Empowering Students in South India with the “I Can” Belief

Empowering Students in South India with the “I Can” Belief


In the last few years on an Interim trip to South India our students have led an empowerment workshop that aims to inspire local Indian students to take action in their communities. This year our interim taught a four-day empowerment program to these students in the hope that this will inspire change within them. This blog shares the curriculum that we used during the workshop as well as a number of responses to teaching this curriculum from HKIS students.

Background of the Indian Schools

The original connection between the two schools resulted from the two schools’ shared Lutheran heritage. In the early 1900’s, Lutheran missionaries established four secondary schools in the Ambur, a medium-sized town in south India midway between Chennai and Bangalore. HKIS, established in 1966 by Lutheran missionaries, made contact with these schools in 2008 and began sending students on week-long service trips in 2009. Beginning in 2012, HKIS students began teaching empowerment workshops to the local students.

DSC_3182The students we worked with in March attend two secondary schools, Concordia Ambur and Concordia- Pernambut, and come from the Dalit (untouchable) class. Most students are poor, and many of their parents work in local tanneries that produce shoes for low wages. A hand vote during the workshop indicated that approximately 20% of students have a family member that is illiterate.

DSC_3179The school facilities are quite basic. At Concordia Amber, a number of classes need to sit on the floor, and the chemistry lab had only the barest of supplies. At the poorer, rural Concordia Pernambut, nearly all students sit on the floor for their lessons. The school still lacks a fully enclosed wall protecting its facilities.

DSC_3179Setting of the Empowerment Workshop

The four-day workshop took place on the grounds of aDSC_3201 boys’ dormitory in Ambur. Forty-eight students from Concordia Ambur and 25 students from Concordia Pernambut attended the event. The local students were in grades 9 and 11, whereas our students ranged from grades 9-12. The workshop began daily at 9:15 AM with the 73 local students joining our 20 HKIS students, and concluded at 12:45 PM. With breaks and unexpected delays, there were approximately 2.5 hours of teaching time/day, or 10 hours for the entire workshop.

Each day would begin in a hall in which our hosts and former school principals of the two schools, Franklin Desai and Jabus Segaran, would invite the students to sing a song. Franklin or Jabus would usually highlight the theme for the day, and then lead students in a silent prayer. The first activity would begin by 9:45 AM, and then the group would take a chai break around 11 AM. We broke the students into 5 groups with 4 HKIS students working with about 13 or 14 local students.

DSC_3189In terms of language, Tamil is the local students’ native tongue, but the students have some facility in English, especially students from the Amber school, which uses English as the medium of instruction. Typically, students used English to communicate with a handful of Tamil-speaking teachers, including my teaching partner on the trip, Ms. Anu Ayer, shuttling between groups to provide greater clarity.

DSC_3271Workshop Curriculum

As a group of HKIS students and teachers, we had developed the four-day curriculum in our pre-trip meetings. Then Ms. Ayer, myself, and our two student leaders, Caroline and Brittany, met every night to fine-tune the next day’s activities. Following this meeting, we would meet with the whole group, explain the lesson plan, and give them time personalize the next day’s plan for their particular group of students.

Monday (Day 1): The Power of One

In the larger hall we introduced the empowerment theme, defining our goal for the week as “empowering students to become changemakers in their communities.”

The first activity was a name game. Students used different games to introduce themselves, the most entertaining of which was the walrus game. In this game students greet each other with a walrus “hello” without bearing their teeth. If their teeth show, then they are out of the game.

DSC_3147The first major activity was called the “Thriving Activity,” developed by Concordia Welfare DSC_3146and Education Foundation. We gave the students about 40 laminated photos of various people’s living conditions in Asia. Most of the pictures come from the social work done by CWEF. Our goal for the activity was to establish the serious theme of considering the social conditions of people living in Asian communities similar to those in south India. Images are able to communicate a range of emotions without relying on language. As the first major activity, this seemed like a sensible way to establish the theme and engage students’ curiosity.

With the images scattered on the floor and students seated around the images, we asked students a number of questions:

  • Find a picture that makes you happy.
  • Find a picture that makes you sad.
  • Find a picture that reminds you of something you’ve seen or heard about.

