Feeding the Monkeys

As I was taking in the beauty and splendor of The Taj Mahal in the gray, early light of dawn, I felt something move past my right foot.

I looked down to see a lone Reese’s monkey slowly strolling away from me and hopping up on a nearby rail. He looked over at me as I carefully yet excitedly raised my iPhone camera up to get the shot. He gave me a very calm, knowing look as if to say, “Yeah, I’m pretty photogenic. Go ahead.”

The animals of India know they are safe.

Cattle randomly roam the streets, often crossing busy roads and even freeways, causing traffic to come to a complete stop while they pass. Dogs rest in cool dirt holes or shady areas anywhere from under lush park trees to inside UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Even the upright, poised cobras in woven baskets pretending to be under a musical spell seemed to sigh when tapped on the nose to remind them to pose for a tourist’s camera.

Hinduism calls for the treatment of all living beings with great respect, believing all are aspects of God that have souls of their own. And the many peoples of India appear to have adopted this attitude.

Our driver Ramesh told us that he feeds the monkeys at one particular location out of respect for Hanuman (God of Strength and Knowledge) and because he believes that monkeys are here to bring us joy.

There was no denying the joy on my husband’s face as Ramesh threw bananas out of our car window and the monkeys came with their tiny babies on their backs, tumbling over each other to get a sweet banana.

Feeding them and respecting them is a small price to pay for the joy they bring to us.

Embracing Everyone

India is one of the most crowded countries by population on earth; yet, there seems to be room for every religion.

It’s not just that there are gurudwaras, mosques, cathedrals and temples side by side on many streets, offering a place to reflect and pray to all.

It’s not just that every religious building we entered welcomed us with smiles and kindness.

I first began to understand when I asked one of the secular school leaders (which is what they call public schools in India) about religion in schools. While we in The United States have an absence of any religion in public school (separation of church and state), the Public and Private schools in India include all religions.

At morning assemblies, I heard beautiful Hindu hymns of praise, I heard a choir sing the old Christian song “Abide with Me,” I heard students reading from the Sikh Guru Granth Sahib.

Our wonderful driver Ramesh drove by Saint Ignatius Parish in New Delhi and told us that it was not only lovely outside, but it was much more beautiful inside. When my husband asked how he had come to be inside the church, since he was a Hindu, Ramesh answered that he had a friend who attended there and that Ramesh had found it such a peaceful place, that he sometimes stops there to pray.

We found everyone at each holy place so accepting and kind that we could feel the spirituality of India almost everywhere we went.

No one tried to convert us. No one tried to make us feel ashamed of our own personal faith. No one turned us away.

How much does that say about people who welcome everyone with open arms?

The Benefits of Old Technology

Though virtually every classroom has a smart board at Shri Shikshayatan School in Kolkata, India, all students do the majority of their work in paper notebooks.

Studies about the benefits of cursive and handwriting have been in resurgence since computers and smart phones have gained more and more popularity (see some links below).

“Writing my lessons on paper helps me remember them better,” one student told me as I watched her copy out a math lesson and then solve the problems in ink.

“I like to add drawings to my notes,” another confided, “because it’s fun and gives me another way to remember.”

There was no denying the engagement and attention the students gave their lessons as they wrote with ink pen in their notebooks.

When I asked if they were allowed to use pencils, a smiling student said, “Using ink makes us more careful.”

Teachers are always looking for ways to save time, and having a pile of notebooks to correct each night will not do that.

But this is time well spent.

It gives each teacher insight into every student’s strengths and challenges. It provides another avenue to build a good relationship with students. And it helps students remember their lessons so they can find future success.

Cognitive Benefits of Handwriting – International Dyslexia Association, 2015

Cursive or Right Click? A Critical Analysis of Lifelong Learning and Cursive Writing – Andras Kocsis, Mount Saint Vincent University, 2016

Benefits of Cursive Writing – Mental Floss

Physical Education for Life

Establishing good lifelong habits is an art.

