Oliver Northover Smith
I arrived in India in a fit of panic. As the plane hit the tarmac (late), I knew that I was going to miss my connecting flight to Jaipur. Fortunately, I was already accepted as a family member by the Tushita Foundation; a quick call to Veenaji was sufficient to organize alternative transport. I arrived in Jaipur later that day and was warmly welcomed by Gajju Bana; all the administrative details were taken care of and I had a relaxing weekend. Teaching was to begin on Monday.
Arriving at the Foundation on Monday, I was thrown straight into teaching. I was not at all ready for the difference in level of English and confidence among the students. The first few days constituted a scramble to find my feet, but once I did, it was highly enjoyable.
I am teaching a mix of personal finance, commerce, business studies and civic education. We began the week with personal finance. While some students were blurting out “credit” and “interest rate” (they already knew what I was going to teach them!), others were struggling with the concept of income and expenditure. There was a wide range of ability, even within Rose class. However, with the able support of my co-teacher Ruchi, I was able to get across something useful to each of the classes. Especially in an unfamiliar environment, it is often like this: you plan for one thing and reality pulls you in a different direction. It became clear that I would need to teach different things to different batches.
The latter half of the week was spent meditating on how best to stimulate each class. It occurred to me that the students learn the best when speaking, and that students need to be forced to speak! Ruchi and I therefore decided that the medium of debate would be highly effective. Because some topics are “harder” in that they require more advanced vocabulary and conceptual understanding, we could assign these to stronger classes. Motions (debating topics) would be set according to the level of the class. While the weaker students could think about whether they should choose a job for money or for helping people, the stronger students could debate whether the rich should pay more tax. By giving time to the students (1 whole lesson) to prepare a written argument which they speak in the next one, I hope to ensure that all students (even the most timid!) are confident to speak.
The teacher sessions I took were the biggest shock to me. Students from the strongest batch I teach are considerably more advanced in English than the weakest teachers, whom I was tasked with teaching. I realised I needed a completely different approach.
Next week I will be teaching a class of 8 (two teachers from the Foundation, and six local girls who want to improve their English). I will be starting from the very basics of English (parts of speech and sentence formation in grammar, very simple vocabulary, and as much speaking as possible!) I don’t think I will be able to run my project with them. Perhaps I can introduce some aspects of it as the English of the class improves.
Week 2, July 16th – July-2st
Week two began as week one had, but this time I had found my rhythm. Mixing theoretical lessons (with lots of class participation and work on the board) with practical lessons (we did lots of debates and the children were very lively!) seemed to be a great mix and I think the kids have learned a lot!
The debates were especially noteworthy because they showcased the students’ passion! In the (relatively) weaker batch we discussed whether they should choose a job for money or to help people. They were able to see the flaw in the prompt – that the two were mutually exclusive – and come to a sensible middle way whereby they could meet their basic economic needs while also positively impacting others. I was very impressed with this, especially their ability to marshal case studies (like Ambani’s charitable work or indeed the Foundation!) to show how the dichotomy did not hold.
In the stronger group we discussed whether rich people should pay more tax. We covered the main taxes in India and the rate at which they’re levied, before progressing to write down and say the arguments aloud. The standard Western arguments about helping the poor versus encouraging entrepreneurship showed up, but I was surprised (perhaps due to naïveté) by the number of religious arguments I heard. Some used Hindu arguments about hierarchy to justify inequality while others cited religious reasons to share wealth. Overall I was impressed by the passion and level of English shown by the class.
At the end of the week we began the business project. Students were organised into teams of two or three who form mini companies for the course of the next week. The needed to choose a product area (we had choices from fast food to mobile phones) and draw and design their product on paper. We did the drawing in rough on Friday and I was very impressed with the students’ vocabulary shown in the annotations on their drawings including references to various building materials and technical specifications for cars (horsepower, torque and top speed), mobiles (RAM, screen size, internal storage) and more. Jayant’s drawing of a supercar was a highlight! These drawings will form part of a pitch to the banker for seed funding next week, so I was impressed how much effort the students put in.
In teacher sessions with Jyoti, Shaloo and Neha we decided to just do pure English. We covered a lot of grammar and vocabulary and the formerly quiet Jyoti contributed to class. Neha, who is there out of personal volition, is a joy to have in class and is eager to learn.
This weekend we are going on our first road trip to Udaipur. I am excited to see more of the country and will write more about it next week!
Week 3, July 23rd – 27th
My project was always going to reach a “crescendo” for me. We had to cover the ideas before we could put them into practice. This week was when we were finally able to do that.
Therefore, this week was very exciting for me. We started our businesses and the students were able to incorporate almost everything that they had learned. The best examples demonstrated an amazing ability to foresee gaps in the market (e.g. healthy fast food for the Indian market, or the world’s first supercar manufactured in India.)
Their designs were a highlight for me. They showed themselves to be so perceptive of the world around them. They had absorbed so much English-only vocabulary around them (eg. words to describe telephones’ specifications) without them realising it and were able to incorporate this into their work. Groups grasped the concept of market identification and sizing and were able to articulately express in English who their target market was and why their product would be successful in it.
