Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Library: Getting them to discover

We have a lot of story books in our library. We have also made a conscious choice of stocking our library with content heavy books on Science, Geography, Math and History . However, most of our students do not read these content heavy books naturally. One reason for the creation of the library was to make students take responsibility for their own learning by providing them an avenue where resources are available. We brainstormed quite a lot about how do we get our students to extract information out of them. We came up with projects.

Over the last 3 weeks, I have started giving them mini-projects. Projects are synonymous with fancy charts, art, glitter and models. Since I am a lazy geek, my projects are less of an exercise in display and more of an exercise in finding out information. My objectives - They realize that they should come to the library, find out the relevant shelf and then browse through the books.

Project 1 - Find out and draw (optional) means of transport.
Result - The childcraft books on science and technology were opened. I saw many versions of the rocket.

Project 2 - Find out names of the countries starting with each letter of the alphabet. Also write capitals.
Result - They know what an atlas is. Globe has been rotated continuously for the past week. They know at least some countries now. I gave a mental fist-pump when I walked into class and 40 agitated and worried kids complained about not finding any country with W or X. We had a discussion about why West Indies is not a country.

Project 3 - Find out any 5 rulers of India before 1857.
Result - All our new Illustrated History books were opened. We had a discussion on why I wasn't going to accept Ram, Krishna and the like. They learnt the word mythology.

Project 4 - Find out the names of 8 bones in the human body.
Result - I announced it today so I'll have to wait and see the effects of it.

Your ideas on this are highly appreciated. And once again, if you are interested in buying books for the library, check out my wishlist on flipkart.

On a separate note, Anurag Behar provides the best reading material on Indian education that I have discovered. Considering all the narrow-minded articles and opinions that I have heard and seen recently, his recent article resonates a lot and makes me want to write more. It's just that it's difficult for me to write if it's not an experience but a general opinion or argument. Education is such a complex issue that it's hard to isolate one factor and analyze it completely. I remain hopeful though. 

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Social Evils: Adventures of Krishna Mehta in USA

"Bhaiya, my tuition teacher complains that you don't teach everything from the school textbook. He asks: why are you teaching about female infanticide and dowry?"
"My dear child, what's the use knowing about social reformers in your textbook if you don't know understand what social evils are in the first place?"

The Adventures of Krishna Mehta in USA
This is the title that my students wrote in their notebooks at the beginning of the history period. I had initially planned on naming the character as Krishnamurthy Iyer. However, Shruti, (my co-teacher) being South Indian, took offence and I had to think quickly to be in her good books again. It's fictional and any resemblance is purely coincidental.
Krishna Mehta is a conservative Indian who has grown up believing all the social evils like caste system, female infanticide and dowry. He gets a job in America and goes abroad for the first time in his life where his views are challenged through different incidents.

I thought of using a different narrative to make the kids look at these issues from a different perspective without me making any judgement calls on the these practices directly. The plot unfolds like this -
Late on a cold night,  Krishna is lost and stranded. A helpful stranger (NRI) offers to help him out but Krishna refuses and insults him when he finds out that the stranger is from a low caste.
He survives and goes on to fall for a pretty girl. However, his marriage proposal along with his demand for dowry is met with complete shock, anger and insult. He is forced to contemplate about his ideas. He changes himself slightly to return again. However, he is turned down again when he outlines his expectations for a male child and describes female infanticide. Such events only lead to him coming back to India, single and disappointed.

The story is extremely simplified. However, even these ideas were novel. I needed to get the message across to the 5th graders surrounded by superstition and blind beliefs, even in their own homes. Parents of one of the students took him to see the 'mata' because he is extremely weak in studies. Maybe 'mata ke darshan' will change his report card.

What made me extremely angry were the parents of a couple of girls who were made to miss school for 10 days because they started on their menstrual cycle. One mother told me that she had fever (she probably phrased it that way because of my gender – god forbid males should know about menstruation!). Only later did we discover that the girls were ostracized in their own homes. They were kept on a cot in the corner and surrounded by curtains. They ate out of separate plates and couldn't be touched by anyone for a week until some religious ceremony was held. Is this what one would do to a scared, uninformed 11-12 year old who is experiencing something completely natural similar to half of the world? I wanted to storm into the house, defy their conventions and comfort the (possibly) scared little girl. (Fortunately) my co-teachers restrained me. I had a talk with them when they returned. One of them was pretty mature about it and understood the ignorance. For all our teachings, I hope we can ensure that the following generations don't suffer this.

Library - Wish I could enter

The library has been functioning for many months now so a library post has long been overdue. The library today looks very different from when it started operating.  New games, books, shelves and whiteboards have made their way into the library thanks to a lot of support of will-wisher. The books have been reclassified a few times and the shelves have labels. We have even been mentioned in the Mid-day!

For me, this post is a trip down memory lane, recounting my experiences when the library started. I have written about how the place was found and how it was built. As you can see, it's a small space and we teach 115 students in 5th grade alone. We also know how expensive the books are and how chaotic an overwhelming number of students can get. We wanted to ease our students into the system and at the same time, build this desire and interest for the library. 

We decided to go with a limited access system. Students need entry passes to access it and entry passes were given two times a week to 8-9 new students. Once you got a pass, you wrote your name on it to personalize it. It was a great interest building tool. Some of our most notorious students turned into little angels just to get that pass. Behaviour on the day of the announcement was fantastic.
Chandan was an extremely violent and angry kid. His desire for the pass exceeded his desire to fight and it led to a serious decrease in his aggressiveness. It took a few weeks and after 3-4 weeks, he really thought that he was going to get that pass.
Shubham had become one of the cheekiest, troublesome students in class. Despite his potential, his failure to work was troubling us. Finally, the desire to get the pass got to him and he behaved extremely well for a week.

Announcing the recipients of the pass was probably the most dramatic thing we did in class (That was before the Classroom elections). It was a time of euphoria for some and for some extreme disappointment. Chandan broke down in tears when his hopes were dashed and his name was not announced. Shubham was heartbroken and he, of all people, was silently crying after school. He felt so cheated that he denied that he wanted to come to the library at all. On the other hand, Albaz jumped up with joy when his name was announced.

Everyday, there was a long line outside the gate when we went to open the library at 2pm. We had trouble keeping the kids out. The staircase in the picture was full of children who were denied access to the library initially. They were requested, scolded and threatened to go back. These were the same students who practically had no books at home and would reluctantly read anything in class. We had succeeded in our mission to get them interested to come to a place full of books and read. They just wouldn't leave.

See more pictures here.
You can help kids read more by ordering books here on flipkart