Educators know the importance and value of staying in good physical shape. But how can you encourage students to exercise?

By providing them with engaging opportunities and a wide variety of ways to be active.

The Table Tennis teacher at Shri Shikshayatan School in Kolkata is at school 30 minutes before school starts. Students line up on the opposite side of the table so they can take turns trying to beat him; and he plays hard, so when a young lady gets a point, she knows she’s earned it (and there is much celebration).

The indoor swimming pool is provides a lovely respite from the humidity and a great opportunity for exercise. The pool is even open after school for students and neighbors outside of the school (neighbors pay a nominal fee) so all can enjoy the shady pool and each other’s company while they swim and paddle around.

The karate teacher seems to be at school all day, and the young ladies really get in to the routines, movements and poses. Through demonstrations, the teacher reminds the students how important it is to be safe, and that, in an emergency, they can use their karate skills to defend themselves.

Yoga is more than just a class; it’s a philosophy of living and a way to stretch and grow with your friends. The look on the faces of students practicing yoga reflect how much it means to them and how much it is worth to their lives. Learning cultural dances enhances pride in their heritage, and learning modern dance techniques brings out their joy in dancing.

What I observed is that these young ladies take great pride and joy in their physical activities at school. What I heard them say is that they want to keep doing them well after their school days.

What I realized is that they have established lifelong habits that will serve them well into their futures.

Morning Assemblies: Building Community & Confidence

The deep sound of drums signals the call to assemble.

The young ladies of Shri Shikshayatan School in Kolkata have a morning assembly every day of the week. On Mondays, the entire school lines up according to class, facing the stage and ready to start the day. On other days, specific classes gather in the outdoor assembly space while others have simpler morning meetings in their respective classrooms. Student must check the outdoor chalk board to see when and where their morning meetings take place.

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Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, education, dance, music and other talents, watches over the proceedings from her shrine on the outdoor stage as music students, accompanied by their teacher on harmonium, sing an inspirational song which can come from many traditions and languages. (The video clip features “We Shall Overcome” in Hindi.)

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The students are greeted by their Principal Ma’am, the inspirational Sangeeta Tandon, who is always at morning assembly. She considers it a high priority, and during our week with her, she insisted we attend each and every assembly.

After announcements by Principal Ma’am, which can include celebration of awards or announcements on the importance of keeping backpack’s lightly loaded so as not to overtax one’s back, a group of students comes forth to give a presentation on the theme of the day.

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The themes were wide and varied during our week at Shri Shikshayatan School: personal safety, current events and magic. Groups of grade specific students presented in front the assembly students every morning, introducing the topic, explaining its value, then presenting information or giving a performance before concluding with a song and a summary of the presentation. Each girl in the assembly listened closely and carefully, mindful that not only was the topic important, but they would also have to be in the position of presenting one day and were watching for details, ideas and tips for success.

Every girl at Shri Shikshayatan School will be up on that stage at least one time during each school year, and when they are, their Principal Ma’am is up there with them to support and celebrate. You can see the empowerment in each girl’s face after she has presented and glance at their principal and teachers My favorite moment was when a young lady performing a magic act had a mishap and part of her trick was accidentally revealed. Nervously, she immediately looked at Principal Ma’am, who had a beautiful smile on her face and eyes that told the student all was well. Then the student smiled herself, recognizing that she had tried her best and had now learned something new.

Then Principal Ma’am gives a small speech on the theme of the day. For the Magic theme, she told the girls how magical it was that they were all gathered there that day, and how each one of them was capable of creating magic by helping other people in their lives. Magic is when one person needs helps and someone else gives that help. We are all, she observed, capable of being magical.

After reminders for the day, students are dismissed to their classes.

I’m not certain the young ladies of Shri Shikshayatan School realize the incredible value of these morning assemblies, though their Principal Ma’am and teachers obviously do.

