Time. Project Day this year is going to be based on time, and I could not be more excited! There is something about vague, abstract concepts that allows the imagination to get carried away, that makes everything possible. Many of the time, preparing for these classes is a great learning curve for teachers as well, making us push our own limits, ask why we choose to cover one subject or count one as more important when making our lesson plans. In many ways, it empowers the student to become the teacher, putting the onus on them to ask the questions and drive the conversation, simultaneously expecting the teacher to be prepared with a wide ambit of possible classes.
In my very first introductory class, I did a word association exercise, just to get a sense of where their mind goes when we speak of time. After we got past the days and weeks and months, the minutes and hours, the decades and centuries and millennia, things got interesting. We spoke of clocks and sundials, and then we spoke of mobile phones (because how do you tell the time today, really?). We then spoke of over-dependence on gadgets – how during the Chennai floods, people wanted power banks from Bangalore to charge their phones because suddenly we had no clock, no torch, no nothing. We spoke of all sorts of things and then one little boy piped up “money” and the rest of the class became about inflation. I loved it, obviously, and you can read the story here. Introductions and basics over, we got back to the mindmap I had promised to execute over the course of the term.
That is how I found myself at my laptop making an ‘Introduction to Personification’ worksheet, leading up to Father Time. I wrote out about a dozen sentences about time, using ‘it’, and asked them to convert all the ‘it’s to ‘he’. I left it at that, went on to write a similar paragraph on nature, and asked them to convert all the ‘it’s to ‘she’. And then I caught myself. Why was I dictating the ‘he’s and ‘she’s? Why was it okay to impose internalised associations on thirteen-year-olds without being critical about it. What if I asked them to choose and sneaked in a little about norms and socialisation as well? With that was born the personalisation worksheet. You can find it here.
As expected, about 85% of the class conformed with the universal norm when personifying. These kids, learning ESL in a rural classroom and being introduced to the concept of personification for the first time, still knew intuitively what gender to assign. Time-Nature-Death. He-She-He. And then I asked them the tough question. Why? Why did they choose the he and the she as they did? That is when the class got interesting.
Akka, boys are stronger.
Girls never get angry, but when they do, it is dangerous.
Girls are only beautiful and caring.
Boys are never on time. They come whenever they want.
Girls are not on time.
Boys are stronger and faster.
Boys are hardworking and determined.
Girls listen better. Girls make better friends.
There are more men in the world.
Girls are positive and good people, like mothers and sisters.
Boys like the outdoors better. Girls get tanned.
I spoke about internalisation, about how many people across the world would agree with their lists – boys are strong, fast and outdoorsy while girls are beautiful, soft and caring. But I asked them what would happen if I switched the headings on the table. What if ‘he’ became ‘she’ and ‘she’ became ‘he’? Do they still think it could be true?
In one of the two classes, this turned out to be a Eureka moment. While the other class nodded in agreement, pointing out characteristics from the “he” list that could fit girls, this class jumped up in recognition. Their list had “they are everywhere,” “impatient,” and “anger/danger” on the “he” list, along with “hardworking” and “determined”. The words look familiar. Our class girls are like this only, Akka! It is true, Akka. Girls can also be like this – look at them! Suddenly it all made sense.
Amidst the laughing and giggling in class that day, I hope a lesson stuck, one deeper and more important than the concepts of personification and pronouns. If I had to choose one sentence that would linger on in that class, there is no doubt in my mind what it would be.
We all make decisions and assumptions all the time. But let’s get into the habit of asking ourselves why. Why did you reflexively yell your collective protest when I started reading out Nature with a ‘he’? Why do we believe what we believe? Why.