Day 68: Punctuation

Our next series of teaching practicum is with a bunch of girls “learning” to be sisters and nuns. We’re specifically teaching them computer literary, because it’s a critical skill for them to be successful as sisters of God in the future. Forgive my sarcasm in describing the assignment; after spending two months with the Special school at Bethany, I’m a little let down by the assignment to serve such a small, narrowly focused and limited group. My professional ethics will ensure that I give this project my utmost and some more. But, I’m convinced that the ulterior motive attached to the assignment will make it an unsatisfactory experience. Only time will tell if some major life transformations are due in the next four weeks with them.

It’s a group of 13 young girls, mostly in their early 20s, and from as far off states as Jharkhand, Bharti, Odisha and Himachal Pradesh. As a part of their nunning efforts, they are all at a convent near the Uni, specifically to learn English. We spent an hour with the group, learning their current skills in computers, what they would like to learn and why, and we received some very varied responses.

  • They all like the color pink
  • Some could barely state a two-sentence introduction about themselves before their control of the language became a barrier
  • They all started life like regular kids, learning computer science in school to become engineers, before God beckoned to them
  • A number of them described each other as being ‘Happy person’
  • “I want to learn whatsapp and Facebook”, a few said
  • A girl described the one to her left as ‘She is very punctuation’. I am torn between gaging the effectiveness of their English lessons while also contemplating if they really need this foreign language to survive in their line of work.

Here’s to four weeks of a different kind of teaching practicum.

OK, OK. Four weeks of a new kind of rant, eh? Nom, Nom, nom!” Scotch 

Day 67: St. Anger round my neck 

Why do you take everything so seriously, S?“, she asked, puzzled.

Because I did not give up a career of ten years and a steady, fat income, to not care, acting like it’s all OK. Ms. JK“, I retorted and an unplanned stream of tears trickled down my cheeks. Breaking point.

For the last year in college, I’ve been working with teachers to point out gaps in the syllabi and identify ways to make it tighter. During that period, I’ve continued to hear all the popular education-specific jargon in class. We’ve studied about everything, from student-centered learning, to individualized teaching, to comprehensive assessments and modern, innovative teaching methods. We’ve heard about all of this in theory.

Because, in reality:

  • We are still forced to study that same outdated syllabus because it seems to be etched in stone and unchangeable. “Your feedback will be incorporated into subsequent years’ syllabi“, I hear
  • That outdated syllabus is so spineless that teachers themselves comment about how the intended hours are not at all required. They’d rather have us sit in class and work on ‘something’ because there are many more classes to use up
  • In a class of three, we are still taught from an ancient PowerPoint presentation that some alumni must have made as a part of their assignments – poorly researched and outdated
  • Until I brought it up as a teaching method, most teachers did not even consider the option for us to research and present or teach some topics. It would have been 100% teacher-driven, if not for that
  • Almost every teacher on roll takes a defensive stance the minute a point of discussion is brought up. Questioning an ideology or stereotype is effectively looked as a questioning of their subject matter experience
  • None of the teachers have an educational specialization. Our sociology professor is a expert in History
  • We learn meaning, definition and all such synonyms of a concept for 4 hours, because apparently we are providing individualized instruction to the weakest in the class. What about the others that are ready to move on?
  • All instruction is limited to the four walls of the classrooms. We’re, after all, not English literature students to take the teaching to the garden
  • Experiences through workshops and seminars are awarded like candy to a diabetic. In measured and restricted doses
  • You’re expected to continue with your research and data collection, while they continue to have theory classes through the day. Data will magically appear if you pray hard enough.

The experience of trying to change the archaic ways used to deal with students, and content, especially of the Masters courses, has been demoralizing and soul sucking. In the last two days, I’ve questioned every single decision in my life that has led me to this point. I moved from an industry where we were pioneering BYOD and digital nomadism, to one where technology equates to PowerPoint presentations and nothing more. I moved from a group discussing through brainmaps and deciding their work-wear based on their day’s meetings, to one where concept maps ‘do not have the continuity of language’ and the dress code is set by a senile lady to not distract the Fathers on campus.

Every career has it’s pitfalls; my past life had enough for me to up and leave. So, maybe I’m just living the phase where everything in hind-sight is 20-20. But it does seem that as an industry, or specialization, the education department is the most resistant to change. We are tasked with equipping the bright minds of tomorrow, for tomorrow, and yet we are the most deep-rooted in the past. The content and the teaching methods are so aged that the student teachers graduating will be left in a state of shock when thrown into a class full of technology addicted 10 year olds.

11 years ago, my Civil Engineering degree did not land me a job in an IT multinational. My reading outside class hours did. Would this degree follow suit and be just another degree? Would all the learning happen outside, in my own time and under my own direction, again? If so, then what is the while point of having taken two years off to attend a full-time course?

“Relax, S. Sometimes it helps to go with the flow, enjoy life, and see what tomorrow has in store for us. 

