Counting bricks is an important activity during our sessions at the brick kiln. The children have made much progress in learning mathematics due to this activity. Their parents have to count bricks to keep track of their payment. Hence, counting bricks is a meaningful task for these children. Also, they don’t have to sit at one place to complete this task. They have to move and run around, which is akin to their basic nature. All of them are always ready to count bricks. Whenever I realize that they are getting bored of sitting at one place and reading, I ask them, “Shall we count bricks?” and a sudden wave of enthusiasm engulfs them!

In the beginning, they would count the bricks one by one. But now, they can count in multiples of two, four, twenty five and hundred. The reason is, one ghoda (stack of bricks at the kiln) is of 25 bricks. They stack up 12 layers of 2 bricks each, and keep a single brick on top. The children can count the bricks in such a ghoda in twos.  Bigger stacks of 55 bricks are structured as follows: 13 layers of 4 bricks each, and 3 single bricks on top. The children make use of these structures for counting. They also use their own strategies for counting. See this video, in which Rahul is answering the question – “how many total bricks in 3 ghodas of 55 bricks each?”

how many total bricks in 3 ghodas of 55 bricks each?

Kishor and I decided to push the children a little more. Our friend Arun had accompanied us today to see our class. He is a teacher himself. He joined us in teaching and took detailed notes of our efforts. There were many ghodas of raw bricks outside Amit’s house. We started our math class over there. Rahul also came with Amit. Our conversation went like this:

I: How many bricks in one ghoda?

Amit: Twenty five

I: So, how many bricks in these 2 ghodas?

Amit spent a lot of time mumbling to himself and using his fingers to count. Arun’s patience ran out and he prodded Amit.

Arun: How many bricks in the ghoda on this side?

Amit: Twenty five

Arun: Then say quickly how many bricks in two ghodas.

Amit started counting bricks one by one. Now Arun couldn’t hold back himself. He explained to Amit that if he counted in fours, he would be able to count faster. Amit followed this, and counted 50 bricks. I smiled at Arun. He realized that he needn’t have rushed Amit this way. He could have allowed Amit to count one by one, and then brought it to his attention that he could count in fours to save time. We realized that the principle of not interfering with children’s thought processes sounds quite simple, but is actually quite difficult in practice. I took over the conversation from this point onwards.

I: If there are 50 bricks in two ghodas, how many bricks in four ghodas?

Amit: A hundred (This reply came rather promptly)

I: How many bricks in this entire haaroli? (Haaroli is a long row of ghodas

This was my attempt to push Rahul and Amit. They started counting the ghodas by touching each ghoda. “A hundred and hundred makes two hundred… another hundred makes three hundred…”. But they would miss a ghoda in between or count a ghoda twice. When they’d realize their mistake, they would start counting from scratch. I suggested a trick – when they complete counting 100 bricks, they should put a blade of grass on that ghoda. This trick worked very well, and Amit and Rahul started moving forward.

After some time, Rahul said, “Ten hundred”. Arun didn’t like that. He asked, “How much is ten hundred?” Rahul got a little confused. I intervened and asked him to continue counting. Arun realized that it’s not necessary to insist on using the word ‘hazaar’ – it can hinder the children’s process. The children completed counting till “Twelve hundred bricks”. I decided to challenge them further.

How many bricks are there in all these haarolis?

I asked them, “Can you tell me how many bricks are there in all these haarolis?” Promptly, the boys climbed to the top of the haaroli and started counting. Now, they were using many different strategies for counting. For example, when they had to add 3600 and 1200, Amit said, “Thirty six hundred plus twelve hundred, right? So, thirty six hundred and ten hundred…. that’s forty six hundred…  add the remaining two hundred… that makes…. forty eight hundred!!” Using such strategies, they counted “Eighty four hundred bricks in seven haarolis” and climbed down.

I decided to represent this count in the form of a table. But we didn’t have a paper and pen, so we squatted next to the haaroli and prepared a table on the sand, with the help of the boys. While preparing the table, the boys were counting mentally, and at times they were looking at the bricks and counting physically. They went through the whole process of counting once again, albeit quite quickly.

How many haarolis? How many bricks?

