(IAP 2015) Nikita Kodali ’17

Nikita will be going to Chennai, India, this IAP to establish an incentivized teaching program between undergraduates at Indian Institute of Technology at Madras and local underfunded government schools.  Selected undergraduates will be teaching and mentoring children from quite low-income families at their assigned government school for 6 hours or more per week during the academic year to earn an internship opportunity at MIT during the summer.  In India, Nikita will be working with Professor Nagarajan at IITM to initiate teaching of a supplemental curriculum by undergraduate students, while improving her understanding of how to improve school attendance and strengthen fundamental concepts using practical examples.

Check back for updates!

Post #4: Guest Blogger: Udith Krishna from Project Siddhi – IIT Student Mentor

Overtures @ Olcott

“Catch a person a few fish, and you have helped him for a meal. Teach him how to fish and you have helped him for life”

That, I believe, is why all of us in the team of ‘Project Siddhi’ are here. We all believe that the single biggest power that one can get is that of education. And we are here to do our bit to those who aren’t as fortunate as we were.

I don’t claim that we are all exceptionally erudite. However, having got through the “JEE” we can say with some conviction that we are aware of the struggles a young mind faces while trying to grapple with the brobdingnagian quantities of knowledge that he/ she needs to be on top of in order to be “well educated”

When we started, there was tremendous excitement, but also apprehension on how we were going to get this going given the time constraints. We had to practically start this from the ground up. But given the team we had – the experience of our senior most members – Shubham, Varshaa, Kalyan, Aayush – coupled with the naïve optimism of our youngest members – Kalyani, Nikita and myself – along with those in between – Mohana, Tejas, Aakash, Ashish and Bala… Phew that’s one hell of a team. No prizes for guessing – we got the whole project on wheels “Like a Boss” so to speak.

Make no mistake… it did not become a “happily ever after” story. As we weathered rocks, more kept coming at us. The class at Olcott – with the high energy 8th grade students – sapped us of energy within a few minutes of commencement and this was just to get them to listen to us. Things improved though. My friends have already written about this notorious class, so I will not go there.

We also took time on Saturdays to help the 10th grade students gear up for their all-important “board exams” and here was the thing that startled us –

The students were all brilliant, however, the system is such that there is a book called the “Question Bank” and the students told us that “there is no point in understanding the subject, it’s too difficult. We will just remember the answers to all these questions and some of them only will definitely come in our exam”

This was something I found disturbing, personally. Such bright young children, not even given an opportunity to appreciate the nuances and subtleties of Mathematics and sciences. Robbed of the chance to get through a difficult problem with a brain wave and have that “AHA!” moment after which one ends up feeling on top of the world. These are priceless things that the poor young kids have never been exposed to.

We raised our concerns with the kind DM of Olcott school. Let me take a moment here to talk about her. I have never seen so much enthusiasm in anybody, let alone someone her age. When we raised these concerns, her eyes positively lit up. “This is exactly what I have been feeling. I am really glad that you have hit the nail on the head.”  She then asked our suggestions to improve the situation and gave many of her own. We decided to take it upon ourselves to help the kids at Olcott see the fun side of learning. Get them out of the class and show them the meaning and applications of what they are learning in real life. Most importantly show them a “WHY?” Why should they learn what they are learning? How will it directly or indirectly impact their life?

Back to the 10th graders. Very intelligent, slightly more mature than the 8th graders and thankfully, much easier to control. As I am writing this, they are on the brink of their board exams and the pressure is on. We taught them trigonometry, a topic which they claimed they would “skip the question as soon as they saw it” It then became our primary goal to make them say “Those are the questions we finish first to then tackle the hard questions”

Everyone in team Siddhi will unanimously agree that most of the kids we teach are sinfully brilliant. It aches our hearts to see such smart kids not having the right opportunities to unleash their potential. We may be little rats chewing at the mountains but we want to get there.

How do we get these children adequate opportunity? How do we scale our initiative to touch the lives of a lot more people? How do we change their mind-set from trying to remember a bunch of the same questions and get marks to trying to understand the world around them?

