Monday, 6 February 2012

School Days

It has been about three weeks since Elly and I started our volunteer work at Anand Gram and each day it seems there is something new for us to learn as we try to understand how this school is run.
School officially starts at 11:30 (although sometimes it is 11:15...) with a morning assembly on the outside stage which provides some relief from the heat in the summer. Here, the students are led in some quick calisthenics, they sing their national anthem (which I am slowly catching onto in Hindi!), and recite the Pledge of India. This is followed by Hindu chanting and meditation. Every now and again, a student or two will recite something in front of the whole school, and then we all clap for them. Did I mention that there are about 350 students at this school, only 8 teachers, and each class has anywhere between 40 and 65 students? Yikes! These numbers fluctuate daily it seems. Attendance is .... varied. :) Many of the students come from the villages that have sprouted up around the site as well as those that live at the orphanage there. (Check Anand Gram to get more information about this Society).

After this the students file back into the school and to their respective classrooms and the teachers go off into the staff room for bit. Around noon, the teachers make their way into class. As for our schedule, the teachers have asked Elly and I to teach English to three different classes a day for one hour each, covering Standards 3 to 6 (and now they would like us to do 7 as well). That's a lot of prep!! We've discovered that there are great variations in the English abilities between the Standards (as to be expected) but also huge differences within each class. Schooling in India seems to be mainly rote and the teacher in me struggles with that method, especially in light of recent coursework. However, given the class sizes, I can appreciate the need to teach this way although I suspect that it is easy for kids to slip through the cracks...

There are some other aspects of this school that I have found much more challenging than their methodology. Corporal punishment has been illegal in India for about five years now, but it seems that things are slow to change in this little school way on the outskirts of Pune.
The other week, as the children arrived and lined up in their class groups, if they were not in uniform (or the new one the had just been given) they were either slapped across the face, smacked repeatedly on the back, or (if they were lucky) sent home to change. I found this really hard to watch and it left us both very unsettled. I'm sure my gasp was audible to the students nearest to me. Despite this horrible start, the time with the kids that day was really great, we left feeling enthusiastic about what our impact on the students could be. Conversations were had when we got back to Sangam that day, in an effort to understand this discrepancy in punishment style.

The following Monday, the teacher who had been implementing most of the abuse, made a point of initiating conversation at lunch time about the reasons for this kind of punishment (a term that he used) at Anand Gram. While I do not agree, I a) appreciate his willingness to help us understand, despite broken English and b) recognize that this is part of the culture at Anand Gram particularly and that our Western 'punishment' (discipline, consequences...) wouldn't work immediately. There would need to be a huge shift in belief and practice. Elly and I felt more comfortable after this conversation, knowing that they were aware of our feelings towards such punishments. Conversations around this continued on Tuesday as well. Some of the teachers are curious about how we manage students in Canada and England without hitting them...

So now, I look to the next 7 weeks with mixed emotions. It's hard to feel like you can make a positive impact in a situation that seems to be stuck in the past. I am hopeful that between the two of us we can model some other teaching strategies that promote classroom environments based on trust and respect, not fear. For example, today I showed the teachers another use for a stick -- I made a star pointer to use in our vocabulary lessons. :-) Both the kids and the teachers loved it. Small steps....

All this uncomfortable stuff aside, the kids are generally really lovely and super keen to learn English. Naturally, every class has their clowns, hard workers, helpers, and mischief-makers -- just like at home. But, seeing their smiling faces and hearing echoes of "Good afternoon, Madam. Namaste." every time we walk into the classroom sure makes it all a little better. We've got some real characters that we're teaching and I can't wait to get to know them better.

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