(This is a guest post by Chintan Girish Modi. He is pursuing an M.Phil. in English Language Education. Based on field work with school students in a low-income neighbourhood in Dongri, Mumbai, his research has to do with encouraging children to write by building on their interests and experiences instead of responding mechanically to teacher-driven writing prompts. He writes for Teacher Plus and Young World, and manages People in Education, an online group that connects various stakeholders in education, and facilitates the sharing of resources)
In 1997, the Anthropology and Education Quarterly had published a paper titled ‘Talking with Benny: Suppressing or Supporting Learner Themes and Learner Worlds?’ by Martha Bean. It describes a case study with Benny, a Mexican American third-grader, who was considered a failure in school, but turned out to be “an apt and avid learner” when his personal tutor related “instructional talk” to “recurrent themes in Benny’s daily life.” The paper is written by Benny’s neighbour and family friend who offered personal tutoring to the young boy. With the benefit of being able to observe Benny at close quarters and have a glimpse into his out-of-school experiences, Bean was able to talk to the child within the frame of his life experiences. Bean’s familiarity with Benny’s world helped her support the kid’s language learning in ways that school teachers couldn’t. Bean wanted to compare her tutoring experience with what went on at school. As a classroom observer, she found that Benny made an attempt to introduce his life contexts into the classroom, but didn’t find too welcome a forum here. Most teachers, like the one in Benny’s classroom, stay unaware of the rich variety of resources that learners bring with them to school. As a result, opportunities “that allow learners to share more of themselves and their background knowledge” are lost. Bean has an important question to ask all of us who care about children: “How can learners’ life experiences inform the tasks of school, and why in the case of minority learners doing poorly in school, is it important that they do so?”
One way of doing this is through home visits. Amy Baeder, in her article, ‘Stepping Into Students’ Worlds’, writes about the home visits programme at Cleveland High, a small school in Seattle. “Through listening to parents, grandparents, and others, we learned of these individuals’ talents, experiences and dreams in ways that would later help us understand and motivate our students.” In a multicultural setting, such home visits help teachers gain first-hand knowledge about each family, rather than accepting generalities or stereotypical images that are not based on direct experience. Baeder writes, “We find it highly rewarding when we incorporate information gleaned from a home visit into a lesson, warm-up question, project, or assignment.” Home visits also help schools get a good sense of how families can contribute to: by sharing skills, offering workshops, volunteering at school functions, using their contacts and resources. One may argue that home visits take up too much time, or are impossible given the large numbers of students. Can we work around these constraints? Can we appreciate the idea of home visits in principle, and look for other ways of creating connections between homes and schools? The effort seems worth it. “Each year, on the first day of school, I stand in front of a sea of faces, with names swirling in my head. Some students remain a mystery to me until I visit their homes and they unfold into real people. Teachers need to know students in this way; every day we make instructional decisions that hinge on what we know about our kids. We can learn so much if we just enter students’ homes and listen.”
If Baeder isn’t convincing enough for you, dip into Sandra Smidt’s book Introducing Vygotsky. Smidt draws our attention to the practice of gathering information about a child’s life prior to his/her entry into a school. She points out that this procedure is often carried out in a manner that is unresponsive to the needs of parents who may not be familiar with the system the child is entering. Schools ask parents to fill out forms, but the information collected is often used purely for statistical purposes. At times, this information is not even seen by the teacher, when in fact, it can help them understand better the young people placed in their care, and build deep connections between home and school. Smidt writes, “In terms of sensitive and effective teaching and learning, we must start by finding out as much as we can about the life of the child. We want to know what the child has shown interest in and been involved in, at home and in the local community. We want to know who the important people in the child’s life are. We want to know what the child likes, what she fears, what she enjoys, and what significant experiences she has had. This is a double-edged tool. In the first place, it allows us to begin to build on the child’s prior experience; in the second it marks the beginning of a two-way partnership with parents and carers. Understanding the child’s experiences, culture and cultural tools, networks of support and communication, and significant others (adult and peer) allows us to begin to build another world for the child to learn in and from, and to offer another culture to which the child contributes. This is the culture of the classroom…”
There is much else to share, but this blog post is already turning out to be quite long. I’d like to conclude with Erick Gordon’s lovely article about the Student Press Initiative, which collaborates with schools to bring out student-generated publications that grow from classrooms. Gordon writes about the process of putting together Coring the Apple: The Best of New York, a student publication by 13-year-olds. Prior to the publication, students read widely in the ‘reviews’ genre: music, food, literature, arts, shopping, sports, etc. Alex, an eighth-grader who “resisted classroom writing with pugnacity” started developing an interest in the idea when it occurred to him that his review could actually be persuasive enough to convince someone to act on his advice. Alex decided to write about video games, and worked on several drafts of his review with great enthusiasm. Gordon writes, “An avid gamer, Alex had never been permitted to bring this interest to school before, never had the opportunity to draw from his expertise to reveal his intimate insider’s knowledge of the world of video games.” The Student Press Initiative also collaborated with Mary Whittemore, who taught a 12th grade class called Literature of Social Justice at the Beacon School in New York City.” Each student profiled, interviewed, and photographed a community activist of his or her choice.
Interviews are a wonderful genre of writing, not widely experimented with in schools. Last summer, when I facilitated a writing workshop with 10-14 year olds in Dongri, Mumbai, I asked my students to consider interviewing people they are used to interacting with on a regular basis, but don’t know well enough. Two interviewed their maid servants, a third interviewed her milkman, and a fourth one interviewed a boy working at a restaurant. I had asked all the children to prepare a set of questions and run it by me. They carried out their interviews in Hindi, and translated the responses into English. The results were fabulous.
The children were compelled to think about several aspects of the lives of their interviewees—how much they earned per month, if they had any savings, the village or hometown they had migrated from, other people in their family, everyday problems in their locality, the education of their children, what they liked to do in their spare time, their dreams and aspirations. Things that may or may not have crossed the minds of these children earlier, but things they got to learn about on their own. All they had to do was ask.
The girl who interviewed her milkman didn’t know his name earlier. The girl who interviewed the boy at the restaurant came back feeling sad for the boy, and thinking about child labour. A friend of mine, who is a social psychologist, read two of these interviews, and pointed out that interviewing as an exercise had turned out to be quite a simple but powerful tool. It had helped the children empathise.
I share this experience because I feel it is important for our children to learn more about people who are in and out of our homes, providing valuable services. These are people who make our lives comfortable, but are often passed by, with no acknowledgement, leave alone a smile. Our children (and adults too) must learn to respect what these people do.
Image Source : Halomomo