Now, can you share some of that wonderful egg, please?” Scotch

Day 62: The futility of exams 

I’ve complained about this concept a couple of times now, but the recently concluded mid semester examinations have reaffirmed the futility of the concept of examinations in my mind. It’s not a complete hatred for any form of evaluation, as it is for this specific form of summative assessments.

Especially for the Masters programs, and for courses like the Bachelor of Education, I believe it is counter-productive to expect the students to prove their learning or understanding through a 2 or 3 hour, written paper. Are we really expecting teachers, tasked with training students for the rest of their lives, to prove their qualities as a teacher by writing a 3 page essay? The problem is compounded when you are testing them on subjects like Philosophical bases of education, Child psychology, or Methods of teaching. Would you rather have me demonstrate a class using the Jurisprudential method of teaching, or would you have me write an essay on how to use it effectively? And how can you guarantee that my rote and repeat syntax of using that method is actually going to be effective when I eventually implement it in class?

Or, is that no longer the true purpose of these assessments? Are we testing if the students understand what has been taught well enough to put it to use in real-life, or are we simply testing if what was taught has been remembered by the students?

As I argue about these flawed testing methods with my teachers and other educationists, a common complaint that I hear is the lack of time considering the number of students in class. How are we to objectively evaluate a class of 60 students, if not through a common set of questions for each? The answer is already in the system: Continuous Internal Assessments (CIA). The CIAs, at least in my Uni, are mis-interpreted to short, summative evaluations every other month. I hear some departments actually have class tests and quizzes as the CIA. In fact, our mid-semester exam is considered one of the three CIAs in a semester. Beats the entire purpose of calling it a CIA now, doesn’t it?

Instead of these half-assed approaches to CIAs, what we need is for class discussions, presentations and debates to be the core of the assessment. How well a student is able to rationalize a theory of philosophy to class, should tell the teacher how well they’ve understood the concept, and therefore how well they can create new knowledge out of it. Anybody can memorize the various steps to a curriculum development process three hours before the examination and repeat it in the paper. But how well a student can actually create a mock-curriculum based on a student-audience that you’ve provided to them will truly gauge how well they’ve internalized the steps to the process. From what I see around me, just being able to successfully participate in a flipped classroom is a great assessment of their learning.

The CIAs, at their core, address the issue about having not sufficient time to evaluate each student. As you provide different, small tasks to the students, and evaluate their performance in each of those small tasks, you will be able to build a complete picture of their learning over a period of time. By splitting your effort and evaluations into smaller, logical chunks, you are technically reducing the amount of energy spent on your front as well. And let’s not give up on a process, and pick a regressive technique like a written examination, because its convenient for the teacher. It’s after all child-centered education now, isn’t it?

Day 55: A fitting finale

I remember watching a few cultural performances by special children in the past. Mostly when I was a child myself, and I had not yet been introduced to the concept of disabilities. I majorly remember feeling disgust, and some shame as the kids flayed aimlessly on the stage. I almost felt a tinge of disgust when the adults appreciated such a half-assed performance, while the normal kids had done much-much better. I have a second cousin with some developmental disabilities, and I remember always making some excuse to not visit that aunt. Even when I was there, I’d try my best to avoid any eye contact. Her loud voice and a lack of personal space all scared the adolescent me.

As we sat at Bethany School, watching the students of the Special School perform for their Prize Day, I felt none of those old emotions. In fact, I felt an abundance of pride while watching these students perform the little skit that we had scripted. I felt awe and amazement as the kids danced for one of the newest Bollywood numbers, never batting an eyelid away from their dance master amongst the audience. I felt mirth as an autistic child broke step from their action song to wave at Ms. Shanti sitting in the first row.

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Jeslyn’s Jesus Loves me 🙂

We reached a good 15 minutes early and I had an opportunity to observe the audience very closely. Most looked like any other parent in any other school; eager to watch their child perform on stage, engaging the other child who is too distracted to see his brother or sister on stage. Most of them had an empathy that is often missing in the competitive nature amongst us normal folk. They had a child that was suffering, and in that they were all united as a community. I felt that powerful bond in the hall.

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We also noticed parents react very differently to their child’s condition. I know it is very naive of me to judge an experience purely from the 15 second interaction that we were purview to. But we saw our dear Stuti run over to her mom and dad sitting a few seats away from us. The mother, first in her path, did not change her morose look at all, as she simply passed the daughter over to her partner beside her. The father was all smiles at Stuti as he hoisted her up on his lap and checked emphatically about her upcoming dance. Just in that body language, the mother somehow seemed to come out as the less supportive parent of the lot. Who knows what demons lurk under her breath there! Did she blame herself for her child’s condition? Does she fight the demons of depression that our society very conveniently ignores? Did she battle complications during her pregnancy that have scarred both her daughter and her for life?

If nothing else, the experience through this teaching practicum has taught me how normal these special children are and how abnormal our ‘normal’ lives are. The two lead boys, who vocalized our entire play, could have been kids in any normal school. I’ve already talked about how a major lapse in awareness can result in children getting taken out of normal schools, and pushed to a slower track.

