Birthday Bashes

Birthday Bashes
Crystal Nikita S J.

Wisha, wisha, wisha! In the month of August we found ourselves magically foraying into the land of birthdays. As a child, one couldn’t have missed reading the famous “The Magic Faraway Tree” series by Enid Blyton. She uses her spell to captivate young minds and their imagination meander beyond reality, into the realm of magic. In the chapter, “The Land of Birthdays” she astoundingly, captures the wants and desires of a young girl, named Beth, who celebrates her birthday in the enchanted woods. How she enticingly spends the rest of her special daywith the stupendous characters in the woods forms the crux of this chapter.
The children were at their best spirits during this book reading and they dazzled in their party clothes. The excitement was witnessed during the first activity, where they had to correctly identify their birthdays clipped on the birthday chart. They were thrilled, both to identify their birthday and to pin their name against it on the chart. The second activity was quite different; the children were divided into three teams and were given three unusual scenarios of celebrating birthdays. The first team was given the scenario of being stuck in a village, the second team of flying outstation on an airplane and the third team of being sick on your birthday. The children were at their creative best and demonstrated with zeal how they would celebrate their birthday in such scenarios. As it incidentally happened to be a student’s birthday, we cut a birthday cake and sang the birthday song for her. Each child had a share of the sumptuous cake and was upbeat to share about the one thing that they really wished for their birthday. And finally, the birthday buzz came to an end with many a heart merry
(Crystal Nikita is a special educator at PRAYATNA.)

Shake up your study habits

Shake Up Your Study Habits
Aruna Sankaranarayanan

(First published in Education Plus, THE HINDU, 28 Sept 15)

Navya is stymied when she sees her exam results. Tears bubble up as she stares at her marks sheet. As her friends cheerfully post their marks on Facebook and Whatsapp, Navya’s hurt only intensifies. Even peers, whom she had helped on homework assignments and projects, have done better than her. Given the fact that she worked really hard this semester and had toiled before the exams, her results do not seem justified to her. Navya was sure she understood concepts as well as, or perhaps better than some of her friends. Yet, they had all performed more impressively. What could Navya have done differently for a more favourable outcome on the exam?

Performing well on exams is not just a function of how much you study but also how you study. Simply clocking up your study hours is not necessarily going to result in a desirable outcome. In his book, How We Learn, author Benedict Carey surveys the psychological literature to provide tips and strategies that have been scientifically studied.

Even if you have understood your concepts well, doing an exam requires committing information to memory. Be it facts, definitions, formulae or specialized vocabulary, you need to remember information to demonstrate your knowledge and understanding. One strategy to promote optimal recall is to space out your studying. Instead of studying and reviewing your Chemistry lessons for three hours at a stretch, you may do three one-hour sessions on different days, where you study the content on one day and then review it a day later and then possibly after a week. While the total time you spend studying Chemistry will be the same, your ability to recall information will be better if you space your sessions apart. Of course, for you to spread out your study sessions in such a manner, you have to prepare ahead of time. If you pull an all-nighter and cram just before the exam, you may be able to tackle the test paper the next day; however, it is unlikely you will remember the information a month or a year later. In contrast, spaced learning helps you retain the content better over the long-term. In terms of reaping investment from the time you put into studying, spaced sessions win hands down.

Another factor that may enhance your performance involves the location of where you choose to study. In order to avoid distraction, you may lock yourself in your room. However, Carey cites a study conducted by psychologists which shows that varying the environmental context of your studying can promote your recall of information. So, once in a while, study in the living room when it is not too noisy or crowded. The next time you revise the same material, try studying in the dining room or the balcony or a friend’s house. You may also find that a change of place improves your attention.

When students prepare for exams, they typically tackle chapter by chapter. After finishing a topic, do you test yourself by answering questions based on the chapter you just studied? In a previous article for this column, I had extolled the virtues of self-testing. Not only does testing provide a gauge of your learning, it also deepens your understanding. However, there is a more effective way to test yourself than simply quizzing yourself at the end of a chapter. That technique, called interleaving, by psychologists, involves mixing up questions and problems from different chapters.
In fact, Carey quotes a high school math teacher, Doug Rohrer, who says, “One of the things you see that’s so baffling, when you’re a new teacher, is that kids who do great on unit tests—the weekly, or biweekly reviews—often do terribly on cumulative exams on the same material.” If you are one of those students, then you need to introduce more interleaving into your study routine by asking yourself questions across different chapters.

