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.