Music has sometimes been a hit and miss affair at Shanti Bhavan, dependent on the presence of musical volunteers. Despite their intermittent tuition, the school has many musical children who play the two grand pianos, raft of cellos, violins and guitars. Once a year the arts get a boost at an annual ASTEP summer camp – a blitz of “Artists Striving to End Poverty” who come for intensive music, dance and art activities each summer. In between, senior students lead the choir and it does remarkably well.

This year, however, music has taken a huge leap forward, thanks to a contracted music teacher, Eric, from Chile. The difference in enthusiasm for music is immediately obvious. Eric has turned the shabby music room into a vibrant space. It has a piano keyboard painted on the wall and the beginnings of a circle that will represent the different musical tones. Eric can point at notes on the elevated keyboard to teach the choir new melodies. The choir sings competently in Hindi, English, Tamil, German, Spanish, Zulu… and the list goes on.

'Music Eric'  in front of his keyboard

‘Music Eric’ in front of his ‘keyboard’

'Music Eric' with his tonal wheel at a piano lesson

‘Music Eric’ with his tonal wheel at a piano lesson

We love reading bedtime stories to the kids in the evening, from the 4-year-olds up. Now Eric does the circuit, popping in to each group with his guitar to sing songs with them. The kids go wild. He has also worked very hard to attract peripatetic music and dance teachers to brave the long bumpy drive from Bangalore to teach on the weekend. They make such a difference.

Eric and Susanna play to the 2nd Grade at bedtime.

Eric and Susanna play to the 2nd Grade at bedtime.

A guitar class with a teacher Eric lured across the potholed road from Bangalore!

A guitar class with a teacher who was lured across the potholed road from Bangalore!

Eric’s grant is up for renewal soon and we sincerely hope that he can continue at SB because he is a musical legend!

Computing at SB


As usual, Barney spends a lot of his time at SB helping to develop their computer plans – using his knowledge of the latest research in educational computing to suggest strategies and structures. Ajit George, the founder’s son, recently commented that almost everything that Barney had proposed on his first visit in 2010 had now come to fruition. When we first arrived in 2010, the laboratories had ageing, virus-ridden, stand-alone computers with old TV-style screens that ‘chewed up power’ and there was no Wi-Fi. Now, thankfully, there is full Wi-Fi throughout the main school and many other improvements.

Barney takes up the story:

Because the Electricity Board power (EB) is both expensive AND unreliable, the answer is solar power. Thanks to donors there are now enough solar panels and monster lead-acid batteries that the whole school is independent of the EB on the average day – i.e., from 6:30am morning prep in the dark, until the 12th Graders head for bed after 11pm prep. This includes powering two computer labs, a third ‘virtual lab’ of 12 loan laptops; and six electronic white boards in the upper school classes (donated by Verizon in 2014). Additionally, several donated iPads and Macbooks are worked overtime for music, researching the daily news, public speaking and debating activities. Without good planning these are potentially a charging nightmare, but overall it is pretty impressive to watch how well they are used each day!

Solar batteries - freedom from the pesky Electricity Board!

Solar-powered batteries – freedom from the pesky Electricity Board!

This year’s progress

Barney has helped in two main ways: upgrading the facilities and running professional development with the staff. Upgrading has involved working with the staff and their hardworking technical whizzer from Bangalore, Mr Yadap.

Today both the primary and senior school labs are networked; the senior lab now has recently-donated, brand new, energy-saving laptops. The momentum continues. Mr Yadap returns shortly to commission 16 little donated ‘tablets’ (Samsung Galaxy Note 4s). Dr George hopes these will improve 6-8th Graders’ access to the curriculum materials on the local server. I am hopeful it will provide better opportunities for subject research, report writing, problem solving and creative writing too. Research has shown that assigning ‘ownership’ of devices to individual kids in schools limits loss and repair rates. As SB usually acts as a family where everything is shared, the concept of individual ownership is a little alien, so it will be interesting to see how this works out.

The current network is already very busy, and with extra tablet traffic and increased usage of all the devices, we’ve identified that the local Wi-Fi network is overloaded. Thanks again to Bonnie and Rob Jenkins from Adelaide for their annual donation, we’ve organised installation of a seriously high speed Wi-Fi router, which will be a godsend.

Research using one of the iPad. Thanks for the Wi-Fi Robert and Bonnie!

Kandy and Naveen researching with an iPad. Thanks for the Wi-Fi Robert and Bonnie!

Paul and Sue Skype the grandkids. The first time we went to Shanti Bhavan there was no Wi-Fi at all.

Paul and Sue Skype the grandkids. The first time we went to Shanti Bhavan  in 2010 there wasn’t even email.

Professional development for staff

The biggest challenge once you have a critical mass of computing stuff is to ensure appropriate use, and working with your teachers is always the best part. I ran workshops for staff on using Scratch, an elegant programming language from MIT, for creating multimedia activities. The blurb says ‘suitable for kids from 6 – 60’. These days this excludes me but I guess I can still teach it 🙂 .    It is relevant for serious and creative work in multiple subjects across all of the elementary and middle school grades. A new version, Scratch v2, is even suitable for science and computer science to university level.

Barney teaches programming language, 'Scratch' to staff

Barney working with a staff member on the programming language,’Scratch’

More Scratch instruction

More Scratch course

Upgrading photo gallery on the web

Recent photos of the kids are very useful for volunteers and others so Paul and Barney put in a mammoth effort to upgrade the individual and class photos of the 250+ kids for the web. Paul took well over 1000 shots to try to find the best one of each child.

Taking a photo of a complete class proved to be problematic because there were always kids away sick or getting passports. Speaking of passports, two kids have been chosen to visit Chicago, four to Italy, and hopefully one or two will go to the ISAK summer school in Japan soon. The process can take days or weeks, as most kids don’t have birth certificates or even consistent spelling of their names in the various documents! The photos Paul took are really stunning. As we had brought printed copies of the superseded photos with us, we were able to give each child a copy of their 2013 photos as a keepsake.

12th Graders - some looking a bit stressed before their big external exams.

12th Graders – a few looking a bit stressed before their big external exams.



We’re home now, tired but happy. On our last day at SB, several interesting things occurred that reinforced the notion that you don’t need money to be happy. First, Paul was presented with a very creative cardboard ‘camera’ by a couple of the older girls in recognition of his penchant for taking photos.

Home made camera. Note the picture of Sue and the two girls who made it, on the back.

Home made cardboard camera. Note the picture of Sue and two girls on the back.

All the right knobs, buttons and lenses

All the right knobs, buttons, lenses and strap!

Secondly, my 9th Graders gave me a farewell card on the Smartboard:

Farewell from our Indian 'grand children'

Farewell from our Indian ‘grand children’

9th Grade boys pose in fron of their card from the 'grandchildren'

Then the 9th Grade ‘grandsons’ posed in front of their SmartBoard farewell card.

Finally, I handed out impromptu public speaking topics to my 9th Grade class (fourteen-year-olds). One of the topics read, ‘my best birthday present ever was…’  The boy stood up and asked the class to recall their favourite birthday presents. ‘A birthday card’ said one proudly. ‘A chocolate’ said another dreamily. Another said he had had a cupcake once, and they all turned around to bask for a moment in his reminiscence. The presenter then declared that his favourite present had also been a birthday card. He said it was his favourite present because it was beautifully made and the words his friend had written inside made him feel good.

This is why Barney and I, Sue and Paul, and all of the other volunteers love to teach at Shanti Bhavan. Quite simply, these kids make us feel good.

Until next time…