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Classroom diaries: The end of two years of Fellowship

Change is never easy. You fight to hold on. You fight to let go. ~ The Wonder Years

A month has passed since I graduated from my two year fellowship with Teach For India. It’s been a relaxing time after two action-packed years of hard-work, toil, and persistence. It suddenly hit me today that I’m completely out of the lives of the children who were essentially the center of my world for the past two years. Of all the decisions I’ve made till date, I’m most glad for having made this one. It’s an experience I’ll cherish forever and look back on with love and fondness.

As a way to mark the end of two years, I created a video for my students capturing each one of them, along with some of the quirky and fun moments that we had together. They were really excited to watch it! One of my students, Mahesh, refused to go along with the others for the video screening. When I questioned him about it, he answered in impeccable English, ” I know everyone will start crying when you go, I don’t want to cry, so I’m not going to watch any video.” I felt a strange mix of shock and sadness and just let him stay in class. The video screening was followed by felicitating each student with an end of year certificate, a goodie bag, and a personalized letter. After giving each one a hug, I parted with them. Contrary to Mahesh’s prophesy, only a few students cried. The ones who did, urged me to stay on and teach them for another year. One of the good things about kids is that they accept change a lot more easily than adults do. I’m sure mine will too.

Below is the video I created:

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Posted by on May 14, 2013 in Teach for India

 

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Classroom diaries: Pratham Books Champion!!

Reading

Books to the ceiling, books to the sky,
My pile of books is a mile high. How I love them!
How I need them! I’ll have a long beard by the time I read them – Andrew Lobel

The joy of reading is possibly one of the simplest yet greatest joys of life! Having taught for nearly a year and a half in a low income school in Mumbai, I’m well acquainted with the process of storytelling to young students with varying academic needs. When I first heard about the Pratham Book’s initiative to conduct storytelling sessions across the country, on the occasion of International Literacy Day, I found the idea very novel and appealing. What Pratham was looking for was a dedicated team of champions, with commitment and a deep love for children and books, to scale and execute the idea. Once I wrote to Pratham about my interest in being a champion, the team was extremely supportive and promptly dispatched a Pratham Flex Banner and a set of relevant books with simple and engaging stories.

On September 8, 2012, I read the book Susheel’s kolams to my students. The story had beautiful illustrations and a very relatable Indian context. As I teach a primary grade, my students have very low attention spans ranging anywhere from 3 – 7 minutes. I started out by getting them all excited about the story and pulling them all in front of the class, closer to me, for better management and to be able to show them the illustrations. I introduced some key vocabulary words and explained the meaning of words such as kolam, pongal etc. to them. As I read the story to my students, they were completely captivated by the illustrations and words, and stopped me every now and then to share text-to-self connections.

After finishing the story, I asked if anyone wanted to share their connections in writing and gave post-it notes to the ones eager to share. I then gave all the students A4 size sheets and crayons, modeled drawing a kolam on the board by joining dots, and then asked them to get creative and draw away!

As the students started to draw, I happily went about clicking them at work. Some got really creative; a few simply copied my design, while still others doodled away sweet nothings. The early finishers asked me for the book and sat reading in a group, devouring the pages. The event was a huge success as was evident from the gleam in the children’s eyes and their beautiful art work. I hope to continue being a Pratham book’s champion and to spread the joy of reading!

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Pratham books

 

Pratham Books was set up in 2004, as part of the Read India movement,   a nation-wide campaign to promote reading among children. Pratham Books is a not-for-profit organization that publishes affordable and quality books for children in multiple Indian languages. Their mission is to see “a book in every child’s hand” and democratize the joy of reading. To find out more about Pratham Books’ Champions, please click here.

