My Last Days at St. Agnes

Two weeks ago I had my last week at St. Agnes, and I was sad to leave. Despite some frustrations I had with the adults, the students were almost always gracious, thoughtful, and excited to have me in their classroom. That’s a really great combination to have as a teacher, and I savored it all. In my last week at St. Agnes, I continued to work with 10th-standard students on their statistics, and 9th-standard students on areas and perimeters of circles, arc lengths, and area of sectors.

The 10th-standard students continued to be a real delight in terms of their excitement, though they did get a bit carried away at times and it was certainly more difficult to focus their attention. I think part of it was the subject matter this week. Because they do so much of their math work by hand, they learn a lot of shortcuts and ‘tricks’ that students in the U.S. and other parts of the world rarely come across. So this week, we spent a lot of time on building skills that will help students compute complicated averages more quickly . That meant mostly drilling the students in finding means of random numbers until they got the skill down, and then moving onto word problems that gave them opportunities to show off that new knowledge. Because this was my first time teaching this particular method, I couldn’t come up with any interesting or exciting ways to teach it, so it became mostly about rote memorization and lots of practice. Then again, that’s often the best way to learn a skill, even if it is kind of boring for both student and teacher.

My big project of the week was a lesson for the 9th-standard students on area and perimeter. St. Agnes has a big basketball court in the middle of their school, which rarely gets used for basketball. During recess time, it does get used for a game that resembles an odd mix of soccer, cricket, and dodgeball- no student has been able to explain, or even agree on, the rules, so it’s hard for me to give a real picture of what’s going on. In any case, I was thinking about a project I could do with the students and realized I could have them take measurements and find the area of the school’s basketball court. All of the geometric shapes were basically circles, rectangles, and triangles, so I knew the students had all the necessary math tools to take on the project. I was particularly curious to see if the students would be able to find those shapes on their own, and recognize that some of the more complicated shapes could be found by subtracting the area of a circle from the rectangle surrounding it. I thought it would be a great method to test their knowledge and let them use it in a new way. I centered the 2-day lesson on a hypothetical situation in which the school decided to re-paint the court, but needed help figuring out how much paint to buy. On day 1, I planned to explain the project and answer questions before breaking students into groups and have them take measurements of the court. Day 2 was for students to discuss the problem and find the answer. Both class periods were 45-minutes, so I knew it was a bit ambitious, but I was confident in the students’ skills.

After I passed out the worksheets and divided the students into groups, I gave each team a meter-length of string and had them go down to the court to take the measurements. When we arrived at the court, a few students got cracking right away, but most groups were standing around utterly clueless. A few were completely distressed, and ran to me with questions immediately. Taking a page from my former cooperating teacher in California, I informed my students that they would have to work with each other and talk through their ideas for 5 minutes before anyone could approach me with questions. After they knew I wouldn’t be answering questions, they started talking to each other (imagine!) and trying out their ideas. Before long, almost every group was on the right path and didn’t need to come to me for help. It was a great reminder to me (and one I later shared with them) that they already have lots of skills and resources among their groups, and they don’t need to ask their teachers for guidance on everything. My favorite time in the classroom is always when I can step back and simply observe while students are working with each other. That often gives me the perspective I need to praise strong group or individual work while identifying who might need more support.

Despite their good start, the students still struggled to convert their skills to the task at hand. Instead of simply measuring the diameter of the center-circle and using that measurement to determine the perimeter, students were desperately trying to place their strings along the circle’s boundary. Some never realized that the area of their section could be found by determining the area of a smaller shape within their boundaries, and subtracting it from the larger shape around it. I think part of the problem was in the number of new experiences they were dealing with. Students are rarely asked to work in groups, and these students commented that they had never done “a project like this before”, meaning they hadn’t had a multi-day project that involved numerous steps and lots of lateral thinking.

The students definitely struggled, but I don’t think it was in a bad way, and they all seemed to enjoy the challenge. I had to do more leading than I normally like to do in group projects, but they still demonstrated some good mathematical thinking. One student realized that his group didn’t have to line their string up with the circle in order to calculate the perimeter; they could simply find the diameter and calculate the perimeter and area from that measurement. Another student realized that in order to find out how much white paint would be needed for the lines, his team needed to find the width of the line in addition to the perimeter of each figure on the court. While students struggled overall, there were definite areas of success, and what was most impressive is they didn’t give up. My biggest problem in classrooms back in the States is with students who are convinced that if they don’t understand how to solve a problem immediately, it’s because they don’t know the math or are too stupid to ‘get it’. Even when it was clear that we were running out of time on day 2, almost every student was still working hard to try and figure out the math. I only wish I thought through the lesson more carefully because, as often happens in these hyper-short class periods, we ran out of time.

