Have you ever felt discriminated against?

I recently made a detour from my lesson plan on a whim. I had done the same listening comprehension exercise last year and was on a personal target to make this new crop of kids write. And then write some more. And then write even more. So with a few minutes to spare after doing nature words from ‘Colours of the Wind’ (Pocahontas, Disney), I explained to them the meaning of the song. We spoke of colonisers and hierarchies of knowledge, and eventually, we began talking of discrimination. I decided it was the perfect window to slip in an essay.

Over the last year, I have found one thing. Either one must learn an alien language or one must learn alien content – it is rather unmanageably difficult to do both simultaneously. So I asked them a question that they’d definitely know the answer to, a question about themselves. And asked them to tell me more.

Have you ever felt discriminated against?

I spent my afternoon yesterday correcting these personal essays. Written by thirteen-year-olds in class 8, the answers sparked a range of emotions in me from righteous anger to a quiet pride in these crop of kids we were helping mould.

The first on the pile was A, a girl who was a rather shy character in class. I haven’t spent much time with her personally and only knew her through her work. I did not expect what I was going to read. A wrote of how, a few years ago, she had been playing with a neighbour girl when the girl’s grandmother told her off for playing with a tribal child. Hurt, A came home and cried. A few months later, the girl was lagging behind in school and said grandmother approached A to help her with her studies. As she stood by watching me correct, she told me of how the girl never had enough to eat after her brothers were done, how she struggled through school, how her grandmother was scary. In her essay, she questions why she should help the girl when her grandmother refused to let them play together but then describes how she dealt with the situation. I told the grandmother she was like my own and that I would do everything I could, she writes. The grandmother apologised to me and I showed her that even tribal girls can be intelligent.

Next up was P, a short boy with premature greying on his early-teen head. He wrote of how he gets teased about it, about how everyone assumes he is older, about how he just tells them it is ‘style’. He alluded to popular actors and his writing oozed of the nonchalance he has come to handle the problem with.

The third in line was A, a small built waif of a boy who was always picked on for his size. He wrote of how he is always picked on during games period, how he is the last to be chosen on sports teams, and how classmates joked that the wind will blow him away. He wrote of how bad he felt to be the only kid cheering from the stands when everyone else was playing, only because others deemed him too weak – what if the football hit him and he flew away? He spoke of the teasing and the lost opportunities with a resignation far beyond his age.

On the other side of the spectrum is D, a tall girl built “large for her age.” Her essay was a tale of being called big and fat and large, of teasing about gait and stride and clothes sizes. She spoke of how adults and children alike told her she looked like she was much older than she was, how it hurt to be picked on for something she couldn’t help. She even spoke of her grandmother warning her about getting darker, as if that was one straw too many for her to handle.

P spoke of intelligence. He spoke of how he gets asked how he is so stupid, how a boy can only eat so much but not get smarter. He spoke of children picking on him based on academic performance, adults deciding he was good for nothing. In his sentences hastily pieced together were the words of a boy who has heard this tale once too often.

V wrote of how she loved to feel the wind in her hair at night but her parents never let her out. She described how she evolves from begging to pleading to demanding to crying before they grudgingly let her brother chaperone her around. Though the rest of her essay is littered with errors of grammar and spelling, one sentence stands out loud and clear. I asked my father one question. Why can’t girls go out too?

Somewhere in that pile of notebooks, there was also the seemingly flippant and frivolous. Take a closer look and we realise that pain lies in the ‘simple’ as well. R wrote of how he was the only one ever made to work at home, his parents writing his brother off as younger and more irresponsible. He never does anything while I am always running around, he wrote, even describing a time when his father punished him just to make his brother feel better. I will never go anywhere with him again, he declared. And then there is P who spoke of clothing. He wrote of the time he bought a pair of pants in keeping with what he understood as the latest trend. Paying a fair bit of money for it, he wore it to school one day very excited, only to be met with disdain and ridicule. What is this, he was asked. How is everyone letting you get away with it? His essay was of how he felt let down but finally picked himself up and owned the pair of pants anyway.

