In the extraordinarily beautiful setting of green meadows surrounded by hills and snow-capped mountains that he calls home, 13-year-old Mushtaq told us how his parents continually turn to him for help – in calculating his father’s wages, in transacting with the shopkeeper while buying groceries, in dialling a phone number. These things, seemingly ordinary for many, are in fact a big feat for the young boy who struggled with the concept of mathematics only six months ago.
When ordinary turns extraordinary: Special Learning Centers
A young boy discovers his ‘superpowers’ in everyday life with the help of the Special Learning Centre
Mushtaq is from the nomadic tribal Gujjar community in the Hardupunzoo zone in the Budgam district of Jammu and Kashmir, who leave their homes and their lives downhill and migrate to the upper reaches every summer for cattle grazing. For children, this tradition translates to missing school for almost half the year. Naturally so, coping with such long periods of absenteeism from class is a struggle once they move back at the onset of winters.
Mushtaq, for instance, struggled with the concept of addition and subtraction although he was in class 6. “In English, I knew the letters of the alphabet but could not spell words,” he said as some of his friends hovered around him, while others looked on curiously from their homes in the temporary settlement. With little understanding of the lessons in class and the fear of exams looming close by, Mushtaq didn’t really look forward to school, he admitted in a soft voice.
In 2018, however, a Special Learning Centre (SLC) was established in Mushtaq’s village, where there is a high concentration of nomadic people. SLCs are a result of a partnership between UNICEF and the Jammu and Kashmir Association of Social Workers (JKASW), supported by the IKEA Foundation. The aim is to bridge this gap in children’s learning. Suddenly, there was someone to hold every child’s hand and help them close the widening gap in their respective classrooms.
Ulfat, the young teacher of the SLC in which Mushtaq was enrolled, said that they began with a baseline assessment of the children – aged six to 14 – and grouped them into three sections based on their understanding of English, science, and mathematics.
“Most children fell in section A, with almost no knowledge of letters or numbers,” the teacher said. Mushtaq was in section C, “although he would sometimes get confused between some alphabet letters.” After that, began the process of re-familiarization with basic concepts in the SLC – a space brightly lit with flash cards, pictures of animals, and other learning materials. This would provide the much-needed strong foundation for further learning.
There was plenty of singing and games too – ensuring that the children remained engaged in the process and had fun while learning. Ulfat added that she spoke to the children in their local language – Gojri – which further helped in better communication. The medium of instruction in schools like the one Mushtaq attends is English.
Within a few months of attending the after-school sessions at the SLC – it was functional from November to March this year, with a winter break in between – children showed a massive improvement in their understanding of educational concepts. Mushtaq, for one, can now easily add and subtract on his fingers and can spell up to five-lettered words with ease. “H-O-R-S-E,” he said, pointing at the animals grazing nearby.
His elder sister, Rukshana, who sat close by said that she has seen a dramatic change in her brother. “Earlier, he was just not into his books. He didn’t even know how to write his name or address. But when he started going to the SLC, he would come back every evening and immediately start doing his homework from school. We even discuss our lessons,” she said.
Rukshana is in class 10. “M-U-S-H-T-A-Q!” her brother spelt out his name in response and the two dissolved into laughter.