Before I step back into the classroom, I am currently on a two-week break from schools while I travel with my cousin to other parts of India. He’s visiting from China, where he’s teaching English and perfecting his Mandarin (which sounds pretty perfect to me when he runs into Chinese tourists here). It’s a welcome break and I’ll offer a full travelogue when I return to Kerala.

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Gender, Dating, and the Classroom

Two weeks ago I was back at St. Agnes, and it was a much better experience than my previous weeklong stint. I taught two classes of boys this time: one group of 9th standard and one group of 10th standard. I was more prepared at the start of the week for what I would teach, and I had lots of time to lesson plan and prepare. It makes such a huge difference, even if I continued to primarily work from the textbook’s lessons overall. I did do a few original lessons (as in lessons that came from my own ideas instead of using the textbook as a primary resource), including two different lessons on statistics. They were both pretty successful in getting the students engaged with the material, but I was really surprised how interested they were in this lesson. Their textbook’s statistics unit is full of the most inane, uninteresting questions demanding them to compute the averages of mythical exam marks or the weekly wages of a random group of people.  I really enjoy statistics, but I was falling asleep just thinking about more of the same, and the students had already drilled about 20 variations on the same question. So I thought I’d give them something drawn from real life, in this case data from the 2001 Indian census. It also tied in nicely to the unit on the 2011 national census they were doing in their social science class. The data on the Indian government website is broken down by gender, so I decided to create a few questions on that subject, which led to interesting after-class conversations with the students about why so many Indian states have more men than women. I was impressed by the students’ capacity for critical self-reflection in finding hypotheses to explain the discrepancy, but more on that later.

Although the students groaned at the idea of computing all those numbers by hand (calculators are not allowed in math classes at St. Agnes), they got on it quickly. I did allow them to check their answers with my calculator when they were all done, and I was impressed by how close they were to the exact answer, given all the adding and dividing they had to do by hand. Only three groups got the exact answer, but most were very close. And they really enjoyed my inadvertent joke about the “power” of India. I remarked that India had more than 3 times as many people as the U.S., and we think of India as a rising power. Apparently, my clenched fist and statement that India would be “powerful” combined to form a lewd reference to sexual virility. The class of boys went nuts, and it was only after 30 seconds of them laughing and reproducing my gestures that I realized what it meant. I laughed along with them and, after a few self-deprecating remarks about how my Malayalam was maybe getting better than my English, we continued on.

The other fascinating part of the lesson was my realization that India only has one state (and one union territory) with more females than males, and that state is Kerala. Sapna’s mentioned this to me before, but it really hit me when I saw the raw data. The national gender ratio of females-to-males is .933, meaning that for every 100 males there are 93 females. Out of a 2001 population of 1.028 billion people, 532 million were male and 496.5 million were female. It’s one of the highest male-to female ratios in the world. For comparison, in 2000 the U.S. had approximately 138 million males and 143 million females, for a female-to-male ratio of 1.036. Interestingly, most of the Indian states with a low female-to-male ratio are in the north. While Kerala is the only state with more females than males, the southern states are much more balanced than their northern counterparts. Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Goa all have female-to-male ratios of .961 or above. Compare that to some of the most populous northern states, like Uttar Pradesh (.898), Maharashtra (.922), and Bihar (.919). My students were also really surprised by the numbers, and responded with a mix of curiosity (“why is Kerala the only one?”), pride (“it’s because we have a better government and education”), and bruised male egos (“I’m moving to Uttar Pradesh,” to which one student replied “more for me!”)

There’s a lot of research on this imbalanced gender ratio in India, and there’s much discussion about whether it’s a real problem or not. Most of the research I’ve seen points to social and environmental factors as key to producing the gender imbalance. In India, it is illegal for a doctor to reveal the gender of a child in utero, but that doesn’t stop some individuals from aborting or abandoning female children. Males often get first crack at meals in many households, so malnutrition is a real problem for female children. So what accounts for Kerala’s difference? My 10th-standard students are actually correct when they say it is largely the government and educational systems. The government now reserves half of all local office seats for women, and free education is mandated for both men and women. Equal access to education was not always the case- my mother-in-law tells stories about how she wasn’t allowed to go to the library as a child- but both the Communist and Congress parties in Kerala have really pushed women’s rights in the state the last 40 years.

