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: arunasankara@gmail.com

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.)

Story Time

By Radhika Menon

It was story time again at PRAYATNA! This time we decided to take the kids around the world. We travelled to each continent and discovered a few of its epics. Apart from Ramayana and Mahabharata, the kids were introduced to some world famous epics like Iliad, Odyssey, Gilgamish, Cana and Popol Vuh.
The activities of the book club were designed to make children understand what an epic was. The session jump started with a reading of Vyasa’s Mahabharat. The kids paid attention to every line that was read out. A quiz was, based on the book, was conducted and all the kids responded fervently.
In the next activity, the children were handed some picture cards which had to be arranged to form a story. The kids then came up and narrated a story based on the pictures given to them. The children were given notepads to pen down their thoughts. Perhaps, their writing pursuits would one day result in a great epic!

(Radhika Menon is a Special Educator at PRAYATNA.)

Dealing with Other Kids: Sibling and Peer Issues

Kushal Talgeri

Siblings and peers-we love them, at times hate them, but we most definitely can’t do without them. This year’s parent forum was targeted at equipping parents with some strategies for dealing with sibling issues and bullying at school. Through role plays and group discussions, parents were encouraged to illustrate examples of challenges they faced at home in rearing more than one child. Most cited accusations of being partial and of giving more time to one child and difficulties with sharing limited resources. They also brainstormed on solutions for these issues and came up with some creative ones.

We then shared some principles of dealing with sibling issues based on those outlined in the book Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish. With examples of conversations between parents and children, we explained how it was important that siblings have their feelings about each other acknowledged and to understand that they cannot engage in hurtful actions and instead express their anger in acceptable ways. Parents were also alerted to the fact that we need to strongly resist our immediate reactions, the ones that come automatically to us like comparing siblings, trying to treat them equally and stereotyping children into set roles. Instead, we have to focus on the wrong behaviour, treat each child uniquely and help kids to replace wrong behaviour with appropriate ones. Parents were then encouraged to apply these principles to the situations that were role played earlier and they did so quite well. Parents were then reminded that these strategies may not come magically to us overnight but that we may practice a couple of them frequently and eventually they may become second nature to us.

We then touched upon the topic of children who have one or more siblings with difficulties. From Mary McHugh’s book, Special Siblings, parents were given some suggestions to help them deal with their environment at home where one child may have special needs. They were told that each child needed time alone with parents and that it was important to look for ways to give each child special attention, to allow kids to ask questions if another child has a problem and to give accurate information in a child-appropriate way. It is also crucial that as a family, we adopt a healthy problem-solving style and appreciate accomplishments of all our children. McHugh also mentions in her book that growing up with a sibling with special needs has its positives, making one tolerant and optimistic being just a couple of them.

The other aspect the forum addressed was bullying. Some parents shared some heart-wrenching instances when their children were bullied. Parents were told that it was crucial that they develop a close bond with their children so that they open up easily to them if they are bullied. To make this possible, each parent was encouraged to spend 10-15 minutes doing what the child wanted without any instructions or criticism and also as a family, discuss one good and one bad thing that happened to them everyday; it was heartening to hear a parent mention that they had tried out these tips and that they had worked effectively in helping their child open up to them. Parents were alerted to the signs that a child is being bullied-school refusal over a period of time, sudden behavioural changes, sudden drop in school performance, trouble sleeping or eating to name a few. Through role plays, we then shared some strategies to help children handle bullying. While emphasising that no form of bullying should be tolerated, parents were encouraged to teach their children to be assertive, to consider their own behaviour, to avoid situations in which the bully maybe provoked, to simply ignore the bully and to seek help from friends, school counsellor and/or parents.

We hope that parents find the tips we shared useful, experiment with them and give us feedback on how effective they find them.

(Kushal Talgeri is a Special Educator at PRAYATNA.)

Knowledge knows no boundaries

Aruna Sankaranarayanan

First published in Education Plus, THE HINDU, 9 February 2015

The disciplinary boundaries between the arts and sciences are set in stone in most Indian colleges, both literally and metaphorically. The pure sciences and related disciplines like microbiology, electronics and nanotechnology are typically housed in a separate building from departments like English, history and journalism. Further, once a student opts for a particular stream, he can bid farewell to studying subjects offered by the other. Very few colleges in India offer programs that allow students to transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries between the Arts and Sciences. And due to this narrow, streamlined mindset, many students hold misconceptions about a Liberal Arts education, even when they are applying to foreign universities.

