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Samrita Trust – providing education to the visually challenged

Samrita Trust is an NGO started in 2006, that works for educating the visually challenged. Started by Air Vice Marshal(Retd) N.S.Sastry and his wife Mrs Anasuya, this organization has several committed volunteers who produce learning material for VI people.
Until recently, the government used to give an allowance for a reader and a two-in-one (cassette player and radio) to VI students enrolled in government colleges. These readers were quite erratic and the cassettes were also made only by motivated teachers. In general, these students were at the mercy of uncertain resources for their learning. But all that had to change once mp3 technology was available. Samrita Trust not only created study material, it worked with the government to change their policies and enabled students to receive modern equipment and not depend on readers.
What will surprise you is that this entire technology is tried, developed and tested by Sri G. Annaji Sarma, He worked for 34 years in Bhilai steel plant and retired as Chief Engineer. He and Mr Sastry at 70+ age, are excited with available technology, they figure out solutions by trial and error and are passionately spending huge amount of time in this endeavor. Their wives comment that they are busier than when they were employed!
The story of Samrita is not as easy as it sounds here. In spite of sincere efforts it is very difficult to even reach the needy students. It’s virtually impossible to get the data about VI students in colleges, schools, and in applications for employment. Further, donors need some trace of their donations, so a tracking system needs to be put in place. Donations have been raised through individuals, through Give India and through corporate like banks and private companies.
What strikes you about Samrita Trust is that it is run very professionally, with commitment and purpose.
You can read more at http://www.samritatrust.org/
Audio Books
Initially volunteers of the Trust started reading books and creating CDs. Telugu and English medium books in History, Political Science, Economics, Civics, Commerce, Public Administration were read for BA and Intermediate. Using software called Goldwave, almost 12 books could be read and put on a DVD.  Now these students needed CD players. The Trust donated hundreds of players initially. But the significant philosophy of Mr Sastry is to make a self sustaining model and to involve government in creating systems for it. So after several trips to the concerned departments, DVD players were distributed through government also. Same story was repeated a couple of years later once mp3 players were affordable and more convenient. Now an entire BA syllabus could be put on a single mp3 player and carried in one’s pocket. This is a huge empowerment for VI students who are also poor and cannot afford latest gadgets.
Moving to competitive exams
Once they got a taste of audio books, the college graduates started asking for more. They wanted to get jobs by writing competitive exams. So Samrita promptly recorded material and model papers for Bank exams, Group II and IV, RRB etc and supplied at hostels and colleges. Several candidates could qualify and get jobs.
Online tests
Many competitive tests have become on-line and just practicing with audio books wouldn’t help. So Samrita promptly set up mock on-line tests for them.
Braile Kits for young children
Partnering with Vidya Vriskhah, an NGO who manufacture Braille Kits, and Worth Trust that also trains differently abled people, Samrita distributed hundreds of kits to VI children in several districts of AP with the help of Sarva Siksha Abhiyan team. In fact, Samrita initiated Vidya Vriksh to make the kit for Telugu.
Braille Books
While audio books are convenient, compact and useful, spellings, reading, drawing and writing can be learnt only with Braille script.
Samrita Trust prepares typed version of latest text books published by AP Govt. One hard copy of the Braille book is produced and proof read by a blind teacher. Final corrected version is given to NIVH Chennai, which embosses the Braille books and supplies to schools which ask for them.
Audio Library
Mr Sastry was always clear that colleges and schools have to play a pivotal role to sustain this system. He has insisted on the CD players and audio books to be available in an audio library that should be maintained by some teacher in the school or college.
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What’s a good explanation?