My Aunt Corinna, an editor of Women’s e-News, asked me about the educational opportunities for young girls in Kerala. While my experience has been primarily with boys to this point, my one experience in a co-ed classroom indicated that girls were not as willing to step forward and volunteer answers as their male counterparts. After some coaxing and reinforcement of their intelligence, many girls went on to participate, but it required an active effort on my part (which wasn’t the case in my California class, where it was the boys who needed coaxing to get them to take risks in front of the class). In the country overall, things are improving for female students, but there are still major roadblocks despite increased governmental efforts to get girls into schools. In many rural areas outside Kerala, for instance, girls have difficulty getting to and from school because buses aren’t safe for females to ride, so they end up not going at all. As anyone who’s traveled in India knows, men have no problem finding places to use the bathroom, while it’s much more difficult for women. According to the Pratham organization’s Annual Survey of Education Report 2010, going to school can be difficult for females in a state like Maharashtra, where 45% of all schools don’t have bathrooms at all. Of the schools that do have toilets, only 55% have separate areas for boys and girls. Thousands of female students cited that fact as a reason they stay home from school. So while government policies and social attitudes towards female education are changing for the better, the infrastructure still lags far behind.

But the most interesting part of the week actually came from conversations with teachers in the staff room between classes. Despite a fairly extensive knowledge of the American political system and its policies in India and around the world, most Malayalees that I run into have a fairly foggy or narrow view of American culture. The same holds true for most Americans’ views of India- our knowledge of Indian food is usually limited to northern dishes, and many of us assume that everyone in the country is Hindu and all marriages are arranged. Mostly, we assume that India is one culture, when it is at least as diverse culturally and ethnically as the United States. But it’s still kind of amusing (if a little frustrating) when teachers ask me questions like “is it true that parents in America are very upset if their son or daughter isn’t dating at age 11 or 12?” or “does everyone in America take alcohol every night?” I found it difficult to convince them that both these ideas were pretty far from the truth, and that, like India, people in the U.S. represent many different cultures and belief systems. I told them that there were some parents who were even more strict and conservative than Malayalees when it came to their children dating, but most kids generally start dating in high school. I told them I never heard of any parent being upset that their 11-year-old didn’t have a boyfriend or girlfriend, but I don’t think they believed me. I said that parents might be concerned if their child didn’t have any friends at all at that age, but most are quite happy if their kids refrain from romantic relationships until they hit high school or college. All along, the teachers replied “but this is what a Malayalee man living in the states wrote in a magazine article.” I can’t argue with that.

The week of January 10th will be my last week at St. Agnes, and while I’ve certainly had some frustrations, I’m really going to miss the students and the teachers. I’ve got some critiques to be sure, but there’s no question that the students are working hard and learning, and the teachers are dedicated and passionate. I have an exciting lesson plan involving measuring a basketball court for repainting, so it should be a fun week in the classroom.

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“Then sir, the leg is almost one line.”

It’s been a month since I’ve updated the blog, so many apologies to everyone. Sapna and I have been doing a lot of traveling related to her research and Christmas family visits. I’ll write more about where we’ve been and what we’ve done later, but I did want to let everyone know about my week of teaching at St. Agnes the second week of December- the only time of the month that school was in session and we weren’t traveling. Unlike my previous experiences at St. Agnes, I made sure that I’d be able to plan beforehand, so I asked the head of the math department what unit he’d be working on that week. He asked me to teach the students some coordinate geometry- in particular, the distance and midpoint formulas. I’d never taught them before, so I was both nervous and excited about the prospect of getting to try it out with a class of 10th-standard boys.

