Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Affordable Virtual Reality in Classrooms

“Life is a book and those who don’t travel read only one page.” I love this quote. While some kids are fortunate enough to travel from a very young age, a few other people start when they are much older and there are still some who have never stepped out of their houses even at 80. Travel makes you richer than a stable job and the experiences and people you encounter teach you much more than any classroom lesson. Just like field trips!

But what if you don’t have the budget for travel or the resources to organize a field trip?

Enter Virtual Reality through Google Cardboard- the cheapest way to augmented reality. With just 5$ and a smart phone you can walk on the streets of London, visit the Eiffel tower in Paris, see some oriental buildings in Tokyo, take a tour of an art exhibit at the Louvre and take a stroll on the sandy beaches of Indonesia, without stepping out of your classroom.

You don’t even need to buy google cardboard but can make it from scratch with an old cardboard box as Google makes its blue prints available for free on their website to encourage its use. The only extra items you need are 35mm convex lenses and a magnet.

Ebase is about making learning fun, interactive and keeping updated with the new technology out there. We used Google Cardboard in our Ebase classroom and the results were quite amusing. To see kids experience a roller coaster for the first time in their lives in 360 degrees, brings a smile on your face as it does on theirs. Some of them even experienced vertigo, and couldn’t take it after 2 mins of it. Some of them tried to grab onto things around them with the cardboard on. Everyone at school loves the Cardboard as even teachers fight over their turn to use it.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Exam Jitters even at 52

I’ve had this very uneasy feeling since morning. I couldn’t quite place my finger on it until I reached school. I was given the task of invigilating the 9th and 10th Class Board Exam (Essay-1).Since schools close for 4 months in winter in Leh, schools here give their Essay-1 exams in September, which has 50%  weightage in the final boards. 

Ruled long scape sheets, school seal stamps, pencil box checking, sharpened pencils, brand new erasers, refills and rulers- it all smells of nostalgia. What is it about ‘EXAMS’ that gives us jitters? Do you remember how much you scored in your 10th class Pre-Board Exams? Why does the Indian education system have to be so marks based? Is the topper of your school having the best job in the world right now? Does he not think about quitting it and following his offbeat passions? Do your marks say anything about your personality? Does it ensure life skills to survive out there in the real world?

How much of cramming for exams, is only for marks and how much of it is out of sheer interest of learning those facts? If I don’t know when the battle of Plassey was fought am I any less intellectual than you are? Could there be a future without exams?

My mother at 52, still has one recurring nightmare where she forgets her hall ticket at home and is not allowed to enter the examination hall, and every time she tells me that dream at the breakfast table, I thank my stars (after laughing at her for a while) for parents who never pushed me to get good marks (although they never had to coz I faired pretty decent) and always encouraged my every new whim and hobby.

In spite of all that here I am shushing kids in the exam hall, stopping them from cheating at an exam which won’t determine anything about their lives. Unless they take up Hindi literature as their subject for bachelors or become Bhodhi Pandits. Either way invigilating for an exam sure is a uniquely ironic experience. Especially when you know their every trick in the book, having been there done that, but now it is your turn to put on a straight face and a grim stare to stop them from cheating.  

A Birthday to Remeber

10th September 2016

Being the younger one, my birthdays have always been a big deal at my place. Every year since I can remember, we use to start planning party games, make custom made invitations, have return gifts wrapped and decide on the menu from a month in advance. As I grew older there was always a surprise cake cutting at 12 from one group or another, followed by a series of pre and post parties from a week in advance. There used to be at least 30 invitees, and my 21st birthday had about 40! The past few years it’s been a little mellow, though; maybe, because I am getting older. 

I woke up this morning to a continuous chain of students knocking on my door to wish me happy birthday. And as I entered the dining hall for breakfast, the entire room sang happy birthday! We had an E-base origami session at 8 AM which was a freestyle-make-anything-you-want-spree. The idea was to see how many they can make on their own with instructions. Only a few of them managed to finish it with no help. Most of them got stuck at difficult folds. But most of them finished 3 in time for the assembly.

