Sumitra’s Story

On my 5th day of teaching at Jamyang School, one child’s mother who had come to pick her up asked me casually outside class if the astronomy session I had conducted with the students that day would be a part of the exam portion. I explained to her that this wasn’t a part of the curriculum at all, it was something I wanted them to know about out of my own personal passion for the subject. She responded: “Toh fir faayda kya hai?”

We learn how to do things that contribute in a very small way to a much larger mission, but do absolutely nothing for our own career prospects. We spend our days studying and simulating experiences we may never actually have. It’s all pretend, really, but we are learning. And that, I think, is the point: learning.

My first visit to the AT office in Leh was nothing like I had imagined it to be: located at a height, it was literally a room on a roof, overlooking the entire town, all equipped with a kitchen and a library. I was introduced to Deachen, and we went over my lesson plans for Jamyang School, picked up a few books from the library that I’d be using in class, and refueled my art supplies. Next morning we travelled to the school together, and I couldn’t help but feel a little anxious about what was to come. They say that it is the inhabitants of a region that give birth to its culture. If snow capped mountains, sub zero temperatures and Tibetan noodles in soup (Thukpa) aren’t culture enough, Ladakh’s citizens do ensure they stand apart by their conscientious, respectful and environment-friendly practices. Jamyang school, inaugurated and supported by the Dalai Lama, could be said to be one of the more resourceful schools in Ladakh. 300 odd children, weather-friendly wooden interiors to classrooms and dorms, solar electricity – the school seemed to have it all. For me, what set it apart was that it catered in majority to orphaned children, those from remote areas, poor families, first generation learners and students of the border dispute. I quickly learnt that asking children about their families, their homes and their parents’ professions wasn’t one of the most undisputed and non-sensitive topics to begin with.

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In my interaction with rural children, I realised that they lack many things in their lives that are often taken for granted by city dwellers – sanitation, running water, nutritious food, and most importantly, access to good education, which holds the key to changing lives. Their knowledge of English is limited. Teaching of English in schools, if at all, takes place in a traditional bookish manner. Ladakh being in Jammu and Kashmir is quite remote; for 6 months of the year the region is inaccessible as all roads to it are closed. In a sense it remains quite cut off from the rest of the country. I wanted to empower children with the gift of education, the joy of learning, bringing previously absent opportunities for a better overall quality of life in the region. My teaching module focused on conversational English, and each new day dealt with a new everyday life topic, for instance, the Marketplace, how to conduct a telephone conversation in English etc. Each module included audio, video and picture activities, and all of the learning took place in the form of games and fun.

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Teachers often do not, and sometimes cannot, take learning outside the classroom. I decided to include some practical modules such as bird watching – where we learnt the names of local birds and then went outside to actually spot them, star gazing – learning about planets via pictures and then looking for them in the sky. I believe such sessions help the children realize that topics they are learning about are not just textbook entities, but real life occurrences that they can respect, understand and be aware of. Occasionally, we would have conversation classes on the terrace on how rainbows appear, where they dinosaurs went and anything else that the children wanted to talk about. I taught 25 children in Grade 2 through the course of my stay.

Each day would typically start with a small game. I’d throw a ball to a student, ask him who his friend was, he’d answer, then throw it to another student, asking him the same question. And the game continued for a while in the same way till the momentum was sustained. This served two objectives – one, the game acted like an ice breaker, made me seem more friendly to the students, helped break some of their initial shyness and reticence. Second – I had successfully taught the kids how to ask the question “who is your friend” and respond accordingly. Following this I asked them to imagine how their lives would be without their friends and classmates, and surprisingly this little exercise elicited some intriguing responses. From “I would be lonely” right up to “…then who would I share my pencil with?”, I instantly felt them opening up to me in ways I had never imagined 7 year olds were capable of. Perhaps these children can teach us how to look inward and discover our true selves?

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A half hour session during school hours on Day 2 helped me comprehend a lot about the level of education that the children were receiving.

Me: what did you kids learn today in class? (In Hindi)
UKG: Vowels!
Me: can we name them?
UKG: A, E, I, O, U.
Me: excellent, what do vowels mean?
UKG: *silence*

Is it really the best idea to introduce the concept of vowels to first time learners through the alphabets themselves, and not through the sounds they produce? Aren’t phonics more important than naming letters? Of what use it is to know the word “vowel” if one doesn’t know where it’s used, why it’s used and how?

