Wednesday, November 23, 2011

On Service Learning In Hyderabad

My lovely and brilliant cousin, Samantha, is, among many other things, a high school English teacher in Brooklyn.  For the past six months, she has been in Hyderabad, India, through a fellowship for The Modern Story, "a not-for-profit organization that bridges the technological and narrative divide by introducing digital skills and storytelling practices to youth and educators around the world."  In this post, she talks about the inspiring and empowering work she has done with her students in Hyderabad.

By Samantha Love, cross-posted from The Modern Story

Through our various experiences in the classroom, we all develop a unique pedagogy as educators. I think this is one of the most fascinating parts of the job – the fact that no two people will have an identical approach, that everyone must find their teaching “style” and align it with systems and strategies that enable you to be as effective as possible. I still consider myself a novice, my pedagogical philosophy is still developing as I imagine it will continue to shift and evolve throughout my career, but one thing I do know from my experience as both a teacher and student, is the tremendous impact of service learning.

What could be more empowering and instructional than designing a project to ameliorate the social and environmental problems we learn about in school? What is a more pertinent example of the purpose of education to create an informed and active citizenry which will act on their knowledge in the best interest of the community? The applications for service learning are endless. I was first drawn to The Modern Story because of the emphasis on service learning, teaching the students to “become change makers in their community.” I watched videos created by previous fellows where students had partnered with community organizations to bring attention to issues that they wanted to change and felt inspired. I set a goal for myself to complete a similar project if selected, and I am proud to be writing nearly six months later about service learning projects that we are wrapping up at two different schools.

Railway Environment Project:

When we first began the semester we tossed around the idea of doing a final video project about the environment. Living in Hyderabad, a rapidly developing city, in rapidly developing India, it does not take a scientist to notice the impact of this development on the environment. The sheer number of people flocking to the economic opportunities in the city, combined with weak infrastructure and the further complications of corruption, create a prime environment for the build-up of waste, unequal and unreliable distribution of water, and staggering emissions from vehicles.

 Having finished our first video project about Telangana (see below), we were ready to decide on the topic for the final video.

I knew that I wanted to approach it from the angle of service learning. The first step in this process was to have the students identify problems in their community that they would like to address, and, as I suspected, the vast majority wrote about environmental concerns. I was surprised however, when a student, Sai Durga, questioned the purpose of the assignment, asking me, “M’am, what’s the point of writing about these problems when there is nothing we can do to change them?” Sai is one of the brightest, most confident students in the class, with an uncanny ability to think critically and come up with original ideas, so it goes without saying that I was shocked by her pessimism. I told her that we do have the power to change the things in our communities and that I would prove her wrong by the end of the term. On that note we began our environment project.

First, I asked the students to brainstorm projects that we could do together as a class to impact the environment. This took a lot of explaining, and questioning to help them arrive at a place where they could think of actions that we could undertake to change the environment around them. The adaptive instinct seems to be so engrained in people here, particularly those who are not well-off, as to affect their ability to even think critically about changing the world around them. Countless times we’ve met people who are dissatisfied with the social and environmental ills they see around them, but their response is to shrug their shoulders and get on with their business.

Finally, the girls voted to complete two projects – raising awareness and access to dustbins to combat litter around the school and on the roads, and planting a garden to help do our part to clean the air and beautify the school yard.

Once we had decided to act, the course moving forward was clear. Thankfully in India you can plant a pretty nice garden for $20, so I haggled in my pathetic Telugu with the woman at the local nursery by the side of the road and loaded our various plants and trees into an auto. Unknowingly, I picked up three mango trees, so future TMS fellows should remember to give credit where credit is due when they are eating fresh fruit before class in a couple of seasons!

The girls were so excited work to complete a hands-on project to make a difference. Even on Children’s Day when they all came to school in their new, fancy outfits they pleaded with me to go and work in the garden. Once we gave them shovels and um, big heavy metal poles that people jam in the ground to dig holes (?), the original ideas did not stop flowing. Everyone had an opinion on how the garden should look, where a certain plant should go, and one girl even suggested that we spell out “TMS” in the middle with the methi seeds. We are all so proud of the finished product and the signs the girls designed and produced (with recycled materials) to teach the other students to keep the grounds clean and enjoy the garden without picking the flowers.

MGM Road Survey

We went through a similar process with the students at MGM, asking them to write about a problem they wanted to solve in their community. We initially gave the assignment in conjunction with their first video project on how youth can stand up and make their voices heard. Check out the completed video here:

We noticed that a couple students wrote about the poor road conditions which affected the safety of both drivers and pedestrians, and low and behold a couple weeks later Piya introduced us to Kanthi Kanan, a woman who started an organization to advocate for pedestrian rights, who had worked with previous fellows. We met with Kanthi to get some guidance on how concerned citizens can help to put pressure on lawmakers to act on this issue. We actually helped The Right to Walk foundation complete their own survey on the condition of footpaths and were inspired to conduct our own survey with the girls.

Kanthi visited the school to share how the students can act to change this issue and afterwards all students agreed that they felt inspired to act. We hope to present our findings about the road in front of the school and the obstacles the girls face on their commutes to the corporator of the local government district before the fellowship ends, teaching the girls a valuable lesson about the inner workings of government and their rights as citizens. We are very excited to wrap up this project with the girls and show them that if they speak up, people in power can listen and act.


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