These are the problems we at Siddhi are passionately addressing and trying to solve… I would request our readers to leave their suggestions as comments so that we can get even the slightest of help in achieving our goal. Thank you.



Post #3: Guest Blogger: Kalyani Subbiah from Project Siddhi – IIT Student Mentor

Olcott Memorial School: B for Brainy

8 B. B for boisterous, or brash? Blistering barnacles! The class still baffles and befuddles us. We besiege the students with activities and worksheets, and beseech them to pay attention. Only our sheer bravado helped overcome our bereavement at the initial state of 8B.

I remember my first lesson with the class. It was in a state of bedlam (B for Bedlam?) when we entered. A group of boys were engaged in some sort of wrestling match on one side of the classroom. A gaggle of girls immediately asked me if they could use the restroom. (Though, I was suspicious of such group urges, I let them go.) After fifteen minutes the craft teacher dragged in as many students from the grounds as she could, till we had about three-fourths of the class. We were good to go.

The first few classes were spent knowing the students, and them, knowing us. I worked with Mohana on Wednesdays and Tejas on Fridays. We understood that most of them know the basic math operations, but speak poor English. The first few classes were demotivating as the kids were inattentive, disruptive and not learning much. Getting them to attend class in itself seemed a big achievement, given their undying love and enthusiasm for rugby.

The girls would sit on the right side of the class, occasionally perking up with requests to go outside and drink water or use the bathroom- and then leave to never be seen again. The boys would randomly pick fights and look ready to mortally injure their friends. Some also incessantly teased the girls. It was like kindergarten all over again.

In our desperation to gain their attention, we play games with them. (The word ‘game’ brings a wonderful silence to the classroom – which lasts exactly 30 seconds). Slowly, we understood their needs and their interests. They knew their stuff, but lack of practice meant problems in application, so we gave them worksheets. We taught them prime factorization and order of operations, and puffed up in pride every time someone performed it correctly.

Learning is a slow process. When you look back at your childhood, you realize you spent much of it learning. These kids don’t have pushy parents to get them to learn at home and that makes a big difference. Over time, we understood that we had to get kids to understand the joy and necessity of learning.

Teaching kids is an art. Over a couple of classes, with a teacher presiding over the class in the back, the kids eventually hunkered down. Slowly, we saw many kids becoming interested in what was happening in class. They enthusiastically rushed to the board to write answers or waved their arms in the air to volunteer for an activity. My greatest joy comes from seeing the dawn of realization spread on a kid’s face when she understands something. Seeing it happen multiple times in one day feels like an accomplishment in itself.

Sure, there are some (actually, many) classes when the kids are unruly and refuse to listen. The last rows of the class are usually peppered with souls who couldn’t care less. (but, even they have begun taking interest – hooray!) But, we have hope that we can spark enthusiasm and concern in their minds for their academics, and teach them in an engaging manner. You know that process has begun when they put you over rugby and ask, “Will you come tomorrow?” We are so happy because we desperately want the B in 8B to stand for ‘Brainy’.


8B Brainiacs

Post #2: Sassy Captions and Other Serious Matters

The first week at IITM has been just as productive as I envisioned it to be.  I met with all the candidates for dinner on Sunday to get to know them and establish the goals that should be relevant to all of us.  The team was quite responsive to the tasks and hand, and thoughtful about possible obstacles or restrictions.  We all became very comfortable around each other a lot quicker than I had imagined, as they were all quite eager to start establishing the teaching portion since classes would not begin until January 12th.  There was a great rapport between all team members, including me, and everyone felt responsible for the team and its goals.  So here is my brief introduction to my new friends:

