Sunday, April 2, 2017

Five Reasons on Why I can Relate to 'He Just Sued the Education System'! 

Over the time, I have become a social media recluse for various reasons. Call it the perils of multiple-tasking or whatever, but most of the videos, links, photos and motivational messages sent  to me end up getting cleanly ignored. And that is why on one early morning, many days after a well-meaning friend had shared it with me, seeing the video He just sued the school system turned out to be a revelatory experience.

I could relate to the video at various levels, because personally, it is an affirmation of what I had been experiencing/believing in. The education system in our country is something like the theatre of the absurd. People who matter know what is wrong, but various factors inhibit them from confronting the realities. In other words, we know what the problem is, because refuse to acknowledge and do something about it. Such a 'policy paralysis' often leads to the 'my way is the highway' approach on  various critical aspects regarding educational policy.

For instance, schools do not always encourage inputs/feedback from the parents. In fact, any intervention is seen as being antithetical to the school's 'vision'. For reasons related to privacy, I would not want to dwell into details, but the fact remains that schools do not encourage conversations across the stakeholders regarding syllabi, methodology of teaching etc, and so on. Statements like 'our teachers are trained by international boards' or 'have attended workshops' are enough to bully the them into 'wilful submission'. There was this rather frustrating conversation I once had with a teacher who kept  insisting that a kindergarten child should know how to pronounce the word 'embarrass' and other such complicated words even without comprehending the contextual meaning. This was because the 'other children in the class' are apparently 'able to' and she also darkly hinted at the possibility that if a child is not able to pronounce such words, probably the mother is not taking enough interest in the child's education. The teacher in question had clearly not heard of the concept of 'learning indicators' at various levels and 'differential learning', or her institution was encouraging her to restrict it to the fancy settings of 'workshops' and 'conferences'.

There is one more instance where schools discourage conversations. Processes and procedures are often opaque; this becomes very significant especially when parents are being made to shell out higher amounts of money for accessories like textbooks. I remember an email conversation that I had with a policy maker who was firmly convinced that the expensive foreign publications that they had chosen for their students was the best possible choice given the current scenario. What struck me the most was that the conversation did not acknowledge that they might be willing to reconsider/reevaluate/review their choices based on their experiences. My maid, who is fighting an almost losing battle to educate her children, tells me of instances when she has been issued threats that her children will not be able to write their exams if the 'exam fees' are not paid. And such information is not provided at the beginning of the academic year.

Very often, the teacher is held responsible for the failure of the system. However, as the video points out, much like the children, the teacher is also a victim. In our country, 'teaching' is seen as a convenient vocation for anybody who is not otherwise professionally competent.This may come across as a sweeping generalisation, but most of us who have had experience with the so-called 'international' and 'elite' schools who promise 'child-centered' learning methodologies, and a ' differentiated curriculum' in line with 'global standards' do not have teachers with even basic qualifications in education. How would such teachers understand various aspects involved in 'assessments', 'evaluation' and more importantly 'child psychology'? And this explains their treatment of children. More often than not, the child is seen as a 'client' who needs to be kept happy (parents must also be kept happy), or a 'product' that needs to be churned out from a factory. ('Poultry farm' would have been a more apt metaphor, but I fear to run into areas where angels fear to tread'!) Once,  I was trying to 'crowdsource' the content for an issue-based essay on the validity of praising positive actions as a strategy for teaching. Very astutely, my students pointed out how a false sense of achievement can actually prove to be a impediment on their journey of learning. (Thank heavens that their sense of perceptive insights are still intact!). While catering to learners as 'clients', schools almost inevitably adopt a strategy wherein all the stakeholders are kept happy. Or, depending on the kind of their 'philosophy' or 'vision', they go to the other extreme of treating children like 'robots' who successfully internalise procedures related to processing different sets of instructions with limited scope for innovative or lateral thinking.

