a blank slate

a blank slate

Tag: not books

On teaching, children and a short month-long volunteer experience

(Has anyone noticed how terrible I am at coming up with titles?)

Today’s post is a condensed (yes, it was even longer) form of an essay I wrote for a job/fellowship application. I have since accepted another role, so here I am reposting this to the blog. In November last year, I took up a month-long volunteer position at an NGO called Door Step School. An English teacher at the Community Learning Centre – exciting. 

My meticulous lesson plans crumbled when I stepped into the classroom and found myself surrounded by thirty little monsters yelling incoherent strings of rote-learned ‘missmynameispooja’, ‘hellogoodmorningbye!’ So on that first day, all I did was observe the other teachers handle the class with expertise, a healthy combination of strict and loving. 
Door Step School works towards bringing literacy to the marginalized sections. Some of their biggest projects include day schools for children at construction sites and the innovative School on Wheels initiative. The Community Learning Centre which I joined also had children of construction workers. They had been successfully enrolled in government schools. Now the Centre provided them with a support system to ensure they stayed in school and could manage the school-work. 
The counsellor at the Centre asked me to set up the base for English teaching that the next volunteer teachers could build on. My first task was to build a bond of trust. To really get through to the children, I needed to understand their contexts, the experiences that had shaped them. But all they had were questions for me! So I began to share. I told them about my house and my school, they took real delight in stories of my pet cat, and gradually, they opened up to me.
spelling activities with some 3rd-graders
I didn’t realise someone was taking photos, but it did not get past the kids!
We chatted about big and little things – the holiday decorations in their slum, someone’s birthday, their tiffin that day. When they shared their problems, their worries stayed with me, often long after the school hours. My first lesson hit hard, but it was also the most important – learning not to pity them. As our friendship blossomed, the issue of discipline slowly dissolved. As with all the other children I have taught, I planned my classes around the knowledge that eight-year-olds tend to be impatient and need to be constantly engaged. 
All the ‘English’ that these eight and nine year-olds knew was reciting the alphabet, unable even to distinguish one letter from the other or decode the individual sounds. To make it worse, they were too apprehensive to speak up. I don’t know English, they would reply in Marathi to any question I posed, until I had an idea. I drew a picture on the board. Cake! Car, scooter, table, chair, computer, the words came tumbling out. 
outdoor lessons were my favourite (though I’ve managed to look morose in every picture)
I visited the government school for a storytelling activity. Sitting in that ramshackle excuse for a classroom, with a group of bright twinkly-eyed children enthusiastically talking about their school, I realized with a new light how shameful and infuriating it was to rob them of the opportunity to learn. I decided to scrap my plan for the session and ask them what they wanted. That day we learned some twenty English words they were curious to know. 
Equipped with a set of phonics books, I arrived in class one day and taught them how to write their names. Sound out words from colourful storybooks. Suddenly, spelling stopped being gibberish. Car became c-a-r and different from c-a-t. I made little paper chits with capital and small letters and made them match pairs. Some games worked, others did not. With time, I developed an intuitive sense of which activities would be successful with whom. 
A month sounds too little in the big picture, but I am glad I powered through. I believe I made a difference. By the end of my volunteership, more than anything, I sparked in the children an interest in reading. And there was another outcome. I emerged from the experience ready to face and adapt to newer challenges. Today, I want to teach and learn from it, and do this forever.

