walls that speak

This is the longest I’ve stared at a blank page, waiting for some sort of inspiration to strike. Smaller reflections are much easier to focus on, and more discrete points are easier to elaborate. The task of writing about the end of my first year of Fellowship seems way too daunting in comparison.

I’ll start with a few words that stand out the most to me, and go on from there. It’s been unexpected. I had to collaborate a lot more than I anticipated, and I had a lot less control than I had initially believed. Those were probably the two hardest parts. While I have always worked on group projects, and generally loved the teams I was put with, this required a completely different type and level of collaboration. First of all, many of my peers didn’t share my background or my outlook. Secondly, I needed to build relationships with not just my peers and students, but also parents, TFI staff, school staff, alumni, and everyone in between. The allocation of my effort was certainly unexpected, and a little hard for my perfectionist mindset to digest – because there was neither the time, nor the space, nor the expectation of perfection anywhere. Just sort of a nebulous “do your best” kind of attitude, where for the first time nobody told me what my best was supposed to look like, or how I was supposed to go about attaining it.

From as far back as I can remember, I had worked hard for my future. For grades, college, a real job. And then that moment came, and somehow real life turned into ninety-eight faces, ninety-eight hopes and dreams. It was a challenge that neither textbook knowledge nor any level of analytical thinking and extra-curricula had prepared me for.

Have I changed?

Certainly, the answer is yes. Pinpointing the exact changes and their causes is a little more difficult. I’ve come to doubt myself a lot more. It was easier to be good within defined bounds and rules. But when you’re working with people, especially children, structures are not always a reliable safety net. I have failed. Many times. More times than I care to count. These failures have made me cry and doubt myself in a way that I never had before. But the failures have, in some way, also made me stronger, because they’re teaching me to look ahead instead of looking behind.

The word that sticks with me the most is the word I chose as my “purpose keyword” – or what I want to achieve in life. That word is impact. I want to do something larger than myself, and I wanted to start my journey here. I have many concerns about what we do on a daily basis, or what the organization does, but I don’t regret my decision to join the Fellowship. I know it’s only been one year, but there are certainly visible changes in many of the kids. Kids who have started reading, who have started enjoying school, and kids who have begun to truly not just imbibe but practice the values we have been preaching. We certainly take steps back in this cha-cha of sorts, and I’m sure I won’t be there to witness all the impact, but in some ways, it’s more than I imagined could be done in a year. It’s real, tangible progress. It’s progress we saw in numbers, in words, in actions, in expressions. It’s progress that makes you smile through tears and believe that maybe (maybe?) I’m supposed to be here

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this patch of grassy dust

Saying that life has been crazy busy would just be redundant, and yet I can’t find of a more honest way to begin. Between extra classes, Just for Kicks, and meetings, life has been as fast-paced as ever.

I’ve especially enjoyed Just for Kicks, the soccer program for our kids. As exhausting as teaching them during school hours is, it is just as much as fun to hang out with them outside of school. And when I say hang out, I do mean that. Of course, they are still kids who look up to us, and obviously the teacher-student relationship permeates all our conversations, but there are certainly elements of fun and light-hearted teasing that cannot be present within a classroom. It’s interesting that sometimes when we step outside the classroom, outside the daily rigmaroles of everyday life – that’s when we realize just how much the kids have carved a place for themselves within you.

Boys' team waiting at the sidelines
Boys’ team waiting at the sidelines

We’ve been especially lucky as a few of my friends from Brown have taken on the responsibility for coaching the kids on weekends. And seeing their investment in the students in these short few weeks has made me realize it’s not me at all. Anyone can fall for these little devils.

Recently, I read somewhere that even during their PT period, kids shouldn’t be allowed to just run around. Rather, we should teach them specific skills related to sports in certain units, so they gain and understanding of the correlation between hard-work and results, and they begin to develop an appreciation for the beauty of different sports. Sports are also a great way for children to learn teamwork and respect. It made me reflect upon my own education. I began to realize just how much I had taken for granted. That’s how life had been for us. We had units on volleyball, archery, track, racquet sports, etc. Our teachers coached us step-by-step on how to volley, how to serve, and allowed us to practice before playing games. Even during school hours, our education had never been limited to the classroom.

I had theoretically understood all this, but found it rather difficult to try to plan for and implement formal skill training during PT when we take 40 kids outside at a time. This is especially difficult given my limited proficiency in most sports.

