How Kerala's Project Roshni is transcending language barriers to educate migrant workers' children

We trace the growth of Ernakulam district's programme to make education inclusive for the children of migrant labourers by eliminating the barrier of language
Roshni uses bilingual and graphic instructional methods to help students who speak various mother tongues
Roshni uses bilingual and graphic instructional methods to help students who speak various mother tongues

In 2015, fifty per cent of the students in Binanipuram Government High School in Ernakulam were the children of migrant labourers. Students came from a scattered number of states and spoke everything from Hindi to Kannada and Tamil. A teacher of the school, Jayasree Kulakkunnath was curious about the students and their integration into a classroom where Malayalam was the main language of instruction.

The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) had employed educational volunteers to take care of the language problem, but the system was flawed. Jayasree says, "The volunteers had no pedagogic role. The least they would do was to answer questions to the children in their own languages. But that didn't take them anywhere, it would only lead to more questions. There was no growth."

That year, she decided to research about the students and why they had such a hard time adapting to the classroom. She says, "From my experience, the students are exceptionally smart but unable to learn in the long run. At the time, we tried every possible method of teaching but they were unable to learn. Through my interactions with the children, I understood that they were extremely talented but it was a struggle to help them adapt to the instructional languages and to bring their abilities outside. That's when I decided to approach Dr KN Anandan."

Learning curves: Migrant children struggled with Malayalam instructions

The switch over

KN Anandan is a linguist in the Chomskyan language pedagogy and an English language consultant. According to him, language is biological. His theory states, "We are all born with an inner language system. Due to which, learning a language is like puberty; it is a genetic process. The child acquires the mother tongue non-consciously by customising his innate language system, which Chomsky calls 'Universal Grammar'. Anandan's pedagogical models have been demonstrating how the theory can be
translated into classroom practice." For Jayasree and Dr Anand, the working idea was that speech is language.

So they gathered that the first priority was to include the students' mother tongue languages during instruction in the classroom. Jayasree asks, "Suppose we are speaking to a large group. We tend to switch between languages once we gauge the audience. This is not translation, it's a switch over. The idea is that both languages are mastered but one is used practically. But the question we needed to answer was, how do you bring this concept into a classroom? How do you use it in pedagogy? And how can the students' mother tongue be used to teach them the instructional language?"

It wasn't long before they put their fingers on the answer. Jayasree illustrates what they learnt, "When a child is born, we talk to them, we don't immediately begin by teaching them the intricacies of the alphabet or grammar. We actually learn through listening to the rhyme and rhythms of a language. For some reason, the classroom process has always been reversed. We go from letters to words when we should be going from words to letters. These children are introduced to a new language before they are ready to navigate it. Their inner language perameters are not set." They realised that they had to teach in a way where the language will naturally get adopted and decided to find a way to replicate it in the classroom by teaching students to derive and learn.

BRIDGE BARRIERS:  The students were introduced to grammar prematurely

Everything is discourse

Going forward, their main aim was to create meaningful discourse construction through minimum traditional communication. Jayasree points out that this could be done through various mediums of discourse like singing, drama and language itself. When they built their working model for the students from out-of-state, their chosen medium of discourse was graphic reading.

Jayasree explains, "For example, we show the picture of a frog to a child. Students who speak Malayalam will say 'thavala'. In addition to this, the other children will say what the same animal is called in their native language. And through repetition and natural hearing, they learn each word. The switch over to the second language must be done with scientific and technical  precision. Images and words must be linked and associated to nudge the children's natural scientific association. We are working to wake their phonemic consciousness."

START UP: It was first implemented for 1st standard students

Applying it in the classroom

Towards the end of 2015, Jayasree implemented the idea in her own school. They set up a school research group headed by Jayasree and the Head Mistress of the school. In their first attempt, they only implemented the programme with Malayalam for 1st standard students. There were 12 children in the class. Through practice, they learnt that if the classes were effective, the children start reading alphabets on their own within 45 hours. They also found that most of the learning happens inside the children's brains and it can only happen through regular repetitions and association activities.

When it was successful in the Lower Primary section, she replicated the same for the Upper Primary section in October. By December, students were able to read and write Malayalam. At this point, the SSA got interested and wanted to conduct a  study to see the applications of the method. They decided to tested it out on a group of Bengali speakers and were successful. They were so impressed by the research that seminars were presented about the genius of the programme at state level meetings of the SSA. In 2016, the programme was extended to other classes. When they replicated the graphic reading method for students of 7th standard, they were so successful that the students created a magazine by the end of it.