Project Siddhi: The Glorious Team

Project Siddhi: The Glorious Team

The first week at IITM has been just as productive as I envisioned it to be.  I met with all the candidates for dinner on Sunday to get to know them and establish the goals that should be relevant to all of us.  The team was quite responsive to the tasks and hand, and thoughtful about possible obstacles or restrictions.  We all became very comfortable around each other a lot quicker than I had imagined, as they were all quite eager to start establishing the teaching portion since classes would not begin until January 12th.  There was a great rapport between all team members, including me, and everyone felt responsible for the team and its goals.  So here is my brief introduction to my new friends:

We had daily meetings during the first two weeks of the month where we discussed how to partner with schools.  The team thought that the best way to get through to government schools, alternatively known as corporation schools, was to either meet them directly or go through an existing NGO.  After a couple team members visited and explored several schools, it became clear that most corporation school administrations would not allow us to do anything until we received permission from the state board that oversees these corporation schools. Trying to attain this permission, from what I understood, would be as time efficient as passing Obamacare had been.  Sometimes I hyperbolize, you can call it poetry or satire, but essentially, getting a proposal approved would too tedious to complete in 25 days.  Hence, we are keeping it as an option for next year.

There were, however, a couple non-government schools that taught children from very low-income families who were willing to talk to us.  The most promising one was Olcott Memorial School.  Located only a 20 minute bus ride from the IITM campus, this school had served children from 1st to 10th grade, with about 60 kids per grade.  Akash, a team member, and I met with the Director (DM) to discuss the possibility of my team teaching and mentoring a couple hours per week.   The DM was a talkative, elderly lady with the voice and optimism of a young, newly appointed teacher.  It was quite evident that she cared immensely about the lives of the school children, and wanted to the children to understand and apply concepts instead of being stuffed with material for exams.

Olcott School Campus

Olcott School Campus

From the start, the DM was quite enthusiastic about the prospect of IITM students teaching at the school, as she herself was very educated and wanted to provide the children with a more hands-on, activity based, progressive learning experience.  She knew that the teachers there were not knowledgeable enough about alternative methods of teaching, more like the American style of teaching, and the DM had been in poor health for the past couple years to go and teach herself.  She described simple activities we could do with the kids so that they could discover the value of pi themselves, or understand negative and positive numbers using debt or the number line.  Additionally, she was not concerned about exams, as she believed in strong basics and students could not be failed until 8th grade.  We were instructed to focus on the very basics, like addition, subtraction, addition, division, fractions for 8th grade students, as even students up until 10th grade were struggling with understanding basic operations.  In addition to the “rowdy” 8th grade class, we would teach and mentor about 15 promising 10th grade students to clarify doubts and encourage them to take up further studies.

My first encounter with a "rowdy" youngster

My first encounter with a “rowdy” youngster

Olcott seemed like the perfect school we were looking for, with the only catch being that it was a Tamil medium school.   Seven out of eleven of our team members are fluent Tamil speakers, so they would be assigned to this school.  A non-Tamil speaker could be assigned to mentoring the 10th grade students, as they can manage with broken English.  We are going back to Olcott Memorial next week to do a pilot session.

Next Tasks:

  • Confirm which other schools we will partner with
  • Understand the level of understanding the school children have in English and Math
  • Understand how material should be developed for these children
  • Schedule Team into teaching/mentoring slots

P.S. The team has chosen Project Siddhi as our name.  “Siddhi” is a Sanskrit word that means “perfection,” “accomplishment,” or “attainment” according to Wikipedia, but I’m sure most other sources would also say the same thing.  How did I find this cute short Indian name you may or may not wonder? I looked up “cute short Indian baby names” on Google, and looked through the first website that came up.  Simple.

Post #1: On Going Down

The week leading up to my trip can almost be alternatively described as a career exploration experience: I am finally coming to understand what it’s like to be on a college admissions committee.  I also understood that organization is a skill, and learnt the finer details of Google Drive, Sheets, Excel, etc. in all their glory.  Most importantly though, from all the reasonable and unreasonable questions and inspiring and dull conversations I have had with applicants, I’ve been able to create realistic goals for the program and understand what I don’t understand, what I will need to understand in India.

