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.

October 14, 2011

A Little Shikshamitra?

- by Sudeshna Sinha

Shah Nawaz was initially a school dropout. He had decided to give education a chance after coming across an alternative learning space like Shikshamitra. While Shikshamitra grew, so did Shah Nawaz – drawing inspiration from each other and nurturing one another in the process. Life was not smooth for Shaw Nawaz: caught between school and his father’s shop, he stayed away from school for extended periods of time, sporadically returning with fresh enthusiasm only to disappear again. Developing fast as a thinker, a keen observer with a clear vision and a quiet, confident leader, Shah Nawaz finally managed to take the Madhyamik exam this year (2011).

On 26 March 2011, at a youth conference organized by DRCSC, Shah Nawaz gave a presentation on how Shikshamitra has influenced him. He began by describing Shikshamitra as a “different process of education” and “a relationship,” and he ended by saying that he hoped to see many more small Shikhsamitras crop up – commenting that he aspired to run one someday.

From the time Shikshamitra began in 2005, we had prepared ourselves for the fact that the school would not continue on forever. We envisioned a situation whereby it would ideally be taken over by the community we were working with in the future but this was always a hard-to-realize hope! Ideally, there should be many Shikshamitras working within different localities.

The school unit of Shikshamitra school wound up in January 2011. The decision to close was taken following a number of discussions throughout the previous year (2010). The objectives of Shikhsamitra were visited and revisited. We always took the older children into confidence with regard to the future of Shikhsamitra. In 2010, we gave an open offer to a few of them asking them to start up a Shikshamitra-type center in their community. Although some liked the idea, they did not dare take on the challenge of initiating it.

A library called Boi-Hoi-Choi (Books-Fun-and-More) was started in the community clubroom in May 2010, with 25 regular members. It was handed over to the club secretary in March 2011, once Shikhsamitra withdrew its pro-active presence from the community. At the closing ceremony, both the library members (about 25 odd) and some of the older children of Shikshamitra expressed a desire to keep the library project going. However, nothing happened as things became quite busy as our transition took place. A cupboard of books remained untouched in one corner of the clubroom.

Shikshamitra shifted to a new address – smaller and less visible, but still close to the slum. The students and staff of Shikshamitra struggled to adjust to our new place. Working in the small rooms stuffed with furniture, we reminisced about the freedoms of the huge space we were used to in the former school.

Shah Nawaz re-emerged once again, took his Madhyamik exam while remaining closely connected to Shikshamitra. One morning, as he was chatting with all of us, he expressed that he felt the library should be re-opened; and he clearly stated that he was ready to take it on as his own project. Why? What urged him to take such a decision? He must have known that he would have to shoulder the responsibility of the library alone for the most part, with others helping out off and on!

We handed the following questions to Shah Nawaz to help him focus and to clarify his thoughts:
  1. Why am I thinking of reopening the library/activity center in the local club space?
  2. Why should this happen in my slum at all?
  3. Who will come?
  4. What will happen at the space? What can I offer?
  5. What will happen if it’s not there in the first place?
The answers to these questions flowed easily from Shah Nawaz’s pen:

There was a time when some of us were just like these children in our para (locality). Like them, we struggled to read or write something. And it was so meager that we could not cope and started disliking studies. Even if some of us did manage to read and write with ease, the textbooks, exams, the stifling rules choked us completely. There was no liberty to think or learn our way. There was no time to ourselves. Disgusted, some of us – perhaps many of us – left school. We played the whole day, went for odd jobs, started working or got ourselves into ‘trouble.’

And then some of us did change, because we happened upon Shikhsamitra. It was a school where we started learning in various ways. We read stories, we worked with our hands, watched films, went out to see plays, to exhibitions, on tours. We drew and painted, worked on studying our own history and the history of our neighbourhood, we measured the distance from our school to our homes and we continuously discussed and debated various issues and our own viewpoints. And what happened to us? We started to love learning. Every day, there were new expectations, we have come a long way.

Shikshamitra has ceased to exist at 62B Alipore Road, Kolkata 700027 but the experience was so rich and the methods were so appropriate for all kinds of children, more so for children like us. I feel we have to ensure that it reaches all of the children in our slum – children, who are not learning anything in school or not really going to any school at all. It is us, from Shikshamitra, who know how to do this – how to share what we have experienced. The library could be the right space for sharing the Shikshamitra experience and its methods.

The kids will discover their talents, have a space to express these and will really get a fresh lease on education. If such a center doesn’t happen, many kids will never know how good the Shikhsamitra system can be for them! The children will continue abusing and fighting with one another – failing to understand each other and the joy of appreciating, forgiving and cooperating. They will just continue spending each day in the dungeons of their ‘little slum.’ They will never learn to look into themselves and dare to step out into the larger world. Children between the ages of 8 and 12 would be welcome at this library (or center), as they are the most vulnerable and full of potential. The library will offer books, supported reading for those who cannot read very well, art and crafts, as well as activities that help them settle down and concentrate. For this, meditation will be an essential component.

We were obviously more than convinced that the library could not be in better hands! We made it clear, however, that we would not play a prominent role in the library project and that it would have to be his own venture...and the magic started!

Consulting with the club secretary to take permission, Shah Nawaz started off by creating an attractive poster and leaflets to announce the return of the library. Some of the other Shikshamitra students (the Madhyamik aspirants) also got involved.

Although the kids discussed some new ideas (i.e. Little Shikshamitra, Little Library, Jeebanmitr), the old name, BOI-HOI-CHOI, was retained for the library. It opened on 10 September 2011, with about 30 children between the ages of 4 and 12 years in attendance. It has been taking place every Saturday, from 2:30 to 4:30. There have been four sessions since it started and the time it closed for the holidays. Shah Nawaz and the others have learned to plan the sessions, prepare materials, and manage the children. They have made a decision to focus only on the 8-12 year old group and gently turned the younger children away for the time being, without hurting their feelings. In this process, they are also learning how to control their own tempers, listening to the suggestions coming from both the library children and each other. They are practicing withholding some of their own "brilliant" ideas for the sake of running the library more smoothly!

The children coming to the library have learned to play games with less disruption and to wait their turn. They participate in group discussions about what they want or don't want at the library. Of course, they have access to a large variety of books. They are also reading and helping the non-readers to read, playing with colors, making stories and practicing some free writing on their own – in a space they can call their very own.

The success of the first four sessions has made everyone in the library project feel confident. Shah Nawaz, in particular, is brimming with hope and new ideas – he is daring to dream of this community library shaping up into "a little Shikshamitra!"

* Name has been changed for confidentiality.

It is interesting to compare how closely the original objectives for Shikshamitra match the objectives Shah Nawaz has set for his community library project:

1. Work with 9-14 year olds who are at their creative and analytical best, yet who are vulnerable1. Work with 8-12 year olds, who are vulnerable and frustrated, yet who want to learn
2. Work within an alternative environment using a curriculum that brings out the best in children2. Create an environment like Shikshamitra, where children can express themselves freely and realize their own talents
3. Use different methods in order to cater to all types of learners3. Provide a wide range of activities so that learning is enjoyable, challenging and suitable to each child's needs
4. Develop enthusiastic and independent learners, who are sympathetic, confident and good human beings4. Convert the unhappy, restless, and uncared for children into composed, happy, sympathetic learners, who can make the best of their lives
5. Support these learners so they, in turn, can be the changemakers of their community