Taking notes: Jayasree Kulakkunnath with one of the students in Roshni

Learning with breakfast

Jayasree and her team decided to delve deeper. They visted the homes of the children. They found single room houses in the colonies. She says, "Most of them are first generation out-of-state migrants. Their homes are just single rooms with no electricity where the heat of the kitchen suffocates you. There's not enough space to sleep for the whole family. Most importantly, we found out that these children were showing up in school with empty stomachs. The mothers and fathers have to leave early in the morning for their jobs, they don't even have the time to feed their kids."

So they introduced a breakfast programme. The out-of-state students would arrive an hour early in their schools at 8:30 AM for a hearty breakfast and an hour of classes with the volunteers. The SSA still had 18 volunteers placed across schools.  When the programme was altered to include breakfast, it also added a session of general interactions with the volunteers. The morning breakfast programme ensured that the children's' physical health would also improve along with their mental health.

Around this time,  K. Mohammed Y Safirulla IAS, the District Collector of Ernakulam at the time, made an announcement about the education of the children of migrant labourers in the city. During field visits, he would often spot these young children at their parents' workplace and got concerned as to why they weren't in school. Through research he found that a large chunk of them didn't attend school and that the dropout rates were extremely high. He called a meeting including educators and NGOs, where Jayasree was also invited.

Later, the collector visited Binanipuram Government High School incidentally. On that day, he funded the students' breakfast programme. During this time, Jayasree gave him a detailed proposal to implement the programme across the district, including all the progress they had made in the school. The collector was very impressed. In his next meeting, he implemented the programme in 4 schools across the district.

BEGIN RIGHT: All classes begin after a staple breakfast session

The first phase

When Diwali came in October 2017, the programme was officially introduced under the name Roshni. This was how Roshni's first phase began. They began by spending 20 rupees on each child for breakfast and 2,000 rupees to pay the volunteers. The collector also appointer Jayasree as Academic Co-Ordinator of Roshni. Once the programme was enrolled, the volunteers were personally trained by her. Even after leaving Binanipuram GHS, she would get updates about the programmes's progress in the school through monthly meetings that the collector called.

In January 2018, the programme was officially inaugurated. Jayasree and General Coordinator of Roshni, CK Prakash, comprehensively evaluated each school in the district and found that there was a 70 per cent improvement in almost all the schools. In the same year, the programme got extended to 20 schools. More SSA volunteers were taken in and given specialised training. Students would begin attending claasses at 8:30 in the morning. After a 90 minute breakfast and class, the multilingual children would attend regular classes.

Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL) Kochi offered their support in terms of financial aid without which the project would have struggled to meet its monetary requirements

At this point, a new issue raised its head. As the number of students increased, they found it hard to stay in track of the needs of the children at a multi-graded level. Jayasree says, "We found that it was difficult to implement the programme across multiple grades and to gauge how it was helping students at individual levels. We needed to understand their lives." So, as part of the programme, volunteers visited the homes of each student who came under the programme and created profiles of them in an attempt to understand them better.

To ensure their attendance, during the process of taking attendance, volunteers have to take a picture of the children and upload it on the programme's google drive each day. To further strengthen the programme and minimise the number of dropouts, they introduced summer camps in the first phase to try and have the children be interested in staying in school. Most summers, they would go to their hometowns with their family and not return for 3-4 months and ended up repeating a grade. Currently, the programme benefits by using volunteers in a superior way by making sure that they interact between the teachers and students in an attempt to fill the language gap between them.

TEAM ROSHNI: The individuals behind the successful initiative

A day at Union Lower Primary School

I ushered myself into Union Lower Primary School in North Ernakulam on a busy Wednesday afternoon. It was World Food Day when i visited the school and the students were conducting a food festival by bringing traditional foods from their states. I didn't really grasp the diversity that the school contained until I was caught off guard by the taste of a sweet drink from Jharkhand that was made by a 12 year old girl called Mushrat Parveen.

Mushrat and her family moved to Kochi from Jharkhand when she was barely able to speak. Today she speaks Malayalam and English better than almost all her classmates. "I can't speak Malayalam at home because my parents don't understand it yet," she laughs. "It was difficult for me too at first but the teachers helped by explaining it to me in my language, so that helped. First we used small words and sentences with pictures and I learnt by connecting all of them together." The walls of the school are dotted with pictures Mushrat has drawn or her trophies for dancing.

GAME ON: The students of Union LP School at lunch break

Sumayya Saidu, who has been working as Head Mistress of the school for the past 15 years, gloats at the thought of how much the child has improved. She says, "Since the time I joined, I've been seeing at least 30-40 per cent of out-of-state children in the school and the number has been gradually growing. We have always been dealing with the difficulty to reach out to these children and to really teach them. Their way of living and culture are completely different. The children speak Bhojpuri, Bengali, Assamese and Hindi and we didn't speak any of those languages. We have never let them sit idle but our greatest difficulty was cutting through this great language and cultural barrier."

