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HomekarnatakaTryst with teaching at sixty

Tryst with teaching at sixty

Off a narrow street filled with honking cars, scooters, bicycles, hawkers, shopkeepers and pedestrians, the somewhat newly minted (2019) school I enter is wild with jostling kids. It is lunch time. A tiny quad serves as their playground where they expend their pent-up energy before returning to their afternoon classes.

A few of my 4th graders in the Kannada-to-English medium school grab my hand and usher me into their classroom, as if I might change my mind and leave. Their classroom is crammed with furniture. A stainless steel cupboard, two large wooden desks heaped with dusty old books, and a stack of broken plastic tables compete for space with a few worn metal benches, and faded, rickety preschool furniture, donated many years ago.

Small, cage-like windows remain mostly shut to keep out dust and fumes spewing from periodic bonfires of debris in the adjoining compound. The room feels hot and oppressive. But we settle in despite these minor inconveniences. I find my spot on the teacher’s chair and resume my daily venture — teaching conversational and written English in government schools that cater mostly to children from urban slums.

Galleries to classrooms

It’s a long way from New York where I have spent my entire adult life. My short career as a wandering art critic covering biennales all over the world had lost its charm. Deciphering the visual impact of astonishing but often obscure art just couldn’t fill a void.

I was at the cusp of turning 60, and I knew there was something more I wanted. The abrupt halt in travel during the Covid-19 pandemic spurred the need to explore a different avenue. It brought me back to Bengaluru where I grew up and went to school.

I was prompted by recurring childhood memories of visiting remand homes and schools in Kolhapur. They were built for the underprivileged by my grandmother in the 50s and 60s. I felt compelled to join an NGO that ran English classes in Tamil and Kannada medium government schools, alongside an after-school program.

Housed in fairly large compounds, with red oxide floors and gable roofs, these decrepit schools now offered little to no proper education in English. In the surrounding area, boys between the ages of 10 and 24 spent their afternoons playing carrom and gambling. But my wide-eyed, snot filled students with dishevelled hair were clamouring to learn.

Filling the gap

I had never imagined returning to India and disrupting a perfectly comfortable life in New York with my husband and son. But the long tradition of social work in my family, which began with my great grandfather, had finally come to pass. I knew this is where I belonged.

The initial groundwork acquired while volunteering with NGOs revealed a glaring lacuna in basic education for the disadvantaged. I found that local English-speaking teachers with poor understanding of the numerous, mind boggling rules and exceptions in grammar could not surmount this hurdle. The syntax in English is unlike any Indian language, which makes it that much more difficult to remember and master. More alarmingly, rote learning, mindless copying of questions and answers from the blackboard, and general listlessness shrouds the method of education in schools for first generation learners.

I’m consumed by my new-found initiative. I divide my day between a private low-income school, and a government school where children from the poorest backgrounds come for free education.

Tough audience

My morning routine with the 8th and 9th graders in the low-income school has taken some getting used to. They are overwhelmed with my zealous mission to achieve English competency. My attempt to institute the tried and true method of drill and practice to teach tenses and sentence structure is met with reluctance, groans, and loud murmurs of rebellion. Quite preposterously, I expect 52 unsuspecting students packed in a stuffy room to engage.

Much like a deluded Henry Higgins, I have set myself up with a roomful of pupils who want to do little.

If the idea of speaking is to communicate, they are puzzled by why their request to “off the fan,” is not acceptable. “Mines ma’am,” Dhiraj proclaims loudly, indicative of ownership. They have had it with my strange sounding pronunciations, and corrections. I try to explain the value of syntax in language learning by slipping into Kannada, the language most of them are familiar with. But it is a poor effort, because my Kannada is basic and shabby. They guffaw, yet I imagine that my vulnerability at speaking a language they are comfortable with has helped explain my point.

To understand a school is to understand its rhythm. On a typical day, it takes at least 10 minutes of my 40-minute class to get my 8th grade students to settle in. Every morning is a social fest, no matter that they have parted company just the previous evening. A new acquisition like a pen must be brandished, or just plain pubescent jockeying keeps them going. Once they calm down, I notice that their bulging backpacks sit right next to each one of them like feckless sentries. Nothing will separate them from their bags. Pilfering is rife I’m told. Yet, despite the vigilance over their belongings, many children like Imran scramble for a pen and basic stationery every morning.

Need for libraries

Learning an unfamiliar language can be very strenuous. For students like Prameet and Shanaz, English remains an undecipherable foreign language. At the parent-teacher meetings, their parents worry about their lack of exposure to proper English. I lament the absence of good school libraries which obscures the joy of discovering the English language from these students.

The aftermath of the pandemic has magnified slow learners’ initial struggle with English, such that 8th grade students are performing at 4th grade-level. For Pranay, for instance, most of the subjects are a blur. He simply cannot follow the class. Drumming the desk, distracting his neighbours, and invariably instigating a shoving match is his modus operandi.

