Monday, December 13, 2010

Stop #1: Bhatiwara (continued)

"The should we hope for our future"

(continuing the Bhatiwara school story...)

The secondary school was next. There, the teachers sat in the ‘staff room’ correcting papers of the recently held monthly tests. Meanwhile, most of the students just sat listlessly in their classrooms, doing nothing. It is funny, how without learning anything they go on having tests.

The teachers were correcting the papers with such a grave air that I did not even dare to ask them to take a class. Instead I sat around, and started looking through the corrected papers.

They were Class 8 English papers, with the usual stuff – grammar, paragraph, textual based questions.
Question #3 caught my imagination – it asked, “What should we hope for our future?”. A textual question – but an intriguing one.

Most of the papers had questions copied from the board, but not much else. The students’  favourite mode of ‘answering’ seemed to be to pick some random word (or group words) from that or some other question and rewrite those as the ‘answer’. Like:
Q: “Who were trapped in the well?”
A: “Should we hope trapped in the well”

As I looked through more papers, those of the higher scoring students, my consternation grew. In one question, the students were asked to write a paragraph on ‘My family’.
I picked the paper of the student who had scored ‘well’ on this question. This is how his answer script looked:

My family
“I have a pet dog.
His name is Moti.
He is black in colour.” 

And so on...

Sanjay, their teacher, saw me staring at this answer and explained. Apparently, the only paragraph ‘taught’/dictated in class was ‘My Pet Animal’. So the few students who had the ability to memorize, had done so and tried to reproduce it verbatim... oblivious to the fact that the topic given in the exam was quite different.

Sanjay defended it saying that he had to give marks to whoever had written anything, since the standard was so abysmal and 70% students could not write, and hence not even attempt the question.

There was more. There was an essay to be written on ‘My school’. I am replicating here part of the essay written by one of the best students in the class – interspersed with my own comments in italics. 

My School

The actual answer script
I read in Senior Middle School Bhatiwara.
(Ok. The start seems encouraging!)

It has a red building with 15 rooms.
(Well, it is actually a blue building with 3 rooms.)

There are 35 teachers in my school.
(The school has 3 teachers, counting the para teacher. Well, it is understandable that to a child 1 teacher might seem like a whole army.. but still – from 3 to 35...?)
The 'red' school building with all '35' teachers standing in front of it 

The name of my principal is Mr. S D Sharma.
(The principal of the school is Mohanji)

He is a learned prison.
(Hmm... we can debate whether this one is a ‘careless slip’ on the child’s part, or a deep philosophical comment on the education system...)

(Don't misunderstand the intention here, the humour is directed only at our toothless sytem...)

The student had just mugged up the essay from a guide book and reproduced it. In this case I was not that uncomfortable about the student scoring well, because an essay does not necessarily have to be factually correct. The fact that the student had interpreted the question correctly and written these few lines almost flawlessly was an achievement in itself!

The sad thing is - that students who have the ability to mug up and write so much, have actually not been taught anything ‘real’ – not even to substitute ‘red’ with ‘blue’ where needed!

Well, I also started to understand what these tests are about. I realized every English test here is basically a test of pattern recognition for them - irrespective of class, topic etc. The children recognise that whenever the paper contains one particular series of ‘symbols’, they need to put down another fixed set of symbols as the correct response. For example, I might go and tell the kids that they would see this sequence in the exams:
“Quadrile Gryphon advise Jabberwocky?”

They should recognise this sequence, and put down the sequence “Gryphon gobbledegook advised Jabberwocky” in response. And that is what the brighter ones will do. Reproduce it unquestioningly, without deciphering anything at all in the jumble of symbols, let alone comprehending the ‘meaning’ of a particular group of symbols... 

So much for language teaching...

But despite everything, the situation is not hopeless. Sanjay, who has started teaching just a few weeks ago and is yet to settle down into the indifferent and apathetic attitude that prevails, declares his intent of at least seeing to it that by the end of the term all the kids know their alphabet. A noble thought, and I hope he is able to do some good to some batches of students before the systemic apathy catches up.

Incidentally, one of the best answers that I saw to the “What should we hope for the future?” question was: The should we hope for our future.” MS Word might look down on this sentence and mark it with a green squiggly line... But think of this - this kid had actually figured out some rules for himself – he had some idea of the general ‘form’ the answer to this question should take! 

Definitely, that infused me with a bit of hope...

I originally ended Part 2 of my Bhatiwara chronicles here, but a friend who read it criticised me for sounding too much like the media - sensationalising without taking responsibility. Well, while this may be somewhat true, I can't do anything much at this point - except declare that my intent is to try and bring in change - and invite ideas and discussions for the same.

I am not sure what could be done - need specific ideas. I dn't know how much longer the present class 8 batch will be there. But for the next batch of class 7 and 8 students (present 6 and 7), is there any way we can help ensure that at least 80% of students do not leave the school without learning to read at least one language with comprehension? 

I am going to try very hard to do that...


  1. The "Prison" is a gem!
    you said some one commented? meaning you sahred draft - because I could not see any comments posted here.
    Would also wonder if it is safe to post pics and answer sheets - Fortunately the place is so far, else one should be worried if the enthusiasm could get them into any trouble?
    what would be still interesting is to know what mind set you went with? what did you anticipate? and what were your thoughts while there and on return in retrospect?
    How soon will you beable to follow up?
    It willbe a good idea to compare this brief experience of yours in context of rest of yoru 20 or more years of teaching - what it tells you, and what it does not.
    looking forward to read the next bit

  2. I posted the pics somewhat as evidence that I am not exaggerating, and the condition really is that bad...

    On a complete tangent - if anyone - one of the teachers, for example actually finds this online and finds it objectionable, I will be happy to take it off with an apology... truly.

    Some of the questions about my thoughts should hopefully be answered in the concluding part...

    When will I be able to follow up...intend doing within a month...let's see.

    (Shashanka read the post on the blog and responded on chat - later I edited based on his comments..)

  3. Interesting post :)

    Had a good time reading this post.. Following this blog.