“Indian in blood, English in tastes” – bilingualism and language education

(this is not a direct reference, but representative of the sad books I am buried in lately)
This past month I have been working on my Masters’ dissertation in psycholinguistics. The project is not what this post is about, but something I stumbled upon during my research. My subjects were 13-14 year old students from my hometown. 
In a questionnaire about their language profile, I cheekily inserted a question that had little to do with my study – how important it is to be proficient in your mother tongue (here, Marathi) versus English. An overwhelming percentage of the tiny minds asserted that the importance of English proficiency far exceeds that of Marathi.
Bilinguality has always been of interest to me, as someone oddly comfortable in her second language. And yet, it disappoints me to see children parroting an uninformed English-bias, greatly influenced no doubt by their own language teachers, who really should know better. I am not here to argue against the presence of English in our schooling, but against the pervasive ignorance of language policy and linguistic theory in mainstream primary education. This post is about how we got here, and why we must leave.
How We Got Here: Language Policy and Trilingual Education
Since Akbar’s times, Persian was the official language of India. It was during the British rule, obviously, that English took over. In the English Education Act of 1835, T.B. Macaulay emphasized the need for a class of people who were “Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” (The last bit is particularly tickling.) This is really how English entered Indian primary education, although it would be wrong to say none of our reformers supported Anglicizing our education. 
Post-independence, one of the biggest debates was (still is) the matter of selecting a National Language. Gandhi was in great support of Hindustani, a sort of combo of Hindi and Urdu. South India rejected Hindi as the national language, not surprising considering how little resemblance their Dravidian languages bear to this language of the North. In 1949, a compromise was struck, and both English and Hindi became the ‘official languages of the Union’ (Part 17th of the Constitution) with no mention of a national language as such. The intention was to eventually push English out entirely, but hey, we never got there.
Much violence and protests resulted in the trilingual education policy or three-language-formula – schools must teach Hindi, English and the regional mother tongue. (Even this was contested in parts of South India, but let’s not go there.) The point is this, in a country divided into separate states based on linguistic choices, no region seemed ready to allow official status to the language of another speaker over his own. English belonged to no one and hence, irony, to everyone. It stayed as the lingua franca.
In our post-colonial society, English was the language of the elite – an influential class. Today, our mass adoption of English gives our country one of its biggest economic advantages. Such valorisation is difficult to erase, but why should we? If anyone can pull off multilingualism, it’s India. 
Why We Must Leave: The Bilingual Brain versus Popular Opinion
So, political reasons out of the individual control is why English is here to stay. And it is not a bad thing, I am happy that today, sitting all the way here in India, I can talk to the globe with a command on English that only my very early exposure in school could have given me.

But, lately, I have seen far too many parents converse in English with their children. Preachy teachers with fake British accents (or not) encourage it. Infuriating. You see, in India, the aforementioned trilingual education policy makes it impossible not to raise kids as multilinguals. In such a situation, trying to block out the mother tongue to replace it with English is, at best, misguided.

The bilingual brain functions differently from the monolingual brain. It contains in itself more than the sum of two languages, which is why we can speak in mixtures of English and our own language. Linguist Vivian Cook calls this multicompetence. In fact, with every new language you learn, the structure or “shape” of the brain changes. How beautiful is that!
According to Jim Cummins, a Canadian expert in second language education, the two languages in a bilingual brain interact and overlap, such that certain basic cognitive skills and concepts can transfer from one language to the other. Lots of exposure to the second language, plus overt instruction in the first language is enough to develop proficiency in the second language. Teaching in this manner increases the child’s comfort, and hence competence. Any child better learns new things while cocooned in old familiar things.
In India, we enter school at the age of 4, our brains fully equipped with the mother tongue. Not to use this as a resource in learning English is silly, but to actively encourage wiping it out is dangerous.

Banning the use of the first language, Cook says, will not stop learners from using it. The brain can’t separate two languages just because some random teacher wants it to. What banning the mother tongue will do is make tiny gullible minds guilty of using it to help think, it will demoralize those who realize they need their mother tongue to better understand and learn. 

Banning the first language in a second language classroom takes away an effective learning strategy. It becomes harder to learn English without using the mother tongue. And we don’t want that, do we! Banishing the mother tongue from a child’s home is attempting to exchange a potentially restructured cool bilingual brain for a simple monolingual one. Neither scenario is very positive. 
And, really! I wish more people understood this. More than anything, I wish we had more language teachers with a fair grasp of linguistic theory and an interest in it. It is easy to underestimate something like language, something everyone can “do,” but its widespread application is the very reason it is so essential to get it right.
In that diverse set of some 60 students I spoke to during my data-collection spree, one little girl stood out. All long braids and twinkly eyes. Both the languages are very important, she told me emphatically, each in its own way. I told her to hold on to that thought. 

