Why Kids are full of surprises!

– By Vysakh Sethumadhavan, Volunteer at Tejasvita

We all love surprises. Day in and day out, we crave for them and wish that they always come to us unexpectedly. We wouldn’t like to risk predicting surprises, lest they don’t happen. Some people like surprising more than being surprised. And some are ever-surprising – they never cease to amuse you, inspire you or even charm you out of your wits. At the end of this blog, you wouldn’t be surprised that I was trying to tell a tale about these two sets of people 🙂

It has only been 4 years since I have started working in the corporate sector. I was a student until then. Being a student, going to school/college was never the most exciting thing to do. However, that notion changed once I graduated. In fact, I started to love visiting schools so much that I would spend hours in classrooms doing nothing but listening to how students and teachers interact. My mind felt fresh, vibrant and lot more positive after spending time in classrooms. 

Recently, as a volunteer at Tejasvita Trust, I grabbed an opportunity to visit one of their preschool classrooms. What interested me were the take-aways every student would have at the end of each class but what impressed me were the take-aways every teacher had at the end of each class about all her students. 

As I stepped into the classroom, I observed little kids helping the teachers to bring the class in order. It spoke volumes in terms of what they wanted to achieve out of the class. Their curiosity to learn supersedes any kind of distraction. The 25 odd students participated keenly as their teachers took them through a journey of rhymes, hands-on activities and stories. Based on the stories the teachers narrated to them, these young minds were asked to think and come out with solutions for the problems faced by various characters of the story. Many of the solutions suggested by these 5 year olds took the teachers by surprise. Given that one of the goals of the Tejasvita Preschool program is to help children speak in English, what I liked the most was the fact that every student tried to convey their ideas in English rather than sticking to their mother tongue. Profound enthusiasm and simple innocence in their way of approach made my heart feel light.

To these young boys and girls, activities were seen as a means to express themselves without any restrictions. I could see various colours being splashed all over their work and I could not see any child restraining to express herself. Many kids were more than happy to share their colours and help their friends in colouring their pictures. While interacting with them, one of the kids who was helping her neighbouring friends with crayons said, ‘She always makes space for me to sit when I come to class, so I always give her crayons so that she can make a beautiful picture.’ Trust me that line made my day. Until then, I had considered schools and institutions to be temples of rat race. Unwanted competition, constant desire to stay at the top and the desire to be perfect at whatever you do is what drove me right from my kindergarten days. Maybe these kids were driven by something else. I thought of checking with the teachers as to what makes these young children love what they learn. 

‘[During art activities], students are never told what to do, how to do or even why they have to do. We just don’t want them to stop.` quoted one of the teachers at Tejasvita. Easier said than done, I decided to dig a bit deeper into what she said. At Tejasvita, the environment is set up to help children feel the joy of learning rather than understand what they are learning. Teachers feel that preschool kids lose out on the opportunity to explore learning further if the focus is only on what they are learning. They often lose interest in exploring how to learn while growing up, owing to various pressures beginning from school curriculum to exams to parents to peer pressure etc. Instead, if they are inspired to love learning it could be used anytime to learn anything from scratch. Knowing how to have fun while learning pushes the student unknowingly to explore each and every facet of what they are learning,  in-turn transforming them into better equipped individuals.

But to setup such an environment, is no easy task. At Tejasvita, a pre-school learning calendar is developed every month where every teacher gets to know what activities to do each day. The teachers constantly take efforts to ensure that children have choice, can move around in the classroom and lessons are activity based. Rather than focusing on grasping the topic, Tejasvita requests their teachers to hone the curiosity of the children by engaging them in various activities such as listening to stories, music, art and hands-on thinking activities and activities to build empathy among them. To achieve this level of integrity, a classroom of about 30 children has 3 teachers assigned, so that every child gets individual attention. Every student is evaluated on four different learning goals by the teacher herself without ever subjecting the child to any tests or exams and the fear of it – Communication, Collaboration, Critical thinking and Creative thinking. This helps the teacher understand the important focus points of the child to build upon. 
To conclude, my take-aways from this wonderful experience are largely going to impact the way I see or perceive the challenges concerning me. When a teacher makes herself free for her students, she is not just willing to share her wisdom and experience but is also sowing the seeds for a newer and better tomorrow. Her students are going to be the torch-bearers of these inputs generating evergreen learners for generations to come. My earnest desire is to be one of these torch-bearers who could if not inspire, at least surprise people by sharing my child-like curiosity 🙂

Good Day!

