Ruminations

Where the past few weeks have been filled with setbacks and disappointments, overwhelming deadlines and way too many exasperated moments than I’d normally like to deal with, they have also been filled with a number of smiles, relief and contentment.

The former was  mostly because of a breed I’m unfortunately a part of as well – the adults. The latter was primarily because of a few children and animals I’ve come to know in the past few years.

Since the past couple of weeks, I’ve been witness to incidents that made me acutely aware of the sensitivity gene, that probably goes missing around the time people grow up.

One of the incidents is one which I’d like to unload here:

Chetna was a student in my class last year. I use the past tense because she hadn’t  attended a single day of school since session began in June. It wasn’t a surprise to me because I had been aware of the reason – a very simple one actually – by way of meiosis and other related biological process she has been destined to be taken care of by a pair of insensitive adults. (More insensitive than you or I, hopefully). The father has been stopping her from attending school till the mother moves out of the house. The mother has surrendered responsibility of her two daughters saying it will make the father more indifferent than before. The two girls, as a result, are mere pawns in this game of power between the two.

After waiting for her to come to school and postponing my plans of visiting her house for the nth time, I finally visited her house yesterday. I was greeted by a bunch of women standing at the door. Fearing the worst, I asked what had happend. “Chetna gayi”, (Chetna’s gone) her mother said.

Her father had gone off with the two girls (9 year old Chetna and 4 year old Dharna) just 30 minutes back, saying he was going to get them admitted to a hostel in Kolhapur. On calling the father, I heard his smarmy voice assure me that he was going to come back for the leave certificates to the school. He wasn’t willing to divulge the name of this supposed hostel. Of course, there was no train to Kolhapur at 3 in the afternoon either.

Came back home feeling defeated and tired. Called a helpline who asked me to await their call (which didn’t come). Called up the woman and asked her to lodge a complaint with the police but she didn’t fear much for the children as it turned out.

So Chetna came back this morning after being shuffled around like a football. Thankfully alive and well but also ready for another round of to-and-fro between her parent’s messed up relationship.

I will call the child service agency again and arrange for a consultation but the experience has been more unnerving than I expected. As her teacher, there is only so much that I can do.

Even though I’m sad that it happened, it has helped me get my priorities back in focus, which had been side-tracked by some bureaucratic hassles and insensitive adults in my work place.

What saw me through the past few weeks? – My students; who in their emotionally perceptive way sensed my troubles, cleaned the class, arranged my desk and even decorated the class with last year’s Christmas decorations from the cupboard.

After watching a documentary on Summerhill, A.S. Neill’s words keep echoing in my head:

‎”No one is wise enough or good enough to mould the character of any child. What is wrong with our sick, neurotic world is that we have been moulded, and an adult generation that has seen two great wars and seems about to launch a third should not be trusted to mould the character of a rat” — A.S. Neill

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Decentralizing Grade 4

I teach a group of 67 students ranging in ages from 8-11. This is my second year with them, as they’ve moved on from Grade 3 to Grade 4. Having such a large number of students to pay attention to, isn’t something that comes easy, especially when your aim is to deliver quality education to each and every child with a limited amount of resources.

An article I read recently gave words to an insight my co-teacher and I had intuitively possessed when we divided the class in smaller homogeneous groups of 6-7 students each last year. The insight was quite simple really. It isn’t natural for human beings to work in large groups. You get the clue when you look at animals in the wild. Certain animals like wildebeests are more comfortable in groups as large as a herd of more than a 100, while a pack of lion will never be more than 10. We can see the same pattern when we look at our cave-dwelling ancestors who hunted and fended for themselves in small groups of 8-10.

Of course, we all see the example work for us whenever we have worked in smaller collaborative groups in our college and jobs. Why not start it at the school level then?

In our first year, with most students struggling to develop the skills they lacked, working in homogeneous groups made more sense. But the groups were still very centralized with all the rules and functioning happening at command central – the teacher’s dais.