I spontaneously cooked up a game for them, where the class collectively came up with actions to represent the sounds in each vowel. For example, E was represented by the action of one pulling both sides of a rubber band till it was stretched to its limit. O was represented by the path of a car running through a long, dark, round tunnel. I enacted, the students made vowel sounds. I made sounds, students enacted. We then proceeded to identify which vowel sounds were contained in the names of their favourite animals. Some enthusiastic kids turned into crawling and meowing cats, and had their fellow classmates  guess the vowel sounds. For a while, my class turned into a zoo. All 20 kids on their fours, making animal noises, and having the time of their life. Do I believe the pandemonium was worth it? An emphatic yes. For what kind of learning is that which doesn’t include fun and play? At the end of a good 1.5 hours with the class, I was elated. And most because they seemed more satisfied than I was.

In order to improve language and grammar, I had a number of activities planned. One for example, went about like this: On colored bits of paper, I wrote down 5 sentences, which I then cut out into their constituent words. On jumbling the words, students now had a pile of random words with which they needed to form 5 sentences. After 2 futile attempts, they all realized that they necessarily needed to communicate with every other student to make their sentences. In a while, we had 5 complete sentences made of separate sheets of words! More than learning spelling, vocabulary, and sentence formation, what came out strongly from this session was the students sense of team spirit, cooperation and group cohesion, which I felt was now stronger than it ever was before.
On day 6, I conducted a module on action verbs. I expected that the class would have already learnt most of these, I wanted to reinforce that learning and help them create sentences with the verbs. Yes, they did know sit, stand, jump, eat, sleep, drink. But they didn’t also (quite surprisingly) know bring, buy, hold, laugh, throw. I had them repeat and re repeat unknown words, guess the verbs via my actions. We even looked at clipart and guessed the verbs through drawings (what is it about pictures that elicits this kind of enthusiasm and interest amongst children? The colour? No, black and white images are equally well greeted!) Up next: Role play, which also works exceedingly well with children, who for some reason, collectively imagine themselves as the next ShahRukh Khan. In pairs, they’d enact a situation involving a few of the action verbs studied, and the rest of the class wrote down all the verbs they’d observed were acted out. A striking observation: when linked with action, children rarely forget what they’ve learnt. Be it action verbs, songs with actions, or vowels with actions.

Through the course of my month long program, I also created a story book with the children, the story being both written and illustrated by them with my help. The finished book is now in the school library. We started out with some general conversation – why do we need characters in a story? How many do we use? Can non living objects also be assigned talking roles? How long should a story be? It was apparent right at the start that the children had never written a story before, and much of what they were exposed to were stories on moral values, with animals, people, kings, queens and hunters. I can’t forget the emotions of surprise, astonishment, disbelief, hope and joy that some of the students expressed when I told them that their protagonist could be a blackboard, or a shoe! And so the children were divided into 5 groups of 5 each, and for a while had to discuss who the characters in their stories would be, how many characters they’d need, and how the characters would be defined. For example, I wanted them to have a definite idea about the personality of each of their characters, their likes dislikes, their feelings, etc and then build the story around that framework. I wanted the children to use their imagination as much as possible, and insisted that they think of characters that weren’t used in any of the stories in their textbooks or on television.

One story that the students created spoke about 3 characters – a Chinese man, a Pakistani, and a Ladakhi man. The three keep fighting with each other through the course of the narrative, the Pakistani and China man keep trying to kill the Indian, but the Indian always wins. The moral of their story was that Pakistanis are evil, and should never be befriended. The idea behind the creation of this story, and the enthusiasm and spontaneity with which it was narrated mildly shocked me. Where did the students get these thoughts from to begin with? Young children of age 6 and 7 don’t create these ideas all by themselves. They borrow them from others : from their families, from society, from the media. And how progressive are we really as a nation, when the youth still thinks this way? This experience helped me realize how different a childhood these children lead from what was mine, and how much support, love and encouragement they require in their lives.

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A session on expressing feelings in English had me ask the class to create sentences that expressed one thing each that made them happy, sad, scared, angry. I perceived a range of emotions on the faces of the students as they spoke – from mild resentment to outright fear. One boy felt happiest when his parents visited him every second weekend. Another, extremely sad when he ran out of money and couldn’t visit the shop for biscuits, along with fellow students. They were scared of heights, they were scared of the dark, they were scared of school ending as they’d then see less and less of their friends, and as a unanimous opinion, they were scared of India and Pak fighting, of army men dying, and of bombs being dropped over Ladakh. Although mine was meant to be an English class, I couldn’t help but delve into their thoughts at this moment. When I was 7, my biggest worry was whether mum would allow me an extra helping of Nutella with breakfast, not whether my city would be bombed that night. Every time I engage in conversation with these children, they reveal to me thoughts, impressions, intentions that keep reinforcing for me the fact that I led such a joyous childhood.