For the children in my class, this was an exercise in grammar and writing. They groaned at the 150 to 200-word limit and grudgingly decided to try their hand at it. For me, it was an exercise in self-awareness. Ever so often in the social sector, we vow to do more, be better, create healthier spaces. Those dozen notebooks though were the reminder I needed. Discrimination, bullying, and exclusivity are not experiences restricted to specific conversations and crowds. Right in front of me every day were kids dealing with ageism, sexism, ableism, and every other –ism spoken of in more formal ‘discourse’. They were shamed for their body, their mind, their clothes, their background. They were made to feel small for things they could not control. They were hurting for things that were not their fault.

For the children in my class, this was an exercise in grammar and writing. For me, it was an exercise in self-awareness. As teachers in a classroom, it is our responsibility to inculcate safe spaces for learning and sharing before the tendrils of shame root themselves too deep. It is our job to ensure these remain experiences without turning into scars that last many years into the future. It is for us to draw the line of respectful conversation and unquestioning, inclusive acceptance.

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Rural Tamil Nadu meets British drama

There was an evening I remember in late June, when I sat in the staffroom finishing up some chores and heard the principal call out for me. I found her sitting at the table in the dining hall, that mischievous glint in her eyes letting on that she had something up her sleeve. I have an idea for your second play, she told me. We had been talking about it for a couple of days, wondering what to do with senior school kids for Annual Day and which script would be most appropriate. She called me over and asked me what I thought of Shakespeare. Merchant of Venice, she said. Just the court scene to be precise. I balked instinctively. Are you sure, I asked. She told me she was, and perhaps I could do an adaptation? I told her I would think about it.

And I did. I thought about juggling two plays and the logistical mess of one of them being written in 16th century English. I thought of whether audiences would be able to understand and relate, or whether Shakespeare would be assumed to be boring and banal. I thought for a long while and then decided, why ever not. I love Shakespearean drama and here was a chance to teach it, yet another opportunity that would hardly present itself to the traditional ESL classroom. So Merchant of Venice it was.

It was a few days before I got around to looking up the script online. ‘Just the court scene,’ it turned out, was quite the mammoth exercise. I told the principal we would do just the meat of it, but we would do it in the original language, perhaps slightly edited for length. Everyone I told asked me to think about it. Why would I pass up on the offer to just do it in present-day English? Why insist on outdated grammar, the struggle between ‘thy,’ ‘thee,’ and ‘thou’? But no, I decided. If we were going down the Shakespeare hole, we would dive in head first.

And so we did. We did readings, found our Portia and Nerissa and Shylock, and did voice exercises. We did stage blocking, procured props, and struggled through the lines of dialogue. We told each other the story, practiced speaking slow enough for audiences to follow, and then rehearsed some more. By the time we were getting closer to Annual Day, Portia was answering quotidian questions about homework with ‘But the Jew must be merciful!’ and Shylock could be heard muttering ‘Ay, so says the bond’. As for me? Shakespeare would creep up on me unannounced, in moments that I was least expecting it. Phrases and words would drift into my head as I texted friends, lay in bed, even had a shower. I woke up with their voices in my head, wary of the one line each of them tripped up on, hearing Shylock’s tongue get tied up in knots as he tried to say ‘How much more elder are thou than thy looks!’ In my own 12th standard, Hamlet had been a text for Literature. Six years later, I was being haunted by another Shakespearean drama.

And then there was another one, an elongated, Indian adaptation of Peter Lancaster’s ‘Across the Road,’ a story of how a woman peers into her neighbour’s house spying on thieves only to realise they have in fact been looting her own bedroom. Through practice, I was unsure – the kids who were acting were younger, struggled more with English and intonation, and I wondered if they saw the humour in the lines themselves. And yet we persevered. We stole carpets and keys and picture frames. We made cardboard TVs and parrot cages and stole them too. We were the most well-practiced thieves you could ever imagine!