We have noticed while working with these children that they face a problem with number-names. In Marathi and some North Indian languages, the number-names are a little peculiar.  These children can say “80 and 4” quite easily. But they find ‘chauryanshi’ (चौंऱ्यांशी ) confusing. Actually, we can express ‘chauryanshi’as ‘ainshi chaar’ or ‘panchahattar’ as ‘sattar paach’. But this practice is not prevalent in Marathi. Rahul and Amit can count “Eighty four hundred bricks in seven haarolis” but get confused with number-names upto 100.

Prof. Manohar Railkar has written a detailed article about this issue. The influence of Sanskrit on Marathi and North Indian languages has resulted in making the number-names upto 100 quite complicated. Children who come from families where there is a regular practice of using numbers and learning tables by heart, may not find it very problematic. But we will have to work quite hard to help our brick kiln children master these number-names. However, if we look back at where we had started from, it seems that we have made quite a lot of progress. Kishor and I are feeling quite happy about it!

Hurdle Race


We do not have a fixed space for our study sessions at the brick kiln. Sometimes, we assemble near the clay pit, sometimes near the haaroli of bricks and sometimes where the children are playing. The children don’t seem to have any problem with this, but I started feeling the need for some stability. Radhi had made space for us outside her bhonga, but recently, a new kiln was built next to her bhonga. Women with head loads of raw bricks started walking through the courtyard to the new kiln. Their ‘traffic’ started disturbing the progress of our sessions. As it is, the children on the brick kilns are not used to sitting in one place to concentrate on something. They started getting distracted by the movement and casual conversations of these women. To find a new space for our ‘class’ – that was the new challenge!

Another problem was that of our students missing classes for babysitting. Kishor told me that Manali who was studying in Grade 2, stopped attending school because her brother was born and she had to stay at home to look after him. This is a common occurrence at the brick kiln – children who are 8-10 years old have to remain at home to look after their younger siblings. Such children are called baalghe. Families that work on the brick kiln have no other option but to take the help of their children for such things. Children help with household chores such as filling up water, washing clothes, cooking etc. They also help with less strenuous work at the brick kiln, such as sieving powdered bricks, setting up a haaroli of bricks etc. But working as baalghe (babysitters) ties them down for the whole day. They have to ignore their own childhood and share the responsibility of their parents’ household. Kishor has permitted these children to come to the school with their little siblings. Some of the enthusiastic students do come to school holding their baby brother or sister in their arms. But everyone doesn’t have this enthusiasm. It is little wonder that this brings an end to their education.

Many such baalghe children come to our class at the brick kiln. They bring their little siblings with them. The other day, eight-year-old Avinash was drawing a picture based on a story which we had shared in the class. Suddenly, his mother appeared with a head load of bricks and a cane in her hand. She shouted at him and hit him hard on the back with the cane. Before we could realize what was happening, Avinash went running to his bhonga. His baby sister Durga was inside, in the cradle, crying. Avinash was supposed to look after her. While she was crying, he was busy drawing. That’s why he had received a beating. Before I could say something to his mother, she was gone.

What could I have told her, anyway? At the most I would have advised her not to beat him. But given their situation, I wonder whether she would have listened to me at all. I sighed and resumed teaching. Avinash returned to the class, carrying little Durga in his arms. He held her in his lap and tried to go back to his drawing.

New Bhonga for the class

Kishor and I realized that we had to work on this issue of babysitting, if we wanted to continue our classes. Children missing school for babysitting has been noted as an issue for many years. Educationists Tarabai Modak and Anutai Wagh had devised a very useful strategy to handle this problem. They used to run a crèche, a pre-school centre and a few primary school grades together under one roof. They named it ‘Vikas Wadi’. All the children would get looked after in this system. Parents could leave their children there and go to work without any worries. We decided to use this time-tested strategy for our students. We decided to run a crèche, at least till the time our classes will be on at the brick kiln. Kishor asked a local girl named Ankita if she would do this work, and she agreed readily.

But where would this crèche be? We needed a proper space for it. Kishor appealed to the parents – would they please build a bhonga for us? They proposed to build a bhonga on their next pay day or holiday. Sure enough, on the pay day, Umesh’s father took his tractor to the forest to bring grass and sticks; but no one offered to help. He returned with some kasaad grass. When Kishor asked the parents about it, they said, they were unable to go. Then, Gurya’s father said, he had a bhonga near the road which was lying unused, and he wouldn’t mind letting us use it. Kishor seized the opportunity, and set the ball in motion for repairing the old bhonga.