Therefore, due to this institutions failure, the teacher almost always becomes the victim. Technological companies hire people with the minimum level of expertise (depending on their requirements) and then train them, as necessary. However, the minimum qualification for the teacher, as it exists in reality, is the ability to communicate. At lower levels of learning, where critical learning skills have to be built and consolidated, specialised qualifications are not even considered. In our system, anyone with a basic degree qualification and the ability to speak good English (maybe, throw in one or two unrecognised and unvalidated training courses) are considered to be good enough to teach. Once they join, teachers find that there there are limited incentives to at least try and enhance their skill set. I was speaking to this former teacher of an elite school a few weeks ago. Based on her personal experience, she had a rather interesting take on the situation - she is earning more from tuitions (one hour in the evening everyday, and she teachers kindergarten learners) than the eight-hour-a-day job that she had been doing. When the pay is low, and the working conditions are close to 'pathetic', there is limited motivation to think and strategise learning sessions from a different, more wholistic and a more relevant perspective. This outlook percolates into everyday modalities like creating materials (worksheets ridden with errors), lack of communication with the stakeholders, the tendency to form quick judgements about learner performance and of course, the lack of motivation to consider each learner as a unique individual.

Further,  in their efforts to fulfil the tag of a 'progressive approach to education', most schools invest in technology related aids and 'smart' classrooms. However, as any experienced educator would point out, such contraptions become effective only if the teacher perceptively understands how to utilise them. Otherwise, they remain emblematic symbols of 'futuristic schools'. Only that schools would be willing to invest in training their teachers in more effective methods of teaching.

So, in my opinion, it is a sense of obduracy and the unwillingness to accept a different point of view which is making educational institutions adopt their 'own' and often 'regressive' strategies to justify their existence. And we, as stakeholders, seem to be content. How else do we explain the fact that we continue to pay ridiculously astronomical amounts for  school education, with minimal intervention by the governments or the policy makers? How else do we explain the fact that today, education is becoming a corporate business with the primary goal being that of achievement in terms of marks and percentages rather than actual practical skills related to the subject(s)? Of late, while returning from work, I see two billboards of a prominent school which shows two blurbs. One blurb has 'London School of Economics' and the other has 'Tata Institute of Social Sciences'. And the message says something to the effect of whether we would want our children to go to the former or the latter institution. Implicit in this question is a challenge thrown - a challenge of standards that nobody will check or verify. And we seem to be buying such a specious argument just because the school's hoarding declares so.

Having said this, have I become cynical about our school education system? Strictly speaking, no. We may not be living in an alternative universe where we can actually put 'school education', as a person, into the witness box. Nevertheless, all around me, I see small changes in the air - people giving up their jobs to pursue full-time degrees in education, volunteering for educational initiatives etc. The other day I was speaking to a parent who was totally invested in her child's education. She was firmly convinced that she needed to distinguish between different types of critical reading skills before she attempted to teach her child reading comprehension. Such instances may be small signs, but significant nevertheless. They keep assuring me that while there are larger battles to be fought in a larger court, indeed there are smaller ones that can be won!

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Sting and the Slap

This is one incident which will never fade away from my memory...I was told about this by a friend of mine. This was her experience. She verbalised it and contextualised it. But I remained troubled by it. Many a time in the past couple of years, I had to prevent myself from writing about it. But somehow, the pain of the child and the mother felt very real to me. The best way I could deal with it was by writing about it. I often wondered however - what was preventing me from doing so? Is it because, we never acknowledge this? Do we choose to look the other way? Or, do we dress it up in words that dismiss the true significance of such things? A child running towards a kite was stopped by a famous person. He had felt slighted that the child had not responded to his hugs and wanted to 'discipline' him. My friend could not reach immediately because this was a family gathering. But before she realised, things had happened. Whatever, in the midst of an otherwise mundane day, with me achieving practically nothing of value, I found my release.

His tiny mind,
Only five and a half,
Had never felt ever,
A stinging slap.

So, he was surprised
For a split second,
Coz he hadn't seen
That slap coming.

His eyes started filling,
As one tear trickled down.
But the boy in him,
Stood his ground.

Fighting back the tears he
Searched as far as he could see.
Only to notice his mother
As stunned as he'd been.

He felt the slap,
She felt the sting,
How, he didn't know but
They were both crying.

He could feel himself,
Being picked up by his mother.
And heard an angry retort,
Being given to that famous doctor.

He had seen a kite
And wanted to see it fly,
So he'd been running
Towards the terrace all excited.

