Dedication of “Library For Learning”: Opening Doors For Students in Rural India

Vidya Gyan is pleased that one of its many dream projects “Library for Learning” has come to fruition with its inauguration and dedication on January 12, 2018. What a pleasant coincidence that the inauguration was on Swami Vivekananda Jayanti, India’s great statesman and philosopher Vidya Gyan President and family were pleased that the library was dedicated to Babu Ram Goal Agarwal who was one of the founding members and very long-term President of the school (J.P. Adarsh Vidya Mandir Inter College) in his native village Kota (Saharanpur, U.P.). One significant component of the Library for Learning is a Text Book Bank which provides course books in Science and Mathematics to all students in grades 9-12. Like the United States, the books are very expensive and beyond the reach of many impoverished families in the rural areas.

What makes Vidya Gyan proud is that we are providing access to the books which are critical source for education (Vidya) leading to knowledge (Gyan). The chief guest for the ceremony was the well-known educationist and MLC Sri Hem Singh Pundeer. Other distinguished guests gracing the occasion included District Inspector of Schools, Pradhans, (village heads) from surrounding villages, community and education leaders from many Inter Colleges in the region. The event was presided by Dr. S.K. Gupta, President of Vidya Gyan India(VGI), an independent sister organization facilitating and supervising all Vidya Gyan sponsored activities on the ground.

Sincere thanks are due to Sri Om Prakash Saini, Principal of Inter College who ably led the inaugural event from inception to a successful completion. The teaching and support staff and students deserve very special appreciation for their tireless efforts in decorating, presenting cultural programs and undertaking the major effort, the best in the short life span of Vidya Gyan. Approximately 700 students sat through the entire event patiently despite very cold temperature, reminding the weather of Minnesota.

The event began with the lighting of the lamp, a short prayer to invoke Goddess Sarasvati, the preserver of knowledge and learning. Following the welcoming pleasantries of the distinguished guests, many spoke about the importance of the library and books, the message by Swami Vivekananda, and other spiritual and intellectual messages. The distinguished guests were presented a memento from the College as a token of their appreciation. All in all, the event was well attended and the message to students was very loud and clear that education is their salvation for a better future. They were reminded that learning is a process and more they put into it, the greater are the benefits they can reap in the years ahead.

Shouldn’t we keep writing by hand from “dying” in the age of technology invasion

Almost everyone these days uses the keyboard to write whatever must be written. The use of social media and modern technological tool is how we communicate. It is all good but are we ready to have future generations growing up not knowing the art of handwriting. I hope not.

In a recent speech, the simple advice by no other than United States’ Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts to 14-years old in a school, has potential to make a big difference in life, “Once a week, you should write a note to someone. Not an email. A (handwritten) note on a piece of paper. It will take you exactly 10 minutes.”  The Time magazine called his speech “unconventional” while the Washington Times called it, “the best thing” he’s written all term.”

The much-discussed speech in simple words may seem negative at first but has very positive meaning. For example, he said that facing unfair treatment in life will teach value of justice and betrayal will teach the importance of loyalty. He wished them bad luck so they will be conscious of the role of chance in life- neither their success not failure is completely deserved. My advice to everyone, please read the speech and have everyone (friends and family), especially young children, read it too.

I am using his advice to pitch our own initiative Pencil to Power i.e. the skill of writing is critical, essential, and empowering. It is particularly important when so much of our time is spent writing emails, What’s App, hashtags or 140-character Tweets. It is unfortunate that the age-old skill of writing- by- hand appears to be dying globally. The grammar and punctuations are no longer cared about, the emphasis on spelling is disappearing; for example, “you” as “u” in a tweet or message is trendy. Handwritten notes and letters are certainly things of the past. In fact, Roberts’ speech has very important advice, “Talk to an adult, let them tell you what a stamp is. You can put the stamp on the envelope.” He is so right because the millennials he was addressing, perhaps never heard of a stamp, don’t know where to buy and how much does it cost to mail a letter. If any of them did, s/he must have smart father like Roberts.

My own confession: I do not write letters any more but I write by hand enough not to forget what writing means and how pleasurable it is. In fact, my involvement with Vidya Gyan has reinforced writing by hand because I can’t word process in Hindi. The necessity has become the mother of reinvention of Hindi writing by hand for me.

Anyway, returning to the skill of writing (by hand), Roberts went as far as dictating a short letter and stating, “By the end of the school year, you will have sent notes to 40 people. Forty people will feel a little more special because you did, and they will think you are very special because of what you did.” I could not agree more.

Vidya Gyan’s Pencil to Power is simple with a lasting impact, we hope. We want to encourage and emphasize WRITING by children in primary schools. My own experiences and beliefs dictate that what we hear, we retain some of it, what we read is retained more but if we write what we learned, we retain and understand most of it.

I know that all of you may not read Hindi but the photo is my own handwriting. It is an appeal to teachers in primary schools for emphasizing writing by hand at least once a week. It is titled “Reading & Writing= Understanding (+ Retention)” because learning to write by hand is a lifelong skill everyone must have even in this day of technology invention, infusion and invasion in our lives.

I ask everyone to support, encourage and motivate one or more children in their home, neighborhood or school to practice writing by hand. Vidya Gyan would love to know about your efforts which you are welcome to post on Facebook page.

Our Efforts To Improve Girls’ Education In Rural Schools Tell A Disappointing Story

While India slides down in the report on global gender gap rankings from 87 in 2016 to 108 in 2017, the youth must be concerned that the gender gap is widening. The report is based on a multi-dimensional analysis of economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.

