Monday, December 21, 2009

Naomi Goes to School

Our intern Naomi reminisces about the time she spent teaching at a government school in Bangalore.
About a week into my time at Pratham Books, and about two weeks into my time in India, I had to leave the country for a week to travel to South Africa where an important family function was taking place ( duty calls!). Although I had a great time, the one disadvantage of this was that I missed the first week of the next stage of our internship (there were no more books to review!): working in an Akshara library in a school in Bangalore. Our first task for this, and what I was most disappointed to be missing, was selecting which school we wanted to work with.
The fact that I could not participate in this made me a little nervous to start. I was going to a school that I knew next to nothing about; whereas Amani had already been with the children for several days. So, he knew them and the teachers reasonably well, and was comfortably settled. When I spoke to him I learned that rather than assisting in the library like we had thought we would be doing, he was actually teaching a class English. As you can imagine, this didn’t much help my nerves. However on arriving at the school it was clear that such nerves were unnecessary.
The school we were teaching in was the Government Urdu School on Mosque road, Fraser Town. The school is not big, and is currently undergoing construction work so much of the outdoor playing space is piled high with bricks and other building materials. The school is predominantly, if not entirely, Muslim and class sizes vary greatly. Certain standards seem to have fewer than 20 children to a class whilst in others the numbers approached 40. The reason for this variation, however, was unclear. Within the school there is also a preschool for 3-6 year olds which has around 10 children.
During my month at the school I tried to have some interaction with all the different classes, but worked mostly with the class we were initially assigned, which was the 7th standard. With no prior knowledge about the English ability of the children I spent the first week or so simply revising “the basics”, some of which the class were completely clued up on, some less so. We did animals, fruits, body parts, actions, emotions, colours, transport, and much more, and taught through a variety of different means. When revising these quite basic topics most of the lesson was spent getting individuals from the class to come to the front and spell/ draw the requested word or words on the board. There were always many students eager and enthusiastic to volunteer which was pleasing to me, not only because it showed their English ability but also as it showed they felt comfortable with me and Amani, which I had not expected to happen so quickly.
Much of our class time was also taken up teaching songs. Although I know sing-a-longs are a popular teaching method (and not just in English, the 7th Standard maths class tended to start with a Hindi rhyme) and are often used I had always thought of this as something of a cliché, and was sceptical about how effective it could be. I was proved completely wrong however. The main advantage of teaching through the songs is that everyone in the class is engaged together and no-one is left out. It was always nice to see some of the shyer members of the class become excited and confident when we were doing songs. To make sure the songs had some educational purpose I would link them in with what else I had taught that day: “head, shoulders, knees and toes” followed naturally from learning body parts; “the wheels on the bus” fitted in with doing transport; and after teaching different words for different emotions I taught them “if you’re happy and you know it.” The latter in particular was loved by the children, so much so that just days later I saw other kids in the school, to whom I had not yet taught the song, singing it among themselves.
Overall I was infinitely impressed with the children’s English ability. I was told by one of the school’s teachers that they only start proper English lessons in Standard 6. When taking this into consideration, their English is amazing. The only time that mistakes were common was when the children were copying long passages that I had written from the board ( often with missing words for them to fill in themselves), though I think that much of the time this was just because many of the kids were rushing to finish first. When introduced to new words and ideas they were always quick to pick them up, and although many of the teaching staff at the school indicated that they expected there to be a problem in communication between the children and us because of having such different accents and pronunciations, I did not find this to be the case.
Aside from teachers, there were also quite often other people working in the school who were not the school’s staff, but working for an organisation trying to help the school to improve. It is my understanding that it is this organisation that it is funding much of the renovation work at the school. However during a conversation I had with one of these men he said that because of lack of funds the main way they are trying to improve the school is by pushing the teachers to push the children’s ability further, and to encourage more discipline throughout the school. It is obviously very encouraging that there is an organisation working to improve the school, although admittedly generally speaking I found the discipline in the school to already be of a high standard.
The one thing that really shocked me was the previously mentioned construction work and the effect this has on the school’s facilities. Although undoubtedly any improvements to the schools facilities are a positive thing, the bi-product of these improvements is that at the moment children are quite literally going to school in a building site. Even before you enter the school, there are piles of bricks and slabs of stone leading up to the entrance, some half-placed over large holes in the ground which someone could easily trip on or even fall into. Given how small some of the children who attend the school are, and how many children can be coming into/ leaving the school at any one time this seems quite dangerous. Going fromone level of the school to the other is a similar situation. One must jump around/ over piles of bricks, heaps of stones, even long wooden logs to move between levels. The worst thing I saw was concerning the preschool. For over a week whilst I was at the school (this was still the case when I left) the preschool room was being renovated. You’d expect given this that the class may have been shifted to another class room; even if this meant just sitting at the back whilst the older children were being taught. However this was not the case. Instead, the teacher was forced outside with the children, and had to look after all of them from a small, immobile roundabout that was sitting, literally, amid piles of stones and bricks. On one occasion when I was standing next to the roundabout and talking to the teacher and the children, one child even fell off the roundabout, though luckily was not hurt. The fact that the preschool teacher is responsible for all the children’s well being in such conditions seems like quite a burden.
Aside from this though, I have nothing but good things to say about the school. All my time working with those children is over but I am lucky because I live close by and will still be able to regularly pop in to say hello and see how things are coming along. It will be interesting to see if, when not there every day, I see more progress being made building-wise, and I am also interested to see if the children’s enthusiasm and confidence in English continues. I very much hope and believe that it will.

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