Dispatches from Delhi: Report 7

For my first week at New Era Public School, I have divided my time between assisting and supervising special/remedial education classes and shadowing teachers of different subject areas in 11th and 12th grades. I have to say, I have learned quite a lot about India’s education system through my time in both these tasks. Regarding the latter, it is kind of the same as American high school­­—cocky kids, semi-interesting subject matter taught in monotony, and overwhelming adolescent disrespect reluctantly bending to authority for 45 minutes per class.

Nevertheless, the former is where I was able to see kids in the Indian education system up close and personal and at very impressionable ages. I spent every day from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. with groups of kids ranging from 2nd to 8th grade, some with learning disabilities (dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, autism, etc.) and others with behavioral issues that interfere with their studies. I learned the process for getting a student extra help through placement. These special education courses start with the child’s teachers’ or parents’ recommendation for remedial education followed by a comprehensive assessment administered by an educational psychologist on the special education staff. If the assessment determines that the child in question requires special education, then several provisions may be available that can lighten the child’s class load to a more manageable size. For example, a child who fairs poorly in mathematics and science can switch these classes for computers and art. In addition, the Central Board for Secondary Education (CBSE), which administers all important examinations for high school students as well as undergraduate students, makes provisions for children with learning disabilities during examinations by providing them extra time for the tests and tests their knowledge of computers and art rather than mathematics and science.

However, despite the school’s acknowledgment that those with behavioral issues require equal (sometimes greater) remedial work, a child diagnosed with behavioral issues but not an actual learning disability is exempt from provisions set in place by the CBSE. Moreover, with most of the children with whom I have interacted so far, the biggest issue seems to be a behavioral issue contributing to learning difficulties rather than outright disabilities, especially since many of the children are of average intelligence but lack the environmental factors to facilitate proper learning.

Vivek

Take Vivek as an example. He is a seventh grader whose assessment notes that he is of average intelligence. His teachers have described him as troublesome, hyperactive, and overall a difficult child to work with inside the classroom. Nevertheless, after speaking to him for about an hour, I could not confirm any of those judgments. I expected standoffish, rude, and disobedient. Instead, I got quiet, studious, and inquisitive. The discrepancy surprised me, so I spoke with one of his teachers, and I learned that what should be manageable difficulties for Vivek to work through in school are only further compounded by the harshness of his family life. His father, an auto-rickshaw driver, died when the boy was very young and both his mother and his grandmother are illiterate. Furthermore, they have very little means of financial support for the four of them (Vivek has a younger brother). As a result, Vivek has trouble in nearly every subject area, especially regarding his English reading, writing, and comprehension skills. Since Vivek belongs to what the school formerly calls an EWS (economically weaker section), his family is exempt from having to pay school fees and he receives as remedial work as his other subject teachers will allow during the school day. However, despite all of his teachers’ care and concern for Vivek’s wellbeing, he ceases to be their responsibility when he leaves the walls of the school. It is not that they do not care, but in a country with a total population this large, it is not surprising to imagine that they have plenty of other children to attend to just within the confines of the school grounds. Luckily, New Era is doing its very best to keep kids like Vivek from slipping through the cracks by switching classes, mandating remedial work-time, providing extra work, and exempting from fees whenever possible. My concern is with what else can be done with such limited means in a system this large and underserved.

Whatever the answer, like the teachers and staff at the school, I am just glad I can help kids like Vivek with their homework and morale. Baby steps.

Dispatches from Delhi: Report 6

Tomorrow I will be starting my first day of actual work at New Era Public School. I will be shadowing and assisting teachers in different subject areas for the next week, after which I will be assigned a subject area to teach. When I first learned I was to be spending my summer here, the whole idea of teaching seemed incomprehensible to me. Despite being a good student for the better part of my life, I wasn’t able to place myself in that mindset of authority at the front of the classroom. Learning comes easy to me, but teaching? That’s a whole different set of skills altogether.

However, this past week of teacher workshops was a highly engaging and informative experience because I learned something very important from those running the workshops: differentiation is key. Kids are different and have different strengths in different areas of intelligence, and therefore teachers must be steadfast in their ability to be as flexible as possible with their methodologies to effectively teach the curriculum to a wide variety of students.

But with all I’ve learned this week, I’ve also realized that teaching is in not a simple task to accomplish, especially not in the typical Indian classroom. I know this because at one of the final stages of the workshops, teachers are grouped by their subject areas and asked to discuss the application of differential learning techniques in the classroom.