I had 3 substitution classes with class 6th so we all finished the mini Biogas Plant! It was a lot of fun. One group “M-sealed” the joints, the other painted it black and the last mixed the cow dung and water. It was great to see how the girls didn’t cringe even once while mixing it; even though the boys did and kept teasing them about it. But all in all we are very excited to see whether the experiment is successful after a week or not. Fingers crossed. Class 7th did a crash course in what they had been learning the past few days and I had a very serious chat with them how they are the only class who is not doing a project!
Class 5th was not at all in the mood to study today and they pleaded quite strongly that they wanted to watch videos today with a happy birthday song, which was hard to say no to. Class 2nd made an origami turtle, learnt about its self-defense mechanism with the moral Slow and steady wins the race! Just about very class sang happy birthday and I received a lot of handmade birthday cards. 

Now for the best part of my day: Dolma Ma’am met me three times during the day; once during the assembly, once she called me to her office to assign a task and once in the evening in the main office, and she didn’t wish me even once. I found it a little odd because we had had a conversation about this a few weeks ago, and all the kids in the school seemed to remember, but I just assumed she forgot. But right when I got back to the hostel for dinner around 7:30, I got a call from Gurmet asking me to be at the hostel gate in 5 mins and refused to answer any more questions even though he left me with some clues to think about. I thought something was fishy but still obliged. Within a few mins I got picked up by a car and was taken to Sambhodhi.

You guessed it! There was a big surprise birthday planed for me by Dolma Ma’am with 12 people, a cake with candles, a table full of snacks, finger food, salami and sausages, a wreath of flowers that I was made to wear on my head, gifts, song singing, cake smearing, party games, a formal dinner with a spread of delicacies and abundant love. It was the sweetest gesture from the MIMC team and they really made me feel a part of the family.

Dolma ma’am is the coolest principal in the world. She later told me; not wishing me all day was the hardest thing she had to do while planning all this on the side. It’s amazing how she manages to effectively lead an organization, fulfil her professional duties, beautifully bring up an 8 month old baby, spearhead teacher meetings, entertain international delegates and plan a surprise birthday party for a volunteer intern all in a day’s work! Most of all her humility about the responsibility that has been bestowed upon her, along with her kindness and tact towards people and everyday situations, makes her the most awesome principal ever!

All in all a wonderful birthday, even though it was spent away from family, it was like being with a larger family who made you feel as loved. 

Top Ten Fellowship Experiences:

#10. The people: My father was posted in Leh for two and a half years, away from family and his new born (me) and the one thing (and the only thing) he fondly recalls about Leh is how wonderfully courteous the people of Leh are. I now see why he says so. People here are so obliging that they go out of their way to help you, if you ask. I’ve hitch hiked my way to Leh city several times in the past month only because even strangers are so trust worthy. They always involve you in every celebration, every new gossip (coz not much happens around here), and keep filling you in with facts and trivia about their lovely city.

#9. Learn a new culture: Like with all my travels (and all travels for everyone) you learn of a whole new world you never knew existed. That’s why I like to mix my travel and work, because I believe one cannot possibly learn or absorb a culture in 2 or 7 days. “When in roam be roman” is my personal travel mantra.  From Ladakhi food, clothing, dances, songs, customs, traditions to movies- you learn it straight from the locals and get some real perspective.

#8.  Teaching the most diverse group of students: The kids I teach are the most diverse bunch I've taught yet. My class is has mix of hostel kids, day scholars, visually impaired kids, monks and nuns! Never did I ever think I'd teach a bunch of monks! who are both naughty and serene. And there is a boy in my class, who might not be able to see but plays the guitar like such a pro that it makes me want to quit my guitar. Every day during assembly I see a boy showing the way to our guitar friend till his line and I think to myself: if Empathy is the skill you want to instill in your child, this is where you should send them! While the People with Disability (PWD) Act 1995 and the Right to Education Act (RTE) reinforce the inclusion of differently able-ed children into mainstream education, how many schools actually implement this law? Mahabhodhi is diverse in that sense as it not only provides free education and boarding for rural kids who cannot afford it, but also creates an environment for development beyond classroom required skills by teaching monks, nuns and the visually impaired all under the same roof. This is what I call holistic education in the true sense.