Four years ago, they approached the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan citing the fact that we had a larger number of students from other states and they responded by sending a volunteer. When Roshni was officially introduced, the school was naturally brought under the programme. Sumayya says, "When we really started being able to get through to them, we realised that the students we have are brilliant. We've introduced them to a number of languages, sciences and arts including music and dance and they've excelled at everything. They perform better than students who have had no need to overcome something in the first place."

HEAD START: Headmistress Sumaiyya Saidu with her students

There are 16 children in their 1st standard class. Out of them, 15 students are from out-of-state. Now, the teachers themselves have learnt to speak in Hindi and the instructions get through. Even in the absence of volunteers, the teachers speak to the students in their mother tongues. Sumayya says, "We are learning as much as they have. In fact, now the Malayali students speak fluent Hindi! It's been a give and take process for sure."

"You can ask them anything," says Sumayya with barely concealed pride. "We do our part, which is coaching them. It's been a tight effort on the ends of the teachers. We would come up with new ways every day to try and bridge the gap with them. We conduct special assemblies. Some days are entirely about English, Maths or Science. We try to specialise and make sure that the lessons are not somehow lost in any way. I might speak in English or Malayalam and the volunteer translates it for the students. Nothing should slip between the cracks."

Having worked extensively with out-of-state students and their parents, Sumayya's experiment is testament to the success fo Roshni. She says, "After the programme came, the parents' lives have become so much better that they can actually perform their jobs well because they do not need to be tensed about the children. For mothers, the work has halved. They can drop the children here at 8 and take care of earning. Breakfast is always served on time. We have varying menus every day supplied by the government including milk and eggs. We've taken on a huge chunk of the responsibilities that ordinarily would be in the parents hands. We make sure that these children are not just educated, but also fed and healthy. We have things under control now. This is an effort that started in June. It takes around 3-4 months for the students to really be reeled in and made part of the programme."

ALL SORTS: Students at the school come from various parts of the country

To be a volunteer with the Roshni Project, you need to be multilingual and at least a class 12 pass out. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan's previously underutilised representatives have become a significant part in making Roshni work and Union LP School's Roopa John makes this crystal clear. Volunteers are divided between 4 regions: Ernakulam, Thrippunithara, Perumbavoor and Aluva. Each region has 10 schools each. Roopa is in charge of the Ernakulam region. These days, a few exceptional volunteers are entrusted with the task of preparing the modules for students, Roopa is one of the select few.

She says, "I am in charge of making the modules for the LP section. What we do is, we set them and send it to the WhatsApp group we share with all the relevant information and materials for that particular day. In our schools, everything is taught according to the modules. We also prepare reading cards and train students to make them themselves. There are also colourful books like Pusthakapoomazha that are very helpful in helping them learn. We make them write it down. We give them half a story and ask them to complete it or add lines. This is the model that is used in the exams. Back in the day, we used to have proper question-answers, now we show a picture and ask them to describe it in both languages. We also show them videos and explain it to them with questions and interactions."

BIG CHANGES: The programmes have made life easier for migrant families

Because the volunteer responsibilities are increasing, Roshni has begun training students who speak multiple languages from the higher grades to share some of the responsibilities with the main volunteers. Each student is responsible for a number of fellow students. Roopa explains, "There are some slangs that even we do not understand. A lot of the students don't speak proper Hindi, they speak Bhojpuri, so we need other students who speak the same to be able to communicate with those students. It is the younger students that we need help with, older children are easier to handle because they would have already grasped at least the basics of English or Malayalam." Ananye Rajesh, Roopa's daughter, is one such volunteer.

With the advent of Roshni, dropouts have decreased significantly. Roopa says, "Many students attend school for a year, then go to their hometowns for vacation never to be seen again, they may come back 3 or four months later and join first standard again. Now, after Roshni has been implemented, we basically have no dropouts at all. Even if they go, they are back in a week or so. Before, school was something they were afraid of because everything about it was unfamiliar, now they have something to come back to."

STEP UP: Older students support the volunteers 

The volunteers assist the teacher in the bilingual instruction process. After morning classes, Roopa visits each individual class and help the students and teachers. They identify a few slow-paced students in each grade and provide additional classes for them after school for an hour.  "Because we are literally in between during this process, we  grow very close to the children," says Roopa. "The students even share things they don't share with their families with us! They are here day in and day out. We develop a special attachment to the because they literally see us from morning to the minute they leave."

"Everything changed when Roshni came," says Roopa. "Children used o faint in the mornings. It was only when they conducted surveys and visited their homes under Roshni that we discovered why these children were so unhealthy. Then, they weren't able to pay attention even if they wanted to. We created awareness among the parents themselves. Before, students were so uninterested and you could see the dread in their faces when classes began. Now, I find them eagerly waiting in their seats even before I reach for the morning classes." 

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