Yesterday we helped our Youth Empowerment students write their first post on the Bridges to Understanding website. Bridges not only provides a curriculum for making digital stories with students but also has a protected online forum in which students from Bridges classes across the world can converse with each other. There are bridges classes in seven countries: India, Cambodia, Azerbaijan, Peru, Guatemala, South Africa, and the USA. Our students read a discussion started by students in Azerbaijan discussing how they celebrate the holiday Gurban. Fortuitously we had just celebrated a Hindu holiday in Kalleda so our first post was in reply to this discussion.
Liza and I tested out a method that worked very well and that we will use, at least for now, to get things rolling and work around the language barrier. First we asked the students to write five sentences in English describing Shivarathri, the holiday, as their homework. We then spent the first half of class yesterday discussing their answers. They all had very nearly the same sentences, describing the most obvious aspects of the festival: they don't sleep, don't eat, and they go to temple to pray to Shiva and watch a program. It was lucky that Liza and I had also participated in the festival and were able to ask leading questions that brought out a lengthy discussion into the details and history of the holiday. Then, while Liza read through the Azerbaijani post with the students, I typed up what the students had said about Shivarathri, trying to maintain their vocabulary and style of speech while organizing the thoughts. We then read through the typed up post with the students and asked them to fill in some details. Here is the result!:
Thank you for your holiday post. We liked reading about Gurban and we learned about the Quran and that the holiday is new for you in Azerbaijan.
In India we celebrate a Hindu holiday called Shivarathri on February 12th every year. It has been a holiday for so many years here. Shivarathri means the night of Lord Shiva. Shiva has three eyes, wears a tiger skin, holds a trident, and has a blue neck. People sometimes pray to him for rain. Shiva has two wives. One wife is named Ganga. She was turned into water and sent down to earth through Shiva’s long hair. Ganga became the Ganges River. Shiva’s other wife is Parvati. In Hindu history is a story where Shiva drinks poison from a giant snake to save the people on earth. This is why his neck is blue. When he drank the poison his wife Parvati was scared. She did not sleep all night and did not eat food and prayed to the gods to save Shiva. This is why on Shivarathri we do not eat food and we do not sleep.
On Shivarathri we go to two temples in our village. We pray to Shiva and the pujari (priest) blesses us. We break coconuts and pour out the water at the shrine. There are incense and candles at the temple. We hang strings of flowers and mango leaves at the top of doorways. Before we go to temple we put tumeric powder (a yellow spice) on our feet. It feels cool and is an antiseptic. We also wear nice clothes. The women wear saris and put flowers in their hair. At the temple there is a program with dances, drums, drama, and songs. Shivarathri is a great festival and we are all very happy on this day.
Today is a holiday and there was no school so we took the day off work as well, piled eight of us into a car, and were on our way. Well, almost. Approximately two minutes out of Kalleda we blew a tire. Thirty minutes later, tire successfully changed, we were off again. I noticed an unusual number of people walking along the road but figured they were on their way to temple because of the holiday. I was soon set straight, however, as we approached an auto-rickshaw parked sideways to block the road. Yet another Telangana bandh had been called and all traffic was prohibited, with the exception of two-wheelers. It was hard to take the group of popsicle-sucking, barely pubescent boys who surrounded our car seriously but with an auto in our way they had the upperhand. After some conversation, a call to superiors, explanations of the Americans in the car, and assurances that none of us were Andhrans (supporters of the anti-Telangana region) the boys let us through. As we drove past I leaned out the window and, by way of thank you, gave a hearty "Jai Telangana!" to much cheering.
All shops in the city were closed so we settled on fruit from a roadside stand and headed to a nearby lake to picnic. I briefly contemplated swimming but was not yet ready to face the obstacle of the modest Indian swimsuit, i.e. all of my clothes. As we returned to the car I nonchalantly unpeeled a banana and took a bite. I heard all of my friends yelling in Telugu behind me and before I had a chance to turn around a large monkey jumped me from the side and clung to me koala-style! I screamed and threw my banana which, fortunately, he followed. Thus did I narrowly avoid a frantic search for the nearest hospital offering rabies treatment.
Back on the road again we ran into yet another Telangana roadblock, this one much more serious than the last. It took longer to talk our way out but after much conversation, a series of Jai Telanganas and some pro-Telangana songs sung by Raju we were shown a side route through the village and fields to a spot further up the road beyond the block. We continued on our way to Ramapa, a beautiful ancient temple in which a Pujari (priest) still performs blessings in front of the original shiva lingum. The age and history of Hinduism as a religion and culture is amazing. If you think that it was a contemporary of ancient Greece and Rome, yet is still in full swing today. In some temples you will find pujaris whose families have been performing the exact same rituals for centuries. It's like going to the senate of ancient Rome and finding modern day people wearing the traditional togas and debating Italy's political system.
