Of Bits and Bytes

With much apprehension, I dialed into the Zoom meeting and instantly fell in love with the curious faces peeping through the camera and saying “Good Morning Ma’m. It was September 2020, COVID was all around us, and our first computer class for BudsPlus began. Together we learnt the computer parts, touched the laptop and desktop for the first time and tried to control the mouse. It was love at first try for our students!

Today Swapaksh’s computer lab boasts of 6 computers (yes, we need more!). Each student gets 2 hours of lab time each and Meera ma’m now doubles up as the lab teacher as well. The students are all proudly and confidently cruising through loops, sequences and event using Scratch programming at code.org. They just finished their first exam and am I impressed!

Our Flowers have joined in too! They are exploring Paint and Word and will soon be on to Scratch programming.

For our students, this class is just not enough. They need more. And I have taken a role of a guide as they explore the vast expanses of Internet and experience the power of programming.

#TechForGood #migrantWorkers

Looking back, Looking forward

This was a quiet month on most counts. The children have been attending classes regularly and the teachers too have settled into a routine.  It is heartening to see the kids make progress, and at the same time heart-breaking to realise how much more could have been achieved if the classes had been offline.

One highlight of this month was definitely the interview of the founders, Meera Ashar and Ajanta Purkayastha, on FM Radio, where they spoke about their inspiring journey – the story about how they were moved when they first saw the children in their community and how they were determined to make a difference to their lives. They had been out of school and had an uncertain future. From that stage, to where they are now, is an amazing story.

This, we thought is a good time to look back and see how far we have come.

Where We Were

The community where the learning centre is located consists of migrant workers who have over time, settled in there in large numbers. To make ends meet, both parents are working in most houses. The children have either never gone to school, or have had only the most rudimentary, short exposure to schooling back in the villages/towns they have come from. Most couldn’t read or write, had no grooming, lacked refinement and had no polish. They had no manners or grooming, used to constantly play in the muck and lacked any kind of discipline and were unable to enrol in local government schools

It would be a brave woman who would contemplate any kind of teaching with this lot. But the co-founders did not despair. They bravely made a plan, gathered the resources, and got down to work. Hiring premises for the centre within the community itself was a masterstroke which made it easier to get the parents and children on board. The parents felt safe sending their children to a campus which was within their community, and for the children, the centre was just a short walk away.

We started with just a handful of children in one small room within the community. It was a heterogeneous group with differing levels of age, aptitude and previous exposure to schooling. It looked like a Herculean task to get them to any kind of discipline, let alone teaching.

And so, the team of volunteer-teachers rolled up their sleeves and set to work earnestly.

The first task was to first establish a channel of communication with them so they would learn to listen.  Only when the two-way communication went successfully underway was it possible to gauge where they stood in terms of academic and other levels, and plan further.

As word went around the community that here was a group of volunteers who actually took interest in the children and wanted to help in their development, more and more parents came forward to enrol their children.

Today we stand at 75 students across ages 5 to 15.

Where We are Today

The most impactful change we have observed is that they now have a collective identity that has motivated and encouraged each of them, and drives us as well.

Today, the children have hopes and dreams for the future. They know that if they put their hearts into it and work hard, they can reach where they want to, in life. 

From being unwilling to question and be content to merely following instructions when we first started, to being curious and have an open mind today, they have come a long way.

Academically, students have grown in leaps and bounds. Many who started at zero are now at 3rd grade level in just two years. Others who had few years of schooling but much less actual learning, have been able to help bridge the gap with our help.

With respect to discipline – attendance, discipline, and the ability to sit down and listen is a wonderful change which has made all the above possible. They are polite, well-groomed and know how to behave in a class. With lockdown classes having gone online, they have even learnt how to handle the learning devices with ease.

Today, we are proud to see the students being able to work in a group, respect others and still hold their own.

Setting them successfully on this path of continuous learning is what keeps us going.

Where we hope to be tomorrow

Currently, we have on our team teachers who teach art, yoga, public speaking, spoken English along with mainstream academic subjects.  We offer a well-rounded, holistic development that goes beyond mere academics. We take the students on various field trips and organise various health, educational and fun camps. We celebrate all important festivals and events. We encourage and nurture talent. Apart from these, we have also tied up with an NGO which provides daily mid-day meals.

Our target is to provide the children the best we can within our resources, and to continue to reach out to the larger community to expand our horizons even further.

