Every Granny Session Shahrukh could get… he did!

Shahrukh Khan or Dr. Shahrukh Khan, as he always insisted on calling himself when other kids teased him about being his famous namesake, is one of the children from one of the earliest SOLE Labs in India. He has been written about in blogs that have decribed the mentoring and support he continued to get from Granny Liz long after the project closed down and he left school. Today, Shahrukh is well on his way to becoming a doctor and is in the last year of his medical studies in the Philippines. But that’s not what this tale is about….


The tiny – 3 computer – lab at ISG overlooking the busy main road. 2009 [Photo: Suneeta]

This story is about when Shahrukh was still in school and the Granny Cloud had just begun its interaction in the tiny lab at ISG, in the Bahadurpura area of Hyderabad. Three computers groups crammed into the tiny lab at the front of the school adjoining the busy main street… It didn’t matter whose session it was, which Grade was supposed to be in the lab, or which Granny was going to connect. If Shahrukh could find a way to skip class and be in the lab; there he was!


Shahrukh hanging around Granny sesions for younger Grades [2009] [Photo: Suneeta]

A Granny would be reading a story to Grade 1 and there he was. It would be a session with Grade 2 and there he was… I couldn’t help asking him if he didn’t find some of the stories ‘childish’. After all, it was a concern that many of the Grannies had (especially those that interacted with the older age groups, and Shahrukh was in Grade 10!). Shahrukh just grinned. “No” he said, “No, I haven’t heard these stories before. Nor have I seen such lovely picture story books. It’s all new to me. Besides, my English is not very good. So if I sit around I learn quite a lot.” And more in the same vein as he pleaded to be ‘allowed’ to just hang around irrespective of who had a session. And I wasn’t about to send him back to class if he could find a way to convince his teachers!


Shahrukh and his classmates in a session with Liz [2009] [Photo: Suneeta]

Shahrukh showed then, as he has continued to show since, a particularly useful capacity to convince the person in front of him! And he often got away with it. So glad he did!

What he also spontaneously offered to do was help out in the lab and keep the connection going especially when the really little ones were in the lab. He had figured out what wires to check as well as other basic stuff if the connection fluctuated. So even in the absence of the lab technician who would arrive once a week, Shahrukh kept things moving. “I won’t interrupt. I’ll let the little ones do the talking. I will just watch and listen.” And what did I need to be convinced? As you can imagine, not much! So Shahrukh got what he wanted and he made the most of the opportunity.


Shahrukh helping out [2009] [Photo: Suneeta]

That is probably the hallmark sign of a child who is going to ‘make it’ later in life. Not just materially but in terms of learning. Shahrukh still harbours dreams of other children being able to have the kind of “Granny Cloud” interactions that he experienced and Liz and I are particularly happy to be called “Aunty”.

Here’s a flavour of his motivation…. [through excerpts from some of his emails to me]

Just a month into The Granny Cloud, Shahrukh wrote in July 2009:

“Hi Mam,

          …………About my self I live in jiyguda and I want to become a DOCTOR in feaure and I am interested  in compter.” ………….

And then on 24th April 2010 , several months after the project had closed down and we were struggling to keep the schools involved, with his motivation and concern for the other children still strong, he wrote:

“Hi Aunty,

              How are you?I am fine and I hope the same with you.Soon we will talk with SKYPE.

………………….     …………………            ……………………

I hope you will continue the work in my school.Take the same timing and day of talking with LIZ and tell present Tenth class to talk with her.They can improve there english.” ……..                    

Today, Shahrukh is busy as an intern and just a few months away from getting his basic medical degree in the Phillipines and well on his way to achieving his dream of becoming a doctor. Proud of you Shahrukh!



“Observant” – A new word for the day


Every so often a session comes along that makes me laugh and spreads a warm glow as it stays on in memory. What happened at Phaltan just two days ago (10th January 2018) is likely to be such a one. At very first glance it seemed so cute, but its real strength came through as I kept remembering it on the drive back to Pune.

