Volunteer Curriculum:

Our Story

I am Raghav Nyati – the founder of VolunteerCurriculum – and this is my story.

I was born in Udaipur (Rajasthan) and left for Noida (UP) when I was 7. Growing up, my mother always reminded me that there are still 10s of millions of Indians who go to bed empty stomach and we must do whatever we can to improve their lives. This message shaped my whole outlook towards life and I have been became eager to do some form of social service from a very young age. 

I strongly believe that parents must educate their young kids to develop empathy towards those who are left behind by society.

I finally got my chance to do social service in the very first year of my undergraduate college – BITS Pilani (Goa Campus). The year was 2010 and I had joined a student club called Abhigyaan. The aim of this club (which is functioning brilliantly to date) was to provide education to the mess workers and other support staff within campus. The students of BITS-Goa were the teachers. Classes were held for a couple of hours every day after dinner. Each student got complete personal attention and often multiple volunteers would teach a single student – one for English, Maths etc. 
Through Abhigyaan, most of the students became proficient at Math and at doing basic operations in computers. Some of them even got better paying jobs because of Abhigyaan. But developing the ability to understand and speak English remained a major challenge for most of the students.

My team of teachers at Abhigyaan! We were all students of BITS-Goa and this was prepared for my college farewell in 2013. I am in the center waving my arm!
My student at abhigyaan was a 20 year old mess worker from Nepal – Dinesh. I taught him English and Math but his English was really poor. He had absolutely no exposure to English and my English lessons were not helping him. He was just not able to make new sentences in English and his comprehension of English sentences was also not improving.
Even though he had a lot of enthusiasm and motivation to learn English and I was equally enthusiastic about teaching him, yet we could not make any progress. I continued teaching him for over a year and a half without much success in improving his English skills. At the end of those 1.5 years, Dinesh was set to permanently leave for his hometown in Nepal. 
A few weeks before leaving, he came to me with a list of about 50 sentences in Hindi and asked me to translate them into English. These were sentences that he thought he could regularly use in his hometown – sentences about going to market, working in a field etc. He had carefully thought about all the situations he faced in his routine life and then came up with this sentence list 
This was like a eureka moment for me. I realized that the English teaching methods that I was using with him were archaic and did not have a direct relevance for him. 
My first realization: I was teaching my student vocabulary and grammar topics just like how I was taught in school. But to have English conversations, he needed something more direct and easy to remember. He needed to know sentences – English sentences that he could speak out in his routine conversations.

My Second realization:
Even though there  are infinitely many sentences one can make in English (or any other language), the number of sentences that one needs to learn to carry out routine conversations are quite finite. 
Dinesh had made me realise that by learning about a 100  new English sentences and understanding how to tweak them (based on the context) one becomes fully equipped to communicate in English most of routine conversations    
I translated his 50 Hindi sentences into English and he was very happy. He believed that he had finally made decent progress in learning English – by learning just those 50 English sentences! This gave him immense confidence and a strong sense of achievement.
Dinesh had left at the end of my third year in college. And in my final year (starting in August 2012), I became the head of Abhigyaan. And I finally started putting in efforts to solve the biggest problem faced by Abhigyaan. I started developing a customized curriculum that Abhigyaan volunteers could use to teach English with much better results. I wanted the curriculum to be a permanent asset for Abhigyaan that would be used by the future volunteers in Abhigyaan well after I’d have left campus.
The curriculum had to ensure that the students had to be taught English from scratch – right from the alphabet. And the curriculum had to help the students improve their English skills to a stage at which they can continue learning more English on their own – through online sources and apps or having more conversations in English etc.
I started looking at various sources to come up with structured English teaching content. I also started noting down the techniques and resources that my fellow volunteers found helpful while teaching English.
During those days, in one of our Math classes, I was observing a fellow Abhigyaan volunteer teach ‘unitary method’ to his students. This method is very important and teaches the student how to solve very common Math problems like finding the price of 15 units of a product when the price of 5 units is given. I had myself found it very hard to get my students to understand this method. 
But Praful had used a tabular structure to successfully explain the unitary method to his student. By structuring the available data and the missing values in a tabular format, the student was very easily able to understand what was required to be divided and multiplied to get to the right answer.
Praful had made the Math content very easy to understand by putting it in a neat visual structure.
Through this interaction with Praful, I realized two things:
My third realization: Students always learn Math much more easily than English. Even the poorest of the poor understand basic mathematical operations. This is because they cannot carry on their routine activities without them like buying vegetables, counting salary rupees etc. 
Hence, the more formula driven and structured (in short, Math-like) we make the English content, easier it will be for the students to digest it
My fourth realization: I had understood that explaining concepts through visual representation and structures (like the tables that Praful was using) also makes them easy to understand and remember
Around September 2012, I had discovered a wonderful grammar book by an author called Raymond Murphy. The title of the book was ‘English grammar in use’ 
My fifth realization: Murphy’s grammar book had a unique approach. It helped me understand that English grammar can facilitate the creation of sentence structures (for example Noun + verb + noun is a common sentence structure). And through these sentence structures, students can learn how to form new English sentences. 
Furthermore, I realized that these sentence structures are quite small (about 2 dozen or so) in number but through them the student can form almost an infinite number of English sentences.

