A Virtual Learning Experience (Part I)

By Srijita Chakraborty | Sept 10, 2019

A Gurgaon-based volunteer shares her experience of teaching spoken English online to a group of 17-year-olds in a home for destitute girls in West Bengal.

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I first came to associate with the Khadijatul Kubra Girls’ Mission (KKGM) in February 2019. It is a girls’ school located in Bagnan, in the Howrah district of West Bengal. Besides functioning as a regular school for Muslim girls, it is home to 540 destitute girls from in and around Kolkata. As a volunteer, I was assigned to a group of 17 girls from class X – a spirited lot of 15-year-olds eager to go beyond their curriculum to sharpen their spoken English skills. I was to be their tutor. I am a working professional residing in Gurgaon, so, how would this work?

Background

The Ann Foundation partners with KKGM, among other schools and orphanages globally, to provide online English and computer classes to disadvantaged children and youth. The foundation connects volunteer tutors globally with these schools virtually. Successful young professionals are increasingly becoming aware of the roles they can play in giving back to society, but often struggle to act on this desire owing to time or geographical constraints. The Ann Foundation effectively dismantles these roadblocks. It simply finds a keen volunteer, anywhere in the world, and connects him/​her virtually to one of their partner schools.

Sometime late last year, I had the urge to do something meaningful with my free time. I have been associated with teaching activities since my college days. Earlier, while working in Mumbai, I’d been associated with the Udaan Foundation and taught Economics to underprivileged college students, residing in the slums of Powai. But since I moved to Delhi, I hadn’t managed to find a suitable opportunity. Delhi had its own challenges. I felt less safe travelling to far-flung areas of the city. I was also married, which meant I had more social obligations than before.

Citing all of these excuses, I had been putting off my search for a volunteering organization. It was around this time that I heard about the UN Online Volunteers from a friend. I swiftly applied to a host of online teaching opportunities on the website. About a month later, I got a call from the Ann Foundation. They had received my application and were keen on taking it forward. Given my ethnicity, they decided I’d be a good fit with their West Bengal project – the KKGM school. I was given the requisite orientation and asked to observe another teacher’s class as part of my onboarding.

The Ann Foundation runs classes every day for different grades. I had indicated weekends as my preferred option and was allotted class X. I teach 7 – 8 pm on Saturdays and Sundays. The virtual nature of these classes makes it convenient for me to teach from wherever I am. When I have social engagements, I either make it to the event post 8 pm or simply take my laptop along and find myself a quiet corner for an hour.

On occasions when it is impossible to take class, tutors are required to inform the program coordinators in advance so that they may arrange for substitute teachers. We also maintain a repository of videos for times when substitutes are unavailable. We share the links to these educational videos (mostly, YouTube) with the teacher overseeing the class at KKGM.

My experience

As I logged into my first Skype class late one Saturday evening, I was greeted by a room full of bright-eyed, young girls. They were shy at first, and I attempted to break the ice by introducing myself as warmly as possible, stating my name, my profession and my family. Some smiled and nodded, others stared on blankly. I felt unsure. I asked them to introduce themselves in a similar way. No one volunteered to go first, and I eventually began prodding them to speak up one by one. The girls spoke softly, hesitating at each word. A few drew their hijabs more closely and spoke quietly with their eyes lowered. I needed to try harder to get them out of their shells.

On Sunday, I introduced myself again, this time adding my hobby and my favourite colour to the equation. I noticed a distinct shift in their energy levels; a few girls even raised their hands, keen to tell me all about their hobbies. Some read books, a few sang, while others enjoyed dancing. One of them played football.