But I am getting ahead of myself! The second batch (all 10 of them) of Melanie’s group came in and took their seats around the big screen. Seats that had just been vacated by Melanie’s first group of fifth graders. In some groups, the really active kids are right up front, in other groups – right at the back, as it was with this second group. They got through their regular routine (and it no longer takes them more than a couple of minutes) of coming up close to the webcam, typing in their name and saying “hello” and “how do you do?” to Melanie individually, with the odd one sharing some special news.

Individual hellos

An individual “hello” [Photo: Suneeta]

Then they began with an activity Melanie had used with the first group as well – ‘Similar and Different’. The children had been given the challenge to be ‘observant’ – to see carefully. It was their new word for the day. Melanie brought out all kinds of things – two
pictures, two objects e.g. pencils and finger puppets (elephants were of course included, being Melanie’s favourite animal!) and more…. The children covered a range of similarities and differences. From colour to size, to which specific animal, the length of their tails, whether a pencil had an eraser or not and so on. All these things were observed and commented on.

Being observant

Similar & Different

Finding what’s ‘similar’ & what’s ‘different’ [Phaltan Jan 2018] [Photos: Suneeta]

Then Melanie turned to herself and the children asking them to see if they could point to similarities and differences among them. Of course they could! And they raised their hands to be invited to speak. Saakshi and Bhavesh and Ayaan seemed to have their hands up most of the time. They were so eager to speak!

Hands up

They even included differences they knew about… And indicated these in full sentences. “You are in London, we are in Phaltan”. “You are in morning, we are in afternoon”…. 🙂 before returning to specific things they could “see”. And I had a hard time containing my own grin as I heard Bhavesh point out a similarity – ” you have a beautiful smile, we have beautiful smiles”. Awwwww! Of course they did, every single one of them! And they had heard Melanie comment on that many, many times.

That wasn’t the end. Similarities and differences continued to be indicated, and their lack of inhibitions and absence of false ideas about politeness shone through as I heard them point out a difference – “You are old, we are young!” Melanie and I had such a good laugh over that one as well.

Cute? Yes! But that isn’t all. There were traces of many hours of interaction with this group. It was evident in their eagerness to participate, and in their patience to await their turn. It was evident in the ‘order’ that had been gently created so that each one would be heard. And it was evident in their use of sentences (not individual words being ‘barked’ at Granny!).

And it was also evident in their reasoned conclusions as the session continued and they watched and reflected on a clip of the astronaut Tim Peake speaking with school children in the UK. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/space/12135602/Tim-Peake-holds-CosmicClassroom-to-answer-questions-of-British-schoolchildren.html)

They were being observant AND reflective, and they were expressing every bit of it.

Just a glimpse of what The Granny Cloud can achieve…

It's always fun

‘Goshaaps’, and Origami … among other interests


It was a warm summer afternoon in early June 2015 when I arrived at the lab at Gocharan to see a small group of children crowded around the pond at the front of the lab. A few of them broke away from the group and rushed towards me, dragging me down the little footpath that led up to the lab so that I could see what had piqued their interest. It was a ‘goshaap’ – a water lizard / monitor, belly up in the water and quite dead.

dead goshaap1

The dead ‘goshaap’ in the pond – June 2015 [Photo: Suneeta]

We had been seeing it the past couple of weeks and while I was concerned when I saw it climbing up and moving around the trees on the pond banks, the children were completely unfazed. It wasn’t the first time they had seen a ‘goshaap’ and it wasn’t going to be the last…. Sure enough, a few days later, there was another one!

Goshaap behind the tree

Look carefully and you will see the ‘goshaap’ behind the tree

Yet, what made the difference to their response was the kind of resources available to them and their access to those resources. For Area 0 was the flagship lab of the TED Prize School in the Cloud Project, and was the largest of them all with 11 computers in a unique hexagonal, beehive like, structure. And since it was a community-based lab there was absolutely no constraints in terms of time or the activities the children chose to engage in. With their very limited English (the lab was just a few months old at that time) most children (with the exception of Dev, Tridip and a few others) spent their time playing games and listening to music.

game over
Game Over! The next one gets his turn… Gocharan June 2015 [Photo: Suneeta]

But as ‘Granny in residence’ and physically present, this was too good an opportunity to pass up. So I deliberately speculated aloud – ” I wonder what this is called in English? Is it poisonous?” The children didn’t know and weren’t sure but they did have access to the internet and many of them rushed in, as children whose curiosity has been piqued are wont to do, so that they could check it out.

snake search

Searching for information on snakes – Gocharan June 2015

And over the next several days, I was treated to pictures and excited sharing about the difference between snakes and water monitors and how to distinguish between poisonous and nonpoisonous ones. I was even shown and told about the Katraj Snake Park in my hometown, Pune, at the other end of the country….

more snakes

More about snakes!

