Teaching does itself.

I always knew it in theory at the back of my head, like those words of wisdom you grew up with your grandmother whispering into bedtime stories. It never really struck me until today, somehow. It never was a real piece of knowledge till this afternoon.

If you use things they already know, half your teaching is done.

And then there was this other thing I knew. Way back in my grade 10, I spent hours and hours learning French with a teacher who spent hours and hours with me. He would Skype/Google Talk me for over half a dozen hours a day and then inundate me with writing exercises that lasted for another couple of hours. Every day. Over a few months. At the end of that period, that teacher knew everything to know about a fifteen-year-old’s life. He knew what bugged me, what made me anxious, and what I celebrated. I remember him saying one day, how else can we handle six hours every day?

A teacher doesn’t always have be in Teaching Mode. Teaching often does itself.

For the last week (more?), I have been conducting my newest wave of teaching training sessions, helping a group of eight fellow teachers work on spoken language and communication. We squirrel ourselves into an empty classroom in one corner of the school, sit in a circle, and talk through many things in the world. We don’t have a whiteboard and we don’t have a set-in-stone game plan. We just sit and talk.

We talk of all sorts of things; from the celebrities that annoy us to our most embarrassing moments. We play games with toilet paper, arbitrarily tearing off a number of squares and then telling the group that many fun facts about ourselves. We play games blindfolded, guiding a partner through an obstacle course to learn how to give instructions. We sing songs to learn vocabulary and pronunciation, often to an audience of toddlers peeking through the window at this sight of singing teachers. And today, we did something else.

I took a basket of vegetables to class.

Our vegetable basket
Our vegetable basket

After the preliminary catch up of everything done thus far, I asked everyone to close their eyes. Taking the basket around one at a time, they each put their hands in and picked one up. No one was allowed to talk or open their eyes till everyone had their turn, but even then squeals of recognition or groans of anticipation slipped through. At the end, we had a circle with an onion, a potato, a lemon, a couple of tomatoes, a coconut, a carrot, and a cauliflower. The task before them was simple. Use your vegetable as the core ingredient of a dish, and teach us how to make it. (Yes, I got inspired by MasterChef, kinda sorta). I did not expect what happened next.

You can take a couple of minutes to think about your dish, I told them. By the time I was done, a voice shot back in response – no, let me start.

The voice belonged to an Akka often teased for her heart of a lion that hid behind the voice of a mouse. Let’s just call her Braveheart Akka, shall we? Eager to learn, she was cautious of making mistakes, a conflict that often played out on her face. I want to speak English like you, she’d often tell me. The first class she was in, she was sweating buckets at the end of an exercise that had her speaking for a minute. Let me start, she said today, clear as a whistle.

She taught us how to make carrot halwa, complete with cashews and raisins, and would only let us close with “and now, eat” after it had been taken off the stove to cool.

For the next hour, I had my “students” teach me how to make lemon juice (“the complicated juice in restaurants”), onion bhajji¸ cauliflower chilli (with a litre of oil used!), tomato gotsu (we decided we’d just say ‘gotsu’), coconut oil (complete with “pour it from the machine into a bottle and oil your hair”) and tomato juice (with half a kilo of sugar for a litre of water). We laughed at each other’s measurements, swore we’d never ask for these dishes when we went to visit, and learnt that carrots are grated and oil splutters.

But as much as today was about culinary disasters and alien vocabulary, it taught me so much more than how to make locally flavoured potato curry. It taught me that the minute we speak the same language metaphorically, the vocabulary of an alien tongue is easier to manage. It taught me that these women, who cook for their families every day, were more than willing to compare notes on recipes, becoming less conscious of their English with every passing step. It taught me that today, perhaps more than every other day before this, there was no fear or awkwardness in that classroom.

Today, I learnt that the most timid of voices can echo loud and clear in class. I learnt that there could be friendly tiffs in class over who had raised their hand first for the next turn. I learnt that even Braveheart Akka could volunteer to go first and kill it, just weeks after shivering at the very thought of speaking out loud.

Today, I learnt to seek knowledge in the very spaces I look to impart it.

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How far is okay?

Something interesting happened this morning. I was in class at 7 AM (waking up at 5:30 AM in the dark and cold is worth a ranting blogpost by itself, I say) and faced with a class of Grade 9 students who write at a possessed pace. The day I thought of the Box of Essays should go down in the chapter of my teaching shenanigans as my Doomsday, I tell you, but I digress…

Something interesting happened this morning. My kids were sitting in the classroom ploughing through their essays (they each write roughly 800-1000 words a day these days, a nightmare if you think about correction but quite a win otherwise) while I did some writing of my own. It was a quiet morning, the only noises floating in were the vague, muffled taps and pats from the kitchen as the staff prepared for the day ahead. Inside, we had closed the windows and half-shut the door in an effort to insulate ourselves from the cold, and attempted to get to work. The room was largely quiet, save for my pounding away at a keyboard and the occasional flipping of a page. The minute noise levels threatened to rise, someone will whisper “dei, essay” and pens would start scratching again.

In the middle of all this apparently productive activity, there will be the one-off story that comes my way, how someone went to the temple recently or someone’s mother is making biryani today. It provides all of us with a moment of relief before we turn back to the production of words on a page. Today, there was another story that came my way, a story from the previous evening when they were all going home from school. It went somewhat like this, as told by a girl in the class.

We were already leaving very late, Akka. We had Biology exam and it was after 6 o’clock when we were walking. We were just going on the street when this boy [a classmate] comes up from behind us and starts talking. He is coming in the middle of the road, Akka. I don’t even understand what he is saying. He is chumma coming and talking to us. What he wanted, I don’t know. He wouldn’t leave also, just talking to us on the street.

Through the narration, the boy in question was protesting, not particularly coherent noises that worked just enough to illustrate his displeasure at the accusations. He said he needed some information, that he had forgotten to ask, and that he just wanted to find out. At some point in the rant, I told the girl I wasn’t sure I got her point. Did she not want to talk to him? Did she not know the answer to his question? Was he bothering her? What was the deal, really?

That and all is not allowed outside, Akka. That is okay only in school.

What is this ‘that’?

He is a boy, Akka. That is not okay, Akka.

The conversation didn’t last much longer than that, what with everyone’s hurry to get back to writing, but I snuck in some parting words. If you can talk inside, maybe it is not too bad to talk outside? He only wanted information. They did not sound convinced and eventually went back to writing, so nothing much came out of that line of thought.

But it got me thinking, set me off on a line of thought that was not new but will probably forever remain unresolved. Just how far was I meant to push the boundaries? Could I wholeheartedly tell these children that talking on the streets was the same thing as chattering in school? When I tell them they could sow the seeds of change, is that a fair burden to place on them?

Every time conversation like this comes up, it becomes easy to write me off as the ‘periya ooru’ (big city) Akka who doesn’t know what she is talking about. They are probably right, but how much do I push?