The children’s enthusiasm for preparing this space was amazing! They brought kasaad grass and covered the bhonga, they levelled the floor of bhonga and prepared the courtyard for our classes by covering the ground with cow dung. Kishor brought some old sarees, which were tied along the fence. Our new ‘classroom’ was taking shape! Inside the bhonga, we tied a saree between two poles, and created a cradle for small babies. We brought a bagful of toys and teaching aids for pre-schoolers. On one wall, we hung a mirror, and kept a comb, face powder and hair oil next to it. Outside, we put a bucket of water to wash hands and feet. All the facilities were in place. We tied a rope outside the bhonga and put storybooks on it – our ‘hanging library’! Our brick kiln children who came to the class started washing their faces, applying hair oil and face powder…. All of them looked like salted peanuts!!

The crèche created a good space for our brick kiln classes. The younger children started playing with Ankita. The babies were put in the cradles. And the older children started sitting with us in the courtyard to study. But…. Just when I was finding a semblance of stability…. The other day some stray dogs tore off the sarees which were tied along the fence. The children made ropes with those tattered sarees and built swings! With the fence gone, the courtyard soon became a dumping ground for garbage.

There we go again. Start from scratch. Tarabai and Anutai had done this pioneering work decades ago. I feel amazed and saddened that their work is not outdated even today.

Hanging Library

Free Tuitions on Nishkaam Karmayog

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“Didn’t you play with marbles as a child?”

Today was the weekly pay-day at the brick kiln. The workers had a day off. Most of the parents were planning to go to the market after collecting their pay from the brick kiln owner. When Kishor and I reached the brick kiln, there was silence all around. We couldn’t see the children anywhere. We walked a little towards the back of the brick kiln and saw Umesh and a couple of boys playing with marbles. Kishor said, “Come on, let’s start our study session.”

All of them said, “We won’t come today.”

“Why?” Kishor asked.

‘Today is pay-day, right?” They replied.

Kishor tried very hard to bring them around by telling them that I had travelled a long distance specially to work with them. Plainly, they asked, “Why did you come today?” Kishor’s efforts were in vein, and all the children continued playing and ignored us completely.

We were both a little angry and dejected after seeing this response from the children. Why did we come here all the way, leaving our regular work and comforts? Only to be asked “Why did you come today”? My ego was hurt. Kishor and I glanced at each other and gulped down our mixed emotions.

There was really no point in getting angry with the children. They had never asked us to come and teach them. It was our need! It was also pointless to expect the parents or children to inform us in advance that today was supposed to be their weekly pay-day and it would be a day off at the brick kiln. We didn’t ask, so they didn’t inform us. If we had asked, we would have saved ourselves a trip. We stood there trying to look composed, watching the children’s game.

Umesh was hitting the marbles with absolute precision. I was really impressed to see his skill. He had a small box full of marbles. I asked him, “Where did you get all these marbles from?” He said, “I won them!”

“How does one win them?” I asked.

All of them started  sniggering. They were surprised that I didn’t know such a simple thing.

“You don’t know how to play?” asked Umesh.

Well. At least they were now taking an interest in what I was saying!

“ Well, I really don’t know. Will you teach me?” I asked.

“Didn’t you play with marbles as a child?” Umesh wanted to know.

I remembered my childhood. If I had even mentioned the name ‘marbles’, I would have been beaten up. All the adults around me had impressed upon me that marbles was a game ‘below our status’. They ensured that I never took any interest in it. I had totally missed this pleasure in life.

I insisted that Umesh should teach me how to play, and he agreed. All the children were highly excited by now. I didn’t have any marbles with me, so I borrowed two marbles from one of the boys and started playing. It was mutually agreed beforehand that even if I won or lost, the marbles would be returned to the original owner. They taught me a game called ‘dhusha’. They laughed heartily at my poor hits. After playing for a while, I asked them a question: Suppose, I have 14 marbles, and I want to share them equally among Amit, Umesh, Mangya and Gurya. How many marbles will each one get?

They halted their game, took 14 marbles from the box, and started dividing. It seemed that they were enjoying this new activity! Soon, I had succeeded in giving them 3-4 problems of multiplication and division. It wasn’t a wasted trip, after all!

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If 14 marbles are shared equally among four children, how many marbles will each one get?

