Text and photo by Susan Tam
MALAYSIA – Watching a child’s handwriting improve from being weak to strong is more than just an indicator of academic progress at the non-profit initiative called the Right to Learn project (RTL).
“When a child comes to the centre, his or her handwriting is usually weak, writing letters that are small and hard to read.
“After spending some time with us, you can see how they write stronger, bolder and more confidently. This is how we know that a child is improving, either by gaining confidence or improving academically.”
An observation that project founder Yans Ganghadaran says is simple, but speaks volumes about the levels of education and attention given to a child, for him or her to learn effectively.
RTL provides free reading and writing classes, and activities for orphans, children from underprivileged shelters or low-income families. These children, from six years old to 17, attend classes at RTL that spark their creativity and innovation.
“When the children first come to our centre, they are quiet, shy and sometimes scared of speaking up. But over time, we encourage them to take part in many interactive activities, from costume making to painting, games and quizzes, and you will see a remarkable change in these vulnerable children,” Yans explains.
Malaysian children attend compulsory primary education, as well as pre-school education and secondary schools. In a multilingual system, these children enjoy free education covering basic subjects for 12 years of their life. Since 2012, close to 2.7 million Malaysian pupils have enrolled in national primary schools.
But lack of economic opportunities may force them to work, either by helping their families or completely missing out on school, as their low-income parents simply don’t have the means to send them to school. And, while the United Nations note that primary class attendance is above 95%, drop out rates come close to 30% for secondary school students.
Large classrooms may also influence the children’s academic progress with little attention given to weaker students. Yans note that the children from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to ‘slip’ to the back of the class if not given the right attention, a situation that is influenced by their environment at home or upbringing.
A certified English and French teacher, her passion for creating RTL began when she was motivated to do more for the community beyond just a few hours of volunteerism.
RTL had its humble beginnings at a longhouse settlement in 2007, located next to affluent neighbourhood Taman Tun Dr Ismail in Kuala Lumpur. Yans started with reading and writing classes at a hall near the longhouses.
Four years later, the All Malaysia Malayalee Association (Amma) Foundation adopted the project. Today the project is housed comfortably at a first-floor shoplot along Jalan Rahim Kajai 13, with three small classrooms and plenty of space for activities.
“The foundation pays for my rent and electricity and that gives me the chance to take in more students,” she explains.
The Amma foundation was established in 1975, supporting efforts to provide education to disadvantaged children. It provides assistance for students to pursue a tertiary education, and work on partnerships to assist the needy. To date, the foundation has given out more than RM3 million in study loans and scholarships. Other donors include large corporation Berjaya Sdn Bhd that gave RTL a van so the children can be ferried for free from various shelters to the centre.
RTL’s classes are customised to suit a child’s academic levels. “The homes select the children to join us and we assess them. Sometimes they have reading difficulties or even dyslexia.” With specific learning challenges, teachers are hired to help with these children.
The teenagers work on more complex issues such as discussions on global leaders and role models. They reflect their learning by painting a mural on Pakistani activist and Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, as well as discuss educational opportunities in Pakistan.
RTL relies on volunteers and paid teachers, who work with small groups of children so they get the attention they need, an approach that is showing results. “We try not to push the children to becoming ‘A’ students. We try to get them to improve from D (grades) to C, and C to progress upwards. So the teacher doesn’t feel stressed and more importantly the child doesn’t feel stressed.”
Using her corporate training experience to further strengthen RTL, Yans devised a unique way of expanding her volunteer pool, by setting up an online volunteer reading programme through Skype. Volunteers based outside Malaysia or even Kuala Lumpur, can help the children in 30-minute reading sessions using audio books.
The initiative is hoping to expand its programme, so they can help more underserved students through imaginative ways of learning. Yans sees projects like RTL complementing the existing national system, an indication that the government and policymakers could do more to address the gaps in the schooling system.
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