But this man so famous,
Had held him back,
Had wanted to hug him
To show him he was the boss.

He had resisted,
And wanted to break free.
But the man had felt insulted
And slapped him on his cheek.

Was it wrong to run,
Behind a kite, he wondered
Why wouldn't his aunt
Or his grandmother tell?

The man had indeed slapped.
But more devastating,
Was the silence of the people,
Continuing with their 'pretending'.

The mother held the child
And silently exited the place.
Suffering all the while
The hurt they had to face.

Almost two years hence
The child forgot the slap.
But the mother remembers
The sting of that hostile act.

That day she lost
Her trust in her family
That day she started
Distrusting everybody.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Of Bards more than one - An evening with Tagore and Gulzar

Recently, I read an article regarding research conducted on reading habits of people sent across by a well-meaning individual. The title of the article was pretty incidental I suppose: What you read matters more than what you might think. One observation that caught my fancy was the following statement: 'When volunteers read their favourite poems, areas of the brain associated with memory were stimulated more strongly than "reading areas," indicating that reading poems you love is the kind of recollection that evokes strong emotions - and strong emotions are always good for creative writing.'

Where do Tagore and Gulzar fit into all this?

I had always felt that poetry just...happens! Poetry is a single arresting thought, or a combination of thoughts, which searches for the apt words. I must admit that due to geographical and language-related factors, my knowledge of Tagore was mostly restricted to The Gitanjali and the short story The Cabuliwallah. Selections from his magnum opus and the quintessential story would always appear in English textbooks and supplementary readers and hence, I was 'too familiar' with them. However, every single time I went back to the story of the Cabuliwallah I had often wondered about the genius of a story-teller who could fill a simple narrative with such poignancy and emotion. I had often wondered, how he would have made Mini narrate this same story.

My knowledge of Gulzar was even more less. I faintly remembered that he had something to do with Bollywood cinema, and felt woefully ignorant. While waiting for the traffic jam to clear up, I quickly googled him, only to realise that the corpus of creative work done by this man beats anybody's imagination.

Listening to Gulzar only confirmed my assessment about poetry. He delved into his memories to recollect the incident that had led him towards an exploration of Tagore's works. And throughout the conversation during the book launch, his emphasis was on how Tagore was much more than the Nobel prize winning work, or the ubiquitous short story. Tagore was a poet who spoke to generations. And where better to find this Tagore, than in his poetry?

As I heard Gulzar reciting selections from Tagore's poetry, through the rhythm of sound, the depth of imagery and the precision of detailing, I felt myself being transported into very specific worlds quintessentially arrested in the stillness of time: the worlds of a bride who is being exhorted by her mother-in-law to answer the door and invite the 'guest', the child who brings alive a gripping tale of adventure and bravery, or a child who fancies himself to be a grown-up, like his Dada. . Yet, they were communicating a volume of meaning. They were almost like touchstones of human perceptions of everyday life.

While Tagore's achievement had been to arrest such moments and preserve them for an eternity, Gulzar's feat has been to render the translations in such a precise manner without sacrificing the rhythm for the meaning. His recitation managed to evoke pretty strong emotions; so much that I clapped with great gusto when Gulzar concluded a poem on a child's conversation with his mother with a sweet, ironic twist, suggesting that the child was aware about his make-believe world. 

For me, the greatest takeaway of the evening was the realisation that there is more to Tagore than The Gitanjali and his novels. And there is more to Gulzar than his movies. Further, I found myself nodding in agreement to his suggestion that Tagore's poems, especially those on children, have to be made accessible to children. These poems which foreground children and their narratives offer us precise but pertinent perspectives on how children think and imagine. A quick look at our current system (s) of education will show that the odds are stacked against the development of EQ (emotional quotient) as opposed to IQ. And where better to begin the process of change than with poetry. These are the readings that would trigger strong emotions and hence better creativity.

As Gulzar, in his sonorous voice transported us into lands and time far removed from the cold comfort of the air-conditioned hall that we were sitting in, I could not help but reflect that this was an evening well-spent with bards more than one!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Dear Ma'am, my twins haven't completed their Holiday Homework!