I thought it would be a relatively easy thing to teach in four 45-minute periods, but it turned out to be quite difficult to really get into a classroom groove in that time. I had the added challenge of not teaching to the same group of students at the same time everyday. I go to St. Agnes in the mornings to teach and then spend the afternoon in Malayalam class and study, which means I’m only there from about 9:00am to 1:00pm. The problem is, the schedule changes every single day, so while students might have math at 9:30am on Monday, that changes to 4:00pm on Tuesday, 11:00am Wednesday, etc. That’s not generally a problem if you’re at the school for the whole day, but it makes teaching tough for someone like me who’s only there for the morning period. Luckily, I managed to get one class for three of the four days, and I taught another group of students on the Thursday that my original cohort had math in the afternoon. Since I had some free periods, teachers asked me to “sit in their class”- which I naively thought meant that I would get the opportunity to observe. Have I learned nothing from my previous experience there? “Sit in my class” really means, it turns out, teach my class. Teachers are still inclined to simply throw me in front of classes without time to prepare or lesson plans to work from. That’s really frustrating for a novice teacher, especially when I’ve made it clear (now in Malayalam as well as English!) that I don’t feel comfortable doing that, even if they’re alright with me stumbling around blind. Hmm… maybe it’s for their amusement that they keep trying to put me in those situations.

In any case, my lessons for the week were largely derived from the lessons in the Kerala state books. I’m not sure about whether it’s okay for me to publish example pages from it on the blog, but as soon as I find out I’ll put them up so you get a sense of what the state curriculum textbook looks like. The textbook follows a pretty straightforward approach to each lesson with the formula, a few examples, and a problem set. I decided to frame my lessons around it, but I tried to include a few more interactive approaches by encouraging students to work together on problems and having them lead the discussion on examples. In addition to the problem of shifting class times, I faced two major hurdles in my attempts to get students to do group work. The first was time constraints- I had to spend 15 minutes explaining what I was looking for from them in their group work (conversation, interesting mathematic approaches, showing all their work, etc.) on my first day. When they finally understood my instructions, we faced my second big challenge: seating arrangements. There’s really no space for any kind of seating in the classroom other than rows of tables and benches. That works okay for two-person groups, but if you try to do three-four person groups, it becomes impossible. So we worked with two-person groups, but that meant I wasn’t able to give the time that I wanted and needed to each group, since there were 25 of them. As a result, I did a lot of teaching from the front, though students would come up to the board to give examples and work problems through.

Overall, the week was a bit of a bust. I always expected us to do too much in the 45 minutes we had, the students had a difficult time with my accent, and it took a while for them to get comfortable working in groups and coming up to the board. I conveyed the information, and I think most of the students got it, but by the end of the week everything felt a bit flat. There was one class I was really proud of, though. I decided to take one period to go over the distance formula, but I wanted to push the students to find it on their own. I knew they had extensive experience with the Pythagorean theorem (which the distance formula is derived from), as well as the math skills to be able to find the formula. So I created a 4-piece lesson that went something like this:

  • I drew two points on the board and asked students how we could find out the distance from one point to another. After some uncomfortable shuffling, they instructed me to draw a line between the points and then measure it with a ruler. I pointed out that I didn’t have a meter stick, so they came up with increasingly outlandish suggestions. They included hands, my chappal (sandal) since I knew what size it was, and, my personal favorite, one of the students’ legs. He tried to come up and demonstrate by swinging his leg so it was parallel with the line on the blackboard. “Then sir, the leg is almost one line,” said a student in the front row, but we all agreed it was just a little too inaccurate.
  • I next drew three points on the board and asked the students to suppose I was traveling from Trivandrum to Kollam, a nearby city, but I first had to pick up my wife from Elamadu, another nearby town (the three cities roughly make a right triangle if you connect them, so students would be able to use the Pythagorean theorem to find the distance between Kollam and Trivandrum). What I wanted to know was, if I had enough fuel to travel 210 kilometers from start to finish, would I be able to make it back to Trivandrum if the distance from Trivandrum to Elamadu was 58 km and Elamadu to Kollam was 29 km? The students had some difficulty translating the problem into math initially, but after some time most groups figured out that I would run out of fuel about 6 km from home.
  • From there, I asked the students how we could find the distance between two points if all we knew was their coordinates. The students quickly figured out how, so I thought they’d have no difficulty going from there to an abstract formula, but:
  • We ran out of time. So my 4th piece became homework, which I knew was going to be a big ask. I wanted the students to try and come up with a generic formula using what they knew about their coordinates from the previous example. According to their teacher the next day (I didn’t have them the next day since their math class was in the afternoon), most of the students tried hard, and then finally looked in their textbooks for the formula when they couldn’t come up with the generic formula.

