Penned by Ms.Thorvi Damle who volunteered with us as a spoken English teacher in the Language Lab between September 2022 to July 2023. From August 2023 she joined Sharana as the Communications Manager.

The atmosphere in the classroom is exciting as the students put their heads together to come up with a fitting ending to our thriller movie script. We had already come up with the description of the main character and as I skipped from one student to the next adding the next line to the plot, I was amazed at their imagination. By the end of the exercise, they had come up with three different endings to our story. If this were to be made into a short film, I am sure the audience would be biting their nails. It was one of the most memorable spoken English sessions with my students at Sharana.

When I joined Sharana as a volunteer in September 2022, I only knew I was going to help these children speak English. As broad as this subject is and with hundreds of ways to do it, the challenge was to identify their particular needs and create something that would be relevant and instantly applicable by them. Sharana was introduced to me through my close childhood friend Ms. Vandana Shah, who is also Sharana’s Operations Director. I had been hearing about it and its programs through conversations with her over many years. At that time, I was living in Bangalore, working in a hectic corporate career, and never got a chance to know more. In 2021, I decided to quit my corporate job, a result of a severe burnout and move back to Pondicherry, my hometown. I started exploring other interests and by March 2022, I had written and published my first book. There was a lull post this rush of activity and I was now looking for ways to contribute. A chance discussion with Ms. Vandana led me to this volunteering opportunity with Sharana.

I remember my first interaction with the children. It was a classroom full of innocent, enthusiastic yet shy group of kids from 8th standard upwards. I started by getting to know them and, more importantly trying to understand what the English language meant to them, why they wanted to learn spoken English, and what challenges they were facing.  What I found was not a surprise, most of them knew how to read and write English. At school and college, their textbooks and even the exams were conducted in English, but there was no opportunity to speak the language. At home and at school there was no possibility of practising speaking the language. This meant a lack of confidence and fear of making mistakes and of the ridicule that would follow. They never tried speaking the language. They knew the importance of it, especially for future job prospects, all they needed was an opportunity to learn.

A big plus in building a rapport with the students was my ability to converse in Tamil and to switch between Tamil and English. My mother tongue is Marathi, but since I grew up in Pondicherry, I learnt to speak Tamil fluently. The fact that I do not know to read or write Tamil piqued the curiosity of the students and helped them understand that speaking a language was a skill that could be learnt on its own. So, if they put in the effort they too could speak fluently in English, irrespective of how good they were at reading or writing it. The first couple of weeks with the first batch included spoken, written, comprehension, and reading exercises and it was a joy interacting with them.

We often mistake the ability to speak fluent English as a measure of intelligence but it is just another language and I needed a way to bring these children out of their shells and instill the belief that they could master any language with effort and consistency. Over time I worked with the program manager, Mr. Prakash, and the teachers Ms. Saritra and Ms. Pragadeeshwari towards giving the spoken English class a structure. We tried, tested, got feedback from the students, and evolved the curriculum to what it is today. We narrowed the field to draw from their day-to-day life experiences, sticking to basic topics. The idea is for them to have small conversations in English around their daily lives and be able to interact with others, to be able to introduce themselves and share details of their day. I am positive that with the right balance of grammar, vocabulary, writing, reading, and comprehension they should be able to imbibe the language.

The atmosphere at Sharana is different from most NGOs or non-profits in that it is filled with an uplifting energy that one can only experience. The energy of the space is so peaceful and conducive for both learning and teaching. Also, the staff at Sharana are always polite, kind, and eager to help, and ensured I was comfortable enough to concentrate on the classes. No two days are the same and I had my share of bad days, but on those days, I would look forward to interacting with my students, the act of learning and teaching instantly shifted my energy to the positive. There were fun-filled days with the students but alongside were challenging days as well. Sometimes I found it tough getting through to the students, as I tried to ensure no child was left behind. We must remember most of these children come from challenging family situations and backgrounds. A special mention here to the program manager, Mr. Prakash who helped me not give up on those tough days. His background in psychology, counselling, and years of experience working with these children gave him a unique ability to understand the limitations as well as the opportunities and guided me through it.

I felt elated and proud as with time students were able to grasp, repeat, and retain what was taught. Watching the confident smiles on their faces was rewarding. We pushed them to use the microphone and had speakers in all my classes. Initially, some of the children were hesitant, reluctant, and would refuse to participate but slowly they opened up and almost all the students by the end of the 12 weeks were confident enough to speak into a microphone. When students volunteered their names to continue participating in the Language Lab, I felt injected with a zeal of enthusiasm along with a sense of added responsibility to bring in more innovative and fun ideas to teaching.

As I spent more time in Sharana, I was touched by the kindness, genuine care, and involvement of the entire staff including the volunteers, interns, social workers and program managers towards the beneficiaries. We had a volunteer Ms. Diane and an intern Mr. Sarthak pitch in on days when either the teachers or I was unavailable, keeping the students engaged with fun learning games focusing on spoken English. I was then presented with the opportunity to come on board and join Sharana. I decided to take that up and say goodbye to my volunteering in the Language Lab. I am grateful, happy, and feel enriched having been part of this program right from the beginning and helping create the calendar, content, and curriculum. Watching the teachers take over and continue expanding the number of batches and students has been satisfying.  It is a relief that this is not a total goodbye, I will continue to help with this program as and when required. This Language Lab will be critical in boosting self-confidence and getting students to like the English language and not be intimidated by it. Improving their skills over time will help them in higher education, interviews, job searches and their workplaces.