And then Saturday came. Amidst much sleep deprivation and confusion, we descended upon a city auditorium and it all began. Those next two hours were a personal lesson in faith. For every doubt that the students wouldn’t be able to stomach Shakespearean English, they improvised lines to cover up their faults and no one in the audience was the wiser for it. For every uncertainty that the younger children may not tap into the mood of the play, they had the audience in slips. For every person who sought me out at the end of the evening to congratulate me, my eleven actors proved that they can do British drama too, no matter which century it is from!

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.

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!

My first kids graduated.

Dear Kids,

You know how you always asked me in class how it was fair that I set you tasks and never wrote myself? You asked me how I would feel if I had word limits and deadlines and homework to get done, your innocence not for one second letting you realise that the flipside to your homework is in the red pen that perpetually lies on my desk. You asked me how I would feel if I were asked to go through the motions that I put you through, survive the drill that I made you live out. This moment right here? Here I am, writing because of you.

What would this essay be called, I wonder. A narrative piece of a first-time teacher? A personal essay of my first kids? A descriptive piece on an ESL classroom? Whatever else it is, it is the chronicle of the last year, of my life and yours. It is the story of how I grew up. It is, fundamentally, a story of thanks.

I walked in here mentally a student. I struggled through my first few weeks, complaining to friends and family about how I identified more with you than with my colleagues. Wasn’t it just a few years ago that I was flailing, unsure about IGCSE and eager to do right by the world? Yet here I was, the one with the “system know how” and tasked with getting you to run a marathon in a year.

I remember the first few weeks of correction. I cried regularly. I wasn’t sure if I had bit off more than I could chew. The pages were covered with red ink, notes and suggestions and corrections of everything from vocabulary to grammar structures. In some extreme cases, I rewrote the paragraph myself, telling you what you meant to tell me. My colleagues made me the standard teacher joke, and spoke of everything from how we’d run into a budgetary deficit thanks to my red pen appetite to how boxes of red pens would be the school’s wedding present to me when the time comes. My arms hurt at the end of long days and I was glued to the chair in the staff room. It took me an hour to get through one notebook, and I taught a hundred different kids, twenty of whom were you, hurtling towards board exams. I remember the first few weeks of correction, and how blindly I ploughed on. I told myself that every child deserves to be heard, to be read, to be taken seriously, and some day, this would bear fruit. I corrected, you read, you wrote, I corrected, and the cycle went on. But you, the committed souls that you are, read. And that made all the difference. You read every word I wrote and paid attention. You believed the horrendous red pen marks would eventually build up to something good, and you persevered. Thank you for never once complaining it was too much.

And then it got better. Slowly but surely, red pens started lasting me a little longer. A couple of days became a week, and later, it became a couple of weeks. Some of you asked me how to follow a career in writing, and it made my heart sing. Others I overheard telling juniors that I’d make it difficult for you in the classroom, but after all it was for the greater good. Every time I felt an overwhelming emotion that threatened to wash over me, a gratitude that of all the classrooms that I should make my own, it was this one that came to me. Thank you for pushing yourself through it, and making sure that all of us stayed committed to the path.

This last year has been hard in more ways than one. The only thing that kept me committed to the 7 AM class was you lot, who would turn up uncomplainingly everyday well on time to do more. How is half day on Saturday bad news, Akka? After all, it is for our own good. Your blind faith that what we did was for your benefit pushed us to be better people. It made me look up the official rules to comma usage and the actual definition of a gerund. It made me Google questions I expected you would ask, so I would have all my bases covered, seeking knowledge I never would have otherwise had. It reminded me to continuously, doggedly, without exception, commit to excellence, so that I could demand the same from you. Thank you for never settling for anything less than the best.

