Ex­plain­ing sub­trac­tion like Roshni


Teach­ers of­ten say that learn­ing is most ef­fec­tive when it is con­tex­tu­alised for stu­dents. I saw this first­hand in a re­mote vil­lage in Mirza­pur re­cently. Dawn was break­ing on a hot sum­mer morn­ing when I reached the rock-strewn land­scape of Tanda Falls. There was lit­tle ac­tiv­ity in the clus­ter of mud and thatch houses that con­sti­tutes Turka­han vil­lage. How­ever, the un­mis­tak­able sounds of a ru­ral class in progress wafted through the gates of the local NGOrun Project Mala School.

“Imag­ine you have five man­gos,” said a young but firm voice, “and you give two to your younger brother… How many will you be left with?” The class­room erupted into a de­bate on the very need for giv­ing any man­goes at all to sib­lings, younger or older. Since I’d come here to meet Roshni, the young teacher who was strug­gling to give ex­am­ples of other fruit, veg­eta­bles, even sta­tionery to ex­plain the con­cept of sub­trac­tion to a bunch of stu­dents firmly united in their crit­i­cism of gra­tu­itous giv­ing — I de­cided to sit at the back of the class to give her time to sort this out.

As I watched her deal with the pri­mary stu­dents with poised pa­tience, I won­dered if she un­der­stood how re­mark­able her life story was. In an ear­lier col­umn, I’d writ­ten about her and two other boys from Project Mala’s flag­ship school some 50 kilo­me­tres away in Guria. With­out much prepa­ra­tion, they had cleared the first round of JEE held ear­lier this year and con­se­quently be­come rather well-known in their vil­lages. Roshni, who hails from Turka­han, found her­self es­pe­cially pop­u­lar. This is be­cause the local schools here are only up to class eight, af­ter which chil­dren need to walk five kilo­me­tres in the hills to reach the near­est road head, and then catch a bus to the clos­est sec­ondary school sev­eral kilo­me­tres ahead in Amoi. “When I re­turned home af­ter my JEE re­sult, my neigh­bours asked me to tu­tor their chil­dren for a fee,” she’d told me ear­lier. “But hav­ing re­ceived such good school­ing at Project Mala, I just didn’t feel like tak­ing money for teach­ing and de­cided to start a free sum­mer school from six to nine in the morn­ing with two other Project Mala alumni in­stead.”

While the other two young teach­ers de­cided to fo­cus on the older stu­dents, Roshni had taken charge of the younger ones. When she’d be­gun, most had un­der­de­vel­oped nu­mer­acy skills. They’d now un­der­stood sim­ple ad­di­tion, and I sud­denly re­alised Roshni was try­ing a dif­fer­ent tack to ex­plain the idea of sub­trac­tion to them.

“Imag­ine that you live in a house­hold of 10 — grand­par­ents, chachachachi, their son, your par­ents and two sib­lings,” she said. The stu­dents nod­ded. “Chacha gets a job in Mum­bai and leaves home. How many mouths will your fa­ther have to feed?” With­out hes­i­ta­tion, the chil­dren shouted, “Nine.” Roshni wasn’t done. “Imag­ine next, that chachi and their son also join chacha in Mum­bai. How many left?” she asked. In this re­mote area with few job em­ploy­ment and ed­u­ca­tion op­por­tu­ni­ties, th­ese chil­dren were no strangers to mi­gra­tion. Link­ing the con­cept of sub­trac­tion to mi­gra­tion was a mas­ter­stroke, I re­alised, as they again an­swered cor­rectly.

And just like that, as the sun crept higher into the sky, all the young chil­dren of Turka­han un­der­stood what sub­trac­tion re­ally meant.

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