In my group, the subject happened to be English, and the two teachers with whom I was grouped discussed the positive aspects of differentiating classroom teaching. One teacher taught grades K-5 and the other taught grades 6-9, so as I expected, each came up with different techniques to teach their children. However, as I asked them questions about the specifics of their classes, I realized that such diversity in the classroom, though undoubtedly helpful, is nowhere near ideal in a realistic setting. First, both of these teachers teach six separate classes of 45-50 children per day. That’s 300 different students with 300 different sets of strengths and needs that must be adequately addressed by each teacher each day. By my count, my own high school’s teachers taught about four classes of 25-30 children per day, which is 30 kids less than HALF of what the average Indian teacher has to deal with daily. These numbers take on even larger scope when put in terms regarding the subject of English that, despite the school’s recognition of the global utility of the English language in today’s world, exists in an overwhelming majority of Indian households as a third language, preceded in usage by Hindi and a secondary dialect like Punjabi or Gujarati. Therefore, retention of grammatical rules is usually so low that from kindergarten to the beginning of the 9th grade, most students spend the first few weeks of school essentially reviewing the same basic grammatical principles for lack of repetition, engagement, and comprehension.

Furthermore, although the school has several alternative options for children with developmental disabilities, the sheer amount of students greatly lessens the effectiveness of these options for rehabilitative learning. The teachers with whom I spoke try their best to teach their students, but results are often less than ideal.

I have a newfound respect and compassion for the entire profession, especially considering how those who choose this difficult but necessary path can be vastly under appreciated for their hard work.

Dispatches from Delhi: Report 5

Yesterday, I started my first day of work at New Era Public School by attending the first of a three-day workshop led by four members of CERTAD (Center for Educational Research, Training, And Development), a research collective operating as a part of the Srishti College of Art, Design, and Technology in Bangalore. Each of the workshop’s coordinators has extensive experience in very different areas of study from educational psychology to art education to environmental biology to theater education, but the combined variations of their chosen disciplines was actually a conscious decision to promote the central idea of the entire workshop: that the rigidity of modern educational paradigms in India are not entirely conducive to assisting students in properly learning the requisite state-mandated material. As a result, the workshop coordinators focused on engaging the teachers in the kinds of activities that could be utilized in a classroom environment to encourage critical thinking among their own students.

First, they started the workshop with a handful of ice-breaker exercises like pairing up the teachers and having them spin, clap, and make eye-contact with each other in synchronization. After a while of this, the coordinators invited each teacher to randomly select a scrap of paper that had one part of a quotation by a famous person regarding education. After all of the teachers had found their proper groups and pieced together their quotations, these smaller groups were divided into different sub-workshops run by one coordinator each that focused on different approaches to classroom engagement from visual to kinesthetic to spatial to data-related. In each of these sub-workshops, coordinators introduced teachers to many different activities that they could implement in their classrooms to actively engage different kinds of students in the learning process. These included several spatial, linguistic, naturalistic, and bodily-kinesthetic activities that seemed relatively simple to all the teachers but also had the added effect of showing them how much more open-minded they could be in the classroom environment. One workshop coordinator, Manjari, explained the importance of differential instruction to the staff and myself by explaining Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. She said that the methods of teaching that had dominated the classroom environment so far focused on the existence of the average student around whose ability the curriculum had been decidedly fixed, therefore creating the strata of students from below average to average to above average or gifted around an unchanging teaching approach. Basically, you either don’t get it, you sort of get it, or you get it.

Now the teachers at NEPS are anything but unprofessional. They take their work and responsibilities to their students very seriously. But even they recognize the overwhelming emphasis Indian society has placed on board examinations, which leads to an enormous amount of stress among a student body that is already fraught with various socioeconomic and development problems. The teachers do everything in their power with the limited time they have in the classroom to teach their students, but without getting the kids to actively participate in their learning, retention and growth are both found wanting. If one accepts the premise of Gardner’s theory (which all the teachers in the workshop wholeheartedly did), there is no such thing as an “average student,” only students with different types of prominent intelligence. Moreover, if every child is indeed different and thus learns differently, different approaches must be implemented in the classroom to engage those intelligences. If a student has trouble learning through spatial methods, perhaps he or she will learn more effectively through body-kinesthetics; if neither, perhaps a linguistic or naturalistic approach would be more productive. Essentially, the point that the workshop coordinators were trying to drive home is that each student has different developmental needs that can be nurtured in different ways. And although it is impossible for each teacher to give total attention in this manner to each and every one of the dozens of students that walk into their classroom every day, they can learn how to at least assess these different needs through more inventive means. In short, it wasn’t a workshop to teach new methods (which there still were), but more so about developing new methodologies.

I have to say, it’s been a long few days and although I am anxious, I am also excited to try my hand at this most noble profession eight hours a day, five days a week, and apparently all the time in between.

I am ready to work. My only goal is to be prepared. My only hope is to be rigid and flexible, kind and firm, and engaging and authoritative with my students.

Dispatches from Delhi: Report 4

A few days ago, I was driving with my cousin and her husband to their house in Gurgaon, when he asked me what I thought was the biggest difference between America and India. After ruminating on the question for several minutes, I realized that despite the overwhelming complexities that have shaped the modern workings and images of both nations, the answer is actually pretty simple.

