Friday, January 24, 2014


As is evident from my last blog post, I have been having a tough time in the classroom for the last few weeks. To break the monotony, my co-fellows (Harry and Rajesh) and I decided to take our kids on a field trip on Thursday. We left immediately after school to save time. On board the train, we debriefed the kids on where we were going and what they were going to do to make this a memorable experience.

Our first stop was the St. Xavier’s College, Harry’s alma mater. Harry’s friends were kind enough to show the kids around the college. The kids showed tremendous enthusiasm in greeting and meeting the collegians as well as explore the campus. Some of them for the first time saw a grand old college building, a chemistry lab, a fully functioning library, preparations for a college festival and a canteen where college goers ‘chillmarofy’ when they are free. We all grabbed a quick lunch and then moved on to our next destination, the 321 school.

The 321 school is first in what will be a series of charter schools founded by a TFI alumnus. It is a path breaking model aimed at bringing quality to low cost education in India. However, the purpose of visiting this school was not just to show them what the school was. Harry, Rajesh and Rima (a 321 teacher and a friend of Harry and Rajesh) came up with the idea of making the Jafari (my school) kids teachers of the 321 students.

It was an experiment in creating an opportunity of learning exchange. Our kids were going to teach the 321 kids skills and content in art, craft, phonics, science, general knowledge and language through 5 minute lessons in small groups. All of us as well our kids were a little nervous as to how this would go, considering it was a first for all of us. I myself was unsure if the two sets of students would connect, if the Jafariites would confidently execute what they had prepared and if the 321 kids would learn something new. After the visit, I am mightily proud to say that Rima’s and our kids nailed it!! (see reasons below!)

We returned to our school at 7.00PM after a tiring journey in a crowded train. While our faces were tired, the sense of achievement and learning on the kids face was unmistakeable. Despite the hour, we made the kids stay back and reflect on their experiences of the day – they protested initially but gradually, the silence in the room grew as their thoughts took over.

We made everyone share how they were feeling, what the best moment of the day was and what was that one thing they learnt today. And as a part of that reflection and a promise to my kids, I am writing my own learning here.

1) An act of kindness and giving doesn’t need an opportunity 
 Madiha spotted a young girl while walking to Xavier. She drew Madiha’s attention because she was blind and walking with a stick. Madiha asked me about the girl so I told Madiha and her friends Ameera and Mahek to go and find out. And they did – they found out her name, her destination and her occupation (she was a student at Xavier!). They also saved her from hitting a branch of a tree that was in her way. I stood there as a silent observer, but I couldn't resist smiling. This was our Humans of New York like moment in Mumbai!

2) You don’t teach subjects to kids, you teach them a way of thinking
Ali and Madiha were going to teach the 321 children the 5 senses of the human body. I loved how they took from the experiential approach we use in class to make the kids feel the 5 senses – for example, making them taste a chocolate or smell a perfume. It was their own plan and their own implementation and I was feeling proud to be their science teacher.

3) Children have no qualms about talking to strangers
While we were in the canteen, I had asked my kids to find people who were standing or sitting alone and find out one thing about them. After an initial push, they realized it was easy – and soon they came back with a list of names of the new Bhaiyyas and Didis they had just met and had also figured what some of them were studying.

4) You can learn from anyone or anything, if you ask the right question

As a part of their introduction our kids asked the 321 kids “How are you?” Without a moment of hesitation came a choral reply “We are fine. How are you?” It was not a set of words put together in a sing song manner as you would expect from 5 year olds, it was a set of words said with precision, strong diction and the right tone. Just after the discussion broke, Ali came and told me, “Bhaiyya they are so confident.” I gave him a teacher-like reply “See, this is why I tell you to speak with us in English all the time.” And in my mind I was telling myself “You are not the only one who is doing the teaching today!”

While I was standing in the train, I had given Ruksana and Aamna, who were seated, a bottle of water to hold. It was a water bottle with the words “I ran the 2014 Mumbai Marathon” printed on it. I told them to ask me 5 tough questions about the sentence and they will learn 5 new things. And before I knew it, they had discovered my love for Mumbai, asked questions with all the 5W’s, learnt what a marathon is and solved three math problems on fractions. We had to stop only because we reached the destination station.

5) Photography makes me happy 
It is strange it took me this long to come back to myself. While the kids were teaching, I was clicking so-so pictures trying to conserve my heavily depleted camera battery. And I realize how clicking pictures makes me happy – should definitely do it at a higher frequency!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Perceptiveness and Perfection

I am doing much more in the class than I was doing before but I still feel I am not doing enough. As I have grown as a teacher, I have also developed my ability to sense the pulse of the class, gather finer data and gain frequent feedback. This has helped me plan in greater detail by incorporating feedback faster and modifying lesson plans.

Despite its many advantages, a higher degree of perceptiveness changes your definition of excellence. If you are one of those who is not okay with being just okay, then every compromise makes you feel a little more miserable about the falling level of excellence. But wait a minute, did I just say compromise?

