SHIKSHAMITRA is a process for learning to live better. It is a space where one

learns to keep well and to help others keep well too. Shikshamitra has an address.

However, it goes beyond this – permeating into the lives of many, influencing

one’s choices in life and ways of life. To be associated with Shikshamitra is to assume

the responsibility of trying to live better. It is a continuous attempt to search for

activities that inspire life and build trust, or, it is an attempt to keep away from

anything to the contrary. Shikshamitra is a means toward becoming aware of

how much one can be and knowing exactly what one’s limitations are.

April 10, 2011


Shikshamitra started with 17 children. We had 17 children who represented different types found in any ordinary school of about 100 students. The difference with us is that we had one, two or three representatives of each type and that made things difficult to manage. There were three school dropouts, two with delayed milestones, three with some kind of learning disability, three who had never been to school and so on… What was common to all of them? They came from the same slum or the slum next door and came to school with loads of infighting and inter-family misgivings. None of them trusted “the teachers.” In fact, they came to school with some ridicule and in the hope of having some fun by creating disruptions. Last of all, the whole concept of Shikshamitra was new to them – attractive, intriguing yet “not to be taken seriously.”

And then the journey continued. Sometimes the children led us by our hands, sometimes it was the community, or it could be a film, an incident, or an interaction with visitors. Shikshamitra evolved as a “home of learning” – open in nature, very organic in character, sensitive to the needs and emotions of the learners and thereby ready to change its content and mode of learning and growing … every day.

Throughout these five and a half years, however, the number of students never crossed the limit of 30 children. On an average it was 25, with many migrating to the village or other parts of the city, or simply wanting to stay away from any kind of “enclosed space” or “scheduled time frame.” We had never wanted a big school. We wanted a small set up but definitely wanted the students to remain constant.

It is interesting how these children kept revisiting Shikshamitra: calling us up or in some way letting us know how they were and asking how we were doing. One would drop in just to “chat” or to write down a “little story,” do a “small sketch,“ or just wander around the school and go away.

Viability of the school was a continuous issue that disturbed us in Shikshamitra. We agreed that a model, alternative school will remain small, but constant dwindling and rising of the number or students bothered us. Even the teachers came and went so frequently that at the end of it, we were tired! It has hard to plan ahead in such a situation but we continued on.

Children were given the best because all children deserve that. The rent for the 2100 square feet was high (not high compared to the market rate) at 20,000 rupees per month. There were not that many other activities going on for the open learning centre which made it difficult to justify the rent.

In the typical Shikshamitra fashion, we continued to discuss this issue with our parents and our children, especially the older and grown up ones. Many felt the school loses out on the ground of viability. Some of the students even hinted that they thought those children who spent more of their time “wandering outside in the open” might later on regret not having come into school more often. Parents obviously did not want the school to be shut off. Time and again they tried to persuade others to put their children in Shikshamitra. At the end of 2009 and most of 2010, we spent a great deal of time sitting in different group configurations (among ourselves, students, managing committee, other well wishers) in order to review our goals and weigh all the pros and cons of running the school unit.

The goals at the outset stated that after a few years it was expected that the older students would be ready as stakeholders to run the school in their neighborhood. At the end of 2010, neither the students, nor the parents, nor the local club authorities felt that way. The political interests were too high in the community and that would mean conforming to the whims of the political party. No one was game to that.

Children were often asking us about the future of the school. We would have been disappointed if they did not yet it was difficult to give them any real answers. Over the past year or two, we were often sitting and mulling over the future of Shikshamitra. Interesting observations and recommendations emerged.

By the end of November 2010, a number of children shifted their base. A few of them continued, mostly preferring to stay outside, visiting the school once or twice a week. They worked hard and well in all that they did when they came to school. The daily count of students was a steady 13-15 while the attendance register had 25 names enrolled.

