Monday, August 21, 2017

The culture of our school

What should the culture of our school be like?

I wish first of all that they did not have to wear these grey and white uniforms. The good thing is that even our girls all wear pants.

I wish the school building did not have to have hard corners and straight walls and just look so chunky. The good thing is that there are so many trees. It is always beautifully shaded, many trees are in bloom and often spread bright flowers around on the ground. Whichever direction you look there is a haze of branches and leaves.

I wish that as soon as you entered you saw groups of children preoccupied with painting, clay and mud, gardening, playing sports, singing and so on. Certainly not sitting in straight rows or even at rounds of tables in bare-looking classrooms. In all fairness our teachers do a lot of “activities” and “projects.” The school is full of music and games. But we could have so much more and also many more specialised teachers.

I wish there was a softness to everyone’s behaviour, a genuine smile as they greeted each other, a palpable pleasure that all were together, working and playing and full of joy in life itself.

I wish that any child in the school could be asked to show a visitor around the school, because any child chosen at random would feel that the school was a family that she belonged to and that belonged to her.

I wish that if I was a visitor I would get a real surprise at cormers. Maybe someone has hung up something really interesting on a wall. Maybe a group is rehearsing an unimagined text. Maybe some children are conferring to put together a secret something. I don’t know.

I would like a lot of science on the school campus. All around—solar power and wind power and water power being harnessed in ambitious—but modest—ways and being used. Seeds being nursed and plants being protected as they grew. Everything labelled. Maybe on one side an excavation site. On another an outdoor exhibit. Somewhere an indoor one—maybe a Maths model. A machine. A tunnel. A bridge. A garden. Locking systems. Communication systems.

I imagine children walking around hand in had, in groups, in twos, excited and chattering, also quiet and thoughtful, sitting on rocks and steps, under trees and facing the river, talking and gesturing, maybe munching, laughing….When they see an adult, they do not change anything about their voice and behaviour, and the adult, if she likes, can join them.

We always wanted children to mix with each other, across sizes and ages and sexes and every other difference.That's at the heart of the culture.

The school should be a little world for them.Their own world.

We need to find so many people who love children, learning, adventure, discovery and life to come and work in our school!

- Nita Kumar, Director

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Today's Teachers' Workshop

Every Saturday we spend an hour and a half to two discussing teaching strategies. This past month I planned that we talk about one different strategy each time.

Today’s task was: Textbook Comprehension. The strategies we needed to use were: lecture, discussion, notes, and questions and answers. I conducted the workshop. I explained that when teaching in an English medium school like ours, we had to be crystal clear about the fact that a big challenge was the difficulty of the prose. English prose was what all the subjects except Maths and Hindi were in. Children’s intelligence simply could not be measured by their ability to master this prose—you could be quite intelligent and not get many of the turns of language in the textbooks.Our textbooks could be fine, even nice, in other respects, but their language was absolutely not child-appropriate. Not Indian child-appropriate.

I enacted a History teacher in Class VIII as well as conducting the Workshop as facilitator. In their notebook they made two parts. In one they wrote their notes as if  Class VIII students in my History class. In the other they wrote the teaching techniques and points I was demonstrating.

The topic was “Women in the Nationalist Movement.” The text was a chapter from Geraldine Forbes’ Women in Modern India. I photocopied it and divided the students into groups of two with one copy each to share.

We began by discussing what the “Indian Nationalist Movement” was. People gave their different ideas. They named important nationalist leaders. An argument ensued whether Bhim Rao Ambedkar should be in that list. We took a vote and had 4:5 in favour with the rest undecided.

I then told them that a number of definitions of the “Indian Nationalist Movement” were possible but that they must all have the words, “British/British colonial”; “fight/struggle”; and “Independence/freedom.” They wrote down a definition for themselves with these building blocks.

Except for two Social Studies teachers, two Hindi teachers and two Bengali teachers, no one remembered—after seventy plus years, after all—that we had been under the British and had fought for our freedom, even though 15th August was just over and children’s speeches had resounded with this memory.

I then asked them to read the first two pages quetly in their groups. As they read I went around to help them with difficult words and phrases. After that I asked them to phrase some questions.

It’s quite a feat, believe me, for people struggling with a language to actually comprehend a prose passage enough to know what is a proper question and then what is the correct answer for any idea within that passage.  At the same time, there is a trick to questions and answers and with practice you get better and better. We rehearsed together many good questions, and bad questions. Then we went into okay answers, good answers, not good answers, unnecessary answers, and impossible answers. One can do all this with children as well.