 
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Posted by on December 23, 2012 in Teach for India

 

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Classroom diaries: Letters to the little people

Pen and Paper

 Letters are among the most significant memorial a person can leave behind them.  ~ Goethe, Johann Wolfgang Von

I’ve always found letters magical! They empower one to write down feelings and observations using emotional syntax far more powerful and intimate than speech. As a child, I looked forward to letters that my father wrote back home as they were keepsakes and gave me a supreme sense of joy. The birthday greeting cards in school and then at college were even more special as they carried an exclusive message for me and I loved the simple yet heart-tugging signature at the end.“ Lots of love, Papa

I am a hoarder of letters and cards and have preserved even my first love letter from grade nine to this day. Over the past year and a half, after getting tired of the constant tattling from my students about the most trivial things, I struck upon an idea. I told them that they were not allowed to disturb me while I taught the class and if there was something they wanted to say to me, they could write it down in a letter and give it to me once the class was over. What followed was an overwhelming flurry of letters! As I write this, I have letters from my students tucked away all around my room: in the notebooks, textbooks, under my bed, inside my bag pockets, and in the drawers. Through the letters, most of them address the need for a change of place as they’re not pleased with their current bench mates, few have concerns about someone not talking to them, some urge me to take them for special outings that I plan every now and then, while still others just make silly doodles and write a line telling me that they love power rangers or Ben 10 or the like.

I realized that while my kids were writing so many letters to me, I was barely using the medium I had empowered them with. So, I decided to make a conscious attempt to write personal letters to my kids praising them for doing some exceptional things while giving suggestions for them to improve where I felt they needed it the most. This enabled me to personalize the message while ensuring the child was not reprimanded in front of peers or felt belittled in any way. I plan to write letters to all of my kids, four letters at a time!

Here are the first four letters I wrote:

Harsh Keer

Harsh Keer

Harsh: A child who shows initiative in everything, excels in studies, and loves phonics. The Magic E is a tidy rule to help young learners differentiate between the long and short vowel sounds and spell and read words with two vowels, the second vowel always being an E, correctly. Harsh is so enamored by the rule, he’s constantly finding new magic E words and jotting them down in his notebook.

Letter to Harsh

Letter to Harsh

Akash

Akash Sahu

Akash: He is the ever-vigilant tiffin monitor of the class! His duty is to ensure that every one eats healthy food during recess . I taught the class a chapter on constituents of food a month back, and he dutifully comes and reports to me the defaulters every day. Chips, kurkure, maggie are not allowed and anyone bringing them is asked to explain ‘why’ and given a warning with a call home from me that evening. Akash is also one of the naughtiest in class and is constantly getting into trouble of some sort.

Letter to Akash

Letter to Akash

Yash Kamath

Yash Kamath

Yash: An extremely obedient and bright boy! He loves to use his “schema” ( life experiences and everything inside our heads) to make drawings and asks some very intelligent questions. He is smart and competitive, but extremely impatient with others.After noticing that he sometimes smirks when others aren’t able to answer questions in class, I decided to address it through my letter. He promptly replied the very next day.

Letter to Yash

Letter from Yash

Letter from Yash

Sareena Singh

Sareena Singh

Sareena: A very affectionate child and a great artist! She is also extremely aggressive and a master tantrum thrower. At any given time, Sareena is either troubled by someone or troubling someone else :). She writes many letters to me, most of them stating that everyone but she is at fault! After I wrote to her, I actually saw a drop in the number of fights involving Sareena.

Letter to Sareena

Letter to Sareena

I’m really excited about writing letters to all of my students. Not only does it make them feel special, it also makes me reflect on each child and appreciate each one personally for his/her unique traits!

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2012 in Teach for India

 

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Classroom diaries: Oh! The places you’ll Go!

 

Oh! The places you’ll go

The first time I heard Oh! the places you’ll go was at the Teach for India induction in July 2011 by our CEO, Shaheen Mistri. I absolutely loved the poem for its wisdom,rhyme scheme, and imaginative art work.  It has a simple yet profound message about celebrating one’s potential to realize the wildest of dreams while being fully aware of the pitfalls and bumps along the journey of life.