I spent the initial few classes trying to gauge their proficiency in English. We played games. I said a word. Then one of the girls said another beginning with the last letter of my word – Orange, Elephant, Travel and so on. We also did this with sentences – each student added a sentence of her own until we formed a full story. I gave them words and asked them to use those in sentences. I gave them pictures and asked them to tell a story. I asked them to write letters to their friends. I prepared my lessons on PowerPoint and shared my screen on Skype to teach them different aspects of grammar – tenses, punctuation, articles and so on. Clearly, they knew all this in theory but struggled to use it in conversations, for example, they frequently slipped into the simple present tense.

Why is Shamima absent today?’

She go to her home.’

She has gone home.’

We played more games. I divided them into groups and asked them to assume roles. They, then, conjured up a series of dialogues and played out situational conversations in class. We watched videos ranging from episodes of Sesame Street to audio recordings of popular English fairy tales to short clips of animated movies. We read together about powerful women in history and discussed their contributions.

I observed them opening up to me more and more. If sometimes, we finished class a few minutes early, they would refuse to log off until it was 8 pm, insisting that I talked with them instead. They were curious about my life and asked me about my profession and educational background, my home and my family. Once they found out I was married, that became their latest obsession. What did my husband do? When did we get married? What was our wedding day like? They echoed the hopes and dreams of girls their age.

Once, my student messaged me on WhatsApp that she wouldn’t be able to attend class that week because she, go home to corrupt my father’s body’. I was terrified, assuming she meant cremate. I asked about her in class and got the usual response, She go home as she is physically unfit’. Unsure of what to do, I replied to the girl’s message a couple of days later, asking about her health. She said she was fine and so was her father. 

Relieved, but utterly puzzled, I shared this conundrum with my mother. After much deliberation, my mother suggested that she probably meant correct’. Her father was probably keeping unwell and she had gone home to correct her father’s body’ which would be a very accurate, literal translation of the Bengali phrase sarir thik kora’. My mother’s hypothesis was proven right when my student showed up to class the following week and clarified that she had gone home to take care of her father who had since recovered.

In a recent class, my students, tired of writing essays and picture compositions, suggested that we do only conversational classes because that was what they had trouble with. Seeing the truth in what they were saying, I have since moved onto just conversational exercises. In our first class since the feedback, I divided the class into pairs and asked them to discuss a movie between themselves, and then take turns to narrate the story to the class. It was a huge success. In the following class, we repeated the exercise, this time about a story they had read (and not watched). To further bolster their enthusiasm, I introduced a grading system. After the exercise, each pair got points between one and ten. I added up the points for each class and showed them a colourful dashboard with their cumulative scores. They’ve since selected their team names. And mottos. The best performers in every class get a virtual star and a standing ovation.

I often ask them to talk about their ambitions, hoping to sneak a peek into their minds while also striving to keep them focused on their education for the next few crucial years. Here are some excerpts from what they shared.

… I want (to) be a doctor. It is my dream from childhood and I will (ful)fill my dream. I get (a) degree of doctor from foreign. I want to help poor man whom cannot show doctor (due) to crisis of money. And I build a hospital for poor people where every things will be get free.

… My ambition is a teacher… I want to share education (with) my next generation. Some teachers are very bad (and) they cheat many students. There have no honest teacher so I want to be a honest math teacher… And I want to be a teacher like you.

I want to be a lawyer because I want to stop crime. I want to protect for who does not do any crime. I want to (give) right judgment. Now our society is suffering from crime. (At) this time some girls do not roam anywhere at night. No girls are (able to) defend herself. I do not like. I am inspire of my parents. They always support me.

Rarely have I come across a whole bevvy of girls so magnanimous, fighting all odds in their own lives to get where they are today and to continue growing to the new heights they hope to achieve, altruistically. Since they found out that my hometown is in Kolkata, I’ve been repeatedly asked to visit them at their school. I will be visiting them this October, having put it off for far too long, and hope to share more stories of these little women.

AUTHOR

Srijita Chakraborty is a Senior Research Specialist with Gartner. She lives in Gurgaon. When she is not at work, Srijita likes to read about innovative ways to keep her class engaged and writes about her personal experiences in her blog.