Archive for August, 2014

Going Home

Friday, August 1st, 2014

I’m going home (for some definition of home – in this case, London) in September. My flight is booked for the 29th.

There are several reasons for this.

I knew when I booked my return flight for February that there was very little chance of me going back on that date. But I really wasn’t sure what things were going to be like out here (from the point of view of productive work for me to do). Plus, there are issues in my Indian family and I wasn’t sure if or how they would affect things. And I wasn’t sure how much I was going to miss the UK. And I wasn’t sure when/if I was going to run out of money.

And the result of all of these considerations is that heading back on the 29th of September is the right thing to do.

The Behaviour Management programme that we have been running here has been a great success and we want to run a follow-up programme with these schools and the same programme (with some improvements) in new schools. We’d like to do that at the start of the next academic year, which is June 2015.

In order for me to be able to be back here in June next year, I need to go back to the UK early so that I can earn some money to fund me through next year. If I go back in February, I won’t earn enough before June to be able to come then.

Plus, I am missing the UK and my friends there (as well as all the usual things that I miss: clean feet, tea with no sugar, bread, cheese, toast, brushing my teeth with tap water, hot showers). Of course, these are all important but I’m used to missing them all and they’re not enough to make me actually want to change my flight.

But there is a new element in the mix this time. Dancing. I have REALLY been missing it. And there is a showcase in London in October. Now, there are lots of different dancing events all the time, so missing the London showcase would not be the end of the world, and that’s not something to change my flights for. But since I was changing the flight anyway, arranging things so that I’ll be back in time for the showcase seemed sensible. 🙂

The issues with the family here are certainly having an effect as well. Not to the point that I want to leave, but the issues are a definite source of worry.

So here is my plan for the next two months. The current batch of volunteers finish up at the end of August. There is a Keralan festival (Onam) at the start of September, then I’m hoping to take Johnson and Lisba to Sri Lanka for a couple of weeks for a holiday! (And for me to meet up with lots of my Sri Lankan friends.) Then back to India for the end of September and my flight back to the UK on the 29th.

Then it’s London and working and dancing and catching up with people till the start of March. Then Cambridge and Easter Revision till the end of April. Then back to India again in May or June to do it all over again!

And everything in this plan makes me very happy! 🙂

Positive Behaviour Management Sessions 5 – Reflection and Critical Thinking

Friday, August 1st, 2014

During the programme it struck me how difficult it was for the teachers to reflect on their own practice and how difficult it was for them to engage in critical thinking.

Knowing what I know about the Indian education system does mean that I shouldn’t be surprised by this.

The Indian education system teaches you not to think.

The teacher tells you the answer, you memorise it, the teacher asks the question, you give her the correct answer or you get laughed at, shouted at, or slapped.

These teachers are the product of this system.

So, on the whole, they found it very, very difficult to engage in reflection or critical thinking. These are just not skills they’ve had to use before.

The next time we run this programme we’ll have to do something about this. And I don’t mean removing the activities that require these skills. I think we may need some time at the beginning of the sessions to explain and practice these skills and we’ll then need to ensure we can provide additional support for participants when we are asking them to think and to reflect.

I have no doubt that these teachers are capable of reflection and critical thinking, it’s just that they’ve not done them much before so have not had enough practice.

Positive Behaviour Management Sessions 4 – Why Positive Behaviour Management Is Better

Friday, August 1st, 2014

I was particularly struck by the reactions of the teachers when we did the section on why positive behaviour management is better.

We asked the teachers to think up their own ideas first, then share with their small group, then we asked someone from each group to give us some of the ideas they had (think/pair/share). While they were sharing we drew a mind map on the board with several different categories: educational, psychological, historical, legal, constitutional, moral, international and gender. As they gave us ideas we put them up in one of these sections. Everything they gave us was either psychological (damages the child’s self-esteem, etc.) or educational (students can’t learn well with fear, etc.).

After they’d given us all of their thoughts, we asked them if they could think of anything fitting into the other categories. We gave them some prompting and some help. They told us about the Right to Education Act when we prompted them about the legal side of things. (Physical punishment is illegal in Indian schools and has been since 2009.) We filled in lots of the other gaps. International: the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Historical: India gained independence through non-violence. Constitutional: the Fundamental Duties of Citizens as laid out in the Constitution (and printed inside every textbook) says that all Indians should abjure violence. Moral: all the religions say we should cherish and protect our children.