It pains me that the society still has a strange but deep-rooted taboo associated with disabilities. The current schooling has definitely progressed since my time, and integrated education has brought our kids closer to disabilities. But there is still so much to do. Parents and students need to be caught up on so many issues faced by these children. Only when the mainstream starts worrying about these special children will the policy makers start worrying too.

While you were busy enjoying your morning at the Special School, I’ve spent the morning stalking mom and dad for food. So much so that now daddy refuses to look at me while he eats. 

Look how silly he looks, S. And that’s him eating my fave dosas. How can I let him be? “Scotch 

And I’ll be right here, waiting for you, dosa! 

Day 54: Lacking vision

I’ve been pretty irritated by the head of the department and his clear lack of vision for the team he leads. What pissed me off most recently was his ‘expert opinion’ that it would be better for us students to attend class than skip sessions to be at a national conference on National Universities. A conference held two blocks away, in our own campus, organized by the department of advanced studies in education and chaired by one of our own faculty. What a logistical nightmare for the three in my class to attend!

Our syllabus is the most hollow effort at a program that I’ve seen in a while. Most teachers themselves comment about how most of the topics covered are repetitive and they simply put their hands up in the air when I question about the purpose of studying some outdated concepts. I’ve come to peace with this, rationalizing it through the fact that the syllabus is just a guiding post, not the journey itself. That is why I look for opportunities to learn, through conferences, seminars and workshops. Remember I wrote about the one on Service Learning here? So it really pushes my buttons when I’ve been forced to sit in class instead of listening to some eminent deans and vice chancellors from across the country about improving the state of higher education through the concept of national universities.

Only last week, this leader of ours canceled my class’ trip to a special school run by the same management as the university. His reasoning? Our class was missing too many sessions and reallocation classes was becoming a pain. He has made it clear more than once that we were spending too much time and effort in visiting Bethany Special School as well.

It worries me when such gentlemen, with regressive ideas, are made in charge of a team. They clearly lack a vision for the department, are comfortable doing the mundane and their biggest effort is spent in maintaining status quo. They are the ones that sit in presentations for the sake of it and question the authenticity of the project purely because they themselves faked their way to their PhD. Honestly, I don’t know if I should be happy that the man is at least honest enough to accept the flaws in his own research, or sad that the state of research in the country has been reduced to just a degree.

They are also the heads that stop others from voicing their ideas and innovations. They fervently oppose any new proposal because they would then be forced to think of ways to match themselves up. They lecture on experiential learning and activity-based curriculum, and restrict learning to the four-walls of the classroom. They let their male ego decide all their official decisions and treat the women in the department as mere door mats. They most often do not realize the effect, in fact the ill-effect, that they have of students and their minds.

The past year has been a huge learning. I’ve been unschooled. I know what kind of a leader to not be.

You’re busy complaining about your HOD when there are bigger things in life? We should be worrying about dad and mum leaving. 

Maybe I could sit on their bag and not give it to them. Then they’d stay back. Right?” Scotch 

Day 53: Woman Leaders

Over the last year, I’ve been observing leaders in education closely, and I’m pretty impressed with the contributions made by the women in the industry. It’s unfortunate that a number of these talented ladies do not hold positions of power, but when did a position or an official title ever stop someone from being a true leader?

I met Dr. Shalini at a conference on Service Learning and was immediately impressed by her thought process. She’s accredited for being the only Indian author to have published a book in Service Learning. Her clarity of thought on the subject was extremely clear when she made the distinction between Service and Service Learning. While a number of presenters at the conference treaded left of center, and tried passing off community service as service learning, she was very persistent in her stand point. It’s maybe that attention to detail that caught my interest, but I left the conference impressed with the lady. 

None have influenced me in recent times as much as Ms. Shanti, at the Bethany Special School, has. Ms. Shanti Gnanaolivu moved from Southern Tamil Nadu to Bangalore in the early 1980s, looking to get a degree in Special Education. It was a time when kids with any mental disability were automatically branded as mentally retarded, and there were only 3 special schools in Bangalore. She attended one of the 3 centers that trained teachers in special education needs, while teaching Math at a mainstream school to make a living.

We’ve had the pleasure of listening to her life story over the many weeks that we visited Bethany. She has never shown an air of being the Principal of such a successful establishment, has never turned us away when we went looking for inspiration. Simplicity and passion for her job resonate in everything that she does. She answers her own phone calls and treats her assistant like a human being.

She shared stories of her trips to Holland and Netherlands in the 80s, and anecdotes about learning from such diverse cultures. She told us about how she coached and escorted the women’s basketball team to the Special Olympics in 1992. The team won gold in Minneapolis, and she was there to make sure every child reached home safely.

She comes from a generation that saw education as a necessity and not as a business prospect. She started her first teaching job not worrying about what the take-home salary was. Truly inspiring!

Women do make the world move around. They run the house, take care of their babies and find time to stay socially active.

Maybe if I kept string at Amma like this, she’ll get off Facebook and bring me a treat. What say, S?” Scotch