Despite the theft of Mahipal's sandals while we were at Ramapa, we pressed on to one last site, a huge lake with a suspension bridge out to a small island. We wandered the island as dusk settled, took the obligatory photos, skipped a few stones, and raced each other and the dark back to the car. One brief stop to patch the tire and we made it home safe and sound. A successful holiday excursion, against all odds.
I woke up this morning to what sounded vaguely like a cat at my window. I opened my eyes and looked out of my mosquito net toward the curtains through which I could see a shadowy figure. How could that cat have gotten up to the second storey? Then a small hand reached through the bars, blindly fumbling around on my side of the curtain. Barely awake and without contacts, it took me a few seconds to realise that the exploratory paw belonged to a monkey. By the time I got to the window he was gone, but when I pulled back the curtains and looked outside I saw that our entire backyard had become a monkey playground! At one point I managed to count about twenty monkeys. The adults were mostly spread out along the surrounding wall with a few scattered around on the ground. The babies, about five of them, appeared to be learning to climb. There is a small tree right next to a taller palm on which they were testing their skills. As they leaped from branch to branch on the small tree they also took the opportunity to tackle each other. At times they were hanging from each other as well as the tree, giving the impression of a live version of that toy, Barrel of Monkeys. The older babies were leaping from the small tree up to the palm fronds. They would land in the middle at the top of the frond and usually slide back down, dropping off the end into the tree below in a manner uncannily similar to the leaf-controlled falling in Avatar. As I was enjoying this somewhat surreal scene, I heard a strange sound outside my side window and pulled back the curtain to see two monkeys snacking on a fresh coconut two feet from me. Then Liza came running into my room, laughing. While she was doing her morning yoga on the roof one of the monkeys had sneakily stolen my underwear from the clothes line, slipped it over his head and one arm, and started to run off with it. Liza chased after him, yelling and he dropped it onto the lower roof as he made his escape. We both agreed that if there were a next time I would willingly forgo a pair of pants in favour of the photo-op!
At the beginning of the book detailing the Bridges to Understanding curriculum (how to teach students to develop digital stories) is a page titled "Teacher Preparation Worksheet." Usually I read through things like this but skip the process of actually writing out answers. Today, however, I decided that just maybe it would be a worthwhile exercise to frame my myriad collection of thoughts into succinct sentences that actually make sense outside of my mind. The questions were a great tool for breaking down my specific goals for the class; it's so easy to get carried away with grand schemes and forget to clarify the basics. A few interesting answers:
Q. What are your main learning goals for your students?
A. Develop/improve English, photography, computer, and web skills. Teach the process of identifying, investigating, analyzing, and tackling community problems.
Q. What are the essential questions your students are working with?
A. What problems does our community face? What can we learn from other communities? how can we be a part of the solution?
Q. What excites you most about this project?
. . .
I had to think about this question for a few minutes. It's an interesting word choice, what "excites" you, requiring me to approach the project from a slightly different angle. Yeah, I have all these great ideas and goals and hopes for the project, but what specifically excites me about it? As I thought about the question I realized that what excites me has changed over the past several months. My current answer is two-fold, the first part has returned to my initial excitement and the second part reflects the most recent developments at RDF.
Q. What excites me most about this project?
A. 1) Providing students the opportunity for interaction with the global community. 2) Building solid skills to support the Social Awareness Program.
When I first made the connection between our RDF empowerment project and Bridges, it was the global community aspect that most excited me. Since then, however, I'd lost track of that focus, I suppose from being so wrapped up in India and somewhat ignoring the rest of the world. In the past few days I have also been questioning the true benefit of my presence here. If the RDF teachers are already implementing such a great social awareness program and empowering the students to become active leaders in their community, working toward positive change, then what is my role? I know that my work with the students will be beneficial, but couldn't put my finger on what exactly I am providing that the RDF staff can't provide themselves? As I answered this last question on the Teacher Preparation Worksheet I consequently answered this other question that had quietly been nagging me.
Through the Bridges program I can connect my class of RDF students with the rest of the world, empower them to recognise themselves as global citizens, encourage them to interact with students in other parts of the world and realise that they are not alone with the community problems that they face, give them the opportunity to work toward solutions to local problems on a global scale. The RDF Social Awareness Program illuminates local issues while our Youth Empowerment Program will put those issues in a global context, while also providing our students with hard skills that they can use to enhance their activities with SAP. This is the unique contribution that I can bring to the RDF students, this is what excites me.
