Goats can offer a ‘breakthrough’ where children are involved

Children are unique little beings. A seemingly simple gesture can build a bond of trust where lofty words fail.

Azera Parveen Rahman
In Purnea, a teacher who struggled for four years to make this connect finally got the support of a language course designed by IKEA and UNICEF that not only helped him communicate better with his students, but also teach them more effectively.
24 June 2019

A conversation around who owns how many goats is hardly your typical classroom discussion early in the morning. But Manoj Prabhakar, a teacher in the Rahmat Nagar Middle School in Purnea knows better. Four years since he started teaching here, Manoj struggled for a “breakthrough” with his students. Effective communication, he knew, was crucial for effective learning. A language course designed by IKEA and UNICEF finally offered him that much-needed window of opportunity to not just connect with his students but also teach them their lessons more effectively.

On the day of our visit, a buzz of excited chatter welcomed us much before we entered the primary class of the school. Sitting cross-legged on thick durries (mats) on the floor, with pencils and notebooks in hand, the children of class 1 looked visibly excited to see visitors. All around them were hand-made posters with alphabets, poems, and colourful drawings. Light filtered in through an open window as the kids sat around their bespectacled teacher.

A cold, vicious cycle

Manoj said that the vibe and energy was missing in 2014, when he first started teaching classes 1, 2 and 3 in the school. “In all there were only 15 students, mostly from the minority community, and they could neither speak Hindi nor Bengali properly. Language, therefore, was a barrier between us. They were scared to speak up,” he said. Attendance, he said, was another issue. Children often skipped school, or would stay till lunch and then skip the rest of the day.  “Once I sat with just two students the entire day,” the teacher said. Winters are particularly harsh in Purnea, and in those months—the children didn’t have mats to sit on then—the stone-cold floor was an even bigger deterrent. There weren’t any cupboards for books as well. Determined to do the best he could, Manoj put up some videos on social media on how they hung the books on strings, and of other classroom activities. Responding to one such video, a doctor offered to donate a cupboard and durries for the children to sit in class. With this, they started a classroom library, managed by the students themselves.

It was a unique venture, but it still didn’t have the impact Manoj had expected. With no one to support the children at home—most of their parents were illiterate—when they finally came back to class after skipping school for a few weeks in winters, they would have forgotten most of what was taught earlier.

It was a vicious cycle.

To demonstrate, the teacher calls upon one of his students, Chotti Khatun, and asks her to sing a song.
To demonstrate, the teacher calls upon one of his students, Chotti Khatun, and asks her to sing a song.

IKEA and UNICEF-designed course offered the breakthrough

In 2018, when Manoj was given the opportunity to join a nine-month long LLF course designed by IKEA and UNICEF to help teach language to young students, he was “relieved”. “I really needed a direction (which the course gave me). The workshops taught us how best to communicate with young students, how to lighten the atmosphere so that children are more comfortable and can interact freely,” he said, adding that he also learnt how to use visual aids to make the learning material more appealing to children.

It was also from these workshops where Manoj developed ‘ice-breaking’ conversation starters in class. Most children in this class come from economically and socially disadvantaged families; their families work either as agricultural labourers, mechanics, or have livestock. A simple question like, “Whose goat gave birth recently?” therefore immediately strikes a note of familiarity and tiny hands fly up in response. It puts the children at ease.

To demonstrate, he calls upon one of his students, Chotti Khatun, and asks her to sing a song. She sings a Hindi poem on peacock, ‘Nani teri morni ko mor le gaye’. Manoj then asks the class what their favourite word in the song was. ‘Mor (peacock)!’ they scream. Next, he opens a picture book and shows them a picture of a peacock. This method of using song and visual aid to enhance alphabet and word familiarity ensures that the children absorb the lesson effectively.

Another game they play is rolling a dice which has alphabets on it. The teacher rolls the dice and a child has to tell a word beginning with that particular alphabet. They also sing songs on numbers.

“Manoj Sir is the reason we all come to school now,” Chotti Khatun says happily. Her friend, Khatija added, “He plays and sings with us. We like learning that way.”

Enrolment in classes 1, 2 and 3 has gone up from 15 to 260.

There has been a difference in the attitude of parents as well. Khatija’s mother, Bibi Kanchan said, “Earlier she was not so keen on going to school and I never pushed her. I also needed help at home while making bidis—I knew it wasn’t right but I thought I had no option.” Looking at her daughter, she went on, “Since last year however she really looks forward to going to school and it is all because of Manoj Sir’s teaching methods. The children now talk about what they want to be when they grow up, and that really makes me happy.”