A Friday in an English Classroom

I love Fridays. Not only does it present the promise of the weekend around the corner, but it also is a self-imposed challenge that I’ve set myself. On Fridays, I try to think out of the box, include song and dance, games and fun. Not that the other days are dead boring, but you know what I mean. Sort of like a cheery green dress to the staid-but-classy whites and blacks of the rest of the week.

So here is a quick run through of what my last Friday was like. I had fun while I was at it, and from what I heard after that, so did the kids.

9:00 AM – 10:30 AM – Class 7, Prepositions

After revising what we had done through the week (nouns, pronouns, articles, conjunctions), we moved on to prepositions today. We learnt about how the connect nouns/nouns and nouns/verbs, and worked on example sentences. We wrote out ten prepositions on the board and asked every child to write at least three sentences in his/her notebook, with one boy even going up till nine. After everyone was done, I started off by throwing a sponge ball at one boy, catching him off guard and waking everyone up. The task was to read out his sentence and throw the ball on to someone else. The second child had to identify the preposition in the first sentence and read one of his own before passing the ball on. And this went on for about forty minutes. No repetitions, no yelling out answers and no dodging the ball. At the end of it all, we liked it so much we started making up impromptu examples to keep the ball in the air.

10:45 AM – 12:15 AM – Class 8, Parts of Speech

So we had spent the last couple of weeks running through the basic parts of speech – nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions, yada yada. The task was to identify every word in a sentence and map it to the appropriate part of speech. For example, the monkey chattered noisily on the tall tree in the dark forest – article noun verb adverb preposition article adjective noun preposition article adjective noun. And instead of writing on the board and boring the life out of everyone involved, we played what the kids decided to call “minion basketball.” Place an empty dustbin on the teacher’s chair in front of the class. Read out a sentence and identify the word you want mapped. Throw the ball to one child, if the answer is correct, s/he can take a chance at shooting the hoop (so to speak). I cheated a little and went off on tangents with the sentences – if noisily is the adverb, what would be the adjective? The inherent desire to see the ball fall into the dustbin was enough to keep the ball rolling (flying?) for an hour and a half.

2:00 PM – 2:45 PM – Class 6, Proper/Common Nouns

We had a two-point agenda for this class. Not only did we have to revise what common and proper nouns were, we also had to prepare something to present in assembly next week. So we thought why not sing a song! Except of course before we get to the fun singing part, we need to write the lyrics, understand them, summarize them, read them out loud. Read them correctly, check pronunciation. Identify which the nouns were and what kind of noun each was. And explain why. And give examples. And then, we sang.

This land is your land, this land is my land,

From busy Mumbai to great Kolkata,

From Jammu-Kashmir to the Indian Ocean,

This land was made for you and me.

The Himalayas so high, there is water on the other sides,

In the forests so very green, many creatures lived peacefully,

Mighty rivers flowed through the sands, bringing prosperity to the land.

This land was made for you and me.

It was a song I had learnt in school and the kids enjoyed it. By tomorrow, they said they’d learn it up and get ready for the second half. On Thursday, we will be ready to perform.

2:45 PM – 3:30 PM – Class 10, Listening Skills

As the kids get ready for board exams in June, they have a paper that tests listening skills. So between now and then, not only do they have to become proficient with listening to the language, they also need to understand the British and American accents. And so, every Friday we try and do a listening passage. This week, it was the turn of a scene from English Vinglish. It was amazing to see the varied expressions that flitted across their faces as they saw Sridevi struggle to place an order at a Manhattan café, gawking when asked for her preference between cappuccino, Americano or latte, or whether she wanted her water still or sparkling. The kids saw the three-minute clip twice, asked me for factual clarifications on what life in the US was like (do they eat pizza? Do they call it a ‘mess’ or ‘hotel’?) and then set off to complete the story as they saw it panning out. I can’t wait to see what they have cooked up!

And that was my Friday.

What will you do on weekends?

