You know how most conferences are just a little dull and you end up daydreaming at least once during yet another Powerpoint presentation? Well, not this one. From the outset, when the hall was filled with the children’s voices singing their ‘welcome song’ written and composed by lab co-ordinator Madhura Rajvanski, it was evident this conference was going to be a bit different from the norm.
All the grannies, co-ordinators, teachers and School in the Cloud team gathered in Phaltan, Maharashtra last Thursday for the conference which marked the end of an amazing week visiting the TED Prize research labs in Korakati, Chandrakona and Gocharan. We’d travelled by bus, boat, car, plane and van rickshaw and clocked up more hours on the road in under a week than most of us would do in a month (Sugata put it into context by saying we’d travelled the equivalent of Newcastle to Athens!) and yet everyone was still upbeat and full of energy.
In each lab we visited, we were blown away by the generosity and welcome we received, but at Phaltan, where the lab is located in Pragat Shikshan Sanstha’s Kamala Nimbkar Balbhavan Marathi medium school, it was taken up another level.
As we arrived, handmade necklaces were placed around our necks and the children greeted us in their own languages, dressed in amazing finery to represent the diverse cultures and religions within the school.
Parents had been up since 6am to create artworks such as this peacock below, made from powdered paint, and the walls of the classrooms were adorned with everything from flamingos to flowers. We were blown away by the creativity of the whole community, as well as by their amazing culinary talents. We not only enjoyed sweet treats in the wonderful Diwali room, but also at the many stalls set up by the children for us to sample regional delicacies before our long bus journey back to Pune.
We even had a VIP tour of the King of Phaltan’s palace beforehand and when he addressed the conference he charmed the audience by saying the grannies were all a lot younger than he’d imagined! Shrimant Ram Raje Naik-Nimbalkar, who is also a politician, admitted that although he had been in politics for 25 years, in his heart he was a teacher and promised to do everything in his power to help spread “this unique model of education (SOLE)” across the region.
Everywhere I looked during the day there were impromptu granny sessions popping up as children – over the moon to finally meet their ‘own’ grannies – were making the most of having them there in person. The grannies also got an insight into what it’s like to be famous, hardly able to take a few steps without a child wanting to take a photograph or get an autograph. One of my favourite moments was when one granny leant over to me and whispered ‘They keep asking for ‘selfies’ with us but they don’t know what they are. Should I tell them?!’
During the conference, there were ‘surprises’ built into the programme, which we all agreed should be a feature of all conferences as they were an absolute delight. In one, a little girl sang the ‘jelly song’ granny Liz Fewings had taught her and in another, a group performed a skit where they pretended to hold a granny session, complete with the ubiquitous cup of tea for the ‘granny’, Lorraine Schneiter. We had to constantly remind ourselves that this was a Marathi medium school, as even the youngest children confidently spoke in English.
Many of the families have very little – over 50% of the children who attend the school either have part or all their fees paid for them. Every student in this school from grades 1-7 has a granny session at least once a week, which the director believes is a great leveller. They are also trialling sessions with early years children.
“When they learnt English in the traditional way they just didn’t take it in – I wanted them to learn in a more authentic set up,” explains director Dr Manjiri Nimbkar. “I approached Suneeta (Dr Kulkarni) about setting up a SOLE lab here and we’ve not looked back since. This is not an extra-curricular activity – we believe every child should have this. If it’s left to chance, then maybe those children who need it most might not get it.”
During the conference we heard from Emma Crawley, the teacher who first tested SOLE in the UK with Sugata at her school, St Aidan’s in Gateshead, and updates from Katy Milne and Sally Rix about the Greenfields and George Stephenson High School labs respectively. The visiting teachers from Masham in North Yorkshire also spoke about their experiences, and even ran a maths SOLE during the day with the children.
It was also a chance to hear from Moumita Dey and Ritu Dangwal about the one Indian lab the granny tour didn’t have time to visit – Kalkaji in Delhi and a look behind the scenes from Ashis Biswas, who talked us through the challenges – which included lizards in the CPUs – of building the labs. Sarah Schoengold of the TED Prize, who is also a part-time granny to children in Mexico, provided a global perspective on SOLE.
Dr Suneeta Kulkarni (above) shared the Granny Cloud perspective and how this intervention made such a difference to both the children’s lives and how the SOLEs worked, which was complemented by granny Liz Fewing’s talk on the core Granny Cloud team and how they work to bring everyone together and consider how to make it sustainable in the long term (look out for a blog in the next few weeks about this).
All too soon it was time for Sugata’s closing address in which he spoke about creating a ‘curriculum of things’ and changing our approach to education from ‘just in case’ to ‘just in time’.
One of the grannies, Sunita Lama (fifth from left above), who is originally from India but now lives in Dubai, shared her thoughts about the week with me when she returned home and it perfectly sums up the effect of this amazing week on all who took part. “It has been difficult to come back to reality after the wonderful days in India,” she says.
“Having met all the grannies, coordinators, children, teachers and parents I feel a deep sense of gratitude for this opportunity. We are now a family nourishing and supporting each other. This I think is the best part. The love and affection that was showered upon us shows how great this project is and I’ve made up my mind to give even more. For me it was a humbling experience and a lesson to take home. I intend to visit other SOLE labs as well on my next trip home and I also cherish a dream to start this project in my home town Darjeeling someday soon.”
In India, when people leave they don’t say ‘goodbye’ in any language. Instead, it’s simply different variations of ‘I’ll come again’, which will resonate with many of the grannies as they settle back into normal life this week.