She has measured a cow’s width, a chicken’s height and sketched leaves of different varieties. She’s even learnt to sort out several kinds of seeds according to their uses. Most importantly, this 13-year-old has, along with her classmates, “made maps of our village”. This demanded that “I had to observe so many things in my own village, neighbouring ones, in our block and district. Then I could draw it correctly.”

Sanjana Majhi might have been out of school for months now due to the lockdown. But she has never stopped learning. The attitude of this Adivasi girl in Odisha’s Sundargarh district gives new meaning to Mark Twain’s famous words: “Never let school interfere with your education.” Except, Sanjana has a teacher. One who is physically active even if her school is not.

The just-turned-teenager from the Kisan Adivasi community is among 53 children that Rashmi Jaypuria, 26, is teaching out of school. For Rashmi, this means visiting five hamlets of largely Adivasi and Dalit families in Tunmura village in this district. “The children know about farming,” she says. “Their parents are daily wage labourers and farmers. I am teaching them how to observe, to make notes of their findings and to enquire [about things around them]. They enjoy this practical learning.” Other teachers, too, like Rashmi, have risen to the challenge of taking school into the homes of the poor.

“I will be able to pass this class and get ahead,” says Shaktimay Behera confidently. “Because Rakhi [Tripathi] teacher comes to my home [in Odisha’s Jajapur district] to teach. So my written work and other studies did not stop due to the lockdown.” At 12, Shaktimay, a student at the government high school in Madhopur village, is quite sure she wants to be a doctor.

“I clicked a photograph of their school and showed the children how something big can be made – with as much detail as possible – into something smaller.” That’s teacher Nutap Behera, 24, speaking in Sundargarh’s Kutra tehsil. He finds that the lockdown, with all its problems, has freed him from the confines of textbook teaching. He can walk down to the local stream in Gangajal village and teach his students biology. Building spatial intelligence and teaching geography become both more creative and more concrete. That’s how the children went on to draw maps of their hamlet, village, gram panchayat, block – and even a map of the world.

Click on the arrows to see village maps hand drawn by students

In fact, you can use 10-year-old Asish Kumar Muduli’s map of his village Jamupasi to find the hand pump if you’re thirsty. It’s clearly marked along with the village pond, his school, a mango garden, agricultural fields, open spaces and the forest in Sukinda block of Jajapur district.

Sanjana, Shaktimay and Asish are the lucky ones – school has come home to them. But the digital divide in Indian education has left many children, especially those in the 11,02,783 government schools, outside the classroom. For first generation learners, a gap in schooling could have been academically fatal. In rural Odisha, about one in five children drop out of school, and in Jharkhand only 22 per cent of rural youth complete their schooling.

“I see so many children doing manual labour in my village [Badajamda]. Some students drop out because there is no money to buy even a copybook or pencil,” says a visibly worried Rashmi Gop. Just entering her teens, Rashmi is keen to stay on in her school in the Noamundi district of Jharkhand and eventually become a teacher. Her teacher, Sandhya Rani Tanti, 24, says the lockdown took away many of her students and they had to be brought back from working in homes as daily wage labour.

Only 5.8 per cent of rural Odisha and 11.9 per cent of rural Jharkhand have internet. Illustration by Antara Raman

Travelling on cycles and scooters, and even walking at times, Sandhya, Rashmi Jaypuria, Rakhi, Nutap and 700 other teachers in rural Odisha and Jharkhand have found a way to literally get around the online option. “When I started as a teacher, I didn’t know how to cycle, but now I drive a scooty. I drive very well!” says Pinki Sahu, 27. Her driving skill has come in handy as she whizzes around Harichandanpur block in Kendujhar district (also known as Keonjhar) of Odisha during the lockdown.

These teachers have clocked hundreds of kilometres since June, travelling in the largely rural and contiguous districts of Jajapur, Kendujhar, Dhenkanal and Sundargarh in Odisha and Pashchimi Singhbhum district in Jharkhand – call it homeschooling of a new kind. They are going door to door, meeting students in small groups (one to five individuals at a time) and interacting with them under trees, in the shade of a house and other open spaces.

“Initially it felt like a game of hide and seek,” says Nibedita Mohanta laughing. This 23-year-old teacher in Bhanda village of Kendujhar district would go looking for her students in the fields, near the river and just about anywhere.

Chasing down their students, they managed to reach out to 31,000 of the weakest and also the poorest students for whom online learning is as real as a fairy tale: only 5.8 per cent of rural Odisha and 11.9 per cent of rural Jharkhand have internet.