Today, you finished your last set of exams, the second paper of English. When you walked in to your first, some of you came to wish me good luck, telling me not to worry and that everything would be okay! Today, you heard British folk talk of literature festivals in an accent you have barely heard in person, of places and people and things so alien to your own life. And yet, you came out smiling. It was not easy, Akka, you told me. But we managed. If only you knew how much you really have managed, how far beyond everyone’s expectations you have come. In the last year, you have studied of things and people far, far beyond your own boundaries. You have sought out spaces far removed from your geographies. You have pushed and pushed and pushed, refusing to set limits and be fenced in. Each of you have done so very much in my classroom that the grade card makes no difference to this one truth – you each have done far more than ‘manage’. You have pushed yourself to be better versions of yourself. And you have pushed me to be a better version of me. Thank you for expecting interesting classes and challenging essays, every single day.

As you sat in front of me, the last day in your red and green uniform, with the weight of the exams behind us, I felt my heart grow heavy. I busied myself in chores to distract myself. Were the answer papers packed and ready for dispatch? Was the ice cream we had gotten in your honour ready to be served? Was everyone contentedly tucking into their paper cup? When the principal asked me to speak, I could hustle no more. To each of you kids, I meant every word I said.

Nothing I say today, I did not say the day before your first English exam. I walked in here a student myself and it will forever be this batch that made me the teacher I am. Whether I continue to be a teacher or not in the future, I am yet to figure out, but this batch shall always be special, the ones who grew with me in the class without complaint. And I can tell you today in full confidence – I know I have not been easy. I know I have been tough and set high expectations. But each of you have far exceeded them. When we first began, the principal asked me to be nice when I correct. I refused. Each of you know how that went. Each of your notebooks is testament to how far you have come. By the time you wrote the exam, I was handing you grades because there was no reason for me to withhold them. That essay was everything it needed to be. Nothing you did in class was easy. Many of the issues debated and discussed were far ahead of your grade level, and yet, not once did you complain. Each of you have written about four hundred essays for me this year, and that speaks of your engagement, your commitment, your determination to never give up. In that process, you taught me. To teach better, learn more, and never underestimate the power of trust and time in a classroom. So to all of you, thank you and congratulations.

I don’t know how it will be next year to walk in and not see your faces in the classroom, but I know better than to worry. One of you today told us that we had taught you to “tackle” – situations, people, issues. I’d like to think that is true, that we have set unto the world a set of people with the fire to be more and the strength to face the world. You told us how teachers supported you in every way they could, how you were thankful for the comfort you found in the school. There were quite a few moist eyes just about then.

To each of you, you should know this.

You supported us too. You pushed us too. You taught us too. Thank you for teaching me.

Wrapping up the 2016-2017 classroom

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.

Writing

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.

20161017_122332As 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.

Grammar

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.

Reading

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.

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Photo Credits: Geethapriya

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?

Listening

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!

Here are a couple of samples, one based on ‘See You Again’ and the other on ‘I am Moana’.

…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!

There is a girl in my class.

I don’t often do this, but special circumstances call for exceptions, right? I was initially planning to write about the prep for the boards – the nuts and bolts of the madness – but now, I shall push that for the next story. Instead, today is the story of a girl. For the first time, I write about one student and how she reminds me every day to push myself. Today is the story of perseverance.

When you first enter the class, she isn’t the first one you’d notice. She doesn’t top the class, she often doesn’t make her presence felt in the classroom, and more often than not slips into the background. She doesn’t ask questions during class hours and answers only when called upon, and yet, you’d never write her off as disinterested. She is always well-groomed, hair neatly tied back in a braid and dupatta firmly pinned into place on days when she isn’t in uniform. She turns in her work on time and on days she can’t, approaches the teacher before class to “ask for an excuse”. All in all, she is the perfect example of decorum.

This girl is the oldest child of the house, with siblings in the same school. She is the typical older sister, giving them orders of what to pick up and put where, and gets deeply embarrassed if she notices a teacher listening. She cribs about them getting away with things she could never dream of but stomachs it with the brave smile of being the older one. Mundane issues aside, she is always, always engaged in the struggle for self-betterment.