That lesson was, in retrospect, a lot of fun, and while the students took time to get going and were a bit timid at first, they really got into it. They enjoyed my hokey sense of humor when they understood it (who’s going to give me and Sapna a ride home now that we ran out of petrol?) and were amused by my strange questions about measuring points on blackboards. The week as a whole still felt really choppy and uneven, and aside from that one day, I never really felt like I had the time or capacity to really build interesting lessons for the students. I’ll be heading back there once school resumes on January 3rd, but I don’t know what I’ll be teaching just yet. I’m going to ask to observe classes on Monday to get an idea of where they are, and will design my lesson plans from there. While I really like the students and some of the teachers at St. Agnes, I just don’t know if it’s a setup that will work for me, so I may move on after this coming week. There are a few other schools that have offered to let me visit and volunteer, including an “international school” that utilizes the “Cambridge curriculum”, so it may offer an interesting contrast to my current experiences. In any case, I’ll be more regular about updates now that I’m returning to the classroom, and will post something soon about our many December travels!

Hope everyone is enjoying the holiday season and have a great new year.

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Anyon in Kerala

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone back home! Sapna and I celebrated with friends on Friday after returning from a week of travels related to her research. Our main destinations were Kochi and Thrissur, but we also made day trips to Palakkad and Aluva to meet with farmers and organic certification boards. Kochi is the biggest city in Kerala, and it’s possibly our favorite place in the state. It’s one of Kerala’s most cosmopolitan environments, attracting Indians from all over the country, as well as a sizable expat population from everywhere. When we weren’t engaged in research activities, we lounged in coffee shops and tapas bars in Fort Kochi or explored the busy downtown sections of Ernakulam. It was a great trip overall, and while I’m itching to get back to teaching, I enjoyed having some time away from Trivandrum.

Before we left for our trip, I managed to return to the very first school I visited, a local Catholic boys secondary school that I’ll call St. Agnes. As I mentioned in my first post, while it’s nominally run by Catholics, it’s primarily funded by the state government and has a mandate to provide education to all students who are eligible to attend, whether they’re Catholic or not. Classes are large, with 45-50 students per class, and more than 50% of the student body comes from homes below the poverty line (though what exactly that measure means in Kerala is unclear, since the state uses their own definition of the poverty line). I was glad to be at the school again, as I enjoyed my time with the students and teachers when I sat in their classes in September.

When I walked into the teacher’s lounge, I was warmly greeted by the head of the maths department, who asked if I’d like to “take a class”. Thinking he was suggesting I sit in on a class or two, I gladly accepted, and he quickly walked me to a class and informed the students that I would be their teacher for the day. I was as surprised as they were to hear this news (just think of all the possibilities for fainting students!) I initially protested, but he assured me it was fine- I could work with the students on anything I wanted from the chapter they were currently studying. He explained that all the classes would be substitute taught that day while the teachers continued to grade the midterm exams from the previous two weeks. Without knowing what exactly to do, I agreed to take the class. I had the students tell me a bit about what they had been working on (perimeter and area of circles) and where they were in the book. I chose a couple of the more interesting problems from the book and gave the students 15 minutes to work on them with a partner. I then asked a few individual students to come up to the front to work out the problems. A couple of students were even willing to come up despite not knowing the answer, and we all worked out the problem together as a class. It turned out to be really enjoyable, though I was still frustrated with being thrust into that position (three more times as it turned out). I made it clear that, while I was grateful to be given the chance to step in front of their classrooms and teach a lesson, I needed to be able to plan out the lesson beforehand. I simply couldn’t walk into a classroom and give students what they needed with no idea of what I was going to teach, or even which subject they’re learning!

The problem is, that’s pretty much how most of the math teachers at the school operate, and it’s not something I fully understood until this past visit. They basically open the book, go through the sample problems in front of the class, and then repeat the same procedure the next day. It would be mind-numbingly boring for me, and it reminded me of Jean Anyon’s essay “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work”, which I read as a credential student at Mills College. In her essay, Anyon looks at schools in four categories defined by parents’ occupations: working class schools, middle-class schools, affluent professional schools, and elite executive schools. What she finds is disturbing, though not altogether surprising. The working-class schools generally focus on getting students to follow directions and engage in rote memorization as the primary learning technique. On the other end of the spectrum, at the “elite executive schools”, students are more in charge of their learning; they’re encouraged to find multiple approaches to solving problems, and teamwork and peer checks on learning are emphasized. I’ve certainly seen that play out in American schools and it seems to be the norm in Trivandrum as well. A few weeks ago I visited an “elite executive school” where students and teachers worked together on solving math problems, students were free to disagree with each other, and they often heard that there were multiple ways to approach math problems. At St. Agnes, however, teachers largely seem to be following the rote memorization approach- and it’s frustrating to see class reproducing itself, even in a progressive state like Kerala.

