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Our Experiments with Generosity

In 2009, Sasha Dichter ran a  ’Generosity Experiment’, an attempt to say yes in a world where you often hear ‘NO’. It quickly turned into a worldwide phenomenon, and became part of a broader effort to reboot Valentine’s Day as “Generosity Day” in order to reconnect the day to the core ideas of love and human connection. Three years later, the Acumen Fund India office recognized this ongoing effort and partnered with Teach for India (TFI) to run our very own generosity experiment with students from a school in a low-income community in Mumbai. The video above documents the class’ experience, and the blog below comes from the two TFI Fellows, Sapna Shah and Prateek Kanwal.  Video Credit: Mihir Desai.

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“The people who make a difference in your life are not the ones with the most credentials…the most money…or the most awards…they simply are the ones who care the most. We fail to remember the headliners of yesterday even though they are the best in their fields but we always remember those teachers and friends that aided our journey through school, helped us through a difficult time, taught us something worthwhile, and appreciated our efforts.”

-Charles Schulz

When we walked into our classrooms for the first time, we saw violence and a host of communal issues. The children lacked a value system and mutual respect. And our classrooms only reflected what our country at large faces; problems of poverty, starvation, hatred, terrorism, corruption and environmental issues. We believe at the heart of these problems lies a lack of the values of empathy, compassion, love, and gratitude; in short, all we saw was selfishness in thoughts as well as actions.

We joined the Teach for India movement because of our belief that education is the answer to a lot of the problems that plague our nation and the world at large. We defined excellent education as a means of putting our kids on a different life path and pledged to do all it takes to be successful in our endeavor. Throughout the year, we pushed our kids at every step to work hard, to reach the ambitious academic goals we had set together.

We soon realized academic achievement alone will not be enough to change the life trajectory of our kids, that along with academic excellence they need grit. The strength to overcome difficulties and challenges at every step, but also zest and optimism to face everything that life throws their way with a smile. They will need gratitude to be thankful for what they have and empathy towards others. Instilling these values in our children ensures that they grow up to be not only committed and hardworking but also loving, compassionate, empathetic and giving leaders.

Our first challenge was to show our students that many of the beliefs and actions they have grown accustomed to could be harmful to their fellow classmates. This process of change had to be slowly and carefully crafted to avoid backlash from society. When we were approached to try out this Generosity Day experiment, we recognized it to be an opportunity. We were asked to create a lesson plan that emphasized the importance of values and generosity, to teach our students how easy it was to give.

Once they started appreciating this new value, we had unknowingly instilled a cycle of positivity. Their academic performance leapfrogged and there was a visible change in the way they conducted themselves in their community. They started respecting their classmates and even went the extra mile to help each other. We could also see a difference in the way parents started conducting themselves around their children and how they also felt the inherent need to change.

The affirmation of this experiment came in the form of a generous act by one of Prateek’s students Pooja Patel. She spoke to him before school, one day, and asked if she could to sit with Tusshar Gupta, one of her classmate who was struggling to meet his end of year goals. She said, “Bhaiyya (elder brother), if I can get good marks, he can also do it, please give me a chance to help him”. From that day onwards for two months she relentlessly taught him before and after school hours and even went the extra mile by tutoring him at his house on weekends. The result was unbelievable. She showed the class that it was our collective responsibility to ensure everyone is on an equal footing.

Based on research done by KIPP schools a high percentage of their kids applied to 4 year college programs, but a very small percentage actually graduated. The ones who completed their course were not kids with the highest G.P.A but kids who scored high on C.P.A (character point average).

From our experience, we would strongly urge school leaders and teachers, to include value education in their curriculum and create ample opportunities for the kids to practice and cultivate these values. Children should be graded not only on their academic performance but also on character.

During this experiment we’ve learned that Generosity Day is about seeing the world from a different perspective, one perpetuated by selfless giving. Thanks to our kids, we too have learnt that there are many problems around us and we often pretend to not see them, choosing to remain blind in order to make our lives easier. We’ve taken a promise to make this world a better place by changing ourselves.  By giving a little more and complaining a little less. After all, if you want to make this world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make the change!

“Be the change you wish to see in this world” – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

Prateek Kanwal & Sapna Shah are Teach for India Fellows at a school in a low-income community in Mumbai, India.

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