My first memory of this was in the run up to Sports Day in August. Us teachers were sitting in the sun overseeing practice and a few of the senior girls came and sat with us. We were just chatting, getting to know each other outside the confines of the classroom, when she turned around and asked me a question. “Akka, can I ask you something?” I told her I’d tell her what I knew, but had no idea of what was coming. “I am very lazy, Akka. I don’t want to be, but I am. Can you tell me how to work hard?” I was stumped. Not only was there a certain self-awareness I did not entirely expect, there was a desire to break out of mould and a willingness to admit that she did not know how. I gave her some half-baked, completely unconvincing replies about setting small targets and prioritising, but even as I spoke, I was sure of one thing. I had been completely unprepared to be the mentor she sought. Teacher, perhaps I had gotten a hang of. Mentor? In that minute of the Coimbatore sun, I was completely out of my depth.

Moments like this happened more frequently in the next few months and soon stopped seeming as out of the blue as they once had. As the Science and Math exams drew closer, I had less of a reason to interact with her, and so it was January. She was back in my class, except with English boards around the corner, there really wasn’t enough time to sit under coconut trees and chat. We got to work and kept at it, my barrage of worksheets and exercises not really leaving much room for personal ruminations. And then there it was, another moment I had not expected in the least.

As a little bit of background, you should know the schedule these kids have been on the last few weeks. The English, ICT, and Tamil boards begin on May 15th and continue for a month, spanning five papers. In the run up to that, they have been in class practically all the time. They meet me at about 7 AM every day and sit in English prep work till 10:30 AM, with a half hour break for breakfast. Starting at 11 AM till lunch at 1 PM, they are with the Tamil teacher, and then the ICT teacher takes over from 2 PM to 4 PM. They finally have a break for a couple of hours before meeting me again at 6 PM till dinner at 8:30 PM. After dinner is usually when they come by to clear specific doubts, clarify correction errors, the whole lot. Now, usually when I describe this manic schedule, most people ask me why we put them through such a specific brand of torture, except catch this. We don’t. We are asked to.

When I was planning my intensive class schedules and content, I asked the kids how many mock exams they wanted to do in a window of ten working days. I expected to hear either two or a very ambitious three. Very seriously, one student said twenty-five. I balked. I asked if he was joking and he said no. I reminded him there were other subjects to do, and he said they were staying overnight at the school anyway. Finally, I pled relief by reminding them it takes me five hours to set one question paper and I was physically incapable of churning out twenty-five. Phew. Anyway, now that context has been set, a return to our protagonist of the day…

On one such mad day of only having two hours of unscheduled time on her hands, this girl blew me away. I was sitting in the staff room ploughing through the mountains of correction that comes with teaching the same set of kids for about five hours a day when she found me. She asked to come in, and when I asked what she needed, said she had come for an essay topic. I blinked at her. I told her she had been in class with me for three hours that morning and was gearing up for another two-and-something in the evening, was she sure she wanted to write for me in her spare time? She said she did and I dug something up from my growing archive of topics. When I walked into class at 6 PM that day, she came up to me and submitted her notebook, asking if I would be okay taking a look at it. “I know you have other correction, Akka, but would you mind taking a look at this?”

Every day from that day on, this girl has done one more essay. She has come into the staff room and asked for permission to borrow the magazines kept for teachers. I told her to help herself and she picked up a copy of The Week with a cover story on Punjabi politics. At 7 AM the next morning, she had a two-page summary on it. Sure, parts of it were misunderstood and it showed she was writing of a subject alien to her, but there it was, double-underlined as appropriate in that neatly formed handwriting of hers. Once again, I corrected it and sent her on her way.

This girl with neat braids and pinned dupatta writing about the Badals and the state of Punjab astounded me. She wants to become a doctor, “Ayurvedic so people will take the treatments my grandmother says seriously,” and wrote an entire essay once “about my life, Akka, not entirely but parts of it.” She discovered semi-autobiographical writing by herself. She discovered national politics and the line between fact and fiction by herself. She discovered the thirst of seeking out knowledge, and today, refuses to give up, even at the end of working days with over nine hours of class.

There is this girl in my class. She is why I take my corrections seriously, why my Sunday afternoons are spent digging corners of the internet for comprehension questions, listening exercises, and grammar games. She is the student who pushes teachers to do better.