In mid-March of 2019 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I and many of my co-fellows of the American India Foundation’s (AIF) William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India faced a difficult decision: to continue our fellowship on-site in our host communities, or to return to wherever we call “home.” I decided to weather the unprecedented pandemic storm with my parents in Northern Virginia in the United States, boarding one of the last flights from Bangalore to Washington before international travel to and from India came to a halt for nearly six months.
I unexpectedly embarked on a totally new journey: completing the remaining four months of my fellowship project virtually, and helping out wherever I could to support my host organization as they navigated converting all of their education programs to remote learning in the hard-to-reach villages of rural Jharkhand. My host organization, Yuwa School, works with girls from impoverished families in rural Jharkhand, where they are at greater risk of child marriage and human trafficking. Yuwa uses team sports and education to build confidence, character, and courage in adolescent girls. It prepares girls to become leaders and to break the cycle of poverty, permanently.
As I documented in a June blog post, Operation Distance Education at Yuwa School was launched in April, and in May, I signed on to teach high-school English and Economics. In the next few paragraphs, I’ll share some lessons learned from helping to implement a remote education program in a rural area during the pandemic.
Unsurprisingly, the key to Yuwa’s success has absolutely been their team of trained, highly motivated teachers and enthusiastic and innovative students. Among students, I’ve witnessed first-hand moments of incredible resilience and struggle. Distance learning requires the student to possess a great deal of motivation, ability to collaborate with classmates, and access to reliable internet. A student’s motivation, communication skills, and internet are all highly connected to her home life – students with the smart phones often have the most supportive parents who are encouraging their studies, and are highly motivated to complete their assignments under minimal supervision. Other students lack the tech and support at home, and struggle to complete assignments.
In this environment, how can teachers create an environment where children who are already ahead continue to thrive, without leaving other students behind?
The answer to this question lies both in designing education materials that are universally accessible (something I’ve become quite familiar with thanks to work by my co-fellows Pallavi Deshpande and Anant Tibrewal) and in differentiation among students. Yuwa colleagues have developed many strategies to appeal to both principles over the years. Yuwa’s goal is to ensure that all materials are equitably accessible for every student. I say equitably because it’s actually not equal – while some students receive hard copies of their work packets, check-in calls every week to make sure they are keeping up with their work, and/or socially-distanced home visits and parent calls, others do not. In a recent teacher meeting, for example, teachers discussed participation of high-risk students across their classes and developed intervention plans for getting them back on track. Not every girl needs those resources – and that’s okay. For students who need additional challenge, teachers add bonus questions to assignments, or extra assignments to be completed over and above the week’s work. Students are still challenged, while all have the opportunity to participate if they choose.
What I have also learned throughout this pandemic is that the creativity of my students knows no bounds. For a recent English assignment, I asked students to choose from a list of 10 projects to complete over a 3-week period (after consulting their independent reading book). Some students completed all 10 projects; others submitted beautifully illustrated project anthologies, complete with cover pages (that I absolutely never specified!); others still got creative and incorporated drama, set design, poetry, and art into their work. Creating projects that compliment their artistic skills gets them off of their phones and engaging critically with the class materials.
In a similar vein, engaging activities that do not require intense Education Technology (EdTech), but lots of creativity and critical thinking, have been great in the classroom. For example, in my English classes, we’ve held debates over India’s recent TikTok ban, created alternate endings for assigned reading chapters, used household materials to create scenes from books, taken an in-depth look at India’s New Education Policy, and mimicked Rabindranath Tagore’s legendary poetry by writing “Where the Mind is Without Fear” poems. These assignments are not so different than what we might do in-person, but the delivery, deadlines, and checkpoints are more flexible, and keep in mind that students do not have consistent internet access. The pandemic has forced students and teachers alike to innovate and create, inspiring new projects with the materials right in front of us.
A final lesson I’ll share is the importance of community engagement and learning. Each day, Yuwa shares a “Challenge of the Day” for students and teachers to participate. Challenges can involve anything from creating artwork, completing a small task or exercise, speaking to someone in their household, or participating in school wide competitions and games. Recently, several girls submitted songs, artwork, and compilations for a school-wide celebration of Independence Day. I’ve included a shortened version of the video below.
In closing, I’m grateful for the opportunity to continue to be involved with my host organization as they navigate this new COVID-19 reality and as I begin the daunting task of figuring out my next steps, and to AIF and the Rural India Supporting Trust (RIST) for the opportunity to publish my learnings and perspectives on this blog.
“About Yuwa.” Yuwa-india.org. https://www.yuwa-india.org/#about. Accessed on November 9, 2020.
Hammaker, Jane. “Dimensions of Gender Inclusivity in Sports-Based Programs.” Intersectionalities in Development Practice: Approaches and Anecdotes. People-Powered Partnerships vol. 3. Ed. Jane Hammaker and Pallavi Deshpande. Gurgaon/New York: American India Foundation, 2020. 38-45. https://aif.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/PPP-Volume-3.pdf