Seniors (Already)

June 3, 2011

So the kids went back to school on Wednesday. They’ve started their third year now; this year, they are “Seniors”. Cliched though it is, I must say it: How time flies! Wasn’t it just the other day that I put them into the nearby playschool so I could enjoy a brief respite from the constant state of high-alert they kept me on?

They are old enough to get the idea of summer holidays now – at least, they get that summer holidays will end at some point and they will go back to school. It’s nice that in the Montessori system, the class and the teachers remain the same. The “babies” (M0 and M1 kids) are new, and the “seniors” from last year (M3 kids) have moved on to First standard, but the M1 and M2 kids from last year stay on in the same class, so two-thirds of the kids are the same every time school reopens. (Albeit a different two-thirds, if you know what I mean.)

So far, the kids were taking a school van to get from school to daycare. This year, we’ve started to send them by school van for the morning drop from home to school as well. Hats off to the kids that they’ve accepted this step with their usual elan and wait eagerly and impatiently for the school bus every morning. It’s a different van from the one they take to daycare, different driver, attendant, and kids, and this one ferries older kids as well as tiny kids. But they never batted an eyelash at the newness of it, and were thrilled to discover that two of their classmates are on the same van.

School is five whole hours this year – 8.30 to 1.30. They leave home at 7.15 and get to daycare only at 2.15! They get two snack breaks, but no proper lunch break at school, which means lunch gets pushed out to 2.30 or so, which is pretty late. Breakfast is basically a glass of milk, so the snacks will have to be fairly substantial to keep them going till 2.30. Yesterday we packed two snacks in one box for each girl and apparently they ate both the snacks in the first break and had nothing for the second break. What’s more, Mrini was so tired by the time she got to daycare that she ate very little lunch and went to sleep! Sorting out their meal content and schedule is going to take some work. Already I’m terrified each day that I’ll forget to pack some crucial element of their school bag or their lunch bag which will lead to them being hungry, thirsty, or under-dressed some day. And I’m really worried about how I’m going to come up with ideas for two healthy and substantial snacks per child, per week day (20 snacks per week!) and still keep it interesting.

And there’s another thing that’s worrying me in a “back of the mind” kind of way. Their teacher told me at the end of the first day that I should make Tara do some writing work at home.

This teacher of theirs is an experienced and balanced kind of teacher. She’s not the overly pushy kind. And the nice thing about her in particular and the Montessori system in general is that there is a real effort to understand each child and work with them as individuals. This is as far removed from cookie-cutter education as it is possible to be at least in the Indian context. At the end of the first year, she told me, “They should be able to count to ten by now, but it’s ok. We can work on it next year.” She also said, “Let them eat with their hands and let them do a lot of drawing and colouring. It will improve their fine motor skills and help them to learn to write.” This kind of advice I can work with – anything that is a general recommendation and that, moreover, tends to work around a problem, sounds good to me.

At the end of last year, the teacher said, “Let them do some clay modeling over the holidays. It’s good exercise for their hands.” Well, we didn’t get around to doing clay modeling, but I didn’t worry about it. They did a lot of colouring and crafts at daycare, but I didn’t “work” with them on writing or anything else during the holidays. I’m the irresponsible type of parent who believes that “working” with them is the school’s job and my job is to do lots of other stuff. But when their teacher told me that Tara needs to work on her writing at home (“a little bit, if you can – don’t force her or anything”) I was worried.

The thing is, since this is a generally balanced teacher who has given sensible recommendations in the past, I can’t dismiss this advice out of hand. On the other hand, “working” with Tara at home is not, in my opinion, the right approach. Given that I’m not going to be the kind of mother who holds her child’s hand (literally or otherwise) throughout school, working on handwriting at the tender age of less-than-five is not something I’m going to do. In my opinion, Tara’s handwriting is not the problem. The problem is her attitude. I want her to learn to focus, to learn to take her work seriously, and for her to believe that she can do well and then to want to do well. If I have to teach her anything, it’s motivation first, then discipline, focus, and plain hard work.

