Sunday, October 11, 2009

Seeing India in a new light: Summer Volunteering with DSF

When I first started at the Rajajinagar school, I had no idea what to expect. I had been to India many times, I had even lived there and attended school for a couple of months when I was a child, but in all honesty I had never seen India outside of the middle class family that my family is from. For me, the two weeks that I spent at the school in Rajajinagar was really an eye-opening experience into a beautiful school with students who all had something special about them, and I am truly grateful to have been given the opportunity.

Beauty is not only defined by appearances, but also by what lays within. Coming from a school with a large auditorium, I found beauty in the fact that the students in Rajajinagar conducted their assemblies on a dirt courtyard. It made me realize how much I take for granted in my life. The idea that all the students would physically pitch in for bringing the lunch everyday strengthened the community and dependence on one another. While teaching the fourth and fifth standard class, I found beauty in the fact that the students would share their erasers and sharpeners with one another. All of these acts of childhood made me realize that these students were just like any other students across the globe, and that they deserved the opportunity to learn, just as any other child does.

On our first morning in the school, I was not taken aback by anything that I saw. I had mentally prepared myself for a school that was very different to mine in New York City, so I wasn’t even surprised when the kids stood up and chanted “Good Morning Ma’am” when we entered the room. What I was surprised at however, was the method that they were being taught by. The first morning in the school was meant to be an observing day, and still in the midst of taking in the new experience, I let myself give in to the methods by which the students were being taught English. They were learning English by memorizing the spellings of different words (i.e. that A-P-P-L-E spells Apple), except they were learning this without having any idea of how to read. At first I accepted this, and for a week we taught the students spellings, and then would conduct dictations at the end of each lesson. While all of this was going on, in my head I would characterize the student who could remember the most spellings as the best student. However, when we gave dictations the next day, students would hardly remember the spellings of the words they had learned the previous day. After a week of seeing this failing routine, we came to the conclusion that through conducting dictations and teaching the children spellings, we were not helping them learn English in any way.

One thing that really impressed me was the way that students would help one another. Hardly speaking a common language with the kids, I found it amazing that the students would collaborate and help each other try to make sense of what I had just said in English. Through my broken Kannada and their minimal English, I realize that communication exists on a much deeper level than language, and in our scenario, could only be successful if care, compassion, and a drive existed in the classroom. It certainly did because instead of giving up on our alien tongue, the students would work with one another and help each other until everyone understood the message that was trying to be passed. At first, I was very worried about communication barriers, but after seeing the collaboration amongst students, all of those fears went away.

The second week that we were there, we made a very dramatic transition in the way we approached the teaching. It started with me saying, “Please put your books inside your backpack.” After I said this, I remember most of the students looking very confused, either because they could not understand what I had just said, or because this is something that they had never expected to hear in a classroom setting. I found solace in the fact that some students would help their classmates understand what I had just said by translating it for them into Kannada. We took the children outside and showed them objects that appear in their life everyday. We taught them the difference between “big” and “small”, between “here” and “there”, we taught them different colors, and the names of different objects that they see everyday. This way of learning is very similar to the way that I not only learned in America, but also to the way I picked up whatever little I can speak of Kannada. The idea of learning about objects and how to say things that are interesting and relevant to my life is to me more important and better engrained into my memory. The students were enjoying being outside, and the next day when we tested them to see what they could remember, they remembered many more of the objects and concepts than they did when we had tested their spelling.

Not only was I able to feel more productive the second week (in terms of what we had taught them), but during this week I felt a much stronger connection to the kids. They realized that as two teenage girls, our methods of teaching as well as our personalities were more liberal than what they were used to, and after taking the students for an interactive walk around their campus, the students started becoming less shy, and more open with us. By seeing the amount that they enjoyed learning new words, and things around them, I realized that the conclusions I had made earlier, that the student who could memorize the most was the best student, was wrong on so many levels. I realized that all of the students have a drive to learn, but some are just better than others at adapting to dull methods. During this week, personalities and talents came out, and the students felt more like children, learning English through drawing pictures and talking with their classmates about what they were doing. They are all such talented, caring, and beautiful children, many of them just needed a platform to show it.

Leaving on the last day was very sad because I was enjoying my experience there so much, but I was so thankful to have had the opportunity to work with DSF. I am especially grateful to Maitreyee, for organizing this amazing opportunity, and to Bhagya, for always helping us teach, and making me feel very safe and comfortable within the school. I am also extremely thankful to the Rajajinagar school for having us and looking after us for two weeks.

Thank you, DSF, for an unforgettable experience. After working in the Rajajinagar school, my perception on the world around me changed greatly, and has made me realize a lot about the world that I live in. I find your cause extremely valuable and important, and hope to continue helping it in all ways possible.

Sincerely, Shilpa Agrawal
[Shilpa is a high-school student in New York.]

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