For all these reasons, I was especially excited to start soccer practice with both our boys and girls. And students whom I so easily overlooked in the masses of the classroom became superstars in my eyes after I saw them on the field. One especially problematic child showed a remarkable ability to follow directions and leave behind his characteristic selfishness in favor of teamwork when he was on the field.

There’s something magical about the rush of competition. I’ve known all my life I’m an incredibly competitive person – it’s a large part of what pushes me to keep doing my best all the time. And when our boys had their first soccer match, my nervousness was making me bounce from foot to foot. I hadn’t felt that kind of adrenaline since my own track meets in high school! I could see the competition pushing together children who wouldn’t otherwise be friends, helping each other, practicing their skills, and trying to boost each other’s morales.

As a teacher, it is so fulfilling to see children who normally struggle within the classroom gain a whole new confident persona on the field. Especially for kids like these, who don’t get as many opportunities for external validation and whose self-esteem is often based simply upon classroom grades, an opportunity like this can be priceless in improving their self-worth.

I know teaching within the confines of a school wall isn’t the only way to mold responsible citizens for our world. But seeing it in action lent the notion so much more credibility in my mind. I only hope we can continue to combine all types of learning for our kids in the upcoming years.

Project 100

Because kids aren’t just numbers and statistics, and nothing makes this more real than thinking about their individual quirks, strengths, and areas of development. Thinking about what makes me walk into that classroom each day and what they do to make me laugh and cry.

One of my co-fellows has been meticulously writing about each of our students to shed light on their individuality, and change them in your minds from numbers to children (just like they are in ours). It has wonderful photos and brilliant shorts. Do check it out!

Project 100

searching for atticus

Because they’re crazy, insane, clever, and frustrating.

The crazy and insane are essentially synonyms, but they are distinct because sometimes I laugh and sometimes I want to cry. And this hasn’t changed over the past several months, contrary to many expectations.

I’m sure many of you have been following this Humans of New York chronicle of Mont Blair Academy, and the portrait of the principal Ms. Lopez has definitely struck a chord with educators around the world. She didn’t believe she made a difference. Not until her school, students, and photos were internationally acclaimed. Because kids aren’t always the greatest communicators, because they’re not always equipped and often just not emotionally mature enough to realize that their teachers are not superhuman. That, to some degree, we all want external validation from someone that we’re not failing them. It’s especially beautiful when it comes from them.

Sitting back and writing this, I realize I focus on the negative too much. In a class of 40, if four kids are acting up, it does detract from the learning of the others and as a teacher I have to do what I can to change their behavior. But when I’m at home, I should also be able to see the other 36 who were focused, interested in what I had to say, who wanted to learn and are really at that point where they understand why they’re in school. It’s something I have realized theoretically, but to put it into practice is not the easiest thing.

Because my way of problem-solving involves reading as much as I can, I have also been reading Teach Like Your Hair is On Fire by teacher-God Rafe Esquith. Now, I agree with nearly everything he says, but I’m struggling to implement a lot of the ideas gleaned from this. The reasons vary; excuses I make about infrastructure and time, my lack of confidence in our kids’ ability to execute some of these activities without hurting each other, and last but not least, the fear of failure. I know none of these reasons should stop me; none of them are even solid enough to be called reasons. So I’ve pushed myself.

The thing I loved the most from his book so far was Kohlberg’s six levels of moral development. In short, the idea is this:

Level 1- I do things for fear of consequences

Level 2 – I want a reward

Level 3 – I want to please somebody (most often the teacher)

Level 4 – I follow the rules

Level 5 – I think about others and their feelings (empathy)

Level 6 – I have my own moral code of conduct and I follow it (think Atticus Finch)

While I have not formally introduced Kohlberg’s brilliance to them, I’ve started talking to them about how learning should come from their inner desire to learn, not because there are trackers that give them rewards and consequences. To try this, I sometimes don’t use trackers as well, which gives me mixed results. Just like us, kids are moody – sometimes they’re amazing and I come home bouncing, and sometimes they’re just not.