In summary, if I could make English learning formula-based and structured like Maths (which is far from how English is usually taught) and make sentence formation ‘visual’ and driven by an ‘easy to understand logic’ then the curriculum would become much more useful.

This  is how I came up with the idea of putting sentence structures in a tabular format. 
By understanding English sentence structures presented through tables, students could learn how to form new English sentences just like the way they do ‘Match the following’ exercise. 
Our biggest innovation: Sentence structure tables. If you zoom in, you would realize that how easy it is to form new English sentences by adding words from the first column to the 2nd to the third and so on - just like a 'Match the following' exercise. [Zoom in to see the details]
With more research and thought, I became sure that my English curriculum would revolve around sentence structure tables and I would develop each of the lessons in my curriculum around one or more tables.
This was a big leap ahead. I had found a path that I could take to develop the ideal curriculum.
Rest of my college days went towards expanding Abhigyaan team and making sure that this club continues to have a solid processes and resources at hand so that it can continue to do great work long after I have left the campus. In about a year I expanded the team from 4 to 25 and Abhigyaan currently boasts a team of over 150 dedicated student volunteers which makes me really happy.
As I look back, I realized that my college life was never about getting academic grades or cracking campus placements. 
I spend most of my free time following my passions – either teaching students through Abhigyaan or doing art. And I am still glad that I did that.
My Hyderabad journey

My experiences with NGOs in Hyderabad made me realize that my English curriculum had a much larger application and every education focused NGO / volunteering setup in the country could make use of it

I shifted to Hyderabad in June 2013 to start my full-time internship after college. Immediately after I shifted to Hyderabad, I started visiting several education focused NGOs. 
Based on these visits I understood how the volunteering setup of most of the NGOs looks like.
In a typical education focused NGO, people (college graduates and young working professionals mostly) volunteer to teach English and Maths (most frequently used subjects) for a few hours on the weekends to students from an underprivileged background. Each NGO associates itself to a group of low-income schools and gets volunteers to teach the students in these schools.
These low-income schools, where most of the students are from the weaker economic backgrounds, usually have very poor infrastructure and unmotivated teachers. These school’s primary aim is to just ensure that the students pass their annual exams. And these schools miserably fail at ensuring that the students actually learn and develop practical skills from the subjects they are being taught.
In survey after survey, we find that government schools and private schools where the underprivileged students study produce dismal learning outcomes for their students. This situation is by and large true across the country. Owing to this situation in schools, the underprivileged students struggle the most with English communication and we all know how this hampers their prospects of a better job when they enter the job market. 
If you go to any government school, you will find that even the most gifted students in class 10th students cannot talk in the simplest of English sentences and are far behind students from middle class families.
The volunteers can best serve the students and society by filling the learning gaps left by these schools. The NGOs understand this. And they set up these volunteering teaching setups to help the underprivileged students develop practical skills like English communication or mental maths for which the students do not get adequate learning opportunities in their schools.
Now, in order to teach the students the practical skills, these NGOs have to ensure that the volunteers (who already have these skills) somehow teach and develop these skills in the students within the few hours of interaction that they have with the students every week.
Unfortunately, in most of these NGO classrooms (including the classrooms of some of the most reputed NGOs in the country), I clearly saw that the English teaching setup was very ineffective. Even the most capable volunteers, who had great English skills and were very motivated to teach, were not able to improve the English skills of the students who were taught through these NGOs.
To teach English, the most dedicated of volunteers either use an existing school curriculum (NCERT, state board or NGO driven curriculum) or develop their own curriculum / instruction set based on what they easily gather from the internet. But unfortunately, both of these mechanisms lead to poor results. 
The school curriculum like NCERT is designed for schools where students attend classes for hours every day which is definitely not the case with the volunteering setups. The second method of just taking content from the internet and teaching it in class fails simply because this content needs the students to be already well versed with a lot of English concepts and techniques to be effective. And these students simply do not have that background set for them by their schools.
So, in most volunteering setups you would find that the students do not learn any practical skills and the volunteers frequently feel disappointed and leave because despite their best efforts the students are not able to improve their English skills. The NGOs  have to keep acquiring new volunteers to run these setups.
Hence, even the biggest and the most established of the NGOs do not publish the results of their teaching efforts – they talk ‘impact’ numbers like students taught, time duration of teaching etc. but never about the improvement in the students’ skills or how the students compare in English / Maths skills when compared with kids from middle class families.
After this experience, I started thinking about what could be done to improve the level of teaching in these volunteering setups. And after observing many volunteers while they teach and holding direct discussions with them, I discovered that the root cause was the same in almost all the cases.
What these volunteering setups lacked they lacked was an English curriculum – a customized curriculum for the volunteers to follow. 
The volunteers needed a curriculum which could tell them a) What to teach, b) How to teach, and c) How long to teach – within the constraint that the volunteers will only be in contact with the students for a few hours each week.
This made me realize that my curriculum has a much larger application and any NGO that has an English teaching setup would find it useful.
At that time I was working as a software developer and wanted to develop an application for mobile phones that provided the curriculum to the volunteers and had many ‘cool’ features on top of it. I wanted the apps to allow users to create their own customized curriculum content and be able to share their content with each other like a mini social media website. I even wanted to give the users the ability to create animation videos for teaching English.
I worked on creating this curriculum application for almost an year until I realized that I should be focusing my energies on the curriculum content and not the technology used to deliver the content. 
What the volunteer needs is an easy to understand and simple to follow English curriculum which they enjoy teaching to their students. The curriculum need not be delivered through an app, even a PDF copy would do.