Many a time, students also spend hours cracking a difficult theorem in Maths or tackling a knotty Physics problem. While it is essential to persist on complex topics, you must also realize that taking a break may actually help you figure out the solution. Often, when tough problems plague us, especially ones that require creative solutions, it might be worthwhile to switch gears and do something else or even simply relax. Be open to the idea that a solution to the problem may strike you at an unlikely moment or when you approach it at a different time.

In order to make up for lost time, students often end up pulling all-nighters right before an exam. They burn the proverbial midnight oil poring over their books, hoping to maximize their performance the next day. However, staying up late can be counterproductive as sleep actually promotes our recall and understanding of information. Studies show that people who sleep between learning and testing do better than those who stay awake. Furthermore, some evidence suggests that even short naps of an hour or so may be beneficial to learning. The next term your eyelids droop as you plod through your Physics textbook, taking a nap may be wiser than forcing yourself to stay awake.

So, go ahead and shake up your study habits. See what works for you, and stick with it.

Neighbourly Feelings

Neighbourly Feelings
Sapna Soman
Surprisingly, most of us have only a passing relationship with the people over the fence! Life is so busy and hectic nowadays that we don’t find time to get to know our neighbours and our neighbourhood. The importance of getting to know your neighbourhood was one of the topics discussed during the book club for the month of July in Banglaore.
The book, Mister Jeejeebhoy and the Birds, by Anita Balachandran is beautifully illustrated. The story revolves around two sisters, Diya and Tara who come to live with their Ninamasi in Dimlivili. Ninamasi is funny and tells them great stories but her house is very strange! There are strange noises in the corridor, talking and yawning photographs, mirrors that flip the images upside down and clocks going backwards! But soon Diya and Tara get used to the spooky house. Unfortunately, none of the other children in the neighbourhood likes to play with the girls as they live in this weird house. But all the children in the neighbourhood love the house next door – Mr. Jeejeebhoy’s sweet shop. Mr Jeejeebhoy is very fond of birds and there are a lot of birds in and around his house.
One fine day Diya noticed Tara’s hair turn into twisty branches and sprout leaves and soon after she discovers that she can fly. A few days later, Mr. Jeejeebhoy’s birds fly away and his shop stays shut indeterminately. The girls use their magical powers to bring back all the birds. Since they helped reopen the sweet shop all the kids in the neighbourhood begin to talk to them and asks the girls to teach them how to fly!
The first fun activity for the kids was to match different landmarks around PRAYATNA on the board which depicted a map of the neighbourhood. Next, the kids were divided into groups to enact two scenarios. The first scenario depicted an emergency situation where the grandfather fell ill and the grandchild had to call for help. The second scenario included a crisis where two kids return home from school and find themselves locked out of their house. The kids were very enthusiastic for both the activities and had a lot of fun!
Finally, the kids had a discussion about how neighbours are different from friends and relatives, and they also discussed their own neighbourhood. As a take away gift they took home some sweets reminding them of Mister Jeejeebhoy’s sweet shop.
(Sapna Soman is a Special Educator at PRAYATNA.)

Catch Them Young

Catch Them Young
Gita Nambiar
First published in Teacher Plus, August 2015

“We don’t have any children with learning difficulties”, was the curt reply of the principal of a reputed school, when we approached him to conduct a workshop for teachers on the same topic. Our intention was to create awareness of the increasing prevalence of this problem among school going children. In every class, in every school there is a small percentage of children, who are trailing behind the rest in reading, spelling, comprehension and numeracy. Should they not be given an opportunity to better their skills and move ahead on par with the rest of their mates?

Early identification, coupled with immediate intervention allows such children to overcome their inadequacies to a great extent and bridge the gap with normal children. The etiology for the existence of these difficulties continues to be a topic for research. The child may be dyslexic, having dyscalculia, dysgraphia, difficulties with paying attention, a slow learner or falling in autism spectrum. It is essential for regular school teachers to be aware of these disorders and pick out children in their classes who might possibly fall into these categories. If not identified in the early stages, these difficulties get compounded and the gap widens between these children and their peers.

Some of the symptoms preschool and kindergarten teachers could look out for are mispronounced words and baby talk, difficulty in learning and remembering names of letters, inability to associate letters with sounds and inability to read common one-syllable words such as mat, cat etc. and reading errors that show no connection to the sounds of letters, for eg. ‘big’ is read as ‘goat’. In primary school children, difficulties in speaking would include mispronunciation of long words, speech that is not fluent, use of language that is not precise, not being able to find the exact word and trouble remembering dates, names and numbers. These children be will be slow in acquiring reading skills, will have trouble reading unfamiliar words and have fear of reading aloud. Spellings will be poor and word problems in Math will pose a challenge. Many of these difficulties will persist if not remedied, even as the child transitions from one class to the next.

