Learning should continue to be fun!

Aadyaa is raring to go! She is a few months beyond five and studies in a progressive school where they take it fairly easy in introducing basic concepts and she has just about finished covering the alphabet. However, she is a big fan of Udai, who is nine and is grade 4. Result: We have a super aggressive learner on our hands right now. She wants us to assign her 3-digit addition problems and we struggle to ensure that they do not have the carry-over issue to deal with. She wants to read and write.

Today she has been working on writing out a description for an illustration she has made. This is happening in the other room. So there is a writing pad going back and forth in which I write out a word and she copy-writes it onto her creation. I haven’t yet seen the product of all this activity, but am totally amused by her little frustrations and triumphs.

Learning is such a fun process. Why do we make it such a drudgery? Why do we link learning to fear- fear of failure, fear of punishment? I see the joy Aadyaa takes in discovering each new fact, each new formula (Udai was the same in pre-school) and in contrast, I see Udai starting to get bogged down by the compulsions of learning, and starting to somewhat lose the excitement to discover new ideas. There must be a good way to keep excitement levels high through middle and senior school! Technology, perhaps, could be a good tool, but I see school hesitate to go that way for various reasons.

Thinking back, I found some subjects painful, especially in grades 11 and 12, but now I see the lethargy was either because of poor quality teaching or too many distractions and I’m none the worse for that short phase. For the most part, I have found learning a lot of fun and continue to do so. In fact, I can learn and study all my life! On that note, let me get back to my work….a part of which is trying to find flexible ways to pursue a PhD in migration and urban planning.

Ok, I managed to click a few pics of what she is upto….here you go!

What she asked me to write....

What she asked me to write….

Illustration...book cover maybe?

Illustration…book cover maybe?

struggling with putting the words together...

struggling with putting the words together…

 

getting somewhere, but also getting frustrated!

getting somewhere, but also getting frustrated!

 

Hope vs reality: Life in a slum

As always, I return energised from visiting the slums. My destination today was Bhumiheen Camp in Govindpuri, New Delhi. This where Katha runs its public school, a buzzing pulsating place full of joy and cheer. Like in all other schools, the walls reflect the happenings. I was amazed to see how deep the understanding and explorations of concepts went. Through the medium of exploring life in the sea, these children had studied and debated issues like sustainability and exploitation, diversity of life forms, survival and propagation of species, life cycles and natural systems. Also they had a philosophical take on the sea. How they identified with the sea; And being the sea change!
After interacting with the staff here, I see a passion and hunger for learning and teaching, a will to make change possible. It’s impossible not to be inspired! I look forward to two days of interaction with class 12 kids in January, when mHS gets in a group of American students to interact with Katha kids and try and develop a template for what quality of life means to a slum dweller. Since children will facilitate this, it should reveal some surprising results.
Walking out if the community, I captured two images that offer contrasting aspects of slum life for our consideration. One on hand, slum dwellers struggle to access basic services. You can see people gathered around a water tanker. On the other, the pace of life, home based work and an intensely interdependent social network means people can catch a few hours of repose on their charpais in the warm winter sun. On the street onto which their tiny dwellings spill out, while taking in the hustle bustle and latest gossip. Plus chai!

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Day 2@Bookaroo: All about letting go and enjoying the moment!

I was back at Bookaroo yesterday, and it was a whole different experience. Why? Because this time, I was accompanying Aadyaa. Not only is she a totally different person, but she is only four and a half. And a crowd of people looks very different from the eyes of a child who is four and a half. No no, she isn’t shy or afraid of crowds. But I didn’t really see many little ones that age or thereabouts who could concentrate on a story being told in a venue with nearly a hundred people listening in. The kids got there by enthusiastic parents, the parents who would have enjoyed the narration but for their anxiety that their little ones weren’t paying attention and looking here and there, or eating, or wanting to go elsewhere.

