Rantings of a student who always came first – not a great teacher’s day post

Yesterday was teacher’s day. Newspapers are awash with articles on “My best teachers” and “why I love my teachers” and so on. Facebook status updates are full of poems sung to long forgotten Madams and Misses ( thats what we used to call our convent school teachers, Miss. Thomas and Miss. Mukit etc. etc.).

It is not as though I dislike (d) my teachers. They were, by and large, well meaning human beings who mostly tried to do their job well. Some, such as our Social Science teacher, actually managed. Her classroom was packed with eager kids waiting to hear the next “story” from her. She was one teacher who really inspired us to listen, think and understand.

But, mostly, I am sorry to say, our teachers inspired us too… come first. Yes, that is what was taught to us ( or should I say me?). Personally, I think this is a rather sad thing for teachers to do. I remember being praised as a “jewel”, no less, by my teachers, for bagging the highest position in class and for being a good sportsperson. My teachers could not praise me enough. But not one, not one of them really taught me to think beyond first position.

This was a rather unfortunate situation. For yours truly, like any normal human being, was set upon a pedestal by her own teachers. And yours truly became really really scared of falling down from that high pedestal. What if I did not get the first position in the next exams? I was in such a state where I needed to be first in every damn thing – sports, maths, science, literature, what have you. In the process I got so self-absorbed I failed to notice or appreciate my classmates and the awesome stuff some of them were capable of.

It is perhaps strange for somebody who would be considered an awesome student by any of her teachers to write a post such as this. But with hindsight I think I could have done better with learning something else apart from how to hold on to that tenacious no. 1 position!!

So here, on teacher’s day, I hope that all future generations of teachers, who after all have a great influence on the kids they teach, will concentrate on making their kids better human beings. Of giving them the ability to think for themselves, to deal with failures as well as to enjoy success, to enjoy life for what it is and not merely to compete.


English Literacy and love for learning among kids: Classroom methods

We are having a great discussion within the India Literacy Project group about the teaching methodology we should use in our schools. Our objective being as much to inculcate a love for learning and books as it is to teach English skills, we have been using the Shared Reading approach in our schools.

Here is a video that illustrates how shared reading works:

The video illustrates how to do shared reading with a class, in order to keep it interestng, exciting, and fun. Each reading brings about a different aspect. Day 1 its all about the story, Day 2& 3 the class reads along, Day 4 is emphasis on some words and phonics, Day 5 is doing creative stuff around the story.

There are of course other approaches to teaching. A friend who runs an NGO called Sugathi has developed, with his team, a Theme centric approach to teaching. In this approach, using games, classroom activities, crafts etc. they reinforce concepts and ideas, as well as vocab, among the students.

Do share other approaches that you know are being followed by teachers and have been found to work – my key criteria, it should keep the kids engaged, and help them retain the words, sentence formations etc they learn!

Affordable private schools in India – waking up to the need

We have about 250 million kids who are under the age of 20 in India. Meaning 250 m potentially school going kids. Of this apparently 40% are being taught in the private school system.

Private schools in India have been traditionally for upper middle and upper classes. In the last decade or so, a new type of school has come up. These schools, called the Affordable Private Schools, are targeted at the lower income sector, with a fee structure of Rs. 200-300 per month for a student.

So what are these schools trying to do? They are fulfilling a need that is not met by government schools , of good education, at a cost that is attainable by lower income groups.

There are 73000 of these schools in India today, of which 10% are in Hyderabad.

An organisation that is trying to help these schools ramp up in Hyderabad http://www.graymatterscap.com/

They have funded various projects aiming to help these private schools, such as Idex. Here’s a nice blog post from one of the IDEX fellows.

Are these schools part of the solution to the problem of providing good quality education to children? They can be – provided he opportunity is used to also try out a teaching system that encourages thinking and creativity in the students.


Finally the kids in school give me something to cheer about

So last Tuesday was a frustrating day at class. The teachers in school were out on census duty, and the kids were as unruly as wild horses let out of the corral.

So with my limited Telugu vocabulary ( to be honest I know perhaps 5 words of the language) I tried to bring order to the class. Failed. Tried to draw their attention with a variety of stories and rhymes. Partial success. Threatened to hit them with a long wooden ruler ( I am not averse to doing it either, a different post on that later) – not much success. So through all the din and noise, I managed some phonetics teaching.

I braced myself for more of this on Thursday. And lo and behold. For whatever reason, the children decided they would be model students.

I did not even realise how much we had done together over the last 8-9 months until they showed me. And today it was not just 2-3 kids answering my questions, there were at least 10-15 kids out of the lot of 60 who knew a fair bit of what I had been teaching. And were able to apply the knowledge in figuring out how to pronounce new words they hadn’t seen before.

A very Happy and satisfied teacher emerged from the school on Thursday.


‘On the same day, something did pull me down. One of the students of the school had problem reading, so me , their class teacher and the India Literacy Project office worker took him for an eye check up. The poor guy had a power of -10, plus his eye muscles have become weak. I hope it does not become worse, and we are able to find a good doc who can fix his problem.


Tea drinking and we Assamese people

Fish is to the Bengali as tea is to us Assamese. So, this post on us Assamese people and our obsession with tea-drinking.