Students who are inclined towards the sciences and related fields tend to eschew applying to programs that offer a Liberal Arts education. However, the rationale for this decision is misplaced as one can avail of an excellent Science education in a liberal arts college. What Liberal Arts entails is that a student takes courses across multiple disciplines while specializing or majoring in a subject of one’s choice. Thus, a student can major in chemistry but has to take a prerequisite number of courses across an array of disciplines ranging from anthropology to women’s studies to philosophy.

“But what is the point of taking courses unrelated to my field?” a student may rightly ask. This question is more likely to be posed by someone who is certain of her choice of subject. For example, Pavitra is quite certain she wants to do a Ph.D. in particle physics in the long term. “Why,” she asks, “must I endure tracts of Shakespeare and Marx when I disliked English and economics in school?” A person who harbours such strong sentiments is indeed likely to benefit from a broader and more rounded education precisely because she is so set in her views. I am not disputing the fact that Pavitra likes some subjects over others; her views may only intensify after she takes a mandatory English or philosophy or psychology course. But as an undergraduate, she is still too young to necessarily know or understand the breadth and scope of fields and the undergraduate years are an excellent time to sample what different fields have to offer. Often, content covered in school is of a rather basic nature and a student may not really get a grip on what a field entails unless she studies it at a more advanced level. While it is not possible for any student to take courses in all disciplines, sampling a broader variety of courses can guide youngsters towards a path that is more akin to their interests.

Furthermore, taking courses across disciplines can help you view your own subject from a new lens. When I was in high school, I disliked biology. What I didn’t know, at that time, was that I probably didn’t like the subject because I had three different teachers teaching it in the span of a year. As a result, I did not opt for biology in Grade XI & XII, choosing electronics instead. However, once I got to college and pursued psychology, I realized that I was more drawn towards biology than I had initially thought. When studying how the mind works and why people behave in certain ways, I realized that an understanding of the brain was essential. Thus, when I started reading about the brain as a college student, I experienced a twinge of regret for having given up on biology too soon.

Moreover, disciplinary boundaries are not as opaque or rigid as we are normally led to believe. After all, knowledge knows no boundaries. Fields that differ substantively from another, may actually use one another’s methods. For example, Matthew Jockers, an assistant professor of English at the University of Nebraska, relies on digital tools to analyse trends, themes and patterns in literary tomes. He relies on algorithms to sieve through texts. Likewise, the interdisciplinary field of neuroeconomics uses the methods and tools of neuroscience, psychology and behavioral economics to understand how humans make economic decisions.

Thus, while students of the humanities may benefit from taking courses in science, the scientists may also expand their view of the universe through the prism of historians, biographers and philosophers. In his biography of the eminent scientist, Walter Isaacson writes that Einstein was asked by the New York State Education Department on what schools should give importance to. The most influential physicist responded that students should learn history, especially how influential thinkers shaped the course of humanity.

So what do you do if you are enrolled in an undergraduate program that does not allow students to take courses across disciplines? In order to expand the frontiers of your mind, you may read a wide variety of books not related to your field of study. Further, you do not have to opt for dry, academic books, but can choose from an array of popular non-fiction books to get an insight into the kinds of questions studied in various fields. In almost every discipline, there are an abundant number of books written for laypersons by experts that avoid unnecessary technical jargon. These books are generally easy to comprehend and can give you a flavour of what questions a field asks and the methods it adopts to study them. If your curiosity is piqued by a particular idea, you can always delve further.

Edward Ray, President, Oregon State University, describes the results of a national survey of American employers in The Huffington Post. 93% of surveyed employers felt that a candidate’s undergraduate specialization was less relevant than his or her ability “to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems.” And taking courses across disciplines or at least reading widely can help students see and seek more distant horizons.

(The author is Director, PRAYATNA.)

Look for the ability in disability

Aruna Sankaranarayanan

First Published in Mint, 9 December 2014

Focusing on deficits only makes individuals seem inadequate. Find out what their special abilities are and help them use those as strengths

Children struggle to learn in mainstream classrooms for a host of reasons. Difficulty with reading and spelling, an inability to pay attention, and problems with comprehension are some of the reasons. Those failing to meet teacher expectations are often referred to special educators or psychologists, who dole out labels like “dyslexic,” “ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)” or “autism spectrum disorder”. While these labels may describe and explain a child’s difficulty, they stigmatize the child.