We have been addressing the issue of India’s gender gap for at least two reasons. Firstly, we are engaged in the social campaign Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao which is geared to empower girls. Secondly, we firmly believe that educational attainment is critical to achieving the other dimensions.

India ranks 108 is among 144 countries like Iceland (#1), Bangladesh (#47), USA (# 49), and Pakistan (#143). The choice is clear which of its neighbors should be a role model for India. The report touts India’s success in fully closing its primary and secondary education enrollment gender gaps for the second year consecutively. And, for the first time, India has nearly closed its tertiary education gender gap.

The report states ‘education enrollment’ and not the attainment. In fact, India ranks #112 in education attainment which is among the lowest fourth of all nations. My own visits to rural government primary schools tell the story about the low educational attainments – kids write very little, the books are supplied nearly half-way in the school year, teachers’ absenteeism, poor infrastructure, and the instructional aides are in short supply. Perhaps the enrollment on paper is nearly perfect, but how many attend school regularly is a different story with no reliable data.

For our new initiative to provide furniture in four schools, an Education Officer told me to use approximately 80% attendance as a good number for providing the furniture.

The first step toward educational attainment is going to school regularly and continuing it as far as possible. Many girls don’t go beyond 5th grade. Simply put, we leave behind nearly one-fourth of girls at 5th grade depriving them of economic participation and opportunity, and political empowerment.

When Vidya Gyan adopted the second half of the government flagship initiative Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, we had a vision that every girl under 10 years of age in all rural government schools must have a saving account as a future financial security while going to school. Today, after opening over 650 saving accounts in rural schools, our experiences tell a very different and disappointing story.

Vidya Gyan offered financial incentives to open the accounts, it coached parents, created a network with teachers and local post offices, and brought the post office to a school site. However, now we are finding out that many parents are not depositing ₹100/month (toward the required minimum of ₹1000/year for the account to have a good standing.) There is an element of denial by parents in changing their mindset about daughters. Perhaps, these parents don’t understand that they are contributing to the widening of gender gap by not having their daughters educated.

We had hoped and assumed that the teachers are our best ambassadors in promoting the program for the sake of increasing gender parity. Many of them proved to be very trusting partners, but others did not see the value in it.  The postal department valued our initiative in meeting its year-end productivity goals, but the postmasters in rural post offices were themselves poorly informed about the saving account nuances; many of them even misinformed parents and asked to deposit ₹1000/month. Being government employees, they are hardly accountable and most do the minimum possible to get by. Apparently, the limited outreach efforts and lack of trust seem to be failing our efforts.

According to the report, a decline in India’s low ranking is largely attributable to a widening of its gender gaps in political empowerment as well as in healthy life expectancy and basic literacy. India also continues to rank fourth-lowest in the world on health and survival. India, once credited to have nation’s first female prime minister nearly 50 years ago, must renew its efforts and make progress on achieving political empowerment with a new generation of female political leadership.

In the meantime, Vidya Gyan continues to move forward with its vision to have rural youth, particularly girls, read, write, and learn to attain gender parity through educational attainment. When I come to India in January, we will reevaluate our initiatives, learn from our failures to become better and put our best foot forward. India must rethink its policies and practices not to deprive the youth of their right to education and thus right to their participation in all economic, political, intellectual, and social sectors.

Vidya Gyan’s First Grant of ~20 lakh rupees to a college in India

Vidya Gyan is pleased and proud to announce its first educational grant of about 20 lacs (about $33,000) to fund Kotah Projects and Resources for Integrated Development and Engagement (KOTAH PRIDE) toJagdish Prasad Adarsh Vidya Mandir Inter College. This college is an outgrowth of a school attended by Vidya Gyan co-founder Agarwal where he completed education up to 8th grade. The grant award letter, unanimously approved by Vidya Gyan Board, was handed over by DM Yadav to the College Principal and Manager during the function held on March 11, 2015. Dr. Yadav, a Chemist himself, underscored the significance of supporting the library and science lab for enhanced students’ learning and congratulated the College for receiving the Vidya Gyan grant. He publicly thanked Vidya Gyan for setting an excellent example for others to come forward in supporting education. He also encouraged all Kotah colleges (including Government Girls Inter College; Government Girls Degree College, and Indraprastha Institute of Technology) to work together for the betterment of students learning.

KOTAH PRIDE funding for three years encompasses the acquisition of scientific equipment and supplies for Physics, Chemistry, and Biology labs for hands-on learning experiences by students in grades 11 and 12; establishing a library in the college which will house books in all academic disciplines; support for furniture and computer for the library; and salary of a librarian for the first 3 years. Vidya Gyan funding will also support acquisition of Science and Mathematics text books for 11th and 12th grades which will be available to students on loan for an extended period. These text books will be returned to the library by the students in the best possible condition for successive use by the next group of students. Text book lending program will extend higher priority to female students.

In addition, KOTAH PRIDE includes support for piloting Mentoring and Learning Communities in collaboration with neighboring institution to engage students in projects that would augment their critical thinking, general knowledge, and communication skills. Another important part of KOTAH PRIDE is the development of appropriate competitive activities such as debates, speeches, quizzes, essay writing, sports etc. The latter activities are to further enhance inter-institutional collaboration and community engagement with an ultimate goal to seek greater parental/community engagement in such competitive events. The College is strongly encouraged to seek technical support from and consult with Vidya Gyan throughout the project implementation.