Sunday, July 21, 2013

Super Masala Dosa

Honing in on my sixth week at Deepa Academy now. Getting ready to wrap things up and push out a preliminary draft of my manual before I head out on a few final adventures in India. Need to get as much good South Indian food as I can before I leave!

Sitting after class the other day, JayLakshmi and Nalina, a college student and a high schooler were rifling through my bag. Nalina would pull something out and hand it to Jaylakshmi: "Akka, is this from India or USA?"
"That pen? Oh its from the US..."
" Super! And this book, its from India or USA?"
"That's from the US too...."
"Super! What's this?"
"Thats my swiss army knife, see it opens like this..."
"Wow Akka! Super!"
My water bottle; Super! My flashlight; Super! My camera; Super!
The word is really growing on me....

Spent last Friday in Mysore, taking in the sights. Parimala madame and her son accompanied me for the day trip that started at 5:30 in the morning and lasted till 11:30 at night. We visited the Tomb and the Summer Palace of Sultan Tipu. The Islamic art and architecture at both Gumbaz and the Palace were spectacular and diverse - from portraits to ornate geometric designs, with a fair sprinkling of British influence thrown in. Also took a trip to the Chamarajendra Zoo, which seemed to have more animals than any other zoo I’ve visited before and was in spectacular condition. After a hot lunch, we made our way to the Mysore Palace where I was absolutely blown away by the grand and colorful halls, still in near perfect condition. I’m proud to say that though all of these locations had an increased rate for foreigners, I paid the local price wherever I went. Perhaps I’ve been more successful at blending in than I thought! We ended our trip with the musical fountain at the Krishna Raja Sagara Dam on the Kauveri river. Throughout the day it rained and poured, but I tend to enjoy that kind of weather and somehow it made the adventuring all the more adventurous.

Since I missed class on Friday, I held class for an hour and a half with the high school students yesterday.  Spent the first 20 minutes with the students having a photo shoot. Uma, Manjula, Heena Banu, Nalina, and a few of the other partially sighted students went crazy with the camera while everyone else was trying to get into a shot or two. We had a very relaxed session, reviewing the material of the week - weather and the past and future tenses - while sitting in one big circle and passing around a ball to determine which unlucky soul would have to speak next. I let the class play with the playdough that I keep on hand as a conversation starter with the older group and tried my best to keep the light conversation as much as possible in English.

It’s been really wonderful to see that most, if not all, of the students have warmed up to me and have warmed up to speaking English in the month and half that I have been here. Many of the girls come to speak with me after class or after 5 o’clock when they finish school for the day. I had been worried at the beginning of my internship that the students wouldn’t like me or that they would not take my class seriously, but luckily neither of those things seem to have come true.

It has never really been my goal to become an educator, so I am surprised at how comfortable I have become in the classroom. I’m sure that I have made innumerable rookie mistakes teaching these kids, but I am pretty confident that the end result will still be positive. I still believe that a proper ESL or TEFL course, prepared and taught by someone trained in special education would be the best and most effective way for these students to learn English, but I am more and more sure that my manual and methods will suffice in the meantime.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Measured Risks

I have been experiencing some technical difficulties posting for the past week and half. My old, borrowed, laptop is either struggling to handle the processes of modern web use, or the internet card which I have borrowed from Deepa Academy to work and post these blogs was not intended to handle this much data. I have no idea what I am talking about when I say that. Anyways, here are my last two posts.

 It has been a month now, officially, and I have fallen into a steady routine for the first time in a few years now:

Wake up at 7:30: breakfast, ironing, prepare for class, lock up my valuables, head out the door by 9:40. Class at 10: Practice the song of the week, introduce or review vocabulary, work on some exercises, coffee arrives, play a game, talk to the students after class for 10 or 15 minutes, talk with Jugdesh Sir (the faculty who helps me with the high school students’ session) about what went well, what didn’t work, and what will be happening tomorrow.
12-12:30 Back to the Hostel: Lunch, wash my dishes, relax, prepare for afternoon session, lock up my valuables, out the door by 3:15
3:30 Afternoon session: assure any student that I encounter that I have eaten lunch, and give a detailed description of what I had eaten, ”Ana, Sambar (rice and curry)” - this also happens in the morning, and the students are bewildered when all I’ve had is a slice of toast and some tea. Play the games of the week, discuss whatever comes to mind, get imitated, make some bad jokes, agree to stay an extra half hour, tea arrives, Visit downstairs with Sharntharam Sir, or Sandhya Ms, or Parimala Ms., or Shubha Madame. If I see Shubha madame, the warden at Deepa, she usually gives me a snack and a sweet to take back with me (It’s Great!)
5:00-5:30 return to the hostel: Say hello to Silvio, greet the watchman and Sindu the little girl who cleans, unlock all of my valuables, laundry, bath, dinner, dishes, get locked in by 9:30 (which took a few days to get used to), check my email, prepare for class, work on the manual, kill a few cockroaches/mosquitos, Malaria meds, sleep.