Building Strong Brains

– BY GAYATHRI TIRTHAPURA, TRUSTEE AT TEJASVITA TRUST

We start every academic year with a month long training program for all teachers,  so that we learn new concepts, equip ourselves with tools and resources and incorporate new ideas into our preschool intervention. On one such morning during this year’s training in June 2019, the teachers arrived to a surprise! We were going to play a collaborative game to understand young children’s brain development better. The Brain Architecture Game designed by the Harvard Center for the Developing Child is perfect to understand how young children’s brains develop for success or failure later in their life. 

Let me first briefly explain how this game works. This is a game of chance where teams of adults build pretend brains containing the neural circuitry based on the first five years of a fictitious child’s life, using simple materials like pipe cleaners and straws. The goal is to build a strong and tall brain that is capable of learning new skills and which can withstand the stresses of life from her sixth year onwards. Through the roll of dice or by drawing life experience cards,  the players get either stronger or weaker materials for building their brains. For example, a stronger material is won if the child has a strong genetic makeup or has many positive social supports in the family or has positive experiences during the first five years of life; the positive experiences could be from growing up in language-rich environments, having highly skilled and loving caregivers, living in safe and friendly community and so on. The team gets weaker materials to build the pretend brain if the child has weaker genetic makeup or fewer social supports or if they have many stresses in their lives like domestic violence at home,  severe neglect of basic needs, caregiver substance abuse, premature birth and so on.  Once the foundational neural circuitry of the first five years are built using the materials they get, the team tests the pretend brain with stresses of life (represented by small weights). The brains either collapse or stand stable,  depending on how strong the foundational neural circuitry of the first five years is. 

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Teams of teachers played the game with great enthusiasm and built five different pretend brains. We then reflected on the experiences we had while building the brain and had a discussion. Here are a few of the main insights we got from the discussion. 

  • Firstly, the super importance of the first five to six years of a human life became plain obvious – and this is something that neuroscience research in the last few decades has prominently highlighted. 
  • It’s fairly common knowledge that positive experiences strengthen the foundation of the brain. But if there are strong negative experiences during the first years of life, strong social and/or caregiver support was a deciding factor in whether the children’s brain became strong enough to withstand the stresses later in life and focus on learning. The more stresses the children faced in their first years of life without strong social or caregiver support, the weaker their foundational neural circuitry was. And the weaker the circuitry was, the faster their brain collapsed with the stresses from sixth year onward. 
  • It was definitely possible to strengthen the circuitry even after first few years by retrofitting the foundation with stronger materials. But it came at the cost of not being able to build a tall brain – a taller brain represented a child with higher cognitive, physical and social-emotional skills. 
  • What was also pleasantly surprising for us, was the fact that children who were born with a weak genetic makeup (and hence weaker neural base) were able to surmount the challenges presented by it and build a strong foundational neural circuitry with the help of strong social supports and caregivers. 
  • In summary, lots of positive and stimulating experiences and strong social supports and caregivers during the first six years of life are the key to building strong brains that will lead to success and lifelong learning.

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Playing this game was like opening a blackbox called the brain and exploring the components inside. It helped us understand the necessary and important role we Tejasvita teachers play as social supports in the lives of children we work with. We understood that, yes, playing this role is helping build stronger foundations in their brains. A strong and effective social support or a caregiver is someone who is unconditionally responsive and supportive to the child’s needs, who provides a stimulating and developmentally appropriate environment to the child and invests time and effort in building coping skills in the face of adversity. 

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We come across many learning and behavioural challenges in Tejasvita’s preschool classrooms, triggered by many life challenges that the children face. In the past five years, we as a team have focused on giving a rich and stimulating environment for the children through our play based approach. We’ve also strived hard to build a program that caters to the social and emotional developmental needs of the children through our child-centric approach. We have incorporated many best practices from proven child-centric classroom approaches like choice, purposeful movement, positive discipline and so on. Music based activities, free play, process based art, read-alouds of world class books, building critical thinking skills through hands-on activities, learning through storytelling are all part of our curriculum. We also regularly build their cognitive and social-emotional resilience by offering the right level of challenges based on their individual abilities.

