Tooth Fairy, Stork Babies & Fee Genie…..If only

When I was in school, my school fees were the least of my concerns . Just like the tooth fairy left money under my pillow in exchange for a tooth, the stork brought the babies, I guess I just assumed that everything else like how my fees got paid , ran on pixie dust or something of the sort.

I never made the connection between my parents going to work with me being able to go to school. I doubt many of us did. Definitely not in Grade 2

The story is very different in schools that students like mine go to. There is no fee genie that surreptitiously pays their fees while they’re busy with an art activity. Their parents scrimp, save and often fight just in order to pay their fees. The kids are aware that if their parents don’t pay their fees, they might not get to sit for an exam or see their report cards, regardless of how bright they are.

My school final exams began today. Parents had been told that if they did not pay the fees (or atleast speak to the principal if they couldn’t), the students wouldn’t be able to sit for their exams. When I came to school , I saw Ratnesh and Shivpoojan nervously pacing, out of their assembly lines. Irritated, I asked them if they hadn’t heard the bell. Then I noticed the look of woe on both their faces. They kept looking out of the school gate as if waiting for someone or something. When they saw me, Shivpoojan gestured to his reluctant mother, who was waiting at the gate, to come speak to me. She hesitated a bit and his gestures became even more anxious . Eventually, she came up to me and said, “Teacher, I cannot pay the fees. I will pay it in two or three days.” Shivpoojan stood by with his head dropped. I told her to inform the principal of the same. She and I both knew that the principal wasn’t really going to stop Shivpoojan from writing the exam. Or Ratnesh for that matter, who finally saw his mother and started screaming “Mummy ! Mummy!” and pointing to the fee counter, literally making her run to it . But who was going to explain the concept of ’empty threats’ to these  6 or 7 year olds? In their heads, they were doomed if their parents didn’t pay the fees that very second.

This isn’t the first case of stuff like this happening. Ajay refused to  come to school for the entire first month because his father couldn’t pay the fees. His father told him to go, and even the principal told him it wasn’t an issue and his father could pay the fees later, but he just did not come until he saw his father pay his fees at that counter.

The look on Ratnesh and Shivpoojan’s face today made me angry at this unfair world. Where so many of us don’t have to worry that much about school fees when we’re in Grade 2. Where our immediate responses to a Rs 300 picnic fare aren’t “That is too much for my daddy to pay”. I just don’t think kids that age should worry about stuff they can do nothing about. I wish they could hold on to the notions of tooth fairies, stork babies and yes, even fee genies.

If anyone reading this wants to sponsor a kids school fees for a year, it’s about Rs 7800 including Computer fees. Click on the ‘Donate’ tab to get in touch!

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Paras

I’ve owed Paras a blogpost for months now. When I was in school , I used to wonder how teachers developed a soft spot for the mischievous kids. I mean, they very obviously drove them up the wall and around the ceiling a few times, but still, they always had a smile or a kind word for them. It puzzled me to no end. How could they be yelling their heads off at them at one moment and then laughing with them the next!

With Paras , I learnt it takes hard work to be mischievous . And I guess, though it can drive you crazy, there are times you just have to acknowledge that effort and stop and smile.

In the first few months at school , Paras was relatively quiet. He didn’t draw much attention to himself. I thought that was just how he was , and since it was not detrimental to his learning, I didn’t pay much attention to it. Little did I know that all Paras was doing was trying to get some sort of mastery in English, a language he rarely had spoken in before. I did notice him paying close attention to each and every word I uttered, but I never knew just why he was doing it! If I had known, I would have definitely been more careful about what I was saying!

I think it was after the Diwali vacations when Paras came back a changed little boy. All of a sudden, he was really loud and talkative, and frustratingly, he spoke ONLY English. What’s worse, he sounded just like me! I was aghast. All the small slip ups and bad sentence formation that I had used in class came back to haunt me with a vengeance.

When he saw other kids tearing up bits of paper, he’d yell “Hey, don’t do rubbish with paper”. (Yes I know thats completely incorrect word usage. I blame my mother for this one!) or when he saw someone out of their place he’d say “You’re not even CLOSE to where you’re supposed to be sitting”. Sometimes he’d just walk around class randomly telling kids to ‘Breathe in and Breathe out”. When the whole class sat in the Smart Position waiting to see who would be awarded the 2 points for paying attention, Paras would beat me to it by saying ” I like the way Paras is sitting”!