In the second year, however, with a lot of students having discovered their specific levels comfort, we decided to push them out of their respective comfort zone and cliques and mixed the groups up such that each group had someone with a knack for numbers, language, interpersonal skills or even organizational skills.  And, we decided to decentralize our operations. This included things ranging from rules and consequences to daily mundane tasks such as attendance and homework checking.

We introduced daily and weekly individual and group trackers that helped us, the teachers, keep track of the students and their behavioral and academic progress. Here’s a sample of the trackers.

It sounded very counter intuitive, however, to force all the groups to follow the one single list of rules that the entire class had to follow.

Even though we all function under the common societal laws, we have our own rules, mores and culture in the smaller unit of a family or even our friend circle for that matter.

So, as we developed systems to track the class as the larger group, we also involved the students in the process of brainstorming and designing the trackers. This was meant to encourage them to think of their smaller peer group as a micro-group within the larger 67-student class. They were encouraged to come up with their own rules, consequences and values, just like their larger group (the class). They were also given the freedom to come up with stress-busting fun activities within their own group that they felt would help them bond better as a community.

My fears of them copying the class rules blindly were proven baseless when they came up with some remarkably mature and original rules.

We also encouraged the group leaders to start a positive reinforcement culture. This morning, Gousia, the current group leader of “Spiderman” came to me with her own positive consequences strategy for Homework completion, that has been working very well for her group (They have the maximum number of green cards with all the group members completing their homework, even the ones who are unable to attend school any particular day.) It is the responsibility of the particular group member who lives near the absent student’s house to go and tell him about the work done in school and help with the homework.

On the other hand, groups were also encouraged to explore their own negative consequences with the guidelines against physical punishment made clear. So, today I found Sana, a group member who had been regularly slacking off on her homework, sent out of the group and not allowed in till she completed her homework.

One of the biggest benefits of decentralization is empowerment.

The ongoing progress the students are making is making me more and more certain of the advantages of introducing a decentralized system for large classes.

A large class with a stick or a wooden-ruler wielding teacher is something that is always going to be a reality that our education system needs to address.

What’s better than a nation where the students are as much the owners of their own education as their teacher, who doesn’t need a stick to preside over them?

We are a democracy, not a totalitarian state, aren’t we?

My Class

There haven’t been a lot of pictures over the past few months. Some of that has been because I have been busy but mostly because I was waiting to obtain a camera, which I finally got. Thanks to my mum.

A few glimpses of my class.

Since the past 4 months, I and my principal have written at least 4 requisitions to the PMC for desks so that my 66 students may find a place to sit. But as is the case with most bureaucratic kingdoms, the actual desks will probably reach once these children have moved on to another class next year.

The walls have the paint peeling off but we can’t paint them because the government might object so we’re doing the next best thing. Trying to cover as much space as we can with pictures and charts.

Over the next few months, I will try making this class a nicer place to look at and of course study in. My goal is to post another picture in two months and find that my class looks more beautiful and my children happier and more comfortable.

… R.I.P.

I have always wondered what made it easy for some people to turn a blind eye to somethings. This morning something happened that made me realize that wondering what it took was probably turning me into those people.

As I rode on my way to the school at around 6:45 a.m. this morning, I was running a little late and was wondering whether I should’ve taken my raincoat along, how will I teach this lesson; you know, the usual million things that run through my head. I passed a dog who had been hit by some car. There were a few other dogs on the side of the road. He was trying to get up, yelping in pain. He wasn’t dead yet. And I remember speeding past, like the other dozens who were doing the same, thinking I’d get late, it’s not my problem, and the other gazillion reasons people might give themselves (or not). I couldn’t manage that for long. I turned back a minute later and returned to the spot. The dog was now breathing her last. It was a bitch. She wasn’t making any attempt to get up. And I thought, well, if I would’ve acted on my first instinct a minute back. I might’ve helped the dog to the side of the road. She may have survived, but didn’t. So I just stayed there, put my hand on her chest and watched her die, while cars and bikes sped past. Not one person stopped, till an old man on a bicycle stopped and told me she was dead and I should leave.