I was rather pleased at my clever trick of converting a game of marbles into solving math problems. But the children didn’t let me enjoy my new-found happiness. The next day, the children had brought berries. Based on yesterday’s experience of creating math problems with marbles, I started giving them division problems using berries. But after dividing berries equally, one of the children happily popped a berry in his mouth. The one who had brought the berries got angry at this and punched him hard. Both Kishor and I had a tough time to stop the wild fight that ensued. The ‘clever trick’ of using berries for math problems hadn’t worked, and yesterday’s success turned into a failure today.

When we had cleared the air among the boys who were fighting, I noticed that Umesh was missing. I asked the children about him. They informed me that his family had left the brick kiln, because his father fought with the owner. No one could tell us where they had gone.

Suddenly, I felt quite depressed. Could Kishor or I really achieve anything in this highly unstable environment, by coming here to teach for a few days? Would these children – for whom we are taking all the efforts – really benefit at all? Is our work providing an answer to these children’s problems?

On our way back from the brick kiln, I asked Kishor, “Is our work really going to yield anything?”

“I don’t know. But let’s keep at it. Something may happen.” said Kishor, who has been brought up in a non-insistent culture.

Slowly, I could feel my depression fade away. A new thought emerged – our work is actually teaching us the full meaning of ‘nishkaam karmayog’ –one the central messages of the Bhagvad Geeta – to continue doing your work without expecting any rewards. Such opportunities are quite rare. I smiled at Kishor, and started planning the next day’s session with him.

Paak Kutri !

Arranging the steps in a recipe

Today at the brick kiln, we were allowed to enter the world of the children’s food culture. Amit had written about how to make ‘kaakadi chi bhaji ’ (cucumber fritters). Radhi had written the recipe of ‘Tilgul ( a popular sweet for Sankranti festival in Maharasthra.) “I made tilgul for sankranti,” she told us proudly. Pooja wrote about how to cook rice in a couple of broken sentences , while Chandrika wrote the recipe of ‘matar chi bhaji’. Actually, Pooja wanted to write about ‘jawalyachi bhaji’. (Jawala = dried shrimp). Vaishali wanted to write about how to make bhaaji using soya chunks. They told Kishor, “We can’t write, so you please write it for us.” Kishore sat down with them and started writing.

The girls wanted to convey many things – after all, it was a subject close to their hearts! So they even shared many unrelated things. They were not stating the recipe in any particular order. “Jawala is properly cooked when the water boils 3 times,” came first, and then, almost as an afterthought – “You need to chop onions for jawalyachi bhaji”! Kishore allowed them to talk at random for a while, and then asked pertinent questions about the order of the process. Finally, he edited out all the irrelevant bits and showed them the proper recipe in writing.

Amit, Radhi, Chandrika, Pooja and Rahul had written quite well. When we checked what they had written, Kishor and I decided to introduce ‘recipe’ (paak kruti) as a genre to write. I sat with them, and said, “Today, you have written how to prepare some food items. Even adults write such things and publish a book.”

‘What for?” the children were surprised.

“So that those who don’t know how to cook a certain item can read about it and prepare it.” I explained. The children nodded. I carried on, “When you write the process of cooking an item, it is called a recipe, paak kruti (पाककृती) . Radhi has written the paak kruti of tilgul.”

The children started giggling . I couldn’t figure out why they were laughing.

“What’s so funny?” I raised my voice a little. But the laughter didn’t stop. I decided to ignore it and asked Amit, “What paak kruti  (पाककृती) have you written?”

Paak kutri (पाक कुत्री) ?” asked Amit. The moment they heard him say it, they started laughing out loud. The word Kutri (कुत्री) sounds quite close to Kruti (कृती) in Marathi, but means a bitch.

“Oh, is that why you were laughing all this time?” Kishor and I joined in the laughter. We realized that the children were playing with words and sounds. They were laughing at the contradictions created when similar sounds were interchanged. They continued saying ‘paak kutri’ instead of ‘paak kruti’ and kept laughing. This is actually an important aspect of language education. Unfortunately, the ability to create such ‘puns’ is kept outside the purview of formal education.

After the laughter receded a little, we told them that people write books of recipes, and other people read the recipes from the books and prepare food accordingly. The children didn’t appear convinced. We decided to show them a recipe book. For the next class, we carried a recipe book as decided. We read out the recipe of ‘kandyachi bhaji’ (onion pakodas) from that book. We tried to bring to their attention what kind of language was used to write recipes. But our effort was not very successful. The children got busy in discussing ‘bhajiyas’ more than the ‘Language of the recipe’. They started comparing the recipe in the book with how bhajiyas were made in their homes.

