Parallel processing and larger pictures

Today, I did something I would have thought impossible a few months ago. As a fledgling teacher almost two years ago, I would plan each class in excruciating detail and then work up a Plan B and C and D, in case things didn’t go as planned. Today, I found myself in a situation that I would have never thought possible. Today, for a little over an hour, I handled three different classes across three different syllabi spanning two subjects. And I survived.

Today’s situation was just unfortunate circumstance – a couple of teachers unavailable and my desire to make sure I get as many hours with board exam kids as possible. So here I was, teaching the map work section of Asia’s physical features for Class 8, while one set of Class 9 kids did exercises on question tags and degrees of comparison and another set did an IGCSE-esque reading comprehension on the fast disappearing Indian vulture population. Amidst the doubt clearing, instruction giving, and checking on the classes next door, there were corrections to do and the next set of worksheets to make. And while my throat may not agree with me, it was a riot. It was a moment to realise how much there was to do and how far I had come.

The last few weeks have been a roller coaster of emotions, a see-saw between the never-ending (largely) self-induced panic and stress and the occasional yet overwhelming realisation that this stint is almost over, and if I ignored the never-ending stream of correction and the amount I have contributed to landfills in the form of red pen refills, I will actually miss all of this. I will miss the classroom and the laughter, the silliness of mistakes and goof-ups of teacher and student alike. I will miss the joy of being where the change is, not one foot removed or one step away. Exactly there. And while teaching pronouns often does not seem like creating revolutionary change, every once in a while, a smart question or a well-written piece of work or a thought process that hints at something deeper keeps us there.

But more than that, today was also a reminder of why I came. Straight out of college, I wanted to “truly understand development,” bolster classroom knowledge with something more “real”. And in the middle of juggling four different sets of kids in three classes today, I realised this was that moment. Amidst the intent of “making a difference” and “leaving a mark” (which we hopefully are), this is the reality. These are the moments that development discourse has no way of capturing. That amidst the storyline of educating first generation learners, you need to account for substitution timetables, for sore throats and dusters that don’t dust, for classes that don’t go as planned and choose their own path, pulling you along. This was the real deal.

Today, I had a moment where I had to explain to my class that ‘Indo-Gangetic’ by definition meant it was in India but I also had a moment where we learnt about Johannes Gutenberg and the printing press. I had a moment when I gulped down half a litre of water to calm my burning throat after throwing my voice to catch the attention of a class full of buzzing thirteen-year-olds, but I also had a moment where we all cracked up about something inconsequential and just laughed together for no good reason. And both these stories are worth telling.

With only a few months to go and a series of ‘lasts’ that populates the time that remain, I am at that point where things are starting to fall into place. And one is this. I taught four classes today, and that does not make me an exceptional teacher. It makes me a part of a system that is close to the ground. It makes me one of many others around the country. And it teaches me what no degree in development can – that the “real” story of developmental action, the colours of change in the education space, is made of board marker ink on your fingers, the hangover of the last class, and the perpetual flurry of the next one just around the corner.


Sherlock, Paddington, and all things British

Sometime over the last two months, this blog disappeared from the top few things on my mind, and while I knew that theoretically, I should be writing and updating and all of that, I just never did. The days rolled by in a never-ending spiral of preparation-class-correction. Rinse. Repeat. And then an unexpected text shook me out of the stupor.

So here I am, close to the end of my time here (wut!) with some more school stories to tell. Much has happened in these last few months, though most of it didn’t seem “blog worthy”. Just goes to show how much I have internalised and “become a teacher” I guess. Most of this term is largely just exam preparation for everyone in senior school, and let’s be honest, there isn’t really too much exciting about that.

Except when you are a rural school for tribal children trying to climb the ladder of Edexcel IGCSE. Then board exam prep is quite eventful, to be honest.

The thing is, the English as Second Language (ESL) exam from Edexcel involves a Listening paper that has always been the steepest mountain to climb. Being London based, it comes thick with an alien accent and three tasks of increasing speed and complexity. Not only do you need to keep an ear out for British idiosyncrasies, but that accent. Uff. In the last year, the students really struggled with that component and it affected the final grades, so this year we decided to up the ante on listening exercises. Except how?

