Reminders of doing something right.

There is a warm glow that threatens to overwhelm everything in you when you see living, breathing proof of having done something right. It is quite the feeling.

It was a rather dreary evening yesterday and I sat trying to get most of a script adaptation done for Annual Day (coming up!) before a nagging headache got the better of me. Just as I was ploughing through lines and seeing how to best edit them, I saw two people walk in. The day instantaneously got better. Two of the graduating class (joined 11th in a different school, wrote IGCSE English in May-June) walked in, dressed in their new avatar of tracks and a grey t-shirt. Sports dress, Akka, they explained sheepishly, even as their body language showed that they had grown comfortable in this space. For the next hour or so, one of them spoke to us and every word taught us that we were doing something right.

She first opened with how she thinks she has been nominated for something, she is not sure what. Or maybe they were talking of nominating her? She does not know. When asked what this “this” was, she said “some SPL something, Akka, I don’t know.” I was not sure how to respond to the naivety appropriately. A month after commuting to the suburbs of Coimbatore every day to only the second school some of them have been to in their lives, here she was saying she was on the list of probable for SPL (we then broke down the concept of Student Pupil Leader and houses to her). She told us how other products of the school were making their mark as well – Student Parliament Vice President and Lingua Conclave Vice President to boot. She spoke of how they were preparing for the zonal team for shot put, how she asked to be included in javelin too, and how she told them she did not know how to swim even though she knew the basics just so that “I can learn properly from the beginning, Akka.” She showed us that the kids we had spent years moulding and then months worrying about had grown into their own people, self-assured and confident, with the same unquenchable thirst for learning.

She told us how they had all created a good impression amongst the new teachers, about how our kids always did their homework and were the first to answer questions. The quieter of the two then turned to me – Akka, here I was the quiet one, there I am the only one who speaks! She remembered how the Principal had seen red rice in her lunch box and congratulated her for standing apart from her peers and eating healthy. She said her friends had seen an old notebook of the school that she uses as a rough notebook, noticed the aerial picture on the cover, and wanted to know why she had left such a “big, beautiful school.” She laughed about how classmates had asked if she copies in exams and when they were told that none of them did, their response was how they came from a “good school, ya.” (On an aside, when these kids were writing pre-boards and mountains of correction were threatening to overwhelm the teachers, we would hand over the question paper to them. They’d administer it themselves in pin-drop silence, time themselves, and hand over completed answer papers with absolutely no need for invigilation. Copying? Pffbt.) She pulled out a flyer from her bag for a science Olympiad in the city on Sunday and asked if she could use my phone to ask them what it was all about – how could she register, did she have to participate through a school, where was it being held? She said they were all participating in the English elocution on Wednesday, and she wanted to research if NEET was good or bad. I will be back on Sunday, Akka. I want to interview a few people for their opinion. I am working on some questions.

But of all the stories and laughter and pride that filled the room yesterday evening, there was one that stood out for me hands down. She told me how her English teacher had written two sentences on the board and claimed only one was right. The sentences used the If I were/If I was forms and the teacher said the first was right. Now grammatically, the truth is that both are, and correctness depends on what you want to express. ‘If I were’ is subjunctive, speaking of things that are not true in the present, while ‘if I was’ refers to things that were true at a past time. ‘If I were President/Prime Minister, I would do things differently’ versus ‘If I was asleep, I wouldn’t have picked up your call.’ Except my win yesterday was not that the girl knew the difference between the two. That is a specific detail of English grammar that is easily taught. Yesterday’s win was how she dealt with that situation.

My English teacher said only ‘If I were’ is correct, Akka. I got up and said that it is wrong. She told me to go research and let her know why I think so, but I told her I can explain it there itself. I told her that both ‘was’ and ‘were’ were past tense forms of the verb ‘to be,’ that ‘was’ is for ‘am’ and ‘were’ is for ‘are’. I told her that ‘I’ is singular and ‘are’ is plural, so ‘I were’ cannot be correct. It has to be ‘I was’ only, no Akka? I explained it nicely only, Akka. The teacher did not say anything at all.