After playing the Brain Architecture Game, it was heartwarming to know that we are working in the right direction. Yet the question for us has always been, as to how we can progress from strength to strength and make improvements to our preschool intervention every year. Following are a few examples of new ideas we’ve introduced this academic year. We would like to be more ‘present’ for the children so that we can cater to their needs better. In order to do this, we are increasing our group mindfulness and self-care practices as a team. We have also increased activities that are designed to increase the level of their brain’s Executive Function. These are fun activities that build their working memory, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility and which help in retrofitting their neural circuitry for a strong foundation. Certain kinds of music and related activities have been proven to have a positive effect as well and we have now integrated them into our program. As a team, we have also managed to attract many committed, passionate, responsible and educated adults from privileged communities to work with these children. 

We feel very fortunate and grateful to be able to work with the children. They give us their utmost love and trust us everyday that we are with them. We also feel deeply responsible for their future and would like our six hours a week with them to be impactful so that their brains become stronger. Playing the Brain Architecture Game was simple and fun but also deeply insightful for us. It has helped us move through the planning and implementation of our preschool program with a new rigour. In the process, we also hope to learn and grow and make our own brains stronger. 

Letting Children be – The Twins’ tale

– By Bindu, Teacher at Tejasvita Trust

It is the beginning of another academic year- a new start and a new window of opportunity  Though we teachers equip ourselves with elaborate training and relearning/unlearning, the children do not fail to surprise us, every now and then.  

As we Tejasvita teachers spend only a limited amount of time i.e six hours a week with the preschool children, it becomes very important for us to make this time very effective.  Sometimes, this “limited time” aspect can be stressful on the teacher, as we would ideally like to deliver all that we have planned within this time. But thankfully, since the children are oblivious to all these “limitations”, very often they teach us the important lesson of going with the flow, through their playfulness.  This happened to me recently during “Circle Time” with the children.

IMG_0325We always begin our session with “Circle Time”.  This is the time we use to transition children from their conventional classroom scenario to our Tejasvita ambiance. And during the beginning of the academic year, we ensure that children get comfortable with us and the transition, by singing out their names, using puppets and giving a personalized greeting. We teachers also get to know the children and their names during this time.

In a pre-primary class, we sometimes struggle to differentiate children if they have similar names, since children at this age do not take their names as seriously as we adults do.  But this year, our challenge became a tad more challenging – we have two identical twins in our class , Vaishnavi and Vaibhavi and nobody in school, including themselves, could tell us one from the other.  We tried calling out their names frequently to see who responded first, thereby giving us a small clue. But this effort yielded different results every time. Totally confused, we went to their class teacher hoping to get some help.  She told us that the only difference between them is that one of them wears an earring in one of the ears. But was the girl with the earring, Vaibhavi or Vaishnavi, we still had no clue. 

So, one day after class, when I took one of them aside and asked her if she was Vaishnavi, she said no. “Vaibhavi?”. She again shook her head in the negative.  As I wondered how a child could not know her name, I got an idea. This time I asked the child what her mother calls her at home. I was in for a surprise when she told me, “Vismaya”.  “What about your sister” I asked. “Vinaya”. I then realized that these were their “pet” names at home. Now I know the real size of the challenge that we were facing. Four names for two identical children with only one earring as a clue. 

Not willing to give up, the next day during Circle time, I called “Vaishnavi” out of turn to see who will respond.  The twins who were chatting and playing with themselves till then, looked at each other, passed a naughty grin between them and looked at me simultaneously.  It was as if they had a silent pact to keep this identity crisis, unresolved.  

As I closed the attendance register, I could not help smiling at these two naughty faces.  “Letting Children be” is an important part of our Tejasvita philosophy and these twins reminded me of that, once more. And they also reminded me that, logistics could always wait.

If life could be interesting as an identical twin, it is more so for a preschool teacher. 

What does it take to teach children to love learning?