With no smartphone in the family, Anil’s education would have come to halt if not for the ‘didi’, as he refers to his teacher Nandini Behera. Photo by Tabrej Ansari

“I would have been doing nothing much, maybe roaming around the whole day if not for these classes,” Anil Champia admits candidly. The son of daily wage workers, this 13-year-old misses playing with his friends in the government school he attends in Noamundi Bazar, Jharkhand. With no smartphone in the family, his education and his dreams of becoming an engineer would have come to halt if not for the ‘didi’, as he refers to his teacher Nandini Behera who comes to his village Lakhansai to teach him and a small group of students.

The New Education Policy 2020 recognises that 3.22 crore children are currently out of school and in order to bring them back, teachers will need to ‘engage with the community’ and teach students ‘to learn how to learn’.

“Parents are showing more interest in their children’s education as they see the teacher often and in close quarters. I have built a relationship with the parents and they offer their verandahs for me to teach,” says Nibedita.

Homeschooling of a new kind: Teachers have clocked hundreds of kilometres since June, travelling in the largely rural and contiguous districts of Jajapur, Kendujhar, Dhenkanal and Sundargarh in Odisha and Pashchimi Singhbhum district in Jharkhand

This coming together of individual attention, customised schedules and broad curriculum is leading to remarkable improvements in all learning outcomes. From constructing village maps to detailed drawings of insects, experiments in science using household items and a little agri-science, these teachers are working with students to ensure they keep learning and do not drop out. These rural educationists are part of an initiative by non-governmental organisation ASPIRE and the Tata Steel Foundation.

For Children’s Day 2020, PARI Education brings together the voices of these teachers from rural Odisha and Jharkhand and a sample of the map work created by their students during the lockdown.

Why maps? Teacher Monalisa Sahoo, 22, from Dimbo village in Kendujhar district explains: “Our children might know the India map but they don’t know their own village. We saw their powers of observation develop – they began to notice what is around them in their villages. We thought they could learn about this through maps.”

Finished with his map, Prachi Bariha, a 10-year-old Gond Adivasi boy from Kutra tehsil sums it up: “I didn’t know the world was so big. I did not know it before.”

Dambaru Dar Nial
Age: 39
Location: Kutra block, Sundargarh district, Odisha

In Odisha, there is an exam in Class 8 and children must write down their name and their father’s name. Many are unable to write. Often, dikhava ke liye (just for show) they take this exam and use their Aadhar card to copy down the names. Students find it difficult to continue in school and after Class 8 they drop out.

I am a Dalit and I studied in a government school in my hometown Nuapada. Now I work in Sundargarh district – 400 kilometres away, teaching and supervising 47 teachers here.

We work closely with government schools and see that teachers show little interest both in their own teaching and in the student’s learning. They see education as just textbook knowledge. I also observed that the staff put their own children in private schools!

We teach in a different way from this. We do activity-based-learning and most teachers don’t know about it. In our training, we noticed that teachers initially do not participate in these activities themselves. Once they do start participating they come to understand its uses.

Take the example of teaching about the solar system. What usually happens is that the science teacher will just draw it on the board. We take the children out of the classroom to teach science, we show them models of the solar system and we encourage students to make their own versions. Observation is an important criteria for teaching science. Children become more participative and gehri soch (critical thinking) improves.

Pinki Sahu
Age: 27
Location: Harichandanpur block, Kendujhar district, Odisha

My mother’s signature is a thumbprint. We must do things differently.

When I started teaching in 2015, I did not know how to cycle. So I would walk to school through a jungle. In 2017, I bought a second-hand scooty. People would comment [and ask], “How will she learn [to ride] the scooty if she doesn’t know [to ride] the cycle?” I took up the challenge and now I have bought another scooty. And I drive very well!

Teachers and students often don’t speak the same language

Language is the biggest challenge for teachers around here. The children in my area are all Adivasi and Dalits; they speak mostly Santali and Ho which the teachers who are invariably from other castes don’t speak. Then there is the caste angle, as some will not even go near the children and openly show this. So children stay silent and are afraid. How can anyone learn in this atmosphere?

Their parents wake up early to go looking for mazdoori ka kaam [manual labour]. So no one cares if the children go to school or study at all. Even when the kids go to school, they run away to catch fish or collect firewood.

The parents don’t speak Oriya, so teachers find it difficult to speak to the parents. It happened with me: I had to convince the children to come and when they came they did not understand a word. In those moments, I felt like crying. Even my mother told me to change my school. I didn’t give up; I observed a Santhal teacher who taught Class 1 and 2, and I began learning a few words in Ho from her.