Brainstorming followed. A decision was taken for good after sharing with the students and their parents. Parents were sad, especially of those 7 or 10 very regular students. They shouted and argued and blamed the others for failing to send their children to school regularly. Some parents offered money from their ‘savings’ to pay the rent! Others volunteered to pressurize the landlord to reduce the rent to half!! None of these options were reasonable or appropriate. We were so very grateful for these gestures!

Crisis brought us together. The seemingly indifferent parent was also trying her best to hold on to the last straw. Children were quiet, all of a sudden. The attendance was 98%. They hoped that by magic the show could go on.

We had an interesting role of softening the blow, helping them to adapt to the new future at government schools and to accept the present while moving toward something new. We gave them quick lessons in the “academics” that would be mandatory and expected in the government schools. We visited the government schools to talk about our school philosophy, the present situation and that the students would be enrolling with them. We were there for the children as the transition process took place.

It was in one of the English classes that the children began to discuss “the closure.” They were asked to put down six sentences about it and make some drawings. Pradip Giri came out with an excellent piece of work. It made some of us cry while others remained silent for a long time.

In December, before we closed for Christmas, we decided that along with all the children in the present batch at Shikshamitra, we should bring together all of the past students (whoever was in Kolkata) as well. The money that they had earned in the Learn and Earn Project had remained with us in their accounts and it was to be handed over to them at this time.

They poured in to the school that day, in all shapes and sizes. Many had grown up into “young men” and “ladies,” looking and behaving like “small children.” They were all above fifteen and working. However, once inside the school they chatted, pushed and teased each other. Some took to the caring of the young children the minute they entered the school. Our entire family was back together again – if only for the day. Christmas was in the air. Maura Aunty had planned a biscuit decorating session. We looked on as the children decorated their biscuits, and it felt like old times – every ‘child’ was clamouring for his/her turn and some were trying to decorate a few biscuits more! And naturally a few had to assume the role of “moral police officers,” keeping a tab on things!

Rohit, a great singer, broke into his favourite songs. We joined him. Time stopped at Shikshamitra. Many wanted to know whether the decision to close was true? And where will Shikshamitra move away to? We asked them to look for a place. They left with brave smiles on their faces and wrenched hearts.

With final exams over, results were given on 17 January 2011, the last day of school at Shikshamitra. We had asked the children what would they like as a parting gift. Of course, some of us thought of “great things” in our own adult way…

“A group photograph” – pat came the reply from Neha.

And that’s what they got, along with their report cards and transfer certificates: a group photograph for the children and a group photo for the parents, one that was taken at a parents’ meeting.

“The two envelopes carrying the photos,” we told them “have to be returned – but not as they are. They need to look different when they come back.”

Children and parents got the message. Soon the envelopes started arriving, coloured and decorated by the parents and their children. Naturally, not all the envelopes came back to us – but most did! Some of the envelopes were brought back by the children themselves, along with little gifts they handed over to us. The best gift, however, was a drawing book half filled with drawings and writings by Pradip and Kakoli Giri. The last page said,

“We have done our bit. Now it’s your turn. The book is all yours – fill it up.”

As tears trickled down, we realized how truly they had all imbibed the spirit of originality and creativity at Shikshamitra and how they were ready to take it out of this place and spread it wherever they went from here. What more could we ask for?

The seeds were starting to scatter and sprout…

Akash, a little boy who was orphaned at birth and brought up by his grandmother, came to Shikshamitra in April 2009. He was a ‘terror‘ in the slum due to his abusive language and incessant fighting. Akash craved love and care. Thrown out of many schools, he finally ended up in Shikshamitra to be taught to feel good about himself and appreciated. Following this, he learned to read and write. A month after closure, a neighbour of Akash stopped one of the Shikshamitra teachers to congratulate him for the dramatic change in Akash,

“We can talk to him and he is so decent now. What did you do with this boy?”

Akash is doing fine in a government school now.

Children who need help keep coming back. Some stop to paint, to do a puzzle or some craft. Maura and children (all those who are interested – old ones with their new friends) continue to “get together for art’s sake.”