Now, maybe it shouldn’t bother me, but it does. Maybe seeing kids at traffic signals selling those fancy balloons shouldn’t bother me, but it does.  And that is that.

I don’t know what I want to say through this post really. Please be kind, maybe? Please be a tad more sensitive to suffering and get prepared to be depressed? Yeah.

Shantabai Ladkat Fortnightly

Well, technically, it has been a fortnight and 4 days. The 4 days have been spent stuck at home owing to the Palki festivities during which Shantabai Ladkat PMC school provides accommodation to the pilgrims for 5 days.

About Shantabai Ladkat:

The school building is approximately 50 years old, with a very young (8 year old) English Medium section, where I teach. Eight years also happens to be the average age of the 67 children I teach in the third grade. Yes. 67. Oh well.

About the Class:

The class, to my pleasant surprise, has an equal distribution of boys and girls. The oldest boy, nearly 11, is the gentle Kedar. Once my co-teacher joins in another 3 weeks, the children will be split in 2 groups and I will have to part with some people I have come to know (By their name. It’s not that tough, I realized) , respect and become so very attached to, in such a short time.

There’s Gousia, who insists on acting like my mother by offering me her tiffin every afternoon, “Eat didi. Why no bringing tiffin?” and “So heavy bag. Tum school mein rakho, lock mein.”

Then there’s Rohit, who insists that I am “English” since I have declined to answer their queries about my religion, telling them that I celebrate every festival. Of course, Gousia thinks I am like Salman Khan owing to the fact that I celebrate all festivals and pick heavy things (like my bag) so easily.

There is the tiny Ismail, the tiny, quiet child, who is a frequent target of bullying but still maintains 100% attendance, the Calvin of the class, Lokesh; Rajeshree, the incredibly brilliant talkathon champion, with a penchant for word puzzles. I could go on and on.

My newfound discovery of my interest in people (Adults excluded) continues to pleasantly surprise me.

Now that my camera has arrived with the rest of my things from Lucknow, the first thing I do this Saturday is take pics and post something about each one of them before I am no longer the class-teacher of the 67 amazing children I love so much.

Of realisations and news bytes

1. I am going to miss my summer school kids terribly.

2. I have not felt this way in such a long long time. Or maybe, I have never really felt like this ever. It feels good.

3. I have been placed in a school in Nana Peth, Pune, which is in the Old City. It’s a municipal school. I will be teaching 70 (Yes, seven-zero) students in the 2nd Grade.  That’s the maximum number of students in any school in Pune given to any TFI fellow this year. I will have a co-teacher who will arrive a month late and my manager says that he has ‘faith’ in me. As I type this, I have a nervous giggle stuck in my throat.

4. I have spent the past 5 hours procuring materials for and making phonic alphabet stencils for the art class in class tomorrow but the thought of the 70 new faces I’ll meet on the 14th is enough to rob me of my sleep. The mind’s spinning yarns already.

5. I should sleep.

Since I’m too preoccupied to actually ‘write’

Summer School:

  • On 20th of May, I spent close to 3 hours with Asavaree, getting her to talk and find out why she didn’t want to come to the summer school. Ended up watching way too many Bal Hanuman cartoons on my laptop with her. She stopped coming to school from the 21st.
  • Will get my placement school tomorrow. Word has it that it will be a school in Old City, Pune.
  • Have begun to realize how much I’m going to miss these children when I leave them in a week and a half.
  • On Friday, we do a whole hour of art!

Training Institute:

  • Attended a screening of Kabir and the Rangeen Kurta, an Akanksha Musical during one of the sessions. (The story of the making of the musical and the people behind it. And above all, the incredibly depressing story of Latif, the boy who played the lead, and his untimely demise.)
  • Coloured and painted and drew till our clothes were covered in colors, in the “bringing art to your class’ workshop.
  • Looking forward to the “bringing drama to your class” workshop tomorrow.

Weekend:

  • Discovered the board game, Scotland Yard.
  • Played UNO.