Once these children have been identified by the parent, teacher, psychologist or paediatrician, it is absolutely essential to get a comprehensive assessment conducted, in order to identify their strengths and weaknesses. To begin intervention, a true profile of the child is required. The assessment can be conducted in the school or at remedial centres that specialize in assessments and intervention. The younger the child the easier it is for him to overcome his learning instructor and the student.

An assessment also reveals whether there is any necessity for other kinds of intervention like speech therapy for children with difficulty in articulation, occupational therapy for those who are restless and inattentive, physiotherapy for children with gross and fine motor difficulties and behavior therapy for disruptive and maladjusted children.

In a majority of these children, low self-esteem is very common. This may manifest in many ways ranging from complete withdrawal at one extreme, to misconduct and even substance abuse at the other extreme, particularly for older children. It is of the utmost importance for school teachers to be sensitive to the feelings of these children and provide whatever assistance possible within the time and resources at their disposal. Avoiding rude and sarcastic language and offering words of encouragement will motivate them to put in their best efforts. Promoting extracurricular activities that they excel in, also helps boost their self esteem.

Not only in developing countries, but also in developed ones, more and more children at the primary school level, are being diagnosed with learning difficulties. In such a situation, teachers in mainstream schools should arm themselves with the capability to look out for and identify the symptoms of LD and provide the necessary intervention, with the help of parents and school managements. This would be in the best interests of the children, as well as the school, whose academic standards would subsequently improve.

Different Strokes

Ramya Ravichandran

Dulari Devi is considered one of the finest exponents of Mythila art today. Her work is highly acclaimed and her style in known for her refreshing new depiction of Indian life. However, Dulari Devi was not always an artist. For years, Dulari worked as a domestic help before becoming the artist that she is today. She is from a fisher folk community in Bihar. She spent her childhood and youth helping her mother in rice field, selling fish that her father caught, cooking and doing household work for others in the village. Her everyday routine involved a lot of hard and relentless labour till she discovered painting while working as a domestic help in an artist’s house.

The July month’s session in Chennai began with the reading of the book “Following My Paint Brush” written by Gita Wolf and illustrated by Dulari Devi. The children were completely engrossed in the story which recounts Dulari Devi’s journey from the life of a domestic help to that of an artist.

Children were first handed a sheet of paper each, to draw important events from their life. They were then asked to speak few lines on themselves. All the kids enthusiastically participated and excitedly shared the details of their drawings with the others.

This was followed by a brief introduction to Mythila paintings. As an example, the board was decorated with two Mythila art-style fishes. Our children were fascinated by the bold patterns of parallel black lines and intense solid colours. Our next activity, required our children to be observant as they had to look for minute differences in the two fishes. The kids paid attention to every little detail and were able to spot almost all the differences.

The children were also given an opportunity to try their hands at Mythila art; it was the final activity for the day. The kids filled the pot picture with patterns and strokes as demonstrated. The quality of the engagement, the way the children reacted, picked up drawing techniques etc., gives us a reason to believe that they enjoyed the whole interaction immensely and went back home with some inspiration.

(Ramya Ravichandran is a Special Educator at PRAYATNA.)

In the Wild

In the Wild

Kinnisha Andrew

What did you want to grow up to be? Did you want to become a doctor helping the ill, a pilot ensuring the safety of travellers, or a lawyer upholding the law? Dreams of making a difference in the world are a huge part of every childhood, and more often than not, these dreams are pushed aside to pave the way for work that is mundane, carried out simply because we must be realistic.

Patrick McDonnell’s Me… Jane tells the story of a little girl’s youthful curiosity and outdoor adventures. Jane is a young child exploring the world around her with wonder, while dreaming of a life in Africa living with and helping all animals. She spends her time climbing trees and reading books about nature, until one day her dream comes true – we finally see the iconic photograph of Jane Goodall, in Africa, gently reaching out toward a baby chimpanzee.

Jane went on to establish the Roots and Shoots Foundation to help children and young adults contribute in their own way to the conservation of the environment. The June Book Club introduced the children not just to Jane Goodall, but also to Steve “The Crocodile Hunter” Irwin and famous Indian ornithologist Salim Ali who like Jane followed their childhood dreams and contributed to wildlife conservation. As each of these figures were environmentalists, the children were also informed of small ways that they can ensure that the world we live in continues to thrive.

