With nine months of MOP under my belt and an enthusiastic mother worm pushing me forward, Krystal and I embarked on a 14 hour bus ride to Hyderabad to attend and absorb from the British Council’s Teacher Educator Conference 2013.
In the swankiest corner of Hyderabad, deep amid mega construction projects, engineers everywhere you look and large expanses of nothing, was the Convention Hall we would come back to religiously for the next three days.
English Language Teacher Education in a Diverse Environment. Yes, sounds exactly like us.
From ten to six each day, for the next three days, I would be bombarded with information. Like a tennis ball coming at an anxious amateur every two seconds. Some I grasped, some I watched in awe as they wooshed over my head and some I HAD to dodge to avoid getting hurt! As I sit down and reflect, all of my learning goes back to one thing, MOP, and that is how I will share it.
Indiranagar in Chimbel is a model site for Mobile Outreach Program (MOP). Children grow up in an environment of hostility, name-calling, gang violence, suicides, strict religious ties and limited exposure to literacy and books. These are children that need most the love from a book, the ability to fight all odds by going off into a story, the chance to help themselves and not be completely dependent on school or society. Ideal, but most good things start with idealism. In the next few paragraphs you will meet the children of Chimbel, read with them, play with them and realize that no matter how small you think you are, you can make a difference. (Also, MOP is looking for volunteers!)
FAIZAL: I’m attending a session on learning disabilities, looking at slide after slide of tables and listening to repeated references to Taare Zameen Par as the speaker says ‘three in every ten students have an eyesight problem. Abnormal position is an instant giveaway.’ My mind goes back to Faizal in his shell framed glasses reading with an inch of a distance between his nose and the book. Faizal, like most children at Chimbel always has his hand up, waving in your face ‘Ma’am!Ma’am! Ask me!’ even before you had time to construct the question in your head (which goes back to a session on The Effects of Loss, Abuse and Trauma on Learning and Behaviour, which I will write about later) as we discuss the story we just read from a blown up book. Even as I point out the answer to Faizal from the book, he struggles. Primarily, because he has trouble seeing not because he can’t read.
SHAHNAWAZ: One of the littlest at Chimbel MOP, Nawaz and his cousin are constantly running around, playing hide and seek, hit and run, throw stones and what have you throughout the two hours at MOP, stopping only to ask ‘Drawing kadu? (Can I draw something?)’ As the numbers weaned because of school exams and the Resource Person to Student ratio raced steadily upward, I sat with Nawaz to read a book. He began reading the letters on the title and ran away when he got one wrong. So I ran with him, from child to child reading letters on their shirts. From Niju Sir, past Sandhya in her printed salwar to Tanveer with gibberish on his shirt, we read. Nawaz inverts his letters. The ‘b’ becomes a‘d’ and vice versa, ‘j’ looks like ‘t’ and ‘w’ and ‘m’ look the same. I wouldn’t have seen it if not for the session on learning disabilities. Nawaz and Attu don’t run around as much. There’s healthy competition between the two to identify letters on a book. Both of them come to me to help them win the games, winking and erupting in laughter. All it takes is a little understanding to find a way into a heart.
MOST CHILDREN AT CHIMBEL: As I look back at my notes on the conference, I noticed the sessions I enjoyed the most, learned from the most, I have no notes for! I sat in awe in Marie Delaney’s session on The Effects of Loss, Abuse and Trauma on Learning and Behaviour.
Some days at Chimbel are hard. The day takes its toll and with close to forty children yelling for attention, I crack. I lose my calm and refuse to hand out material or instructions until everyone is sitting and quiet. At the second day of the conference, I learn why. They think you will forget about them. Because of a previous experience with adults, they imagine and expect the same responses/reactions from you. According to Delaney, if your roles and structures are consistent, the children look at it as safe. Something they’re familiar with and don’t have to guard against. Perhaps for Sana and Emimah, Mohit and others, this is a safe space. Maybe we could look harder.
EMIMAH: Day before yesterday, Sujata handed me a Telegu book and said ‘Look! Emimah can read this!’ Emimah is the little girl no one wants to be paired with, stand next to or hold hands with. Emimah is the little girl that constantly gets teased because she reads slowly or can’t answer questions as fast as the rest. Emimah, this Thursday was the little girl bouncing around with joy! She dragged me by the hand, away from the rest as she read the title of the book. ‘Peacock Boy.’ ‘Wait!Wait! I can read more!’ she said as she went on through the first few pages. She wanted me to know that she can read. She was happy that I know she can read. Indiranagar is a largely migrant community. The children speak Marathi, Telegu, Kannada, Hindi and a smattering of Konkani and Urdu. Day Two of the Conference and I met my first academic hero. Professor Ajit Mohanty conducted a session called English and Multilingualism in India- Grounding ELT in a Multilingual Education. Prof. Mohanty works with children in the tribal belts of Assam, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh and makes a case for medium of instruction to be in a regional language till class six followed by exposure to other languages. He argues that English dis-empowers more than it empowers and speaks for the 196 languages in India that fear extinction. He spoke of 50% of students failing because they fail English. Not Drop Outs but Pushed Out. Because of a system that fails to understand learner needs.
‘TEACHER, AAJ MAKE A CIRCLE HAI?’
Session three of Day Two and I am in desperate need of coffee and tissues to protect my nose from all the air conditioning. I walk into a session called Getting the Best from each Learner in a Multi Level Classroom to a group waving their arms frantically in the air. Tim Philips goes on to demonstrate the components of a typical session in a multilevel class. He divides it into Physical, Verbal, Cognitive, Emotional, Creative and Spiritual (on occasion.) The warm up being a physical activity, which is why the group was waving their arms, a verbal exercise as he made us say characters of a book real quick, constructing the story, acting out the scene and ending with a simple ‘ Did you like the story? Why?’
Déjà vu. For this is what we do at Indiranagar in each session. Last Thursday Sona came to me, upset, ‘Aaj Make a Circle nahin hai?’
Make a circle is a song that Sujata sings, much like the Pied Piper, as kids come running from whatever caught their fancy and hold hands to ‘make a circle.’ Soon, everybody is playing ‘Sit and stand’ or doing the Hokey Pokey. For those wonderful ten minutes, we have everyone’s attention, even the people in the market.
At the end of the conference my second academic hero Professor Amritavalli asks teachers to try and incorporate a certain amount of reading in classrooms each day as part of a session on Learner Autonomy. She found that they read with more interest books or parts of the textbook they liked rather than material she gave them to read and that was the best way forward for second language learning. Something we do at the beginning of each session at Chimbel.
As I sit at my table writing this I know there is much for me to learn, I now know why what we do at Chimbel is so important.