September 14th, 2012 was a day that saw my students going off to a great place! My entire class got an opportunity to go on a day long trip to the UBS facility in Bandra west, Mumbai. UBS is a global bank that combines its wealth management, investment banking, and asset management business to deliver superior financial solutions to its clients. UBS is a CSR partner for Teach for India and is sponsoring me along with another Teach for India fellow for the financial year 2012-13. The field trip for a Teach for India classroom was a wonderful initiative by UBS to expose the children to a world beyond their homes and communities, and to aid their holistic development. For me, it was an opportunity to showcase the impact I’ve made on the students over the past one and a half year, and to inspire a sense of wonder, adventure, and possibility among my students about the power of their dreams.

All of my 37 super awesome, hyper-active, and adorably affectionate, 8-year olds were wildly excited when I first told them about the trip. However, there were pains and hurdles I had to overcome in order to make the trip happen. I teach in a low income private school run by a board of six trustees. Barring a single trustee, the others were completely against any such trip sighting a bias for certain classrooms and suggesting that the only way it would be possible was if the entire school was invited. I politely explained to them that it was logistically impossible to arrange such a trip and had multiple meetings with them to explain that there were a lot of upcoming initiatives for the entire school wherein all classrooms would have an opportunity to participate, but to no avail. I felt frustrated, stressed, and helpless in being unable to alter their decision and had to finally seek counsel and help from the Teach for India development team. With their intervention and help, the trustees finally gave in and allowed the field trip for my class.

As I mentioned earlier, the students were ecstatic and their excitement only spiked exponentially as the day approached. On the day of the trip, we hopped onto a bus and arrived at the Maker Maxity premises of UBS Bank in Bandra Kurla complex to be greeted by beaming UBS employees at the entrance. From then on, the kids had a rollicking time! They were completely awed by a certain fly bus on the walk to the UBS office, the office building, and even the bathrooms. They loved the air-conditioning at first but started feeling cold soon enough. As they all sat huddled around tables in the cafeteria, there was utter pandemonium due to a mix of shock, awe, and excitement. I had to intervene in order to make the class quiet. The children interacted with many of the UBS volunteers while eating food and making Diwali cards. It was a proud moment for me when Anusha Bhagat, Chief operating officer at UBS’s India office, told me how confidently my students spoke to her in English. She pointed out that some students even stopped her from speaking in Hindi clearly asserting that it is a class rule to speak in English. My heart simply welled up with happiness and pride.

The kids had a short tour of the UBS premises followed by a screening of the movie Madagascar in the conference room. What particularly caught the kids’ fancy were the swivel chairs and the catchy song “Hill Hill ke nacho nacho” from the movie. After the movie, the children ate cake and finally said their goodbyes to the UBS team. It was a power-packed day for all involved!

The next day, I asked my students to share their experience in writing and here’s what some had to say:

Below is a slideshow of the time spent at UBS:

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I’m really grateful and appreciative of UBS Bank for inviting my class and to Teach for India for providing me with the opportunity to expose my students to such an amazing platform.

Finally, I’d like to end this post by sharing the song that is the new rage in my classroom. The song’s appeal surpasses age and gender and it just makes one want to sing along and groove to its beats! Hill hill ke nacho nacho, hill hill ke nacho!! 🙂

 
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Posted by on September 30, 2012 in Teach for India

 

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Classroom diaries: Teach like Dr. Radhakrishnan!

While growing up, teacher’s day was mostly uneventful except for the day long break from studies. I sparingly bought or made cards for teachers, as I rarely had favorites. Part of the reason could be an armed forces background that had us moving every two years, and never provided me enough time to bond with a single teacher. It’s also equally plausible that good teachers really are a rare find. The few times I did indulge in the ritual, my message would be nothing more than a neat cursive scrawl, simply wishing the teacher, sans any flattery.  Some of my classmates used the day to give cute cards and gifts and in turn won happy smiles and an esteemed  position of a monitor soon enough. Despite my sporadic interest in this wildly popular day, I never failed to enjoy the rare visual treat it entailed. To watch all the teachers dressed up as kids in skirts, blouses, pigtails et al. was indeed a pleasure to behold! They looked charmingly cute even if somewhat outlandish in their new avatars.