So this is how the Sunday visit to the Bookaroo played out for us. We attended the first session with Anupa Lal was telling the children stories in Hindi. Now, this got Aadyaa’s attention as she is most familiar with Hindi as a language of narration and conversation. At home, I have to tell all her favorite stories (Peter Pan, Clifford, Rapunzel, Lion King..) in translation. So Anupa Lal’s story about a ghost and a boy got some of her attention, though she kept asking for biscuits and munching through this, not because she was hungry but because she wasn’t totally involved in the event!

We then took a walk through the venue and the sandpit, the steps, the green grass was far more interesting than any of the workshops, activities and narrations. The attempt to sit through Penny Dolan’s animal stories in which she used small soft toys as props, was not successful. I honestly think smaller groups would have worked much better for the little ones, but I can see how that is a logistics nightmare!

So I gave up, and decided to enjoy the sunshine and the charms of Anandgram as a location instead of getting stressed about how much exposure I was  giving my little one! We migrated to the little raised platform with the large terracotta horses. And Aadyaa and her pal Eva proceeded to spend the rest of the outing playing ‘ghar-ghar’ at the Bookaroo, eating ice cream and running around!

Moral of the story: What will be will be, go with the flow and without expectations, if you are to truly enjoy time with a bunch of kindergarten children :)

They will make up their games and play. Company, outdoor spaces, interesting spaces and unconditional love from a trusted adult, and maybe some food and drink thrown in (and ice-cream), that’s pretty much all they need!

Anupa Lal’s story telling session in Hindi was a good way to start the day…

Playing ghar-ghar was a lot more fun for the little ones…Bookaroo be damned!

Udai was also kinda done. On Day 2, he simply bought the nonsense book he had heard about on Day 1, and read it in the sun :)

Of creativity, wonder and the world of children: At Bookaroo

Accompanying three kids between the ages of 8 and 9 to a children’s literary festival is my idea of a fun time. The 5th edition of the Bookaroo brings together a number of writers from across the world to Anandgram, which is an absolutely charming artsy setup between Delhi and Gurgaon.

We reached the event well after it had begun. Utsa, one of the three friends who had come together, clutched tightly her piece of paper that had a list of the sessions of interest to this age group. She was tense that we were missing something. Udai and Medha were rather blank at this point. But the minute we entered the fest, the sheer energy in the space galvanised us into action. The kids jumped straightaway into a fiction writing workshop ‘Writing about your extraordinary life’ conducted by Ovidia Yu from Singapore. A few minutes late, they worked furiously to catch up. They had been asked to build a plot. To identify a hero and a villain, decide on a place and a situation on which to build their narrative that would ultimately perhaps be a book or film. Kids came up with really interesting ideas. I particularly liked the one in which a girl appointed herself the protagonist and her mother the antagonist, and she was charmingly part-apologetic whole saying so. The mother stood nearby, grinning in resignation! Now this girl had the ability to hypnotise people. So she hypnotises her kid brother to clean her room but he does it wrong. And so on…..

Then we moved to a storytelling session. Marcia Williams from the UK is reading Oliver Twist to the kids and telling them about the author’s life and conditions of his times. Marcia illustrates well known books and speaks beautifully. The kids seemed engrossed and asked questions through the narration as well, with Medha getting a pat from Marcia for good questions! All in all, the narration tried to give the kids a good idea of what Victorian England was like. Udai was Marcia’s little helper for a bit, putting up cutouts of Victorian objects on a washing line. After the session, the kids bought a book each and got it autographed by Marcia, who they kept in wait until I had procured them after standing in a long line at the bookstore!

The best session of the day was the last one, in which Michael Heyman and Sampurna Chattarji read nonsense verses, sang nonsense songs and taught kids to make up nonsense words! Udai loved the “Om bathum namah” chant and has been singing it since we left Bookaroo.

It was a pleasant surprise to meet an old college friend Dipang here, besides many other acquaintances. And half of Shokshantar School!