The biggest point was gender. I asked them why they thought physical punishment in schools could be a gender issue. They said that they didn’t discriminate in school against girls. I said that was very good, but wasn’t quite what I was after. I then wrote on the board in big capital letters “PHYSICAL PUNISHMENT PROMOTES DOMESTIC VIOLENCE”. I asked whether more boys or girls were caned, they said boys (a lot more boys). I said that what we are teaching our boys from the first day of first standard (year 1) through to 10th standard (Year 10) then Plus 1 and Plus 2 (A Level) is that if someone says or does something you don’t like then you hit them. And what happens when these boys get married and their wife (or child) says or does something that they don’t like? They hit them. Physical punishment in schools promotes domestic violence. And domestic violence is predominantly a crime against women. That makes this a gender issue.

Some of the teachers looked like they’d been kicked in the guts. Some looked like they were thinking “Oh no, I’m creating my husband!”. They had simply never made the link before between violence in school and violence in the wider community. Well, they have now!

Note: I do not for a second believe that physical punishment in school is the only cause of domestic violence, but it is certainly a contributing factor.

Positive Behaviour Management Sessions 3 – The Teacher Sessions

Friday, August 1st, 2014

We tried to use lots of different teaching techniques during the sessions with the teachers (individual reflection, pair work, group work, role play, gap fills, peer teaching, think/pair/share, carousel, loop cards, ball games, discussion, lecture-style explanations, etc.).

We tried to use the techniques that we were talking about. So each group of participants made a sticker chart and we gave stickers to the groups that were quietest first, or who came back from tea break on time, or who did well academically, etc. and we used 3-2-1 silence with them as well to show them how to do it with the kids, etc.

The topics we covered were: advantages of good classroom behaviour, types of disruptive behaviour, causes of disruptive behaviour, existing behaviour management strategies, why positive behaviour management is better, teaching strategies/techniques that help with behaviour, behaviour management strategies/techniques.

The teachers, on the whole, responded really well. They were engaged. They enjoyed the activities we did. They participated in the discussions. They mostly seemed genuinely interested in reducing physical punishment. Some, of course, were not very engaged and seemed resentful that anyone would have the audacity to suggest to them that there might be an alternative to shouting, scolding, striking. But, nothing that we can do is likely to change them. So I don’t see them as an indication of the failure of the programme.

I am hoping to get into the schools to do some team-teaching with more of the teachers and to see what changes, if any, they have taken into the classroom.

Positive Behaviour Management Sessions 2 – The Programme and Logistics

Friday, August 1st, 2014

This programme is being jointly run by VESL (in the UK) and VESS (in India). The overall programme has several elements and we got some funding from The Canning Trust to help us with this.

We started by painting the inside of every classroom in the three schools. As a consequence of this the school management managed to find money to pay to paint the outside of each building!

We ran a set of workshops for teachers to teach them alternatives to physical punishment.

Each teacher is to run a half hour session with their students each week for the entire term. We are providing the lesson plans for these sessions. They cover team work, communication, respect and expected behaviour in a classroom.

We have bought reed mats for each school so that the teachers can rearrange the classrooms and have the students work in groups on the floor. At the moment the furniture consists of wooden benches and wooden desks that seat about 5 students at each. So the rooms are either in a horseshoe (which is ok) or just rows of desks (lecture style) which is not so good. The floor is bare concrete.

We will be liaising with the schools to arrange cleaning and painting of the toilets. And we’re also going to be funding a PE teacher.

Teacher Sessions

The initial sessions were two hours each and happened between 2 and 4pm during the week. This plan had been suggested by one of the school managers. So half the teachers would come to our session on Tuesday (while the remaining half taught all the classes) and then we would get the other half on Wednesday.

So we would teach the same session twice with the two different groups.

We did two different sessions in the first week and one session in the second week. (We had planned to do two sessions in that week too but one of the schools had a PTA meeting one afternoon so those teachers were unable to attend.)

After the second week, the teachers decided that they would prefer to have the sessions on the weekend so we did two sessions (four hours in total) on the following two Saturdays (for all the teachers together). We then finished up with a final two hour session that was meant to be 1 hour to conclude the academic programme and 1 hour for giving out certificates/prizes and listening to speeches, etc.. Though that ended up being mixed together since one of the priests (a prize giver) was half an hour early and 9 teachers (half of the attendees that day) were an hour late.

So we did 16 hours in total.