For the love of writing

I miss my book club. A lot of people I know like to write and love to read. But there is something special about those who make time for it on the one free day of the week. My home town was a fairly culturally-active place. I have been missing that sense of intellectual stimulation in this new city, not because of a lack of it, but because I have hardly ventured out of the daily humdrum of the university. This past week was rather stressful for a number of reasons and I really needed that strangers-geeking-out-over-books feeling again. So I tracked down the next best thing, a writing club that was worth it.
As part of today’s activities, I wrote and read out two things that, if not anything else, at least helped get my entirely dried up creativity flowing again. For one, I enjoyed writing in an actual notebook as opposed to the laptop, I think the pen and paper awakened a new side of me. (The picture is sad, my scrawl does the Moleskine no justice.) I wanted to post edited versions of both stories and make it a regular thing, if, that is, I attend more of the meetups. I will explain the prompts at the end of each story. Ideally, it should stand alone. 
1. Untitled
It was a quiet morning. Mary took her usual route to school, but not without an uncanny worry. She felt as if her shadow had been cut away. At school, the children prodded her, “What is wrong, Mary?” The teachers wondered, “Why do you look so forlorn, Mary?” But their probing went unanswered.

Mary walked back home alone, her heart heavy, her mind in a dark place. “But why!” she asked herself, “but where!” At dinner too, Mary was awfully quiet, gulping down her food, stray tears in her eyes, until Mother asked, a mask of concern, “What is wrong, dear Mary, whatever is wrong now?” It is nothing, she replied in quiet voice. “I thought you would be happy today,” said Mother, “considering how Father took care of that wretched lamb.” 

“What do you mean?” Mary looked up. “The silly thing that has been following you around everywhere, what a nuisance. Your teachers gave us a call, you know.” “What did Father do?” Mary’s voice quivered. “Why, we just had it for dinner last night.”
Prompt: Pick a nursery rhyme and kill the main character. People wrote some really good things! Mine turned out weird, and you sort of see it coming. But it was the best I could do in ten minutes. Plots are not my turf. It was a cool warm-up though, for what was to follow.
2. Blinded

The flesh burned slowly and the night air grew thick with the stench. “Only one more left.” The man whispered to himself, “God forgive me, dear Lord, please forgive me.” He dragged the final corpse to the fire, a single high flame. He cut out the heart and threw it in. It sizzled and crackled. The man shut his eyes and crept away from the fire. He began to chant. Something in the forest came alive at his words, the wind rustled and the trees shivered. The man held out his hands beckoning the nether spirits to this world. Goosebumps flowered on every inch of his body, but he stood still. 

For a moment nothing happened. Then the air changed as something stirred to life. Had the man opened his eyes, he would have seen the fire turn crimson and then black. He did not, but he did feel a presence. The wind curled around his fingers and squeezed. A lump built in his throat. The man dared not open his eyes. Sight, the scriptures say, is the pathway to the soul. One look and a nether creature could eat you alive, but there was no other way. He needed them.

“You are here,” he finally whispered, and the wind howled back a yes. “I need help,” said the man, “I need you so much.” A throaty chill reverberated through the forest air, and in his mind, the man heard an echo. “We can help you, Julian Wyllen. We are here to help. You have served us and we are here to help.” “Oh, thank the Lord, thank you, God.” Julian whispered, and the chill replied, “Not the Lord.” The forest laughed, as the man fumbled with the cross on his neck. His heart thudded in quiet desperation.

“Do you have her,” he finally said, “I want her back. I need her back.” The air around his fingers was fluid now, almost liquid, hard and smooth. It curled around his hand and squeezed again, a tiny icy grip. The breath left his body. “Is she here?” Julian asked the forest. “Yes, father. I’m right here,” came a quiet voice from outside his head. A real voice. “Anne?” the man whispered and clutched at the liquid air around his fingers. It hardened and softened and moulded in his hand. Skin to skin. “Oh my Annie,” the man turned to her, then stiffened. The little hand had dissolved into air. The wind thundered with laughter.

The cold voice echoed in his thoughts, “Not so soon, Julian Wyllen. We offer no gifts. What have you for us?” Anything you want, the man said to himself, I shall give you anything you want. “A life in exchange for another,” replied the forest that was his mind. “Open your eyes. Look at us. Look at what you worship. And look at what we have brought you. Once done, she cannot be undone. What have you to lose.” “Nothing,” said the man. He had worked towards this moment, waited for his girl, for ten years. He had sacrificed everything. Now he would give up the only thing he had left. “Forgive me, Lord,” he whispered and opened his eyes.