The following post is more of a funny take on the notion of Holiday Homework. It is a heady mix of fact and fiction, and hence, depends more on drama to laugh and ponder over something.

Dear Ma'am

Today, at 1 am, I woke up with a start. SR and SB have not finished their holiday homework, and their school reopens TODAY!  I am sure that you are going to judge them on the completion of their holiday homework, and hence, am 'petrified'! I am very sorry, but...please don't pull up my twins for my tardiness. The fault is all mine.

I tried my best. After all, which mother does not want to be acknowledged as a supermom by her child's class teacher? But, I was kind of taken aback by the two pages of work, which according to your estimate, could be completed in 30 days. This scared the *&;^% out of me and I lost all interest and excitement.  And, at this unearthly hour,  I am wondering whether that was a smart move. Because, ultimately, homework is the yardstick that you will use to measure my achievement as a mom, and my twins' achievement as learners.

You stated that 'summer is a time for taking a break from regular academics' and 'is the time to relax, unwind and have some fun'. However, you were concerned about a 'learning gap' that could possibly occur, and hence were so thoughtfully assigning this work. Pray ma'am, what 'learning gap' are we talking about when a child is entering 'grade 1'? Further, much of the HW that you had assigned was drawn from the textbooks and workbooks assigned for grade 1.

One thing became very obvious to me. You have very high expectations for SB and SR, and other kids like them. Let us see what those expectations are: 'learning an entire song in Hindi' (you have very thoughtfully linked up a youtube video which looked quite garish. SR was positively freaked out), writing the sources of water on an A4 sheet of paper (I couldn't see any reason why an entire A4 size sheet should be wasted for that, so, in an apparent act of 'deviation', I just showed them another garish video that you had linked. I didn't make them write. Incidentally, you have yourself pointed out to SR and SB on so many occasions that paper must not be wasted).

You had very thoughtfully told them to learn a song, poem and a story in their mother tongue. I am sorry, but my knowledge of singing is very limited. And as of now, SB and SR seem to be sharing a similar trait. But they do talk in their mother tongue, and can understand the language. If that was your intention in assigning this task, then by all means, they have achieved it.

On an earlier instance, you had insisted that children 'assimilate' a lot of 'vocab' and hence, they need to be exposed to all kinds of words. I tried reasoning with you, pointing out that expecting a UKG kid to spell and recognise the word 'embarrass' without even understanding the complexity of meaning and the phonetic structure is a tall order. In a single stroke, you just homogenised all kids and stated,  'Other kids are able to do it. Only SR and SB are not able to do it' suggesting in a sinister way that maybe, I was responsible.  With all humility I submit that, without your wise and educated interventions, it took me around 30 minutes to teach my sons the contrasting pronunciation between words like  'this' and 'thin' and then, sort such words into groups. At the end of which, both the parties concerned were equally frustrated. Maybe I don't know English. Or maybe,...I am not a good teacher.

One good thing that happened as a result was that I travelled back in time and recollected my own summer vacations while at primary school. It was a time that I had enjoyed and looked forward to. I made the decision that my sons would do the same.

Though you had not assigned any art and craft work, my twins painted one picture every possible day. I have collected them carefully. Would you like to see those pictures? (I am sure that you very 'thoughtfully' didn't assign such work because, you didn't want SR and SB to paint the walls of our house with their creative output. The damage is already done ma'am:-))

SR and SB learnt how to hold on to the tea filter securely (while an elder pours out the tea) which is actually a demonstration of their fine motor skills. Would you like to see that ma'am?

SR and SB learnt how to build a lego car. It took them three days, with the assistance of their nanny, to follow a manual and complete this task. You may say that it is mechanical and does not endow them with the halo of academic brilliance that you expect, but yes, they did group the lego pieces, interpreted the various steps of assembling from the manual, and finally built a car. I am sure that those skills also figure somewhere on the objectives listed out under Bloom's taxonomy.

My sons learnt and recalled the various landmarks in and around the place that we stay, and of course, learnt a few more things about passenger trains. This is because, we have to pass along a railway track every time we go out.  Do you want to ask them how to identify a Shatabdi, a Duronto, a passenger, a goods and a MMTS train? They will surprise you. (Why do I get a feeling that you won't ask? Incidentally, this can be classified under spatial intelligence.)