Their interest lasted several days and we saw a lot of snakes and lizards related information cropping up before other interests took over again. But it was a beginning. Over the next few months I felt a quiet contentment as I observed several children following through on their interests.

Undeterred or possibly overjoyed by the absence of formal classes to interfere with their interests, I found Sulagna teaching herself origami and passing on that interest to several other children, Tridip explore Google Maps & Photoshop, and Chetan refine his sketching skills.

2015-08-12 16.04.38                     origami

                                       Interest in Origami spreads over the months… Gocharan – July to August 2015 [Photos: Suneeta]

It is at its best when it can all come together….

Bonds that grow

This is not a story of just one a specific incident. But of a realisation born of and perceived many times over through many related memories.

It is still that time of year. November to March are the most popular months for Grannies to visit some of the centres in India. The cool, but not terribly cold, temperatures in many locations have a big part to play in that choice of visit times. And as I eagerly await the arrival of several Grannies in a few weeks from now, I am caught up in memories of other visits and other Granny sessions.

Almost 2 years ago (in February 2016) a relatively large group of Grannies and educators arrived in India for an extended visit to several locations and to soak in a bit of the Indian environment elsewhere too. We began referring to it as ‘Convention Week’ and the climax was the Conference on 18th February 2016 at Phaltan. Though the SOLE lab here was one of the SinC TED project ones, it had come on board the Granny Cloud well before that [and has continued to flourish even after the end of the SinC project]. It is certainly the biggest Granny Cloud Centres with Grannies reaching out to preschool children through to the children now in High School. I have written about Convention Week at length http://thegrannycloud.org/the-convention-diary-2016/  but as a new year (2018) begins there is a special part of it that I remember.

Grannies in the audience

Grannies in the audience – Conference at Phaltan  [18th Feb 2016]

The children at Phaltan were an integral part of the organisation of the conference and they had done their homework. They knew that conferences involved ‘speeches’ and addressing the audience. And they weren’t about to be left out! So different children, from different grades, came up in between the various other talks to share their experiences of the Granny sessions and the lab.

little ones

The little ones address the audience [18th Feb. 2016]

From my vantage point facing the audience, I could see a tear or two welling up in several Grannies eyes as almost each little speech ended with the refrain ” I love my Granny”….

I love my Granny

More speeches from the little ones 18th Feb. 2016

It was hard and unnecessary to dismiss the emotion on both sides. Embedded in that one little sentence was the essence of many hours of interaction. An interaction that was warm and encouraging and human. Perhaps robots will ‘take over’ many different tasks. But for the foreseeable future of these children’s lives it is this human interaction that makes all the difference.

There are other times when these little tots access and listen to a story or a song on the computers. But that experience is not a patch on reading a story along with Granny Angele or Vidya or Lakshmi or Prerna or Louise and watch her eyes grow as big as theirs as they discover together the animal that lies hidden on the next page or what happened later in a story.

Sessions at Phaltan with  “Louise Granny” 2015 to 2016 [Photos: Suneeta]

And it isn’t a patch on the chat that they have with Steve Grandpa as he shares pictures of the new lambs on his farm, or the laugh they share over the many different names across India for variations of the same sweet.

Steve Walter

with “Steve Grandpa” Nov. 2014 [Photo: Suneeta]

Each time I watch an interaction like that I ask again – “Couldn’t the children have figured that out for themselves?” I am sure they can – certainly a substantial part of it, given adequate time and access. And just as quickly my thoughts turn to the children at Gosavi Vasti who for several years had access to computers and the internet in their ‘stand alone’ lab, but not the Grannies.

