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It was late April and India was struggling with its second wave of the coronavirus. Just a year earlier, the country was in a nationwide lockdown. Prasanth Nori was at home, in Bangalore, working remotely on an online project he started called Upepo (Swahili for wind), a curated weekly newsletter about learning. He knew that parents were struggling to teach their kids, take care of sick family members, and work themselves. As a former teacher, he knew he could help, and so one afternoon, he posted a couple of lines to parents on his Twitter page, asking them to fill out a Google form if they needed help keeping their kids occupied on Zoom for an hour or so a day. Within a week, nearly two dozen families signed on. Recently, Ed. spoke to Nori about the project, letting kids wander, and drawing flying rainbow unicorns.

What made you decide to offer these free classes starting this past April?

Prasanth Nori
The COVID second wave in India was growing at an alarming pace. Every day, hundreds of reports came in of people waiting outside hospitals, gasping for oxygen. My privilege afforded me the luxury of staying home and working remotely. And all day long I would hear ambulances moving up and down the road close to where I live. While donating financially was one thing I was able to do, I felt I could do so much more with my time. And the one thing that comes naturally to me is teaching.

You were a teacher? 
I started my career as a teacher in an under-resourced school in Hyderabad, India, as part of the Teach For India program, similar to Teach For America. And I've been a teacher in some form or the other ever since. In my current role, I'm building a learning start-up, Upepo, where I record lots of hands-on, playful learning activities for kids in the 5 to 12 age group. So, in general, I think the profession I identify the most with is that of a teacher.

Who are the parents you were targeting when you reached out on Twitter in April?
One is where one of the parents, or both, are down with COVID and isolating in a different room from the child. Another is where the parents have other family or friends who are sick and need constant support and care so the parents are frequently checking up on them, visiting hospitals, and running errands for their families.

You started with dozens of families at first. How many now? 
Initially, we started with about 8 to 10 registrations. A tweet I had put about this went viral. A few days later it got picked up again on other social media outlets and the resharing grew to about 20. We're now at about 32 families. It's a tiny, tiny drop in the ocean in a country with hundreds of millions of kids, but I think the world needs all the help it can get right now.

Are you using Zoom?
Yes! As a Teach For India alumnus, I get access to the organization Zoom account, which has been a lifesaver.

The age range is wide: 5 to 12. How does that work?
Yeah, the age range is big, but because I run about three hour-long sessions a day, there seem to be some preferred times for kids. The morning session has younger ones, the afternoon is the 8- to 10-year-olds, and the evening is a mix. And drawing and art seem to be a great way to engage wide ages. They love following YouTube videos and coming up with interesting drawings. Origami is a great engager, too!

Tell me what a typical session might be like. 
We log in, then everyone usually shares how their day is going and how they’re feeling. Doing this over multiple sessions has been a good way to make them feel like this is a safe space where they belong so they look forward to coming the next time. Also, it’s a good time to talk about some of the things bothering these kids. Recently, a student brought up the fact that he got scammed of his pet on an online game. For a few minutes, we discussed the idea of trusting others online and how to think about what you're sharing online. After that, I ask the kids what they feel like doing and they usually know exactly what they want. I push them to come to a consensus and they usually work it out amongst themselves. We either open up a nice drawing video on YouTube or play puzzles together online like crosswords, Wordsearch, word jumbles, and mazes. Sometimes we also go turn-by-turn as I open up puzzle games and let them control my screen to play. At the end, we share our art or what we learned and close. In some rare cases, I also take more complex simulation games like one developed at MIT called Shadowspect or another called Lost Lots and we play them together!

You're now not the only adult teaching, correct?
That's right. We have about 8 to 10 other teachers who take up some slots to do storytelling, teach about climate change, or do particular kinds of art. We even had one wildlife enthusiast take us on a virtual field trip to a forest famous for king cobras!

Could you see this growing into something bigger, a Khan Academy-type program, once COVID is over and kids go back to school full-time?
Yes, I've thought about it a lot. What if students could be a part of these online clubs where they come to hang out online, learn, and share interesting things? 

What do you like the most about doing this?
I'm not an extremely structured person. I love letting classrooms wander with different topics that kids love. But in a regular school or other environments, the structure is often very stifling. I love that with these classes I get to let kids wander, explore, and stumble upon interesting things. I find it really liberating to teach this way. This gives me space to sometimes just observe how innovative kids are if you can just let them do their thing.

Any favorite memories so far?
We had a kid in class when we were drawing our dream houses and all the things we'd have around them. She tells me, “I want a horse in my house.” So I tell her to go ahead and draw the horse. And she replies, “But I don't know how to draw a horse.” Jokingly (also because I'm no artist), I said, “It's easy. You take your pencil, put it on the paper, and draw a horse.” She says, “OK,” and actually proceeds to not just drawing a horse, but also a multi-colored flying rainbow unicorn!

Tell me about your other project, Upepo.
Upepo is a playful, project-based learning platform aimed at kids. We’re trying to build the next generation of learning technologies that bring the best of learning, social communities, and playful, game-based approaches together into a super-app. The big goal is to allow kids the agency of choosing whatever activity they want to learn, get them to build these activities hands-on, and share them with other kids. We're in the beta phase and have about 100 hands-on activities across art, craft, literacy, STEM, and innovation. We're currently building, testing, and iterating with about 200 to 300 students in India. 

Was there anything from your time at the Ed School that is helping you now with the work you're doing to help kids during COVID?
Before HGSE, I would often hesitate to put myself out there. My ideas or thoughts. With this entire initiative, it was a growing thought in my mind which I felt was important to put out there and that made all the difference. A tweet and a form made in a few minutes put the initiative in front of parents who needed it and that’s how all these wonderful students showed up. The second thing is that we were exposed at HGSE to lots of innovative ways of using technology. I bring in a lot of those ways, such as using new tools online, making collaborative whiteboards, even doing 3D design online using Tinkercad. At least 10 activities I’ve used were a direct result of being exposed to them in classes at HGSE.

Learn more about Upepo.

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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