Dispatches from Delhi: Report 11

It has been a while since my last post, so I’d like to begin this dispatch with a quick update: this past week, instead of teaching English classes as forecasted, I have been handling the special education/remedial education courses at New Era Public School by myself as a sort of introductory rite of passage before taking on the more specialized job of teaching a specific subject area. It’s a very rewarding place to teach, because the kids come and go in much smaller groups as opposed to the full class sizes (5-10 instead of 45-50 at a time), which allows me a large amount of time per day to give each child the individual attention required to assist them with their work.

New Era Public School

New Era Public School

This gives me much greater insight into the structure of the Indian school system because the children in my classroom range from 2nd to 8th grades, and have learning issues in different subject areas. There is rarely a case of me having to teach/tutor more than two students in each grade, and even in those cases, hardly do I ever have more than one student working on the same subject material. As a result, I get to conduct mini-teaching sessions with a wide-ranging demographic for a variety of different subjects varying from English to Social Studies to Science to Sanskrit, often tackling 3 or more subjects per 45 minute class period.

Contrary to my own initial thoughts, I now consider teaching/assisting different children with such a veritable smorgasbord of information as a great catalyst for creating an interesting work environment. The main thing it has taught me is this:

All kids are different.

Teaching a variety of different subjects varying from English to Social Studies to Science to Sanskrit.

Some kids are quicker to understand certain subjects. Some kids require the extra attention provided by a smaller work environment because they require a bit more clarification. Some kids have learning disabilities that make it difficult for them to comprehend assignments. They require more time to slowly and methodically absorb what they need to know about math or English or science.

And some kids are just lazy little buggers who don’t understand what it’s like to confront a teacher who absolutely refuses to have their patience worn down by their wanton misbehavior. For some kids, the whole daily grind of school just doesn’t make sense in any applicable way and they just follow the crowd because their parents tell them it’s school or bust.

All kids are different. But when they’re in the classroom, it’s not a teacher’s job to assimilate them into one total blob that needs to be taught the same stuff. A teacher is someone who understands the standard to which all of his or her students must be raised, and then to not lower that standard, but to work out the kinks in each student’s learning process and help them achieve what each sometimes doesn’t even know he or she is capable of.

In short, though I’d prefer the intellectual stimulation provided by older students, I have a greater appreciation for the profession of teaching than I ever had before. The only way to learn is by doing, I suppose.

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.

New Summer Series: Dispatches from Delhi

My name is Arjun Chopra, and this summer I’m moving to India for two months to be a T.A. at New Era Public School, a K-through-12 institution in New Delhi.

Why, you ask? There are so many reasons.

1. It’s going to be an incredible work experience. I’ll be working 8-hour days, 5 days a week, grading papers, assisting teachers in putting together lesson plans, and maybe I’ll even get to teach a class or two myself. For a kid like me who has spent his whole life as a nose-to-the-books student, this kind of rigorous workload will be a stark change and a welcome reprieve.

2. My entire family lives there. And when I say entire, I mean entire. My great-grandparents, my grandparents, their children, their children’s children, my first cousins, my second cousins, my second cousins once removed. It’s an extensive list of people, people I feel privileged to spend quality time with. I will learn how to cook quality Punjabi food at my grandmother’s house. Take a crash course in martial arts at the studio by my cousin’s place. And hopefully take a road trip to somewhere awesome in a different region with the family members who are ready to go.

3. But most importantly, I’m going because as a student and a poet, I know I can’t grow without exposure to new stimuli. If I want to learn different things, I have to be exposed to different things. The same goes for if I want to write something new.

I’m going because I want a change, but not the kind of change where I shrug off who I am and become someone else. I need a change in perspective, a shift in paradigm, a break from what has become my everyday so I can expand as a worker, a writer, and a person.

That’s also why I’ll be chronicling my exploration in this “Dispatches” series for Superstition Review, to document my journey not only for personal fulfillment, but in the hope that maybe others can learn something, even a kernel of something, from the things I write about.

So, cheers. I have a feeling it’s going to be a great summer.