Board exams begin today and with that, the countdown to the English papers on June 7th and 15th. Friends, acquaintances, strangers, and people of the internet, this would be as good a time as any to put positive wishes out into the universe and hope they find their way to us! But desperate hopes for good luck apart, this also marks the beginning of the end of one academic year for me at the school, half the time I promised I would be here.
While I will save my nostalgic, lessons-learnt post for another day, this post is a dedication to my classroom and all the very many hours spent on the impossible nuances of the English language. Evidently, the class 9 and 10 students at the school spent the last academic year dealing with my compulsive need to try and do it all. Here is a sneak peek on what we did through the last few months.
Perhaps the biggest chunk of our writing exercises were centred around mastering the essay form. Going back to my own tenth standard training, we ran through the basics of three types of essays – argumentative, narrative, and descriptive, and figured out how each one was different and the most effective ways of planning each one. We read example paragraphs of each, seeing how the same topic can be dealt with differently. Somewhere along the line, the essay bug bit them and how! I had written earlier about how the nine-student ninth standard class had written out 130 essays in a span of a month and a half, and had to be begged to stop. In my moment of desperation, my only possibility was pleading incapacity – I cannot correct, I told them, I just cannot deal with the mountain on my desk! In June 2016, we were talking of how paragraphs were structured, how descriptive writing used more adjectives than most other forms usually, and how you must pre-empt the opposition in a good argumentative piece. By March 2017, they were churning out a thousand words a day, helping themselves to the Box of Essays as they saw fit.
As board exam prep drew closer, box after box got ravenously polished off. Each “box” had a set of fifty topics spanning initially just the three main forms of essays. By the third box, I had to dig deep to think of subjects, and the format of the personal essay was included too. What is your biggest challenge? What is the most important lesson you learnt from your grandmother? The list seemed endless, literally, and the red pens being thrown out, even more so. A sample of these topics can be found here.
When we took a break from the essays, we did a few off-beat exercises as well. When the Rio Olympics were going on, we learnt about the refugee team and wrote letters to Yusra Mardini. We even imagined a day in her life for a diary entry, and tried to see if there were ways of reaching out to her, but to no avail. Following a listening exercise based on See You Again (Wiz Khalifa ft. Charlie Puth), we wrote letters to Paul Walker, trying to convert the musicality of lyrics to a personal essay. I can no longer listen to that song without remembering the confused looks flash across their faces when the rap started playing, but more on that later.
Other than this never-satiated appetite for essays, there was some other writing to be done as well. Most of the “oh so boring” grammar saw a pretty strong writing component, but I’d like to think we made it as fun as possible. From using recipes to learn continuity and “following words” (first, secondly, next, etc.) to using nursery rhymes to learn tense (Mary will have a little lamb…Mary has a little lamb…you get the drift), there was quite some fun to be had. If nothing else, now all the girls in the class are busy trying to perfect ‘Betty bought a bit of butter’ in three different tense forms! We even did ‘spot the error’ exercises that got dubbed the ‘revenge exercises’ when they realised “how difficult it must be to correct, Akka!” More on the birth of revenge exercises here.
Through the year, the younger classes did most of the literature reading in the run up to Project Day, a host of fiction including Marquez! As for the board exam kids, apart from the constant reminders of the beauty that is the library, we did a wide range of comprehension exercises as well. Given that the board exam is structured in such a way that 50% of Paper 1 is reading (the other half is writing) and listening has an independent paper altogether, we had to remind ourselves to not get too caught up with the essay box. Through the course of the year, we ploughed through comprehension passages about everything from women winning the Fields Medal (“the Nobel Prize of Mathematics”) and Henrietta Lacks to edible cutlery. Yet, even though I was on the look out for comprehension passages every time I idly scrolled through my Facebook home page, there was one website that never let me down.
Through the academic year 2016-2017, my students of English as Second Language read articles from Scroll, a portal that describes itself as a ‘digital daily of political and cultural news for India…(with a focus on) analyses, reportage and commentary.’ They read about everything from sanitation in Mumbai’s slums to the trend of capsule hotels. And not only did they read, they ploughed through 50-mark worksheets on each of them, every worksheet acting as a mock-up of the board exam question paper pattern. Here is a sample (article and exercises enclosed), based on an article on ‘why Bhutan lost its appetite after a ban on Indian chillies.’ If we have to prepare for board exams, might as well pave ways for parts of the larger world to seep in, right?
This could easily be the most fun part of the term, for me at least. Every week, we tried to dedicate one class to listening exercises. We tried to focus on the lyrics while getting past the accent, make sense of the overall meaning while simultaneously focusing on the details. And our music came from everywhere.
Over the course of the last year, we heard a fair bit of Disney (Moana and Beauty and the Beast!) and the Oscar-favourite La La Land. What kind of a teacher would I be without introducing impressionable minds to the beauty that is Audition? And of course, the mother of all English-music-for-ESL, Sound of Music, and the classic John Lennon.
What did we do with this music, you ask? We did all kinds of things. Sometimes we wrote out the lyrics as they sang, sometimes we answered comprehension questions based on their meanings, sometimes we chose from similar sounding words as the song sped by us. And sometimes, the task was suspiciously simple – all we needed to do was write a basket of words we could hear! We tried making sense of Dwayne Johnson and made sure our scratchy pens kept up with his “this cannot be English, Akka”! Along the way, we found ways of deciphering a largely American accent and put together a new playlist to look up when we get access to the internet next!
…and with that, it is a wrap. This week, I open a new folder on my computer, title it ‘2017-2018’ and get to work on a new set of lesson plans and worksheets. Hopefully, I see bigger dreams and show them real-time to a bunch of kids as well. To think half the work is done (at least on paper) already!