The popularity of something like Bookaroo clearly reflects the huge potential for fiction for children. It also captures the imagination of young educated parents who desperately want their kids to be well read, well spoken and jump at a chance to expose them up new ideas.

I had expected Bookaroo to be enriching, but a little crazy. But it wasn’t crazy at all! It was well organised, except for the food court and the slightly cramped bookstore! There were enough parallel sessions to keep most kids busy and many empty spaces for the others to run around. The November sunshine was warm and the breeze cool. Just the perfect setting to listen to stories and relax!

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New ailment: Aiming for less than perfection in a world of instant gratification

It’s always great when you see an editorial in the newspaper that puts your thoughts into words succinctly and accurately. Sidharth Bhatia’s op-ed in todays HT says it all when it calls for media to return to the basics and brass tacks in terms of the standard procedures of verification, cross checking and editorial screening of the content it publishes.

Well, the lack of screening is something that is becoming a rampant problem. And it’s not just media, its each one of us. Because we live in an age of instant access, when uploading information and sharing it takes a few seconds and gets instant feedback and attention, we often ignore our old values. Values that asked us to be sensitive, to verify the truth of something before we shared it, and that demanded a certain check of quality before we deemed something to be ‘final’ and good enough to be made public.

We’ve all stared at our Facebook pages and tried to make sense of something that reads like this: “Wndrng wht to do tdy. BFF out! :( :(” and the message coming up on my screen right now says “dost, n.joy the fun of chilli dilli wintrs”…..I am glad to say I don’t have too many people who write like that on my friends list, but we are all guilty of hitting that share button without whetting the content thoroughly from time to time!

So when I sat with Udai this morning to cajole him into finishing the homework that had piled up all week, I was in no mood to tolerate shoddiness! He had done an hour of work diligently, but then he was lapsing into strange sentence constructions, poor spelling and bad handwriting…and it wasn’t the mistakes that bothered, it was the fear that he would think its ok to let things go, ok to not aim for perfection, ok to not better himself. It’s a real fear. I’m working on keeping the faith!

Teaching a new generation in an information-rich world: SPA Diaries- Oct 31, 2012

Both my parents have been academicians through their careers, so observing the relationship between teachers and students and simply understanding the position of the teacher has been something I have inadvertently done all my life. My father always told me that I was born to be a teacher and yes, I do love teaching. Sadly, the status of teachers has declined in Indian society and education has become more a transaction than an enriching process. And so, it’s rather late that I have taken up what I perhaps should have done earlier!

My experience with advising students at SPA this semester has taught me a lot about a lot things- the psyche of the present day student, the role that faculty must assume in an information-rich world, the malaise that plagues our educational institutions and how, despite all obstacles, the show must go on! With the final seminar presentation done and done well, I can now write about what I felt through the journey, as a teacher and as an observer.

When I first started interacting with the students, I was struck by how bright and idealistic young people are. This is perhaps a usual first reaction to teaching and we got off to a positive note. A few weeks in, I found myself sympathetic to the student community, who are aware that their institutions gives them limited exposure and seek a more exciting, challenging experience.

I also observed distinct differences in student attitudes, but was glad to see that they still approached faculty with respect and a genuine expectation that they will derive value from our experience. I wrote a post before I actually started teaching about how things appeared the same but how attitudes had subtly changed, referring to the awareness of a new power among students and a sense of confidence (arrogance, intolerance) in their dealings with faculty and adverse situations. That post was critical and based on hearsay, but after having interactions all semester, I believe this empowerment is not a bad thing. I just wish there was a better process of managing and harnessing this sense of empowerment to challenge and encourage students, and address their needs better.

I feel like we need to accept that young people have different attitudes now, instead of forcing them into the mold of what we think students should be like. I also recognized, through these weeks, that backgrounds from which students come vary hugely. It is perhaps not possible to have a one size fits all approach to mentoring these knowledge seekers, whose motivations vary as much as their capacity to imbibe, contextualize and express themselves.