Sajahan, the oldest student of Shikshamitra has returned (he suddenly left us for some time) apparently to finish taking the secondary exam as he has three subjects remaining. But, perhaps he has actually come back to join us – to be a part of the new journey of Shikshamitra. Taking time off of his studies, he helps Maura to take art class at another school and he is with Mahua helping to keep the library in order. He joins us as an aspiring teacher, spreading the message of Shikshamitra and its practices through trainings, interactions, camps.

There are other children too, who lend us their hands. Some keep calling to remind us that they are there. Parents call to find out how we are doing and if they can be of any help. Presenting Shikshamitra at a youth conference recently, Sajahan described Shikshamitra as a “different school,” “a concept,” “essentially, a relationship.”

In fact, though we were all deeply wondering how we could go on from here, we have found that somehow – organically – people seem to understand that we have more time to work on outreach projects now that we are not running our school unit. We have had many phone calls come in each day with offers of working with other organizations who want to learn from us. We are finding a brand new energy around the whole place and it feels positive and forward-looking. It may now be time to concentrate on training and publishing, and developing small projects that carry on the Shikshamitra spirit.

Let the trust in relationship grow, good education will happen. And to grow well, one needs to stay small. Small, but many; there could be many small endeavors – many small Shikshamitras – different in their forms but similar in spirit.

- Sudeshna

Regarding this new stage, we look forward to hearing from all the friends of Shikshamitra as well. What direction do you see Shikshamitra moving in for the future?

Lastly, please contact us if you know of a space in the Chetla-Alipore area as shifting our location will be part of this transition.

April 09, 2011

Evolution of a Life Science Class

We are fortunate to have a microbiology professor as our landlord. He wanted to do something with the children and we came up with a plan to show them various things through the microscope. We started in November 2009 looking at cells from onion skin and squamous epithelium from behind the lips. We then looked at the bacteria found in curd as well as those from our mouth. We examined blood cells too. We decided to do blood group testing and blood pressure checking for all children. We discussed antigens and antibodies, and the ABO system and how it gets determined genetically. Our explorations explained why one teacher had a daughter with negative blood group, even though she and her husband both had positive blood group.

Noticing the interest level among the children, we deviated from the traditional botany --> zoology--> human physiology path and even left the respiratory --> digestive --> circulatory --> … route. We jumped straight into “blood” instead. We discussed what the blood carries from where to where and how it is linked to each system. We talked about what all goes into our body and even what all comes out. We then went system by system – respiratory, excretory, alimentary (and food types), nervous – discussing related diseases and conditions (e.g. asthma in respiratory and coma, paralysis in nervous system). We also discussed the reproductive system as well as genetics till mid 2010. Then the science class took on a geographic bend to include “where we live.”

Meanwhile at the end of 2010, we had to close the school unit. A few of these children are going to take the Open School X Standard – RMV Exam and are continuing to study at Shikshamitra. The rest of the children have shifted to government schools. These RMV children will take their L.Sc. exam in December 2011 and Geography in June 2012.

- by Swati

April 08, 2011

Discovery near the Dock

Two children (Dinesh and Noor) found a cow skull near “the dock.” They were curious to know how old it was and how one could determine the age. At the teacher’s request they brought the skull to school. We, a group of 5 children with ages spanning 9-17 years, and the teacher, had some exciting, learning moments with the skull:

  • We identified the eye sockets and the hole for the optic nerve.
  • While looking at the teeth we had a discussion on the different types of teeth and why cows do not have all types.
  • We saw where the cow’s brain had been. Some children had seen a human skull, which has a significantly larger space for the brain than cows. This led us to the topic of evolution.
  • Someone asked how everything – flesh, skin, etc. – dissolves into the soil. We discussed how bacteria decompose those things and help in recycling food back for the plants. for the plants. Otherwise we would have used up all the food!!

  • Finally, Moinnuddin took the bull firmly by the horns (so to speak) and “rode a scooter!
- Swati