A flutter of the olden ways: The Learning Lab in April 2021

by Karishma Modi

Moumita Bhowmick and Aplonia Topno are the young, local teachers from the Andaman Islands who joined the Islands of Wisdom project of Dakshin Foundation’s Environmental Education programme in 2018. When the project began under the Wipro Applying Thought in Schools grant in 2017, the primary, direct beneficiaries of our work were students of classes 3 to 5 from in and around the South Andaman village of Wandoor. Although the classes we conducted after-school hours three times a week were restricted to students in classes 3 to 5, our fledgling library was open to children of all ages. 

After scarcely more than a year of engaging with our two, bright local teachers, we began to notice the power of the community in supporting young children in their education. From 2019, training and developing the capacities of educated and enthusiastic youngsters from the islands became the new mainstay of work and our classroom became a Learning Lab. The classroom and library became a safe space for children to learn and explore. By converting the space into a Learning Lab, we overtly included teachers into the culture of learning, exploration, experimentation and reflection on their experiences. 

Due to Moumita and Aplonia’s interest and conviction, we began to take on children from Anganwadi to class 2 and from classes 6 to 8 as well. After engaging with literature from the domain of education and over many rounds of discussion, we agreed that working with school-going children from the Anganwadi to class 2 age-group would give us a head-start when the children were finally in class 3. Our library and library activities grew and gained popularity among the children. The importance of working with community teachers was reinforced by the recommendations made by the then Draft National Education Policy of 2019 that called to action “qualified community members to help students learn”. 

Before the Pandemic took hold, Moumita and Aplonia visited Bengaluru and purchased a range of books from the popular children’s bookstore–Lightroom–in Cooke Town. “We were so excited to use the new books in class,” Moumita says. Indeed, 2019-20 ended in a shimmer of anticipation for the coming year; we innocently partook in the annual ritual of marveling at how quickly the year had flown by. 

However, 2020-21 had other plans. We found ourselves in the thick of the Pandemic and facing a long and interminable pause. Our last unbroken year at the Learning Lab had ended in February, 2020. It was only in April, 2021 that we thought we were finally ready to begin again. 

We worked up the nerve to start classes at the Learning Lab and began classes on the 5th of April, 2021. “I was a little nervous when I called the parents to tell them that the class would resume after a whole year,” Moumita reflects, “but once the children came to class, it was tagda mazza! (such fun)“The nervousness comes at the thought of closing again…” Aplonia muses. 

Sure enough, our brief glimmer of energy and happiness lasted for three weeks. Children came back to class with great energy and enthusiasm. They were ready to jump back in the familiar relationships and activities that the Learning Lab in Wandoor has been home to. However, even three, short weeks confirmed what we had started to hear from parents when we spoke to them on the phone, what the headmistress of the middle school urged us to help the school out with and what is being pointed out even at the national level: foundational literacy and numeracy have suffered. Children have lost touch with the basics. 

However, Aplonia spots a hint of silver lining: “one plus-point about 2020 was going to students’ homes to work with them there. We saw which parents were really taking an interest in their children’s education.” Going to students’ homes meant no parent could miss a parent meeting.  

Moumita focuses on the rare and precious meeting initiated by the Headmistress of the middle school, where most of our students are enrolled. “She suddenly became encouraging of our work! For the first time! After so long!” It surprises us to think that it took the events of 2020 for this to happen. Aplonia even notices that, “this time, we found new children [who came to the Learning Lab] from other schools as well!” And as the circumstances remain uncertain, the Learning Lab tries to live up to its name: a Laboratory of curious educators.

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