And don’t even get me started on the assignments and papers that I gave them. Paras would never leave a question unanswered. I’ve mentioned before his ‘smart pogishun’ (Smart Position) reply to ‘What do we use to listen to teacher?’ , but there was so much more. On the recent end of year assessments that I gave them, Paras filled in all the answers as well as the spaces left for the teacher to write the marks. He gave himself a modest 90… out of 12.

So yes, Paras does drive me up the wall. He reads aloud the text faster than I do, he knows the answers to questions even when I catch him not paying attention, he corrects all the other kids in class using the exact words I would have used. He randomly sings out songs I taught them, finishes his classwork (correctly) at super speed and then talks like there’s no tomorrow with anyone and everyone who’s near him. But when he catches me looking at him at one of his rare quiet moments, he smiles at me, and I smile back. Or if he says something particularly funny in class, I laugh with him. I know that despite the fact that he drives me a little insane, he’s worked really hard to get this annoying. And decreased my workload a little! All I need to do is harness his drive to learn English and put it to better use!

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Almas

Almas didn’t come to school on the first day. Or the second. Or the third. She finally arrived at school two weeks late . She was always shabbily dressed, would have random knick knacks in her bag instead of books and as far as academics were concerned, every paper or assignment she turned in was a series of scribbles. It was quite frustrating. Every morning after assembly the Principal would pull her out of the line and berate her for missing a piece of her uniform. Socks, ribbons, belt, correct footwear, there was always something wrong. She was never present long enough for me to develop a bond with her and so I just went along with what the other teachers thought of her.

After a few months she began coming to school quite regularly and I began to notice little things about her. How she always greeted me whenever she saw me, how she was very generous when it came to sharing her much coveted sketch pens, how she would pull me aside and narrate the entire length of the previous nights horror show (Aahat , for those who know what that is!), how she tried so hard to speak English to me . Her academics were still the same but she was very obviously a bright child.

With my years of psychology behind me, I deduced. She has a learning disability! When a friend and TFI fellow, Karen ,told me about a centre that tested for Learning disabilities, she was the first child that popped into my mind. The Aptitude – Achievement gap was sickeningly obvious and naive as I was, I felt a learning disability was the only thing that could explain it.

I found someone to sponsor Almas’ test cost. I had to convince her mother to come to the Centre for the Case History and visit with the Psychatrist. In those two to three weeks, all the reasons for all that frustrated me about Almas became painfully clear and I was shamed to my core.

Almas was the only child. Her father had left her mother before Almas was even born. She lived in , quite literally a hole in the wall, with her mother, aunt, uncle and grandmother. Nobody spoke English. They had absolutely no furniture. Their clothes were piled in a corner. The only thing Almas had to call her own was her school bag which became the receptacle of all her ‘treasures’.

After the IQ assessment, the psychometrist  told me that Almas was a child with above average intelligence and immense potential who just needed guidance with the basics of letters and numbers. To celebrate and kill our hunger, she and I went to McDonalds. She attacked her fries and burger with a passion, pausing every ten seconds to tell me this was her first time at McDonalds, her first time eating a french fry, her first time eating a burger. And she was almost delirious when I told her that I would be dropping her home as well. This was about half an hour before school started so there were students on their way to school while I was walking her to her house. She made sure each of them saw her and me walking to her house and for the benefit of everyone else in the community she kept yelling out, ‘Yeh meri teacher hai!” (This is my teacher!). She told me in English, “There will be so much confusion in school . Everyone will say, Almas , Raisa teacher is coming to your house? and I will say yes!”.  Such a pretty and happy picture.

And then I found out how every morning, Almas mother and the rest of her family leave to work , leaving Almas alone at home. She eats her food , gets ready by herself, has taught herself to read time so that she leaves half an hour before school starts. Alone. Sometimes she is in school an hour or two early because she hasn’t quite yet mastered the art of telling time. Sometimes she just doesn’t come to school. There is a uncle who hovers around her house, but she informs me that he is ‘crack’ and being alone with him in the same room scares me to death, I don’t know what it took for her to deal with it.

