How Did India Change Me?

“Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world, you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life – and travel – leaves marks on you.” – Anthony Bourdain

When the morning light awoke me every morning in India, I always had the same first thought: “I’m in India. I’m halfway around the world. How incredible is that?”

It’s one thing to hold up a globe in your classroom and show students the location of other countries or how the earth revolves around the sun. We look at world maps to locate the places we read about in the headlines, satisfied that we know where they are, should we ever need that bit of trivia for our time on Jeopardy! We logically know we are part of a big, blue earth, and we are very familiar with our place in it.

But when you’ve actually been to the far-away places you read about, when you’ve spent time touring the significant places and meeting some of the people who work and live there, you have made real connections.

And those connections change you.

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Working with the intense and intelligent students of Shri Shikshayatan School in Kolkata, India, was exhilarating and exciting. These girls are playing for keeps. Our lively discussions ranged from climate change to black holes in space to single gender schooling to the caste system to how does your hair feel? With students this serious about getting as much from their education as possible, it felt like I was learning as much as they were.

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On our first full day in India, one of the four Fulbright TGC hosts from New Delhi took us to the village some of his family members lived in: Pachayara. From beautiful chairs covered in bright pink material to offerings of food and drink at every home to the genuine smiles and laughter, I felt like I was with members of my own family. My Southern mother-in-law had taught me a thing or two about hospitality, but I’ve never experienced it like I did in Pachayara. It made me want to expand my own offerings at home.

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Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia was asking a student to explain exactly how the new smart board worked. It wasn’t that Sisodia didn’t already know; he was using questioning techniques learned from his educator mother and honed over twelve years working as a  journalist in New Delhi. As the wife of a journalist, I very much enjoyed talking with him about how he shifted from being a news person to a politician. He believes that information empowers and had worked on several committees dedicated to making that a reality. In 2013, when “the people wanted a change to help their children,” he felt called and was elected to office where he has worked to empower students with (among his many projects)  “Schools of Excellence” where Growth Mindset and Entrepreneurship are being piloted. It was wonderful to talk with him. But seeing him interacting with the students and hearing the passion in his voice showed that New Delhi is no longer satisfied with anything less than first-rate schools and motivated students. It made me want to work to get more journalists and teachers into policy positions back home.

 

The best part of my month in India was meeting wonderful, beautiful people: the Skype educator friends I got to meet in person and my wonderful, amazing hosts in Kolkata and New Delhi who were so gracious and welcoming; the students from all across New Delhi and Kolkata who were as excited to ask me questions about America as they were to tell me all about their country; the smiling strangers who shyly walked over and asked for a selfie with me.

What I learned was that we all want the same things: health and happiness, kindess and support, and, of course, a great education for our children to ensure their future.

Did India change me?

No. But her people did. I will always carry them in my heart.

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.

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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?

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Amar Jyoti: An Eternal Light of Learning & Hope

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Dr. Uma Tuli, the founder of Amar Jyoti Charitable Trust in New Delhi, pointed to a black-and-white photograph of a young man and woman on her office wall. Her eyes softened as she told the story of her brother losing his leg in an accident. Finding treatment and post-surgery help for him had been a long and arduous journey, but what she discovered on that path was that there were countless other people with disabilities also suffering from a lack of services to help them.

She vowed she would make a difference.

Taking the money she had saved during her teaching career, Dr. Tuli founded the Amar Jyoti Charitable Trust School. She started with a group of 30 children in 1981 under a tree, and today, the school has more than 800 children on two campuses in India.

The facilities provide preventive, curative and rehabilitative services to Amar Jyoti students on site as well as to patients from economically weaker sections of society. Services are either free of cost or at subsidized rates. They include: Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy, Speech and Audiology Therapy, Prosthetic and Orthotic Workshops, Dental Care, Ophthalmologic Care, X-Ray Unit, Pathology Laboratory and much more.

I felt quite fortunate not only to tour the amazing Rehabilitation and Research Center and meet many of its medical professionals and teachers, but to also meet and talk with Dr. Tuli herself who reminded us that inclusivity in education and society is vital, that education, health and employment must be looked at holistically, and finally that “Education is a journey, not a destination.”

Dr. Tuli also loves the quote from Leo Buscaglia, “Too often, we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”

Dr. Tuli and her staff take time not just to learn as much as possible about each person they service, but also to find hidden talents that can be honed and used to help each person find gainful employment and success.

At the New Delhi center, two young men gleefully showed us how they took colorful material and affixed it to folders, notebooks and photo albums that they had beautifully handcrafted themselves. A quiet woman smiled as she gestured to the sturdy burlap bags she had sewn with peach and gold trim and a zippered top. And the potter talked of how his family had all been clay workers as he masterfully shaped a vase from a lump of clay.

Seeing the glow on their faces as they shared stories of their successes and showcased their handiworks in clay, sewing, paper goods and jewelry-making were all the proof needed to show that they had found happiness and self-worth at Amar Jyoti.

Dr. Tuli still diligently works toward her ultimate vision of inclusive education, integrated sports and cultural activities. She dreams of an India which places its citizens with disabilities on the same plane as non-disabled citizens.

Her “Amar Jyoti” – eternal flame – continues to burn brightly, lighting the way.

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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

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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.

An 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.