Supriya in 2012)

Some of the girls at Gosavi Vasti in 2012 [Photo: Suneeta]

Towards the end of 2017 all that changed, and the children at Gosavi Vasti became part of The Granny Cloud community on a regular basis. And within a couple of months the impact was palpable! The children now chatter away more easily, keen to share their own thoughts and to ask about Grannies lives and chat about an idea that has caught their fancy.

Gosavi Vasti with Angele

A trial session at Gosavi Vasti – April 2017 [Photo: Suneeta]

Yet again it is the interaction that is the key. Despite the way we have evolved over the centuries (and will, undoubtedly continue to evolve) the need for that human interaction and all that it encompasses is still very strong. Our need to ‘show off’ to a loved one, to have them think the world of us is still largely intact.

KNB with Vidhya

A little one shares with Vidhya [Photo Courtesy: Madhura Rajvanshi]

But it doesn’t end there. How do children even begin to explore, specially when what could be out there is also an unknown. Just as a baby gets their first experience and develops a taste for the sweet and the salty and the sour as each new food is gradually introduced and then becomes open to trying out many other tastes in later life, so it is with the children and the Grannies. It is the warmth and the caring, yes. But it is also there first introduction to the world beyond – the first little nudge that says “Go on, check it out” and “I’m around – come back and tell me what you found”.


Edna introduces Grade 4 to the Platypus! [Photo Courtesy: Madhura Rajvanshi]

It is being able to return to base that often makes the exploration worthwhile. It is the ‘wondering together’ that allows them to go further afield. These are the bonds that grow.

G 1 with Val

Grade 1 with Val – PSS [Photo Courtesy: Madhura Rajvanshi]

Me too, us too!

It is one of the most endearing images of a Granny session that I have. A few years into the start of Granny sessions at KHELGHAR and a somewhat changing group later, Jackie was interacting with a few of the boys she had gotten to know fairly well in the past few months. This was back in 2012.

KHELGHAR is a community-based recreational centre that supports the children and the community. Their brief has expanded over the years to support the children’s academic efforts alongside a wide range of activities including field trips to relatively nearby lakes and forts. Craft with recycled material, gardening, games, discussion groups on environmental as well as interpersonal issues are among just a few of the activities the
staff conduct with the children on a regular basis.


A discussion session in progress at Khelghar 2008 [Photo: Suneeta]

KHELGHAR operates on a ‘social parenting’ orientation; and enabling the children and the community to become responsible citizens is a key goal. Operating in the Lakshmi Nagar area – [a vasti (slum community) that has changed substantially over the years as access to electricity, water, and paved lanes (albeit tiny ones) became part of the settlement], the KHELGHAR staff (some who live in the same community) take their commitment very seriously.


view from home in the slum alley

3 slum main road

A view from one of the homes in the ‘vasti’ – 2012 [Photo: Suneeta]          The ‘main road’ of the Vasti – 2012 [Photo: Suneeta]


the Lakshminagar KG room

Small group activities underway at Khelghar – 2012 [Photo: Suneeta]

They didn’t have much by way of resources but they more than made up for it with will and effort. So the children would come down the hill, from their ‘vasti’ across the road – to the more ‘middle class’ residential area where most of the KHELGHAR activities and its ‘office’ was located. The office was one room of a flat on the very top floor that was used for all the children’s activities – their library, their language and Math activities, their painting and craft area, their staff training, gardening in the terrace, science corner. You name it, they found a spot for it.

Every space had multiple uses – different groups, different activities, different times. And the office was no different. The one computer off in one corner next to a desk was it! The rest of the room included a pantry kitchen and storage area with material for the children.

So come Granny session time and the staff would vacate their area and give it and the one computer to the children so they could connect with Jackie. English was a language the staff was only a tiny bit more familiar with than the children and they enjoyed the sessions as much as kids. But there was this injunction to ‘not intervene’, to ‘let the children manage on their own’. But the staff wanted to be in on it too. And they were!


Perched on desk and countertops, wherever they could find space, several young members of the staff would look on and smile. And giggle and follow the story along with the children, as it unfolded…

5 even coordinators want in on sessions

Next time you see a staff member hanging around one of your sessions… know that you are reaching them too…


KHELGHAR was featured on the One Show on BBC in 2012. This Granny Cloud centre is currently dormant.