The first thing Julian saw was the black fire. For a moment he was enraptured, then his focus shifted and he shouted, “Anne, Annie, my darling.” Julian spun around, bending down to hug her, when his mind caught up with his senses. It was dark, but even in the dull gloom he could see the cracks in her eyes. He cringed. She was a pale thing, the face as beautiful as he remembered, but it held no depth. “Oh Lord,” he gasped and gulped, and she opened her mouth. A rasping voice emerged from the pretty lips, “Thank you. You, Julian Wyllen, have served us and given us life. We shall remain grateful.” The wind howled through the forest. Then the voice changed. “Goodbye,” Anne cooed, as her face twisted into a smile. It was the last thing Julian Wyllen ever saw.
Prompt: This again requires a lot of reworking. I have edited it considerably since I returned home, but I stuck to the first idea I had. Forty minutes are too little to pen a story for me. The activity, however, was still interesting. We picked four books each for the character name, setting, mood and plot. My selections were Julian from Famous Five, a forest from the first page of Eragon, the emotion was distaste, though I forget the book, and the action was a passive waiting. 
Our titles came from a list of cocktails, randomly assigned. My pick was Blind Abbot. I did not directly use it as the title of the story, but I did heavily incorporate it into the theme. Google brings up a nice description for the drink, of coffee liqueur, cinnamon syrup, Irish whiskey, froth and cream, which if I did drink, I might even have liked. Then again, the cocktail has no relevance here, I decided to use the more ecclesiastic meaning of abbot. 
For a first attempt, the whole exercise went quite well. Even if I do a little of this every week, I think I will stay happily in touch with writing. Meanwhile, I would love to know what you think. Are you part of any book or writing clubs, virtual or otherwise? Do you find it helpful?

August in Review: Visiting A Palace

The last month was pretty busy. The posts I had scheduled in July kept the blog up and running. But they do not extend into September. As I am not ready with a review, this post will be about what I have been up to lately.
A few weeks ago, a couple of friends and I visited a cluster of palaces from the middle 1800s called the Chowmahalla (literally, four palaces.) Situated in the heart of the city, this was the official station of the Nizams of Hyderabad. Parts of the palace were unfortunately closed to the general public and some were under renovation. We went on a weekend and among the visitors were loud groups of children on what was obviously a school trip – a fact that made me all nostalgic. The grounds were fairly well maintained for a tourist attraction.
The palace basked in the afternoon light. The durbar hall, or court hall, was majestic, with its marble throne and flooring. It advertised these newly installed Belgian crystal chandeliers, though, which seemed to me a pompous modern addition that took away a little from the authenticity of the place.
The photo gallery adjacent to the durbar hall had both oil paintings and recent black-and-whites from the times of India’s British rule, with pictures of the prince and princess at functions, at dinner and with a range of people from Nehru to Buzz Aldrin. You expect a palace to be old and a museum older still. The recentness of the Chowmahalla palace was intriguing, to imagine royalty living there not so long ago. Here are a painting of the court in session and a picture of who I think makes one charming princess. 

My favourites were the galleries, art, craft, weaponry and vintage carts and cars. Photography was charged extra. I took along my phone camera mostly to indulge in pretty petty selfies. But the galleries were full of little curiosities that kept me clicking. 

In the carved wooden furniture section stood this cool basin with four lamb heads, which went well with my fascination for animal motifs in furniture and architecture; though not embalmed animals, mind you. 

My friend spotted this, tucked away among saucers and bowls on the bottommost shelf; a Chinese vase with a tiger lounging on a branch for its handle. The blue was dizzying. 
The mirrors reminded me of a The Three Investigators (who solved only the coolest mysteries) book I had as a kid called The Secret of the Haunted Mirror. The book was about this huge grotesque antique mirror belonging to a dead magician, whose spooky green phantom supposedly lived within the mirror. I love the twisted lion-creature on this particular mirror, poised at the top, ready to pounce on the poor unsuspecting user. 

Our last stop was the vintage cars and carts display, it’s main attraction the made-to-order Rolls Royce Silver Ghost Throne Car for the Nizam. I am practically a car-virgin, having only just learned to drive, and I have no trivia on models and makes. So all I will comment on is the colour, which is wow. I might have taken a better picture if not for my baby-level camera skills and the insanely thick glass shielding the car.
The visit coincided nicely with me reading Indu Sundaresan’s Mughal tale, The Twentieth Wife. Though the book is set nowhere close to Hyderabad, it was cool to come across terms from the book. At the very entrance, a layout of the palace marked the “zenana,” or the women’s quarters which we later saw. That is where most of Sundaresan’s book is set and I enjoyed finding real life imagery to support that constructed by my mind.