Here’s how it went down:

Estimated Number of Applications: 50

Actual Number of Applications Received on Time: 127

Number of Total Applications Received: 136 and counting (yes I’m still receiving applications 10 days after the due date)

Estimated Number of Interviews: 35

Actual Number of Interviews: 67

Estimated Number of Acceptances: 7

Actual Number of Acceptances: 11

Departments of Acceptances: Chemical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Humanities, Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, Civil Engineering, Engineering Design

The application was released on December 4th and was due December 25th at midnight IST although I considered applications submitted until midnight EST to give applicants the benefit of doubt.  Nigamma, a graduate student at MIT now and IITM alumnus, Deepak, a senior/M.Eng student at MIT, and I had about 6 days to read all of the applications, schedule and conduct all of the interviews, and select the candidates.  We were giving interviews on a rolling basis.  We, however, received 60 applications until the due date, then about 70 on the due date.  Imagine going to bed with 850 unread emails in your inbox and waking up with 920.  That’s exactly how it was.

It was quite exhilarating to read about people’s experiences, why they found government school teaching to be important, and how to creatively teach without rote learning, as many schools they came from essentially specialized in teaching memorization.  And it was just as interesting when applicants were clearly not interested in teaching but would still try to convince us that they cared.   Not all great students are great teachers, and a high cGPA did not simply merit a spot.  I’ll give you some thoughts on some realistic conversations I had:  If I ask you what you think the most pressing issue regarding government school education in lower-income areas is and all you say is “the lack of quality teachers,” I would safely assume that you have done close to zero thinking or research about the issue, as you just quoted the application preface that I wrote back to me.  If you say, “I have not taught, so I don’t quite know,” I would urge you to come out of the rock you are currently living under: you will learn about sunshine and basic problems with the world everyone should be aware of.  Patrick lives under a rock and even he has demonstrated awareness about community problems in one form or the other.  If your response to the question asking what government schools lack is the only response in the entire application that is thorough, grammatically correct, and typo-free, I will know that you plagiarized.  Please think about these things.

I sat in the same position for hours on end for 6 days.  Of course looking like quite the professional.

Interviews on Interviews: I sat in the same position for hours on end for 6 days. Of course looking like quite the professional.

The extraordinary candidates, however, showed a real interest in not only teaching but also rather taking initiative on creative ways to teach kids specifically coming from underprivileged backgrounds.  One applicant cited a research paper on how children best understand material and another had read up on specific circumstances that inhibited poorer children to regularly attend and do well in school.  I specifically remember one of the accepted team members, who when I asked what methods he would use to interest and teach children, shot out several strategies, thinking out loud on the spot quite vigorously about the nuances of learning.   Although he had never formally taught academics, he was clearly skilled in understanding the intricacies of teaching children as understanding what children comprehend.  Listening to candidates like him made me more excited about my project.  These are the students who the team is now composed of: students who understand the complexity of the multi-faceted issue, who can lead the initiative, and have an existing or developing passion for education.

I am confident that the team embodies these qualities, but this is just the beginning.  We still must think about sustainability, accountability, consistency, and many such factors.  However, I am psyched to have eleven more friends who are concerned about the same issues as me and are willing to take the initiative along with me to do what we can as students to help those who are not as privileged as us.

Next Tasks:

I’ve set a rough outline on what I want to accomplish for the 3.5 weeks that I am in Chennai:

  • 01/03 – 01/10: Assess a range of schools in the area to understand which population we would like to target
  • 01/11 – 01/17: Select the 2-3 schools we would like to target, develop material to teach and strategies to follow for efficient teaching and practical learning; observe a couple classes in each of the schools to understand present teaching style and target population
  • 01/18 – 01/24: Assign corresponding schedules between team members and schools and initiate the teaching portion of the program

Of course I know that things run a lot slower in India and that there will be a lot of unforeseen obstacles during the development of the project but I do plan to make best use of the short amount of time that I am there to ensure that the project can be called successful or en route to success.

P.S. If you have a good name for the project, please let me know so I can stop referring to it as The Project.


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