One is subtle. The other is stark.

To the average person living in Scottsdale, it’s pretty difficult to say that he or she has any first-hand experience with the effects of the recession. If they’re anything like me, they’re aware that unemployment is at an all-time high, foreclosures have been occurring in the truckloads, and that the national debt is so far into the trillions the U.S. government soon might need to make up a new number to describe the amount they owe other people. But they don’t consciously grasp or interact with the repercussions of what any of this means for their daily lives. When the recession hit in 2008, I was in my senior year of high school taking my first economics course, and the relatively small amounts of information I became privy to made me think the whole American experiment was going to explode into a million pieces within my lifetime. Unemployment hadn’t been so high since the Depression? The government had to spend billions to bail out huge corporations as a result of their irresponsible spending? Foreclosures occurred by the thousands all across America? The interest on the national debt could have sent every college-bound kid in the States to the school of their choice FOR FREE? Insane. Completely insane, but also completely factual.

But despite the reality of these facts, there’s no way I would know it by walking out my front door. The same could be said of the many children of my generation I happen to know. Just because America’s fate seemed like the darkest it had ever been (or still is, depending on how you look at it) doesn’t mean this darkness was visible by and large across the country to everyone.

Contrast that with the Indian state of affairs. In the past decade, India has been statistically ranked among the world’s top five largest growing economies, and remains in that bracket with one of the world’s greatest purchasing powers. In the past five years, it has been touted as one of the 21st century’s greatest heralds of economic prosperity.

Today I took a walk for a few blocks around the neighborhood where my grandmother lives in order to get my eyes tested at the local optometrist. My grandmother lives in an area of Delhi called Rajouri Garden, and it only took me 10 minutes of walking to get to the doctor’s office and back. This is what I saw.

If I hadn’t spent every summer in this neighborhood since I was 11, I might have walked back to the doctor for a re-test. Here, within a five-block radius, in this purported place of exponential economic growth, I saw the kind of stark disparity between national image and reality that exists as a direct contrast to the American way of life.

Dispatches from Delhi: Report 3

Today, I finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, a book that tries to ascertain the various external factors that help facilitate the possibility of great success. The book as a whole was good, but I found it particularly interesting that in one chapter, the author characterizes American education as a system that places great importance on the separation of work and play, citing the widespread cultural attitude that too much mental stimulation can lead to stagnation and actual digression. Now, on the surface, this seems like a sensible idea to vibe with. You know, the whole “all work and no play” philosophy.

However, what exactly constitutes “play”?

In the U.S., when I think about a playground, several common images immediately come to mind: merry-go-round, swings, jungle gyms, those weird steel bubbles kids used to hang on upside-down and do flips off of. These things come to mind because in America, playgrounds are meant as a welcome reprieve from the intellectual workload of school through exhaustive physical fun in the forms of monkey bars and slides; a place that symbolizes the American separation of learning and recreation with very clear-cut boundaries. Now, I’m definitely a byproduct of the American public education system in that I’ve learned the affiliation of the rooms with the desks and books and lessons as the workplace, which leaves everything outside those walls as a means to escape from that work and do what kids are supposed to do: play. Not to say that I wasn’t intellectually stimulated through class field trips to see things like the science museum or theatrical productions, but even those were far removed from the classroom, solidifying the idea that play is basically anything that’s not school, work or learning. I am not saying this is the only way to look at it, but it is something I happen to find true.

However, does that same definition apply in India?

Today, I visited the school where I am going to start teaching in a week. It was not the first time I went there, but it is definitely the first time I went there thinking about this particular question. Now, kids of all age groups in India grow up playing a lot like kids in America, but they just subtract all the playground equipment and due to monetary constraints, place twice the emphasis on organized sports. Since birth, most children are raised on soccer and cricket, two popular “world” sports, as opposed to Americanized sports like baseball, basketball, and football. However, like their American counterparts, they use the games to alleviate the stress of working in the classroom.

At least that is what I thought until I saw something extraordinary.

Since the two most popular sports played at this K-12 school are mostly aggressive contact sports, the bigger, older kids take up the available space to play them. So where do the younger kids go? What exactly do kids from 5-10 years old do while the bigger kids are all out in the front of the school on the basketball and soccer courts (both concrete, since I don’t think there’s a school in India can afford a grass pitch)? In the very back of the school’s Primary Wing, there is a small elevated area with the surface area of a small apartment. In it, there are no jungle gyms or monkey bars, no slides or bubbles; instead, it has interactive displays like those found in a science museum—each with a sign explaining how to use it and what to learn from it. The displays include:

  • A life-size model of DNA
  • A working model of a lifting screw
  • A pair of parabolic dishes (pictured)
  • A miniature hydroelectric power plant
  • And a 3-part model of inclined planes