The discovery of YouTube

May 2009. We were in the midst of the final trial run at SHS in Shirgaon, Maharashtra. Their SOLE lab was about to be inaugurated later in the day and along with that we were launching the SOMEs in a formal manner. SOME i.e. Self Organised Mediation Environments are now better known as The Granny Cloud. 🙂

It was hot, as it usually is in the summer (and mango season!) in that part of India. It was meant to be holiday time for the children. But they were as excited as we were about the lab starting up. That day they hung around from early morning as equipment was given a final test and chairs put in place along with the other preparations for the inaugural ceremony underway. Their teacher, ‘Attar Sir’, ensured that all was in working condition.


‘Attar Sir’ ensuring that all is working ahead of the innaugural ceremony 16May2009 [Photo: Suneeta]

The children were aware that Google existed because they had seen it in Attar Sir’s demonstrations. But it was their first real chance at being at the computers themselves. The old Hole in the Wall kiosk from almost a decade earlier had lain broken down and unused till it was refurbished as part of the OGEF SOLE project. That too was going to be formally reopened that day.


The newly refurbished HiW Kiosk at Shirgaon seen from the SOLE lab. 16May2009 [Photo: Suneeta]

But none of this really mattered to the children or me. A session is a session, after all. And Sugata was connecting from Newcastle. As we have seen over and over through the years, the children love to search, and the motivation in the beginning is particularly strong when the search activity involves some connection to the eMediator at the other end.


The first interaction. Connecting with Sugata on Skype 16May2009 [Photo: Suneeta]

They knew that Sugata was the brain behind the concept of SOLE and they knew he was in ‘far away’ England. So being able to come face to face with him on Skype was a special treat. And when Sugata asked them to see if they could find his house in Newcastle they Googled him and pretty much located his apartment.


SHS children finding Sugata’s house in Newcastle upon Tyne 16May2009  [Photo:Suneeta]

It was soon time for the inaugural ceremony and Akshay represented the children as he helped cut the ribbon. Sugata watched on over Skype as we entered the brand new lab. Formalities and ceremonies finally over and we had a full week lined up with all the eMediators who had been brought on board over several months of ‘screening and orientation’ (just informal chats, really !).

SK & Akshay innauguration SOMEs

Akshay innaugurating the SHS SOLE lab [Photo: Avinash Vaingankar]

It was a huge lab – 12 computers and a massive room so children were playing games, and exploring Paint and Google Earth alongside of the first Granny sessions. But that earlier session with Sugata was still on their minds, specially Akshay’s. He still had a bee in his bonnet about this ‘Googling Sugata’ bit. And he figured that he could Google himself. And see what turned up. So he did. Now Akshay shares his first name with a rather famous Bollywood film star so of course that is what popped up on his search! The other children crowded around to see what was going on. Because they heard a popular song – for Akshay had unerringly clicked on a video link with music. He had found YouTube! Any guesses what was the most popular activity that day? They clicked on every YouTube link they could!!!


YouTube discovered! 20th MAy2009 SHS [Photo: Suneeta]

Akshay is now about to finish college. As I chatted with him over Skype a few days ago, we remembered that day back in May 2009 and had a hearty laugh. He is busy, (among other things) developing an Android app to support small businesses and has promised to explain it all to me soon one of these days. These children make my day…. They make my life!

Akshay 1

Akshay today [Photo courtesy: Akshay Ranavase]

Saying Goodbye…

December 2009. The end of the OGEF SOLE Project was just around the corner. The Granny Cloud was just 6 months old and its continued existence was already uncertain. Sugata had conceived the idea because of the need to enable children to learn English – so that they could then use the internet and its vast resources to engage in SOLE sessions. The need was still there. After all we did not really expect English fluency to have exponentially increased in 6 months. Especially when one considered that most of the children in the SOLE Labs in Hyderabad and Shirgaon had access to Granny sessions one or two times (and if they were really lucky – three) a week.