That day’s win was not about knowing or not knowing the subjunctive mood. It was not knowing that ‘to be’ is a verb, one as irregular as they come, and all the simple tense forms it takes. It was not anything to do with English language teaching at all. That day’s win was this girl and her ability to articulate what she believed, her thought process and her logic. It was how easily she was able to stand up for what she believed is right, the same strength that drove her to refuse the friends who asked her to let them copy. It was the fact that these children, who grew up in our classrooms, have no concept of the baggage that usually comes with authority, the resulting hierarchies and fear. It is the rightful assumption and ownership of their ability to think independently, not buying every word that they are told. It is the ability to question, raise objection respectfully, and be willing to converse.

When she first walked in to the Principal’s office yesterday and noticed me sitting in a corner, she reached out to give me a hug. Given that I had not been at school the last couple of times she dropped in, it was the first time since the last board exam that we were meeting. I miss you, Akka, she said. A few minutes later, talking of how she was largely enjoying her new school, she went quiet for a minute and looked down at the black tracks that had taken the place of the red-and-green salwar. I miss this school.

This school misses them too, I told her, and I meant it. For an hour yesterday, an old student came and told us about her new life. She told us her stories and experiences, asked us her doubts and clarifications, and through it all, she reminded us that we had done something right.

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Start of the second year: water words

In the last week since I have started my second year of teaching, many people have asked me the same question. Are you (as) excited about this year? Hopefully, this piece is part in answer to that repeated query and part a sneak peek into what the start of this term has been like.

Am I excited? Yes. Am I excited about the same things? Far from. Last year, my questions were more basic – would I be able to teach? Would I be able to don the persona of a teacher? Would I be able to handle the more difficult aspects of a class – discipline, routine, the demanding nature of correction? Would I be able to make the jump from volunteer to full-time? That was June 2016.

This year, my questions are a little different. Would I be able to keep everyone interested, myself included, after the initial excitement of a new teacher wore off? Fresh from the high of getting one set of kids through boards, would I have the mental strength to start from the very beginning with another set of kids? Would I be able to stay fresh, open, and willing to mould myself, avoiding approaching the classroom with a been-here-before frame of mind? With my class sizes larger this year, would I be able to give each kid just as much attention as the last set?

Truth be told, I don’t know the answers to these things yet. It has only been a week since I began after my post-boards break, and it is still much too early. As I sit down to make lesson plans this year though, I know that my motivation to shake things up a little and keep things interesting are influenced by a new factor – sure, the kids should be involved and interested, but so must I. Changing things around means I do new things in my classes. It is good for me too.

This term, the middle school kids are working around the elements of water, wind, and the sun. Though there is a specific focus on energy in the sciences, it is slightly less direct in English. Not wanting to inundate them with literature through the term again (last Project Day was fun!), I was hunting for something to do around water, when I chanced upon a very helpful book titled something along the lines of ‘Water: An ESL curriculum’ and milked the few pages that Google Books gave me as a preview. I decided we’d largely do vocab exercises with water.

The number of phrases, saying, proverbs, what-have-you in English that have to do with water is a little mindboggling if you think about it. In preparation for the class, I wrote each line on a strip of chart paper and then proceeded to cut each of them in half. Each child chose two halves and then proceeded to walk around class trying to find the missing part of their saying, the one that made the most sense. We then sat down and understood the meanings of each of them, using the more common ones in examples of our own. Some of the stories that came up were:

  • When I first came to this school, everyone spoke in English. The teachers also spoke in English. I did not understand what anyone was saying. I felt like a fish out of water.
  • When I went to Kanyakumari, I felt like a fish out of water. I had never seen the ocean before and I had never gone to the beach. I did not know what to do there.
  • The first time I went to the movie theatre in Coimbatore, I felt like a fish out of water. I had never seen such big buildings and big bridges [flyovers] before.
  • If you want to hit a six in cricket but you do not have a bat or a ball, it is like going up the creek without a paddle.
  • If you only have a piece of chalk but the classroom has a whiteboard, using the board to teach is like going up the creek without a paddle.

We also spoke of it raining cats and dogs, saving things for a rainy day, the tip of the iceberg, and so much more! If the first week is anything to go by, we are up for an exciting year ahead!