Now, this might not be the most aesthetically pleasing recreational area to someone who grew up with the decency of American parks and playgrounds. Nor does it in any way work with the American definition of “play,” which itself says a lot about the Indian connection between work and play. This small pitch of land is a statement that schools can intentionally blur the line between learning and recreation to reduce students’ aversion to critical thinking by integrating learning into their play. I am not saying that playgrounds like this are a widespread phenomenon, and I am certainly not saying that all the children take advantage of this particular area, but the whole idea of this integration definitely suggests a very different paradigm for the Indian connection between school and play, learning and recreation. Specifically, that there is no connection; they are the same thing. To generalize, in the Western world, life exists in a compartmentalized fashion. However, in India and other Eastern cultures, life is promoted as holistically as possible.

I guess it is a lot harder for kids to develop aversions to learning when presented with opportunities like this for recess.

Dispatches from Delhi: Report 2

There’s certainly nothing similar about Delhi and Scottsdale from a purely aesthetic point of view. In Scottsdale, drive for 30 minutes in any direction and you’ll see a new city in relatively decent condition. Relative to what, you ask? In Delhi, you can drive a straight hour in any direction and you would still be in the same city, and regardless of what part you were in, you’d see trash, filth, and poverty.

I’m not talking about the couple of people seen around Scottsdale or Tempe or Phoenix with slightly humorous cardboard signs asking for spare change. It’s easy to spare change when the surface-level only shows a handful of homeless. But what about in-your-face-dozens-of-people-living-on-the-streets poverty, the kind of stuff that makes you look pass the immediate novelty of Slumdog Millionaire and think about how large-scale the word “poor” becomes in just one major city of one subcontinent of one billion people?

When I was younger, around 15-16, I never had much spending money in my pocket, but any time I did, I would give what I could part with (usually most of it) to someone I thought needed it. Considering the landscape in Delhi, anytime I did so made me feel like I was contributing a small amount to the collective human effort for better lives across borders.

Today, I left the house with the US equivalent of about $100 in my pocket. If I gave a dollar to every person I saw on the street who I thought desperately needed it, I would have been flat broke in 10 minutes.

Dispatches from Delhi: Report 1

My first day in Delhi, and it was all I could do to not pass out.

24 hours of sleepless transit left me pretty wasted when I touched down, but I knew that falling asleep at 7 a.m. local time would only create a world of hurt for my biological clock, so I tried my level best to reset my circadian rhythms in a bunch of different ways. First, as soon as I reached my grandmother’s house, I figured I’d work out for about an hour, and that actually got my endorphins flowing, which pretty much got me through most of the day. But that soon wore off, so I decided to spend the greater part of the day with my cousins, one who lives in Rajouri Garden where I’m living right now, and the other who lives in Gurgaon with her husband. I have plenty of time for recreation in the next few days since training doesn’t begin at New Era until the 18th.

Now, getting around by car in India is kind of like trying to navigate choppy waters among a gang of bucking sharks. If you think people in New York or LA drive like crazy people, you have obviously never been near Delhi streets. But it’s not too bad, because this always gives me ample time to listen to music or nap or do any of a handful things in transit while my grandmother’s driver takes the wheel, because it takes anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour to get anywhere important.

It was totally worth it though. Both visits were awesome because each cousin did what all women in my family generally do when they see me: they treated me like an emaciated refugee and kept feeding me delicious food until my stomach almost exploded.

I reiterate, awesome. But I digress.

When it came for me to return home, it was 5 p.m. and I was near delirium due to sleep deprivation. So to avoid surrendering myself to a half-dead stupor for a few hours and spending the whole night awake, I pillaged my grandmother’s library for all the books I hadn’t yet read, grabbing all sorts of great literary gems, counting Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Plato’s Republic, and Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink among the nearly 20 texts I found. So I figured I’d try my best to fight off sleep starting with Plato.

I suppose the craziest thing about being back in India is the fact that nothing about it feels crazy at all. When I walked outside and felt my skin break into a sweat like I was in a kiln, I didn’t flinch. When I came to my grandmother’s house and unpacked and hugged the servants whom I have known since I was a child, I didn’t think of the notion of slavery, just people who had been paid to work for my family for decades, who were practically family themselves. When I looked outside my window and I saw beautiful homes right next to abject poverty, people of all ages living in squalor on the streets, there wasn’t a hint of shock like most Westerners would experience from the same view.

I guess I’m used to it, but my lack of reaction isn’t because I’m heartless. It’s because here, income inequality isn’t as subversive as it is in the States. I have seen it at a tender age. I haven’t examined the significance of this yet in great detail, but I know it’s important. More on that later.

With no disrespect to Plato, reading Greek philosophy is a great way to exhaust the mind. So about 40 pages into it, I passed out for a night of staring at my eyelids.