(From Mastering Teaching Skills Series – Explaining and Questioning by Trevor Kerry)
As teachers, most of our professional talking in class is about explaining something to students. This is by far the most important skill for a teacher to have. If you get your hands on this book, you will enjoy because it has examples of progressively better explanations and also has exercises for you to work on.
Purpose and components of and skills for good explanations:
An explanation means giving understanding to another. It has three aspects – a content  (to explain), a style or type of explanation and the involvement of the learner in getting the points across.
Explanations can be of three types based on questions they try to answer:
What?  - Interpretative explanations e.g., what is climate? What is graph?
How? – Descriptive explanations e.g. how does climate change in India? How can we construct a graph of our class scores?
Why? – Reason giving explanations e.g. why does climate change? Why is this graph of scores useful?
A classroom explanation will have elements from all three types and you should be able to transition between the three. This is also the essence of Kolb’s learning cycle where every learner must be taken through why?what?how? questions in order to complete the understanding. The basic requirement here is SEQUENCING. If you jump back and forth between these questions because you have realised that there were gaps – learners will get confused and worse still, they will lose interest.
Explanation style also changes with the kind of audience you are addressing and the purpose of explaining. Oral explanation is enhanced by using various stimuli or support like pictures, diagrams and verbatim texts for definitions. Here we are not going to explore written explanations but if a teacher can write down his/her explanations before talking in class, it will be an extremely useful exercise.
Purpose: An explanation can be given to explore or solve a problem, to operate an instrument or conduct an experiment, to tell a story, to analyse a situation, to defend or argue a point of view, to offer conclusion. It is important to realise what is important in each of these contexts. While it is critical to follow exact steps sequentially in learning to conduct an experiment or operate an instrument, generating interest may be more important in story telling. Similarly, analyzing a situation requires a balanced view while defending needs a strong supporting evidence for one particular view.
Summarising or concluding explanations are as important as the introductions because it is here a learner knows the topic is coming to an end and will pay attention to any significant points. Further, as we will see later in “connectives” – the language you use enhances the meaning conveyed to the learner including sequence and summary. For example, “finally”, “before this”, “as soon as we finish this step”, “to recap” etc.
An effective explanation spanning these three types needs the following skills:
1. Making a dynamic introduction
2. Defining key terms/concepts that will be explained
3. Linking the concept with concrete examples
4. Using both positive and negative examples
5. Creating tasks that learners can do to enhance learning (active learning)
6. Familiarizing students with the technical language (of the subject)
7. Developing rules and principles from explanations
8. Using connectives to enhance learning
9. Using language effectively
10. Using repetition and emphasis (multiple types not just rote)
11. Adopting an appropriate pace
12. Numbering points
13. Using appropriate humour
14. Linking the explanation to other knowledge
15. Building the feedback loop – assessing learner’s understanding
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Jan 2014

You can’t improve your teaching without changing it. This is the punch line on Geoff Petty’s site. Geoff Petty is author of Britain’s best selling teacher training text: ‘Teaching Today: a practical guide’. His new book is: ‘ Evidence Based Teaching’
He has built a website that has valuable downloads and material on active learning. He says there are two main steps for improvement in teaching (and which happen to be the same at Teacher’s Academy) http://geoffpetty.com/
1. Find your areas of strength and weakness and work on these.
2. You can work on the main factors that make the biggest difference to student learning – Active Learning and Feedback – learners need information on what they do well, and how to improve, then they need to act on this. Professor John Hattie has synthesized over half a million of the most effective research studies on teaching methods, and the other variables that affect achievement.   This is the biggest and most authoritative review of classroom-based educational research ever undertaken. He concludes that the factors that make students learn best are student activity towards a challenging goal, and informative feedback on this activity. Experiments show that some active learning methods prove students’ attainment by more than two grades.
ERIC – the Education Resources Information Center – is an online digital library of education research and information. It provides ready access to education literature to support and improve practice in learning, teaching, educational decision-making, and research.  http://eric.ed.gov/
The most valuable part of this searchable database is that the results are tagged by author, type of publication, source, date, level of education, audience and descriptor keywords.
Gateway to Educational Materials Information on Teaching and Learning – http://www.thegateway.org/
People think that Google search is the best method to search for academic resources. But to come in the first few results of Google search, a website needs to spend lot of resources on search engine optimization. Usually academic sites don’t do that. So the resources given in these columns (or other resource compilations are really very valuable).
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Does Everyone Resist Change?