In any case, I’m aware that these expectations are rather lofty. Adults who feel the need to post their every accomplishment and bitty detail from their mundane life are not even at Level 6, no matter how accomplished they may be! But I’ve said this before: I’m not okay with my kids being average in morality. I’m not satisfied with the lack of empathy I see in India, and probably around the world. They will be better than that. Even if their RC growth were stunted, if each kid has their own moral code of conduct, I would honestly be over the moon. Because with that, I’ve equipped them to deal with the rest of their life as well. The learning they’ll figure out, because students who do what they believe is right regardless of acknowledgment and consequences are ready for life 🙂

the more i learn the less i know

It seems like a distant dream when I could finish all my planning the night before (even if that meant sleeping at 2 AM) and wake up for a relaxed morning of compiling papers and some light grading with my morning coffee. Since coming back from the holidays, it seems as if things don’t really want to even think about slowing down.

 

Teach for All

Literally as soon as I got back, I immediately got swept into the frenzy of the Teach for All Conference taking place in Mumbai. When I say literally, I mean it. I came back, dropped my bags at home, and immediately went to finish up last minute preparations at our committee leader’s house until 4 AM. And then, of course, woke up at 8 AM to prep for the first day back at school! Needless to say, they were a crazy few days, but amongst the most fulfilling ones I’ve had since moving here.

Teachers, staff, students, and other guests from 22 different Teach for All countries gathered in Mumbai to discuss Contextual Student Vision and Leadership. All the Learning Circles during the conference were facilitated by TFI students – which was incredible. With three weeks of training, they had morphed into amazing orators and thoughtful probers, pushing people to think deeper and question more. Every day I interacted with them, their eloquence and clarity of thought amazed me. In a way, it really contextualized the work we are doing on a larger scale for me.

Back to School

But returning to school wasn’t what I expected. For some reason, us first year fellows had this impression that life gets easier post-Diwali in the classroom. We had heard these mystical legends of kids magically morphing into semi-automated robots who listen to everything you say. (In retrospect, I feel a little uncomfortable that I was looking forward to that).
In any case, as you can probably imagine, that didn’t happen. In fact, we were in for a rude awakening. Somehow, I felt things got worse. I had higher expectations from myself and the classroom. I was like, “Okay, so the first three months of me making allowable mistakes are over, let’s get this shit in order!” And…well, you can imagine how badly that turned out. You never stop making mistakes – you just learn not to make the same ones more than a couple of times.

That being said, I guess we have made progress in the past six weeks. They’ve certainly made me go through a rollercoaster of emotions on a weekly basis. I’ve tried implementing a wide range of trackers, to help both them and me keep track of progress. I’ve been amazed by how much they respond to repetition, which to me seems boring. I’ve been depressed by their lack of empathy for each other. I’ve been happy to see them behaving like playful kids during lunch hours. I’ve been proud of the improvement in their learning. I’ve been embarrassed by their lack of understanding. I’ve been over the moon at their enthusiasm for learning. I’ve been in tears when lessons fell apart due to behavioral issues. I’ve been frustrated with the lack of infrastructure in school. I’ve been angry with people who can’t prioritize the children’s well-being over personal needs. I’ve been confused – basically all the time, about everything.

I think this is why this Fellowship is as much a learning process for me as for the kids. The emotional maturity needed to respond appropriately to the myriad of situations we are faced with cannot be underestimated.

Pictures

 

It’s been so long that I can hardly explain what’s been happening, so here are a few snapshots of the past few weeks to make it more real.

Because puppy!
Because puppy!
Taking ownership: kids helping kids
Taking ownership: kids helping kids
Phonics -> Sight words --> RC tracker
Phonics -> Sight words –> RC tracker
Building mud pots to occupy themselves
Building mud pots to occupy themselves
Mahek and her "brother" (turtle)
Mahek and her “brother” (turtle)
Sports day!
Sports day!
toffee and megha
Toffee and Megha

rippled reflections

At the mid-year point, I figure I should be extremely reflective and analyse the past five months to finally start coming up with some answers. Mid-year of my very first year should be a time for deep and thoughtful introspection, so brace yourself.

Ready? Let’s dive in!

Rowling’s World

Now, I know this is a slight tangent, but Potter was a huge part of my childhood. And returning home over this Diwali break made me remember my obsession when I found my hand-written stories from sixth grade with Fred and George Weasley wreaking havoc in ways even Rowling hadn’t imagined.

