This is a mostly comprehensive summary of what we did in Bijawar this December.
We talked to the people at two computer shops in Chhatarpur – Microworld Computers, whom we were referred to by an acquaintance who runs a cyber cafe, and Computer Care & Ware. We stopped by Microworld Computers, but there was no one in the shop to talk to, so we didn’t pursue it. Computer Care & Ware sent someone to the high school to look over the setup and give us a quote on how much they would charge for a regular monthly service contract, which includes cleaning, antivirus updates and scans, checking internet connectivity, and reinstalling any buggy software. Their quote came to Rs. 1000 per month.
This whole exercise propelled the assistant principal into taking more interest in the maintenance and upkeep of the computer lab for what seems to us the first time. He thought the quote was too high and started calling people he knew to find a better price. The same evening, we decided to go to Chhatarpur to meet with one of his new contacts at Bundelkhand Computers to see if we could get the broken UPS fixed. We met with Subhash Tiwari, who told us about other computer work he does around Chhatarpur at different academic institutions. Although no one there knew about UPS systems, we did get the name of the LG service engineer I mentioned in my last post; he eventually came to the school, but he was mostly unable to diagnose the problem. Subhash also visited us eventually and cut the ethernet cables that the assistant principal had bought last March to the right sizes and connected all of the computers to hubs. We measured the distances in the new computer lab that has been under construction for at least eighteen months to make sure that the cables were long enough to work there. We also strung a 50-foot cable to the next room so that the babus (administrative assistants) would have a dedicated internet connection. Until now, they’d been moving the DSL modem between the two rooms, creating lots of frayed and tangled wires.
The UPS still isn’t working, so the classes are at a standstill. We measured the voltage across the batteries, and they seem to be holding a charge just fine, so we’re kind of at a loss as to why the UPS is unable to funnel that power to the computers. We’re still working on getting this issue resolved. The next step is to get in contact with a store that sells and services Amaron batteries (the kind that are in the school) and have their service technician check the batteries one more time. If he says they’re okay, then we know the UPS is the problem, and we’ll have to find a way to get that fixed. We have yet to find someone in Chhatarpur who can do that kind of work, so we might have to look in Jhansi (four hours away) or Gwalior (eight hours away, with two bus changes).
As far as printed material goes, we picked up a book called Dynamic Memory Computer Course (ISBN: 818419255X) at the Jain Book Agency in Delhi (here’s the book on their site, but there’s no picture or good description). It’s in Hindi, and it seems to be a really good reference for the teacher and kids in Bijawar. I think the teacher also found the books that the school already had, but I’m not totally sure where they are or what happened to them.
We spoke with some of the students from the first batch, and they’re really interested in being able to use the computers on their own time. Once we get the UPS fixed and the classes running again, we’re going to see if the teacher can open up the lab on Sundays to allow students who’ve already taken the computer class access to the computers.
Girls’ HS School
At the Girls’ HS School, we’re working with a passionate, young woman teacher to see if there is some way that we can get them computers so that they can implement a program similar to that at the boys’ school. I’ll keep you updated on this as we get further along in the process.
English language education
During this visit, we also wanted to explore the possibility of teaching English language conversational skills, reading, and comprehension to ninth and tenth graders. We first needed to assess their English skills grade level as compared to American standards in order to establish a baseline from which we could work, so we took some copies of short stories from the magazine Highlights for Children (aimed at US kids, ages 6-9). We asked Divya, the English teacher at the Boys’ HS School, to send us five girls and five boys from the ninth and tenth grades who might be interested in helping us with this two-week project. Not surprisingly, there was a huge response, and we were inundated with requests from students and their parents. I’m still not sure if this response was because they genuinely wanted to learn English or just because the classes were free.
We started the project with a group of five each of ninth grade girls and tenth grade boys. Most of these kids were the best students in their classes, with parents who had the most resources, but it very quickly became evident the students had absolutely no conversational skills. They could read at approximately an American 2nd grade level, but their reading comprehension was very poor. Their theoretical grammar knowledge was pretty good – unsurprising, as this is something that can be written and memorized – but their ability to apply that knowledge was limited to nonexistent. Along the same lines, the students are being taught to memorize English. The teacher reads short passages from their textbook aloud and either dictates or writes down the answers to all the questions in that lesson, and the kids memorize those answers word-for-word. We went through a couple of the lessons from their textbook, and each one of the students just spit out the same rote answers.
In general, though, the students were very enthusiastic, showed up on time, and were ready to learn. They usually did conversational role-playing for the first half of the hour and then reading comprehension from the Highlights short stories for the second half. This pattern seemed to hit all of the points we wanted to emphasize, but our limited time in Bijawar made it difficult to assess if they were really retaining information and skills. When we left, they all wanted to know how they could keep learning – something which we’re still struggling to figure out.