As far as I can tell the Telangana issue has lost a bit of steam recently, though I can only speak for the area around my village. But for a while you couldn't travel anywhere without running into a strike, protest, or rally. The following link shows photos of the creative variety of ways in which Telanganans showed their support for state bifurcation. While my family was visiting we drove past the lines of people eating lunch in the road. Unfortunately we had just finished our own lunch and were too full to join in. http://news.rediff.com/slide-show/2010/feb/04/slide-show-1-telangana-protests-get-innovative-every-day.htm#contentTop
Finally, after two months, we led our first Youth Empowerment class on Thursday. We accomplished the main goal of the first meeting, which was to have fun with the students and for them to get comfortable with us and with speaking English. But we have a lot of work to do from here. The students' English is about the level I expected, which is to say not as high as I hoped. After the class Liza and I made some immediate adjustments to our plans. Our job is made easier by the fact that the Social Awareness Program is already tackling local issues and it is comforting to know that our students will be engaged in analytical discussions regarding these issues in their native language outside the classroom. We will focus on the tangible skills of photography, computers, internet, and the construction of a digital story. The leadership activities, which cover confidence-building, teamwork, communication styles, public speaking, etc. will be executed in the form of simple and fun games and activities at the beginning of each class. English skills will be developed during class discussions, writing the script to the digital story, and online blog conversations with other students involved in Bridges to Understanding. In this fashion we will cover listening, speaking, writing, and reading skills while providing the students with an English vocabulary to match their activities in the Social Awareness Program (SAP). There is also preliminary talk of our students giving biweekly presentations at the SAP meetings. Additionally, we could even have the students create two versions of their digital story, one with English narration and one with Telugu. This would be especially useful when it comes time to present their movie to their families and the villagers, most of whom do not speak English. The other benefit of working alongside SAP is that when it comes time for our students to develop an activity or project in response to the issue they have studied, they will have a group of enthused and socially aware students and teachers ready to be mobilised! For now, Liza and I need to break down the intentions of our program into clear, simple ideas and the most basic goals and build up from there.
In December Vandita started discussions with Kalleda School teachers about a major change to the school schedule. In the past six months Vandita has been encouraging teachers to use a more alternative teaching style, focusing on engaging and interactive lessons rather than concentrating solely on syllabus completion and test scores. Gradually teachers are changing their techniques but it's difficult because they have spent their entire lives both learning and teaching in the rote memorisation style. When Vandita introduced the idea of switching to a half day schedule with academic classes in the morning and an alternative program in the afternoon, the teachers appeared reluctant and still worried about getting through the syllabus. After many discussions the teachers and administration agreed to half-days and set a date for post Sankranti holidays in January. Despite their consent, I had my doubts as to how quickly and successfully the transition would happen.
Two days ago I returned to Kalleda after a month and a half long absence, which was spent visiting the other RDF schools, enduring bandhs, and enjoying holidays. The afternoon Social Awareness Program has now been running for two weeks and it is absolutely amazing. Yesterday the 6th - 9th class students divided into groups and spread out across the village and interviewed locals about this week's topic, child marriage. They then reconvened on the school lawn and one student from each group went on stage to share their findings with the other groups. These opportunities for public speaking practice were punctuated by local songs about child marriage.
Today the students continued with the theme and put on a play about child marriage. In the production a father arranges a marriage for his thirteen-year-old daughter against her wishes. When the girl's friends become aware of her situation they go to an RDF teacher and ask him to help through the Social Awareness Program. In the next scene the teacher, accompanied by a policeman and the village head, shows up at the family's house and convinces them to delay the girl's marriage and allow her to finish school. After the play, students divided into groups and answered questions such as: What title would you give this skit? Who was your favourite character? What was the message/moral conveyed? They then shared their answers in the same fashion as yesterday.
I am incredibly impressed with the way in which the teachers have all embraced such a significant change in their schedule. Not have they made the change, but they have also showed great innovation in creating a program that addresses important community issues using a varied approach that is fun, informative, and encourages critical thinking. As Vandita pointed out, Liza and I came here to empower the youth to identify and address issues within the community and the RDF teachers have beat us to it!
Today I went on my first run in Kalleda. At 7.30am I was early enough (or maybe late enough) to be nearly the only person on the road. I turned East out of Kalleda and headed toward the rocky hills, hazy in the distance. The road is on a raised embankment with a lake to the left and fields to the right. In the beginning I ran alongside the lake, silvery-white and reflecting the morning sun, which shone up through the soft pink petals of Rose of Sharon bushes. A single woman was already washing laundry on rocks at the water's edge and white egrets were scattered amongst empty lotus pads. The road moved away from the lake and I turned off onto a smaller, shady path lined by bushes and the occasional lean-to from which cows looked up sleepily, not yet ready for the day's work. By the time I turned around I began to pass men headed out to the fields on bicycles. They looked bewildered and slightly amused by the strange sight of a white girl running past their fields but took it in stride and even returned my Namasthae. Nearly back to the school, I gave in to temptation and clambered up a pile of the smooth boulders common to the area. From the top-most rock I surveyed the scene, looking first toward the lake from which a giant heron-like bird took flight. As I turned I could see the rocky hills, a farmer crossing his field, paddy, palm trees in the distance, green parrots taking the place of leaves on a bare tree next to me, and finally the white walls of the school compound. I think I've found the perfect way to enjoy the land around me on a daily basis. Running allows me to cover greater distances while taking in the sights, sounds, and smells every step of the way. I feel more free to take in my surroundings and enjoy them at my own pace when I run, rather than as an observer from the car or an object of the villagers' interest when I walk through. Finally, a reason to force myself out of bed and into jogging shoes every morning!