We also decided to use one of the classes in one of the schools as a case study. So I go in there twice a week and I team-teach the student sessions with the class teacher. These sessions have gone well. We chose this class because it was one of the most difficult to manage. However, during these sessions the students have been exceptionally well behaved. I think this is due to three things. The first is that the class teacher is in the room and is team-teaching the lesson, so the students know that this is something important and a part of their learning routine (for some very, very broad definition of ‘learning routine’). The second is that I’m doing interesting games and activities with them. And the third is that we are actually teaching them how they should behave in class and why. So I think they are better behaved with both of us there than they would be with only one of us. Whatever it is, they are a fantastic bunch of kids who have come a very long way in only a few weeks (e.g. they now put their hand up silently to answer a question).

Positive Behaviour Management Sessions 1 – Overall

Friday, August 1st, 2014

We are running a programme here with 24 teachers from three primary schools about positive behaviour management.

And this is, without doubt, the best work I have ever done. And I mean ‘best’ in two senses. I mean it in a moral sense and in a quality sense.

Morally, this is good work. I am working to stop teachers from using physical punishment in schools. And that has far-reaching consequences.

From a quality point of view, this is also the best work I have ever done. My lesson plans have been comprehensive. The activities have been well-thought out and useful. Of course, it hasn’t been perfect and there are changes I would make for next time, but overall, I am really very proud of this work.

I’m not sure yet of how much, if any, change will be seen in classrooms. I do think we have changed the way that most of these teachers look at their teaching and their interaction with students. We have given them some techniques that they will use (e.g. 3-2-1 Silence instead of shouting or banging a cane on the desk to get the attention of the students). We have made links between physical punishment in schools and domestic violence in the wider community.

We have sown some seeds. And perhaps what we’ve done has stopped one or two teachers from using the cane once or twice. Perhaps it has strengthened the teacher/student relationship for some of these teachers (and their students). Perhaps it has laid some groundwork that will make it easier for the next person who comes along with a similar aim.

The Importance Of Pronunciation

Friday, August 1st, 2014

Now this is a funny story. Granted, it’s only funny now that it has been resolved happily. I’m sure it wasn’t very funny for the volunteer in question at the time. But I have it on good authority (I’ve told a few other people) that it is funny now.

One of our fabulous recent volunteers was flying from Trivandrum airport via Doha back to the UK. Her flight was due to leave at 4 or 5am on Monday morning.

At 3am I woke up (for no apparent reason) and rolled over to check my phone. About a minute later I got a text message from her asking me to call her ASAP. Which I did. She was at Immigration having checked in for her flight. Immigration were asking her a lot of questions about where she had been and what she had been doing, etc.

They had tried to call Johnson but hadn’t been able to reach him.

I told her not to worry, I would call him straight away and get him to call her back. Which I did.

He then phoned her and was able to speak to Immigration and clarify the situation.

It turns out that she had been asked where she was staying. She said Karumkulum. Or rather, she thought she said Karumkulum. They thought she said something else. Mispronunciation is quite common and we can usually get around it. However, in this case, the thing they thought she said was the name of a local nuclear reactor, where there had been recent protests.

This was not ideal.

And her being a Polish bio-medical student didn’t exactly lend weight to the English teacher story.

However, Johnson managed to explain everything.

They took copies of her passport, visa and student card and then let her on the plane.

And the moral of the story is that mispronunciation is fine, unless your mispronunciation makes it sound like you’ve just told Immigration that you’re a Polish bio-medical student who has been teaching English at a nuclear plant! 🙂

Good Guys And Bad Guys

Friday, August 1st, 2014

In teledramas/soaps/serials it is always easy to tell who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. In Malayalam serials the bad women have strong eye make-up, always look down and have strong voices while the good women have much softer eye make-up, always look up with pathetic puppy dog eyes and have pathetic breathy voices that involve a lot of sighing and having to sit down. The music is also a bit of a giveaway: if it is in a minor key then the person on screen is a bad guy.

The Malayalam men all have ripped muscles, dark hair and flourishing moustaches so it’s a bit more difficult to tell with them. Though, as a general rule, if the actor is famous then he’s a good guy. If he takes his shirt off, he’s a good guy. If the other team wait and attack him one by one or maybe two at a time, then he’s a good guy. If he can be stabbed, punched, hit by a car and still stand up then he’s a good guy. If one punch causes him to fall over permanently then he’s a bad guy. If small children like him then he’s a good guy.

I do understand that it is equally easy to tell in Hollywood films, Aussie soaps, etc. though the indicators may be slightly different.

In real life, it’s a little bit harder to tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys.

But not much.

Here is a handy guide to help you tell if you’re a good guy or a bad guy.

