Gauri Kapoor, who finished her board exams earlier this year, was looking forward to experiencing her college life. Instead, the 18-year-old from Delhi is now a volunteer—an environmental studies teacher to 10-year-old Nazmeen Anuri, in Turtuk.
“Even though I was reluctant and overwhelmed to teach a student over a voice call, I gave it a try. I wanted to give my best to allow the child to grow,” says Gauri.
Turtuk in Shyok valley, Ladakh, is the northernmost village of India. For a village that doesn’t have a stable mobile and internet connection, and still experiences power cuts daily, having uninterrupted access to search engines is a luxury. While platforms such as Zoom or Google Classrooms have made online education possible for students in most parts of India, students in Turtuk live in a world without fancy gadgets.
Students here aren’t watching videos to make learning fun in this pandemic. They spend their time climbing trees and rolling stones in streams. But they also continue their education — on phone calls, supported by volunteers, sitting thousands of kilometres away in a different part of India—Delhi, Hyderabad, Lucknow, Mumbai.
Challenges during COVID times
Sarah Shah, principal of Turtuk Preparatory School, spoke to me from Turtuk. Before the pandemic, the school depended on volunteers to teach its 70 students from pre-nursery to class 4. But in COVID times, students have been learning differently.
“Before the pandemic hit, we had volunteers who came for short terms, to teach our students. Volunteers helped and trained our teachers with lesson planning, delivering classroom lessons and basic child psychology.”
When the pandemic-led lockdown shut classroom doors, the school tried teaching children in open grounds, maintaining social distancing and ensuring their safety. This didn’t work for too long.
“People from Turtuk often travel to Leh. With increasing COVID cases in Leh, and many people returning to Turtuk from Leh, it wasn’t safe because kids wouldn’t have really maintained social distancing after the classes,” observed Sarah.
Thinking of other ways to keep students academically engaged, the school decided to teach students one-on-one over phone calls. The school tied up with social platforms— teachforladakh and projectparwaaz.in, calling for volunteers who could commit to teaching students.
For the past three months, the school is relying on its team of 85 volunteers to teach students every single day. Volunteers, many of whom are students themselves, are briefed on the learning levels of each student and given book PDFs to facilitate lesson planning and teach students.
“Each student of classes 3 and 4 has two volunteers teaching them English, environmental studies and general knowledge. While mathematics cannot be taught over phone calls, students depend on videos made by volunteers, sometimes taking help from the local school teachers,” says Sarah, elaborating on the process.
For lower grades and toddlers, teachers and volunteers are making videos and sending it across on Whatsapp class groups since it’s not possible to teach them over phone calls.
Volunteers show students the ropes
The initial few days of volunteering in June didn’t come easy to Gauri. Despite repeated attempts to call her student in Turtuk, her calls wouldn’t connect. “I had lost all hopes of teaching,” says Gauri.
“When we finally did connect, we couldn’t easily understand each other because of a language barrier. She didn’t understand much English and her Hindi differed from mine. But over the weeks, we overcame this hurdle.”
Gauri stresses how Anuri is a bright student. Her inquisitive mind, curiosity and eagerness towards the subject fuels Gauri to continue teaching.
Volunteers don’t have any specific hours to teach but are encouraged to cover two to three topics a day, as per the students grasping abilities. Volunteers like Gauri use role-play and examples from their daily lives to make learning interactive and fun.
Anuri partially likes learning through phone calls. “I miss having my teachers around me while learning,” says the 10-year-old. What Anuri enjoys most is assuming the role of a teacher to explain to Gauri what she has learnt, testing her understanding of the discussed topics.
“Anuri wasn’t fluent in expressing herself in English. After teaching her for two months, she’s able to clarify her doubts. These discussions help us with her communication skills and strengthen our bond. I feel content to see the progress in her learning abilities as she’s become outgoing and articulate,” adds Gauri.
“As I look back, the last few months of my volunteering journey has been a learning process. I learnt to be calm, patient and responsible.”
Another volunteer, Purva Niranjan Kini, a digital marketer from Mumbai, volunteered at Turtuk Preparatory School in October 2019. Having interacted with the children personally, she observes, “The children are shy as their interactions are limited to the villagers. They are enthralled to see new faces in their village, and love hearing stories about city life. I have never seen such enthusiasm to learn in city children, especially when assigned some new school work to do.”
Even though she volunteered at the school for just a month, now she is volunteering over call teaching literature. Having already interacted with her student during her time in Turtuk, Purva knows the face behind her calls, Madeena Noor.
“Madeena was a mischievous child. But there has been a change in her.” On days when the connectivity is poor, Purva’s phone is flooded with so many messages from Madeena. “This definitely shows Madeena is eager to learn and continue her classes. She can read well and we are working on her pronunciation of basic words. I am grateful to have got this opportunity to teach at least one child.”
Since Madeena is skilful at drawing, after each English lesson, Madeena draws her illustrations, depicting intricate details from her lessons, and sends it across to Purva to show what she has understood!
Students make videos to inspire volunteers
Nazima Parveen, an 11-year-old student, is being taught by a volunteer in Hyderabad. When Nazima learnt her volunteer Vaishnavi Tadikonda had never seen a farm, Nazima made a video of the fields in Turtuk; talking about the veggies they grew, the challenges they faced, and how she feels about not going to school. She enjoyed this new skill— vlogging, so much that Nazima wants to make more videos for everyone to know and learn about Turtuk.
Anuri and Nazima are few of the fortunate students to have stepped out of Turtuk, to as far as Mumbai. But for the others in the village who’ve never seen city lights (the closest city being Leh, almost 10 hours away from Turtuk), volunteers are sharing their experiences to teach children. In turn, volunteers end up learning about Turtuk.
While students here still struggle to overcome network disturbances, unstable internet connections and the digital divide, the learning doesn’t stop. With the right support from educators and the network of volunteers, these children are learning to chase their dreams. In the words of Malala Yosafzai, let’s hope ‘One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.’
To find out more or to volunteer, one can reach the school at firstname.lastname@example.org
(Edited by Sandhya Menon)