Not only are they building community by celebrating each other’s accomplishments, singing beautiful songs together and being a good audience for each other. They are strengthening each other and gaining confidence in their fellow students and themselves. They are learning the importance of being responsible and supporting each other. They are feeling the love from educators and fellow students who are always there for them.

It’s a beautiful way to start any day.

Aside: The Rhythm of India

Sitting up high in our tour bus, we could see the tangle of small trucks, cars, motorcycles, mopeds, bicycles, tuk-tuks, bicycle rickshaws, horse- and burro-drawn carts and pedestrians ignoring the lines on the road and jockeying for position.

At first, it was alarming. Surely someone was going to get run over or a motorcyclist would be clipped by a car. There were lines on the roads, but they seemed to be just suggestions. And there was so much honk, honk, honking!

It got to the point where I couldn’t look down at the traffic as we traveled; I chose instead to look at the landscapes farther away. That way, I wouldn’t be fretting over vehicles and people that disappeared from sight too quickly.

When I got the opportunity to ride in a car, it felt even more uncomfortable. Driving on the left side of the road and riding in the seat I usually drive in probably discombobulated my perception. But I still couldn’t understand how anyone could safely drive through such traffic.

Then I went to beautiful Kolkata for my teaching assignment at Shri Shikshayatan School and discovered my hotel was only four-and-a-half blocks from the school.

I could walk that, right?

With trepidation, I took my first steps on the streets of India without any guides or vehicles to ride in. How would I cross the first street with no crosswalks and no lights?

But then, as I started walking, I began to sense a rhythm.

Though from high in my bus, traffic seemed crazy, walking in it made me realize that everyone was actually working together to keep the flow smooth. The horns which had before seemed so shrill, now were simply little reminders that “I’m over here.” The speed of traffic was actually much slower than I had originally thought; people were keeping the flow by taking their time and watching out for each other. There was no ego in traffic – whoever’s turn was most logical was given berth.

And when I went to cross the street, I was reminded of double-Dutch jump rope. I waited until I saw a logical opening, and when I started crossing, traffic gave me time to cross. One motorcycle gave me a quick honk to let me know he was going to cut in front of me, and I hesitated one second so he could.

The important element was being aware of and respectful to everyone and everything on the road.

And I learned that you can never judge anything from a lofty position, far away from the issue. You need to get up-close and personal to really see things as they are and discover the rhythm of how things work.

The Primary Joy of Education

Focused eyes and big smiles.

Every class I visited in Grades One to Five at the Shri Shikshayatan School in Kolkata, India, was full of excitement, enthusiasm and engaged students.

As a fifth grade teacher, I know the thought and work that goes in to crafting a day of learning. Primary teachers here teach English in addition to the mother tongue (Hindi), and Grade One students loved pulling out wooden animals out of a mysterious felt bag, naming the creature and whether it is domestic or wild, and then racing from table to table, showing off the new animal and calling out its name so each table of students could repeat it it in unison.

Grade Four students were in the computer lab, creating multi-slide PowerPoints with transitions which they celebrated as each shared her creation on internet safety.

Grade Five students acted out “The Selfish Giant” by Oscar Wilde, with students excitedly holding up one of four colored answer stocks when prompted with a comprehension question.

As I chatted with each primary teacher, I got more and more excited to collaborate on projects and lessons that would open up new worlds to our students.

I found myself missing my students back in California. I started thinking about new ideas from these amazing classrooms I would be using in my own classroom in the coming school year.

And I remembered that the primary joy of education is sparking that love of learning and seeing our students’ eyes light up with each new lesson.

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The Best Food in Kolkata

As my mother-in-law always told me, the most important ingredient in any dish is love.

Love is exactly what you could see and taste in the home economics classes at Shri Shikshayatan School In Kolkata. While cooking under their watchful teacher’s eyes, students told stories of their favorite memories of food and family celebrations. It was obvious that they understood the value of good food at a family gathering.