Alongwith the recipe book, Kishor had brought the recipe of ‘mulyachi bhaaji’ – he wrote it down step by step, and cut the paper into neat strips. At the brick kiln, he spread the strips of paper on a mat in a random way and asked the children to put them in the correct order. Then we told them to write the second draft of their recipes for the next class. 

Radhi’s recipe of Tilgul

From the second draft of the recipes it is evident that children have presented the steps in a correct order. The idea of asking them to order the paper strips had worked. Radhi wrote the recipe in a narrative form. She just added the ingredients list to her earlier writing which included Tilgul,  the name of the dish itself. But somehow she realized that what she had written does not match with the genre in the book we had read aloud to them. Hence she wrote a message to me an Kishor  ” Kishor Sir & Nilesh Sir please let me know if I have done some mistakes.” I replied that she has made a good attempt and asked her to think about if she can include the name of the food item to be prepared into the ingredient list.

Amit’s recipe of Kakadi chi umbar bhaji

Amit has given steps in the recipe in proper order and has used quite formal language. Considering our failure to draw their attention to the language used for recipe yesterday, I would say, this progress was not bad at all. Another striking point was that the children were engrossed in decorating their writing using the sketch-pens. They spent almost equal time in writing and decorating. Looking at their enthusiasm of decoration I experienced absolutely  mixed feeling . Should I feel happy because they sat diligently for so long which is very rare or should feel sorry for a thing as simple as  using colourful pens was also a luxury for them. I was not able to decide.  

Procedural writing is an important milestone in the journey of children’s writing. During  this process children have to organize and plan their writing and chose appropriate words. We have decided to take this genre ahead. We will now give them topics like how to make bricks, how to play marbles or how to make a toy car using old foot ware. What we realized through this experience was that the children who were reluctant to write in the classroom made  impressive progress if the topics chosen are close to their lives.       

Bhakar (Flatbread)

Reading aloud to children is an extremely important experience in their journey towards literacy. Those who are read books aloud by adults around them, become literate quite quickly – because they have seen live models of reading process. Such children are somewhat familiar with how script works, and they have an idea of what could be achieved through reading. Hence, children who know the use of print learn reading sooner and more easily than others.

Parents of the children, we are working with on the brick kiln, are not literate themselves. Even if some of them know how to read to an extent, they cannot afford to spend time reading aloud to their children. The only print visible in the surroundings is letters like ‘KBK’ or some such meaningless logo engraved on the bricks. It is therefore not surprising that children from this background face many difficulties in reading and writing.

Kishor wanted to add some print to this otherwise print deficit environment.  He decided to write the names of all the family members and display the lists on the walls of their Bhongas. Kishor is a resourceful person. He had saved the transparent plastic covers of his students’ school uniforms. We had already made a list of the names of all family members during our initial survey. He printed out the lists, put them in plastic covers and stuck them on the walls to make each bhonga  ‘literate’!!

Umesh’s literate Bhonga

Kishor and I were aware that these children would not pick up reading unless we read a lot of books to them. But we faced the challenge of selecting the right book – these children are of varying age groups, studying in grades 2 to 6. We needed to select a book that would interest all. The older children are not yet literate as per their grade level, but we wondered whether they would like to hear stories written for very young children. Finally we decided to try a book that had content directly connected to their life – ‘Bhakar‘.

I kept the book in front of the children and started reading. It contained a description of how ‘bhakar’ (flatbread) is made. During our reading we came across a sentence  – Tai kneads flour into a ball of dough – big, round and soft. I asked the children, “What do we mean by soft?” Prompt came the answer, “Like clay!” I smiled.  Who else than the children on the brick kiln would relate to the softness of the clay? When I was young, we would bring clay to make Ganapati idols, and we were told to knead it soft – like ‘dough’. Ultimately everyone looks at the world through the lens of one’s own experience!

The book contained pictures of people and utensils from rural homes – much like the homes of these children. Sure enough, they started taking an interest in the book. On one of the pages, there was a reference of the bhakar breaking.

Will the Bhakar  break  ?

I asked, “Do you think the bhakar will break?”

Chandrika said, “It will break.”

Promptly, Radhi said, “Mine doesn’t break.”

“Can you make bhakar?” I asked curiously.

“I can,” Radhi replied as if that was normal for her age.