It is only when you look that you realise that the availability of American pop culture is so much more than British. And surprise surprise, the kids find the American accent easier.

And that is when Benedict Cumberbatch came to my rescue. We watched episodes of Sherlock, pre-watched for classroom appropriateness, and answered comprehension questions vaguely of the format of IGCSE. We watched with subtitles once and then switched over to just audio. And while that worked (and was welcomed with much fanfare and applause in classrooms – never were the kids as punctual as they were when they saw it was a Listening class scheduled!), it quickly became apparent that some of the comprehension was rooted in understanding visual cues. Which they wouldn’t have.

Back to the drawing board. And a suggestion to go back to the classics.

Thanks to the wonderful folks at Red Elephant Foundation, where I also volunteer, I got not only personally recorded clips from other volunteers with British accents themselves but also, we found a bunch of links of audio books. And so, in class right now, we are neck deep in British-accented children’s classics.

sherlock and paddington
These beautiful bastions of British culture…and the secret behind my lesson plans.

When you are a couple of months away from Edexcel IGCSE ESL Paper 2 (Listening), your days become filled with Matilda and Paddington the Bear! Whoever said board exam prep was pressurising?

For the students, it is an intense immersion programme in foreign sounds and experiences, a daily audio-visual experience that hopefully will result in increased preparedness for the Big Bad Board exams. For the teacher, it was a moment to look back, recognise mistakes and course-correct, for a majority of my listening exercise lesson plans have been American. It was a lesson in asking for help and reaching out, a reminder that there are good people willing to lend a hand if only they knew what they needed to do.  And so it goes, prepping for board exams.

PS – In case it helps anyone, here are sample worksheets – Sherlock S01E02 Questions and Answers, one part of Paddington Questions and Answers, based on ‘A Bear Called Paddington, Volume 1 read by Bernard Cribbins’ (1975)

Advice giving and class teacher-ing

I really have struggled in the last few weeks to find something to write on this blog, and when I do get struck by an idea, I often can’t juggle class hours and correction demands around well enough to write it before it seems old and slightly faded over the edges. Perhaps this lack of “fodder” is testament to how I have finally become a “real” teacher. My days seem normal, classes and worksheets and corrections. Fewer lines stand out to me in stark contrast and I am less easily surprised. Often I find myself wondering whether that is because I have become a “real” teacher (which is understood as a good thing) or because I have finally begun taking my surroundings for granted, as we tend to when we get something for extended periods of time (which is probably a bad thing). I’m not sure there is a real answer to that musing though, so I shall let that one lie for some time.

Today, though, something did happen that made me smile. One of the biggest struggles for me over the last one and half years has been one that is slightly off-centre to my primary role. In January 2017, I was made a full-time class teacher of Class 9. Till the end of that academic year, I was with one set of kids and from June 2017, was with the next set of Class 9 kids. As it turns out, class teacher-ing involves a lot more than filling attendance registers. It involves a lot more than even hounding students about leave letters and pulling them up for improper uniforms. It involves giving advice. And it turns out that I am not “real teacher” enough to be sure of myself in those moments.

You see, my self image stands fairly squarely in my way. In the face of conflict, many different “facts” plant themselves in my brain. A) I am largely conflict-averse myself. B) I was brought up to be fiercely independent, and don’t particularly think it is anyone’s place to volunteer free advice. C) I am not sure how adult Class 9 kids are meant to be. I would assume fairly adult, or atleast adult enough to not deign everyday squabbling with an actual response, but is that true? D) No matter what, here I am an outsider. I will never have the whole story, the whys and hows and whens and why nots that truly characterise any problem at hand. Put all of this together, and I am unsure of what exactly to do when one kid does not talk to the other, when someone says something unsavoury about something else, whatever else gets thrown up in the everyday lives of rural adolescents.