#7. You learn to braid hair like a pro! Growing up as a tom boy I missed out on a few things. Staying with 150 girls has been a great time to catch up on those things. Ladkahi girls are amazingly skillful at tying hair in a 100 different knots and styles. If only we knew all these different ways of braiding hair, we wouldn’t have hated wearing two plates to school as kids. 

#6. The Milky Way galaxy every single night: That’s the sky I see every night.I kid you not!! 

#5. Stealing apples: There are some experiences which are priceless. Blowing bubbles at your dog, ice cream cones at midnight, dipping your fingers in paint, jumping off a swing when it’s at its peak- let you feel like a child again. The thrill of climbing the apple orchard fence and stealing apples while the warden is asleep is one of them.

#4. The view to work every day: It’s that one hill right in front of the school, the hostel and the playground that makes me pause and appreciate Nature every single day, every time I look up. That’s one thing that you can never get bored of. The mighty Himalayas have that power. #nature #profound


#3. Sweet tea 5 times a day: and not just any tea, but tea made with condensed milk instead of plain milk. I was never a tea or a coffee person and took pride in having stayed away from those addictions. After coming to Leh, I found myself addicted to tea right after my very first week. I am on detox, as I have switched back to green tea; but I do indulge in a cup of chai with the other teachers in the staff room every now and then. Tea time is a great way to socialize and get to know people you otherwise would not get a chance to spend time with here in Leh. kids drink tea here from the time they are 3 and it's weird for me since I didn't get used to it till 2 months ago, but as I understand your body needs that kind of calories for the weather here. 

#2. Momos and Thupkas: You can learn how to make Momos from the wardens in a biweekly special dinner session and enjoy other local delicacies like SKU, Timok, Thupka 3 times a week. Every week! Although, it can stop being a good thing after a while. :/ Get ready to eat some Momos the next time you meet me!

#1. The KIDS! The KIDS! The KIDS! I was saving the best for the last. In all of the above points, the kids are the pioneers. The smiles of the little ones, twirling them, holding hands and walking them to school each day, the endless hospitality of the older ones, early morning hair braiding sessions, late night ghost stories, wake up calls, breakfast, lunch, dinner table conversations- they are all worth it, and more. They drive you nuts, but make up for it ten times more in magnitude.  

Monday, 21 September 2015

Teen Rebellion

If you think preparing for a boardroom presentation is difficult, try delivering a class to a bunch of 13 year olds!

Do you remember the time you were a teenager? It was so easy to hate everything around you, feel victimized all the time and never feel heard or understood. Class 7 has the most unruly boys in the whole school, notorious for their rebellion with every teacher. I experienced their hostility driven by their raging hormones in my very first class with them when I sent a bunch of them out of my class for their rowdy behavior, only to find all our 30 pairs of shoes, which were lined up outside class, scattered all around the playground and thrown onto the roof top of the school building. Let’s just say we didn’t start off on the best note.

I spent the next few weeks trying my best to motivate them, to talk about things that mattered to them, take on projects they were passionate about, engage them in meaningful conversations, make them open up in class and be more proactive with the experiments we did. But everyday seemed like it was a waste of my time, energy and effort with class 7 and there was no point losing my voice shouting at walls. They didn’t stop with their mocking funny noises, their back answers or their idle pondering in class. 

But suddenly one fine day something happened. They stopped. To think back, I can’t pin point this transformation to any one incident or event but I do vaguely remember it was right after a deep conversation I had with the entire class on my birthday. They were perhaps being nice to me because it was my birthday or something, and actually listened. But something stuck with them since that day and they’ve been doing phenomenally well in class ever since. It could also be the fact that the field trip was announced in that session and I left them to decide on their main project topic on their own. I was mighty excited when they told me they wanted to make a greenhouse on their return from the field trip.