In any case, I began thinking, and as my mind is wont do to these days, my thoughts drifted back to school. Most of my children are 11 or turning the magical age of 11. Which means that now they would be off to Hogwarts in Rowling’s World. The prospect makes me cringe. I cannot imagine letting them leave home, arming them with a wand and rudimentary knowledge of magic, and allowing them to roam around Hogwarts freely. I can’t imagine them not being required to ever add numbers or learn English again, or receive any training in values/mindsets beyond what their respective houses give them.

Now, I understand that it’s hard to compare our kids with those in the UK with a good education, but I don’t think even they at eleven can afford to simply stop learning English. What about grammar, and better vocabulary? What about poetry and satirical writing and opinion pieces and lyrical essays? I understand that some of this can be gleaned by reading and exposure to good writing, but as much as I love the magical world, why were they trading Potions for Literature? No wonder they ended up with Lockhart as a best-selling author. Their systems are not engineered to produce writers at all!

Even putting aside their deplorable cultivation of decent authors, Hogwarts just seems like an unsafe place for eleven year-olds from this end of graduation. I mean, sure, there are consequences for unauthorised use of magic, but there is a lot of harm, danger, and way too much freedom.

That’s my immediate reaction. And it confuses me. Because all of that being said, I would still trade my arm for the opportunity to have gone to Hogwarts. 

All right, I’m sorry I didn’t quite deliver the life-altering analysis on the state of Indian education. To be quite honest, I’m not in a position to even begin to understand its intricacies, so I won’t bore you with some inadequate commentary just yet (although I make no promises about the future :-P).

Having these thoughts does help me remember is that as an eleven year old myself, I felt fully prepared to head off to Hogwarts and confront all the challenges of the magical world, Voldemort and Dementors included. While part of this feeling was clearly the naïve overconfidence of a child, it does make me doubt my knee-jerk reaction. Even though my gut reaction would be to tear up my kids’ (mythical) Hogwarts letters, maybe that would be wrong. Kids might be kids, but when they’re faced with responsibility, they do have a tendency to surprise us. Didn’t even Neville stand up to his friends to do what he thought was right? Sometimes, we just have to let go and will ourselves to believe, even if it seems too soon. Ask any parent: it will always feel too early.

Design for Change

In deference to this notion that kids can do more than you expect, we decided to do the Design for Change project with our students. The basic premise behind this project is this – it is completely student-led. All I did was start them off. I asked them to identify problems in their school and community, and potential solutions. After a couple of days of brain-storming, we narrowed down the possibilities by democratically voting and advocating our own ideas. Our students decided to address the issue of bullying in the school. They wanted to raise awareness about what bullying is and how to combat it in the school, and target their efforts towards younger students.

While the entire project was rather fulfilling – seeing the students voice their ideas, gain confidence, and engage in serious discussions about important issues around their community – there were definitely a few stand-out moments that I wanted to share.

  • The group was a mix of students from all three classrooms. It was great to see them working together. It was amazing to see the realization with regards to our struggling learners: that just because their reading may not be as fluent didn’t mean their ideas were not as promising. In fact, they spoke with more confidence than most of the others! For example, when the others were perplexed as to how they would communicate their message clearly to younger students who didn’t speak English, one of them suggested the elegant solution of a short skit.
  • One of the boys who normally can’t sit still or stop talking adopted a whole new attitude when handed a poster and colors. He worked diligently on making a creative and beautiful poster, with a quiet confidence and careful attention I wish would seep into other aspects of his learning. He even confidently instructed me as to how to precisely help him color the border.
  • Several students were chosen to participate because they lacked confidence. After several days’ practicing their respective roles in the skit, every single child in the DFC project talked in front of a classroom of 40 younger students. They ad-libbed where needed and performed with ease and confidence, which I sincerely hope will be a part of their everyday classroom behavior henceforth.

It was remarkable to see them not only take ownership of the entire project, but also execute every aspect of the solution with sincerity.

When my brother went off to college, my parents doubted how he would cope living by himself for the first time. After all, he had never operated a washing machine and could hardly identify an iron. But as they say, necessity is the mother of invention. And when kids have to do something, they will do it – and do a damn fine job at that.

5th graders giving an anti-bullying presentation to 2nd grade students
5th graders giving an anti-bullying presentation to 2nd grade students
First graders holding up our anti-bullying badges!
First graders holding up our anti-bullying badges!

a furry frenzy

The more time I spend with the children, both inside and outside the classroom, the more daunting a task writing this blog becomes. How can I ever expect to do justice to the hundreds of things that happen in a day, all of which, in their own way, are remarkable enough to communicate to the world?