Our vision is to not just make the children literate or earn a high school certificate.  We want to elevate them up from their current levels to make them reach their highest potential.   Yes, a school board certificate is certainly useful, but our sights are much higher. We want to make them employable in an area of their choice.  To this end, there is emphasis on development of soft skills like personality development, presentation skills and being computer literate. For those who show aptitude for higher studies, we will certainly guide and enable them to get to the right institutes.

Our ultimate goal is that education can get them to a stage in life where they can earn a dignified living, become respectable members of the society who can think for themselves and be able to take charge of their future.

We have never thought of ourselves as a school for the underprivileged, but on the contrary, peg ourselves as more than even a mainstream school. This is what keeps us motivated and to keep going.

Because what we offer our students is more than an education. We offer them hope for the future.

New Challenges, New Solutions!

August-September is the start of the festive season. It is the time when we have a lot of special events in our school calendar. What would you say if I told you that we did not compromise on the special celebration for even a single one of those events? Be it Independence Day, Ganesh Chaturthi, Id or Teachers Day, we celebrated them all with the same gusto as pre-pandemic times. How did we do that? Read on to find out!

In the last quarter, we started taking online classes for the students, wherein the teachers used their laptops or mobile phones to teach, and the children used their parents’ phones and logged in from their homes.  This was probably a first for any non-profit education organization anywhere.

But we did not stop there. Interruptions in classes due to network issues or unavailability of the phones made continuous classes difficult. Given the constraints at the students’ ends, there was very little they could do to mitigate this.

So what could we do to come up with an out-of-the-box safe solution during these times?

That is when we thought of using the premises at our centre to set up remote learning devices so that dependency on the parents’ phones need not hamper the childrens’ learning. By bringing in the kids in small batches of 4 or 5 at different time slots throughout the day, we are able to conduct the classes without compromising on safety.

Generous donors enabled us to equip our centre with a few laptops, tablets and mobile phones. We set up internet connectivity and employed a couple full-time supervisors from the community itself.  There are 4 rooms in the centre and each room was set up with a device – either a laptop or tablet – with an internet connection. Individual mats were procured for each child, so that they remember to maintain social distancing while in class. The supervisors were trained to use the devices and to use infra-red thermometers to monitor the temperatures when the students come in. Sanitizer bottles were stocked up to enable hygienic use of the shared space.

We carefully drew up a time-table so that each child who needs support at the centre gets a fair share of time, and yet, at any given point, there are no more than four or five students in any given room. With time, the students got comfortable with the new system. They now come at their designated time slot, set up the call and attend the classes without network interruptions or other distractions usually found at home.

Amazingly, something which we never, ever thought would happen during this time – regular online classes conducted in a safe way, without any compromise, was underway!

No longer did we have to deal with dropped calls, or background noise, or absenteeism. Punctuality, better focus and uninterrupted classes are now the new norm.

With this infrastructure in place, we are eager to expand the learning possibilities of our students. Watch this space for more exciting news in the coming months.

The highlight of this month was undoubtedly the Independence Day celebrations. For the first time, we had an occasion like this, with volunteers, management, teachers and students across grades, coming together on a digital platform to celebrate India’s 74th  Independence Day from the safety of their own homes. The children shared pictures on this theme drawn by them. We also had a talent show with children reading out speeches, singing songs and even presenting a dance. Our founders encouraged and motivated us with inspiring words. It was a wonderful and memorable occasion for all.

Another occasion we celebrated was Ganesh Chaturthi. The children had fun making clay idols of Ganesha and decorating them.

We observed a holiday for Id and the children talked about their celebrations.

The crowning glory for us teachers was Teacher’s Day. Our students spent hours making the most beautiful cards and ‘gave’ them to us digitally. We were absolutely touched and delighted by their affection!

Our team is now more than 20 strong – we have 16 teaching volunteers, 2 support volunteers and 6 paid staff.  Our goal is to have more volunteers engaging the children for longer hours, thereby utilising their time creatively. Apart from academic lessons, we are also teaching them music, Spoken English and hope to introduce computers very soon.  We continue to support the children and their families in various ways ensuring wellness and discipline. Our ongoing conversations help to keep their morale up as well as ours.

Schools the world over are reinventing what education is. The challenges are many, the roadblocks hefty. But what it means to be an educator right now is to chip away at those and leave no stone unturned, no avenue unexplored in supporting the learning of our students. And then, hope and pray that we did enough.

