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.

A month to D-Day!

Board exam prep is in full steam and gosh, there is just no time to breathe! Perhaps the fact that I write this atop a side upper berth of the Indian Railways stands testament to just how maddening the last few weeks have been.

One (academic) year after I began teaching (yes, a one year post shall come up soon enough), I stand at the brink of board exams. Come May 15, seventeen students will begin writing the Edexcel IGCSE papers for English, Tamil, and Computer Science. Without exaggeration, I am more nervous than they are. Correction, without exaggeration, the teachers are more nervous than they are.

The average day goes like this. I start class at 7:30 in the morning and we plough through the specificities of the board till about 10:30 AM with a fifteen minute break for breakfast. From 10:45 to 1:15, the Tamil teacher takes over, and then it is the Computer Science teacher’s turn from 2:00 to 4:00. Post 4 PM, they get a couple of hours to themselves and then they are back to me from 6:00 to 8:30 PM when we break for dinner. Often times, doubt clearance, paper correction, marks totalling, what have you, spills over to after dinner and it is closer to 9:30 before I enter my room again, a full fourteen hours after I left. See, the catch is this. Everyone’s first reaction to this timetable is – oh my god, your poor kids! But. Hold that thought.

Picture me this.

On Monday, I decided I would do a visioning exercise to start us off, telling them to break down every day from Tuesday to the mocks and tell me what they would want to be revising. I told them I would take this into account for when I make my lesson plans and revision material, so that their queries and doubts are answered to the best of my ability. When they were in the middle of their timetabling, I asked them an innocent question. How many model papers would you like to do for practice before the mocks? (Yes, the mocks are practice in themselves, so essentially we are practising for the practice.) The answers left me speechless for a second.

There he was in the far right corner of the room, next to the window, a well-groomed, polite boy. His handwriting was second to calligraphy and his attendance was impeccable. I could not grouse him a single thing in class. When he raised his hand, I thought he’d tell me we didn’t need it. Mocks start in two weeks anyway, he would say, and I would take it from there. If only I knew what was coming.

Akka, we need twenty-five.

I gasped. Literally. In terms of background, Edexcel started offering English as a Second Language only since 2011 and therefore, the number of past papers available are pitiful. This means that every mock that they want to write, I need to create a question paper. One minor detail. Every two hour question paper that they write takes me five hours to set. Just set, forget correct. And this boy coolly throws a number at me.

I reminded him English was one of his three subjects, that he had classes for the others as well, and that it was impossible to write twenty five exams in eight working days. He said they would do take-home exams, that they were staying on campus anyway so working hours weren’t an issue, that they needed practice.

I told him twenty-five question papers meant a hundred and twenty five hours of work for me. That is five full days and then some without sleep or food or water, I told him. Or correction or any other material or pretty much anything else. That is okay, Akka, he replied in an instant. I was too astounded to ask him for who.

It was another student who came to my rescue. Akka, let us do four. Maybe five? After 125 hours of work, 25 doesn’t seem like too much. I agreed.

Now, you there. Now you tell me who is the poor soul here. Huh? Huh?

Thus began our board exam prep. Every session we tackle one part of the six-part question paper. We figure out ways to write informal letters and emails, the difference between articles and reports, how to summarise, and then we skim and scan till words are dancing in front of our eyes. What they write in the morning session needs to be corrected by the same evening so we don’t waste time making the same mistakes, and simultaneously, material for the next few days need to be dispatched for printing and stapling and such. It is a cycle, a machine that grinds away constantly.

Board exam prep is terrifying business. It is a concoction of stress and fear and pride all rolled into one. I oscillate dangerously between overwhelming pride at how far these kids have come even in the last year that I have seen them and crushing fear at systemic competition and the outside world. I think back to my own board exams and the nervousness I felt in the run up, and I think about today. Today I see in front of me children who are not caught up in the fear of the system or intimidated by the world outside. They are fearless dreamers, raring to go. Truly acham illai.

Every time I think of my kids, for in so many ways they really are, there is an image that stands out in my head, an anecdote from my classroom.

One day, a ninth standard boy asked me to explain the difference in usage between ‘in’ and ‘on’. Prepositions are confusing, he told me. I promised him I would double-check the rules and get back to him. A few days later, I took a class and taught them the differences. In the process of preparing for that class, I thought of a question. The question stumped me for quite a few minutes and as I proceeded to ask my circle of friends, everyone drew a blank. I even texted my Grade 12 English teacher whose response to me was ‘enne ma, room pottu yosikkareya?’ We all eventually got around to the answer, a good half hour after we set out.