I’ve seen other people teaching kids to write – by holding their hands. That’s easy enough – anyone can do that. But how long will you keep holding their hands and teaching them? How long will you, the parent, be responsible for what your child learns? I do want to teach my kids, but what I want is to teach them to teach themselves. That’s not so easy. Some would say that it’s too early for that lesson, but I don’t think so. It’s never too early. The problem is to find the right way to do it.

Motivation, for instance. It’s easy – “Write ten lines, I’ll give you a chocolate.” But that, again, is not the right kind of motivation. The motivation must be to do a thing well, not the rewards that come along with it. Can this kind of external motivation lead to some kind of internal motivation? I think not – why would you need any other source of motivation if your motivation is a chocolate, a book, a cycle or whatever? The motivation I want to see in Tara – Mrini already has it to a surprising extent – is “Write ten lines because you can.” Or “Write ten lines because you want to learn.” Or, what would be best, “Write ten lines because it’s so much fun.” In the absence of that, I’ll even settle for “Write ten lines because you have been told to and then you can go play.” There’s nothing wrong with obedience and plain old discipline if all else fails.

One thing I used to see quite a bit of, but it’s been less evident of late, was a kind of negative competition between the girls. Mrini always wanted to do her work and she got a lot of praise for it. Tara didn’t want to do the work, but she would try to just because she saw Mrini getting attention and praise. Then she would lose interest and start messing around. I think she had begun to feel that “Oh, Mrini is so good at all this, I’m hopeless, there’s no point in even trying.” Nowadays, this has changed a bit. Tara has been uncharacteristically helpful around the house, while Mrini has been irritatingly uncooperative. So Tara gets the brownie points, for now. Amit and I are both consciously trying to notice and praise her when she’s focusing on something, anything. We’re trying to tell her that she can do well at things, if she tries. Trouble is, essentially their personalities are different – Mrini is all eager to please and Tara is devil-may-care. This makes motivation that much more of a challenge for Tara – she will only focus on and work on something for her own sake, not for anybody else’s. And if she’s cut out that way, I don’t think it’s too early to start telling her that she has to focus on her work for the sake of the work itself.

The question is: How can I get her to understand and accept that?

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Numbers are Fun!

February 8, 2011

We went for yet another observation today. (An observation is when the kids’ school asks us if we would like to sit in class and watch our girls do stuff. Of course we would – which parent wouldn’t? Observations are one of the reasons I love this school.)

Actually, we were supposed to go for the observation on Friday. Consequently, Mrini has been eagerly enquiring every day whether it is Friday yet. But last Friday school was closed, so when I went to school on Monday I checked with their teachers and they said we could go on Tuesday. So this morning, I broke it to Mrini that no, it wasn’t Friday yet, but if she was waiting for us to go for observation, then would she mind very much if we went today?

It was about 8.25 when we entered the class and we were there for over an hour. It was, as always, an absolute eye-opener.

Tara started by taking a very prolonged activity. It was a set of flat, smooth, different-coloured cardboard pieces of different sizes. The sizes increased from a small 1×1 square to a large 10×10. Each series was colour coded: 1×1, 1×2, 1,3… 1×10; 2×1, 2×2, 2×3… 2×10; and so on. The idea was to arrange the cards in a neat grid, and once you got done with that, to take it apart and stack the pieces back in the box. Stacking them back was a tricky business. If you were working on the 10×1, 10×2, 10×3… set of cards, you had to put 10×5 and 10×5 together side-by-side, to make one 10×10 square. Then you had to put 10×8 with 10×2; 10×7 with 10×3 and so on, so that each layer was of 10×10 size. It was complex and required a lot of patience, focus, and, of course, a good understanding of size. Tara did it perfectly and with only a minimum of distraction.

The teacher did concede, though, that Tara was “in her own world” most of the time and did the activities almost as if she was doing you a favour. That sounds like Tara alright.

Mrini did a counting/number-recognition activity, and named an impressive set of shapes (I learned the difference between an oval, ovaloid, and ellipse) then switched to spellings. This activity, called “Folders Work” used to be an absolute favourite for several weeks when she first learnt it. Tara, as usual, enjoyed it only because Mrini did. But for both of them, a month or two ago it was a source of great pride and joy to do the dog folder or the flag folder. Folders are a small set of pictures of similar-sounding words: dog, mop, pond, pot; or mug, hut, bud, sun – mostly three-letter-words with a common vowel and similar-ish consonants. Mrini has apparently had enough of the set of folders that she’s allowed to do and is itching to get her hands on the more advanced folders. Still, she quickly and largely accurately worked her way through a couple of folders. Then, at last, it was time to show us addition.