In this context, when the situation does arise for me to be “class teacher-y,” I tread carefully, lightly even. I give generic advice in groups, personal advice individually. I pass on values and ethics that have built me to be the person I am, trying my hardest to present holistic pictures and stress the need for self-reflexivity and questioning. I tell them to think things through till the very end, and be conscious of the effect of consequences on not just themselves. It was in this context that I told them something a few weeks ago. It was something that has truly defined the way I approach my decision-making and life choices, and I hoped it would make sense to them. In a conversation about studying for exams and work ethic as much as it was about the risk of gossiping and back-biting, I told them my mantra. In the choice between the Easy and the Right, choose the right.

That talk happened, many classes after that happened, and I forgot all about it. Until this morning. I finished my forty-five minute class a very grumpy soul, battling a stuffy nose and the impatience of a Friday morning moving too slow, when something caught my eye. My kids had been on a classroom decorating spree in the last few days and suddenly, more posters adorned the walls. There was not really anything unusual about that, but then I saw this.

Class teachering
When they say ‘leaving one’s mark,’ I really hope this is what they mean.

In the last few weeks, I have struggled with what I call The Beginning of the End. In the next four months, lots of kids write lots of board exams, and then my time as an ESL teacher is done. It seems like the clichéd yesterday that I set a countdown on this blog for my first teaching day. In these moments where I worry about having done enough, spent enough, pushed hard enough, reminders like this are lifelines; reminders that change does not happen overnight, that we all do the best we can, and like a very wise teacher from my own high school days said, I am not Atlas.

Now, it is possible they read this elsewhere or heard it somewhere else. It is possible it sounded like a catchy phrase more than a dictum of decision making. A whole plethora of possibilities exist, and even if it was words of advice from a teacher, there is no reason to believe it is more than writing on the wall, literally. Yet, the fact that I could have had a small part to play in sowing a new seed of thought some day is enough to get past a stuffy nose and Fridays that move too slowly.

English, Economics, and learning to teach

There was a time, I don’t remember when, that someone said something that just stuck in my head. If you were to get a teacher to take an exam, and tell them they had to choose a subject other than their own, would you be confident of taking the test? Invariably, the colleagues around me said they’d choose a language – English or Tamil. What about us language teachers? What would we do? (Fun fact, I realised IGCSE Math would be my test of choice – yes, I know.)

The shock of realising I’d actually choose Math apart, the question got me thinking. Somewhere along our adult lives, most of us end up getting pigeonholed into our areas of choice and start focusing on “specialising” – a journey that often takes us deeper into a specific subject, at the cost of the plethora of others at hand. While we may make concentrated efforts to branch out, be open, and embrace things outside our comfort zone, how many of us can claim any kind of expertise?

Fast forward a few months, and a colleague was suddenly and unexpectedly not able to continue teaching. That left a huge gaping hole in timetables and with board exams of various sorts looming on the horizon, it fell on me to handhold the 10th grade class through Social Science. That meant the whole shebang – History, Geography, Civics and Economics. That day, I found myself flipping through the TN state board textbook for social science and making notes myself, the line between learner and teacher getting rather blurred in the process.

Over the next few days, I would do so again and again. Even this minute, I am wondering whether to embark on Civics or Geography next, now that the Economics boat has sailed. And I think back to my own teachers – English teacher who taught Geography, Economics/Business Studies teacher who taught a module of History…and in hindsight, I realise how much of their individual effort it must have taken to take those roles on. And why they did it. As I sit and make Eco notes akin to those I made for myself as a student prepping for boards, I realise the growth in those pages.

Eco notes
Teacher or learner: Eco notes

On Friday, I taught my class the role of National Income, the difficulties in its calculation, and the ways in which it can be calculated. I taught them the lacunae in traditional economic theory, the idea of a free market, and the utopian demand-supply equilibrium. All of this was sandwiched between a lecture on modal verbs and another on figures of speech, but there it was – economics amidst the English. Today, we traced economic development through independence and liberalisation. We spoke of Cadbury and Colgate and Bindu appalam in London and Walmart in Amritsar. We talked about how American products have flooded our markets that we can’t imagine a life without them. We spoke of how, just ten years ago, their families did not have phone connectivity in the village and today, we can buy Jio across the counter. We spoke of how there are no STD/PCO booths to speak of now, of how when I was in school, we’d carry Rs. 2 in our pencil boxes for “emergency phone calls”. And in the end, we tied it all into the story of Indian Economic Development.