SR and SB learned to identify how different categories of groceries and products are arranged in a supermarket. They spelt out the words on the signboards and tried to help me locate the products that I wanted to buy.  (Of course, I had to give them their jellies and Cadbury Gems as a reward). I had the pleasure of watching them evolve into these 'angels' who helped me with everything that their tiny hands could carry.

During this vacation, SR learnt how to clean vegetables with a piece of clean cloth and sort them out into different environment friendly bags so that they can be stored in the refrigerator. SB learnt how to arrange his toys back into his cupboard so that the door closes completely.(This was a major issue earlier!)

SR understood that his grandmother was undergoing a surgical procedure for her eyes, while SB understood the importance of dental hygiene (especially after losing two teeth. The chap now brushes his teeth every night before going to sleep. Experience is indeed great teacher!)

The list goes on ma'am, but I get the feeling that I have lost you somewhere in the first couple of paragraphs

I am not sorry that you will not read this. I am not sorry that you will not see the value of 'experiential learning'. I am not sorry that you will still insist on the power of the written word, the spoken story and the song that is sung.

I am only sorry that in your enthusiasm to avoid a 'learning gap' during the summer vacation, you will judge my sons by their ability to complete the tasks that you have assigned. I am sorry that you will not see what they have actually 'learned'. And,...they are going to be with you for this entire academic year, and hence, I am scared.

I'm afraid my twins haven't completed their holiday homework. I assure you ma'am, the fault is entirely mine!

Your truly
An anxious mother

Saturday, June 11, 2016

A Blast from the Past! A Magical Pair of Glasses

A dear soul had sent these birthday wishes 6 years ago, one of the most thoughtful and well-written lines. I often wonder how long it took to write these words. And every day that I read them, it is a new day, with a new pair of glasses (or lenses???)

Over a period of time, the colour of the glasses may have changed (as yours truly graduated from a frustrated research scholar into a academic and a mother), but the words have not lost their meaning. So, here we go, I post them once again:

A Birthday wish

As you add yet another year of experience
To your quiver called LIFE,
I wish for you a new pair of glasses -
A magical pair - that lets you see
The world a bit differently -

Where troubles look like opportunities
And problems are challenges!
Where while accounting for mounting liabilities
You realize that your assets balance them off.
For after all - accounting is all about Balancing, na?

Where while projecting the anguish of characters
From the novels you read, on to your own life,
You realize that you are scripting your own novel,
To be read by others and all of life is just a drama.
And the more you laugh at your own novel, the more you enjoy it.

Have a nice day and a wonderful year ahead

PS: I added another year this year... and can only sigh at all those ebooks that I downloaded, hoping to read sometime, and all those novels and plays gathering dust on my bookshelf, which I had hoped to reread sometime.  

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Flight!

While I was at college, one day it was my turn to give a talk at the morning assembly. A twenty minute talk. I was totally out of ideas when one of my professors gave me this book...Jonathan Livingston Seagull.  The whole night I sat in the second floor quadrangle and read this book. At the end of which, I felt as light as a bird soaring in the sky. I had the material for my talk.

With my first salary, this was the first book that I had purchased. Since then, I have gifted it away. The book continues to inspire me and these lines today are also inspired by the same!

"Patience, but for how long?"
Asked the soul in ignorance.
To which the almighty
Smiled with compassion.

"Trust me", He said,
And gave the wings
To fly high and far away
with the accompanying winds.

The soul then forgot,
The pangs of separation and guilt,
As it embarked on a flight
That would have no limits.

Surviving Through Another Day

This poem was actually written when I had first entered a Grade 1 right after my MA to teach. Imagine the changed environment. For a minute I was left totally clueless. These thoughts arose in my mind at that time and at a much removed moment were crystallised into the form of a poem [prosaic poem if it may be termed!]

I saw silently
As my self tore in pain
It went, flying away,
Never to return again.
Couldn't help but remain numb
And watch with a smile,
As my silent eyes' protests
Remained forever futile.
The self that stayed
Took the burden and reins
Coz it was damned forever
To be cold and vain.
So I survive
Another day
Seeing a part of myself go
And a part of myself stay.