When we did the map exercise, we explained how maps allow us to easily see and find things. As teachers, we had worked with the community on mapping the village. So we had knowledge about symbols, but the children came up with some new ones. For example, for the ‘youth club’, they used a symbol of a stick figure boy and girl.

We are very careful about safety. If we feel we are coming down with a fever or cold, then we don’t go. We even tell the kids that if they don’t feel well they should not come. I don’t touch their pens or paper when they come and I don’t even allow the kids to touch each other’s pen and paper. I make them sit at a distance and wash their hands. Their parents have contributed [money] for soaps.

Nutap Behera
Age: 24
Location: Gangajal village, Kutra block, Sundargarh district, Odisha

Before the lockdown, it used to be ‘textbook’ learning in school. Now, there is no boundary. My teaching is more closely linked with nature. To teach about aquatic creatures, I took them to the river. Most of the students I teach are tribals and they know about farming, but don’t know the entire process.

Students learn how to manage their time; how to sit on their own and focus. Photo by Baijanti Bariha

We met and spoke with people who work in the fields. Their homework that day was to grow their own seeds and come back to class with observations on why growth took place and even why it did not. The world is becoming digital. Kids are going deeper into digital [knowledge] and losing their traditional understanding of things.

With the map-making activity, we wanted to show them that the world is big, but how can we represent it on a smaller plane? They are unable to explain anything in a map, or how it is made. Or how to measure distances without it. To change that, I took them to their school and clicked a photograph of it. They saw how something big can be made – with as much detail – into something smaller. It was this perspective we were able to bring out with the maps. Through it, they drew symbols for their maps. When they finished with it, they drew a map of their gram panchayat, then their district, state, country, the continents and finally the globe. If you ask any of my students where Australia is and what it is known for, they will tell you!

When schools closed students had to learn how to manage their own time, without guidance from teachers or parents. Slowly they are learning how to sit on their own and focus on something, not just studying. This feels good to see. I have made the timetable in such a way that they get time to both study on their own and play.

As a teacher, my focus has always been on the weaker students. But in a classroom setting, if you keep repeating and going slower for them, the others get bored or irritated. With small classes, this is not a problem anymore. We can sit for two to three hours and work slowly and focus on their individual learning. There is also none of the noise and commotion of a classroom, which usually takes up a lot of my time.

The challenging part with this model is that kids still have to go with their parents when it is time for harvest. Or if [migrant] work begins. I live alone, and sometimes my classes go on till 8 to 9 p.m. By the time I finish cooking and eating dinner, it is already midnight. But this is my responsibility.

Most schools, when the lockdown happened, moved to teaching kids virtually. With great difficulty, maybe two or three of my students’ families own android phones, and their parents take it for work. Even if they had [a smartphone], or their parents did, learning how to run it would take time.

I work with 43 students and I visit groups of five and more. Usually, I teach in their homes – the verandah is quite suitable for us. I spend about two to three hours with each group of students. I have to reach all the students at least once a week, so I use my cycle, and I also walk.

Chandramani Maji
Age: 32
Location: Kandha Adivasi, Noamundi block, Pashchimi Singhbhum district, Jharkhand

In our area, we noticed that many children were out of school. Their names were listed as enrolled, but they were not present in the school. Even when the children came to school, they could not perform as per their class level. Class 5 students could not read and write.

‘When we started, if we handed a book to the child, he/she would run away!’

When we started, if we handed a book to the child, he/she would run away! Slowly they are becoming self-learners. They look for new things to learn and their academic work has become more regular.

When we had just started working with the kids, they would only say, ‘I will become a teacher or police or doctor’. Now some say, ‘I will become an artist,’ another says khiladi [wrestler].

I am from Odisha and I work in Jharkhand as a teacher coordinator. All the teachers have been recruited from these areas. Majority of people are Adivasis and from the Santal and Ho communities.

Nibedita Mahanta
Age: 23
Location: Bhanda village, Champua block, Kendujhar district, Odisha

In the early days, parents and children were not available at home and I would have to search for the student in their village. I would have to spend two to three hours just looking for students. They would see me and say, ‘didi aa rahi hai’ (teacher is coming) and then run away! I would have to look for them in the fields or at the river, here and there I would look for them. Now children reach earlier than me. I have built a relationship with their parents and other youth in the village. Because parents can see me teach, the children cannot even lie and say their teacher did not come to school!

When I started my first lockdown class it took me some time to interact with parents, learn about their festivals, daily life work, language etc. Once I got to know them I would motivate the parent to get involved in their child’s education. After some days parents got comfortable with me and began supporting our classes. I go door-to-door and parents offer their verandahs for me to teach them in small groups. I have made a timetable for each child and I visit all 67 of them twice a week. I try to keep my classes in crowd-free locations.

