Sunday, March 15, 2015

To the A-Team of the J-School

I can't imagine how much more difficult the last two years would have been without each of you. You have been with me through each trial and tribulation and through every success and jubilation. You are the incredible 11 who I have had the fortune of working with during the 2 years of the fellowship - my co-fellows, my co-travelers and my friends. I am writing this post to deeply express my gratitude to you.

I worked more closely with you than anyone else in the team. We had our backs against the wall with the children barely showing any progress at the end of year 1. We put our heads together to envision a classroom like Jafari hadn't seen in a long time. We saw a part of that vision become a reality, even though the reality was short lived. We were able to drive a sense of focus and a love of learning in many kids - sparks of which are still alive in many of the kids. We were consistent in our high expectations, which has forever made me believe that any kid can deliver if excellence is demanded from them in every small thing on every single day. I couldn't have believed in the potential of every kid had it not been for what we achieved together. I couldn't have kept reinventing myself when faced with repeated failure had it not been for that belief. I owe my sense of possibility to you. 

If I were to call someone a Universal Giving Tree, it would be you. The selfless and unending support that you gave us during the first year of the fellowship helped us handle the multiple crises in school this year with equanimity.  Despite your incredibly difficult first year, you came back and truly transformed the environment in school to make it conducive for the new fellows. I had always been a lone warrior but your conduct taught me the value of compassion, empathy and trust in human relationships. To inspire others to action is the toughest thing and you did it with tremendous ease, which is why you will always be someone I look up to.

I know you believe you are a disruptive fellow and you have let your actions impact the well being of your class and your self. Considering the amount of stress you have faced working with just half the team for more than 3 months in this academic year, you have done incredibly well. Many others would break down a lot sooner than you did. I take pride in my tenacity, but even I feel that this time, the burn out is palpable and has impacted my effort in the classroom. You have shown tremendous resolve in just being there in the classroom everyday. You have shown a lot of care for our team, in ensuring we are not alone on the most difficult days, the ones that mattered the most. It takes a lot of courage and you have plentiful reserves of that.

Despite not being in the same grade and teaching the same classroom, you have been one of my most active thought partners and sound boards. I have almost thought aloud everything on my mind and in my heart with you. You have always given me sound advice and unrelenting support. The second year in particular would have been impossible with you, considering how much our grade team struggled with serious and unexpected crises. I would love for us to work together in the future as well because of your high levels of accountability, professionalism and wisdom. Stay strong and remain the source of strength for people around you!!

You are a big man with an even bigger heart. I have rarely met a better listener than you. We could turn to you at any moment and you wouldn't disappoint us. You would always be there for us - giving your free hugs, massages or advice. How I have missed that this year!! There are few people who have a deep sense of conviction in their dreams and you are one of them. I am glad you have chosen the path you have, for it will bring out the best in you.

You have one of the most innovative approaches in the team and it shows in the way you engage students in the lessons. More importantly, you also actively document and share your experiences and reflections with us, which pushes us to think harder about integration. Whenever it comes to creativity in the classroom, I always turn to the examples you share with us. The cool way in which you deal with the classroom of adolescent 8th graders is commendable. It has helped you create one of the strongest culture among classrooms in Jafari. Harvard has a lot to gain by giving you an opportunity to join their ranks. Always remain a thinker and innovator and don't get caught up in the details of management - leave it to mortals like us!!

Last year, you were the 9th fellow in the team. If there is one person we have all missed this year, it is you, considering we have had only 7 fellows in school everyday most of this year. Through you, we could connect with the kids in ways the framework of the fellowship didn't allow us. Through you, we could keep the team sane in situation of crisis - because you were one person who could handle and teach any class on the floor at a moment's notice. We could share our frustrations with you knowing you would always understand and never judge. Even this year, despite the distance, I have always turned to you for help (in matters pertaining Neerja and the kids) and you have always responded in time. You would make an incredible teacher, considering the passion you have for kids. I hope someday you come back to work for them and spread many more smiles!!

You have been able to create trust among kids beyond a level that is comparable. Your deep connect with each of them amazes me, because that is a teacher that I haven't been able to be (partially by design, partially because of lack of aptitude)!  This year unfortunately saw you out of action at many different points due to circumstances beyond your control. I wonder how different things would have been for Neerja and me if you were there through those days. We have missed the sense of calm you bring to the sections on our floor. We have also missed all the dirty talk that lightened up our days last year - in the company of Jigar, Harry and Neerja. I hope you make the most of your new found freedom in a new country!! 