Having some older students in the class certainly helped. There are some members of Rose class that are just 11 but some (Rinku, Lalit, Harsh) are older. Lalit especially is interested in business and brought some incredibly advanced vocabulary (collateral, capital, entrepreneur) which I would have judged too difficult for the class. Because he was there, he was able to explain the concepts in “Hinglish” which advanced the students’ understanding dramatically. I am sure that such terms passed over the youngest students’ heads but having him there meant that those who wanted to know more could do so.
In the new students I can see students coming out of their shell. At Ruchi’s and Lilima’s advice I slowed down the class dramatically and I saw that the most confident before became even more so, but the least confident showed increasing signs of strength. It is difficult for me to beat my pre-set intuition (garnered from years of private tuition and working as a school assistant) that all Indians are extremely bright and therefore pick things up extremely fast!
In a way I am very disappointed that I am here for only a month. By the time I have learned enough to be useful, I feel like I will be on my way!
And full-time work will prevent me from coming back for any extended length of time. It simply means that now the lessons have been learned, I need to make sure I am exceptionally effective in August!
Teacher sessions continued to be good. Jyoti and Shaloo have markedly improved their language ability. A continuing frustration is that in grammar sessions they show a strong grasp of the theory and then it goes out with the window in the conversation! I guess this is a consequence of their nerves and desire to speak quickly, but it is nonetheless a challenge to overcome!
The most interesting thing I’ve done this week is deepen my Hindi study. Having largely mastered the alphabet, I have moved onto grammar and have had to grapple with such nightmares as nouns with genders but no articles,verbs that need to agree with their subject,postpositions as opposed to prepositions, and a case system. No language I’ve studied so far has any of these qualities.
Week 4, July 30th – August 3rd
This week is my last in Rose Class and for that reason has been rather melancholy. We wrapped up their fictional businesses by discussing the topic of marketing and allowing them to choose a medium through which to advertise their product. Teams’ adverts ranged from pamphlets to radio jingles to posters. I was impressed by all of their work and the creativity therein, but I was especially taken by one slogan for Krishna et al’s TV company:
“If you want to avoid your beevee, then buy our TV!”
Both Ruchi and I were in stitches for at least a couple of minutes when we heard that one. Their ability to find a word (albeit a Hindi transliteration!) that rhymed with TV and make a slogan out of it really impressed me. It also demonstrated their firm grasp on English vocabulary and sentence structure (conditional sentences are hard!)
One thing that particularly struck me was that the students had been paying attention to the adverts they had come into contact with in their lives. They had thought about what made them effective and without prompt incorporated many key elements of the marketing toolkit into their work (for example, they designed logos and placed them effective places on their material. Overall, I was very impressed!
On Friday we played the “monsoon game” to review all the concepts we had learned. This included questions on everything from the household budgeting of the first week to the business concepts discussed in the final week.
The new students have also progressed nicely. We had to do a little bit of potentially dry review of grammar and vocab to clear up persistent errors they were making, but we were able to incorporate these lessons into lots of writing and speaking by the end of the week which was fun. Students seem to adore writing and cannot wait to have their work checked afterwards. Also, for some reason, willingness to speak in this class is very high and I have no difficulty soliciting good responses from the class.
In teacher sessions this week I started with Geeta and Ruksar. The higher level of English in the class was a welcome break for me because it meant I could discuss politics and economics rather than simply English. Ruksar in particular seemed very interested in political issues (Israel/Palestine, Syria to name a few) while Geeta was able to explain concepts (like that of a “good” or “bad” harvest) in Hinglish to great effect. I personally will never forget achee faisal and buree faisal (the Hindi words for good and bad harvest respectively)!
I am looking forward to moving classes but am apprehensive about adapting my lessons to their level. I am making a serious effort to plan for this change but am certain that any plan I make will need to be adapted and changed in the new environment.
Week 5, August 6th – 10th
This week has been my first in Lily class and I have found it surprisingly easy given what I was told about their level of English. Because there are no very young students (think Hizba or Aqib in Rose), the amount of schooling the members of Lily class has undertaken is higher. This means that though some of them are shier in expression, their ability to grasp things is actually often higher (eg. concepts like taxation or budgeting, and anything involving calculations.)
Early in the week we discussed household needs and categorized them into short- and long-term needs as well as tangible (food, water) and intangible (electricity, insurance) needs. We proceeded to make a “basket of needs” whereby the students produced small drawings of all the things households need and want (from phones to food) and they were placed in a bag which I have used as a prop since in class. The drawings were very pretty and the bag looks good!
We then moved onto a concept of a budget, drawing from our basket of needs to illustrate that some needs can be satisfied month-to-month from wages (food, water) while others require more protracted planning (phones, AC machines). We role-played the process of saving for a big purchase in the classes. We had AC and scooter salespeople, consumers and bankers who role-played the process of earning, saving and spending money. Though the students needed to be prompted at times (the AC salesmen were not very polite to start with, and consumers willingly handed over their hard-earned cash to bankers without knowing the terms or the interest rate!) I was impressed overall with the student’s tackling of the task and their level of English.