And since then they have submitted a written report on the field trip (something they would've never done in a million years) and built a successful greenhouse that is still standing 3 days in. They took on the challenge with such gusto that all other teachers were shocked to see them going against their well set reputation of being the rebels of the school. It makes me immensely proud to see them redirect their energies to something as productive. They finished the entire project in less than 3 hours and in less than 30$. And to think this was the same group which threw my shoes on the top of the school building once.

My learning through this whole experience has been, it’s not about Behavioral Psychology or using “the incentive method” to get kids to do something. It comes down a simple rule-“They will do it if they want to do it”. Yes, that’s a no brainer. But the key is to make them WANT to do something by making the task fun and by trying your best to inspire them in every possible way, till you succeed. You can achieve it by trusting them enough to be the judge of what’s in their best interest, while treating teenagers like adults, with respect till eventually it turns into mutual respect.

From throwing my shoes onto the roof top to now taking selfies, we’ve sure come a long way! I only wish for the best things for this class, and more such projects. Man, am I going to miss them!

LOL! I love that guy's no-smile-straight-face in the back.

The Art of Project Based Learning

Project based learning or PBL is a modern day teaching methodology aimed at the 21st century learner practiced by making real world connections to the study topic, providing a structured collaborative environment, making it practical,  giving students complete ownership of the project and thus creating lifelong learners in the process.

But can PBL work in an Indian Classroom Scenario? I was a little skeptic about it until I figured out how. Baring the tier one elite schools or IB schools, most Indian schools lack the infrastructure needed to conduct independent/group research and are governed by a completely different set of socio-cultural rules compared to the west; which I do not necessarily mean in a bad way.

One of the biggest challenges for a mixed group is there is always a boy-girl divide. If you have studied in the Indian schooling system you will know exactly what I am talking about. Boys usually occupy the two extreme rows to the left and the girls occupy the two rows to the right. And their interactions are usually hostile, if at all. So to put them in the same group and ask them to work together to find a solution to a problem/task is like asking Tom and Jerry to make up. However, this is usually the case up till grade 6th after which things are a little less hostile but suddenly whole lot quieter than usual for a completely different set of reasons, which we won’t get into now. 

What is important for conducting a PBL session is asking the right questions. This is more difficult than you think; especially, if you are someone like me who likes to jump in and give her own inputs. You can try and pose your input as a suggestion but they will take it less like a suggestion and more as an ultimatum, out of the habit of letting the teacher have the first and the last word. So the key is to create an environment conducive to healthy discussions and enable mutual trust from the very beginning. Don’t be afraid to look stupid by asking illogical questions only to allow them to come up with sound reasoning to refute it. The process is much like conducting a design thinking workshop but with teenagers instead. Self-assessment is the most difficult part of PBL to implement with Indian students since it is deeply tied with self-awareness. It is also unfair to expect students to suddenly build all these qualities just for one class while all other subjects are conducted in the traditional rote method.

However, Ebase is different. Mahabhodhi is different. 

One thing Pahaadi kids (mountain kids) are great at is Jugaad innovation! It is deep rooted and comes naturally to them. These kids never fail to surprise me with their innovative makeshift solutions for every road block we face with projects. Class 6th has the most proactive students and our project was to make a working model of a mini biogas plant for which we needed some pretty complicated parts like a T-valve, a tire tube with an opened nozzle, a soldering iron etc. We made the entire project with spare parts that the kids found at the kabaddi walas’, at the hostel kitchen or in the guesthouse dumpster. The kids like their E-base sessions so much that they literally came back in their free periods and break time to submit tasks given to them the previous day.