These differences come out starkly in the use of the English language. A bunch of erudite, suave kids confront you with part-intelligent and part-gimmicky questions and observations, some nearly mocking you, others genuinely inquisitive. Another bunch of sharp minds navigate this sea of ideas struggling to structure their thoughts because English is an alien language, because they are self-conscious about their means of expression, because material that they study appears alien to them and it is so much harder work to study it. The majority of the students seem to be somewhere in between. They have a basic grasp on the language and they put in a minimum effort into what they do, but need an extra leg-up to push their boundaries and really benefit from the education they are receiving.

Here is where the teacher comes in. With a glut of information available to them via the Internet, students are desperately seeking exposure to a new world view, to new ways of thinking. They are seeking assurance, but also direction. With my students, I was amazed by their instinctive sense of right and wrong, their strong convictions and passion for what they were researching. But equally surprised by how easily they lose heart and go astray. Perhaps distractions and caveats are an integral part of the journey of seeking knowledge. We were pretty clueless too at various points, and angry when our faculty did not think our angst was genuine!

What really surprised me though, and I wonder now why it did, was the motivation that came from having to share their work on a public forum. After seeing their ups and downs all semester, I was amazed at their confidence and their sharp sense of what would work and what wouldn’t. My students were addressing the rather complex idea of what the role of the architect can be in the low income housing market. They had received a rather negative response (their perception, not mine) from their peers and faculty during the first few weeks of their research. That invigorated them and warned them of prevailing attitudes. Besides putting in data to counter some of the criticism, they also invited a renowned architect-planner Mr SK Das to chair their seminar and Prof PSN Rao from SPA’s housing department as special guest. They surmised, and rightly so, that these experts could help them field questions that were too complex for their understanding. It was a smart move and it paid off. I am not implying they genuinely wanted these inputs. They did and they got excellent comments. External experts also were able to contextualize the content for the audience and offer directions for how students could think about their career and future.

I was also impressed by the natural confidence of students in being able to answer questions, accept gaps in their research, re-frame questions in the light of their work, etc. These were not qualities I had seen when we were working together through the semester and the dynamic of being up there on a public platform was very interesting to see! I also realized that the process was far more important than the end -product, though I do wish they go on to produce a paper that would be relevant to the community.

 

The lure of Vanar Vatika @ other narrations: Shikshantar 10th b’day @ J Block- Sep 29, 2012

Yesterday, our family spent a few hours of sheer innocence and happiness in J Block of Shikshantar. While the big school presented the 10th anniversary of the school to parents in an exhibition mode, the pre-primary block’s experience was more like a mela. Teeming with people, sounds, color, activity, smiles and conversation, an air of abandonment and unbridled joy.

Udai and Aadyaa bond over creating a story in Aadyaa’s classroom

Rahul, Udai and Aadyaa have a chat. Tree climbing and such like pleasures are very much a part of the culture of simple enjoyment that Shikshantar has strived to create…

The theme of stories was enjoyed and experienced to the hilt by little children, whose uninhibited imagination and simplicity endows them with the ability to engross themselves completely in the world of stories. They identify strongly with fictional characters and effortlessly merge reality and fiction, art and narrative, the world of depiction and that of performance.

In these kids, aged between 3 and 6, I saw a certain freshness, innocence and lack of pretension that revived my spirits. Since kids this young do not think too much about what others’ might think of them, the content of the stories was much more varied (than in older classes, where I think they chose themes that found approval with the school philosophy to some extent). Cars, parents, friends, spaces they experience, fears, dreams, nature, color, journeys, conversations, we saw all these elements in their little stories. One class had illustrated their little stories using tiny clay sculptures and it was a joy to see how well those little hands had created forms as complex as an octopus, a car, a snake, a house and many others.