In the new students I have a very large class which has been a challenge. In order to ensure all are occupied all of the time I have done a lot of reading and individual writing tasks but have found this not fully satisfying and I am trying to think of ways to involve everyone in different ways. Geetaji will be instrumental in this because we will need to split the class somehow (for example, for speaking) and monitoring that the students are working will be key!
With Ruksar and Geeta we had an excellent week of teacher sessions. We had a formal debate on the tension between globalisation and culture: Geeta gave an impassioned worry about the state of Hindi and Sanskrit language teaching (“There’s a school in Amer with a French teacher that doesn’t even teach Sanskrit at all!”) and Ruksar defended globalisation by saying it made her more tolerant while not losing her roots. Using articles as prompts has also proved useful. While the vocabulary in the serious English language press is often extremely difficult and this acts as a barrier, the girls enjoy the challenge and are diligent at making vocabulary lists and using the words they learn in their own work.
Week 6, August13th – 17th
This week was short: Monday was a holiday, Tuesday we celebrated Independence Day at the Foundation, Wednesday was Independence Day itself, so I only taught on Thursday and Friday.
For Independence Day I prepared a play in three acts for the three batches of students. The first would show the early conflicts for independence, including notably the 1857 rebellion. The second batch showed the road to independence being achieved in the period after the First World War and up to 1947. The final batch showed what was great about modern India: democracy, diversity, culture, religion, spirituality, economic power and military prowess.
The students enjoyed the play, and all wanted to play a serious role in it. There was some reluctance to take major roles due to nervousness (Gandhi didn’t get as many volunteers as I had hoped), all took seriously the role of learning their lines. I hope you have been able to see the videos taken of the play; many at the foundation enjoyed it.
In regular classes we started the “public infrastructure project”. Students are tasked with designing something they believe their community needs, like a hospital, school or road. They then need to justify why their project is the most important and why the government should choose to elect their project above all others. The idea has been to show that the government suffers the same scarcity as private citizens and that all choices involve giving something up (“opportunity cost” in economics jargon). The students have drawn the links between how households budget (“What’s my income going to be?” “How do I apportion my spending?”) and how governments do the same (“What’s tax revenue going to be?” “How do I satisfy my voters subject to my financial constraints.”) I feel that they have understood the key point which is that all economics is about choices, and choices require giving something up; “There’s no such thing as a free lunch!”
With the new class I have discovered that dictation is an incredibly powerful tool. It forces the whole class to focus and helps their listening comprehension which in my view is perhaps the most useful of the four main language skills! INDEED! It has also allowed me to identify weaknesses in their phonetics which I could correct. We also were able to apply the past tense stuff we had learned the previous week in a “Describe your Independence Day” exercise!
This week we only had one teacher session in which we gave the teachers situations to act out and vocabulary to use in it. This is a good exercise for them because it forces all the teachers to speak (we make mixed-ability groups) and makes them incorporate new vocabulary.
Week 7, August 24th – 31st
In Lily class the final week has been heartwarming. We finished the course by embarking on the entrepreneurial project. I was truly blown away by the quality of the work and the creativity of the students. Sonam and Muskan’s jewellery business was a particular highlight, with intricate and beautiful designs shown. The students showed an ability to recognise markets and explain how their product would meet a gap in it. The third batch especially was great to see with all the girls (and Shalin!) taking their work and presentation extremely seriously, and the result was very impressive.
As well as the designs, the students had to write a short plan of what they would do to start the business. They developed a sound understanding of what it takes to start a business and the sort of details a potential investor would want to hear about. Why was their product unique? They were very good at explaining this.
Because the third batch finished early we moved on to a final day on “making a difference.” The students adeptly noticed the good things around them in their community as well as the bad things (domestic abuse, plastic waste, alcohol and tobacco were all cited without prompt). They then wrote some truly impressive short pieces of writing about how they will try to alleviate these problems in their own way in the next few years. This course has been about empowerment and realising that nobody is too small to make a difference, and so I was touched to see what the students perceived themselves to be capable of.
We started using the ReadToMe in the second batch and it was largely successful. We need a solution so the audio is clearer but it worked well and the level of language is perfect. I suspect students fail to understand 10-20 percent of the words, which is ideal. We also did reading comprehension from the book and I am pleased to report that in this class the reading speed and phonetics have improved markedly since I started doing dictation and similar with them. Finally we did a section on wants and desires, noting the similarity between English and Hindi grammar with respect to the word “should” and the imperative form of verbs.
In teacher sessions with Geeta and Ruksar we watched a speech by Indian MP Shashi Tharoor about the legacy of colonialism in India. His rhetorical flair and very advanced English made for pleasant listening and it allowed us to consider the contemporary Indian policy debate about industrialisation and development (one of Tharoor’s key claims is that Britain’s industrialisation was achieved by reindustrializing India and exporting raw materials back to the UK.) Though they sometimes found the concepts tricky, and the vocabulary hard, they coped well overall and enjoy this kind of discussion.