Learning Never Stops!

With a heavy heart, we shut down the school in the second week of March as per the Government directive, with no clue as to when we could open up again.

Though the school was physically shut, we never really lost touch with the children at all. We were constantly calling the parents, reassuring them, asking them not to panic. Many of them had lost their jobs, and were unsure whether they should attempt to return to their hometowns. Our team of volunteers convinced them to stay back, arranged for food drives and counselled them in whatever way they could.

As the summer wore on and private schools made plans to start online classes, we thought – ‘Why not we too? The students don’t have laptops, but most should have smartphones, right?’ And so we started a survey to check how many of the students had smartphones and could participate. To our delight, we realised that barring a couple, all the households had at least one smartphone, and the students were very excited about the idea of attending school on the phone!

We got started by creating digital content mirroring our offline syllabus so that the teachers / volunteers could access the content and also share it with the students. Next, each of the volunteers divided up the children and took responsibility for teaching 4 to 5 students each. We called the parents, explained to them about how the online classes would work. Just like students in private schools, these students, too had be guided about how to use technology safely and effectively for the online classes.   Where phone lessons were lacking, in person training ensured that the tech challenges were dealt with swiftly.

The enthusiasm of the children in learning the new way to school was simply amazing. They   quickly came up to speed on every aspect of using the phone for the online class, and it was a delight for us to be able to see and speak to them again.  The only app they were used to was WhatsApp, but it took them no time to get up to speed on how to join the online classes and use all the features on that app.

Though the children were delighted to be getting back into a virtual class and connecting with the teachers and each other, the journey wasn’t all roses. They couldn’t read much English, so all offline instructions about the classes had to be in the form of voice messages. Another challenge was discipline. Getting them to come punctually and regularly, ensuring a quiet and well-lit ambience for the class, sitting quietly and undistracted for the duration of the call, all were lacking initially. So we made regular calls to the parents explaining to them that the home environment had to become the school environment, for the moment, at least. To the students, we asked them to mentally tune themselves to being at school, by asking them to wear the uniform, come to ‘class’  with the fully packed school bag, and sitting down in one place for the entire duration of the call. Gradually, the students got into the groove of things. It was a great experience for both the students and the teachers. In order to track progress, we prepared a tracking sheet to capture attendance, homework given and progress for each student.

There continue to be challenges. Sometimes the network is patchy, sometimes the home atmosphere is very noisy or dark, sometimes the phone itself is not available as the parent is still at work. But we have definitely set the ball rolling in terms of a routine and the students are settling in to a better discipline. We have a long way to go in terms of completion of our beginning-of-the-year academic targets, but for now, we are happy to connect to the students and keep the school habit going.

We are in the process of trying an experiment where we are trying to overcome these challenges. We have arranged for a laptop and internet access in the school premises. We call very small groups of children and use the laptop for our online classes. In this way, the students’ dependence on the parents’ phone and network issues are resolved. Discipline and punctuality too can be maintained. Needless to say, all safety precautions are being taken.

At the time of publishing this blog, we have been informed that there is a case of infection in that settlement. Hence the in-premises classes have been suspended for now.

At the moment, we have not been able to start classes for the littlest ones due to various reasons, but hopefully, that can be under way too, in the near future.


Swapaksh (https://swapaksh.org/about/) is an NPO (Non-Profit Organisation) working with underprivileged migrant children who are unable to attend regular school as of now.  It has a team of volunteers and teachers working with children between the ages of 5 and 15. Started purely with donor funding, it has grown from 1 small room in the settlement itself to a learning institute with 4 rooms (and as many age-groups) where kids have their own desks, books and stationery.

However, we are still a long way from achieving our dream of an institution which has all the infrastructure needed to support 80 children. Currently the premises we are using lack basic facilities. There are no toilets, continuous electricity or internet. Funds are also needed for running expenses like room rents, teachers’ salaries, teaching aids and stationery.  

During these times of the pandemic, there are a whole new set of resource challenges around digital infrastructure. We are taking classes on video-conferencing using Zoom. But most of the students’ houses have only one smartphone, and if the parent is carrying it to work, the children are unable to join the class held on video conferencing.

You can make a difference to the lives of these children.  Please visit our website to learn more about our work. You can also make a contribution to the institute. All donations are eligible for a tax deduction under section 80G.


