A ripple of laughter heralds the children’s arrival. Like peas bursting forth, the seventh standard students land on the terrace of Govandi Station Upper Primary School and form a circle with Amrita Nair. The boys, outnumbered by the girls, find comfort in standing next to each other. Nair instructs them, “Boys, find a place among the girls.” This task is achieved with some degree of shyness. A series of theatre exercises follows. It is the end of their school day but the children as enthusiastic as ever. They know this is Apni Shala.
An initiative to inculcate life skills in students from low income groups, Apni Shala began as a college project in 2011. Amrita Nair, Anukriti Goyal and Swetha Ranganathan were pursuing a postgraduate degree in Social Entrepreneurship at Tata Institute of Social Sciences when they decided to set up quality libraries for children in the area. With school principals questioning the purpose and with several bureaucratic obstacles in-between, the three girls expanded their focus to life skills as well. While many college projects meet a dismal end, Apni Shala thrived beyond graduation day.
Apni Shala has set up libraries in two municipal schools and conducts life skills workshops in schools across the city.
Swetha Ranganathan, a former school teacher, states that the decision to impart life skills to students from disadvantaged communities came from the need to address their social and emotional development through education itself. From her teaching days she recalls two boys who were very uninvolved in classroom activities due to family issues. “We want to equip children with skills to help themselves,” she says. While ‘life skills’ is used as a blanket term for a number of things, Ranganathan’s understanding is drawn from the World Health Organisation’s definition comprising self-management, interpersonal skills and cognitive skills.
Apni Shala does not follow the definition strictly and rather customises workshops based on the problems specific to a group. They use art workshops, story-telling and theatre exercises to develop life skills and yet are very clear that these are not therapy or counselling sessions. At the circle of learning in the Govandi school, the children are being taught ‘Zip Zap Boing’, a theatre warm-up game that improves alertness and interaction while being a lot of fun. Once the students get familiar with the basics, they will move on to learn communication skills. Almost every activity encourages the child to step out of its comfort zone. Goyal, a former engineer, says, “These exercises break a child’s inhibitions and will translate into increased confidence and effective participation in class and in their communities.” With time, they hope to train school teachers and help them understand the needs of a student beyond textbooks.
From a summer camp that Apni Shala had conducted in a municipal school in Oshiwara, Nair recollects a comment made by a teacher who was observing the session from outside, “These children do not open up in our class but here they are talking so much!” While it is believed that the teacher in the classroom is the one who will groom the students holistically, this expectation is compromised due to student numbers, overbearing syllabi and incompetency. Thus in many schools that cater to students from low income groups, nothing much apart from mere teaching happens. Nair believes, “In an ideal setup, we wouldn’t need a separate life skills teacher.”
At one storytelling session, Nair had been discussing with the fourth standard students at the Govandi school a storybook that highlighted the
differences between city life and village life. Many of the students belong to migrant families from rural Maharashtra and idealised their lives back in their villages. One of them pointed out the lack of proper sanitation facilities in the area and even suggested steps to remedy the situation. As Apni Shala helps schools and students help themselves, the trio of girls do not believe they are teachers; they are only ‘Didis’ to all the students.