Peering through her glasses, 11-year-old Payal Somwal explains to her 66-year-old science teacher that she wants to be an electrical engineer so she can, one day, get electricity to her grandmother’s house in the hills. “You will have to work very hard,” he answers. She nods in agreement.
The Class VI student and her 30-odd classmates are from minority communities, their parents mostly migrant workers who came to Noida in search of a better life. With little guidance at home, their grades have never been great.
That changed last year with an AIIMS initiative — ‘Intergenerational Learning Centre’ — which sees retired citizens teaching underprivileged children at government schools in Delhi-NCR. So far, it has been implemented in two schools, Purba Madhyamik Vidyalaya, Noida Sector 12; and Kerala Education Society Senior Secondary School, R K Puram, Sector 8.
The rationale behind the project — funded by the Union Ministry of Culture since July 2017 — is that students can benefit from the tutoring, while being active and involved with children will have a positive impact on the health of senior citizens.
In recently held exams, Payal came second in class. This is the first time anyone in her family has received an accolade for education. “We weren’t sure what to expect when these classes began. But it’s like having your grandparents teach you. My grandparents live in a small village in the hills in Uttarakhand, and I can’t go there. So this makes me happy,” says Payal.
Her science teacher, Chandrashekhar Rai, had retired as general manager for NTPC in Patna in 2012. He received specialised training to prepare him for teaching a class.
“More than anything else, it has forced me to think creatively about teaching these children. I try and teach science practically, with as many experiments as possible, so that learning is fun. I have noticed that my memory has improved in the past year… At this age, I am learning something new every day,” he says.
Dr Prasun Chatterjee, assistant professor at the department of geriatric medicine at AIIMS, says the project has been a boon to everyone involved.
“Often, we found that when our patients are alone with nothing to do, the quality of their health falls. But this isn’t to say that they can’t contribute to society. There are many students who could benefit from additional tutoring, particularly in a country like ours where paucity of teachers is a problem. So we decided to put them in a classroom together and see what happens.” He said such initiatives help combat issues such as depression, hypertension and other diseases among the ageing population.
Encouraged by the results, he says the project will be extended to 17 more schools in Delhi-NCR, and hopefully the entire country in the future. “All students are from low-income groups. Most live in bastis or villages nearby. Interacting with people, who have made something of their lives, has also opened their eyes to possibilities ahead of them. Someone wants to be a doctor, another an IPS officer, while some want to be journalists. They believe in themselves now,” says Pushpa Lata, project coordinator.
At the end of their first academic year, parents were invited to make cards for their children, wishing them well for the future. Payal’s father, Devender, an electrician, drew a bird for her. “My daughter has learnt to fly, I never want her to settle for anything less than what she thinks she deserves,” he says.