Whoever said small towns don’t come with their share of adventure? If this weekend was anything to go by, I should have no problems keeping myself busy getting to know this part of the world.

It all started yesterday, with the school working on the first and third Saturdays of the month. After the end of a staff meeting at about 5 PM, we all traipsed back to our rooms and sat around wondering what to do. Just that morning, I had met Kali, a theatre artist from Chennai, who had come to the school to do a session of drama with the kids. And just because I can see her cringe that I’m saying it, I must mention that Kali Akka has also been to Cannes as a part of the cast and crew of Dheepan, a French movie that went on to win the Palme d’Or. I just had to put that out here. But coming back to the point, Kali Akka and I decided that the Chennai spirits in us could not let such gorgeous weather go to waste and we headed out for a walk, me in chappal and her all geared up in shoes. The rest of this story is, well…

Roughly ten feet into this “walk” of ours, Kali tripped and fell, and after pausing for a minute to make sure it wasn’t a fracture, we obviously decided to keep going. Soon a decision point arrived – dirt path or tar road? And of course, dirt path it was. We climbed up and discovered a brick kiln, did the rounds there a little, promised to come back next time to discover the trail that was leading up the hillock and headed back to the road. A short while and a similar decision later, we trudged through a rather rocky path and found ourselves at a stream. Both of us had left our phones behind, didn’t have any source of artificial light on us and the sun was starting to set. Should we have turned around? Perhaps. Instead, we gave ourselves another five minutes and headed downstream, just to see where it would go. The minute we found a little waterfall, we sat down and made ourselves comfortable, getting our feet wet and resting on the mossy rocks. Just as we were talking about how this is the life and things equally romanticized, two men on a motorbike came up behind us and said one simple sentence. “Inge elaam yaanai varum ma.” (“The elephants will come here, ma.”)

And we ran.

The way back was a blur. With no light, no means of reaching people and alone in the bushes, we told ourselves our best bet was to get to the main road as fast as our legs could carry us. The threat of elephants and the very real fear of the groups of men trudging towards the rocks for what we assumed was their evening dose of fun provided the fuel for our rather tired selves. And how we ran. Every shadow was a potential threat, man or animal. Every rustle was the possible announcement of tusked visitors. Every breath could be one movement too loud. Passing a bull on the way, we wondered if they could smell fear the same way dogs can and resolutely acted cool, or tried at the very least. By the time we got back to the school, our hearts were pounded from the fear just as we were laughing in an effort to seem/be calm. And with that, the two Chennai girls came back from their first scout of the neighbourhood.

Come Sunday, after a rather laid back morning, a fellow teacher and I decided a Sunday afternoon off was too much to spend sitting in our rooms. So we set off to say hi to our neighbours across the state border. Getting on a bus, using my oh-so-fantastic Malayalam (Chetta, ivvade ATM undo?) and getting lost in the snaking lanes of Goolikadavu, we discovered quaint bakeries and local textile outlets that would put our urbanity to shame. Two coffees, one cream bun and a vegetable puff later, we could barely believe our Rs. 40 bill, and armed with our stock of Rs. 100 kurtis that could compete with the FabIndias and Kalpastrees any day, we headed back to Anaikatti.

All set for Week 2.

First Day Tales: difficult questions, surprising answers

It is amazing how good the early morning air feels when it isn’t entirely defined by humidity and stickiness. I have always prided myself on being a night person, the girl who can stay up as long as you need her to but will not budge in the morning. In case anyone is getting ideas, the standard is about 9 AM, left to myself. And yet, here I was, alone in the hills, springing out of bed at an ungodly 6:15 AM. There was still very much a nip in the air, and the blankets I had just kicked off lay in a crumpled mess on the bed. I’m fairly certain if bedclothes had expressions, this one would have carried one of incredulity.