I’ve written a series of questions to ask yourself. If the answer to each is the answer given in brackets then you’re probably a good guy.

  • Is the story that you and your team mates tell consistent? (Yes)
  • Do you have documentary evidence to back up the claims you are making? (Yes)
  • Do you have witnesses who agree with your side of the story? (Yes)
  • Did you have to bribe/pay/intimidate/coerce/deceive the witnesses in order to make them support you? (No)
  • Have you ever stood on the street / in the yard / in the house / in the police station shouting bad words at the people on the other team? (No)
  • Have you ever destroyed property or plants that belong to someone else (or that you believe is common property but is nonetheless in dispute)? (No)
  • Do you show respect for the property you are staying in (regardless of who you think owns it), e.g. keeping it clean and tidy? (Yes)
  • Have you ever told bad stories (true or false) to friends and family of the other team or people connected with the other team? (No)
  • Do you use your children to emotionally blackmail other people? (No)
  • Were the people on your team previously known for their trustworthiness, integrity and goodness? (Yes)
  • Are the things you are saying about the other team completely out of character with their usual behaviour? (No)
  • Are you refusing to say bad things about the other team even if the facts may support it (e.g. I don’t say he is a liar, I just explain that the story he tells is different from the story others tell, maybe he is lying, maybe they are lying, maybe there is a misinterpretation)? (Yes)
  • Have you ever threatened (verbally or physically) someone from the other team? (No)

There are bound to be other indicators as well, but I think that’s a pretty good starting point.

And has the added benefit of reassuring me that in both of the recent conflicts where I have taken sides, I have sided with the good guys.

Volunteer Achievements

Friday, August 1st, 2014

I was walking along the highway the other day with a volunteer. We were on our way to a finance place (private bank thing, Western Union agent, money exchange centre, etc.). She had some pounds and she wanted some rupees.

Anyway, we were chatting about teaching and host families (which is pretty usual).

She was telling me with delight that while she hadn’t actually managed to wash her plate, she had managed (twice) to get it into the kitchen before it was taken from her.

Now, those of you who have had experience living as a guest/family member in a culture like this will be sitting at your computer screens giggling. Most of the rest of you will probably have no idea why this is noteworthy or funny.

So let me explain.

The culture here is very much about showing respect for the guest. So it is not appropriate for the guest to take their plate into the kitchen or to wash said plate.

We, as volunteers, are guests in the host families. But we are also a part of the family.

So there is a gentle tug of war that happens in most host families. The volunteer tries to wash their plate and the hosts try to stop them. It is always done with a big smile on both sides. (In some families, the family insists that the volunteer washes their own plate as a sign that they really are part of the family, so us trying to do this is not us being stupidly culturally insensitive.)

Managing to get all the way into the kitchen with one’s plate is a massive achievement!!

There are other similar achievements that others may think are decidedly odd. But which are certainly achievements in this context. For example: skipping a meal, being able to leave the house without having one’s hair redone or without having to change one’s clothes, being able to sleep in beyond 8am (even on a weekend), being able to dish up rice and curry for oneself, not having to pay extra for the auto home, successfully using a squat toilet for the first time, etc.

There are also volunteer achievements that probably do make a lot more sense to everyone reading this. Things like being able to have a conversation with the host family about your own family, getting oneself on and off of the right bus in the right place, successfully teaching The Wheels on the Bus to a class of students, having a wonderful lesson where all the activities work and the behaviour is good, etc.

And a wonderful part of my job is that I get to hear these achievements and I get to celebrate them with the volunteers! 🙂

Minor Bus Issues

Friday, August 1st, 2014

Becky and I got a bus home from Trivandrum. The bus left the city at about 7:15pm. We guessed it would take us just under an hour and we’d be able to meet two of the volunteers at about 8:30. In fact, it started to look like we might be early! (Noticing this was probably our first mistake!) 🙂

It took help from a few people and several attempts for us to pronounce Karumkulum sufficiently well for the conductor to figure out where we were going. But we got there in the end and several people giggled heartily at our expense.

The bus was scooting along quite happily. Becky had a small beetle fly down her top at one point. A couple of tree branches decided that the inside of the bus was more fun and tried to kiss Becky (that’ll teach her to steal the window seat!! 😉 ). But apart from these small points it was all going well.

We went through Mukkola and just before Pulluvila we turned left.

Now this is odd.

We don’t usually do that!