For two hours after lunch, we ploughed through Indian economic history. I could have sworn I went back ten years to the times when I was a student in multiple-hour Economics classes. I wouldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams that one day, I would be on the other side, drawing D-S graphs from memory and explaining the difference between ‘gross’ and ‘net’ and the definition of depreciation. In these moments, when I feel least confident, I also feel most energised. The classroom becomes more of a challenge, the textbook more of a climb, and every day’s timetable throws up something new to look forward to. Every class spent on Economics is a reminder to not get too comfortable in the English teacher’s chair. No matter how easily parts of speech roll of my tongue, there is more teaching to be done and perhaps more importantly, more learning.

Why should Time be our Father?

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.

Teaching Economics in English class: why do prices increase with time, Akka?

When I walked into Class 8 yesterday, I was a little unsure what to expect. Usually there is a little bit of a catch-up phase after vacation when everyone has to reacclimatise to the sounds of English and become comfortable with these words coming out of their mouth. Couple this with a subject as vast and abstract as ‘time’ and I was not sure what I was getting myself into.

The first few questions received lukewarm responses and monosyllabic answers. Would you go back in time? Would you want to know your future? Do you think time travel should be a thing? And then I hit the jackpot. I did a word association exercise with ‘Time’ written in big block letters on the board. Tell me every word you can think of when I say time, I asked them.

Day, month, year. Day, night, seasons. Alarm, clock, watch, mobile phone. Late, early. Postponed, advanced. Punctuality. Money.

When I heard that last one, I pried a little more, asking what the boy meant. I fully expected him to tell me Thought for the Day-type quotes of time being money and how neither should be wasted. He entirely took me by surprise when he said things become more expensive over time. Ok, I thought. This could be a chance to do an Economics 101, perhaps the most ignored part of what TN government counts Social Science and arguably the most dry for middle schoolers.

So we wrote the words ‘inflation’ and ‘free markets’ on the board. When asked why the prices increase, the answer was ‘taxes’ so that was written on the board too. There began our class, a slight deviation from my intended plan on composition and tense.

I chose the whiteboard marker in my hand as weapon of choice. If you were to put a price to this, what would you say, I asked. The average answer was between Rs. 20 and 30, with one kid saying Rs. 10 and another saying Rs. 35. Assuming you are all shopkeepers right next to each other selling only markers, who would get all the business, I asked. The girl who said Rs. 10 very excitedly put up her hand. I would, Akka. My shop is only cheap. And what would you others do, I prodded. Get angry, Akka, the girl quipped. I chuckled and asked what after that. We’d reduce our prices, they said. By how much? Lower than hers. What else could you do? Give offers, Akka. Great, perfect. So who is deciding the prices? We are, Akka. And how do you decide? Seeing who wants to buy, Akka. And this, is demand-supply 101. My fingers (and the muggu in me, I accept) was itching to draw the graph and take it from there, but I stopped myself. The concept was more important that x-axis y-axis, I reminded myself. Ok, so markets are any space where people want to sell and others want to buy. Whether it is your sandhai or it is Flipkart. Yes, ka. Even if we can’t see it, selling and buying is happening. Perfect. Free markets done.

Now, had anyone heard your parents cribbing about how cheap things were in their time? Yes Akka, my father said he could even go to the theatre with Re. 1! Perfect. What can you buy with Re. 1 today? Chocolate. And how much do you need to go to the theatre today? Around Rs. 150, Akka. Great, so what used to cost Re. 1 costs Rs. 150 now? Yes, Akka. Is that entirely because of taxes, you think?…Umm. You tell, Akka.

Ok, detour number 279401. What are taxes? GST, Akka. Income tax, Akka. Those are examples, what is a tax itself? Something we need to pay, Akka. To whom? Income tax department, Akka. Which is a part of what? The government, Akka. There we go. So if you had to pay Rs. 20 for something, and the government asked for another Rs. 20 as tax, would you be happy? No Akka. And if you were not happy with the government, what can happen? We will not put vote for them, Akka. Great, so they will not get re-elected? So the price of something increasing by Rs. 149 cannot be entirely taxes? Yes, Akka. So what is it?