On the board I wrote down the following important teaching tools:

1. Always begin each topic interactively, with oral discussion, informal questions, argument and debate, something else like taking a vote—as we had done.

2. Then give a lecture on the subject, or some introductory part of it, and the first definitions they need to know. They should take notes. We had done this and taken a short cut at the end in the interest of time.

3. Let the read the text silently. Do not do “read aloud” reading, going around the class, such as is done so frequently in Indian classrooms. It is a waste of time because no one can pay attention, everyone is bored and the aim of the exercise is not clear. With silent reading, the teacher can circulate and help out with difficult words or concepts. I did this and was asked something by each group.

4. In classes from VI upwards, the teacher can give out a simple summary of the topic. In simple sentences, that is, subject verb object. This will ensure that the bare facts are clear enough.

5. Discuss possible questions and how a question can be framed. Did someone do something? What did they do? When and where did they do it? Why did they do it, or why do you think, or does the author think, they did it?  Was it x, or was it y? We had a very productive time (I thought) going over possible questions and answers.

I emphasized at the end what we were learning and what we were not. Today's teaching was not about a dozen possible techniques, including projects, creative writing and performance. It was only about textbook comprehension. The q&a approach we were discussing was simply how to understand the text well enough to understand questions on it and form answers from within the text.

This was a useful distinction. In a school like ours, chock-full of the arts and creative ventures, it is easy for teachers to make the mistake of not teaching enough reading, writing, comprehension, spelling, maths, etc.    

Productive--but everything will have to be done many times over again.

- Nita Kumar, Director

Friday, August 18, 2017

A Day in the Director's Life with the Littlest

The Pre-School group was so lovely. They stood in a circle and did the rhymes as I led them. They were eager to learn anything: words, tunes, rhythms, standing instructions. Only one little girl, Arya, looked exhausted and complained at regular intervals of wanting to sit down. She stopped doing anything.

There are also three or four little boys and girls who are from illiterate or semi-educated families and never hear a word of English in their background. They are convinced deep down in their minds or psyches that they cannot understand whatever it is that ma’am is saying in English. They repeat words mechanically without a glimmer of understanding in their eyes. Worse, without a hint of a smile on their faces. It was only when I said “Jump up HIGH!” in one verse that these children laughed.

When I went to Class 1-2, I could give more special attention to these three or four children who had convinced themselves that they “could not understand.” By matter-of-factly correcting their work, pointing out one mistake at a time while praising them for everything they were doing well, giving them precise homework exactly where they needed it. The matter-of-factness is the key. They must not guess, from the smallest tone of voice or gesture or raising of eyebrow, that they are not “normal,”

And actually the privileged middle class children are not "normal." S--- of wonderful middle class parents, could not write or understand, but went on comfortably asking what and how, in childish Hindi.

I am on the verge of a discovery. Most teachers will not be able to be kind enough to poor children. They will keep resenting them in their minds for daring to be equal to the rich. They will keep blaming them for their shortcomings and being sarcastic in their presence and showing helplessness behind their backs.

The only way is to shame them and break their entrenched prejudices through theatre exercises. Only then will our teachers change in a deep ideological way.

At the same time, I can keep giving research projects and homework and having discussions and quizzes about the postcolonial aspect of our work so that everyone grows intellectually.

And, of course, we can design the curriculum and the classroom and its processes with subtle egalitarianism. Everyone does not have to understand everything; they just have to do it.

- Nita Kumar, Director

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Parents’ Workshops at NIRMAN

            Parenting is obviously as old as creation. In todays volatile India, however, there are new family tensions and parental worries. These concern language use, including body language, discipline at home, socialisation into ethics and morals, interaction with school, the nitty-gritty of consumption, including of internet and TVand much else.

            In village India, and in the smaller cities of India among the lower middle classes and working classes, there is a problem. Older networks and support systems are weakened and destroyed. New techniques to teach parenting are slow to replace them. Our research with families reveals a huge lacuna. Parents are more and more concerned that they are not in controland they are not.

            The Centre for Postcolonial Education at NIRMAN is working on precisely this problem. After years of ongoing research with families in the city and village, we have launched a bi-monthly workshop series free and open to all. We use images, objects, interaction and the arts to discuss the following topics and more:

Nutrition for the child             Books and reading                  Phone and internet                  Discipline                                Storytelling                             Games and Play
Academics                              Everyday life in the house      The world

            On July 22, we had the first workshop, on The Mind of the Child. About fifty parents attended, listened, interacted and were very interested. The next one is on Aug 12, and the one after that on Aug 26, on, respectively Academics for 2-10 year olds and What should my Child be Eating?” 

             Please attend and share with any interested parents and individuals!