Diane with the girls at the MAIM SOLE lab, Hyderabad. 16 Dec. 2009 [Photo: Suneeta]

The best case scenario for an individual child over these 6 months was 60 to 70 sessions. That is about 45 odd hours given that each session lasted about 35 to 40 minutes. A far cry from the recommendations of most linguists. And of course, the rest of the school environment had remained much the same as before the Granny sessions began.


It was my last visit to the Hyderabad SOLE labs. With the project coming to an end I would not be able to physically visit them. Couldn’t afford it. But the Grannies were all volunteers and I was more than happy to shift to volunteer status too. Because it was just such a delightfully simple idea and we could continue to connect from our own homes. It seemed a shame to give it up. Just as we were getting into the flow.


Liz Henderson at the JIYM SOLE lab, Hyderabad 15thDec. 2009 [Photo: Suneeta]

We had communicated our willingness to continue with this activity to the schools and several had agreed to keep it going. Yet, given the overall apathy to taking initiative even during the active project, I did not hold out much hope.

Even though all of us were determined to give it our best shot, my heart sank each time the children asked when I was coming next. I sounded unconvincing to myself as I explained each time that though I would not be visiting in person, I would see them on Skype once in a while to hear about the Granny sessions they had had, and that we could send each other messages over the SOLE kids Wiki.

I could see that the children were not entirely convinced either. Yet, as we said our “goodbyes”, my hopes for the future (whether I met them again or not, whether they connected with the Grannies or not, whether they had a SOLE session or not) were renewed. All because of a picture in Paint that Atiya and Jabeen had made for me. Through their picture of the lab they shared with me what their time in the lab had meant. It was a place that welcomed them and was open.



Atiya & Jabeen’s portrayal of the lab – The Open door was important to them. 15th Dec. 2009 [Photo: Suneeta]

Somewhere, deep down, we had entered their hearts and opened a window to the world….

Same tune … Different song


Back in 1990, my mother [Sudha Kulkarni] penned a slim little book in Marathi titled “baal geetanchya duniyet” – which translates into “In the World of Children’s Songs”. It is a book I have always appreciated because contrary to what people expected, it was not a compilation of songs for children. My mother had been a student (and then colleague) of Tarabai Modak and Anutai Wagh (among the pioneers of ECCE in India) and was familiar with child development in the context of rural – even tribal – as well as urban areas. Modifying a song or creating a variation of a popular story to make it more appropriate and effective was, therefore, something she did as a matter of course. It bothered both of us that the meaning and values implied in quite a few popular songs went unnoticed in the ‘best of preschools’. This concern formed the basis of many conversations she and I had, both professional (as colleagues at the Department of Human Development, Nirmala Niketan) and personal (as Granny – “ajji” and mother to Anand).

A related concern was that songs from other countries, or languages were picked up and used without thought. These spoke of a world quite unfamiliar to the children and we often wished for a mix, for a balance that would facilitate a continuous crossover from the familiar to the unfamiliar and vice versa. And so her book addressed these and other child development related issues, hoping to enable and empower teachers and parents to assess the suitability of a song and to make changes in them to make them more useful and fun.


Much has changed, especially in terms of technology, since she wrote that book. And the world has become ‘smaller’. It is easier to see into a window oceans and oceans away! Yet these basic principles of child development remain intact. And the need to modify the songs and stories from time to time also continues. And the worth of doing that is evident in the children’s responses.


Children at Shirgaon singing wheels of the bus with Anne – May 2009 [Photo: Suneeta]

I remember one of the earliest times Anne sang one of the variations of  ‘The Wheels of the Bus’ for the children at Shirgaon. The verses that resonated the most with the children were – “the parents on the bus go shush shush shushh” and “the babies on the bus go waanh, waanh, waanh”. They giggled as they heard it, and grinned as they sang it; identifying with the situation and picturing their own homes and their own little siblings in the process.

Like I said, the need for modifications remains. It doesn’t mean doing away with or not using songs and stories the children may be unfamiliar with. It means adding them to the mix to enrich it. It means being on the lookout for variations that take ideas further. It means creating your own variation for the specific group you interact with. And the Grannies do just that. Whether it is Val using a variation of the Goldilocks story ( Fairy tales with a twist ) or whether it is ‘Kevin sir’ who has a Wildlife Park instead of ‘Old Macdonald’s Farm’, the world opens up. New ideas, possibilities present themselves and become the basis for later conversation.