– By Gayathri Tirthapura, Trustee at Tejasvita Trust

Arokya, a 5 year old boy was diligently working on the activity of the day – sorting pictures of fruits by both the type of fruit and the colour. As he sorted and stuck these 12 fruit pictures to his heart’s content on a piece of paper in a 6*2 matrix format, he seemed confident of what he was doing. He was also completely engrossed and seemed at peace doing this activity. He fearlessly got up to request for more glue and sat down to complete the rest of the activity. With great pride, he handed over the finished work to the teacher.

The teacher beamed at the finished work and having realized that there was a mistake in the sorting, gently asked Arokya, “What color is this?”, pointing to one of the fruit pictures.

“Red” Arokya answered.

The teacher then pointed to rest of the pictures in that column and before she could ask anything more, Arokya started laughing and took his finished work back to his spot. He had realised his mistake. He had sorted that one picture wrong. He corrected it, all the time laughing at himself and his silly mistake. The rest of the children doing their activity around him were engrossed in their own sorting battles and didn’t seem to be bothered by this episode.

One of the things I love doing every week is to visit a few of the preschool classrooms we work in, in the urban low income communities of Bangalore, India. It’s hard to imagine the kind of backgrounds these children come from. Being children of house maids, truck drivers and many other low paying and/or unstable professions, they represent some of the poorest in the country. Conditions are hard at home but their parents have decided that their children will have a better future. They have chosen affordable private schools (APS) for their children’s schooling where we, a non-profit organisation run our preschool supplementary program to support the existing early childhood classrooms. Our program is holistic and supports the cognitive, physical, social and emotional development of a child.

As I survey the classroom consisting of 36 children and 3 teachers, all absorbed in sorting, I can’t help but feel awed by how the teachers have accomplished this feat of engaging everyone in learning. Just 7 weeks ago when we started classes for this academic year, we struggled to set the classroom expectations with the children. Back then, they seemed to have very low entitlement, survival instincts were high, they were not willing to share or take turns and more than a few even resorted to aggression when things didn’t go their way. Back then, learning cognitive skills in such an atmosphere seemed like a far away dream.

Working in the early childhood space for about 10 years now has convinced me that being a teacher for young children requires a big heart, patience and stamina more than any other skill. You may have a great curriculum and lots of training in pedagogy but it can only take you so far. This is especially true if you are trying to build lifelong skills and values in children. The child watches his/her teacher’s every move and absorbs the vibe – is she excited about this activity she is doing with me, is she angry that I made a mistake, did she get irritated because I kept calling her again and again without waiting for my turn, did she cheer the other child up when he was sad, did she help him when the other child hit him. These vibes in the classroom shape the child’s mood and hence the motivation to learn. The longer teachers can create a good vibe in the classroom, the more steady learners the classroom will have.

I think of all the different things a teacher has to do simultaneously in the classroom to create the right vibe. She has to engage children with the right level of challenges based on their abilities, scaffold each child’s learning, while at the same time handling challenging behaviours of children patiently and be cheerful and excited about the activities all through the session.

As Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist once said, “The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child” . It is this warmth that can shape the motivation of a child to learn. On this teachers’ day,  I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the teachers at Tejasvita and across the world for their passion, commitment and the warmth they carry in service of the holistic development of children.

 

A journey towards learning and confidence

– By Rewati Karmarkar , Teacher at Tejasvita Trust

In my four years at Tejasvita, so many children’s faces flit through my mind as I remember them with a smile on my face. Some I “meet” even now, as they have become “seniors” in their school- first and second graders. I say meet, but its more like being totally engulfed in little arms trying to encircle me to the point of being in danger of losing my balance. I just can’t help but reprimand… and laugh at the same time.

One of these children is a boy named Lohith.

Lohith is one of twins. When I first encountered him in our preschool program, he was a bundle of energy and both he and his twin would be running all over the class. It would be difficult to get their attention…and keep it!! They were a team – with his brother Likhith being the more energetic of the two and leading them into mischief. The only time both would sort of settle down was during “Free Play”.