Occasionally I’ll throw on a movie on my little laptop or read from one of the two books that I have brought with me. Throw in a music program occasionally, a shopping trip, a dinner or nice lunch, or a walk around the neighborhood and there you have it, a general idea of what I’ve been up to. Recently, Sindu, the cleaning girl, has been visiting me in my room. She likes to practice her English with me, and I’ve shown her some Pixar animations on my computer which she really seems to enjoy, I load her up with my excess sweets before she leaves, and the old cleaning lady always starts yelling at her once she’s out the door. Not sure what that is about.

Usually I am not a fan of routines. I avoid keeping one at my college, for better or worse. It is pretty easy with different classes at different times everyday. I am able to choose my own work hours at my place of employment, and I have tended to have very separate groups of friends with constantly changing schedules themselves. But I am actually enjoying this routine. I do enough during the weekends and have had enough random weekday events to keep me from getting bored and nutty, not to mention I have plenty of work. I find that with this routine I have a lot of time to think, which is nice. I go to sleep most night feeling accomplished in a weird way, just knowing that all my simple chores and tasks of the day have been completed. I doubt I will have anything resembling a regular routine once I return to my college and start working again, so I am savoring these moments, even if I will not necessarily miss having a routine.

Silvio is the guard dog of the Hostel. He’s the ugliest, mangiest mutt on the street, and I’ve developed a cute little rapport with him as I travel to and from the hostel. Silvio has a very elaborate back-story. A notorious drunk with father-issues, and a mysterious private life, I often scold the mutt as he lays in the sun for not getting his life together. Sometimes he’ll look at me and wonder what this strange human is doing making noises at him, but mostly he’s too drunk to even notice me.

My time in India has, more than I realize, involved the consideration of measured risk-taking. When someone offers me food, I have to measure the risk of eating it and the risk of offending whoever has offered me the food. Walking down which street, what I am wearing, when am I going here or there, how am I getting around, who am I going where with? Each situation presents a risk and I have to decide whether it is worth taking. Perhaps I should meet a terrible fate, but is that perhaps worth spending this whole trip "living in fear"? I don't think so. I broke a cardinal rule (of my mother’s) the other day. I ate food from a “gari”, a cart. Pudus are a fried creation of the dosa and idli family, and it was a measured risked because though the Pudus themselves were thoroughly cooked, the delicious coconut and chili chutney’s that they come with were HIGHLY SUSPECT. But this time it was worth risking the potential three days I would suffer on the toilet because of dirty water. They were pretty delicious and seem to have caused no serious harm! Win for Alex!

7/ 9/13
 Last night a late dinner at the Headmaster Shantharam’s house. Lovely people, lovely food. Ravi sir, a faculty member, drove me home on a scooter. Truly the way to travel in India, and the streets of Bangalore are quietly spectacular, the streets are lined with tall trees and splattered with multicolor buildings. Something about cities in India feel very organic to me, like they’ve naturally grown out of the jungle. If you pay close attention, I don’t think you’d ever find a truly pristine natural beauty, there’s nothing natural about the idea of pristine. Anyways, so it was nearing 10pm, we’re driving back to my hostel, and I took a head count, just to confirm what I already was suspicious of. About a hundred men, and only 5 women to be found on the streets during the 10 minute journey from Malleshwaram 18 Cross to my hostel on Parallel Road 4th Cross. Seems like an unofficial curfew for the ladies…. So that’s a thing.

Some of the Characters in my story: 
Pooja (P.S.) Sometimes Pooja doesn’t say anything when she first sits down at 3:30 in the afternoon for the level 2 English session. It takes a few minutes for her to warm up on those days. But most days she is fired up and ready to have a laugh about whatever she can poke fun at. Often its me. From the start I told myself not to worry about it, to enjoy it, but it has taken a couple of weeks for it to really sink in, and now I take her sass and shoot it right back at her. We’ve had some good laughs at each other. She speaks the best English by far out of the seven girls who show up for these afternoon sessions. When she gets frustrated with me or maybe its with herself when she‘s having trouble communicating something to me, her first impulse is to imitate my funny American accent and that usually gets all the others going as well. But I’ve also noticed her scolding the girls if she feels they’ve crossed a line with me, which I usually don’t notice. I’ve developed an “anything goes” attitude with these students and I defend it as an English teaching method. Most ,if not all, of their school subjects are taught in English, and I think it wears them out by the end of the day. So when they come to my sessions, I like to have a relaxed atmosphere. We play a lot of games, chit-chat, and sometimes just sit in silence because no one has anything to say. Last week I started bringing in some Playdough, which turned out to be a great facilitator of discussion and a fun stress-free activity. Pooja especially enjoyed the human figure I sculpted one day, and has been demanding since, “Acka!, Where’s my girl? Make me a girl!” This week Pooja and I made a deck of playing cards written in Braille. This has been a smash hit with all of the girls. She came to today’s session with another deck so that we could play more games with more people. Pooja is one cool cat.