Take these two sentences. Why is there a difference in preposition when it is referring to the same action?
I drank coffee in the morning. VS I drank coffee on the morning of July 29th.

Feeling rather pleased with myself, I walked into my ninth standard class the next morning and set them on the task. I wrote the two sentences on the board and asked them why it was different. I was waiting for whining about how English is an inexplicable language and such. Instead, the class greeted me with complete silence as they all contemplated the sentences on the board. A couple of weeks later, I posed the question to two tenth standard girls as we stood around making small talk between classes. They took all of two minutes to answer me.

Akka, the tense is the same and the subject and object are the same. But in the second sentence, the preposition is actually for the date, so it takes ‘on’. In the first sentence, it is for the time of day and so it takes ‘in’. That is why, Akka. We shouldn’t get confused seeing both the ‘morning’s.

Every time I think of my kids, every time I fear for them, every time I have nightmares about the boards, I remember the faces looking up at me with bewilderment, as if asking why I was posing such an obvious question. Those who have mastered prepositions should be ready to face the world. In/on are greater devils than most. Fingers crossed.

O/D Wanderings Part 1: Doddinakuppa

It is almost time for me to get down to my end-of-term post but how can I not write one on the week that was? So here it is, a travelogue-of-sorts of the madness that was last week.

Anaikatti – Coimbatore – Mangalore – Doddinakuppa – Hassan – Mysore – Hosehalli/Saragur (Bandipur) – Mysore – Bangalore – Coimbatore – Anaikatti

We set off on the stated mission of visiting our sister school in rural Karnataka. Settled deep within the coffee estates that blanket the sprawling hills in the area, the school is a one building/three classroom affair that is about six months old. The teachers, young girls from the neighbourhood, are lovely – forever willing to learn and seeking out new knowledge. But wait, I get ahead of myself.

I was lost to the world for four days. Perhaps that is the best place to start. While I was unsure of internet connectivity, little did I know that Vodafone is entirely useless inside the coffee plantations, and my phone served as a paperweight for the four days I was there. Waking up to someone lighting firewood for our showers and falling asleep to pitch darkness (you have not seen darkness if you have not been in Doddinakuppa without electricity), alarm clocks and Google Calendars became things of distant memory. For four days, I wrote plenty and worked some, conducting sessions for the teachers in English language and communication. Here is a sample of what we did.

Julie Andrews belted out ‘My Favourite Things’ in class and we put the lines in order, paying attention to whether ‘shnitzel’ comes before ‘strudel’ or the other way around. What are the seasons in other parts of the world with a winter to speak of? What is a sash? What are mittens? Or sleighs? We laboured through the cultural context, the pronunciation that isn’t entirely natural, and finally, we understood this song of a young woman comforting small children; an environment the teachers are only too familiar with. What came next is the fun. We wrote our own songs, listening out our favourite things, tweaking them around to make sure the number of syllables matched, and sang it a few times over. What fun, the lyrics were!

Rainbows and colours

And dancing with friends

Birds with long feathers

And dosa, black tea

Children with kites on strong, windy days

These are a few of our favourite things.

Songs in the bathroom

And making sweet jamuns

Crows’ sounds

And ant hills

And gobi manchuries

Shopping for dresses in the big bazaars

These are a few of our favourite things

Watching a movie with my family

Going for long drives on my own scooty

Staying for long days in Anaikatti

Colours on flowers

And plants on the hill

Fishes in water

And stars in the sky

Brown bread and jam and a lot of butter

These are a few of our favourite things

White-coloured rabbits

And dry-roasted biscuits

Love birds and twittering

And pani with puri

Flying like a parachute and aeroplane

These are a few of our favourite things

Princess costumes with bright-coloured wings

Dancing in the rain and splashing too

Swimming in the water in summer season

These are a few of our favourite things

In the days that followed, we discussed Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise,’ and spoke about whether we agreed with what she said and what we made of it. Some liked it, some were unsure, some said it went over their heads…all in all, a good session of poetry!

We sang plenty. Karadi Tales’ ‘My name is Madhavi’ for their Annual Day (and even added a paragraph about Kaveri from Madikkeri!), ‘I love to wander by the stream’ from my high school days, and our very own Sound of Music tracks. Every once in a while, as they whipped up some food for our lunch, I’d hear strains of the songs floating in from the kitchen. The thought that neerdosai was being cooked to the tunes of English music made me happier than it should.