‘I drew the outline of India on the ground. And filled it with flashcards to show where each state is’

The maps project came about because we felt they should know their own village well. At least before teaching them the map of India. By mapping their villages they learned directions – where the anganwadi is, what different routes lead where and the location of their own houses.

Once the students made their maps and learned how to draw symbols, we introduced the map of India. This was very difficult. Even pronouncing the names of different states was tough. What I did was draw a map of India on a large sheet and take it to each habitation. Then I drew the outline of India on the ground. And filled it with flashcards to show where each state is. This is how they understood north-south-east-west. To assess them, I would give a student the flashcard of a state and ask them to place it on the map. It has been successful and now we are moving to making district maps.

Rashmi Jaypuria
Age: 26
Location: Gomardihi hamlet, Tunmura village, Kutra block, Sundargarh district, Odisha

We started with a floor activity – with chalk we drew a map of India on the floor and we searched and identified states and their capitals. Now they [the kids] are easily able to tell me which states are in the east and the ones in the west of India.

I spend time preparing lessons depending on which hamlet I am going to

First there were 29 States, now with changes in places like Ladakh, I was able to teach them about that with this activity. Even in Andhra Pradesh, first the capital was Hyderabad, but now it is Amravati. So now the children have learned about these new things.

When drawing village maps, they have identified where a kuccha road is and what symbols can be used for pucca roads. Now, when they see symbols on the road, they can identify them, and wherever they go they can make a map. We encourage them to observe and note it in their notebook; this keeps them busy.

We taught them about farming and went to the field, and they came back and tried growing their own plants, measuring how tall it must grow to harvest it, and how far apart the rice must be planted to grow well. They come from farming families, but this observation was new to them. We planted different kinds of roots and the community joined us in this. That is how the students understood what the soil needs and how much water to give. Now the trees have bloomed so they are very happy to see it. Because they did this all themselves, with their own hands.

One of our activities was to measure the height of a chicken and width of a cow. When the parents understood the objective, they assisted their children and welcomed us into their homes. Their parents are mostly farmers and daily wage workers; I feel happy to see them involved in their children’s education.

Personally, I have also learnt a lot. I spend time preparing lessons depending on which hamlet I am going to. When I work with other teachers we learn from each other.

Monalisa Sahoo
Age: 22
Location: Dimbo village, Kendujhargarh block, Kendujhar district, Odisha

My day begins at around 6 a.m. and gets over at 6 p.m or later. I cycle around 15 kilometres to teach three sets of children, 41 students in all.

Earlier, the students were able to describe what they saw but not write it. They were able to draw and label but not write. Now they are able to write about 10 to 12 lines. Our children might know the India map but they don’t know their own village. We thought they could learn about this through maps. We saw their thinking power also develop – they began to notice what is around them in their village and asked themselves if they even knew about it.

When I began lockdown learning at the habitation level, I noticed half my students were at letter level [able to identify letters]. They knew only about half the alphabets in Odiya and English. Now they are able to write these as well as say the numbers from one to 100 in Odiya.

I know the value of education but I didn’t see its importance. Now I am observing how their thinking is developing.

Rakhi Tripathy
Age: 23
Location: Ampolaba village, Sukinda block, Jajapur district, Odisha

Seventy per cent of my students’ families do not own smartphones. Even for the ones who do, online learning is out of reach. Now they have got the hang of typing into the search bar and asking a question through the speaker. They are using this knowledge to search and learn.

I visit 14 habitations [clusters of homes] and I cycle almost eight to 10 kilometres a day. Through the week, I do one-on-one classes with five children who live far from the others. The other 51, I teach in small groups as they live closer to each other. We tried to bring these five children into group learning but felt it was not right to make them travel such distances.

My day begins at 5:30 a.m. and after finishing my housework I leave for my first class by 6:30 a.m. and then return home 12 hours later. Monday to Saturday this is my routine, and if a child is missed during the week, I visit them on Sunday.

We would like to thank Smita Agarwal, Tabrej Ansari and all the teachers and students who have shared their work and time with us.

Editor's note

Riya Behl is a 2019-2020 Mother Teresa Fellow at Ashoka University and is interning with PARI. She conducted many of the interviews and reported for this story. She says, “I heard, firsthand, the lengths teachers are going to reach students during lockdown, and the kind of learning that is happening. Researching for this story was a lesson in the commitment and courage it takes to be a teacher.”

Antara Raman is an illustrator and graphic designer based in Bangalore. The social sciences and a passion for ecology and conservation are the biggest influences on her work. An avid reader, her illustrations for PARI are defined by their narrative quality and metaphorical use of colour.