Education World: Visionary principal

For Avnita Bir, principal of Mumbai’s prestigious CBSE-affiliated K-12 R.N. Podar School (estb. 1998), the purpose of education is “to encourage learning to learn and not learning to know”. Therefore the school’s management prides itself on providing balanced holistic education to its 2,700 students. Its strong focus on academics apart, R.N. Podar School has integrated contemporary best practices such as life skills, curriculum-complementing learning and career guidance programmes into its middle and senior school curriculums.

An economics postgraduate of the Delhi School of Economics and the Central Institute of Education, Delhi, Bir began her career as an economics teacher at the Maharani Gayatri Devi School, Jaipur in 1984. Seventeen years later, while working as a lecturer in Mumbai’s Jaihind College, she signed up as a strategy and planning executive with Renful Premier Management Services (I) Pvt. Ltd, a UK-based firm providing HR consulting and support services to corporates. “It was while working in the corporate sector that I became increasingly aware that teaching tomorrow’s citizens and leaders was my natural vocation,” says Bir, who also taught senior secondary students in Bangalore’s Mallya Aditi International School (2000-2001) and at the National Public School, Bangalore (1998-2000). It was during her tenure with Jai Hind College (2001-2003) that she was invited to take charge of the R.N. Podar School.

Since then Bir has introduced several academic and extra-curricular innovations which have earned this hitherto low- profile K-12 school golden opinions. Among them: conducting specialised skills enhancement workshops for her faculty; introducing life skills education programmes for students; promoting group discussions; developing students’ relationship management skills, and facilitating new technologies-aided education. “The infirmity of school education in India is that it encourages facts accumulation rather than critical thinking and problem solving skills development. Our objective is to effect a gradual transition towards new ways of learning,” says Bir.

Looking ahead, she visualises introduction of new technologies and attracting high quality teachers as R.N. Podar’s major challenges. “Technology is not simply a challenge but also a great binder. By incrementally intensifying technology-aided education, I want to familiarise our students with the real world outside the protective school environment. This will also enable them to become self-learners and reduce the load of teachers, for whom the teaching profession will become attractive again. That’s my strategy to meet these emerging challenges of the new millennium,” says Bir.

God speed!

Harshikaa Udasi (Mumbai)

Education World: Young Achievers

MH 26/11 crew

A 20-member creative team of the Ryan International Group of Institutions (RIGI) in Mumbai has produced a thought-provoking docu-drama titled MH 26/11. This 40-minute film presents the impact of the 26/11 amphibious terrorist attacks on the lives of children.

MH 26/11 recounts the story of Aditya and Kabir, two Hindu and Muslim friends. Their families, too, are close until the terror attacks, whereupon the Muslim family is forced to flee and settle in a Muslim colony. “I want to spread a simple message,” says Faiz Khan (14) a class IX student of Ryan International, Malad. “Any friendship that is broken by a terror attack is a gain for terrorists.”

The idea of the film originated in the mind of Dr. Augustine Pinto, chairman of the 114-strong Ryan International Group of Institutions, who discussed it with Utkarsh Marwah, culture and creative director of the school, and RIGI managing director Grace Pinto. The crew was selected after several rounds of auditions, following which a 20-member team was sent to the Goregaon-based Whistling Woods International Institute for a short workshop on film-making.

“Ten days at Whistling Woods — three days of scripting, four days shooting, and another four days of post-production work — was a life altering experience,” says Diksha Negi (13), assistant director of the film and a class VIII student of Ryan International, Kandivali.

Inevitably, producing this film with a strong unity-in-diversity message was a memorable learning experience for the students. Comments Shubham Jaiswal (14), the cinematographer of MH 26/11: “The film required a shot of children playing football. The script demanded that it had to be taken before sunset, in natural light. That required balancing many coordinates. When the camera angle was right, the sunlight would be insufficient. When the sun emerged, something else would go wrong.”

The team plans to screen the film in as many schools as possible to spread the message of unity and communal harmony. “It is a film by children, for children, and of children, made with the support of our teachers and elders,” says Faiz.

Stand by for a case study in purposive collaboration.

