The writer in me, the writer in you!

Ever since I can remember, I have been fascinated with stories, all kinds of stories. It didn’t matter whether it was a short story or a novel or a poem. I can still remember my mother reading out the poem, “The evening is coming “out of this big colourful book that she had. As she read, the pictures in the book came to life and I was transported into another beautiful world.

As I grew, I became fascinated by how the stories evolved. I wondered: How did the author think of creating this character? Did he or she dream the story? How did he see the place in his mind’s eye? How did he or she know what would happen next in the story?  How could he or she make the story come alive for so many people? Can I also do the same?

It was the book “Little Women” which finally made me start writing. I so fell in love with Jo and so totally related to her character that in my mind we were the same and so writing was something I just had to do.

I still remember the first poem I wrote. I was just 12 then and I wrote a poem for my little sister who was just two. To my surprise, everyone liked it and praised it. And I was addicted!

Being a writer is not difficult at all. In fact it is a lot of fun. All you need to do is to let go of your fear. Let go of your fears about whether you can write or not. Let go of your fear of what people will say. Just let go and write!

Write for yourself! Write what you like! Write from your heart! It’s okay to write silly stuff and make mistakes, you will get better, but only if you keep writing. Today I squirm at the first few poems I wrote.  Even the little seven year olds who come to my creative writing class write better than that!

But that was just the start and I have grown and so will you.  So just pick up a pen and write.

And for all of you who want to write that poem, that story that is in your heart and has to be expressed, and don’t know where to start, here is a lovely learning vacation in a lovely location. Check out the residential Creative Writing Power Camp being held by Shiksha Power at Igatpuri on the 24th, 25th and 26th of May, 2013.

We taught ourselves to teach to write so that you can learn too! And for a teensy summer vacation out of the hot city, why not?


Out of the mouths of babes


I love the summer holidays! I absolutely love them! This is the time when I have my holiday camps for the kids. Every year the kids amaze me! Every year I feel that there is still so much we can do for our kids who have the most amazing minds. There has been so much potential just waiting to be used.

This year, the theme for our Chutti Power Summer fun was “Expressions”. This was especially for kids between the ages of 5 to 11. We encouraged the kids to express themselves through art, dance, drama and creative writing.

Yesterday, we were creating characters in our creative writing session.

I introduced the children to the words “protagonist” and “antagonist”. Before telling them what it meant, I asked them what they thought it meant. The answers were varied.

“It means a person who eats a lot of protein!” Said a little 5 year old.

“I think it means someone who is powerful, like Iron Man,” said another.

“I think it sounds like a mixture of a protractor and an injection” said a third.

It was amazing how they all seemed to link the “P” in the spelling of protagonist to something that started with a “P” – protein, power, protractor.

After explaining who a protagonist is, I asked them to think of someone they would like to create as a protagonist in their story.

The questions were immediate. “Does it have to be a human being?” “Can it be an alien?” “Can it be a monster?” “Can it be an animal?” “Can it be an imaginary creature?”

But the best question was from a little boy named Armesh. He asked, “Don’t you think we should create the antagonist first?”

“Why?” I asked him.

“Because the antagonist causes the problem and the protagonist supplies the solution. The antagonist is the fever and the protagonist is the medicine, the Crocin.”

Oh how I love my summer camps!

MOOCs: A New Page In Higher Education

Imagine a future in which you can take lessons from the best professors in the world, have complete freedom to choose whichever course you want, attend the classes from home at whatever time you prefer, study at your own pace and that too for free. You probably think I am kidding. Well, I am not. And I am not talking about some distant future either. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), a new trend in higher education, which is generating a lot of buzz in the western countries, has made all of this possible.

MOOCs are online courses offered by various web platforms, such as Coursera, Udacity, Udemy and edX. The courses on offer range from Intro to Computer Science to The Modern and the Postmodern to Economic Issues, Food and You to How to Build a Start-up. The courses are mostly short term and each course runs for a few weeks (note- Udacity does not have a calendar based schedule).

Every course has an instructor, who sets the syllabus and looks after everything else the course consists of, including lectures, assignments and evaluation. A course is designed in such a way that students can also jump in the middle and every student can cover the syllabus at her own pace. Students are supposed to watch the video lectures put up on the website and also do the extra-reading that is suggested. Evaluation is mostly in the form of quizzes and writing assignments. Interaction among students and between students and teachers is highly encouraged. Since the courses are add-on courses and not a replacement for university degrees, syllabus is designed in such a way that students have to dedicate only a few hours a week for studies.