I’m going back to St. Agnes next week, and I hope to get a chance to work with one group of students for a while. The head of the math department agreed that I’d sit in on classes on Monday, and I’d start teaching from Tuesday until we leave for Sapna’s research trip to Mumbai on December 7th. I’ll be working with students on coordinate geometry, which I’ve never taught before, so I’m looking forward to it (if you have ideas or lessons that are particularly interesting, please send them my way). I’ve learned, however, that volunteering in Kerala schools requires a lot of flexibility, so I may end up teaching something else entirely on Tuesday morning! I’ll be sure to let everyone know either way.

 

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My First Day of Teaching (and Only Two Months In!)

Friday was my first day actually teaching a class in India, and it was a lot of fun. I’ve spent so much time and aggravation trying to get into classrooms and volunteer that I’d almost forgotten how much I truly enjoy teaching in a room full of kids. The setting was a Catholic school about 20 kilometers outside Trivandrum (which may sound close, but that’s about an hour bus trip with walks on either end). The school is run by Franciscans and is entirely self-financed by school fees paid by the 3,000 male and female students. The students are mostly working- and middle-class, though the school does provide scholarships and sliding-scale fees to students who can’t afford the standard tuition.

The night before, I was told that I’d be addressing an auditorium of 100 students from the +1 and +2 grade levels (the equivalent of juniors and seniors). Although I initially thought I’d be teaching to a classroom of about 50 students, I didn’t mind the difference in numbers very much, but the change of grade level shook me a bit. We agreed earlier that I’d be teaching 9th and 10th standard students, so I prepared a version of the “Cruise Ship” problem (you can see a copy of it here), which was written by my cooperating teacher. Now that I was teaching an older group, however, I would need different material that was more relevant to what they were learning, so I prepared a sample lesson on permutations and combinations. It turns out I didn’t need that at all, because when I arrived at the school the plan changed again. I was now teaching 45 10th-standard students for one and a half hours. So my original lesson was back on. Luckily, I brought copies of the problem with me, as I had a feeling this might happen- my school visits often seem to be haphazardly organized by the teachers and principals who invite me.

I started off by introducing myself in Malayalam and then, after impressing with my limited speech, quickly and gratefully switched back to English. The students were excited to have me there, and I tried to reassure them that I wanted them to make risks and guesses, even if they weren’t 100% sure of their answers (even as I write this I can already hear my father lamenting my “dumbing down” the Indian curriculum). I then handed out the problem to the class, went through it to make sure everyone understood it, and reminded them that I was looking for two things: interesting mathematical approaches to the problem, and good conversation about the problem in their groups of two or three.

The reason I love the Cruise Ship problem is because there are so many opportunities for students to make decisions about how they want to approach it. Since I was parachuting into a class, albeit one that had already covered the Algebra I was teaching, I did make attempts to scaffold the lesson more heavily than I might in my own classroom. I started off with reviewing how to write and interpret equations, and how to solve a system of two-variable equations. We also made some predictions about which mode of transportation might get me to the ship the fastest. What struck me most about the students’ response to the problem was how excited they were to talk to their peers about it. While they’re not discouraged from working with peers on problem sets, they don’t really engage in group work inside their classroom. One female student made a great decision about how to set up the first of her equations, and she was eager to share it with other female students (the class was divided down the center, with boys seated on one side and girls on the other). A group of boys was first to try and visualize the problem with a graph, and they were thrilled to show it off to me. It was a great reminder of how important it is for students to feel in charge of their learning; and that it’s vital for students to feel that rush of success when they make a discovery.

Although none of the students managed to solve the problem completely in our time (and I never expected them to), they seemed to really enjoy the experience. One student asked me if I had more problems like this one “in California”. I was really proud of their work, and of the experience I managed to give them. A few even asked for my autograph, and I can honestly say it’s the first time I’ve ever had anyone ask for that.

I think if I do this problem again, however, it really needs to be part of one or two weeks in a classroom on a consistent basis. There was just too much to set up for students unaccustomed to group work and this style of problem. I ended up working at the board way too much, though the students were amused by my awkward shifting to write on the board that was too low to the ground for my tastes. The students were so hardworking that they overcame many of the challenges, but I think it could have been more useful to have a different problem that still gave them many of the same opportunities for group work and independent decision-making.