But enough of bedclothes and blankets, what of the day itself, you may ask. It turns out I am in charge of English education from classes 6 to 10, a fairly broad range but then again, a girl gotta do what she gotta do. Today it was the turn of the 9th and 10th, thankfully two classes that had borne the brunt of my sample class earlier in February. While they wished ‘Yashasvini Rajeshwar Akka’ good morning (it apparently took them from February to practice that but still, impressive stuff!), I will take a few weeks to get around to all those names for sure. As of now, they are just the quiet one, the jumpy one, the enthu one…you get the drift.

In the classroom though, the struggles are real. Reading out a passage on adolescent male drivers and high accident rates in Britain for a listening exercise, I asked them what data points they would need to collect to back up the claim that it was young men who were at the wheel for most accidents. I was interrupted by an argument between two of the students, Boy and Girl.

Boy: Akka, accidents are caused by men because only men know how to drive, Akka.
Girl: Akka, tell him that is not true, Akka. Even girls drive.
Boy: But the girls who drive, shouldn’t, Akka. They all drive so badly. Only men drive, Akka. That is why they only cause accidents.

Now, you must keep in mind that I spent the last five years being trained to recognize every gender-based argument and raise my shackles in preparation. And yet, here I was not knowing what to do. Women do drive, I told the boy, and evidently as mentioned in the passage, the ‘statistics’ that are spoken of include a female sample. Well, women don’t drive in Anaikatti, he countered. While that may be true, in many other places, they do, I said. “Anaikatti is a village. In the cities and all, women drive, no Akka?” one of the girls added. “But everywhere there are villages only no, Akka. If women don’t drive here, then they don’t drive at all no?” Finally, the conversation took a turn, accusing one of the girl students of “not even knowing how to drive a cycle, Akka” at which point I reminded them that yes, some women do drive, and no, we would not bicker about classmates and cycling just now. How do you teach gender sensitivity and undo stereotypes with kids who barely recognize them? Do I have the language to break it down for them, without resorting to the defensiveness that so often crept into my own classroom back home? What are the building blocks for the things we all took for granted and how do you combat what they claim is merely common sense? Sigh.

The high point of today was undoubtedly how much these children just want to learn, though. Time and time again, they remind me of just how much they go in search of knowledge, and how, to them, school is so much less a chore and so much more an experience. The Chemistry teacher told me over breakfast that the kids voluntarily signed up for extra hours leading up to the board exam because they wanted to feel better prepared. Just as I started reading out a passage, a girl stopped me to check which one I was reading. “We want the tough one, Akka,” they said. As I spent the last ten minutes of both my sessions asking what they wanted to learn in English, their answers (all written and read to avoid repetitions of ‘that only, Akka’) stunned me in their uniformity. “Teach us grammar, Akka,” they said. “Try to make it fun, but teach us anyway. We don’t like it but we need to know it so please teach us lots of grammar.” When was the last time any of us voluntarily asked for things that we didn’t enjoy? As far as I remember, so many of the classes I sat through, we treated ‘I don’t like it’ to be synonymous with ‘I don’t want to do it.’ What a breath of fresh air, even though I am not tasked with making grammar fun.

And finally, my next (and last) moment of today. At assembly this week, kids get to “interview” the new teachers – read, put them on a chair in front of the entire senior school and bombard them with rapid fire questions. The teacher on the hot seat today got asked everything. What is your father’s name? (Yes, yes, only father’s.) How much did you score in 10th/12th? What was your most/least favourite subject in school? What was your ambition as a child? And just as I thought things were manageable, they brought out the big guns. If you had to change one thing, what would it be? If you had three wishes, what would you wish for? Who has been your biggest inspiration? Why are you here? And all of a sudden, I find myself dreading the day (Wednesday? Thursday?) I need to take my place in front of the crowd. I have not the slightest idea what my three golden wishes are, or who my biggest inspirations were. Somehow, the need to be “deep” with the answers to these questions has bitten me in the last five years, to take every question seriously and come up with something pseudo-profound, and yet today, what drew the most laughs was the teacher’s classic cop-out of “I would wish that I never get asked this again.” Let’s see how that one goes.

Rather long intro post, but first days don’t happen every day, right?