We did vocal exercises plenty too. How many different things can you do with a potato? You can make fries and chips and curry. You can boil it and steam it. You can cut it and dice it and grate it (ish). But you can make it a paperweight. You can carve it. You can do oh-so-much with a common potato stolen from the kitchen! Did anyone notice the sneaky vocabulary lesson as well?

The final day was my personal favourite, an exercise that everyone has consistently found buckets of fun. We learnt directions with a blindfolded hurdles track, forcing one partner to guide the other only by voice. I told them I would make them start from the beginning if they guided them by holding their arm or some such, and they had a ball, walking around campus and unexpected dogs and collisions along the way. When blindfolds are removed and paths are seen, the conversation is always hilarious. I thought I was going around in circles, someone exclaimed. I thought I was walking into walls, another retorted. And an hour of stumbling around blindfolded later, all the retorts and comebacks were in English – a little stuttered, sure, but English nonetheless. Somewhere amidst the step-ups and step-downs, a little bit of the fear, the caution, the reluctance was lost.

My four days in Doddinakuppa were a lesson in camaraderie, of sharing stories in the light of a phone or none at all, and giggling like Mallory Towers schoolgirls. But my four days in Doddinakuppa were also a lesson in patience. I spent the first day restless at this sudden disconnection to the world, my friends and family who did not have any heads up that I would disappear. Once the initial sense of being unnerved settled, I learnt to embrace the quiet, the absence of the telltale vibration of my phone always at arm’s reach. I learnt how to be fully present in the conversations around me, stories of childhoods so drastically different from my own and circumstances that seem so alien and yet increasingly familiar. I learnt to slow down a little, to stop just to see the coffee blossom like sheets of snow. I learnt to be.

PS – O/D stands for ‘on-duty’, a term that was signed against my name in the attendance register the week that I was away. Another first checked off the list. 🙂

130 essays.

Alternative title : Meet and greet my class.

When I came back to term in January, I had a ninth standard girl ask me a question. We are also going to write English board exam, Akka, but why have we not had as much practice as the tenth graders? She was right. Thanks to the complexities of an international syllabus, she was all set to write the exam in June 2017 but had not come in for as many extra hours as her seniors had. I told her the rest of the term was theirs and that I’d make sure they caught up.

If only I knew what I had signed up for.

As it turns out, there was friendly competition between the two batches on who would write the most essays. Akka, they wrote 100? We will write more, they decided instantaneously. This coming from a bunch of kids who came with a warning a few months ago – they are great, but they just don’t like to write. Well, it seems they jumped over that one.

From January till date, the nine students have produced about 130 essays for me, a detail that has not escaped the attention of their seniors. (At dinner yesterday, a girl from the tenth asked me to ‘keep them in line’ – romba scene podaraange, Akka, 130 ezhuditaanga nnu! They are showing off too much because they’ve written 130.) Aside from being a nightmare to correct (I never seem to be able to stay on top of my corrections!), they are the perfect window into the lives of these students. Having recently become their class teacher, meeting them at 7 AM every day and reading their work makes me feel like I know them all a little bit more.

So, people of the internet, meet my class.

There is S, a perpetually cheery and forever smiling young girl. Coming from a difficult family (an understatement reserved for the internet), you could never tell just by looking at her. She struggles with spellings and logical continuation of her stories but is one of the most genuine, tender students I’ve met in the school. There isn’t a day when I have felt slightly run down that she hasn’t picked up on it and asked what was wrong.

Her best friend and forever-partner-in-crime amidst a fair amount of bickering and squabbling is N. A diligent, committed girl, her notebook was the first to show heartwarming improvement since June. On rough days at work, it is something she once said that acts as my pick-me-up – I never used to enjoy writing, Akka, but now I want to be a journalist like you.

The quietest of the boys is R, a diminutive, waif-like child who has blossomed into a force to be reckoned with. When I joined in June, he was on the list of children who may need extra help. In the worksheet I handed out yesterday, he topped the class. Sensitive and observant, R has made the painful climb to the top the only way he knows to – by putting in the hours. And how.

And then there is the trio of Ps. P1 is the quiet elder sibling of a rather riotous student in a younger grade. The first time I heard, I would not believe it, though the family resemblance was undeniable. His essays always star himself in the protagonist’s role, whether about superpowers or boy-next-door heroes, or fantastical journeys under the ocean. When explaining the concept of ‘people who support those in the limelight’ in some context the other day, he muttered so softly I wasn’t sure I heard. Like me, Akka.