So by early 2015, I had jumped back into curating and creating content from what I had developed in college.

I started developing sentence structure tables one after the other and I soon had a rough draft of the first 15 tables ready, I realized that these tables would help the student form over 2000 different sentences in English. This is a big number and once students learn that many sentences through the curriculum they would be highly empowered to create new sentences on their own and basically improve their English communication skills on their own.

I started testing the curriculum with my students (most of them were between 7 to 14 years) at the volunteering school and they liked it. It was getting easier for me to hold their attention and the brighter ones started speaking out new English sentences, something which was out of their reach previously. This gave me a lot of confidence and I started dedicating more hours after work to the curriculum. 
And finally in June 2015, I was able to launch VolunteerCurriculum.com. It was a single page website that gave you access to all the teaching content that I had so far.
Over the next 1.5 years, I devoted almost all of my non-work hours to Volunteercurriculum. 
I hired over a dozen interns and paid them a weekly stipend from my salary. Through these interns, I created customized and practically applicable exercises and activities for the 15 tables that I had created. And within a year, I had full fledged lessons ready for each of the tables.
By now, I had also fully developed VolunteerCurriculum’s guiding philosophy:
Our curriculum is based on the firm belief that if a student is able to a) understand and remember the most common sentence structures in English and b) understand how to make new sentences using these structures to communicate in different situations, then he has reached a stage from where he can continue his English learning on his own (through books, internet etc.) without the need of another teacher.

Testing the curriculum

Now I was in a position to test the effectiveness of the curriculum in actual volunteering setups. So I started contacting and working with several volunteers to test if the curriculum was more effective in teaching English then the current curriculum / setup used by the volunteers. 
The volunteers included people from reputed NGOs like Youth for Seva and Teach for India and also independent volunteers who wanted to just teach their maid’s kids or students in their surrounding.
The result was a resounding WE WANT THIS! I found that almost all the volunteers who sincerely taught a lesson from my curriculum loved it. They enjoyed teaching the lesson plan and told me that their students found it quite easy and enjoyable to learn using the curriculum.

In this video, you will hear about the experience Somesh – a 17 year old student –  had while teaching the young college students English for a month using my curriculum.   

I was meticulously noting down each volunteer’s feedback and tweaking the curriculum accordingly.
By late 2016, I was very clear that the curriculum had finally become a product that delivered what the education world needed.
By that time, the teaching philosophy that was imbibed in the lesson we had so far and would drive all further development of the lesson was evident.

Monetization plans to deciding that I will not make any money from it!