The conversation shifted to who can cook what food items. All of them decided to write about what dishes they can cook. Now this seems to be a great opportunity to enter into the world of food culture of these children. Kishor and I are looking forward to read what these children are going to bring to the next class!


Engrossed in calculations

For the last few days, when we were working with Rahul and Amit, Rahul’s sister Radhi would sit inside the bhonga (shelter) doing some sundry work. If I asked Rahul a question, she would respond from inside the bhonga. But she was not ready to join us. Two days ago, Kishor invited her, and she joined us. She started calculating how much ash was required for how many pits. When Radhi calculates using her fingers, her concentration is worth watching! She is not fazed by anything going on around her. Radhi began learning the alphabet last year, when she started attending Kishor’s school. Kishor informed me that she has made considerable progress over the last year.

When we reached the brick kiln today, we saw that Radhi had cleaned up the floor outside her bhonga. When she saw us, she ran into the bhonga and emerged with two mats. Yesterday, we were discussing that the children did not have a proper place to sit and read. Radhi, the responsible 12-year-old, had solved our problem without anyone asking her to do so. The hardships of life on the brick kiln teach these children to solve their problems on their own. They have to shoulder a lot more responsibility than what is normally expected at their age. They develop a sense of maturity quite early in life. I am still undecided whether it is good or bad that these young children behave like responsible adults.

All of us gathered outside Radhi’s bhonga and started working on our regular math problems – if you have to put 15 ghamelas (small metal tubs) of raabit (powder of unused bricks) in one pit, how much raabit would be required for 6 pits? Radhi answered the question after much careful thought. Here is a video clip captured by Kishor:

Radhi was calculating in multiples of 15. When she reached 70, I thought she would go wrong in further calculation. But she did not. She solved the problem by ‘keeping aside’ 5 ghamelas. Unfortunately, the school exams do not assess this type of problem solving strategies, and that’s where the problem lies. When I asked her how she had calculated the answer, she explained it systematically. It is usually difficult for children to explain the steps they use for calculation. Because they have to think about their own thought process, and verbalize it while explaining. Many children coming from literate homes would also find this considerably challenging. Radhi is able to do this quite well.

One day, when I was chatting with the children, Radhi and I had this amusing conversation:

“Your parents work on the brick kiln. Kishor guruji teaches in the school. Do you know what work I do?” I asked them casually.

Radhi said, “You must be writing in the computer.”

“What for ?” I asked curiously.

“Because you love it!”I smiled at Radhi appreciating her reply.

“Is that so? But what must I be writing?” I persisted.

“What you teach us.” Radhi said.

“ Why should I write that?” I asked purposely, to probe further.

“There must be so many kids in other places … their teachers will read it… and they will teach those kids. You are Kishor guruji’s teacher, aren’t you?” Radhi’s reply left me speechless.

When Kishor had introduced me to these children, he had said, “I am your teacher, and he is my teacher.” Combining this information with her experience  Radhi had imagined my  profession quite accurately ! Radhi is not only smart, she is also a born leader. She likes to assume responsibility. One day when Umesh and Devram were fighting, she intervened and made them stop. When she is in Kishor’s school, she is always doing advocacy on behalf of her classmates. Will the unstable life on the brick kiln nurture  her inherent qualities?

Are the schools ready?

Today at the brick kiln, Kishor heard some shouting and moaning from Mati’s bhonga (shelter). When he went there, he saw that Mati’s husband was beating her up. The husband stopped when he saw Kishor. What was the reason for this beating? We were told that the kiln owner’s wife had called Mati to work at her house, and her husband did not want her to go. Two years ago, Mati used to study at Kishor’s school. Kishor tried very hard to help her read and write. But Mati was simply not interested.

Mati is a stubborn girl. It is difficult to convince her to do something against her wish. Eventually, she stopped coming to school. Kishor would go to the brick kiln to bring her to school, but she wouldn’t listen. Probably, she had realized that she was lagging behind in studies compared to her classmates. She found it more fruitful to work on the brick kiln and earn some money. Last year, she got married. School-going Mati became ‘Mati vahini’. The chords of her earlier life were cut off. She has no other option but to continue the hard life at the brick kiln.

Mati’s story could be the story of any of the girl children on the brick kiln. If girls like Mati are not able to continue their school education, the reason definitely lies in the socio-economic conditions of their families. But part of the reason is also to be found in the school system itself. After the introduction of the Right to Education Act, the non-formal education set-ups such as bhonga shala have been closed down. This is actually the right step, because non-formal education imparted by poorly trained teachers in unstable situations like brick kilns can have severe limitations. Also, once we have accepted education as a fundamental right of the child, it is mandatory that every child must attend school. But are our schools ready to accept each and every child?  