Then we asked students to arrange the pictures according to four categories: dying, surviving, living, and thriving. Each term had to be defined in English and in Tamil. The last part of this activity was to find a picture that students would like to do something about to change the situation and explain why.

The second major activity for the first morning was to show a TEDx talk by an Indian woman named Kiren Sethi, principal of Riverside School in Ahmedabad, who has developed a school curriculum that engages students with social issues. In this inspiring presentation, Kiran explains that she wants to infect her students with the “I can” bug. She said that she became infected through conversations with professors at her university at age 17, but that she should have gotten the bug at 7. In the last 7 years at Riverside School, students have spread their message of taking one idea and implementing some change in their communities in one week’s time to more than 33,000 schools in India. Kiran regularly travels and hopes to that this infection spreads across international boundaries. She brilliantly represents someone in the host culture who embodies the power of one person to make a difference.

Our host Franklin stopped the 9-minute video numerous times to explain concepts and to give his own illustrations of Kiran’s ideas. Coming out of the thriving activity, which raised questions about people living in vastly different social conditions, this video with its inspiring scenes of young Indian students bringing about social change was an excellent way to illustrate the empowerment theme in an Indian context. Franklin’s predominantly Tamil commentary of the video made this an especially valuable day 1 activity.

Following the video, students got back into their groups for the last 15 minutes, with HKIS students sharing some of their own service experiences of being social engaged.

Tuesday (Day 2): The Power of Team

On Tuesday we had three main activities. First, as an icebreaker and to explain our power of team concept, we gave each group of students a ping pong ball, enough paper for each person in a pile, and a trashcan, explaining that the goal of this activity wasDSC_3135 for every person to be involved in getting the ball into the can without actually touching the ball. In time, students figured out that they need to roll the ball down a long line, each holding a piece of paper. When they accomplished their goal (which may take up to a half an hour), they spontaneously cheered, experiencing the rewards of working together towards a common goal. Unfortunately, this year a number of the Indian participants had remembered this activity from last year or knew of it already, and so the goal was accomplished much more quickly than two years ago. Yet it still had the desired effect of giving an experience of the power of team for some of the groups.

Our second activity was that a local banker, DSC_3124Mr. Ganeshi, gave an engaging and interactive hour-long session in which he led the students through consideration of their identity and purpose as well as their strengths and weaknesses. He also shared examples of people, such as Nick Vijucic, who have overcome great challenges to lead meaningful and happy lives.

The third activity for the day was drawing their communities. Back in their groups, we DSC_3145asked students in groups of 3 or 4 (broken into Ambur or Pernambut groups, respectively) to draw their community. While we considered asking them to draw their real community and/or their ideal community to encourage social critique, in the end we opted for the simplest direction: draw your community. We decided that the task of having them define and draw their imagined community would move them in the direction of becoming more civic-minded more than an analysis of strengths and weaknesses, which would be a group activity on day three anyway. The students embarked on this task with a precision and concentration that surprised many of us. This task took about an hour and a half. At the end students shared their visions, which generally focused on the role of their local church and school. Quite a few also had nature scenes with the Ambur hills and rainbows appearing frequently.


Wednesday (Day 3): The Power of Plan

Following an ice-breaker with beachballs, DSC_3202students went back to their group and shared their maps from the day before. Following the sharing, each group generated a list of problems in their community, such as air pollution, child labor, or plastic wastage. Then each student took a pen and voted with their allotted five dots to signify which social issues were most pressing in their community.

After the chai break, we gathered in the large hall, and asked Franklin to inspire the students to go beyond their posters and to think how they as students could lead change in their communities. Then students brainstormed solutions to the most important problems that their group had highlighted.

DSC_3238We then brought the students together again in the hall, and our students did an entertaining demonstration of effective and ineffective speech delivery skills. Following this demonstration, we told students that they would be presenting an “elevator pitch,” or some kind of short speech, skit, song, or presentation in which they explained a problem in their community and how they propose to make a change. We encouraged them to prepare something for tomorrow’s class in which they would deliver their pitches.