MOOCs is in essence an extension of distance learning. But what makes it almost a revolutionary concept is the sheer scale it can achieve at very low costs. A typical course can enroll around 60,000 students at one time. Anybody anywhere in the world with a broadband connection can sign up as there are no qualification prerequisites for most of the courses.

Internet has transformed many industries since its emergence, including music, publishing and journalism. It has changed their distribution models and revenue streams. It has democratized information by cutting down access costs. Some experts feel the same will happen in the higher education sector with MOOCs gaining traction. Cost, convenience, reach and variety of courses are some of the strong points of MOOCs. If the concept goes mainstream, it can truly democratize the education sector.

But thinking it will replace our current university education system will be foolish. University is not a place where you just learn concepts; it’s a place where you learn to socialize, interact with fellow classmates, appreciate various cultures, learn leadership skills and also have fun. Even if we talk in strictly academic terms, internet can’t be a replacement for a professor physically delivering a lecture and interacting with students in a physical classroom.

It has been just one year since MOOCs have been around in their current form. So it will be too early to make any predictions. If MOOCs have to reach to the masses, India will have to create indigenous content in English as well as regional languages. India still faces the basic problem of infrastructure i.e. access to computers and broadband connectivity, so it will be interesting to see how the story unfolds here.

Take Your Higher Studies Seriously

Our society looks at education as a passport to upward mobility and a better lifestyle. A parent, while discussing his child’s studies, said, “I don’t want my son to face the same hardships that I had to and to make it possible, I will try to give him the best education possible.”

But it remains only a dream for many families. Not because they lack access or resources, but mainly because they make wrong choices! Many students realize they have opted for the wrong course only after they start studying. They complete the course and later pursue some other course, wasting few precious years of their lives.

It is astonishing that though we rate education so highly, we are so careless about selecting a course, which may greatly impact our future endeavours. The two most obvious choices are either engineering or medicine, and the only basis for selecting them is that they offer high-paying jobs. Aptitude, interest, intellectual capacity is paid no heed at all.

We don’t understand that higher education needs to be planned. We should be clear about what course we want to pursue, which college we want to take admission in, and on what basis we make these choices. Most parents and students are clueless about what they want to do till the time results are out. Then they are left with very less time to explore. This results in taking admission to the safest courses. Safest courses are the ones which most of the students opt for, like engineering or medicine, or something that a family member or a relative is pursuing (e.g. if the father is a lawyer, chances are the child will also take up law) or the peers are taking admission to.

The biggest mistake that students make is that they don’t follow their interests. Most of the time, they can’t only recognize what their interests are. One of my friends was pursuing B.Sc., but later realised that she did not like it. She likes to read, write, sketch and is a bit creative in the usual sense of the word. Hence, later she shifted to BMM after wasting one year in Science. But most of the people are not so daring. They stick to the course even if they realize that it’s not for them.

Parents and students both need to be sensitized about how they make career choices. Students need to find out what they want to do in life and where their passion lies. It will avoid disappointments and resentments later in life.

Another Brick In The Wall

It has become a cliché to say that we have two Indias: one the English speaking, resource-rich urban India and the other semi-educated, resource-constrained rural India. If we look at the condition of education in our country, the same two Indias can be observed there too.

Schools in villages lack basic amenities, such as libraries, access to water and toilets. Some schools even lack playgrounds. The quality of teachers is really bad. It affects students’ learning and they falter in basic skills like reading, writing and arithmetic. No doubt, the same problems can be observed in cities too, but the condition is not so dire.

Villages offer a great opportunity in outdoor learning, if only teachers are ready to use the available space. You don’t need to have hi-tech facilities to impart education, you just need a bunch of teachers who are passionate about their work and are capable enough. But sourcing these kind of teachers has proved to be a challenge in villages as well as cities.

Village schools rarely pay attention to the extra-curricular activities. Only a few students get to participate in events like elocution, essay writing or group singing in inter-school competitions. Schools never hold intra-school events. Reading is not encouraged. Teachers don’t try to make the classes interactive. And as a result holistic growth of a child does not become possible.

Students face the biggest problem while learning English. Teachers themselves aren’t fluent in the language. Some of them can’t even read and write properly. So students obviously suffer. Plus unlike their urban counterparts, students don’t have parents who speak in English. They don’t get English newspapers at their doorsteps every day and they don’t watch English programmes on TV. More than 80 per cent students go to vernacular medium schools (though this number is decreasing gradually), so there is no exposure to English at all. And as a result, you have a large number of students who can’t read, write or understand even basic English.