When the child realizes that she cannot cope with what is going on in the school, a deep inferiority complex develops in her mind. In such a case, why would she like the school? Our school system is designed in a way that children like Mati have no option but to fail. The language used in the school, the text books – their content and pictures, the school environment, the assessment system – everything works against them. Children continuously get a feeling that ‘we are not going to get there’, and then they start lagging behind in studies.

According to Kishor, children like Mati need a longer time to become habituated to the routine of the school. If the schools give a sense of failure to them all the time, their chances of dropping out increase. Failure in the examination becomes a big push factor in their case. Even after being in the school, a child like Mati may make less progress as compared to other children. But still, it is important that she continues in the system as dropping out means getting married and pregnant at a very young age.

If we want these children to be successful, we will have to make the system much more flexible to suit to their needs. At times, we would need to keep away the text books and bring these children’s world into the classroom. Even the assessment tools need to be developed locally. And the most important of all – we would have to empower and trust the teacher to make this happen in the classroom. Unless we keep away the idea of failing children through exams, unless we give up our fascination for the standardized tests as the only yardstick for success, how will the schools be ready for students like Mati?


We are working regularly with Rahul and Amit. The other children on the brick kiln have started lingering around us. They find our cameras and mobile phones terribly attractive! They have started urging us to take their ‘photu’. As soon as we take a photograph, they want to see it. Today, I took my laptop to show them the photographs. As I switched it on, I asked them, “Do you know what this is?” Some of them replied, “Camputer.” “What is it used for?”, I asked. “To see photos,” they said. I was impressed by their quick wit!

All of them gathered around me, and started telling me about the people seen in the photos.

Radhi said, “This is Mati. She is married to my brother. She used to go to Kishor guruji’s school.” Amit said, “This is Bhagoji baba. He is setting up the kiln.”

I came to know the stories of many people seen in the photos. I asked the children, “If I write all this, would you read it?” All of them replied “Yes” in unison. I copied a photograph into a word file, and started writing what the children were telling me. I wrote it down as they told me, without converting it to the standard, formal Marathi.

Radhi’s parents…

This is Raja and this is Vandana. They are Radhi’s parents. They woke up at 4 AM. They brought mud from the pit, and prepared lumps of mud … Then they wetted the molds and slapped the mud into them. They applied water on top. Then they spread sandy clay on them. They lifted the molds and released the bricks. A row of bricks was ready. They put some more sandy clay on the bricks. Then they molded the bricks using tin sheets. They will finish this mud-work by 10 AM. Then they will clean up and go to their bhonga for lunch.

As I typed, Amit, Rahul, Chandrika and Radhi started reading aloud. Amit, Chandrika and Radhi are able to read somewhat fluently. Rahul is still reading one word at a time. Kishor told me that when he started teaching these children last year, they were not literate at all. Their enthusiasm to read and write ebbed and flowed like the tides! If they felt like it, they would read, or simply declare “I’m feeling lazy” and walk away! But today, seeing their enthusiasm helped us understand something – they may feel lazy to read lessons from their text books, but if the text is connected with their lives, they are definitely interested in reading it.

Kishor and I have decided to capture their life in photographs, prepare text based on the photos and ask them to read it. For those who are not showing an interest in reading, we are going to write their own stories. We believe that if such text is made available to them, they would definitely start taking an interest in learning to read.

How much ash in eleven pits?

Rahul’s Clay Pit

This is the third consecutive day of our visit to the brick kiln. By now, we are quite familiar with the work that goes on here. It is back-breaking work! The workers get up around 2 AM and start molding the bricks. By the time we reach there around 7.30 AM, they are busy wrapping up the clay work.

When Kishor and I reached the kiln today, we asked Rahul to call the other children. But no one turned up, except Amit. So we started teaching just the two of them. I asked them, “How many clay pits are here in all?” They had never counted the pits. Rahul went running around the kiln and came back with a number – eleven pits on this side of the road. Rahul had told me yesterday, that they put four ghamelas (small round metallic tubs) worth of ash in each pit. So I asked him, “If we have to put four ghamelas of ash in all the eleven pits, how much ash would be required?” Rahul said, “Mopaay lagel…(मोपाय लागंल) I will have to count it.” He went around counting and came back with the answer, “38 ghamelas”. Obviously, he made a mistake. I asked him to explain how he had counted it. This is how our dialogue went:

Rahul: Four and four, eight. Then eight and eight, sixteen. Sixteen and four, twenty.