This teacher’s day, I was at the receiving end of some hand crafted cards, letters, and exactly two red roses from a few of my students. I’m amazed and humbled by all the affection they shower on me even when I’m overly strict with them some times. The cards and messages were adorable, silly, and some very creative. A day before teacher’s day I had told the class about Dr. Radhakrishnan and the reason for celebrating the day. One child wrote in her card “Didi, you teach like Dr. Radhakrishnan. So didi teach the same when you go to some other classes.” It’s flattery at it’s best but definitely got me beaming like a Cheshire cat! 🙂

I now realize that flattery is under rated.

Sharing pictures of the awesome cards and messages here.

 

 
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Posted by on September 29, 2012 in Teach for India

 

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Are teachers the most impactful variables on student learning?

Image

“Teaching is your art. You have set yourself to music. Your class is your sonnet.”

The above is a slight alteration to an Oscar Wilde quote about self-expression. In its current form it blends beautifully with my current profession. Teach for India put me in a classroom exactly one year ago and it’s safe to say that the pandemonium in the classroom is the most I’ve heard of any music in the past one year.

Nearly two months ago, I had the opportunity to attend a Leadership forum in Mumbai by Craig Johnson, the dean of American School of Bombay (ASB). For all those who know little or nothing about ASB, it’s a privileged school for the children of American expatriates. Just before his forum was to commence, the unanimous sentiment around the room was of exhaustion and boredom from a day long End-of-year summit. We were honestly not prepared for what was to come. Craig Johnson is a real powerhouse and he completely transformed the energy in the room. I think it’s safe to say that the stuff in motivational books about how we can affect the people around us simply through our psychology and physiology really holds substantial ground.

He spoke about “Leadership in teaching” and declared that the most impactful variables on student learning anywhere in the world are teachers. He spoke a lot about the research done by Robert Marzano, an acclaimed researcher in education, on teaching and instructing. According to Marzano’s research, a teacher who is categorized as “most effective” or at nearly the 98th percentile in terms of his or her pedagogical skill will produce student achievement that is 54 percentile points higher than the achievement produced by a teacher who is categorized as “least effective” or at the 2nd percentile in terms of pedagogical skill. Craig Johnson also reflected that according to Marzano’s research, an effective teacher is at par with a less effective one with six times as many resources at his/her disposal. What it effectively means is that if I as an instructor am more effective than a teacher at ASB, I could drive my students to achieve at the same level as a class of ASB students, despite ASB’s wealth of resources and infrastructure.

I found the last claim particularly disconcerting. Access to a variety of educational resources are a big differentiator in students learning and understanding across schools worldwide. Can plain intervention by an effective teacher really compensate for all of that?  I do believe that teachers can make a huge impact but competing with six times as many resources seems a bit far-fetched. One factor contributing to the result could be the fact that the research was done in the US and so may not pan out the same way in an Indian setting. Even the poorest of US schools have access to resources such as LCD projectors, computers, and printers etc. to supplement pedagogy versus low income Indian schools that not only have a deplorable infrastructure, and instruction that is purely theoretical, but also student: teacher ratios ranging anywhere from 40:1 to 120:1. The Indian Right to Education Act 2009 calls for a fixed student-teacher ratio of 30:1 but that’s only a number in theory in majority of low income schools and far from being actualized. Also, in the US there are more stringent measures to recruit teachers, better remuneration, computer literacy skills, better monitoring processes to hold teachers accountable to certain minimum standards, and once employed some level of trainings for professional skills enrichment.

Having taught for a year now in a low income private school in Mumbai, I do agree that a teacher is the most impactful variable especially for students coming from low income backgrounds. Unlike more affluent families, such students mostly have illiterate or semi-literate parents who are not equipped to support their child’s education at home and are too busy through the day trying to make ends meet. The teacher is their only support system outside of home. Barring three of four exceptions, I have seen a marked change in confidence levels, math, oral and written skills of my students. Students in some of the higher as well as lower grades than mine in the same school struggle with communicating and answering basic english and math questions. The teachers most often read a text, write questions and answers on the board, and simply have students copy them down without bothering to check for understanding. These teachers probably lack the pedagogical skills, have low levels of motivation, and mostly know no better than hitting and humiliating any child who fails to follow instruction. Tackling with ineffective teachers is a complex issue across the world and I’m not sure one that has an easy solution. A complete revamp of teacher recruitment, more stringent selection measures, better remuneration, monitoring and support, and training programs are the most plausible solutions in theory but are colossally tedious to implement in a county the size of ours.