Then just as surprisingly, Rumali blows me away with her fluency in English. Towering over her peers with her astonishing facility in the language, she understands very quickly what I mean by fleshing out answers. Sequencing and chronology come as easily to her as it confounds most of her classmates. She is the leader everyone turns to when I ask a series of questions in class. “I watch American YouTube shows,” she confesses proudly. Such ingenuity is truly heartwarming on particularly distressing days.

Different levels

Each class is composed of students at dramatically different levels of learning. I have become obsessed with finding a meaningful way to help each group. After basic oral drill work, my students use cues from the board to write their own answers. At first this method of performing independently was too new, and daunting. After fumbling and blindly copying from each other, they have come around with a keenness that amazes me. “On our own ma’am,” they ask. “Are you sure ma’am?,” they are incredulous with both fear and glee, because I have entrusted them with their own work.

When cajoling does not work to incentivise my students, I resort to the conventional technique of delivering threats. Prajitha had failed in her unit test. She begged me to give her an extra mark to pass. She did not want to draw her mother’s wrath. I promised I would not report her to her mother on the condition that she came to my daily morning tutorial. Though fear is the worst form of persuasion, I observed this indifferent, often negligent, student turn into a diligent one. The adage, “different strokes for different folks,” couldn’t have resonated more clearly in this situation.

The sporadic excitement of inter-school competitions brings about a discernible change in mood. Dance trials, recitations, debates, painting and drawing contests that test individual skills motivate the students into action. While their last-minute preparation is distressing, witnessing their eagerness to participate is a delight. I’m mobbed on such days. They clamour for ideas and pester me for proper sentences and explanations of aphorisms such as “give a man an inch and he’ll take a mile,” which they are least familiar with. But their spirit is undeterred, and they go to the battlefield puffed up and ready.

Challenging the norm

The school is ironclad with the demands of state board exams, a practice introduced by the British 200 years ago. Teachers are tormented with completing the syllabus regardless of whether or not it is understood. Most of my students have difficulty reading and comprehending complex narratives in their English textbooks. I am engulfed by my daily struggle to teach my 8th and 9th graders to think, decode, and write. The need to shape logical thinking trumps any creative attempts to build vocabulary and demonstrate the usage of words like spontaneous, spontaneity and spontaneously. The management, utterly confounded by my methods to encourage free-spirited thinking, tries to browbeat me to spoon-feed my students with stock questions and answers.

My journey from interpreting the beauty of abstract brushstrokes has morphed into working with a system entrenched in dogmas of painfully ineffective teaching. But what I have learnt to admire is the resilience of my students. Even though the school might seem like a confinement to some of them, and a mere babysitting outlet for others, their immediate reaction to a pedagogical change is utterly worth the effort. This palpable responsiveness to variation and their willingness to try make me believe in them. The rush and trial of being knee-deep in the trenches keeps me energised.

Afternoons in the government school amongst 3rd and 4th graders are far more gratifying. My endeavour to make the older children unlearn passivity, is compensated manifold by the little ones’ overriding enthusiasm to learn. Like newly unpacked sponges, they soak it all in. While they laugh at my incompetent Kannada, they welcome my imprecision. They think it’s a fair deal to teach me Kannada while they absorb reading and writing skills in English.

Disciplined practice with an experimental group of 11 students has proved to be very successful. Even though they can be just as difficult to manage as my older students, their zeal makes up for their boisterousness. Though in all fairness, I run a bridge programme in the government school, while my older children are constrained by the demands of the curriculum.

Nonetheless, my malnourished, diminutive teenyboppers from urban ghettos, who often survive on just one meal provided by the school, can write perfectly acceptable sentences in three tenses. They have organically understood the syntax of English, though they have no clue what the terms noun or verb mean. “Excellent,” is what they hunger to hear when they show me their work. I’m elated at their accomplishments, but more importantly, I am able to easily quantify the improvements in this group as opposed to the more amorphous, indeterminate performance of the 8th and 9th graders.

Beyond labels

My experience in the government school has helped me devise a method of teaching that is devoid of grammatical terms. Reading and written exercises have temporarily exorcised the drudgery of memorisation.

Yet none of this would be possible in the government school without the support of its enlightened leader. The principal’s unabated assistance and foresight to better the children’s grasp of English has propelled me. She is keen that I roll out the program to grades 1 to 4, which comprise about 95 students.

Building a reading library, while accelerating spoken English is certainly high up in her prospects. With the help of two excellent, highly skilled and creative colleagues, I have divided the children from the four grades by ability. Our intention is to work with each group methodically, and bring them up to grade level.

The sea change in my life at 60 has turned out to be much more fulfilling than I anticipated. The glamour of international travel and reviewing astounding artistic creativity has segued into the sheer joy of watching kids learn. For me, being involved with the simplicity of these schools with their barebone infrastructure, and engaging with children with minimal needs and comforts has become a way of life.

Just as I was leaving the government school the other day, one of my students read the last sentence from their afternoon written work. It went, “the mother boasts about her daughter.” It best sums what I have managed to achieve with the younger children. I just have to be patient, I tell myself. The older ones in the low income school will be worthy of boasting about too in due course.

(All names in the article have been changed.)

(Published 01 December 2023, 21:52 IST)

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