In India, millions of children dropped out of school during the pandemic. The loss of learning due to the pandemic-induced closure of schools was particularly severe for children from rural and tribal areas, who had little to no access to online learning. Anandi, a newsletter in Marathi, published by the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (HBCSE), Mumbai, hopes to reduce their learning gaps via the print medium. In this article, Rohini Karandikar, a former visiting scholar at HBCSE writes about the newsletter and what makes it special.
Schools re-started in their ‘offline’ mode only last year. Resuming education after the lockdown was no cakewalk, as teachers were challenged with creating a friendly environment for students who had returned after a long gap. Students, too, struggled with acclimatizing to the classroom environment and catching up to close learning gaps. If this was hard for anyone who studied online, those on the other side of the technological divide had it worse. Among those who lacked access to online learning, few were able to resume education.
During the lockdown, most students aged 12 – 16 from rural and tribal regions helped their parents in farming, cattle-rearing, or other family occupations that would help earn them a living. Some got completely absorbed in such activities. These students had no access to textbooks, as shops were closed. Some educators recommended learning through simple kitchen activities. However, this was impossible for students whose families struggled to manage two square meals daily. All possible doors to learning had closed. Students were left with no option but to discontinue formal education. According to a report, between the years 2020 – 21 and 2021 – 22, an estimated 4.7 million children at the elementary level had dropped out for reasons including the pandemic.
Anandi – reaching the unreached
Started in January 2022, the newsletter is named Anandi, which means ‘blissful’ in Marathi, and runs with the tagline “Edu-Reach: To reach the un-reached”. The bimonthly newsletter covers STEM content linked to, and complementing the curriculum for grades 8 – 10. It engages the readers through a mix of articles, stories, conversations, puzzles, and activities using informal and conversational language, and appealing visuals. The newsletter is printed and posted to school teachers from rural and tribal regions of Maharashtra, who deliver it to every student’s doorstep at no additional cost!
While the newsletter is written in Marathi, the mother tongue in most families of the rural and tribal areas is either a dialect of Marathi, such as Malvani, or a different language, like Madia and Gond. Hence, the Marathi written in the newsletter is plain in addition to being jargon-free. Aniket Sule, Professor and faculty-in-charge of Anandi at HBCSE points out the challenge in simplifying the language: “It is not always easy to convey scientific concepts in informal language as the scientific terminology in Marathi is primarily derived from Sanskrit words, which are again unfamiliar and alienating for the students. Thus, we always have to weigh the trade-off between easy-to-understand phrasing and precise scientific wording.”
Many readers of Anandi are also first-generation school-goers, with minimal learning support from family members. In this vein, the content is meticulously designed in the context of the student’s immediate vicinity, their everyday experiences, and their cultural practices. Moreover, the writers are mindful of students’ social and emotional development while creating the contents of the newsletter.
Raising the scientific temperament of students with Anandi
The topics in Anandi touch upon various concepts, such as the role of chemistry in our everyday lives, astronomy, physics, food and nutrition, the biology of soil, etc. The newsletter follows the “observe, inquire, reflect” pedagogy, and aims at introducing the nature of science and developing a scientific temper among students. For example, one article – Vidnyan mhanje kay? (What is science?) introduces students to the importance of detailed observation and recording what is observed. This is explained using the example of time-keeping using stonehenges or monuments that functioned like sundials in ancient times. Another example explained how extinct species were identified based on the study of fossils. Both examples emphasized the power of curiosity, inquiry, and scientific reasoning.
A major highlight of Anandi is that some articles tell stories of how different systems evolved with time – calendars, language, time-keeping systems, postal communication, etc. These topics have little, if any, space in textbooks, and make learners appreciate the changes science and technology bring to society. A few recent issues have also introduced students to different occupations such as writing & publishing, advertising, and administrative services. Another issue contained a crossword game to ignite students’ curiosity about the names of successful Indian women in various professions and sports.
The content raises many questions for students to think about and respond to. The newsletter provides a students’ response sheet, where students can write their responses, or record observations for various activities. For instance, a series of issues carried space for students to record monthly observations of farming taking place around them– ploughing, sowing, growth of crops, etc. What’s more, students can also send their feedback on business reply envelopes, that are sent along with the newsletters. Students’ responses, poetry, artwork, ambitions, etc., are published in some issues of Anandi.
The reach, far and wide
Currently, more than 6000 students from nearly 60 schools receive these colourful, printed newsletters. A paper discussing the journey of the newsletter from inception to the present was published in the epiSTEMe 9 conference proceedings last year. The paper mentions heartening responses from the students. “I liked the idea of how students came together to build a library (when schools were closed)”. This comment was in response to a vignette that appeared in the editorial section of the January 2022 issue. It mentioned how students from a village got together and started a community library from their own book collection!
Some responses can be disappointing though. As Aniket Sule points out “The challenge is getting the students to write individual feedback. As our educational system does not encourage students to take individual initiative, from some schools we have seen a bunch of feedback sheets returned with identical responses. Changing this mentality will take time”.
Meanwhile, the team working behind the newsletter is striving to “extend the boundaries towards an inclusive curriculum”, says Asmita Redij (Post-doctoral fellow at HBCSE), who is the editor of the newsletter. She conceptualized the idea of Anandi and now co-ordinates a team of STEAM educators, illustrators, and administrative personnel, among other institutional members who contribute to the success of every issue of the newsletter. Samatvam Trust supports the printing and distribution of this newsletter.
The road ahead
The world may have gone back to pre-pandemic days. But for schools from rural and tribal regions, the effects of lockdown persist. Even now, school teachers go door-to-door ensuring students attend school regularly. Is Anandi the magic bullet to prevent more dropouts? Only time will tell!
Anandi has shown that technology cannot solve all problems, especially those created by technology itself. Even today, old print media, such as newsletters, and postal services can potentially move mountains for the future of education.
Drawing from the experience gained so far, Aniket says, “There is an appetite among students for digestible and relatable content. Given the size of our student population, our education and outreach efforts so far have only reached a small fraction of the students. We need to prioritize large-scale outreach projects to make a difference in the overall system.”