Kevin park song

Kevin singing “Kevin Sir had a wildlife park” with the children during a visit to GLC Varanasi – Feb. 2017 [Photo:Suneeta]

It doesn’t stop there. Katharine takes the ever popular and now familiar “Wheels on the Bus” and turns it into “The Boats on the Ganga”.

The Ganga from the Varanasi Ghats

Boats on the Ganga – Feb. 2017

New words are introduced and a new thought is proposed. Whether it’s online or during a rare treasured actual visit – singing “The fish in the river” as one of the verses, could well lead to a chat about the ecosystem and the cleaning up of the Ganga on another day.

Katharine at GLC

Katharine ona visit to GLC, Varanasi – Feb. 2017 [Photo: Suneeta]

Need I say more? Leaning on what is a most familiar sight to the children of GLC, Varanasi, Katharine has paved the way for a discussion about life on the Ghats of the Ganga… It is not just song…

A View of “Just beyond”

Mark and Penny were one of the husband-wife teams that did Granny sessions for a few months when we first began in 2009. They enjoyed interacting with the children as a couple. It gave them a boost of confidence and also, very special, ‘together’ time. They loved to travel and among the places they had visited was Hyderabad, India!

This trip had been before they both became Grannies. Who knows, perhaps it even triggered their desire to connect with the children during the OGEF SOLE project. After all, with the exception of the Shirgaon High School SOLE, all of the labs were in Hyderabad!


The school that Mark and Penny connected with was JIYA in the Hakimpet area of Hyderabad. Sometimes the children from the primary section would go to the main school building [Grades 8 to 10]; sometimes the older children would come to the primary school [Grades 1 to 7] location. Both sites were relatively close by and I often had to jump over small ditches and stones to reach the entrances in tiny lanes that didn’t typically cater for cars to be navigated through them. Like many of the children living in those and similar other disadvantaged areas of Hyderabad, the children had lived fairly sheltered lives. Many of them had never been beyond the confines of their own locality, not even within Hyderabad.


Mark & Penny interacting with children at JIYA – June 2009 [Photo: Suneeta]

And of course, it was natural to be curious about the place in which they lived. With their brand new computers and internet connectivity in the lab, the children were, for the first time in their lives getting a glimpse of what lay ‘beyond’. They would scour the internet for pictures of Hyderabad and its many wondrous sights.

Every so often there would be conversation about Hyderabad ‘brand new’ international airport. This is 2009 I am talking about, remember?!! [The airport had opened the previous year in 2008]. One of the boys had seen it along with his family as a very special treat. He was quite the envy of the other children!


So you can imagine their thrill and delight when they learnt in the middle of a conversation with Mark and Penny that they had actually visited Hyderabad! To think that these two had been all over their beloved city even if they hadn’t! It made them quite proud.

What followed was quite a natural outcome of this discovery. Mark and Penny were plied with questions about all the sights they had seen and pretty much pestered to be shown all the photographs they had taken on their trip.


Children at JIYA engrossed in conversation with Mark & Penny – June 2009 [Photo: Suneeta

Lumbini Park near Hussain Sagar Lake, Golconda Fort, RGI Airport, Charminar [the last being one of the few places the children had seen themselves]. Photo after photo was shared for the children’s examination. “Wow’s” and “oooh’s” and “aah’s” punctuated the interaction. They never realised when time was up and they had to get back to class. The children left reluctantly with promises from Mark and Penny that they could see some more another day.

As I watched the children leave the lab and thanked Mark and Penny for the session, I felt reminded once again about the potential scope of these Grannies session. ANYTHING could be of interest. And there could be NO assumptions….

As many questions as answers…

The School in the Cloud lab at George Stephenson High School opened on 22nd November 2013. It was the first of the TED Prize Project labs to start up. Several labs and the whole year later [3rd December 2014], the ‘SOLE Room’ at Phaltan also opened up, paving the way for ALL the children in the school [Pragat Shikshan Sanstha’s Kamla Nimkar Balbhavan – PSS – KNB] to have a chance to be in the lab and interact with the Grannies.