The bus turned off the highway and stopped immediately. There was lots of shouting. Lots of people were saying ‘Pulluvila’ (which is a bit further on, but still several villages before we wanted to get off). I asked some people on the bus “Karumkulum? This bus?” and they all said “Ok, ok.” So I assumed we were ok. I asked the conductor he seemed to imply that we should stay on the bus.

I figured we were going to detour for a bit and then rejoin the highway later. I do have google maps on my phone so I could keep a bit of an eye on what we were up to. But I had faith. As did Becky. It’s an exciting adventure. And if worst came to worst, we’d end up in Poovar and then get an auto from there.

So we sat back to enjoy the ride.

Others were not so content.

One man was shouting at the conductor and swung a punch at him (though missed). The conductor swung back (but missed). The man got off the bus and as he was walking down the steps of the bus the conductor kicked at him (and missed).

I don’t think he was happy!

The road was quite narrow. So Becky made more friends with more trees. While several of the men on the bus were shouting (nicely) at us to watch her eyes as more tree branches popped in to say hi.

One guy we were talking to told us that the road was closed because of a church festival. Ahhhh, St Jacob’s in Pulluvila, the big church that broadcasts mass at 5am every day and during festival time broadcasts music and dramas etc. till about 1am. That made sense.

This guy was a fisherman who had worked in Muscat in Oman so was trying to teach us some Arabic (it didn’t work very well, I’m afraid).

I checked google maps a couple of times and figured out that either we’d end up on the other main road and go straight to Poovar (where the bus terminated, a few kms past where we wanted to be) and we could then get an auto back. Or, we’d turn right at some point and end up rejoining the highway at Puthiyathura (a few kms before where we wanted to be). Either way, we’d figure it out when it happened and we’d still ultimately end up in the right place.

Though I wasn’t entirely sure. Our positioning according to Google Maps wasn’t exactly accurate. Which doesn’t surprise me. I have infinite faith in Google, but not so much faith in India to actually adhere to a map, no matter how accurately it was drawn. 🙂

We did indeed turn right and came down the hill past St Nicholas school (where I had taught a class that very morning). The guy said we were at Puthiyathura. I said “Yep, that’s St Nicholas school. We are teachers.”. He asked which class and I told him. I also said that we taught in Kochutura, Karumkulum and Adimalathura. He seemed impressed (as were the rest of the bus as the message got passed along).

But we had a bit of a problem at Puthiyathura junction. We were coming down the hill about to rejoin the highway. There were some cars in front of us. There was a bus heading towards us (having just turned off the highway).

Now I walk along that road to school, there’s almost not enough room for me (as a pedestrian) to be overtaken by a school bus. I wasn’t convinced that the road was wide enough for two buses.

But it is India and the normal rules of space and time do not apply here.

So we reversed a bit. And managed not to hit the concrete wall of the house next to us. But we did go over a giant tree trunk that was lying on the ground. We tipped up and then back down over it. The bus did not fall over though, so that was good.

Becky and I considered getting off the bus and walking to the junction and then getting an auto from there, but we decided the whole bus adventure was way too much fun so we stayed put. You just don’t get this much value from 23 pence worth of bus time in the UK! 🙂

It was at about this point that we realised we were going to be late after all and that we probably should not have thought that we might be early. India has a way of knowing when you think things are going well and then throwing a tree trunk in your path just to liven things up a bit. 🙂

We texted the volunteers to tell them that we were having minor bus issues but would be there within half an hour.

The tree trunk was eventually moved and the bus managed to manoeuvre itself closer to the concrete wall. And then, before my very eyes, but without me having any idea how it happened, the oncoming bus went past us. I’m quite sure that if I go back to that road with a tape measure and measure the width of the road and the width of two buses, I will discover that what happened was not strictly possible. 🙂

We then went round the corner and headed off on our way.

The whole bus got quite excited as we got close to Karumkulum junction. And we hastily explained that we didn’t want this stop, we were going to the school which was two stops further on. Our determination won out over their determination and we managed to get down at the place we wanted. (No small achievement!)

We then walked round the corner to collect one volunteer and walked down the road to visit another and spent an hour chatting to them both about one of their classes. We also got birthday cake because it was the host sister’s birthday.

At 10pm we decided we really had to leave to go home and lo and behold as we walked out the door wondering if we’d be able to get an auto, one pulled up outside the front gate (the guy parks it there and lives across the street). He was very happy to drive us all home and charged us a reasonably fee!

By the time we went past Pulluvila, the festival was sufficiently over for the road to be passable though there were a lot of people out.

So, another exciting bus trip in India! But all’s well that ends well! 🙂