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TBI Blogs: These Young Women Are Using the Power of Music to Turn School Children into Changemakers

Music and its ability to transcend boundaries and backgrounds are well-documented. Two Teach For India Fellows are exploring this concept to revolutionise the way their students think and perceive the world around them.

In a classroom where one student can’t write his name while the other can effortlessly read the entire Harry Potter series, how can every child be equally engaged? How does a teacher motivate dozens of students to stay on the path of education when they have to wade through murky water from burst sewage pipes to get to class? These were some of the questions Riddhi, a 2014-16 Teach For India Fellow, struggled with.

“Today we’re going to learn about the band that kick-started popular rock n’ roll,” said Riddhi to her class of preteens. When giving them their first glimpse of The Beatles, she found herself in the middle of a history lesson going all the way back to the Blues, then to slavery, and the United States Civil War.  She explained that the Blues were the only way for oppressed African Americans to express themselves when enslaved. They then sang and analyzed Blackbird by The Beatles.

“They could pick up on the mood instantly, which didn’t surprise me,” she said. “What really blew me away were their observations on lyrics. One boy stood up and said, ‘What if the blackbird represented the slaves? They weren’t free but they still dreamed of being able to fly.’”  The students learned that that there’s no right or wrong answer in interpreting music.

They were free to use their imagination and draw parallels to material they had learned.

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The seed for Riyaaz was planted here, among the students of a low-income school in Sangam Vihar, Delhi, during Riddhi’s second year as a Teach For India Fellow. Ragini, another Fellow, came on board and played a key role, “Ragini and I have a shared love for music and poetry, and both made the leap from science to teaching in our careers. Where she brings a formal education in classical music and strong Hindustani influences, I bring informal training steeped in rock n’ roll and folk. However, our shared vision for Riyaaz make these differences work.”

Riyaaz means practice in Urdu, and represents consistency, discipline, and humility. A typical session happens in a circle with 25 students and Fellow mentors. It involves a range of activities, including meditation, understanding rhythm by singing, and discussing how important empathy is to a singer. Kids do group activities and get homework to help them take lessons to their own communities.

Today, Riyaaz works with 200+ children, both within and outside Teach For India’s classrooms, and is run by seven Fellow mentors. “I believe in depth over breadth – I want to establish a detailed structure before educating 10,000 kids,” Riddhi says.

She is now an investee of UnLtd Delhi, exploring both academic and social concepts through music – from operations on unlike integers, to gay rights.

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The InnovatED cohort – an initiative encouraging entrepreneurship among Teach For India Fellows and Alumni – accepted Riyaaz, marking its first triumph. Fellows across the country submitted their enterprise ideas, and the panel accepted Riyaaz after a pitch and grant proposal. This gave the group more structure, and Riddhi and Ragini received mentorship from institutions like Central Square Foundation and incubators like Villgro Innovations Foundation.

In their first year, it was a challenge to get students to even show up. Riddhi also faced the challenge of convincing parents to let their kids dabble in the arts, mitigating concerns like, “Will this be useful for him to get a job someday?”

“I think we can address these concerns through structured sessions for parents. If they have a chance to come in and see what the sessions are like, they will understand that there’s a direct correlation between what they learn here and their overall motivation, discipline, and dedication to academics.”

“I’m working on building a specific set of parent-engagement tools and activities,” says Riddhi, now a member of the Alumni Staff Team at Teach For India.

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“In such situations, it’s tempting to think we know better, especially with our city education and international exposure. When this idea creeps in, ‘savior mentality’ is born, and nothing that comes from there will make a difference,” Riddhi said. At a conference for social changemakers, she met stalwarts like Deep Joshi, Co-Founder, PRADHAN (Professional Assistance for Development Action). “He has really partnered with the communities he uplifted, rather than talking down to them. It set the tone for what I wanted to do.”

Riyaaz is already making an impact. Take Riddhi’s session on Across The Universe’s cover of The Beatles’ I Wanna Hold Your Hand. The video starts with a girl on the sidelines, watching a boy and another girl talking to each other. Asked to interpret this, the students assume the two are a couple and the girl watching them loves the boy.

“Then why does the camera focus on the girl instead of the boy?” Riddhi asks.

“Maybe the girl watching them wants to be a cheerleader.”

“Maybe she wants to be the other girl’s best friend.”

“What if she’s in love with the girl?” Riddhi asks.

Reactions range from disbelief to disgust. She quickly split them into pro and con groups, and their responses were surprisingly similar to ‘real-life’ adult arguments. Riddhi told them about the issues gay couples face – from losing their jobs to arrests and even death. She told them stories of activists working passionately to change this.

“Some kids said their country shamed them, some others said they’re proud of the people working to change the narrative. It left me teary-eyed – these children were already part of something new.”

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In a recent workshop, Riddhi used much-loved song Mera joota hai japaani to teach students how to describe themselves. They became a model to write about themselves, moving from the superficial to who they really were.

Riddhi has great hopes for the future of the project. “Through the first half of 2017, we plan to take the students through three phases. They’ll learn who they are, the power of the collective, and using these tools to start their own projects. Our vision is to empower every child to be a change-maker, using music as a tool.”

With its diverse music, valuable lessons, and passionate founders, Riyaaz will usher in a new era of arts-based learning.

Written by Shreya Suresh, Freelance Writer with Teach For India Communications.

Applications to the Teach For India 2017-19 Fellowship program are now open. Click here to submit your application before 7th February. To learn more about Teach For India, visit the website.

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Teach For India is a nationwide movement that aims to eliminate inequity in education in India.