Today you need Rs. 150 to buy something that used to be Re. 1. Alternatively, the Re. 1 that could get you a full movie can now only get you chocolate? Meaning how much that Re. 1 can buy has fallen? This fall in purchasing power is what has led to Re. 1 becoming Rs. 150, an increase in prices? This is inflation. Now imagine this at a much larger scale. If you can buy a bike with Rs. 1 lakh today but I told you in the next few years, you will need Rs. 1 lakh to buy bread, what would happen? We would become poor, Akka. Now if that happens to the whole country? Everyone would become poor. So when this fall in purchasing power happens at a huge scale like this, when people’s entire savings are needed to buy bread, it is called hyperinflation.

And with this, the English class came to an end. I had not touched tenses, no one had written a word in their notebooks, but I came out of that class rejuvenated, refreshed, and hopeful about everything we can do in the classroom. Growing up, I enjoyed Economics even up to college but never counted myself confident enough to teach it. I remember my own Economics teacher in class 10 and how he struggled with us to labour through the graphs and definitions that IGCSE demanded. I would have never thought I would be on this side of an Economics lesson, even if only inadvertently.

Later in the evening, when I was narrating the incident to someone, they asked if I had taught entirely in English (yes), if they had engaged (yes, asking for repetition and clarification through it) and if they had understood (I’d like to think so). My phone buzzed in response. Wow, the text read. My sentiments exactly.

Reminders of ableism and inclusion

A few months ago, in a different context, someone asked a question on a public platform that struck a chord within me. Open your Whatsapp, he said. How many Persons with Disability are in your conversation? Isn’t that reflective of how invisible the population is?

It was in eighth standard that I went to my first inclusive film festival, complete with subtitling and audio descriptions. Between experiences like that, writing that fast grew into a focus on disability, and the experience of studying in truly inclusive environments, I was lucky to grow up in environments that mainstreamed disability. It really wasn’t that big a deal. But why am I going into this story now, you ask me? It all comes back to an essay from my classroom. (But of course!)

Yesterday was my fifth first-day-of-term. Yes, I haven’t gotten over how it has been five already. But this is a story from before the break. I chanced upon scribbled notes in my lesson planner, evidently a note-to-self to not forget the contents of that bout of correcting before I set out to September break, and the time has finally come to tell the story.

One essay was meant to be a story titled ‘Tsunami’. While I got pieces that spoke of destruction and devastation, people dying and losing homes (and realising that these kids weren’t born in 2004! What!), there was one that taught me how bracketed we get in our thinking with time. My question was not ‘A Tsunami’ or ‘The Tsunami’. It was just ‘Tsunami’. So who was I to mandate that the story had to be of huge tidal waves? I got a story of a girl named Tsunami who lived in Thekkalur and dealt with the impact of an alcoholic father. Correcting that essay, I realised I had no reason to mark it incorrect, that the expectation of a certain kind of story was entirely in my head, and that in a subject like English, there truly is often more than one appropriate answer.

But what really struck me in that set of corrections was not from the Tsunami essays. It was from an argumentative piece on whether movies or books are better means of entertainment across age groups. Once again, I was that teacher who expected a bunch of answers – movies are easier to watch, dictionaries take time to look through and movies allow for more contextual understanding, movies take less time versus books are traditional wisdom, you learn more inadvertently from books, etc. Then there was the one essay that caught me by surprise.

Movies are better because we can experience the emotions better. People who cannot see can hear the voices and people who cannot hear can see the emotions or read the dialogues. Movies like Charlie Chaplin are also good for them.


This ability to evaluate a simple, much-too-often used high school essay (I am not proud) through the lens of ableism left more than a little taken aback. It also reminded me of how important it is to encourage this line of thought at this age. It was at their age that I was at the film festival. I may not be able to bring the festival to them, but is it not our job as teachers in the classroom to make students sensitive to these ways of thinking? Should we not be taking more decisive steps to mainstream disability, the gender spectrum, all of these avenues of diversity that cause rifts in adults many years on? Should our classrooms not become spaces that truly reflect inclusivity?

Renewed faith and gusto for Term 5 of 6.