His best friend is P2. They are joined at the hip, and on days when they have the leeway, even sync their wardrobe. (Just a few minutes ago, I was looking at a pair of pale yellow shirts in front of me.) P2 loves to act the hero. Any praise or appreciation or acknowledgement will see him raising his hand and waving away imagined fans, usually to much tittering in class. A surprise package, he was the first student of the school to hand over an essay with no subject-verb disagreement or tense mistakes. The fans were rather thrilled that day.

Sitting next to him this morning was A. A is the incorrigible, insatiable voice of curiosity in every class. He is the kind of student who cannot, should not, will not spend an entire class in silence. He is the one with questions about everything, solutions to everything; the one who will predictably say ‘No’ when everyone else says ‘Yes’. Recently, he sprung this one on me – Akka, if I am violent in pursuit of peace, can I still win the Nobel Prize for Peace?

The last of the trio, P3, is an earnest and committed child, forever showing up early in the mornings with ironed uniforms and impeccably grooming. Early in my time at the school, he interrupted a class to ask if I could clarify a doubt – how do we actually use commas, Akka? That, of course, led to a few hours of discovery and grammatical realisations for me as well. I have dreams of not having a single correction to make in that notebook.

Then there is K, a soft-voiced, quiet girl who struggles with ill health and a retinue of siblings behind her. Never one to crib, she swallows the almost-constant pain and slew of medication without complaint, only coming up to me to whisper the newest update as an explanation for a day off or a few hours missed. Can I have the worksheet I missed, Akka? The question will dog me until I really pull out a copy and hand it over.

Finally, there is D, an earnest, sensitive child. My first class teacher moment came with her as she confessed she felt bad – I am trying, Akka, but I still don’t understand tense. We sat and ploughed through it together and she is well on her way to mastering that one. D is nervous (ish) around authority but is chatty, relaxed, and willing to forget teacher-student roles outside class.

Between them, these nine of churned out essay after essay, zipping through my first set of fifty and then my next. Today, my To Do list has an entry to think up the next fifty. How are your students, I often get asked. Enthusiastic, I reply. Sometimes, a little too enthusiastic. It is these faces that flash before my eyes when I say that out loud. It is their voices asking for another essay and it is my response – please don’t write today, guys. Let’s take a break.

Obviously, they refuse.

Teaching does itself.

I always knew it in theory at the back of my head, like those words of wisdom you grew up with your grandmother whispering into bedtime stories. It never really struck me until today, somehow. It never was a real piece of knowledge till this afternoon.

If you use things they already know, half your teaching is done.

And then there was this other thing I knew. Way back in my grade 10, I spent hours and hours learning French with a teacher who spent hours and hours with me. He would Skype/Google Talk me for over half a dozen hours a day and then inundate me with writing exercises that lasted for another couple of hours. Every day. Over a few months. At the end of that period, that teacher knew everything to know about a fifteen-year-old’s life. He knew what bugged me, what made me anxious, and what I celebrated. I remember him saying one day, how else can we handle six hours every day?

A teacher doesn’t always have be in Teaching Mode. Teaching often does itself.

For the last week (more?), I have been conducting my newest wave of teaching training sessions, helping a group of eight fellow teachers work on spoken language and communication. We squirrel ourselves into an empty classroom in one corner of the school, sit in a circle, and talk through many things in the world. We don’t have a whiteboard and we don’t have a set-in-stone game plan. We just sit and talk.

We talk of all sorts of things; from the celebrities that annoy us to our most embarrassing moments. We play games with toilet paper, arbitrarily tearing off a number of squares and then telling the group that many fun facts about ourselves. We play games blindfolded, guiding a partner through an obstacle course to learn how to give instructions. We sing songs to learn vocabulary and pronunciation, often to an audience of toddlers peeking through the window at this sight of singing teachers. And today, we did something else.

I took a basket of vegetables to class.

Our vegetable basket
Our vegetable basket

After the preliminary catch up of everything done thus far, I asked everyone to close their eyes. Taking the basket around one at a time, they each put their hands in and picked one up. No one was allowed to talk or open their eyes till everyone had their turn, but even then squeals of recognition or groans of anticipation slipped through. At the end, we had a circle with an onion, a potato, a lemon, a couple of tomatoes, a coconut, a carrot, and a cauliflower. The task before them was simple. Use your vegetable as the core ingredient of a dish, and teach us how to make it. (Yes, I got inspired by MasterChef, kinda sorta). I did not expect what happened next.

You can take a couple of minutes to think about your dish, I told them. By the time I was done, a voice shot back in response – no, let me start.