The next day, I intended to introduce the children to properties of objects. I wanted to teach them about textures – not only that different textures have different names, but also to make them aware how every object they deal with day in and day out, in their homes and in their surroundings, that each feels distinctly different from another, and that one needs to be aware about this diversity in touch. My assignment was to go home, and bring me one object from their world, and describe to me tomorrow how it felt to them. Through this small exercise I wish to introduce texture names: smooth, rough, rocky and the like. The variety of objects that were brought to the class astounded me – water included. I broadened the session from mere knowledge about texture to object properties in general – was it delicate? Brittle? Pointed? Smooth? Grainy? Silky? Slippery?

Perhaps my favourite session with the children was one on birds and bird watching. Ladakh, being an arid Himalayan desert, is notoriously famous for its innumerable birding colour and wildlife. Indeed, I’d already spotted around 50 different species since I came here. With the exception of a few of these seen only in the high passes of Khardung la and Chang la, I had observed and photographed most others in Leh itself, living in the midst of the lively town. Jamyang school as well has a good amount of greenery; at least two birds woke me up each morning with their windowsill singing. But did the children know about this dearth of wildlife that existed around them? For the next hour, we concentrated on the common birds of Leh. I showed the children pictures, got them to identify the species, and even played recordings of their calls. The children did recognize some of the birds, in some cases they didn’t know the names in English. I asked them to pay attention to the bird calls, as these were sounds they heard every single day!

After a good amount of interest had been roused, I played the bird sounds separately without pictures, and the students, in teams, had to guess. For a little fun, I also showed them only pictures and made them imitate the bird calls! Lastly, I took them outside class for a little walk, to see if we could identify a few of the birds we had studied about. And indeed, we spotted the Red-billed Chough in the first 5 minutes! We observed it carefully, the children spoke about its features, it’s flying pattern, and then we waited for it to call out, and it did! No sooner did the Chough fly away than came along an elegant Magpie, so close that we felt we could almost touch its wings! And while we were still marveling at the Magpie’s shiny colours, a few boys called out to me to say that there was a golden eagle flying overhead! 3 prominent species in 15 minutes and with several other bird calls beckoning, it was quite a successful afternoon.

On my last day, I began by individually asking each child what he would take back from all the sessions we’d done together, what his favourite bit was, what he didn’t like. Their answers amazed me. Many pointed out to the fact that we’d done outdoor activities, a medium through which they hadn’t learnt before. One boy said he loved sitting on the floor in a circle rather than the usual class setting, because it allowed him to look at everyone. Many loved the variety of activities we’d undertaken as a class – from using flash cards of exotic wildlife species to learning geography from an inflated globe, to occasional conversations on how ice is formed and how the northern lights appear. But most children, unanimously said that they simply liked the fact that I came to class everyday, that I spoke to them, that I listened to them. They said they felt free – free to tell me what they felt like, free to ask me their doubts and questions. They weren’t afraid. They felt independent, and at home.

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We sang and danced to our hearts content on that last day; the children taught me some Ladakhi folk tunes. We clicked infinite photos. Hugs were passed around. We imitated actors in the movies and laughed like there was no tomorrow. I gave each child a tiny parting gift – a set of crayons for the second graders, and a small pocket diary each for the third graders. With that, it was time to say goodbye. School sessions were followed up by a couple of days at the AT office, where I discussed my experience with Deachen and Disket, shared photos, and felt more at home than anywhere else.

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Most of the children I taught were orphans, and some came from areas of border violence. They were a little more reticent than the usual child of the same age, but by and by they became more open, more questioning and more attached to me. My aim was to enhance the mental, emotional and psychological development of children within and beyond the education they receive at school. I might have slightly impacted their English learning, but I know I have definitely strengthened their confidence and curiosity levels, and these are qualities they’ll keep with them for the rest of their lives. The tiny notes that each child individually wrote to me in broken English as I walked out of class on that last day, are testimony to this fact.

Two weeks down the line, writing this volunteer story, I was hoping to relive the memories of my month-long stay in Ladakh. But the children I met, the stories we shared, the roads I travelled on, and the images I captured still feel so vivid and immediate that it seems inaccurate, somehow, to describe them in the past tense.

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