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Free Play is a process, we at Tejasvita, have once every week. We arrange different activity materials like puzzles, blocks, thinking games, beads, pretend play material like kitchen set, tool set etc. The children can pick up anything they want, explore, use, play and exchange it for a different one. This is the most popular activity for children and teachers alike. This is simply because of the informality of the process. Personally, some of my most memorable interactions with children have been during this time. Something to be said for responsibly used freedom.

Anyway, back to Lohith. Initially, he would pick up the tool set and his brother would pick up some blocks regularly. They would try to monopolize these during the complete session. In one such session, they didn’t manage to get the tool set. I offered the “Lion and Mouse” story book ( which was kept as part of the free play) to Lohith. He reluctantly took it. I sat with him and we started looking at the pictures. I asked him about them. The story had been narrated earlier in class using the same book. So he was familiar with the pictures and also the story. Initially he was hesitant but when we came to the part where the lion laughs, he laughed the same way as we did in the narration of the story earlier. He slowly began to get involved in the story. His brother, in the meantime, had secured the tool set and was calling him to join. I expected Lohith to immediately keep the book away and join him. But wonder of wonders, he continued sitting with me with the book. He would look at a picture and say a word he had heard in the narration associated with it. He finished the book with me. I thought, that was a good start. He would surely, go to the tool set now. But another wonder, he brought “The Thirsty Crow” book next and sat with me.

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From then onwards, in every Free Play he started with books and then slowly started exploring other materials. He saw a 20 piece sunflower puzzle one day. It was a tough puzzle as there was no reference picture – just a bunch of similar looking puzzle pieces in a bag. He brought that to me and said “How Miss?” I sat with him.  “See, this has a brown part, but other is missing… which piece will fit? “ And we went on. After guiding him for a while, I got up to go to another child. I kept glancing to see how he was doing. I half expected him to give up. But he just kept at it and he was left with 2 pieces which were not fitting easily. I thought he would call me. But he continued to struggle and finally he finished!!!!

I still vividly remember that face smiling from ear to ear, so much pride in the achievement. He took my hand and led me to his place. I wished I could have kept that solved puzzle just like that.

Since then, while he still had his occasional “energetic” moments with his brother, somewhere within he had changed. He was more confident and was more involved. He started taking more care even in explorative tasks, planning and thinking.

He still grins from ear to ear whenever he sees me in school. Once, he held my hand as he walked with me and asked “How are you Miss?”  

What can I say? I am super lucky to be able to receive so much uninhibited love from all OUR children!!!

Where the mind is without fear

– By Karthika Vijayamani, Teacher at Tejasvita Trust

It was a Monday. A stations day for us. It is the day we give children a choice of explorative art activities to do. We teachers set up our stations as usual. One station had the vegetable printing activity. The station had a variety of cut vegetables children could pick, dip in colours and print on paper. Children enthusiastically came to pick their tray of vegetables and colours and set to work. Darshan (name changed) completed his first sheet of vegetable prints and went to the teacher to get a refill of paints and sheets. He then happily went back to his spot to resume his work but, oh no his vegetables had gone missing. I watched him, wanting to see how he will react. Will he make the choice to come up to the teacher and tell about the missing vegetables? Will he cry? What will he do?  

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Darshan is a child who keeps very much to himself and is very reluctant to come to the teachers for anything. I was keen on seeing his response. I watched him from across the room, anticipating a response. Not bothering about the vegetables anymore, he started dipping his own fingers in paint and making prints on his new sheet. ‘Nice move!’ I thought as I went on with my work.

A little while after, two very excited kids who were walking  about in the classroom came up to me and very enthusiastically guided me to Darshan. They pointed to Darshan and said “Ma’am see, see” pointing to his fingers, which were all covered in different coloured paints. They went on to point how messy it was and trying to bring to my attention that Darshan was doing something totally different from what he was meant to do with paint, paper and colours. They looked at me with wide mischievous eyes, with a hint of pride like an alert citizen who had warned the policeman of a trespasser, waiting to be applauded for their act and also waiting for me to admonish Darshan for his. Darshan stopped his work and looked at me. I looked at him and encouraged him to continue his work. Two things happened then. One, a big smile of relief from Darshan. Two, quizzical smiles pasted on two highly bewildered faces of the other two boys totally surprised at the turn of events.  Soon, everyone was back to doing their work.