For a first year fellow, you have shown tremendous grit in coming to school every single day of the first year. After institute, Jafari hits you as a rude shock but the calm nature you showed during the first few units was commendable. Not just that, you had Rajesh's huge shoes to step into having most of his kids in your classroom.  You did well to reach out to each of them. In the month of September, agreeing to merge your classes for the sake of our grade when your class was beginning to show a semblance of culture was a huge sacrifice you made for us. I couldn't imagine how Neerja and I would have lasted the month had Piyali and you not stepped in to help us. Your passion for achieving success with these kids is eminent. I hope you always remember the reasons for taking on the challenge in your mind, before thinking of the reasons to compromise on your vision for your kids.

You started slow but your learning curve has grown steeper with time. There were many days in the last term you may have felt like not coming to school, but I am sure the kids saw those days as a show of your strength and grit, eventually respecting you for the effort you put in for them and complying with your directions. I am immensely proud of where your class has reached as far as management goes. Six months ago, I would have never thought I would say this but I see you as a 'voice of reason' among the 14ers considering the way you built consensus in the team in discussions we have had off late. In Jafari, seeing success is incredibly hard and I know you are struggling with it. I hope you develop a keen sense to reflect and identify your small achievements. More importantly, it is even more important you celebrate them whenever they come. That will always keep you going.

You are the man who saved our life. You probably had to do the toughest thing to do - leave one family and call another one your own - especially with the other one being what it is! The struggle you have faced teaching across the three classrooms with varying cultures has been humongous, more so with us not always being available to help you. Yet, I have never seen you shy away from stepping into a tough situation and taking control. Your levelheadedness and maturity beautifully balances Subhankar's visionary streak and Sara's critical thinking. With the right amount of shared planning in the vacation that incorporates learning from the last few cohorts as well as closely coordinated execution, you can lead the grade team and the school team to success. 

They say the true colours of people show clearly in the face of adversity. We have had more than our deserved share of adversity during these two years. I see each of you has shined even more brightly as the months have gone by - even though some of us are in a place where we don't see it yet! 

As we end the fellowship and as some of the battle scars heal, I hope we never forget that we stood together despite everything that went wrong - not giving in and not yielding. I wish we see the success we achieved and the lives we positively touched. I want us to leave holding our head high - without regrets.

PS: I have been doing this Gratitude Experiment the whole of this week. You should try it out too to get off the hedonistic treadmill.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Less is More

For the first time, I took students out on a field trip, not on the basis of merit but based on them being members of the different groups of my class. I thought may be this is what these students need to understand how what they learn is directly connected to the larger world around them. It could help invest them more deeply in their studies.

Seeing the aquarium, they would be able to connect with the levels of organization of living things they learnt about in Science. They would understand how the garbage they throw in the sewage drains directly impacts the lives of some of the creatures they see in the aquarium. Seeing the natural history section of the museum, they would be able to watch life sized models of different types of animals, that they learnt to classify in grade 6. Seeing the sculpture section, they will identify the relevance of the timeline in the context of our long history that runs into hundreds of centuries. See the artifacts from pre- and proto-history, they will be able to identify with some of the sources of history they read about in their chapter on the Harappan Civilization.  My messaging to them about the trip was clear "It is not a picnic, but a learning exercise outside the classroom." I had even planned out a sheet that will help them organize their thoughts in the different places we visit. 

To my utter disappointment, the students who were given a chance to go on the field trip because of my magnanimity ended up taking up all the teachers' attention, so much so that they ruined the learning opportunity for the other students who came with a sense of curiousity. They repeatedly embarrassed their whole school shouting out names from the bus on bystanders on the road. They defied and insulted the volunteers who took out their precious time to help us.They touched the various exhibits in the museum that could have led to damage of some valuable pieces of history. They spat and threw garbage into the sea. 

While these students formed a small minority, I kept wondering if we had influenced them at all. Did the really understand the 'why' of everything we teach? Did they ever meaningfully reflect on the choices of their action? Did they deserve all my attention in the last 30 days that we have remaining together as students and teacher?

Alternately, I felt extremely sorry for the ones who had come to learn because all the effort, time and money spent in the sweltering heat for the sake of their learning did not produce the experience that I had planned for them. Had I only taken these students, they would have absorbed everything that the surroundings had to offer. They would have synthesized their experience and been able to connect it classroom. They would have met strangers with respect and done an act of love or kindness to make them smile.

