry takes a ‘luck’ potion that lasts for one night. In his quest to master a difficult task, which is also to get information from someone, he takes fortuitous detours, such as attending a social gathering. I have also found that turning my feet to walk through shared spaces on campus has led to experiences I couldn’t have predicted, though the outcomes are not yet known to me.

On one Saturday, a workday at Bhasha, I sat down on a bench in a patch of sun in the courtyard. After a few minutes, a few of the students told me they were going to a local temple (mandir) near Koraj Hill and asked the teachers if I could come. It was much more tempting than shutting myself in the library overflow room, so I left my backpack behind and came along. The teachers and students led me to new experiences: I tried to crack a coconut on a rock to give my offering to the temple, pushed my hands into birds’ nests woven as tightly as sweaters, spied two enormous bee hives hanging from one tree branch, and used a kickball to play volleyball. I also learned where the teachers pursued their post-graduate work. Nothing except the last part seemed relevant to my project. But, perhaps, something in that experience is shaping our trust for each other, or will manifest itself somehow in my work.

Birds' nests
The empty birds’ nests the kids found become decorations on campus. Photo by Lina Khan.

Another challenge (for me) is the manifold approach of Vasantshala. Vasantshala is an alternative, remedial and multilingual education program specifically for children at risk of remaining at the margins of society. In the 1920s, the Bengali writer and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore started an alternative education program of his own, called Siksha Satra. In Tagore’s words: “Here an attempt is being made to give an all-round education to village children and provide them with training which will not only enable them to earn a decent livelihood but also to equip them with the necessary training and creative imagination with which they help to improve the rural life of Bengal in all its aspects” (Kupfer, 2015, “Siksa-Satra”). The setting of his idea was on the opposite coast of India, but his note of idealism felt very familiar to me in Bhasha’s work. I recently visited Siksha Satra in Sriniketan, West Bengal to learn about the school’s approach currently. While a well-rounded curriculum continues to be valued, it no longer primarily serves children from families who are marginalized or face economic disadvantages. This isn’t to say that there aren’t other alternative education programs comparable to Vasantshala out there. But I’m having trouble drawing patterns from Vasantshala’s multi-faceted model.

I also want to focus on my research questions but understand the context as fully as possible. For example, I want to better understand how Vasantshala’s unique, yet complex, teaching approach prepares students to transition to an appropriate grade level at a government school. But there’s a broader context of not so great learning outcomes for the average student in a rural school in India, regardless of whether she is from a tribal family or has gaps in her schooling. Is it fair to expect Vasantshala students to excel academically beyond their peers? Also, from talking to friends who are teachers back home, teaching is hard. Teachers are asked to shape children and young people into ethical, hard working and critically thinking individuals. Maybe it’s too much to ask, and some teachers don’t try. In my experience, the Vasantshala teachers do try. Beyond academic outcomes, they want their students to be able to think for themselves. In monitoring and evaluation, sometimes the objectives get repeated so many times that you start to forget the people behind them. This is the first time that I’m having the opposite problem.

 

References

Kupfer, Christine. 2015. “Rabindranath Tagore’s Educational Ideas and Experiments.” The Scottish Centre of Tagore Studies. Retrieved January 24, 2018 from http://www.scots-tagore.org/education.

Rowling, J.K. 2005. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic.

 

Lina is excited to join Bhasha in its efforts to advance the goals of tribal communities, including helping educate kids in a nurturing environment and prepare them for a bright future. She is looking forward to meeting children, parents, and everyone else in her community, and using her limited Bengali to begin learning other Indian languages. Prior to the fellowship, Lina assessed federal programs in international trade, security, and environmental restoration for the Government Accountability Office, and supported monitoring and evaluation of democracy assistance programs for the National Democratic Institute. She has also volunteered with kids education programs in Washington, DC and with a water pipeline project with Engineers Without Borders in Cameroon.

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