The Zensar Foundation bus stops just inside the gates of Udaan and as we step off the bus, we are greeted by Dipti, the school’s primary teacher, and a small gathering of smiling students, who present us with a bouquet of paper flowers made by hand. Mid-February already feels warm. We’re led into the school where grins and quiet laughter abound. India is a colorful, vibrant country. The dress of the students and teachers is a perfect example.
The Udaan English Proficiency Center is located on Zensar’s corporate campus in Pune. Each day after school, children are picked up by bus and brought to Udaan to learn English for two hours before they are returned home. Udaan provides English lessons to one hundred and fifty students from slum communities in Pune and is building on the curriculum to offer more courses at no cost. Udaan is the Hindi word for “flight” and that is how we all see Udaan — as a way for children to use their wings, take flight and soar. The goal at Udaan is for students to speak English as if it’s second nature. This is a critical hurdle for students to overcome. This will blast away many barriers.
Today there are about thirty students at Udaan, and they greet us with the kind of laughter and clapping only the young can manage. Our hostess, Sonali, is a self-assured teenage girl who speaks crisp, fearless English. She honors her fellow students by properly introducing them. We are then treated to Maharashtra’s Koli dance by three young girls in traditional dress who blend culture with confidence. My wife Sushma and I are not a captive audience; we are a captivated one.
After the dance, the entire group of students act out a scene they’ve practiced. Sonali plays the role of teacher and asks the girls questions from a teacher’s point of view. “Are you interested in learning English?” The girls respond enthusiastically, “Yes!” “Good. To learn English, you must come to class,” Sonali says. The students gather close to the ‘teacher’ as if now in class, ready to learn. Sonali then asks, “How will we do this?” Instead of looking to the students for the answer, she turns to us and says directly, “The teachers at Udaan use peer-to-peer and digital learning.” Not an answer you’d expect from any inner city school, but one you can always expect from Udaan.
Let’s Talk Language
Role play over, the students sit cross-legged and curious on the floor, looking up at me with anticipation. I ask the children if I should speak in English or Hindi. They enthusiastically answer, “English!” I lean forward because frankly, it’s engaging and fun talking with these excited, hopeful children. I want them to become excited, hopeful adults one day and I’m here to do my part. I ask them about their goals and dreams. The children raise their hands as fast as they can, wanting to be called on first. They answer as I point to them. Pilot. Doctor. Designer. Lawyer. Boxer!
Pune is a busy city. I have to talk over the sounds of workers outside, rickshaws and the honking that’s embedded in the bustling culture here. I commend the students on their well-spoken English. I tell them how others will be proud of them, but that it is more important to be proud of themselves. We talk about what it means to be bilingual. I tell them that “Bi” means “two” and “lingual” means “language.” “Two languages.” Looking back, I realize I reverted to Hindi when trying to impress upon the students that they should learn English but never forget their mother tongue. “My family and I speak Hindi at home and English outside the home. Always practice both.”
I share my own humble experience, but admittedly I find myself reminiscing. When I was in elementary and high school in Patna, I didn’t speak much English. I went to a government school where instruction was in Hindi. Every subject (other than English) was in Hindi. Math, History, Science and Social Sciences were all in Hindi. When I went to the Intermediate College for my 11th grade, my teacher spoke English. He knew I didn’t speak much English, so what did he do? He purposely called on me to answer questions. He’d say, “Sandeep, can you answer this question?” I would mumble something incomprehensible and he’d ask another student for the answer. He was encouraging me in his own quiet way. After three or four times, I wanted to answer in English. After school, I’d go home and practice English in the mirror. I cannot impress this enough upon the students. “To learn English, you must practice over and over. Don’t feel shy. Don’t worry about what others think. If you believe in your heart, you will get it. It’s more important that you believe in yourself. When you believe in yourself, others will too.” I finally learned to speak fluent English somewhere between my 2nd and 3rd of Engineering at IIT Bombay!!
Into the Fold of Opportunity
Once upon a time, learning was a ‘one size fits all’ application. Thankfully, we now know that students respond to learning in individual ways. While one student might be a visual learner, another might be an experiential learner. Learning institutions are now adopting to a student’s way of learning, instead of the other way around. By doing so, the outdated grading systems, which often resulted in failure and a sense of shame, are being replaced by new ways of learning — as individuals.
Udaan takes great care to treat each student as an individual, no matter their background, learning level or aptitude. Udaan is more than just a learning center. Udaan integrates peer-to-peer learning, multisensory activities and even mind-mapping. Maybe most impressive is that Udaan teaches students how to learn by themselves. For the students, Udaan is a tool for life.
I think I benefitted more from my visit to Udaan than the children. They taught me lessons that day. They reminded me that hope and hard work create possibilities. The students are more than children. Amol is a young man championing women’s rights and gender equality. He works to replace taboos with healthy conversations and tolerance. Lalitha helps her mother collect trash. She became aware first-hand of the dire need for protective gear. Communicating with the local government, Lalitha secured masks, gloves and coats to help safeguard all the trash collectors in the community. Komal is an advocate for learning and equal opportunity. A role model to her younger sister and students in the community who learn English from her, Komal co-created a curriculum for the youngest children at Udaan which is now in use. Our hostess Sonali helps other students with their English as much as possible, impressing upon them that their knowledge will open many doors. A vocal equal rights advocate in the community, Sonali plans to become a physician and provide care to those less fortunate than others.
Udaan evaluates children to understand their education level and glean insight into the type of learning best suited for them. No child is turned away from Udaan. There is no tuition to attend Udaan. The knowledge they gain is knowledge they hunger for. With education, the students of Udaan can be brought into the fold of opportunity and out of the slums forever. As Sushma and I board the bus to leave, I am left with the sense that these students will indeed find their wings — and take flight.