Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Summer Volunteer 2010

This summer when I (Stuyvesant High School '11, New York) came to India to volunteer with DSF for three weeks, I arrived with more of an idea of what to expect, and how to approach the teaching style. Last summer I had volunteered in the same school, the Rajajinagar Government School, for a shorter period of time, and during that time I became familiar with the environment of the school and its English level. To read about my 2009 experiences, you can visit: http://dreamschoolforum.blogspot.com/2009/10/seeing-india-in-new-light-summer.html.

When I arrived in July with my friend Lily (Stuyvesant High School '10, New York), we came with ideas for interactive and fun lessons for teaching the students conversational English. And I also came with one other objective in mind: to teach the kids how to read. Last year, lesson after lesson I saw the students mindlessly copy words into their notebooks and recite their meanings, but the pronunciation of each written word came straight from memorization, not phonics. While I understand the importance of conversational English (the most practical application of English for them), I thought it was equally important for them to learn how to read so they could better understand their lessons and read signs they see all around them.

Being able to teach the same classes that I had done last year was very exciting. When I walked into the school on the first day, I was elated to see so many kids rush to me and say Hello Shilpa Ma’am. The classrooms were freshly painted and there was some construction taking place, but other than that, not much had changed.

We were teaching the 5th and 6th standards, and to get them to learn how to read, our first lesson was phonics of all the different letters in the English alphabet. Most students picked it up very quickly, however, the teaching was a challenge because students were at very different levels from one another. Some students picked up their phonics within 20 minutes and others were still struggling to identify their ABCs. In the middle of our three weeks there we decided to split the classroom into two groups, one of them more advanced than the other, so we could increase the pace of teaching.

Overall the reading lessons went over very well. We started with the sounds of letters and different letters that go together, and eventually we started writing simple words and combinations of letters on the board so the students could put the sounds together. In the final week I took some select students who were doing very well in their reading aside to read a Dr. Seuss book with me. It was very exciting to see the amount most students had progressed in the three weeks we were there. The classroom setting also fostered a friendly competition and students wanted to be able to do as much as their classmates so they would also help each other with the studies as well as with communicating with me and Lily when language proved to be a barrier.

Aside from reading, we also had many interactive lessons that helped the students in conversational English. At the end of their two weeks they each made an About Me book out of colored paper, and within it they asked questions (such as How Many Brothers and Sisters Do I Have?) and answered them with pictures to supplement their answers. When they had all finished their books, we took them outside and they each presented their project to the entire class. We also taught them about the different states of weather, and every day they would tell us what type of day it was. We had them make drawings of the different types of weather and write out sentences describing what they had drawn. Because this was earlier in the three weeks, some understood what they were writing, while others didn’t.

Outside of the classroom I got to know the students well too. We would sometimes arrive early and play with the students, and they taught me some of the games they play (like kabaddi, and a game that is like the American version of Hopscotch). One student would, every morning, look at my watch (an analog) and then look at Lily’s watch (a digital) and then look at his own watch (a digital) to make sure that the times matched up, and then in English would report to us what time it was. Another student would show us different things that he found and we would teach him the English words for them so he knew. It was good to know that the students felt comfortable with us because they knew that we had energy and enthusiasm, as well as a lax attitude to teaching.

On the last day we asked each student to make a drawing of what he or she wanted to be when he or she grows up. As the culminating lesson, we felt that this really lets the kids open up and be creative. While some students copied what their neighbors were doing because they liked the idea of it, others said things like they want to be a teacher, a policeman, an artist, a singer, a dancer, a pilot, and even an astronaut. When we were leaving they all asked me if I would come back soon.

Outside of teaching in Rajajinagar, Lily and I also had the opportunity to teach in a computer lab in a government school in R.T. Nagar. The computer lab was sponsored by the government, but was hardly being used because there weren't any teachers experienced beyond the applications Microsoft Paint and Microsoft Word. We were very excited about teaching computers, however, this did not work out as planned because of the recurring power failures.

Lily and I were able to visit DSF’s rural center and see the rural schools that DSF sponsors. It was a unique experience having had little exposure to villages in India. The schools in the village were very nicely painted, and the students were very welcoming. In one of the schools that we visited, some of the students performed the dance that they had practiced for the DSF annual day. In another school, the younger students sang English rhymes that they knew.

The three weeks that I spent this year at the Rajajinagar school and with DSF were amazing and unforgettable, and as I promised the kids at Rajajinagar, next time I go to Bangalore I will surely go visit. A special thanks to Maitreyee and Bhagya for making it happen and assisting us in our time there, as well as the Rajajinagar school, for welcoming us and letting us teach there. And thanks to the staff of DSF – I hope to be back in Bangalore soon!

Shilpa Agrawal

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