It doesn’t help that higher education in India is in English and therefore rural students face a huge setback once they reach there. The odds are so heavily stacked against these students that most of them just about survive in degree courses.

The government is spending a lot of money on schemes like Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan; but most of it is wasted on things which are not needed. The government can’t recognize the micro problems that a school faces and the teachers who do are not given the leeway to address them. It is also a common complaint of the teachers that all the additional duties (various surveys, census data collection, election postings, etc.) imposed on them by the government greatly hampers their productivity.

The government and other actors in the education system need to understand these problems and try to find solutions, if we have to ensure better future for our children.

What if you forgot A for Apple after the 1st standard?

Most of our school and college days go in preparing for exams. Is that bad? Is that wrong? It’s not, but it definitely is boring! How about if most of these days were spent in learning, and not just the syllabus?

Our education system is much derided for its focus on rote learning, and rightly so. We care more about marks and less about actual learning. We don’t care if students have understood the concepts or not, as far as they are able to put them on paper howsoever.

Talking about rote learning in this Times Of India post, columnist Meeta Sengupta says,

Every trained teacher knows that at the very least the learning they impart must include these four components – Knowledge, Skills, Attitudes and Behaviours (KSAB). Memory merely speaks to the first part. It is a tool that supports a part of Knowledge absorption and dissemination, not even contributing to building the body of knowledge. Such learning does not support the ability to create, build and sustain; it ignores the need to encourage a child’s curiosity and talent; and worse, rote learning restricts learning to past knowledge.

Focus on rote learning is more dangerous than we may imagine, as the evidence is there for all of us to see. If only we would pay close attention to this malice, we would not be shocked by the surveys which declare 80 per cent of our new graduates unemployable. Yes, all these years of yours in school and college have been mostly wasted.

The problem lies in our thinking, or the lack of it. We don’t allow critical thinking in our education system or even outside. Students don’t know why they are studying what they are studying. They are not allowed to explore. They are not encouraged to go beyond books and learn on their own. It is imbibed in their minds that marks are paramount and they will guarantee them a successful life ahead. This lie is further entrenched by the rewards and praise heaped on top scorers at home, schools and in society. As a side-effect, it takes the fun out of studying and students become mere competitors in an unknown and meaningless race.

As a system, our pedagogy focuses on very narrow objectives. Marks become more important than holistic learning. How do we change this? Giving grades instead of marks is a step in the right direction. It should be followed with introducing projects in the curriculum. We should also encourage group learning in schools. This can be achieved by giving group projects. Classes need to be made more interactive. Teachers also need to be told that their job is not to create toppers, but learners.

What do you think? Can this be achieved? If yes, how?

The Day I Became a Teacher

I was all of fourteen. It was 5th of September, 1979, Teacher’s Day. I was in the tenth standard and as usual the teachers had gone for a picnic, leaving us, the tenth standard students to run the school.

I was in charge of the kindergarten. I had been told to ensure that all the kids wrote down the alphabets. Everyone complied, except one little girl, Monica, who was just sulkily staring at her note-book. When I asked her why she was not writing, she just shook her head stubbornly, without saying a word.

But the rest of the class yelled out, “She can’t write. She is a dumb head.”

I was shocked to hear these little five-year olds talk like that. “Who says she is a dumb head?” I asked.

“Our teacher, Miss Margaret,” they replied.

I felt an uncontrollable surge of anger towards Miss Margaret. “How can anyone call a baby a dumb head?” I wondered as I looked at little Monica who had hung her head in shame.

I put my arm around her and said, “You are not a dumb head. You are my friend. And so friend, tell me, what do you like to do?”

She looked up at me with eyes round in surprise and not a little fear. Then she whispered, “I like to draw.”

“And what do you like to draw?”

“Houses”, she said.

“Okay”, I told her, “Let’s see. If you can draw your ABC just like I am doing, I will let you draw a picture of a house for me. I will take that picture home and keep it on my fridge. Okay?”

Still full of wonderment, she nodded and “drew” the alphabet neatly in her book. After that she drew a beautiful house and garden for me.

I showed her book around the class and said, “See, Monica is not a dumb head. She is an artist.”

The beatific smile on the child’s face was all the reward in the world.

This was my first experience of how we as teachers can make or break a child. All it needs is a few words to build up someone’s confidence and confidence is a mighty motivator.

I tasted power that day in that kindergarten classroom. I realized that I had the power to change the way a person thinks about himself. I could make people believe in themselves. I could help people succeed.

And in that moment was born my dream. I decided there and then that I would be a teacher… not of academic subjects but a teacher who would teach people to be confident and believe in themselves. I would help people succeed in life.