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

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