And this is a girl with above average intelligence with immense potential. How is it fair. It causes me actual physical pain because I can’t find a way to help. What I do in the classroom is just a few hours of escape from the realities that these kids face. And because I have never had to deal with what they deal with, it’s ten times harder to help. All I can hope for is that somehow, they carry something I’ve said or done with them, and this makes it easier to deal with their reality. For Aliasgar, his sticker shrine, for Radharaman his certificates, for Almas her Happy meal toy.

For all those reading this, find a way to help. Anywhere, anyhow. Even if it’s just a monetary donation. Or an hour of your time.  There are too many Almas’ in India today and we cannot just sit and let it happen!

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A Big Pink School

by Kavita

There was a big pink school.
One day a new teacher come.
My teacher is always give book.
My class room is yellow.
My teacher is always give clay.
My teacher have so many paper.
My teachers name is Raisa.

It may not seem like much but when you realize its written by a girl who, at the start at the academic year refused to write anything on her own , refused to draw until she was told specifically what to draw, it makes you want to frame this! 🙂 I was so proud of Kavita today and I made sure she knew it!

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False Pretenses

I guess for someone reading this blog it may seem that life as a Teach for India Fellow is a series of ‘WOW’ moments. And yes there are a lot of them,  but in between one wow moment and the next, there can be periods of absolute unwow. There are times when I question everything that I’m doing, times when I think nothing I do will ever be enough and lots and lots of times when no matter how hard I try, my plans completely bomb.

Life as a TFI fellow is far from rosy and there are days when the heat, noise, disinterest and fatigue can get to you. Days when you find yourself hollering at the kids to keep quiet like the teacher you promised yourself you’d never be . Days when you go to the staffroom to get a drink of water and end up falling asleep for half an hour. There are days when you feel you’ve done an awesome job in class and then a parent will come up to you and say that she feels her child has learnt absolutely nothing. Days when someone who barely even knows you will imply that you aren’t very good at what you do.

But yes there are days when a kid will hand you an ingenious question paper that he wrote for you to answer. Or a day when the boy who never said a word in class will narrate a whole story just because you made the appropriate puppets. Days when you come across kids from your class arguing…….in fluent English.

And I write about days and times like that because they are the times I want to celebrate. Go all out crazy and do a little jig. Because days like that occur despite the dark days in between and give me so much hope of more wow moments to come.

So here’s to all of us almost at the end of our first year. To all the dark days that made our wow moments so much better. And most importantly to all those kids who made the struggle a million times easier!

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Slick Sticker Seeker

Another of my favorite things , that has continued to excite me way beyond my school years are stickers. When I was in school I used to get my sister to bully kids to give me stickers and all through college I used to pretend that smiley face stickers were really cool and stick them on everything I could see. Two birthdays back my friends included  bunch of Spongebob stickers into my birthday present basket. I was as excited about those as I was about the high heels that were also in that basket!

So it’s safe to say I’m crazy about stickers. And during training for Teach for India, when we were told about the power of the seemingly innocent sticker- behavior management, motivation to learn, fun fun fun , it seemed like God was sending me a sign. Here at last was a way to disguise my craziness AND help kids learn!

I’ve read this book called “Miracles on Maple Hill”, and in one part, Marly talks about how just waving a stick of lard over a bubbling pot of maple syrup quietens the bubbles down and avoids the syrup from boiling over.

Thats exactly how I feel when I have a sheet of stickers in my hand. The kids quieten down, go back to their places, furiously work on whatever’s been given to them and get everyone around them to get to task by gesturing towards the stickers. Silently! they’re pure magic!

So obviously, if you’ve not been well behaved or haven’t been on task when asked to, your chances of getting a sticker will have reduced manifold. And Lakshmi, one of the few girls in my classes (9 out of 43!) had realized this when despite her doing really well academically, her constant flaunting of rules had led to a dry spell, as far as stickers were concerned.

I’m guessing she devised an ingenious plan to get her sticker count up. She sidles towards me the other day points to the sheet of stickers and says “Raisa Teacher, how much for that? ” I didn’t even realize what she was trying to do , so I tell her it’s not important and she should get back to her place. But she continues “No tell me , how much is it ? Five rupees?” I tell her if she continues , she will get a minus point and she finally goes and sits down.