You can take the “xo” out of the Oxomiya, you can even make him give up his “Lahe-Lahe” habits ( a discourse on that will be added later, but essentially it means give us any task and we will achieve it at the slowest pace imaginable), but dare you try to regulate the ten or fifteen cups of tea he needs each day and your usual mild-mannered and cheerful Barua or Xorma will tend to become cranky and out of sorts. Deprive him of tea for a day or two, and he will shrivel like a neglected plant in a pot. No wonder that any self-respecting Assamese carries a kg or two (depending on the duration of his stay away from the source of good tea) when he travels. That, and a packet of betel-nuts and paan leaves, packed in old newspaper so it does not become too soggy, and all put into a separate bag, topped off with a Gamocha. The gamocha, btw, is another thing that no Assamese will travel without. Isn’t it the most multi-purpose piece of cloth ever woven by mankind? Wipe your sweaty face? Out comes the gamocha. Dirty towel in the hotel? Why, you don’t even need their dirty towel, you have your gamocha. Baby needs to be wrapped up – use the gamocha. You name it, and we can find out a use for it. Feeling that nobody should be left out of the use of this wonderful creation, we gift it to all and sundry; to the potential son-in-law, to the politician on stage with his paan-stained lips, to the visitor from outside our state.

But I digress. Back to that live-giving drink of the Assamese, chai, or as we pronounce it, “saah”. In a typical Assamese household the first cup is “Laal saah”; even my 4 year old daughter, growing up far from Assam, knows what Laal saah is. Tea without sugar, reddish-brown in the first light of the sun (which happens to be at 5 am, being as we are in the far Eastern corner of the country). BLACK TEA, OR LAAL SAAH After this people go about their daily rituals, getting together at breakfast followed by some more saah, this time with milk (and sugar if non-diabetic, a vast majority of people in the state now suffer from this disease, so sugarless tea has become more or less a norm). Tea is served ready, not with additional work for the guest such as mixing in the milk or sugar or what have you. Next people go out for work, to schools and colleges and offices. There they consume during the course of the day at least 4 cups of tea before returning home. As soon as they enter the house, they are greeted by whoever is in the house with a cup of tea. Add one to the list if they have, en-route popped in to visit somebody. Late evening snacks are accompanied by yet another cup, and that makes it, for the average person, close to 8 cups (conservative estimate) of tea per person. I wonder, how do we even manage to export any of the stuff? This tea drinking obsession is carried to whatever place the Assamese finds himself.

My dad is right now lying in a hospital bed – and drinking about 10 cups of the stuff a day. Mom and I are giving him company. Every hour or so I am getting up to fill the electric tea-pot with water, getting a good boil going, putting good earthy nice-smelling tea leaves into the sieve, pouring out hot cuppas for each of us. I took a break from hospital duty to pay a visit to the neighbourhood primary school where my aunt teaches ( I go there every time I come to Guwahati, and today I am treated to the sight of kids running out pell-mell at the sound of the bell ringing, freedom, their body language says). I enter, and am offered tea by the headmistress. I protest saying I just had my lunch and tamul ( betel nut and paan, see Appapappa’s post in this regard), but to no avail. To refuse the tea would be to refuse the hospitality of the school. So I dutifully drink my 7th cup of the day (I am only a moderate drinker of tea, after all!).

I suspect that the real reason tea is so popular among the Assamese is because we believe that life should be enjoyed in slow motion. I mean 10 cups a day, even if you manage to drink one in 5 minutes, is 50 min. Which is to say about an hour of your day is spent sipping from a delicate cup and just watching life pass by. Is that bliss or what? I admit, as I grow older, I am finding more of the Assamese in me. Which is to say, I have increased my tea drinking from a mere cup or two to five or six and day, and aim to increase this number every year.

I was watching this TED Talk by Kiran Bedi, a well-known policewoman from India. In fact, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that she is perhaps the most well known of all police personnel in India,  men or women.

In the video she talks about how she tried to change how the police force’s approach to criminals with the concept that police should prevent rather than only detect crime. Its an interesting video to watch overall, but there was one thing she said in the video that caught my attention.

She says she was one of the privileged few women in India in the 50’s who were allowed to study and work as per their wishes, inspite of being one of 4 girls in the household. Her parents encouraged her and her sisters to study as much as they wanted, but in doing so, they had to go against their own families and were on the verge of being disinherited from their land. This is the kind of situation that was supposed to have been prevalent in the 50’s, and the lack of opportunities there existed for women.

Coming back to today, fifty years from Kiran’s Bedi’s growing up days. Just yesterday I was chatting with my house-hold help. A 40 year old lady, Lakshmi Didi is raising her two teenage kids by herself because her husband does not want to leave their land in the village, and she feels living in the city is important for her kids education and future.

But, she lamented, she could not take any decision about her or her kids future on her own, even though she is feeding them and clothing them. Why? Because she is a woman, and a woman in her society cannot be expected to make any rational decisions, even if she is independent and has proven herself umpteen times to be capable. She had to face an uphill task to convince her relatives to educate her only daughter, and finally decided to do so without their support or blessings. How long Didi will be able to hold on to her ideals and continue her daughter’s education is entirely dependent on her financial situation, which so far, she has been able to manage.

Seems like what the India of the 50’s had for the middle class women, the India of the new millenium has for the poorer class. Its a pity that a few generations of talent will go waste in the process.