Waking up today morning, the answer was clear. In the time I have remaining, I am going to remain a subject and class teacher to all the students I teach. However, I will only go the extra mile for those students who show gratitude and respect for the learning opportunities that I create for them. I will make this choice, not because I don't believe in ALL children's potential, but because the remaining 20% of students who don't care will take up 80% of my remaining energy and time. Whatever effort I put in the one month I have remaining, will have marginal outcomes on their life. Alternately, if I do focus on 80% of my students who wish to maximize their learning, they may attain that escape velocity where they can significantly help the next fellow to support those 20% of students better. Notwithstanding my decision, I also understand what these remaining 20% of students need to be able to fly and I will help the incoming fellows create a strategy to meaningfully work with them.

Hence, from now on, my students will have a choice to opt out of the wider gamete of extra-curricular activities planned for them, while the classroom expectations will remain unchanged for all students. If someone opts in, they will have to do whatever takes to help the group learn. If someone opts out, either because they want to or because they can't meet the basic expectations of the group, I will ensure they spend their time meaningfully at home preparing for their upcoming exams. It is unfair to differentiate but considering my own situation, this is the only choice my students leave me with.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

What have they learnt? (Work in Progress)

This is an ongoing post in which I want to capture some of my reflections on progress in my classroom and its students as I reach the end of my fellowship.

1) My students have deeper self-awareness about their values.
When I started, my students did not know the meaning of 'strength' and 'weakness'. Yesterday, when I was having a sharing circle, all the students who have been with me for the whole last year were able to identify their strengths and areas of development. Not just that, they were able to choose deeper values like 'empathy', 'compassion', 'grit' as some of their answers. They still have a long way to go till the actively work on their area of development - but at least the acceptance is a good start. 

2) Some of my students have become intelligent conversationalists.
Whenever I used to have a guest in class, students would ask questions which were highly factual with almost no follow through. Now, they engage in meaningful conversations and questioning, with many probing the 'why' of 'what' people say. Some of the common questions now-a-days are "What are your strengths?", "What are your areas of development?", "What do you like about our class and what do you think we should improve on?", "Why did you choose your current career?", "What is your vision?", etc!! While not all the children have reached such a level of conversation, but the high expectations have paid off in the long run.

3) Many students have developed basic English speaking skills for conversations.
I recently attended a scholarship ceremony with some of the best students from TFI classrooms. My dictate to my students was to not be seen with another person wearing the same uniform and getting to know other students around them. Without much involvement, I was supremely proud to see them stand on their own and confidently approach both adults and other children to get to know them.

4) My students are solving problems more peacefully.
When I started, I used to struggle getting a lesson through because of the numerous complaints that I used to receive. While the cribbing hasn't ceased in its entirety, students have developed the maturity to not let it interfere with the lesson. Most of the leaders have developed their own peaceful problem solving mechanisms that keep the classroom calmer. 

5) The female students are aware of the shared inequity that their gender faces.
My girls have developed the courage to think about and question unfair practices against the female gender in the community,  though not many are successful in overcoming them yet.  Not just that, they have begun to process religious inputs with a scientific mind - questioning the why of many things. As a teacher, I believe I have successfully planted the seeds. If not them, their children will reap the fruits of a thinking rooted in fairness of opportunity and choice. 

6) My students are adaptable to structural changes.
When handled consistently and messaged positively, my students have developed good adaptability in dealing with classroom structures. Despite all the unexpected changes in student configuration and teachers, things have remained largely under control in the classroom. 

7) My student leaders are actively taking charge.
Some student leaders have developed strong leadership and problem solving skills, handling team relations and driving classroom culture effectively.

8) Students are data-focused.
My kids love numbers that tell them how they are doing. They almost demand an analysis after every test - some for the sake of knowing how they are growing, while others for the sake of knowing their standing among others. No wonder I had a chilled out time teaching bar graphs and data!!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

What will be my enduring memory in the minds of my children?

I have spoken a lot about the choices of my kids on my blog. As I approach the final lap of my journey in the classroom, I have been reflecting more deeply on my own choices. It is the choices that I make that I make now that will be my enduring legacy on my students.

Till August last year, my co-fellow and I had managed to effectively drive the love of learning, immaculate classroom systems, urgent and thorough collaborative planning, mind-boggling consistency in teacher action and a sense of belonging to a team working towards a shared vision. My classroom was on a path of transformation.