I’m probably far from being the effective teacher that Marzano’s research talks about. But I do know that I’ve worked hard and have struggled immensely over the past year to support my students to the best of my ability. I’m proud of the changes I’ve seen in my students and hope that by the end of my fellowship am able to leave them with skills that they can hone on through the coming years.

 
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Posted by on July 15, 2012 in Teach for India

 

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Classroom diaries: Fancy dress at school

Dressing up always gets kids excited! Every time a school circular comes along for the kids to come in coloured attire, my class goes into a tizzy. And on the said day they prance around me showing themselves off. I love to join in their frolicking by complimenting them, giving high-fives and shrieks of joy! Basically I’m at my animated best. The coloured dress days are a real treat for the eyes :). So, it didn’t come as a surprise when the kids excitement levels shot to an all time high at the sound of the school’s annual fancy dress competition. However, many kids did not turn up on the final day due to parents’ day jobs or probably their reluctance in dressing the kids up. The turn-out was a lot lower than I had expected but fancy dress is a great time to see kids in wonderfully amusing avatars. The characters the kids dressed up as included teacher, a princess, bhaji-wali (vegetable woman), shakuntala, idli-wala, sub-inspector chulbul Pandey from Dabangg, Inspector Daya from CID, Lokmanya tilak, Jhansi Ki Rani, and two doctors. All kids looked adorable and it was wonderful to see the parents efforts in going the whole hog in getting them ready with make-up, props et al. I wrote short note speeches for a few kids but most succumbed to stage fright and only managed brief introductions with their names and the character they represented. Here are some of the pictures:

Akash - The Idli-wala


Akash won the first prize for his impeccable presentation of an idli-wala. Dressed in a floral shirt and a lungi, he carried the idli vessel on his head, and offered the audience bona-fide idlis with chutney and sambhar and blew the bright red-horn on popular demand. Akash is the biggest attention seeker in class and is always upto some prank.


Sujit - Inspector Chulbul Pandey from Dabangg

Sujit a.k.a Inspector Chulbul Pandey from Dabangg did a fabulous job of getting into his character’s skin. He wore dark goggles and wowed the audience with the entire “Hudd, Dabangg Dabangg Dabangg” routine. He then sang a line from the patriotic song ” Dil diya hai, jaan bhi…” . This kid loves karate! His confidence has shot up several notches from the time I first met him in class. Always distracted and not very bright in studies, I mostly threaten to do karate on him if he doesn’t listen to me. That gets him beaming and attentive instantly. Score! 🙂

Lokmanya Tilak and Rani of Jhansi

Shantanu won the third prize for his portrayal of Lokmanya Tilak. He’s happily huddled with the Rani of Jhansi in the snap above. The Rani ironically is a raja, a boy named Yash, whose Mom cross dressed him. Yash is a jumpy soul and given a chance, is always on the run, but playing the Rani of Jhansi had a calming effect on his nerves.

Yash - Rani of Jhansi

Smiti (Cinderalla) and Tanisha ( teacher )


All the girls were dolled up and looked really cute. I loved Smiti as Cinderalla though I’m yet to tell the Cinderella story in class. Smiti and Tanisha are in sharp contrast in terms of their academic levels. While Smiti needs special care and attention, Tanisha is the perfect pupil any teacher can wish for.

Other kids:

My pretty girls(From L to R): Piya (doctor), Pradnya(princess), Priyanka (doctor), Rakhi ( Madrasi lady)

                                      

Yuga as Shakuntala

Chirag (from the other section) dressed as a giraffe

As a kid I took part in a fancy dress competition only once. I went dressed in a frilly frock as a Spanish dancer and just waved my hands around in a random la,la,la dance routine. As an adult witnessing my first fancy dress at school, I now realize what it takes to win one! 🙂
 
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Posted by on December 16, 2011 in Teach for India

 

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