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.
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.