Starting September, everything started going downhill. My thought partner, co-teacher and friend quit the school team. My stable class that was on its tipping point of its journey went through three configuration changes. And while all this was happening, I got married and chased my dream job to further take my focus away from the classroom.

 If I look back at the last few months, my team was trying to keep our grade level ship afloat.  We succeeded at that. We honestly had not thought about this extreme eventuality of a reduced team considering how strongly we were placed in our respective content areas and classrooms at the start. We were not prepared to deal with the turn of events.

However, the unexpected tremors distances one part of our kids from us and a part of us from each of our kids. Setting shared values, language and beliefs is the most time consuming and mentally and emotionally draining activity. Increased and repetitive work on class culture coupled with reduced time frames have deeply impacted the pace of our journey towards our goals. In many ways, we have taken many steps backward on that journey. 

Standing where I am and looking at the turbulent journey I have had, I feel drained and demotivated. While I have a vision on the wall, I have sensed my own conviction has gone amiss. While I have preached values, I have found it incredibly hard to show the same every minute of every day in the classroom. While I have excellent lesson plans, I have not been able to reignite that love of learning in the kids. All the pent up negativity because of the gap between where the class is and where we could have been shows up in the form off outbursts, scolding and hopelessness in front of my kids.

I am strong and I will not break. However, the problem is when 'NOT' breaking becomes the goal. A negative goal leads to a negative mindset. Your focus changes from students being interested and hardworking to students NOT breaking rules. Your focus changes from driving students towards excellence to students NOT failing an exam. You find problems instead of solutions. You scrutinize the actions of your children through a microscope instead of looking at yourself in the mirror. That itself is against the fundamental strength of my uphill climb in the first 9 months of 2014.

I have a little more than a month left with my children and I have a choice. I can deliver outcomes in exam by being an autocratic consequence-giving machine. If I continue on the path I am on, I will undo my legacy on the lives of my children. However, I want to bring the class back on track by making it democratic and value-driven. I have done it in the past. I can do it again.

Henceforth, I will again work with the belief that all children can learn. It's their present and not their past choices that decide their future. What my children collectively believe inside the classroom can undo the effects of what each child individually learns. As long as they have one another to show them the right path, they will succeed without me. My own conduct will drive values in the classroom. Consequences or rewards are just a medium for continuity to the next year. 

I want my children to remember me as a person who always believed in their ability to be excellent. I want my children to remember me as the teacher who saw the light in each of them. I want my students to remember me as the one who made them believe that their learning is in their own hands. That will be my legacy in our land of joy and change. And the journey will again start with me.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

What matters most

I have little time left with my kids and I have been thinking about what to focus my energy on. There is a huge gap in academic coverage but I don't want to run the risk of covering much with low mastery because it will simply get undone over time. There has been a drop in values demonstrated in class without teacher reinforcement - especially team work, urgency and ownership - that is worrisome. These values certainly need to be restored. At the same time, the children are also falling behind on their extra curricular plans as well as on their journey toward self-awareness. In 30 days, what can I do to re-instill the sense of belief that a great vision is worth striving for. How do I make them maintain that belief even when I am gone?

It is not the largest tree but the tree whose roots grow the deepest that will withstand the rough weather. I think I know the answer. Values and a deeper sense of reflective practice are the two most crucial elements to strengthen the roots. That apart, there is a need for children to see them in practice. Academic learning will then happen automatically.

What if I made them set their own goals and make their team responsible to hold them accountable for it. A weekly commitment chart and a team led feedback everyday.

What if I made them take more responsibility in their own showcase. Without doing many things, focusing on one idea in which the kids take ownership of each other's actions and make it happen. What if I set a high bar of excellence on it.

What if I focused on a lot of positivism - positive shout-outs not just for achievements, but for the smallest of things like giving answers following the Q&A expectations, following directions the first time when no one else does or making an effort that stands out from the average.

What if I kept consequences simple but immediate - like a reward that gives immediate gratification, a consequence must lead to immediate reflection on action.

What if I gave them time in every lesson to reflect deeper on how it links with their vision.

All this will not take time. It will only require planning, patience and persistence. It will prove to be the most effective utilization of the time we have left - to be able to put in 60 seconds in every minute - a 100% in every second. Kids will see the worth in it and consequently, learn.