Addition is the new love of their lives. The day they first did addition, they could hardly wait to tell me they did it. All I knew about it was that they did it in groups of three. Addition sounded like a fairly complex procedure for our two little girls to be undertaking. They still routinely skip 15 when counting, and they are still very confused about how to turn around from 27, 28, 29… to 31, 32, 33. They used to use twenty-ten to achieve this (which is conceptually spot-on, of course) but have now graduated to using “twenty” (instead of the more-appropriate “thirty”). Apart from these minor glitches, Mrini can count to hundred, something she practices with gusto whenever she gets a chance. Tara can, but of course mostly doesn’t deign to. Mrini has been promising (or maybe threatening) to count to thousand, but mercifully she hasn’t been able to carry this out yet.

So I didn’t know what to expect from “addition”. Knowing their school, the one thing I could be sure of was that it would not be an abstract form of counting that relied on paper and pencil.

What it involved, it turned out, was an enormous array of tools. First, each of the three kids got a selection of cards (a bit like Monopoly money) of 1 through 10, 100, 200, 300… through to 900, and 1000, 2000, 3000 printed on them. The cards for the thousands were longest, and the cards for units were shortest. When you selected one card of each and stacked them up, you could see a single four-digit number. After each kid had picked out their four-digit number, they had to pick out a visual representation of this number. There were beads for units, strings of ten beads for tens, mats representing ten strings of ten beads each for hundreds, and cubes representing a stack of ten mats for thousands. Each kid took the correct number of each to represent the number they had put together using the cards.

Now for the addition. They pooled all the beads, strings, mats, and cubes together and each kid got the task of counting up one of the items. A collection of ten of the beads, strings, and mats were exchanged for one of the bigger objects. Less than ten were kept as-is. Counting up the cubes, mats, strings and beads gave the result of the addition.

Phew! It was a long but very involving activity and a lovely one. Why did nobody ever try to visualize arithmetic for us this way when we were kids? Of course the good old abacus has been around for millennia, but on its own without much help and with no further aids, it never spoke to me.

One of the boys near us had decided to set himself sums to do. He wrote out a problem in his notebook, then took down some counters that would help him count up the numbers and write down the answer. His teacher said he got them all right! Mrini showed us her notebook too. She had started to do written sums yesterday: 7+8 and things like that. Her writing was terribly bad, but she’d done her math correctly. Even when the answer was 15, a number she verbally refused to acknowledge!

As I’ve said many a time, in school I loved arithmetic and I was good at it. But there were so many kids who didn’t understand it at all and who hated it and were terribly bad at it. My one great hope has been that our girls would love numbers and take to them as easily as I did. It’s much too early to say whether they will or not, but what I can say is that with a foundation of this sort, there’s a very good chance that they will.


Teaching Un-thinking

August 7, 2007

Although it tends to get overshadowed by my German exam, which looms large this weekend and contains horrors such as the spoken part of the test, I have not entirely forgotten that I am also studying Archaeology and that that course is also slowly nearing its end.

This does not flood me with the same kind of relief that the prospect of the end of my German class does. The German class has been great fun: once again I have enjoyed myself quite extraordinarily, despite frequently making an idiot of myself in front of 15 people (and laughing loudly when others do likewise). I liked our teacher quite a lot – she has a good sense of fun, and is quite capable of stepping out of herself and laughing at herself, at India, or at the coming together of the two in the most absurd fashion possible, going by what I understand of the events that she sometimes narrates to us (in her super fast, super fluent German, of course).

But, despite all the fun, it’s quite horrible having to sacrifice 5-6 hours on both Saturday and Sunday every week for 16 weekends! This, my Archaeology course does not demand – an hour or two every weekday evening, four days a week seems to work just fine for that. That’s why I’ve decided to take a break from my German course and continue with Archaeology, when common sense demands that I do it the other way round.