DSC_3235Thursday (Day 4): The Power of Action

On the final morning students began by working in their groups on their final presentations. Then each group presented to their small group. The HKIS students then chose one or more groups to present to the whole assembly in a final session. In this final session we had seven presentations (one of which highlighted the problems of smoking and alcohol usage together) representing the following causes:

  • Air pollution
  • Alcohol abuse (2 groups)
  • Plastic Wastage
  • Smoking (3 groups)
  • Water pollution

Some gave speeches, while a couple of groups sang songs that they had composed. The most popular presentation was a group of boys who did a skit in which a wayward smoker is redeemed and re-joins his friends.

DSC_3315DSC_3319As a follow-up to the presentations, I told the students that their plans were important to us in Hong Kong and that we expected to hear back how they would implement their plans to bring about change. I also said that I would contact the inspirational speaker, Kiran Sethi, whom we heard via a TEDx talk on the first day and let her know how the students of Ambur and Pernambut had been “infected” by the “I Can” bug.

We finished the workshop with the hit song, “Happy,” out in the courtyard that we videotaped to take back to HKIS with us. The local students also performed a series of dances for us as part of a final celebration.

DSC_3324HKIS Student Response

This year’s interim allowed HKIS students to pass on their belief in social engagement to students in India. Here are student reflections about teaching empowerment to students in India:

DSC_3277From Manishka: Before actually having gone on this trip, my mind was filled with regrets of signing up for it. I was selfish and didn’t think about the main purpose of the trip, empowering children. I don’t think it was till the end of the first teaching day that I realized the importance of our conference, and the impact it would have on the kids. I also had never experienced teaching empowerment and had no idea how effective it would be. In a short time span of just four days, I was able to see the transformation in the children, from just a glimmer of hope in their eyes, to kids scream “I CAN! I CAN”.

I personally feel that teaching empowerment is one of the most successful and beneficial forms of service. It only takes one small thing to influence a person’s mindset and encourage them to make a change; teaching other subjects like English on the other hand can take years to perfect. From the minute I first interacted with these children, I was able to see their determination and will power, it was clear that with a bit of guidance they would have what it takes to make a change in their lives. After talking with the children and hearing their hopes and dreams (these dreams ranged from being software engineers to doctors), I knew that in order for this program to benefit them I would have to try my best to be as professional as possible, following our lesson plan to the best of my abilities. This was a bit of a challenge for me because of the tight bond I had formed with the kids, we had moved on from a more formal student/teacher relationship to being friends. In my head, I knew some sort of bond like this would form, but I never imagined it would happen so quickly. After just the first 10 minutes of meeting each other we were all singing and dancing to the beats played by other children on table tops. The fact that they were able to include me, and make me feel a part of them in such a short amount of time really touched my heart, and made it easier for us to be comfortable around one another and make the most out of the little time we had.

Frankly, I found this interim experience benefited me way more than them. Not only did I get to become more in touch with my culture, make new friends, and form a strong bond with children I will probably never see again, but I also got to feel loved by these kids. I think my highlight was just being with those kids for 3 hours everyday and feeling a strong bond with them, whether it was just me sitting with them on the floor, to me teaching them, or them painting my nails and giving me henna tattoos. When I think of how crazy things are at HKIS, I really needed that week of focusing on others, and dreaming big for them. I really hope that our conference was beneficial to them; I definitely did see a spark light up to them, but its up to them whether they put it out or let it burn.

DSC_3222From Brian: This year’s interim trip to India has been a memorable, inspiring, and humbling experience for me. But more so than anything else, this trip has been unexpected. I am astounded at how much this trip has affected how I view my life, and how deeply it has influenced my worldview.

Going into this trip, I didn’t know what to expect. What are the students going to be like? How are we going to be able to communicate with these students? Will they even understand us? Why are we trying to teach these kids about service in the first place? These were a few of the questions that rushed through my head, although I put on a positive façade to conceal the growing skepticism I held inside.

As a freshman who had gone through the Humanities in Action course, I had been instilled with a positive outlook in the ability for people to change the world. My worldview at the time saw the world in a positive way, and that service, whether it be small or large-scale, had significant benefits to both the servers and serviced. However, two years has transformed my naïve self to one that was filled with doubts. I began to see a world filled with negative energy, corruption, and pointless service. Service seemed to be pointless because it was only temporary, and eventually, the serviced would continue to suffer.