Bonding in the time of COVID

The entire nation is on the defensive in response to the COVID 19 outbreak. We too had to close our center and keep everyone home. It seems particularly hard on our students as Swapaksh is the hub of their social and creative life. They do not have access to the many means of entertainment, information and communication that we take for granted.

The season started off with lessons in hygiene. When it finally came down to closing the doors, the children were distraught. We explained the situation both to students and parents, urged them to follow the hygiene rules and stay home. Each child got a couple of library books to fill in their time and we parted with promises to meet soon.

But, days turned to weeks as lockdown was imposed and we were all restless. Acting on a thoughtful suggestion, each volunteer “adopted” a couple of families. We would call them, talk to our students, do a bit of revision, enquire the parents about their condition and in general tried to keep up the bonds we had built. How the kids loved getting calls from their teachers! It was heartwarming to see their joy. One of the kids went a step beyond. He liked the idea and took it upon himself to procure the numbers for all the volunteers and call THEM to ask how they were doing. Needless to say, we were as overjoyed getting his call as the kids were to get ours.

What slowly became apparent over these conversations was that many families were struggling. Food was not available, income was not guaranteed, future was not clear. We HAD to do something to help. So we organized a food drive.

It was a collaborative effort beyond anything we have done so far. A good samaritan and a friend of the organization offered procure rations in bulk from distributors that he knew. Our network of volunteers started collecting funds. We did not even have time to setup a payment gateway. Over oh-so-low-tech WhatsApp messages and bank to bank transfers, we collected enough and more funds for the food drive. It was a struggle for our one person finance ‘team’ to keep track of the generous donations. Once the rations were procured, our administrative team worked non stop to get the word out to all the parents and coordinate the drive – all over phone. Two of our students spearheaded the distribution, keeping track of the outflow. By the end of the day, everyone was heaving a sigh of satisfaction.

So, looks like WFH is quite the option in the Not for Profit sector as well!

New Year, New Beginnings

One of the things we have been eager to implement is a Midday Meal program for the children. With the new year, our efforts have come to fruition and we are very happy to announce that all students at Swapaksh now get a healthy afternoon meal prepared by #AkshayaPatra.

Another new development is the start of the adult education program. A bunch of enthusiastic youngsters from the area have registered and we have high hopes for them.

A not so new event in this first month of 2020 was India’s 71st Republic Day. I gave a copy of Leila Seth’s “We the Children of India” to some of our older kids. We read it together and discussed the various ideals that we as a country have chosen to uphold. They countered with various incidents and raised questions about India’s Democratic process. A very fruitful discussion ensued that ended with one girl saying “I wish the whole world was one single country with these same rules.” Cheers to that!

Diwali 2019

The festivities this Diwali surpassed even our optimistic expectations! Thanks to lavish contributions from a handful of generous sponsors, we were able to procure brand new festive clothes for all eighty children studying with us. As they trickled in one by one, all dressed up, big smiles on their bright faces, the already decked up rooms of our school became positively luminous.

We had an Art Mela for the children of Swapaksh. Kids could participate in any number of artistic events they were interested in. The littlest kids won our hearts with a cute dance number.

Some took to Drawing, others Rangoli. Diya painting was a big hit as was crafting Torans. It was a day of revelations. Young children no more than six or seven came up with the most imaginative Rangolis and executed it better than any of us could.

The attention to detail in the Diyas, unexpected use of materials in the crafts left us dumbfounded. To top it all off, one boy presented a rap song paying homage to mother, motherland and teacher. We were touched, thrilled and inspired to open up even more opportunities for our students.

The Google Doodle Experience

“Don’t just learn. Think!”

Our students dread hearing these words. They are all smart, intelligent children quite capable of deep thought. But they have been so conditioned to “do as you are told” that they just want to do that. So, we threw them in the deep end of the pool.

We registered four of our students in the Indian chapter of  #DoodleForGoogle 2019. With an oh-so-open-ended “When I grow up I Hope …” they were forced to think and rethink, make and remake, refine, iterate. We did not place in the finals but we are SO proud of our kids’ ideas and most of all their perseverance in getting it done even when the going was tough. Here we present a journal of the thinking and learning that went into this.

day 1
Day 1

day 2
Day 2

day 3
Day 3

day 4
Day 4

day 5
Day 5

day 6
Day 6

day 7
Day 7