If you remember, just a few weeks ago, I had said that the day-to-day of this life wouldn’t seem too exciting to an outside observer. Now it’s almost as if I’ve flipped 180 degrees. How come? Simple. I’ve fallen in love with my kids.

For those of you who know me well, you know it’s rather unexpected. And yet, I know, it will help me be more effective as a teacher in the long run. It will push me to do more and be better. Because that’s the thing – I’m scared I’m not doing enough. I know that this is a sentiment I’ve expressed time and time again, but even if my whole life becomes the children (and it almost has), it won’t feel like enough.

And although people say “you’re halfway through your first year” (I mean, it’s really not true mathematically even though I know we’re at Mid-Year), I still definitely have more questions than answers. But today, I do want to start with some of the answers I’ve found.

Reading

 

Luckily, the kids love to read! Perhaps the scarcity of books in their homes drives this love. Whatever the reason is, this fact has made me incredibly happy. I’ve started using the library as an incentive for them during history classes. (Oh yeah, I’ve set up a pseudo-library thanks to my grandmother’s generosity. I went to the Books by the Kilo book fair and bought about 30-40 books for them, which are kept on a shelf in the classroom). The two “best” students (rather arbitrarily defined by me, to be honest) get to take home a book from the library. As I implement this in better ways, I hope to develop more structures around it and create an increased investment in books and reading.

Emergent Readers

 

There are a few kids in fifth grade who can hardly read and understands words like “white”, “there”, and “what.” They are called emergent readers. The other TFI teachers in our school team put together a workbook particularly for these readers. I modified it and distributed it to my entire classroom. Many of my students can read, but they are not fluent. There is also a big gap between fluency and comprehension. I’m hoping this workbook will help in addressing both the issues to some extent. I honestly believe if we use it consistently and enough (and of course supplement it with other necessary materials), these kids will be able to read sentences and even paragraphs fluently in a few months.

Structures, Procedures, & Culture

 

The point of school is academics.

Throughout the course of my education, I’ve lost complete faith in this statement. What’s the point of being able to read Shakespeare if you can’t appreciate the beauty of the words beyond their academic value? What’s the point of becoming an excellent orator if you have nothing of value to say? What’s the point of being the world’s most eloquent writer if you have nothing of interest to pen? What’s the point of becoming a learned person if you haven’t discovered your passion?

I really don’t think there is one.

Rather, school is meant to equip a generation of critical thinkers and enthusiastic learners with the tools they need to succeed in life. Schooling isn’t training for jobs, although that has in its way become the natural consequence. And while a part of teaching does include basic skills and knowledge, the critical importance of values and mindsets as well as exposure and access cannot be overlooked. TFI as an organization completely acknowledges this and even trains us on how to integrate these things into our daily curriculum. Unfortunately, I have been lacking on the implementation. Translating intention into action is harder than anticipated with all the constraints placed by the school schedule, as well as the demands of other facets of this Fellowship. However, making excuses is not what I’m here to do, so I’ll just leave it at this: I will do it, and I will do it soon.

The Other Side

 

Remember the grueling anxiety before exam period? Remember spending nights cramming, drinking coffee to stay awake through lectures, skipping meals, and seeking respite in stolen conversations with friends? To my fellow Brown students, remember how packed the SciLi would be at 3 AM during finals period? Remember how much we cursed our teachers for setting ridiculous exams?

Now I’m on the other side, and let me tell you this: it’s no cakewalk.

When you’re invested in your students, their performance on tests is basically a measure of your teaching ability. And spending six hours a day with them, we have identified who needs help with what. So we spend extra time preparing and drilling them. Right now, my entire school team is holding extra classes on a daily basis, staying after school between 1-2 hours to help struggling students catch up.

What surprises me most is how much the kids want to attend extra class. For some reason, they love getting more time in school. I’m not sure exactly why, but again, I’m not going to question my good fortune on this. It’s a boon and for that I’m extremely grateful.

The thing that has been frustrating is that we are more invested in some students than they are in their own academics. Beyond just not doing their homework and goofing off in class, there are kids who cannot articulate why their disrespectful behavior is wrong. I’m afraid they don’t even understand how rude they are being when they say some things to others.

While there are hundreds of other questions haunting me, I think I’ll save that for later. After all, exams are approaching!