The questions don’t stop . Everytime I pass by her she asks how much the sheet of stickers are and then finally says. “Tomorrow I will bring five rupees. Will you give me stickers then?” I stopped in my tracks. What?? She repeated it again, much to my annoyance. “I’m not a shopkeeper!” I told her, “You can’t BUY stickers from me!! You have to earn them just like anyone else!” She makes a face but the questions stop as she realizes an important life lesson – there are no shortcuts to stickers!

Lakshmi was a model student for th rest of the day. And yes this story does have a happy ending. She left school with the most shiny butterfly sticker I could find.

I hadn’t realize how important those stickers were to them till this incident. But there were always signs. From the carefully maintained ‘sticker’ page at the back of Aliasgar’s math book or Uday’s tendency to ‘make’ stickers (cut out’s from his drawing books+ fevicol) for his friends, stickers mean the world to these kids. And to a struggling first -time teacher as well!

The Slick Sticker Seeker

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Plasticine Jungle

I always wanted to take plasticine or modelling clay or whatever it’s called to school, but I’ve never had the time or the inclination to go shopping for bargains in the area and I couldn’t afford buying enough market price plasticine for the entire class. I did try once, but the colours were all shades of brown  (although the box did say ‘multicolor’),  nothing like the bright colours I used to happily drive my parents crazy with when I was a kid (“No Raisa, don’t put that up your nose!!”). I knew trying to use food color with salt dough would be just one big mess.

Surprisingly enough, it was my parents who eventually helped me out , by sending a sizable amount of plasticine, yes , all the way from Bahrain. Thanks mum and dad! :*

So I took half of it to class on day one and decided this was something that they could do in groups. So I divided the class into 8 groups, gave them laminated sheets ( my failed attempts at mini whiteboards) and told them to do something with the plasticine on those sheets. While I was going around class , I noticed that every single group was making the exact same house , tree and water scenery with their plasticine. It was surreal! How were they so in sync! Then I asked Prem why he was making a house and he told me “Because this is what we were taught in KG”

That shattered my dreams of some collective brain that my class had evolved , but it also made me a little annoyed. Who tells kids what to do with plasticine! What sort of creativity crushing people were those KG teachers. And then I remembered the plasticine up my nose incident. I guess it was for reasons like that that the kids were told very specifically what to do with the plasticine!

Still, I didn’t want my kids to be so robotic with something as awesome as plasticine so the next day when I took a little more to class, I gave each person a big piece and told them to do ‘whatever they wanted to do’ with it . I think almost half the class asked me “Anything,teacher?” which implied they thought I wasn’t really thinking straight. I said “Yes, anything” and then watched as some kids just sat looking at the piece in their hand while a few others started making houses, and I had to go up to them and tell them to try something different!

A few started playing around with it and realized if they rolled it , it would get longer. Then they started making coiled up snakes, and one would see the other doing it and improve on it till pretty much the whole class was doing their version of a snake. But in a matter of seconds, my class exploded into this bee hive of activity as the kids realized the true meaning of doing ANYTHING with it! There were kids making fruit baskets and necklaces and rings and bracelets and coins and imaginary animals ( because they weren’t skilled enough to make real animals) and so many other things. It was so exciting! And why do I have absolutely no pictures of this phenomenon? Because I had my own piece of plasticine, thats why! My kids thought I was so cool when I showed them how pressing the plasticine against different surfaces will give it a different texture or how you could make a braided bracelet instead of a regular twist around.

Obviously when I wanted the class to end it took quite a bit of convincing. And even though the only objective of this class was for them to do anything creative , I think it was a huge help. There are kids in my class who feel that there is only one way to do a certain thing, and that the only answers are the ones that the teachers give you. It was so hard for them to think by themselves or even just come up with a creative piece for their writing assignments. Plasticine opened up their minds like nothing I’ve ever tried before has. And it was just so much fun! I can’t wait till someone sponsors some more plasticine! 🙂

A few weeks after this post I found Camlin clay which is Rs 20 a box and really colourful and since it is a crime not to have pictures of the kids work, I bought a few boxes of the clay and took my camera to class. Here are some of the ‘creations’ . Enjoy!

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