After the class as we were packing up the things and were about to leave. Darshan came up to me and said,  “Bye ma’am” and waved a good bye. That was the first time he had ever approached me by himself and said something. Class had gone on like usual and the above incident would have gone unnoticed as a part of usual class if not for that small wave of hands and that smile of confidence from Darshan. It was such a small incident and maybe it took all of 5 minutes but it made a difference to someone’s confidence. I am hoping that it also helped Darshan’s friends to realize that they are also free to explore.  

Exploration happens when the mind is free – free of boundaries, free of fear and free to soar. We strive to keep our classrooms that way. And sometimes if we are lucky, we get to see the baby steps happen on an ordinary day, in the usual hustle of the classroom, in a smile and gentle wave of multi-coloured fingers.

 

 

 

A story of transformation through art and empathy

– By Bindu, Teacher at Tejasvita Trust

It was a usual day when we teachers went to school, bags loaded with materials and our minds full of ideas for the session that day.  As we entered the school gate, we could see children eating their snacks and playing around.  There were always a few of them who would spot us from far and come running to hug us.   This greeting would be enough for us, to forget the weight of the baggage that we carry, the physical and the mental one.

That day, as I hugged them all, I was surprised to see Vishu’s (name changed) face in that group.  He usually belonged to the indifferent few.  Vishu had a broad smile and looked at me as if he wanted to tell me something.  He then held my hand and took me to the class room.  I decided to follow him.  

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When we reached the class room, he pointed upwards to the peg, where we regularly hung the Children’s art work.  He pointed out to one sheet, which was his and said, ‘tree’.  I took the sheet and decided to sit with him for a moment, as he excitedly tried to tell me what he had painted on the sheet, while the other teachers were setting up the class.  When I looked up, I could see Poornima’s (name changed) eyes welled up with tears. Poornima was Vishu’s mother, who worked as the teacher’s help in the same class. Poornima would have sure realised what I did just then, that Vishi had come a long way in these couple of months.

I could not forget the sense of pride on Vishu’s face the rest of the session that day.  Never knew that a small act of exhibiting the children’s work, can do so much to their sense of self-worth.

I was reminded of the initial few days of our session, when it was difficult to get Vishu to sit in one place.  There was a lot of aggression on his petite face, too much for a face that is only four years old.  He would always be walking around, pulling and pushing his peers.  I could never get him to make eye contact, while I spoke to him.   Whenever he was given a choice to select a toy or an activity, he would always choose to snatch what someone else had taken.  His span of attention was barely a few seconds.  His mother’s continuous lamenting and yelling at him in his mother tongue, only made matters worse. Though I could understand her insecurity as a mother, I donned the teacher’s hat and told her not to hover around the son or admonish him while we are around.  Thankfully, she withdrew.

IMG_8291.jpgI was confident when I expected a gradual change in him and we three class teachers worked towards the unsaid agenda.  The first time we took paint to the class, was when I noticed Vishu spending a few uninterrupted minutes on his work.  I still remember the look of glee on his face when he dabbed his hands in paint and looked at me.  Gradually I could see a sense of anticipation in him, as we took something novel to class, every day.  He would eagerly peer into our bag as we did the initial circle time. He must have realised that he enjoyed the colour pencils, the play dough, the sticking, the cutting and the colouring also, because I could now see him engaged for most of the time during our session.  I was rest assured, that art was giving him the much-needed ventilation.

The day we took the play dough, he came and asked me for the star mould, which was used by another kid.  I told him that I was very happy that he asked me for it, instead of snatching it from the other kid and that he had to wait for some time.  He went away after a while, since the other kid did not show any sign of returning the mould.  I got busy with the other children, when Vishu came running to me again and said ‘star’.  I was about to tell him once more that he had to wait, when I happened to look at the writing pad that he held up to show me.  He had made a star without the mould and was smiling from ear-to-ear.  I held him close and both of us looked at the star for some time. Other than making a star without a mould, he had also learnt the skill of patiently waiting for his turn, I told myself.

The sound of the school bell brought me back to the present.  I just could not stop smiling that day.  I realized, once again, that our small gestures for these small lives, is making a big impact, most of the time.  Thankfully, we are being given these opportunities every day.