We were drawn into their world this afternoon. In one classroom, we created stories out of rhythm emanating from different people playing a variety of instruments in spontaneous sync with each other. In other rooms, we drew, painted, cut and pasted to create our own imaginary worlds. We became little children again and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Udai participating in the musical stories

A young child exploring some of the instruments

Admiring the cute little paper swirls that twirled in the breeze

All of this was wonderful, but the most magical thing about the J Block in Shikshantar still remains the Vanar Vatika. I have watched Udai and his friends connect with it since he was in Raindrops (Playgroup) five years ago, and how much they continue to miss that space even now, when they are in Grade 3 and over eight years old! They recreated this space so well in the model they made for the birthday, the nostalgia was evident!

This is a play area full of little physical challenges. No super fancy swings here. We are talking stuff like a giant pipe under a mound of mud, you can climb over the mound or walk in and through the pipe! Or the concrete beams at varying heights and angles that you learn to balance on. The little brick wall with punctures in different shapes. And the bean pole that you shimmy down and eventually, perhaps, learn to shimmy up as well! The swing, the tyre swing, the guerilla obstacle course stuff…..Vanar Vatika is an unmissable call to become a child again. Aadyaa too, I can see, is in her element here. She complained bitterly on the days it rained heavily and Vanar Vatika was out of bounds for them.

Upside down is normal in Vanar Vatika

Cat crawling up the balancing beam

 

And shimmying down the pole…Papa goes next!

Inside the pipe

Udai and his friends from the big school soaking in the Vanar Vatika experience..sheer nostalgia

From a professional perspective, Vanar Vatika always makes me think about the intimate relationship we share with spaces we experience. Why some spaces click while others don’t has been studied extensively. Vanar Vatika clicks because it is designed as an intimate space, with a scale suitable for young children. Everything is simple, nothing overwhelming. No swanky, shiny stuff that says ‘touch me not’, no manicured flower beds. All softscape, no hard ground where kids might hurt themselves. Surrounded by green edges. Offering challenged simple and tougher, making it something they want to go back to every day.

As a planner, I wish our cities were filled with Vanar Vatikas. Such spaces should be public, accessible to all. In 2011, we visited Barcelona and visited many public parks with spaces like this for children. When children are happy, they draw in adults into a world of peace and enjoyment. In India, a nation with the youngest population in the world, we certainly must have more happy spaces for children. We must consider this an investment in our future.

Gathering in the front laws for song and food….

An emotional ride: Kids tell their stories of 10 years of Shikshantar- Sep 27, 2012

Shikshantar, where both my kids study, is celebrating its 10th birthday this week. Yesterday, the primary and secondary blocks threw their classrooms open to parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles to take a peek at how they had expressed their journey in the school. The theme was Stories and narratives were central to the exhibits around the school.

Oh boy, it was an emotional ride. While the younger kids had attacked the theme with enthusiasm and gusto, the older ones clearly expressed a strong bond with their schoolmates and the institution. Hearing the teenage kids, I was transported back into a world where even the tiniest gestures by friends meant so much, when passions ran high and relationships were intense; when we felt strongly about everything in our lives, when adults were often perceived as enemies of fun.

It was a pleasure to see the comfort the kids shared with their teachers though. I visited in the late afternoon, when things were beginning to wind down. In most classes in middle and senior school, groups of kids were hanging out and having a lot of fun. And also chitchatting and laughing with their teachers.

Here are some pictures I took, that express the love and the bonding the kids feel with their school, its spaces, its people and the entire world it creates to nurture them.

Nitya shows us a model of senior school as they visualize it to be. This is Udai’s class exhibit

Dear to all of Udai’s class, this model is about the nostalgia of the pre-primary block. Vanar Vatika, their open air play space in J Block is shown in all its glory!

I loved this way of showing kids inside a pipe….the big pipe really does exist. You can crawl inside it and it is my personal favorite space in J Block

An interesting way for kids to express the favorite part of their day at Shikshantar. The school day comprises unique elements like circle time to encourage sharing and expression, daily outdoors and project time as well as choice time, where kids can revisit activities they enjoy

Middle schoolkids got a wee bit sentimental!

Comfortable and full of enjoyment!