While we like the adage “Every day is a new day – a new beginning”, deep inside, most people, I expect, would not want to be thrown into uncertainty, where we have to figure out our responses to continual change. Even small changes like moving to a new house or a new job, are quite challenging in the first few months.
Some changes are voluntary and planned – with lot of mental and physical preparation. But some changes come as bolt from the blue like getting laid off from a job or facing the death of a loved one. These changes are also more drastic – sometimes redefining a new direction in life.
Some people thrive on change and adventure, but most others resist it. Imagine if you knew the story and screenplay of a movie, would you go and watch it? But that’s exactly how we want to live our life. So why does human nature want adventure in the movies and books or on Discovery or NatGeo but not in their life.
Last twenty years saw rapid changes in society, relationships, technology, living style and every aspect of life – more because of the connectedness with the world through technology and economic reforms.
The only way we can remain happy in such times is by accepting change rather than resisting it. Those who have succeeded in life or business are those who have adapted to change.
It’s like getting into a flowing river. You keep hesitating – afraid to step into the cold water, that it might take you away from the secure shore. And then few minutes into water and you start liking it.
And fear of change is not just a malady of old age as we would like to believe. People of any age could be quite rigid in their ways. Even infants react negatively when they are taken to a new place or meet new people. Some babies seem to enjoy the change, though. So is adaptability something you are born with? Though some are ‘naturals’, anyone could acquire this quality any time in life.
Another perspective to take is to be ‘leaders of change’ – when you see new waves on the horizon before others, don’t just sit and say I need to accept this; but take the lead, show others what you see and leverage the change to benefit yourself and others around you.
On the professional front, the role of teachers as experts or warehouses of knowledge has disappeared. People believe everything can be found on the internet. So, to keep us relevant and needed, we need to reinvent ourselves. Classes should be used more to discuss, to motivate, to connect and to listen, than to disseminate information. Technology and pedagogy must be our focus.
Assuming you decided to be a leader of change – how do you motivate others? People should have some motivation or benefit to change. If you think of change as climbing a hill, then there must be a pot of gold on the top, for someone to take the effort! But that’s not enough! There are many risks like falling and injuring oneself. Why should someone take those risks? What if they end up with a crutch in their climb for the gold? So when you want to persuade, you need to enlarge the pot and reduce the crutches!!
Now look at the scenario for no change. Most people are happy with where they are (comfort zone) or they don’t want to give up some goodies – for example, their beach house and their mermaid.  So how do you motivate such a person to climb the mountain? You may have to point at the dangers that he is constantly fighting – if he doesn’t move out of his current comfort zone with his mermaid, he may be fighting hard with some crocodiles lurching in the waters. To persuade, then you need to minimize the mermaids and enrage the crocodiles. So when we need to talk about change, all these four aspects of change need to be discussed or considered.
And the most challenging part of the motivation is that fact that everyone’s pot of gold, crutches, mermaids and crocodiles are different. You need to see them from the other person’s perspective. Or basically, take off your glasses and see the situation wearing their glasses!!
This whole process can be summarized in this picture

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When the pupil is ready, the master appears

‘When the student (pupil) is ready, the teacher (master) appears’ is an old saying. For a long time I used to apply this only to spiritual gurus and was looking forward to finding ‘my guru’ some day when I was ready.
But now I know that this doesn’t mean that some ‘guru’ will accept me; it means that when someone is ready to learn then everything around him or her is a source of learning.  I have experienced this and it is true for both academic education and spiritual growth. This readiness is the ability to observe, to think, to ask and to reflect. And also the willingness to put in the effort and take the risk of moving out of the comfort zone (the comfort zone is actually uncomfortable or even painful!).
I am not sure if this ‘readiness’ is a character trait or it can be induced. Since all children are eager learners, I feel that somewhere in the process of life one loses this readiness. Does this readiness appear again through some huge challenge or by a stroke of luck or can it be systematically created? Does it depend on the capability of the person? I have no answers. But as teachers or trainers we have this challenge.
In my experience, very few people can make a person ready for learning. Most of us can work only with eager learners and feel happy with the outcome. On others, we can try many alternate forms of motivation, cater to their personality styles, or use persuasion but finally the choice to learn or not lies with the learner. Coercion and discipline can make them sit in class  but all teachers know that just because someone is sitting in your class he or she is not automatically ready to learn.
I am referring to real learning vs. passing an exam through rote learning. But I do know that very often even to make someone do rote learning can also be very challenging.

Whenever I have some new insight to tell someone, or when I am trying to train teachers on new forms of learning, I noticed that when they are not ready, I am not sure how to approach the situation beyond the above few methods. Its not that these people rebel or refuse explicitly. In fact, some of them appear very enthusiastic. But they just continue doing things in the old way. At some point I realize, this person is either incapable or unwilling to even try. Capability does play an important role in adopting new things but there is no effort to try, which is what readiness is all about.
Though I talk about motivation to teachers, I must confess that I didn’t succeed in making anyone ready to learn new skills or accept new ways of looking at life. If I was doing this only as a passion, as a service, probably things would be different. But I wanted to make a living out of this!
At this point in life, on this Teacher’s Day, I am wondering aloud: I have some skills and knowledge that I want to share.  Are they irrelevant for others? Or Am I supposed to look for ‘ready’ learners? If yes, how? or am I supposed to learn the skill of making someone ‘ready’? or do something  else that is more fulfilling?
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Recent Workshops

Team Spirit workshop for DRDO scientists

24-27th June 2013

20 scientists from various DRDO labs in India attended a four day workshop conducted by Teacher’s Academy at ITM, Mussoori. We had sessions on Team Structures, Six Thinking Hats, Personality Types for individual and team interactions, Team values, Situational Leadership, EI and 7 habits of highly effective people. The sessions were facilitated by Dr Akila Jaikumar, Ms Urjita Deshpande and me. There were several games and activities and self assessment questionnaires. There were role plays and discussions. The participants found the sessions useful and felt that such programs should be done for whole teams from specific labs.