One thing I’d forgotten about myself as a teacher: I have a tendency to move around too much when I give directions. I’d been consciously working on this in my student teaching placement last year, but it reared its head again Friday. I noticed, after reading an article about it a year ago, that it really is important to students- especially English-language learners- to remain still and deliver instructions clearly. After wandering about the classroom and getting a wall of blank stares, I realized I looked like John McCain in a presidential debate, so I planted myself at the board while we went through the problems and my expectations. One nice thing about starting my teaching career as a volunteer is I get to walk into random classrooms and make mistakes free of ramifications on my long-term job prospects. Unless future employers start reading about them here and know what to look out for when I come around…

Despite the mistakes and faulty lesson plan, the students really enjoyed the class, and I had a wonderful time with them. There are few things as energizing to me right now as a roomful of kids feeling proud of their mathematical accomplishments. Five years ago I would have been shocked to see me write that, but it’s really true. And it’s a lot of fun.

Sapna and I are off to Ernakulam , Kochi, and Thrissur for a week while she does some research, so I’ll only return to the classroom after Thanksgiving. But have a great holiday, and think of us as you force down that one last piece of pie.



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I guess we’re not so different.

So Sapna and I are currently languishing over election results in America and Trivandrum. Our local panchayat seat went to a Bharatiya Janata Party candidate. The BJP is a right-wing Hindu nationalist movement whose politics mainly revolve around political intimidation of Muslims and unfettered liberalization of Indian markets. They are India’s second largest party, but historically played third or fourth fiddle to the Communist and Congress parties in Kerala. In my home state of Wisconsin, the Republicans took control of pretty much everything, including (most devastating to me) Russ Feingold’s senate seat. While news was better in California, we still ended up with some terrible ballot initiatives and Jerry Brown as governor. At least Americans didn’t fall into the BJP trap and elect people based on their anti-Muslim, pro-military, ardently free-market platforms. Oh…

If all that weren’t enough to send us into complete despair, our local temple is doing its best to help on that path. From 5:30am to 10:00pm every day (and midnight on the very first day), the temple is blasting Malayalam film songs and occasional chanting through our windows. Apparently this happens every year for 10 days in early November. No one likes it, and no one knows why or how the practice started, but no one lodges any complaints to the temple- which you think would be pretty easy to do if the temple is tying speakers to your property in order to blast music at you all day long. Couldn’t you just demand they at least move it off your property? But our landlord just shrugs his shoulders in a “what can you do” motion. That’s a bit what it felt like for me this election term. I couldn’t knock on doors or make phone calls, and I don’t have millions of dollars to pour into secretive PACs. But the results made me angry, and want to come out fighting. I wonder what it will take for our landlord to do the same?

*On a separate note, if you’re interested in reading about some of the educational reforms the Kerala Ministry of Education is working on, check them out here. I hear a lot about them from bureaucrats, but teachers generally haven’t heard of them. Which makes me wonder where all the “resistance” the ministers write about comes from?

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Is today a holiday or…??

This week was both very productive and frustrating (as many of my weeks here have been). The lesson I was supposed to teach last Friday didn’t come off in the end- the vice-principal called to say that exams were beginning this week, so the students needed the day to review with their teachers. I completely agree, and I’m glad they postponed it until after exams when students would be less stressed and I wouldn’t disrupt their studies. But it’s still frustrating that I only got the call on Thursday night. Didn’t they know about the exams when they rescheduled me from the previous week (when I couldn’t come because of a holiday at the school)? This has happened a few different times- teachers schedule me for something only to tell me that they need to reschedule because of a holiday, the local elections, or exams that have been on the calendar for months.

Despite that, I had a productive week. I received confirmation from the local boys secondary school that I could return after exams finished this week. Sapna’s dad was in Kerala last week and visited the school with me to ensure my return- so I have two sets of ears that heard the confirmation! I also visited my first fully private school, where I’ll spend a few days this coming week. The school is located outside Trivandrum and caters to wealthy Indians, offering both Indian and “international” curriculum. They have a 15 to 1 student-teacher ratio in their classrooms, as well as a campus that offers seemingly everything a high school student could want or need. It will be an interesting experience to compare with the government schools and their 45-55 students per class, and I look forward to sharing it here! I’ll also finally teach that sample lesson this Friday- assuming we don’t have any unforeseen exams or holidays coming up…

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