A middle school student explaining their exhibit

The school was peppered by these larger than life paper dolls…very expressive!

They looked rather dramatic against the lawns….

Shikshantar is also where we parents meet our friends- Gauri and Preeti share a laugh

Preeti and me….one of those crazy ‘pose’ moments!

 

I loved these quirky little figurines the kids had made from old plastic bottled and waste material….cute ones and hilarious ones!

How can you not love that guy?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An open ended education environment: Positive examples and the need to experiment- Sep 21, 2012

As if on cue, following yesterday’s post about the need to give students a more challenging and enriched learning environment, mHS had a visit from an enthusiastic young man called Brian today representing the University of Minnesota’s ACARA program. From what I understood, the program asks undergraduate and graduate students to prepare a business plan for an identified need in the development sector. The University partners with academic institutions in India and students work in mixed groups of Indian and American students. The business plans are then presented to a jury and a couple of winners selected, which then get helped in terms of mentoring, investor contacts or simply funding for feasibility studies, depending on the group’s intent.

Previously, the program specified a particular area of work, but in its new avatar, students are being put through a three week immersion exercise and will then decide on their own what sort of needs they want to address through their solutions. This change was made because they found previous graduates of the program have veered off their conventional career paths to opt for more socially aware jobs. Some have gone on to set up new organizations working in the development sector in different parts of the world.

Clearly, someone thinks allowing students to decide basis their interests and motivation brings out the best in them. And doing their best in turn inspires confidence, which is certainly the key to creating positive, motivated and solution-oriented professionals.

The change the program has undergone exemplifies the new thinking in education. A move from top-down to bottom-up, as those familiar with development-speak would see it! And that’s primarily what I wanted to highlight through today’s post. That even as we theorize about the changes we want to see, those are happening already, in India and elsewhere. Hope is alive as long as we continue to experiment.

 

 

Dumbed down education, dumb professionals, a numb future? Sep 20, 2012

The world has changed immensely since we went through the motions of being ‘educated’. not just in terms of technology and the amount of information available, but in the perspective of educationists now viewing the student as an active participant, one influential in the process of education rather than as a mere recipient of knowledge.

Today’s youth, in my perception with the interactions that I have had through teaching in an architecture college (SPA) and through interactions with schoolchildren at various stages, are fitted with bright and super-agile minds. However, there is a wide variety in background which impacts their ability to perform in an academic environment.

One one hand,  many students may come to the education system with handicaps. In architecture college, for instance, kids from rural or peri-urban backgrounds often have a hard time understanding references to lifestyles and expectations that teachers assume are obvious and simple to comprehend. Language of instruction is another common challenge for non-English speakers.

On the other hand, most kids love rising to a challenge and lose motivation when the system does not challenge them. So you have a split situation, in which some students are struggling to come to a reasonable level, while many others are barely making an effort, complacent that the minimum effort will be enough! The only way the conventional education system has to tackle this is to dumb stuff down. Keep expectations at an average, make things simple and obvious, make process overarchingly important so as to almost relegate content to the backburner.

I do see the benefits of giving kids a free hand though. Almost every one of my friends who has taught design studio has expressed that their students were motivated when they were allowed to be innovative and could take some decisions about their work for themselves. Even so-called average students produced exciting results when they were pressurized, encouraged and cajoled to better themselves. The trick appears in offering a framework for problem solving and allowing the solutions to evolve rather than a top-down approach of asking kids to pick from a menu of pre-made existing solutions.

For the field of architecture and urban design, this ability to weave in elements of research, design, planning and policy into a cohesive and workable solution is critical. By continuing to dumb down architectural education, we run the risk of creating yet another generation of incapable professionals who will end up becoming slaves of unworkable bureaucratic visions or worse, of the rampant profiteering schemes of vested interests. If we aren’t investing in the professionals of the future by offering them an academic environment fraught with challenges, where risk is possible and even welcome, we should numb ourselves and be prepared for the possibile demise of the increasingly urban economy that India is becoming.