On simple pleasures and a long overdue day-trip

This post is not about books. Let us call it an answer to, “What do you do other than read?” – an annoying question that is often popped my way. Last week I took a much needed day-out – a tiny road trip to a place called Mahabaleshwar, about a three hour drive from home, with many stops along the way. Mahabaleshwar is a hill station that attracts loud partying crowds through the weekends so we went on a Thursday, desperately hoping to have it all to ourselves. A good idea, it was quiet and soothing. I always have all sorts of fun with my mother no matter where we are but the rain made this day most special.
Lately I have had a curious obsession with references of rain in books. And there aren’t as many rainy good-times in literature as I expected. No kissing, dancing, playing scenes. It’s all power, destruction or simple hassles. Disappointing, really. Last Thursday, it rained quite a bit and the whole time there we were walking through clouds. It was dreamy and very fairy tale. The mist made it nearly impossible to take pictures, but I tried.
Rain is such a nature’s prank. Half of my state has landslide-causing downpours right now even as the other half suffers a drought. And even in the most urban of places, we can only pretend to have it under control. Roads turn slippery, wind upturns umbrellas and puddles leap up to splash trousers, coolly impervious to fancy raincoats and gum boots. The child in me delights in watching a sudden shower make prim grown-ups lose composure, hopping over puddles, grabbing at each other, arms flailing for balance, a screaming bunch. 
A favourite childhood pretend-game was jumping around in muddy red puddles with friends, calling for help, a group of pixies who had fallen into cups of chai. Thank you, Enid Blyton! Of course, the romance of rain for me may simply find its roots in iconic Bollywood rain-dances (worth a watch for the fun of it if you have never seen any) but I think there is more to it than a six-year-old’s choice of fandom. 
I read a quote somewhere about how rain alters everything it falls on. And it does wash away both literal grime and figurative – leaving us with that peculiar scent of churned mud and humid air, and trees that have cast off their ashy olives and jades for a lush shimmery hue, and if we just embrace the water splashing on us, a thoroughly relaxed mood. It also gives an excuse to stay in and watch this transformation, with a steaming cup of tea to fight off the cold, revelling in the comfort and guise of control. More power to you if you extend the comfort to that neighbourhood stray, there is no thank you like a vibrating purr.
I found a cute, silly little rhyme by Charles Bukowski that I must quote here,
“I think that the world should be full of 
cats and full of rain, that’s all, just
cats and rain, rain and cats, very 
nice, good night.” 
Another highlight of our day-trip were the seven temples we saw along the way, possibly more than I have visited in the entire year. My interest in religion is mainly mythological. Hindu mythology has all the charms of the Greek and about ten times its scope. We have all manner of gods – powerful, weak, blue, elephant-headed, anthropomorphic sun and moon deities, who all have multiple earthly incarnations, egos, clashes and feisty goddess-wives. They have many demons to fight and are accompanied by everyone from angels and saints to ginormous talking eagles, apes and bulls. 
The bull called Nandi is the vehicle of the great god Shankar or Shiva. He is one of my favourite creatures in mythology. He stands as gatekeeper outside every Shiva temple, but is deliberately poised facing the shrine. First disciple, then guard. In more intricately sculpted temples, you can see both Nandi’s mellow, wise eyes and powerful musculature in the stone – a juxtaposition that really captures the spirit of a gentle but strong bull. Sadly, I can only find photos from one temple in which no one has photobombed my Nandi. 
At the main temple at Mahabaleshwar, I read the fascinating legend that gave the place its name – the story of a mighty demon named Mahabal who gave up his immortal life in exchange for the privilege of sharing his eternal resting place with his god. And the compromise made him godly too, it seems. They had even put up an English version of the story. I could post it, but the translation is clumsy at best. The temple is some five hundred years old, while the idol inside claims a life of perhaps more than a thousand years. 
Road trip, however small, means awesome street food. As someone whose vacation at home is on the brink of its end, I jumped at this chance to gorge on everything homey I could find. I give you, a collage of some of our colourful choices – onion fritters, strawberry with cream which is a Mahabaleshwar-speciality, a spicy curry with bread called misal and that steaming cup of tea that we know adds an extra flavour to rain. 
Phew, that’s quite a long post for someone apparently only used to writing about books. I hope to branch out more often on Tabula Rasa, rather than trying to keep two blogs. Meanwhile, I would love to read your thoughts on rain, food, mythology and such days-out!