At that time, I also started thinking about monetizing VolunteerCurriculum. I wanted to make this initiative self sustainable so that I could quit my job and completely work on it.
So I tried to create a lot of business models for it – providing paid only access to the lessons, creating an paid online course around the curriculum, and providing paid consulting service for curriculum development / classroom success to NGOs. 
I understood that if I was able to monetize it, I would be able to give all my time and energy to it and thereby make VolunteerCurriculum’s lessons more impactful and its reach much wider.
I had applied for an MBA at Indian School of Business (ISB) because I believed that it would give me an opportunity to meet like minded people and find NGO partners and sponsors who would fund and help scale VolunteerCurriculum and make my monetization dreams come true.
I got admitted and college started in April 2017 in Hyderabad itself. Business school life is in general very hectic and life at ISB was more so because it was a 1 year MBA. But I was hell bent on giving all of my time to developing VolunteerCurriculum. 
I started a more extensive collaboration with Teach for India. And most importantly, I established a partnership with theBetterIndia the biggest online news portal for positive news. Through this partnership, I published 5 articles and this helped me reach out to thousands of people in the education and NGOs sector. I gained over 300 loyal subscribers thanks to this. 
These are quite interesting articles and you can have a look at them here – https://www.thebetterindia.com/author/volunteercurriculum/
All this happened within the first 5 months of my MBA and at the expense of my grades.
It was October 2017 and I was getting closer to the placement season. I wanted to not take up a job and monetize VolunteerCurriculum through the various VCs / investing sources at ISB and work on it full time after my MBA.
But this path turned out to be an illusion soon. Every professor / founder / investor I talked to in the b-school told me that monetizing a pure content based offering is very hard in India because people don’t like to even pay for software, let alone content. 
They also explained that my target customers – the NGOs and the individual volunteers are anyway cash strapped and are highly unlikely to pay for a curriculum even if this makes their volunteering efforts much more effective. 
Lastly, one of the alumni from ISB who was working with an education company helped me understand that it’s better that I take up a regular job at the moment and continue working on VolunteerCurriculum on the weekends and during my free hours.

After all these months at ISB, I also realised that in trying to monetize VolunteeCurriculum, I was somehow losing sight of the original purpose of it – to help volunteers teach English to students at the bottom of the pyramid. I would have to make the curriculum or some of its aspects paid to monetize it – all of which would make me compromise on my main motive behind starting VolunteerCurriculum

So I came to the conclusion that it’s better that I take up a regular job and work on VolunteerCurriculum on the side rather than keep trying to find my source of living from the website. 

With the stress of monetizing gone, I could just focus on improving and expanding the lessons within VolunteerCurriculum.

VolunteerCurriculum has been very close to my heart and it has given me an effective path to make a positive contribution to society – something which very few people ever find.  And I see VolunteerCurriculum as the most important contribution that I make for society while I am alive.

ISB session ended in April 2018 and I joined Deloitte Consulting (Strategy practice) in May in Bangalore. For about a year, due to the work situation, I found that my weekdays were completely occupied by my job and I was too tired and uninspired to work on VolunteerCurriculum on the weekends.
But eventually my thirst for getting back to where my heart belongs became strong enough and I started working again on VolunteerCurriculum in early 2019. But this time, I took a very different route.
I knew that VolunteerCurriculum’s lessons were effective on the ground – with volunteers and their students. But I always wanted to fully understand what are the factors that can make a student learn English more efficiently and how I can update VolunteerCurriculum’s lessons to leverage these factors.
One of the interns who had developed a lot of wonderful exercises and activities for VolunteerCurriculum went on to do a M.A. in ESL (English as a second language) studies and suggested me a very relevant book for this purpose – Second Language Acquisition (SLA) by Laurdes Ortega. 

This book explains the processes, developmental stages, external and motivational factors that get involved when someone starts learning a second language.

t is a very tough but fruitful read as it helped me discover so many research backed facts about what I can do to make my English curriculum more effective for the students. I am reading it very meticulously and noting down points that I can use with VolunteerCurriculum. 

I hope to incorporate all the findings into the lesson plans by the end of this year.

I have decided to give access to the curriculum for free but only to people who are genuinely interested in teaching English. 
Anyone, from a person volunteering through an NGO or a housewife trying to help her maid ‘s son with his English, who has to teach English could get my curriculum for free.
But the only condition being that they record and give me proper feedback after teaching each lesson plan. This feedback would help me update the curriculum so that it keeps becoming more effective and easier to teach. This is the message that you see on the front page of the website.
I hope this website helps you to make a positive difference to the world!