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A chemistry class is in session in Chidawak village, Bulandshahar district, Uttar Pradesh, but none of the school students have their eyes on the rough chalk illustrations drawn across the large blackboard. Instead, they are all focussed on a small DVD player, placed on a table just below, where the behaviour of an electron in an atom plays out in a far more colourful manner. The flash animation project has been designed by class teacher Firoz Khan, once laughingly referred to by his students as 'majme wala masterji' or 'teacher who puts up a show on the streets'.
Today, 28-year-old Khan's showmanship has paid off - not only have his classroom innovations resulted in school attendance increasing to 75 per cent from an earlier 30-35 but in December 2012, Khan became the youngest teacher among five others to be awarded the Microsoft Innovative Leadership Award 2012. "A teacher who finds creative teaching solutions will improve the future of his students, " says Vibhav Srivastava, co-ordinator for the award in Uttar Pradesh, who is impressed by Khan's enthusiasm.
But Khan says his educational career didn't start off on this passionate note. A science graduate, he studied journalism at Chaudhary Charan Singh University, Meerut and had dreams of becoming a crime reporter. Unfortunately his father's untimely death in 2007 forced Khan to quit his internship at Doordarshan in New Delhi and take up his late father's primary school teaching position in Gulaothi Block, Bulandshahar district, allotted to him on compassionate grounds. After a two-year Basic Training Certificate (BTC) programme in Bulandshahar district, UP, Khan recalls his first day at the Chidawak village school in Gulaothi block, approximately 50 kms from Ghaziabad.
"The bell for the distribution of the mid-day meal had rung and children were running to get their share of coarse rice. Those who forgot their plates tore pages from their textbooks to collect the food, " he says. "Most children left for the day after the meal and those who stayed back just learnt the written lessons by rote. "
Khan had a flashback to his own government school days of uninspiring teachers and one-dimensional learning techniques. "In journalism class we were taught that a picture is worth a thousand words, and I thought a video could be even better, " he says. Having attended a 10-day computer course which was a mandatory component of the BTC programme, he decided to put his training to use and create educational material on the lines of an online 'smart class' run by professional educators across India. "As a student I had hoped for something magical to intervene and help me with my lessons, " he says. "A virtual world helped me accomplish that for my students today. "
Using PowerPoint and flash animation programmes, Khan has created a series of lessons for his students from class 1 to 5 including numbers, alphabets and phonetics, which he plays for them on his personal laptop or on a DVD player he has purchased. To draw the children in, he initially began by showing them fun films on educational concepts. His class 3 students watched a documentary on the universe, and learnt that today there are actually eight planets, instead of the nine commonly published in textbooks. The slightly older children saw the shape of an electron, a circle on a page, is actually round like a ball and not flat like a chapatti. "It began by the children being entertained, but gradually they stayed back in school to learn, " says Khan, who believes children are inherently creative. "The films incited their curiosity and got them asking questions, and once they started they wouldn't stop until they got all their answers. "
His teaching tools created quite a stir in Chidawak village and across Gulaothi, and soon Khan found himself being asked to take math and science classes in other government schools. A chemistry class inspired yet another flash animation project called Chemistry Mystery, which has now grown into a website (www. chemistrymystery. com) and was his submission for the Microsoft award. "Growing up, I had no access to guide books or tuitions, so I wanted to create something free-of-cost that students could learn from, " says Khan of his award-winning project.
His work has drawn praise from educators in his district too. Chidawak primary school principal Nagma Jawed credits Khan for the rise in attendance among the 175 students, while Lalita Pradeep, deputy director, Basic Education Department, Lucknow, says "I firmly believe in the role of technology for school education and Firoz shows how it can do wonders for a system that scores low on quality parameters. " Enthused by his success, Pradeep Kumar, Basic Shiksha Adhikari of Bulandshahar district has asked Khan to submit a formal proposal on his educational plans.
Today Khan, armed with a Surface Pro Tablet he won at the Microsoft event in Prague, is completing the chemistry chapters for his website. But he has no intention of stopping there. He now wants to design pre-loaded programmes based on the UP board syllabus so that the laptops distributed under the state government's free laptop scheme can be put to good use. "I want to provide students free content to ensure their dreams of becoming a doctor or engineer are realised, " he says.
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