Pre-retirement Planning

DMRL, Hyderabad  July 2nd and 3rd 2013

About 30 employees who will retire in the next few months attended enthusiastically our program on planning for retirement. We had sessions on Psychosocial transitioning and productive living by me, financial planning for peaceful life by Suri Seetaram, independent wealth expert; emotional and spiritual well being by Dr Akila Jaikumar and Physical wellbeing (health and nutrition) by Dr Raghunatha Rao, Head-Training at NIN, Hyderabad. In the modern times with increased longevity, people have almost as much retired life as their working life. Hence it becomes vital to plan the next 30 years or so to be financially comfortable, physically healthy and emotionally stable. There are many opportunities to keep oneself busy with meaningful work. Unless one has a spiritual outlook towards life, it becomes difficult to cope with the changing dynamics of society and family. Simple breathing exercises and mudras, meditation, new perspectives on relationships, alternate therapies were introduced. Suri spoke about different instruments of investment suitable for them. A lively interaction on do’s and don’ts of food and exercise was facilitated by Dr Raghunatha Rao.

Teaching Skills workshop for Teachers at Sevalaya, near Chennai

6th and 7th July

Rarely do you find a group of 60 teachers sitting with rapt attention on a weekend for a workshop.

But this set of teachers is different – they are working in an NGO run school that provides free education to 1800 children from KG to XII free of cost. The NGO Sevalaya also runs a hostel for orphans, an old age home and a goshala. This is the 25th year of its operation. See http://www.lifepositive.com/Mind/Positive_Chronicles/c_779_A_little_caring_a_little_sharing32010.asp

This is our third workshop at Sevalaya. Previous ones were in 2010 and 2011. There were a few senior teachers from those years but majority were first time participants for us. We had sessions on making learning activities from newspapers, six thinking hats, meditation, handling emotional problems of children, differentiation and rubrics. There were a few games and group activities. The teachers were very eager to learn. Dr Akila Jaikumar and I were facilitating the sessions – especially Akila took care of the Tamil speaking teachers.

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July-August 2013

Resources for schools

· http://www.teacherplus.org/resources


· http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-10250/11-things-i-wish-every-parent-knew.html

· Awareness on racism http://www.upworthy.com/watch-a-teacher-make-her-3rd-grade-kids-hate-each-other-for-the-best-reason-imaginable-2?g=3

Self Development

· Reading Literature makes us smarter and nicer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9HRXhRjfS7Q

· Energy medicine – simple and effective techniques to heal yourself


Videos- education

· Confessions of a converted lecturer – Eric Mazur on Flipped classroom http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwslBPj8GgI

· Clues to a great story http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KxDwieKpawg

· How simple things lead to scientific discoveries by Adam Savage


· How to change education from the ground up



· IITs and IT companies get together to provide on-line courses


· ISB graduates bring Touch-on-cloud to improve education


· Google to train AP students on cloud computing


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June 2013

Thoughts on Education:
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Flipped Classroom

In a traditional class, the teacher uses the time to pass on information or material to the students in the form of a lecture or any other audio-visual form and then give them home assignments. . The teacher is the ‘sage on the stage’. Now many teachers are turning this model on its head, asking students to watch videos of classes before coming to class and then use the session to discuss and apply the knowledge or work on assignments. This is called ‘flipped classroom’. In October 2012, during a  training session at ITM, Mussoorie, we had given participants a book on using Emotional Intelligence. There were also a couple of other papers for reading. What we did was have a 30-60 minute slot the next morning to discuss the application of that material to their workplace. This turned out very productive and generated an animated discussion on the material which we had to cut short due to our tight schedule.  A lot of learning took place which wouldn’t have been possible in the traditional way.
Technology Enabled
This idea existed since several decades where teachers would give pre-reading material for their courses. Very often, it was difficult to enforce the reading especially if the class was large. Now that it is so easy to put videos and slides on the internet, and also have discussion forums and networking, it has suddenly become very easy to use a flipped classroom. In fact, many students would actually want to come to class if there was something beyond what they could get freely by ‘Googling’.
Many studies have indicated that student success rates are higher with flipped classrooms.
Not a panacea for all problems
Flipped classroom is one way to promote learning and interaction in students.
It is dependent on the access to technology, the size of the class and the competency of the teacher to engage in an active discussion. It may sometimes depend on the nature of the topic or subject. It needs an ability to guide individual students if necessary.
Like all other ideas it should be customized to one’s own situation and style. It cannot be used too often lest students get bored!
You can have a few flips to begin with!
I have been using this model for the last 20 years of my teaching at UC Berkeley. I give a 10% grade on this activity and students tend to learn better, retain longer, participate more in a flipped classroom. Of course, the teacher must also be equally knowledgeable and enthusiastic and can use some motivators like chocolates! – Pratap Chillakanti, Founder, Lensoo Inc
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