I: Twenty ghamelas for how many pits?

Rahul: Five.

I: Now imagine, there are five pits on this side of the road and five on that side, and if you have to put four ghamelas of ash in all of them, how many ghamelas would you need? ( I asked this so that Rahul could see all the ten pits in the line of sight from where we stood.)

Rahul: Twenty for this side, and twenty for that side… forty?

I: Correct! Forty ghamelas in how many pits?

Rahul: Umm… ten.

I: But how many pits did you count on this side of the road?

Rahul: Eleven.

I: Forty ghamelas for ten pits, so how many for eleven pits?

Rahul: Umm… forty four.

Kishor and I were happy to see how Rahul had solved this problem. We realized that Rahul is able to count in fours. The problem was closely linked to his reality, hence Rahul was able to visualize and calculate, without a paper and pencil. Later, we asked, “If you put 15 ghamelas of Raabit (powder of unused bricks) in one pit, how much would you require for 11 pits?”. This number much larger than 4. Rahul and Amit drew pictures of pits on the sand. They even drew the channels which connect the pits, for passage of water. Then, they solved the problem!

Rahul cannot recite multiplication tables yet. But he is able to work with numbers if the problem is connected to his surroundings. Now, the challenge for us is to help Rahul progress from his somewhat flexible strategy to the abstract standard algorithm of multiplication. We have read research papers which state that children use their own flexible methods to solve mathematical problems. We are now seeing it for real. Kishor and I have worked out a plan for Rahul. Let us see how he responds to it.

How much Raabit  in 11 pits ?

From the Brick Kiln at Moj

My friend Kishor Kathole is a teacher at the Zilla Parishad school in Moj, a village in Wada Tehsil of Palghar district. A few days ago, he told me about the Katkari (tribal) children studying in his school. For the last two years, Kishor and his colleagues have been trying to bring these children to school, to get them interested in school work. These children have started attending the school, but they are not yet used to the school routines. They remain absent frequently, and those who come to school appear to be disinterested in whatever is going on in the classroom. The parents of most of these children work on the brick kiln near Moj village. They stay at the brick kiln in temporary shelters called Bhongas (भोंगा). This is a seasonal migration that takes place every year, between November and May. Once the children move to these locations with their parents, it becomes even more difficult to bring them to the school. As a result, these children are lagging behind in their studies compared to the rest of their classmates.

Kishor is a sensitive and mature teacher. He and his colleague Mr Wagh have enrolled their own children in their Zilla Parishad school. Other middle class parents from the neighbouring villages have started sending their children to the Moj school, because they have seen that the teachers are doing a good job. Given this background, Kishor was feeling bad that the Katkari children from his class were lagging behind. We spoke at length about this issue. During the discussion we realized that there was little or no connection between what was being taught in school and the lives of these children. This was probably a major reason why the children did not find school education interesting. If we could relate the content and teaching methodology to their lives, they may find it relevant, we felt. To achieve this, we would have to discover the reality of their lives.

Kishor and I decided to visit the brick kiln. We reached there one morning around 7 AM. Rahul, a student from Kishor’s school, recognized him and came running to our car. A few other children saw him and ran away to hide in their temporary shelters. It was quite cold that morning and we were wrapped in warm clothes. However, when we saw little Vrushali, we felt quite ashamed of our privileges – in that furious cold, Vrushali was not wearing even a frock. Sitting in her elder sister’s arms, she was simply staring at us with her curious eyes.

Rahul started showing us around the brick kiln.  “See, these are the pits to mix clay and water. Here is the machine that powders the unused bricks to make Raabit (राबिट).  Do you know how  many bricks are stacked in a Ghoda (घोडा)? See, this row of  brick stacks is called Haroli (हारोली)…” Rahul was explaining with great enthusiasm. 

With Rahul’s help, the doors of this almost unseen world have now opened to me and Kishor. We have decided to enter this world and observe it through the lens of pedagogy and explore ways to teach these children. We are not sure if our efforts will be successful. But the challenge is beckoning us, for sure!

Bhonga, the temporary shelters at the kiln

 To be continued…