The voice belonged to an Akka often teased for her heart of a lion that hid behind the voice of a mouse. Let’s just call her Braveheart Akka, shall we? Eager to learn, she was cautious of making mistakes, a conflict that often played out on her face. I want to speak English like you, she’d often tell me. The first class she was in, she was sweating buckets at the end of an exercise that had her speaking for a minute. Let me start, she said today, clear as a whistle.

She taught us how to make carrot halwa, complete with cashews and raisins, and would only let us close with “and now, eat” after it had been taken off the stove to cool.

For the next hour, I had my “students” teach me how to make lemon juice (“the complicated juice in restaurants”), onion bhajji¸ cauliflower chilli (with a litre of oil used!), tomato gotsu (we decided we’d just say ‘gotsu’), coconut oil (complete with “pour it from the machine into a bottle and oil your hair”) and tomato juice (with half a kilo of sugar for a litre of water). We laughed at each other’s measurements, swore we’d never ask for these dishes when we went to visit, and learnt that carrots are grated and oil splutters.

But as much as today was about culinary disasters and alien vocabulary, it taught me so much more than how to make locally flavoured potato curry. It taught me that the minute we speak the same language metaphorically, the vocabulary of an alien tongue is easier to manage. It taught me that these women, who cook for their families every day, were more than willing to compare notes on recipes, becoming less conscious of their English with every passing step. It taught me that today, perhaps more than every other day before this, there was no fear or awkwardness in that classroom.

Today, I learnt that the most timid of voices can echo loud and clear in class. I learnt that there could be friendly tiffs in class over who had raised their hand first for the next turn. I learnt that even Braveheart Akka could volunteer to go first and kill it, just weeks after shivering at the very thought of speaking out loud.

Today, I learnt to seek knowledge in the very spaces I look to impart it.

How far is okay?

Something interesting happened this morning. I was in class at 7 AM (waking up at 5:30 AM in the dark and cold is worth a ranting blogpost by itself, I say) and faced with a class of Grade 9 students who write at a possessed pace. The day I thought of the Box of Essays should go down in the chapter of my teaching shenanigans as my Doomsday, I tell you, but I digress…

Something interesting happened this morning. My kids were sitting in the classroom ploughing through their essays (they each write roughly 800-1000 words a day these days, a nightmare if you think about correction but quite a win otherwise) while I did some writing of my own. It was a quiet morning, the only noises floating in were the vague, muffled taps and pats from the kitchen as the staff prepared for the day ahead. Inside, we had closed the windows and half-shut the door in an effort to insulate ourselves from the cold, and attempted to get to work. The room was largely quiet, save for my pounding away at a keyboard and the occasional flipping of a page. The minute noise levels threatened to rise, someone will whisper “dei, essay” and pens would start scratching again.

In the middle of all this apparently productive activity, there will be the one-off story that comes my way, how someone went to the temple recently or someone’s mother is making biryani today. It provides all of us with a moment of relief before we turn back to the production of words on a page. Today, there was another story that came my way, a story from the previous evening when they were all going home from school. It went somewhat like this, as told by a girl in the class.

We were already leaving very late, Akka. We had Biology exam and it was after 6 o’clock when we were walking. We were just going on the street when this boy [a classmate] comes up from behind us and starts talking. He is coming in the middle of the road, Akka. I don’t even understand what he is saying. He is chumma coming and talking to us. What he wanted, I don’t know. He wouldn’t leave also, just talking to us on the street.

Through the narration, the boy in question was protesting, not particularly coherent noises that worked just enough to illustrate his displeasure at the accusations. He said he needed some information, that he had forgotten to ask, and that he just wanted to find out. At some point in the rant, I told the girl I wasn’t sure I got her point. Did she not want to talk to him? Did she not know the answer to his question? Was he bothering her? What was the deal, really?

That and all is not allowed outside, Akka. That is okay only in school.

What is this ‘that’?

He is a boy, Akka. That is not okay, Akka.

The conversation didn’t last much longer than that, what with everyone’s hurry to get back to writing, but I snuck in some parting words. If you can talk inside, maybe it is not too bad to talk outside? He only wanted information. They did not sound convinced and eventually went back to writing, so nothing much came out of that line of thought.

But it got me thinking, set me off on a line of thought that was not new but will probably forever remain unresolved. Just how far was I meant to push the boundaries? Could I wholeheartedly tell these children that talking on the streets was the same thing as chattering in school? When I tell them they could sow the seeds of change, is that a fair burden to place on them?

Every time conversation like this comes up, it becomes easy to write me off as the ‘periya ooru’ (big city) Akka who doesn’t know what she is talking about. They are probably right, but how much do I push?