The project on hand for the notorious class 7 students on our return from the field trip was to build a greenhouse from scratch with the basic material they were provided with. And they took on the challenge with such gusto that all other teachers were shocked to see them going against their well set reputation of being the rebels of the school. In fact they not only finished their challenge of making the greenhouse but really surprised me with their attention to detail when it came to digging holes, churning the soil with humus, blueprints of the plant beds, the steps they followed through the process, their reasoning behind each step and their degree of collaboration. They also considered a number of different designs for making it with 5 long PVC pipes. An igloo shaped greenhouse with light entering from every direction, many small green houses made with two pipes each or one big green house with all five pipes. They all took a vote and decided on a full size 5 pipe green house. They were also extremely efficient in executing the plan and had a standing structure in 40 minutes, tilled soil mixed with humus and charted beds by then end of the next period and soon it will have UV stabilized plastic and cabbage growing by mid winter. They finished the entire project in less than 3 hours and in less than 30$. And to think this was the same group which threw my shoes on the top of the school building once.

DAY 1:

Model 1: Igloo=  Rejected! 

Model 2: Mini box = Rejected!

Model 3:  Mambo Jumbo = Approved! 

Progress at the end of Day 1- the proud team. 

DAY 2:


All that's left to do is add a UV stabilized Plastic sheet and seeds to plant for this winter! 

Saturday, 19 September 2015

A Rendezvous With A Music Legend

The students of Mahabhodi never seize to surprise me with their innate talents. Every week I discover a new child prodigy with some new hidden gift. The kids are extremely active in cultural activities and all of them are very used to dressing up in traditional clothing and performing Ladakhi folk songs for the tourist who come visit our campus, as often as 2 times a week. This very routine keeps them deeply rooted to their traditions and heritage while music, dance and community get togethers’ form the backbone of the campus grounds.

A group of senior class students have a natural ear for music. Most of them discovered their inclination towards music when as young as 6 years old and each one has an interesting passion filled story to tell about their love for music. One of them narrated an anecdote of how he wanted to play the traditional Ladhaki drum, the Dhamal, so much as a child, that he would come back from cultural shows and pretend-play-it on tin cans just like their big bhayyas’ did. The students are also a part of a marching band which is one of the best in the city of Leh. For them music is everything, a stress buster, their identity, their passion and an out let for their feelings.

As a part of a project, the past two weeks, a group of senior students decided to bring about a musical revolution in their school and teach the junior class kids music with the idea of spreading their love for music. They wanted to initiate it with kids at a much younger age than when they learnt it themselves. They started out but soon realized that there were not enough musical instruments to teach a class of 30 and so they looked around and came up with an idea of turning waste materials into musical instruments. They believe that music is all around us all the time and urge people to notice it too. I love listening to these kids for hours and their passion filled stories bring me to tears. I kid you not!
Even at age 14 and 15 the kind of initiative they are demonstrating is tremendous. The head boy and the school council managed to pull off a week long project even with their Board exams starting in 5 days!! (If that was me I would’ve buried my face in books as I used to hate exams as a child.) They also invited the legendary musician, Sir Angchuk Ralam, also known as the flute man of Ladakh, to conduct a workshop on how to make innovative music with everyday items. Most famous for his MTV gig – Sound trippin’ with the song Juh leh, sir Angchuk Ley now works with the prestigious All India Radio Station, Leh; after having founded a local NGO, SECMOL and building it from scratch for 3 years.  It was humbling to see a man so famous be so down to earth and he inspired the students with stories about his childhood adventures, his struggles as a musician, his passions, the value of music and his words of wisdom. The kids learnt how to make a flute with PVC pipes, a Jal Tarang with china bowls and the idea of a coconut maracas. The workshop was followed by a free jam session with a melodious combination of traditional music instruments playing Tibetan Folk songs to later popular tunes of Bollywood.

The past week, the school has been enchanted in the musical tunes of Traditional Tibetian and Ladaki Folksongs, Amir khan’s Bum Bum bole, One Direction, Justin Bieber, Bob Marley, Classic Rock hits and Honey Singh. Jamming with buckets, dustbins, glass bottles, cardboard boxes and wooden sticks has been more fun than anything ever! Just being around them makes your soul come alive.  

Leaving you with images of the workshop. A video on the whole project to follow soon, stay tuned. 

Its not everyday you meet a celebrity so humble and inspiring