Each of these enterprising individuals proves that doggedly pursuing our passion with curiosity, imagination and study can lead not just to the betterment of our world, but to the sheer joy that comes from doing what we love and loving what we do.

(Kinnisha Andrew is a Special Educator at PRAYATNA.)

Dark is Beautiful

Supriya Raja

The March book club in Chennai focused on our cultural obsession with fair skin. The session opened with two advertisements promoting fairness creams. One portrayed a girl fulfilling her dreams of becoming a cricket commentator because she used a particular brand of fairness cream. The second advertisement narrated the story of a girl landing a job only after her father gifted her a fairness cream. Children pondered if being fair was necessary to be beautiful.

Attention was further drawn to this cultural bias, which spans many countries, by reading and critiquing the fairy tale, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The board looked equally intriguing with a girl’s face completely filled with faces of different skin tones. They were also enlightened about the protective benefits of the pigment melanin that determines skin colour. Kids also understood the real function of fairness creams.

As a fun activity, teachers enacted a fairness cream advertisement. Children also enthusiastically participated in role plays talking about discrimination by parents, neighbours and relatives based on skin colour. This book club also challenged the perception that being fair is a sure shot formula for success in life. Does mere skin colour determine success in life? Doesn’t true beauty comprise of wonderful qualities such as being a kind and compassionate person? In order to shake off our notion that only fair is beautiful, kids were presented with black masks as a take home gift.

(Supriya Raja is a Special Educator at PRAYATNA.)

Chance & the bibliophile

Aruna Sankaranarayanan

(First published in Education Plus, THE HINDU, 25 May 15)

A few years ago, when I bought my first e-book on Kindle, I was indeed awestruck by what seemed to be sheer magic. Within seconds of pressing, “Pay in Rupees”, the book was delivered to my device, word for word. Without my having to leave my seat, I could now have a veritable collection, literally in my hand, within minutes. Yet, despite the ease and convenience of shopping for books online, I feel a whiff of nostalgia every time a brick and mortar bookstore downs its shutters. Even though the same books are now available online, browsing through bookstores and libraries has a distinctive flavour and an ineffable quality that cannot be replicated in the virtual world.
Random encounters
The act of chancing upon a book serendipitously is much higher in a traditional bookstore as we often walk down aisles that house books that are not related to our usual interests. But as we do so, a book may call out to us and soon enough we may be leafing through its pages, intrigued by its contents. Thus, you may go to a bookshop with the intention of buying a sociology book. As you meander down the narrow aisles, making sure you don’t topple books that are precariously arranged on shelves, your eyes spy a gardening manual. A few months ago, you had told yourself that you might want to start a small terrace garden but had forgotten about the idea. The green leafy manual in front of you now rekindles your desire to liven up your apartment. Before you realise it, you are at the billing counter, buying two glossy gardening magazines. The sociology book can wait.
While we can find unexpected books online too, the probability is much slimmer because computer algorithms are designed to match people based on their previous searches and purchases. Search algorithms link people based on their interests, but very often we have latent proclivities that we ourselves are only dimly aware of. Sometimes a random, chance encounter can steer us down unchartered paths.
So, online, if you have been searching for sociology books earlier, you are likely to be led to other books on related topics. I am not denying that this, too, is an extremely valuable tool. Knowing what other like-minded customers also bought can lead us to explore a topic fairly deeply.
However, the chances of you stumbling on a book on gardening online when you are looking for a sociology one is close to nil.
Of course, if you deliberately search for greening books, you will definitely find a plethora of them. But the point of serendipitous discoveries is finding things that you are not looking for.
The pull of libraries
Old-fashioned bookstores and libraries are much more likely to provide accidental discoveries. In fact, when I was a doctoral student and had to check out journals from the library in the pre-Internet days, I had to will myself not to spend too long in the dusty stacks as I would often be drawn by books that were completely unrelated to my area of study. In fact, a book I chanced upon prompted me to enrol in a course outside my discipline.
Further, our curiosity often works in mysterious ways. We don’t always know what draws us towards a book — it could be the theme, the unusual sounding author’s name, the title or the cover of a book that takes our fancy.
But a chance encounter with a book can indeed have an impact on our lives. A book on anger management may stop you in your tracks. Reading it may change the way you relate with your kids or spouse. Or, a book on gemology could goad you to change your field of study or consider a mid-career switch. You may not even know that quilting is a pastime for many folks until the symmetrical patches on the cover of a book vie for your attention. Of course, every book is not going to lead to life alterations, either great or small. However, finding a book that speaks to you, be it fiction or non-fiction, is in and of itself an experience that every bibliophile cherishes. Book lovers often develop deep relationships with books. And good old bookshops offer us a chance to cultivate an unknown facet of ourselves.
Even though we may witness the decline and possible demise of traditional bookshops and libraries, we must try and find ways to have serendipitous experiences. Even if online retailers surprise us by making ‘serendipitous’ recommendations, I am sure their suggestions will be driven more by market forces rather than a desire to truly provide random pickings. After all, the whole point of serendipity is that we cannot plan or schedule these encounters, but we need to remind ourselves to periodically wander along unknown paths. As physician and author Siddhartha Mukherjee, writes, “Most discoveries even today are a combination of serendipity and of searching.”
The author is Director, PRAYATNA. Email:

Know Your Neighbourhood

By Chanchal J. Nair

The previous month’s book club at PRAYATNA, Chennai chose the book Mister Jeejeebhoy and the Birds by Anitha Balachandran. The story revolves around two little sisters, Diya and Tara, who come to live with their Aunt Ninamasi. Ninamasi’s house is strange. She is funny and tells them great stories but never talks about the house. However, after a while Diya and Tara too get used to the spooky elements of the house –strange noises down the corridor, talking and yawning photographs, mirrors that flip the images upside down, and clocks going backwards. Unfortunately none of the other children in the neighborhood want to play with the girls as they live in this weird house. But all the children in the neighborhood love the house next door– Mr. Jeejeebhoy’s sweet shop.

One day, Diya notices Tara’s hair is turning into twisty branches and sprouting leaves and after a while she makes a discovery of her own that she can fly. Few days later, Mr. Jeejeebhoy’s birds fly away and his shop stays shut indeterminately. The girls’ delightful magical powers helpthem solve this crisis and befriend the kids in the neighborhood.

The first activity for the day was a matching game. The board depicted a map of the neighborhood around PRAYATNA. Kids had to place the cards, which had different landmarks on them, on the map. The kids were so excited that they couldn’t wait for their turn as they were familiar with the hotels, cafes, schools, hospitals and other shops in and around the area.

Another interesting activity involved dividing children into three groups and a scenario was given to each group to enact. The three role plays showed three different situations where a neighbor can be helpful. The first role play depicted an emergency situation where a grandfather fell sick and his grandchild had to call for help. The second scenario was a crisis where two kids were locked out when they came back home from school. The third role play portrayed how kids in the neighbourhood can have fun together. All the kids were enthusiastic to participate in the role play.

Last, but not the least, kids discussed how neighbours are different from other friends and relatives. The kids also spoke about their own neighbourhoods. The participants took home lollipops reminding them the sweet shop of Mr. Jeejeebhoy.
(Chanchal Nair is a Special Educator at PRAYATNA.)

Parent Forum, Chennai-2015

Gita Nambiar

The Parent Forum in Chennai took place on March 7. This year, we discussed sibling issues and bullying in schools. The staff enacted two role plays; that of one sibling teasing the other and of two siblings fighting over which TV channel to watch. Some of our sporting parents also enacted scenarios commonly seen in households. Parents came up with solutions to these problems.
This was followed by an explanation of the principles from the book Siblings Without Rivalry written by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Parents need to acknowledge the feelings of each child, simultaneously stopping their hurtful actions and helping them to discharge their anger in an acceptable manner. Comparing two siblings is an absolute no-no; rather, parents must treat each child as a unique entity. They are not to be locked into particular roles. Normal bickering between two siblings may be ignored, but when the situation gets out of hand, intervention is necessary. An effective strategy is to call both siblings, allow them to air their grievances and themselves come up with solutions. Parents can then decide on the best solution. Support the child who asks for it, without showing partiality. A child with a problem should be treated like any other, and not a problem child.
Bullying is very common in schools and parents need to be alert to the warning signs. These include school avoidance, changes in behaviour, drop in test grades, trouble sleeping and eating, unexplained injuries, loss of belongings etc. Parents need to fortify the child with strategies to counteract bullying. The child needs to be assertive with the bully. He may confide in and take help from friends, introspect on his behaviour and not allow the bully to be aware of his being upset. Children can avoid situations that provoke bullying. Talking to parents or the school counsellor can also alleviate the problem.
Parents need to keep a clear head and view the issues impartially and sympathetically before diplomatically coming up with solutions.

(Gita Nambiar is a Special Educator at PRAYATNA.)