The portrayal of these labels, both in education circles and popular culture, highlights what these children cannot do. Some preliminary research suggests that the brains of these individuals may be wired differently to confer certain advantages as well. In a study published in 2003 in the Brain And Language journal, Catya von Károlyi and her fellow researchers found that dyslexics were better at a global visual-spatial task. More specifically, those with dyslexia were faster at determining whether certain figures were possible or not.

Research by Gad Geiger and Jerome Lettvin, published in the New England Journal Of Medicine in 1987, found that dyslexics had a wider visual peripheral field in which they were able to accurately identify letters, but showed compromised performance in the central field and near periphery. Another paper also suggests that dyslexics may have an advantage when it comes to their peripheral field. In a 2007 paper published in the Mind, Brain, And Education journal, Matthew Schneps, L. Todd Rose and Kurt Fischer hypothesize that dyslexic and normal readers make varying use of their central versus peripheral visions. While our central vision is tailored for visual search tasks, our peripheral vision is better able to scan broad areas rapidly. According to the authors, dyslexics may be more adept at making visual comparisons; however, the “trade-off” is that their visual search capabilities are diminished.

In their 2012 book, The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking The Hidden Potential Of The Dyslexic Brain, Brock L. Eide and Fernette F. Eide say the visual-spatial strengths of dyslexics are more pronounced in real-world 3D tasks, like navigating objects in space, than the 2D paper and pencil ones used in most standardized IQ tests. In fact, the authors posit that dyslexics may have superior “material reasoning” abilities, which refer to a person’s skill at reasoning about the shape, size, location or orientation of physical or material objects. Architecture, design, taxi driving and surgery are some of the professions that require enhanced spatial reasoning skills.

Psychologists typically make a distinction between two types of intelligence. Crystallized intelligence, which refers to the knowledge and skills a person acquires over time, is usually gauged by the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (Wisc). Performance on school tests typically correlates with a person’s crystallized intelligence scores.

In contrast, fluid intelligence reflects a person’s reasoning skills and ability to solve novel problems. The Raven’s Standard Progressive Matrices provide an index of a person’s fluid intelligence. In a 2007 study published in the Brain And Cognition journal, Mika Hayashi and colleagues in Japan administered two IQ tests to children in the age group of 6-12 with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) and normal, age-matched controls. While the two groups did not differ in their Wisc scores, children with AS outperformed the typically developing children on the test of fluid intelligence. The authors conclude that children with AS may have “superior abstract reasoning ability”.

The link between creativity and ADHD is explored in a 2011 paper published in the journal Personality And Individual Differences. In addition to replicating the finding of previous studies that individuals with ADHD perform better on measures of creativity in the lab, the researchers, Holly White and Priti Shah, also found that those with ADHD were more likely to have actual creative achievements in the real world, especially in the performing arts, than those without the condition. Interviewed for an article by Denise Mann in 2011 on the health and medical information website WebMD, White said, “While distraction can be a limitation in a traditional learning environment or workplaces with structured approaches, people with ADHD can be very innovative and generate useful and novel ideas.”

So what do we make of these disparate findings? The first take-home message is that we should not focus exclusively on the deficits of individuals with disabilities. Rather, we should look for areas of strength that may not typically surface in traditional classrooms. By exposing children to a variety of activities, we may be able to tap their latent potential in offbeat areas like birdwatching, mimicry or sculpture. We then need to nurture these competencies and make sure that children do not feel circumscribed by their deficits. Further, we need to realize that there is a lot of individual variation in development, even among those who have received a diagnostic label.

Even though the studies mentioned club people with dyslexia or ADHD under one umbrella, we have to realize that not all children with dyslexia or ADHD are alike. So the research evidence reported may not hold true for every individual in a diagnostic bracket. While some may show potential in certain areas, others may exhibit talents in different domains. But most importantly, we, as a society, need to recognize that a “disability” in one area does not preclude abilities in others. We owe it to our children and ourselves to celebrate these proclivities.

(The author is Director, PRAYATNA.)