Phaltan had begun Granny sessions in mid 2013 after many months of long discussions to ensure it fit in with the school’s philosophy. At that point, with the limited resources available, The Granny Cloud was able to reach out to just Grades 6 and 7 in the old lab which had several old (almost ancient) computers with just one connected to the Internet. Having the new lab meant we could try reaching out to all the Grades (1 to 9) and not only for Granny sessions.


PSS Phaltan was one location that was wholeheartedly and unconditionally in love with the Grannies. None of the children wanted to be left out of it. They had even based their design of the lab on that! However, having Granny sessions for all the children meant that the lab was occupied all day with some or the other group in a session with a Granny. And very little time for SOLE sessions with big questions! And of course the children wanted to do that too…. However, PSS Phaltan is a regional language school and  with their limited English, most of the teachers felt a bit unsure about running a SOLE session themselves.

Well, the lab was new, the TED project was still on and I visited every month. (This was mainly to gather data for the School in the Cloud project but that was just a terrific excuse to be “Granny in residence” and be able to spend several days a month with these gorgeous children!) So we would have SOLE sessions with different grades (even with an entire class of 35 to 40 children crammed into the lab at one time). 4 to a computer? Sometimes, it was more like 8!

KNB SOLE Life other planets

The children at KNB engaged in a SOLE session 23rd March 2015  [Photo: Suneeta]

Anyway, to return to the connection between GSHS and PSSP. Among the things we have always been keen on encouraging, are joint sessions where children can connect with each other. Amy at GSHS was game for the attempt. So, in March 2015 we planned on a joint SOLE session between the children at GSHS and the children of Grade 6 at Phaltan. The children were really excited at the prospect of not just having a SOLE session, but of being able to see and talk with children from a different lab – that too in ‘England’!

Amy and I decided that we would try with the question “Is there life on other planets?” And to have the children across the two labs share what they found with each other. Following a quick chat we posed the question to the children and off they went to see what they could find.

from KNB end

The children at George Stephenson and Phaltan engaged in a joint SOLE session. View from the Phaltan end [Photo: Suneeta]

The ‘real world’ is always present just around the corner by way of constraints in terms of class time-tables and schedules among other things. So there was only a limited amount of time we could give the children for the search. 20 minutes later, the children gathered in front of their respective webcams and began to share what they had found. The children at Phaltan had really struggled to make sense of the material they found in this foreign language (English)! But had managed to understand quite a bit. Despite the eagerness to share, the children at both ends took turns to share their discoveries. And appreciative too as they commented – “that’s a good point”!

sharing findings Areas 4&5

Sharing their findings with each other [Photo: Suneeta]

But all too soon, time ran out and the children at George Stephenson had to go off for another class. Goodbyes were said and GSHS went offline. But for the children at Phaltan it was a rare chance for a SOLE session, and they still had lots to say. Everyone wanted to add their two bits worth. And they knew that the school management and I could be persuaded to extend their time in the lab for this ‘once in a while’ SOLE session.

So we carried on. Additional relevant information was shared. It brought in several perspectives. From how this was interesting to scientists all the world over, to the kind of research efforts that were going into it, even to the kind of technology being used by the scientist to glean this information.

As we finally brought the session to a close, I left the lab impressed. Impressed not just by the many pieces of relevant information they had gathered, but of how they had perceived and considered each bit. Not discretely, but as a whole. Even more importantly, they were asking questions as they processed the information. As they became aware of the many valid viewpoints that seemed, sometimes, to be at odds with each other; they were willing to raise awkward and hard philosophical questions about the issue as well. They figured it out from what they read and did not shy away from mentioning these. “Can a poor country like India afford the trillions being spent on this Space Research?”, they asked.

There is a valid counter argument to this question as most of us are likely aware of, but that is not the point. What was important was that the children were okay with this tentativeness. They had realised that there were several perspectives and that there were good reasons for any of these to be accepted. They recognised and accepted the uncertainty of the varied answers. Something the Social Sciences do a little more readily?! download (4)

 And they were willing to raise more questions….