In the approaching German exam, lots of things are quite familiar. The exam consists largely of multiple choice answers, which test your understanding of given text and of the rules of grammar, sentence construction, parts of speech etc. That apart, there’s a letter to be written, which smacks of English classes about 20 years ago. The spoken part is the most nervous-making, but even that reminds me of the viva voce sections of lab exams in school. So, in a sense, nothing is altogether unfamiliar about the entire examination process.

With the Archaeology course, it is a different story. I’m just not used to reading a subject for an exam and not having to memorize anything. I’ve never done this. I keep thinking as I read: how on earth am I going to remember all this? Then I realize: hey, I don’t have to; if I need this, I can open the book and look it up. Then I feel massively guilty, as though that’s cheating. But the way my Archaeology course is structured, it’s just not. The assessment is based on an assignment, and that assignment is your answer to a question. The questions are provided to you along with the course materials, at the start of the course. You are expected to read the questions beforehand, and if you have an idea of which one you’re going to work on, well and good. Then you’re expected to keep your selected question(s) in mind as you read through the course material, so that you can make note of the relevant information as you go. This soooooooooo looks like cheating! I can’t get used to the thought that it is not only ok, but expected and demanded that you should have your text books open as you write your “exam”.

In the Indian education system I’ve been accustomed to, studying means learning what’s in the text books and spewing it out as close to verbatim as possible. Diverging from the printed material is not encouraged and questioning it is tantamount to heresy. To my alarm, I find that in this “new” educations system, far from spewing out verbatim, even merely ingesting an idea and presenting it in your own words is considered plagiarism. To my greater shock, it is considered plagiarism even if you conscientiously and dedicatedly quote your sources from beginning to end. Measured by this yardstick, every exam I’ve ever given in my life, with the possible exception of German, has been based on plagiarism. Not because I wanted to plagiarise, but because I didn’t know any other way. In fact, I didn’t even so much as know that there was another way.

Apparently, there is. The other way, the way that allows you to open as many textbooks as you please while you write your “exam”, tests not your memory or your understanding of what is in the textbooks, but rather, tests what you think about it. This, to me, is extraordinary. Me, think? Who ever allowed me to think? Why, when in school days I tried to think, I always came up with questions; and when I raised questions in class, I was told to shut up, or to go stand outside the class. Nobody wanted me to think, not even in thinking subjects like math, physics and chemistry, which I liked and I was good at. What my teachers couldn’t understand was why on earth I would even need to think when all the thinking had already been done and set out in the textbook for me. In fact, most of the teachers had ceased to think years ago and had forgotten how.

I did try to think a bit, when I did my Bachelor’s degree in English Literature. It was easier then, because I had already switched to distance learning by then, and hence I had no teachers to stop me from thinking. I did an absolutely unheard of thing and actually read all my set texts, straight from Chaucer, through Shakespeare and Milton, and all the way to Eliot. What’s worse, I quite enjoyed it. Then I did the even more unheard of thing and went and read all the best, most famous, and most controversial critics. I even enrolled in the British Council Library just to get access to these books. I can’t say I enjoyed reading the critics, but, perhaps for the first time, I found I had the freedom to think. I realized that I agreed with some of their views, disagreed with other views, and could defend my point of view quite satisfactorily – well, to myself at any rate.

I’m not quite sure why or how, but I passed that degree. Not surprisingly, though, I wouldn’t say I scored very highly in it.

I didn’t know it then, but I had taken a small step towards thinking. Only now do I realize what a tiny little first step that was. When I agreed or disagreed with the critics’ points of view, I was, perhaps, still guilty of plagiarism, because, though I acknowledged that it was someone else’s view, I did not take the next step and state my own view. (Probably just as well, or I might not even have passed!) I think that I sometimes had a view of my own, but it was not clear to me that it ought to be stated.

In this course, Archaeology, the Leicester University guidelines for assessing the assignment clearly state that presenting known views and supporting them with citations is not only not sufficient for a good grade, but is considered rank plagiarism. You have to have your own point of view, you have to present arguments for and against, but ultimately you have to take a stand that is your own. In other words, you have to think.

That’s scary!


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