Till the last unit I was focusing just on lessons. In this unit however, I have changed my approach by bringing in a strong focus on the classroom culture. I realize that it is probable not all my kids will be equipped with the academic skills to make it through school in the time considered the norm, but it is certain that with the right inputs, I can invest them enough in their own education. I want to make them believe they can overcome any barrier to their education with hard work, resourcefulness and discipline.

Laying a strong focus on class culture alongside academics is however stretching my time even more! I had hoped I would have reduced my lesson planning time significantly by now but instead, the focus on more depth and retention along with an extremely low literacy levels has led me to spend even more effort on planning.

After the rigorous last unit, I am feeling worn out. I need a break but I also realize this unit will set the tone of how the next year begins. And hence, I have to persist.

More importantly I have to sustain myself, as a result of which I make small compromises. I compromise to ensure my kids don't ever end up with a day I miss school because of ill health. I compromise by working 11 hours a day instead of 15 hours. I compromise by spending more time on friends, family and activities I consider relaxing. I am not feeling guilty about it, but I am not feeling great either.

Two months to go before I spend some quality time analyzing and fixing this issue - for good. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Change is in the Air

I have started making my kids write journals. I have also been pushing them to share their entries with their classmates. Most kids feel shy and reluctant in sharing openly, worrying about being teased by their classmates. To set up the correct example, I make it a point to read my journal to them - unedited uncut and with complete honesty. After all, we are one family and we need to learn to share with each other.

Considering the events of the last few days, I didn't have time to write my journal - but I did update my blog. In the last diary session, I told them I will read my blog post instead of my diary. I explained to them what a blog post is and they were amazed that you could write something which anyone in the world could read.

I was in two minds initially about reading the post, considering it was about the circle of death. However, I realized these children have probably seen more death at such a young age than I ever will - so I went  on to read it. Usually my children are not great listeners - they get restless when I read aloud, wanting to stretch an arm, pass a comment, or say something funny! My post had no entertaining element in it so I thought it will bore them.

To my surprise, it had a contrary effect. My whole class listened with rapt attention. No one moved. There was not a single sound. When I finished, a few students had tears in their eyes.

I know what I wrote was considerably above their reading levels, and even then, it touched a chord with them. It was not about literacy; it was about being human. It was about telling me without any words, "We understand Bhaiyya. Thanks for sharing."

The bottom line is positive change is in the air. Metamorphia is working its magic.

PS: Song on my mind:

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Life after Death

Shofiya is one of the brighter students in our class. She is quick-witted, hard working and capable of making the right choices. Last Wednesday, Shofiya's father gave up his long fight against brain tumour. Being her teachers, we went to meet her as soon as we found out. As soon as Shofiya saw her friends and teachers, she came out of the house. She met Akriti, her class teacher and my colleague, and gave her a hug - and the moment she did - tears ran down her face like water from a broken dam. She held her tight for nearly 5 minutes. After she had calmed down, she came up to me. As much as I would have loved to give her a warm hug, I didn't considering the sentiments of the community.

While she walked up to me, my mind was searching for the right thing to tell her. I thought I will start with "It will all be okay." No, it won't after having lost the only bread winner in the family of 5. I instead told her "This is a difficult time for your family and you. It is okay to feel scared or worried. It is okay to cry. Talk to us whenever you feel like that but, if you choose to show this to your mother, will it make her feel better? I know this difficult time will not pass quickly, but I also know that you are a very strong girl. And you will see this through. You have all your Bhaiyyas and Didis there for you - anytime you need us."

I was holding back tears in my eyes as I spoke to her. I was strong till all the kids left. But then, while in the rickshaw, I couldn't hold myself back anymore - feeling helpless, sorry and overwhelmed with responsibility. What will be of this bright girl if we don't give her the right tools to succeed in life? I know we are not going to change her life instantly, but can we give her life a better direction than the one she would go in if we were absent from her life?

This was my first experience of meeting someone who has lost a loved one on the first day. I was feeling fortunate to have waited 27 years of my life before having this conversation with someone I care for. Unfortunately, I only had to wait 6 days for the next experience!

I am not going into the details of this story. This time it was not my student, but family. This time there was more than one person to console - however, I did not have to say much because a hug and my presence itself meant much more. This time the religious background and community were both different. Unlike Shofiya, this time the finances of the family were not dire.

However, the sentiments of shock and sorrow remained the same. The void was permanent, and the future, uncertain.  And again,  I cried with them.

And as I attended the funeral, while watching the body turn into its elements, I was thinking how beautiful is the circle of life. Like darkness is the absence of light, death is the absence of life. Death is not absolute. Life is. And it means, we don't mourn the dead, we mourn the living! Our presence matters to the living. The deceased move onto another adventure in another world. And they no longer fear death, because it is no longer unknown to them.

It is best we let them move on. I'd like to think they are quoting Charles Dickens as they leave -
"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done;
it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

PS: I was thinking how this poem I wrote in 2009 is apt in the moment!