What was also obvious was their care for their cooking and each other. Students helped each other when ingredients could not be remembered – no recipes here! Their teaching inspired one young lady to remember the flavors of her mother’s dish, which made her eyes flash as she realized what was missing. Students tasted each other’s Chaat and made either suggestions or “mmmmm” sounds!

What was mesmerizing was watching them work in teams. One rolled out each circle of savory Puri dough feeling it after every roll, picking it up, flipping it over, working it again, testing the edges, glancing at each other’s work to remind or suggest.

Another team fried the Puri in three ways: deep fried in basket shapes with carefully carved slits, deep fried flat (and they puffed up beautifully) and shallow deep fried flat.

The flavors of India are intricate and skillfully combined – but the tastes I will remember as the best are from the loving hands of Shri Shikshayatan School’s Home Arts students and their teacher.

An Aside: Realia

Realia is one of those eduspeak words. It means when you are teaching something, you bring the real thing into your classroom to connect the lesson to life.

I have never before been realia.

Most of the girls of Shri Shikshayatan School had not met nor even seen people from the USA. They watched us walk past and giggled or waved. They jumped up and greeted us with, “Good morning, ma’am!” They shyly asked for us to take a picture with them.

And they asked questions. A lot of questions.

What are the struggles faced by American women? Are they the same as ours? Do you believe in climate change? What innovations has the USA created to conserve water resources? Do women have equal pay in the United States? How do you keep your hair like that?

The purpose of the Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms Fellowship is to develop mutual understanding and lasting relationships.

Senator J. William Fulbright observed, “The essence of intercultural education is the acquisition of empathy – the ability to see the world as others see it, and to allow for the possibility that others may see something we have failed to see, or may see it more accurately.”

By coming halfway around the world to build friendships and a global community of learning, I am honored to have built new friendships in Kolkata, India.

And I am happy to be the realia that helps to build bridges of empathy and understanding.

In Kolkata, Young Women are Serious About their Education

When girls learn together, they often learn how powerful they can become.

That was the lesson I learned at Shri Shikshayatan School, a private, all-Girls school in Kolkata, India, to which I was assigned for my Fulbright Teachers for Global Project Fellowship.

“I prefer an all-girls school,” one Grade 9 student said confidently. “I am with my friends and teachers who help me focus on what is important.”

“We are very focused on our studies,” a Grade 11 student proudly told me before a morning assembly. “And here we have educators who are experts in their fields of study, and we have opportunities like you coming here for us to interact with and learn from.”

Every morning, different combinations of grade levels line up in the outdoor gathering area to the sound of beating drums and beautiful, haunting music. The purpose of the assemblies is not only to start the day building community through meditation and reflection, but also to disseminate announcements, celebrate student victories and to give the girls an opportunity to give presentations on the topic of the day which both inform the assembly while giving those presenting vital practice in public speaking.

The Tuesday morning assembly for Grade 6 girls featured a presentation on safety, reminding the young ladies to report any incidents of inappropriate touching or behavior immediately to a trusted resource. The young ladies were also reminded that Kolkata has a special emergency number for women to call if there is no one nearby to help.

The girls also trust each other to talk to and share their ideas and dreams.

“Here everyone understands my issues.” said another girl with a smile.

During a lengthy library conversation that involved black holes, artificial intelligence and opportunities available to young ladies in astrophysics in the United States, a brilliant Grade 12 student told me:

“In India, the examinations we must take are quite difficult. If you don’t study on your subjects properly, if you don’t get focused on those particular subjects, you are missing a lot of things around you. We are responsible to take the opportunities given to us.

“If you get too attached to a person during your studies, you become unfocused. You are a losing the chance to discover yourself and become the person you a meant to become.”

What I discovered was this incredible all-girls school was engaging, elevating and empowering these amazing young ladies to be fearless and pursue their passion and their purpose.