Harshikaa Udasi (Mumbai)


Education World: Young Achievers

Sonale’s famous five

Tejal Sudarshan Raut (11), resident of Sonale, a small village (pop. 812) in the Thane district of Maharashtra, had never stepped into the world beyond until a few months ago. But in December she was selected to represent her school run by the Quality Education Support Trust (an NGO promoted by Nilesh and Meena Nimkar), at the National Children’s Science Congress (NCSC) convened by the National Council for Science and Technology Communication, a network of state agencies. NCSC 2008 attracted 500 students from across the country, who presented their science research projects at the congress.

Young Tejal’s project was facilitated by a team of four students which included Nirgun Bholanath Tikhande, Shailesh Bhaskar Vishe, Sopan Dattatrey Mhaskar and Niranjan Ramchandra Tikhande, all class V children who worked on a project titled ‘Relationship between weather and agriculture’, guided by Meena Nimkar.

Under the rules of the NCSC competition, the project was presented at the zilla, zonal and state levels before it was accepted for the national science congress held in Nagaland. “Nilesh and I were quite amazed. We thought the best we could do was to qualify for the zonal round,” says Meena.

With the help of basic scientific equipment, the five children studied and recorded patterns of rainfall, wind, temperature and humidity in Sonale. On the basis of their research they concluded that while the monsoon was active over Sonale in the months of June-August, farmers should budget for poor rains in September. Rainwater harvesting and controlled irrigation therefore, is critical for profitable agriculture in Thane district, said their project report.

The road for these first-generation learners was not smooth. “We would place the rain gauges in parts of our village and the next day we would find that they had been thrown away by people thinking they are useless plastic bottles. We had to replace them at least 12-13 times,” says Tejal. Moreover, in Sonale village where 75 percent of the population constitutes illiterate Dalits and OBCs, parental support for the project was nil.

Nevertheless the school team’s utilitarian advice and good show at the NCSC has changed attitudes about the value of education in Sonale and its environs. When the Nimkars started Grameen Bal Bhavan here two years ago, it had few takers. “Thanks to the children winning national recognition for their research project, there’s renewed enthusiasm for primary-secondary education,” says Meena Nimkar, who is already shortlisting projects for next year’s NCSC.

Harshikaa Udasi (Mumbai)

Education World: Young Achievers

Manashri Soman

A Marathi language biography titled Manashri — Eka Drishtiheen Mulichi Netra-deepak Yashogatha (‘Manashri — A visually-impaired girl’s enlightening success story’), narrating an against-the-odds success story of Mumbai-based Manashri Soman (16), has just gone into its second edition after 2,000 copies flew off shelves in 90 days after its release in July (2008). Authored by Sumedh Risbud, the bio is the story of Manashri who despite crippling odds including blindness, a cleft lip and disjointed vertebrae, completed her secondary education averaging 80 percent in her class X SSC board exam, and established herself as an all-rounder by also winning the prestigious Balashree Award 2004, for musical accomplishment.

A celebrated champion of the physically challenged, Manashri recently toured Aurangabad, Nashik and Jalgaon where she was invited to interact with the media and people inspired by her story. Recounting a function for 1,200 visually-impaired students in Jalgaon which she addressed, Manashri says: “I spoke to the students and encouraged them to develop their self-confidence which makes all the difference. I also briefed them about the National Association for the Blind (NAB) and its several initiatives. I don’t believe that physically challenged people are disabled; they’re just differently-abled,” says Manashri.

Despite her numerous physical challenges, Manashri has some enviable achievements to her credit. She plays the harmonium and synthesizer and is preparing for her fifth level Sangeet Visharat exam of the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, Delhi. She is also a malkhamb (traditional Maharashtrian gymnastics performed on ropes) exponent; a senior NAB trekker and has run the Mumbai Marathon twice.

Yet the accolade closest to her heart is the Balashree Award which she received from former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in 2004. To qualify for the award Manashri won the city, state, zonal and eight national level competitions.

Currently a first year (junior college) arts student of Mumbai’s prestigious St. Xavier’s College, Manashri wants to follow in her mother’s footsteps and qualify as a counsellor/ psychologist.

Speaking on behalf of the challenged population across the country whose number is estimated at a massive 21.9 million, Manashri makes a strong case for school and college managements to adopt and practice inclusive education. “Schools and colleges need to be more sympathetic to the needs of challenged children. We don’t need charity, just a fair deal and modest helping hand to become contributing members of society,” says Manashri, whose life is her message.

Harshikaa Udasi (Mumbai)