Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Update from the Intern: Uttarakhand

When I was planning my trip for Uttarakhand I somehow misinterpreted IST – Indian stretchable time – to mean that my own time was stretchable. Visiting three places in one week somehow seemed very feasible, until I started getting specific, and realized that Sunday is not a school day... Traveling is also a factor that comes into play, and about 20 hours of traveling the first day didn't exactly help me stretch my time.

Aarohi (north of Nainital)
I spent three–four days at an organisation called Aarohi (aarohi.org), which runs a small hospital as well as a school in rural Kumaon. The school is perched on a rock overlooking a vast valley, and the two school buildings themselves are made out of beautiful pieces of stone, giving an altogether awe-inspiring impression. The small private school has fewer than 300 pupils from class 1–8, making the groups small, and if has a library room full of books, which (or course) is what drew my attention more than anything else.

I was asked to help out at the library, improve the presentation and generally boost the use of the library. Three days isn't much, but together with the librarian I separated the English books from the Hindi ones, and divided the English books into two groups depending on the level of difficulty. I also suggested that they colour label the spines, so that they if books were mixed in the future, they could easily be separated. Also, this way the children could identify books at their level more easily.

The records for issuing books showed that every once in a while a class would come and issue a set of books, and occasionally individual students came to check out a book. To boost the use of the library, I suggested that they read more at school, and also "make" children check out books they read at school, and bring them home. I don't expect them all to read avidly at home, but if they have books with them, some just might! Developing a reading culture is a slow process, and one can only work towards it step by step.

I had little time to talk to teachers and the librarian, but as promised I wrote a report with ideas and reflections, including a paragraph on the teaching of English that I observed.

Ramnagar
I had initially planned to go to both Almora and Ramnagar, but since I had to get back to a workshop for librarians at Bookaroo, I was only left with two days, barely. The first of those two days turned out to be a holiday in Ramnagar, so instead of visiting schools, I ended up visiting the Corbett Tiger Reserve with the Pratham employees. I didn't spot any tigers, but maybe that was just as well. A family of spotted deer was enough to make the trip worthwhile, and the day made for a good days rest after quite a bit of traveling and intensive school visits.

I went to two schools the following day, both were very similar. two and two classes were taught together, and the Pratham volunteer had to use the lawn outside in lack of building space. The Pratham team had decided to focus a lot on English . I understand and sympathise with the importance of English, but I am concerned with the inordinate emphasis on English, especially in the lower classes and with children who are weak in reading/writing in their mother tongue. Children should certainly learn English, but at what age (or level), how, in what way? Parents are among the stakeholders that root for English, but they are not alone. Early introduction to a foreign language is not crucial; children can learn a second language at a later stage, when their general meta-cognitive and linguistic abilities are more developed (I started learning English at age 11). It is true that up to the age of 10 (or thereabouts), children can pick up a language by just listening to it. But that is completely different from a classroom situation, and this has basically nothing to do with the early introduction of a foreign language.

My observations in Ramnagar sparked som thoughts on the role of English in Indian schools in general and Pratham programmes in particular. I am not saying English should not be taught at the lower grades, only that careful attention needs to paid to this, so that it is really beneficial, and not done at the expense of learning other things.

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