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This Young Man’s Unique Ideas Are Challenging Traditional Teaching Methods

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By Sneha Kalaivanan:

Six years ago, Kushal Dattani found himself volunteering at a special needs school in Melbourne, Australia as a student pursuing his Masters in Finance. What began as an opportunity to gather work experience, helped him discover the passion that would drive him to join the Teach For India Fellowship and start his own organisation – ‘Samait Shala’.

“I was looking for an opportunity to work and my university counsellors suggested the school as a good option. I had never volunteered before and the environment was completely new,” says Kushal. He spent two days a week at the school working with students aged 4 to 12, and after a few month,s felt a strong connection to the kids. The school noticed it too, and offered him a more formal role, which he continued until 2014, when he completed his MA. Kushal then dedicated his time to the school as a full-time employee working on the operations side. He was put through professional development sessions and certification courses — “It’s when I realised how close I’d become to this sector,” he says.

“I loved what I was learning, but I started to question whether I could do more in the sector and didn’t want to be restricted to the role of special education teacher assistant,” he recalls. When Kushal decided he had to strengthen his commitment and expand the scope of his contribution, he moved to India in search of a program that would focus on development and children at the grassroot level. “I remembered reading an article about Teach For India online. I knew it would be the best fit for me – someone who wanted to know the education sector inside out,” he says. Despite the 180-degree career switch, there was no trepidation on the part of his parents, who were supportive of his choices — “They always trusted me with my actions and I’m really glad for that,” says Kushal.

Kushal was accepted to the 2014 cohort in Ahmadabad and he was soon standing before a class of first graders in a school that had just joined the Teach For India network (otherwise known as a first-year intervention school). “I thought that if I could just show them what excellence looks like, I’d change the system. But there were plenty of challenges — the school, the structures in place and my own mindset. What struck me the most was how many kids were way behind their grade level and I realised that not all of them moved forward at the same pace.”

1To Kushal, the parents were the most critical stakeholders in the children’s lives, “At a macro level, parents are the key drivers for a child’s growth. Most of these young children were from a migrant community, where people wanted their kids to be education. It was also one where parents weren’t aware of how they could help their kids, despite being literate. They weren’t empowered with an idea of what an excellent education looks like,” he explains.

For the rest of his Fellowship, Kushal made every effort to show people what excellence looks like so that they would go beyond imploring kids to “just study well.” Through home visits, he introduced the concept of a good parent-teacher meeting, and taught parents how to support their children regardless of their academic abilities. He also spent time with the school management committee to persuade them to match the investment and progress the student’s parents had made in his first year at the school. In his second year, the school management committee responded in kind. “They corrected structural problems, addressed rampant teacher absences and became much more organised. For example, I used to come to campus on weekdays and see that the school was sometimes off, because the ground was being used to host a wedding! That kind of thing stopped and through small initiatives like student monitors and child safety protocols, we managed a huge turnaround,” recalls Kushal.

In class, he stressed values and exposure while managing to achieve an 80% improvement in academics for his students! “I focused on independence, honesty and respect for each other and self,” Kushal says. With help from his program managers, he adopted new techniques to cater to each child’s differentiated learning needs. One successful method was creating a leveled library, with help from Pratham, an NGO that focuses on reading. Each child was assigned a reading objective to match their abilities and books were organised accordingly for easier accessibility. During parent-teacher meetings, he encouraged parents to check Hindi and comprehension homework, which eventually contributed to an improved grasp of language among the students.

3-1“I remember Rashmi, one of my students, who would barely acknowledge me in the classroom. When she did, she couldn’t repeat what was said in class — she had a short attention span. It took me about four months to understand how her mind worked. She was always silent and never articulated. I worked with her parents and advised them on creating supportive structures at home. And to stop hitting her if she failed to grasp a concept. Her father began teaching her for an hour after work every day and she started to opened up more. Her parents changed and she changed,” shares Kushal.

In the second year of the fellowship, most fellows channel their energies toward setting up an initiative or organisation to combat a chronic problem they’ve observed in their community, known as a Be The Change Project (BTCP). “I knew that we needed to do more to help kids at different learning levels, because it affects at least 20% of any class. And I saw it both within Teach For India classrooms and outside” says Kushal. His response was to form a Google site with information on tell-tale symptoms of kids with common challenges: dyslexia, ADHD, fine motor skills and others. He also included strategies to help educators and parents address these individual needs. The result was Kushal’s project — ‘Samait Shala’ — built through detailed research, conducted with three other 2014 fellows, from inter-disciplinary academic resources, assistance from the school he volunteered with in Australia and more.

Fellows quickly adopted ‘Samait Shala’ techniques and improved Kushal’s platform by providing feedback through in-class videos and at his individual workshop sessions, where he taught practical application. Today, ‘Samait Shala’ is Kushal’s full-time focus and he’s committed himself to a bold vision: “We want to design mass teacher training curriculum for mainstream schools too, not just for select groups of students or niche schools. This is my (only) plan and my goal is to make this organisation sustainable,” he says. Ultimately, ‘Samait Shala’ aims to be a critical tool in the process of developing all children holistically.

As he reflects on his choices from before the fellowship until today, Kushal shares this: “Every child has the potential to achieve anything irrespective of their backgrounds and the difference lies in the opportunity they get. It’s our duty to bring this to them as they are our future. Wherever you find a chance to do this, take it, don’t stop yourself!”

The path to providing an excellent, and inclusive, education to children across India is a long and grueling one. People like Kushal are a source of hope for those students who are struggling to realise their potential, because they’re working to create a more supportive environment for these kids, one initiative at a time. Kudos to Kushal for leading the way by making bold decisions that are giving kids everywhere the chance to do the same.

Applications to the Teach For India 2017-19 Fellowship program are now open. Please visit our website to submit your application.

Written by Sneha Kalaivanan – Associate, Communications, Teach For India.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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