This interim I began to realize the true power of service, and reinstilled my belief in working to benefit the global community. Working with the children of Concordia Ambur and Pernabut schools has allowed me to understand the true meaning of empowerment. The purpose of service, whether it be providing food, shelter, medical relief, and other resources, isn’t only to provide physical tangible relief. Rather, it is to empower the people who need new hope so that they may help themselves and their communities.

Empowerment isn’t simply to provide people with the ability to do something. It is instilling a belief, an unsatiable energy and ideal that drives a person to discover sustainable solutions to problems of a community as well as society. By our four day lesson plan of teaching empowerment, I was able to see this glowing light called empowerment that filled each and every one of those students as they chattered, smiled, and discussed problems they saw in their communities. Although I was these students’ teacher, it turned out that these students have become the greatest teachers I’ve ever had.

They have reignited my passion for service, and helped me realize that true potential of helping an individual. Because one individual has the power to change the people around them, the people then affect the community, and communities influence society.

DSC_3150From Arnesh: This interim was a wonderful experience. It helped me understand what service is in its most pure form, and realise a more nuanced and thoughtful way to live. I took Humanities I in Action in freshmen year and I’ve done some service since then, but for the most part, service to me has been focused on materialistic goals only. I loved going on this trip and finding a way to inspire students to take action by themselves. Throughout the trip, I was constantly astounded by the fact that the kids really were absorbing and following through with what we were trying to teach them.

I talked about this a lot in my journal, but I saw this through [name] development across the week. In the beginning, she was a shy girl who didn’t say a word; it was amazing that she always asked questions and tried to contribute, especially considering where she was coming from – not understanding how to write Tamil, having an alcoholic father, and being separated from her sister. It was incredibly rewarding to watch her stand up in front of everyone on the last day with her sister and confidently sing a song about her troubled family. I finally got to understand that service is not supposed to be focused on giving money or donating material goods, but rather about giving people the idea that they can change communities and solve problems by themselves.

I used to think quite cynically about service: the idea that most people help others out of some form of guilt for being privileged. However, in the last group reflection, Willie brought up a great point: that maybe doing service for selfish reasons is okay because we are able to help others and help discover ourselves in the process. I now realise that service is two-way street, and I think it’s a much more realistic and emotionally rewarding mindset.

DSC_3142From Amar: I have always participated in service since even before high school. I took Humanities in Action freshman year and, along with the course’s service experiences, started a couple initiatives of my own. I seek out service and continue it this year even without an ‘in action’ course. I don’t remember when I started doing service, but I know it has been an activity I just accepted without much thought. I didn’t question why I was doing the service before. However, one of our evening discussions prompted me to think deeply about this reason and identify it.

I have heard many people speak of why they do service. They mostly tell of how fulfilling it is to them, or how it’s rewarding to be able to help others. Many people who do service are motivated to do so because of the amazing feeling it brings them. It also makes life more interesting and exciting. As for me, service does enrich my life in these ways, but that is not the driving force for me to do service.

I participate in service because I feel a fundamental need to. I have a moral obligation to do so. I define service as helping improve a problematic situation, and it would be wrong not to do that. It’s hard for me to see a problem and not try to solve it. Sitting by and not helping is unnatural. Therefore, I do service to try to help these issues. It’s a natural part of my place in the world.

I think it’s important to be able to justify my actions because mindless action is the source of many problems. On this interim, I have not only realized that [previously] I didn’t have a reason for service; but now I have found that reason. I am glad to have made that growth and achieved a better understanding of my own actions.

* * *

Beyond the obvious fact that students felt that teaching empowerment was a worthy way to spend their interim week, what becomes quite clear in these student reflections is that the exercise of teaching about social engagement has caused them to reflect more deeply than they ever had about the purpose and nature of service. The metacognition that occurred on this trip was deeper than in other types of service interims, and next year I hope to more deliberately cultivate this dimension of the trip at a deeper level.


As a school, our specialty should be education, so it seems entirely sensible for us to offer teaching of social conscience to students that we visit in neighboring countries. Passing on to others the same sense of newly found awareness of, care for, and active engagement in local communities is a fitting response to the social conscience education students have received here at HKIS. The Ambur students seem to have enjoyed the experience, and we eagerly await to see what actions they take in their community. Certainly the response from the HKIS students who taught this curriculum was overwhelmingly positive. We expect to build on our success this year when we return to Ambur in March, 2015.


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