Parimala Ms. - My favorite new aunty. A volunteer administrator and teacher at the Academy Parimala Madame has been working for Deepa for over 5 years. She speaks a good deal of English although she is not perfectly fluent, and I am able to communicate fairly well with her. She has been my main guide outside of school, accompanying me to temples and parks so that I can safely explore Bangalore. She has been extremely kind to me and allowed me to have full and interesting weekends. She has taken me to 7 or so temples near Bangalore, including the Iskon temple, Kadu Malleshwaram, Lakshmi Narasimha, Gangamma Devi, Nandi Theertha, Shiri Sai Baba, and the Tirumula Tirupati Devasthana. This past Saturday, she also took me out for the BEST meal I’ve had so far in Bangalore. Butter Masala Dosa from heaven! It was absolutely wonderful. She has also taken me to many of the student and affiliated dance and music programs, to get mendhi done on my hands, to the post office to send letters back home… Whenever I need something or to go somewhere, she happily escorts me and makes for terrific company during these excursions. In a few weeks Ms. Parimala has offered to take to me to see Mysore, a must-do on my list, and I know she will show me a great time there. She has taken such good care of me and I am very grateful for that.

Sandhya Ms. - The sister-in-law of the headmaster, one of the Academy’s main administrators and teachers, this woman is truly tireless. She has been with Deepa since its founding and has truly dedicated herself to the students and staff. She has also been taking very good care of me, arranging my trips with Parimala Madame while making the occasional appearance herself. She also often acts as my liaison to the headmaster Shantharam. When I need something, she is the person who I call first. She will most likely be escorting the girls in the Bharathnathyam dance group here to the United States where they will be doing a fund raiser tour across a number of states on the east coast and middle America. She has been working very hard on organizing this trip as well. She and Parimala Ms have generously taken me under their wings, which for a girl alone in India is a good thing to have.

Shubha Madame - Warden of Deepa Academy. The mother-away-from-home for all of the girls attending the school. Another pair of eyes looking out for me. She gives me snacks now and then to take back to the hostel and seems to like to practice her English with me. I get the feeling that she’s hard to get close to, but once she takes you under her wing, you’re there to stay. I found out the other day that she is married, and her husband lives in a village far away. She only visits him once or twice a year. Her daughter lives in the Academy with her, a young girl who has befriended and helps the students at the academy. I wonder what she thinks of them. I imagine it must be difficult for her at times, putting up with people outside of the academy staring at her as well because she is walking down the street with two blind girls. I’m sure its happened, I’ve noticed it myself when I go for walks with the students.

Eyes in India. It is not quite like anywhere else. So many eyes, everywhere. In my previous studies, I focused for a time on the rite of Darshan, the sacred act of vision between the gods and mankind. Hindu’s take Darshan of the gods to receives blessings, boons, protection, and to make a holy connection with the sacred… that is probably pretty poorly put, and I’m sure there are many better ways to describe it, but take the basic idea. It places an implicit value on eyesight doesn’t it? Where does it leave the girls at Deepa Academy in their society? I want to ask the students, but I am somewhat unsure of whether or not it would be a sensitive topic. Perhaps one day I’ll take the measured risk.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

It Will Be a Challenge, Without A Doubt

Digging into the my third week here. Blogging is not exactly my deal, but I will try my best to include all of the pertinent details. The immensity of the job I have been tasked with seems to be growing. At the same time, I have struck a rhythm with the students and I am comfortable coming in everyday with whatever it is I’ve put together for them.

Each week it becomes more apparent to me that many of these students are at a level of English that might as well be called zero. This is not only in terms of their speaking abilities, but their written skills as well. Even the best of them struggle with simple spelling. I discovered today that most students struggled to spell basic words such as “table”, “cot”, “chair”, and “mat.” These are children many of whom have been taking English as a language for more than four or five years.

It is my opinion that many of the students are severely lacking in both of these areas because they have little to no understanding of what they are writing, reading, and saying when they are asked to do so in their regular English classes. This poor basic knowledge of the language, I suspect, is due to a lack of emphasis on the subject and perhaps also outdated and ineffective teaching styles being employed in their English education previous to coming to Deepa Academy. The students who enter Deepa Academy at the 8th standard have not been brought to a sufficient level of reading, writing and speaking English to handle the materials designed for their standardized class year. The struggle then falls to the tireless staff of Deepa Academy to push the students forward so that they can manage their 10th standard board exams, even though the students still have yet to master the foundational building blocks of the language.

I worry that the result of this the students are memorizing the material they need to know in order to pass these crucial exams, but they are not truly comprehending the meaning of what they are memorizing. A student who does not understand the simple question “Do you like to read?” surely cannot be expected to grasp the meaning of even a basic paragraph in English.

It has taken me some time to reach this awareness of the students’ English capacities, and I am still figuring out exactly where each student stands in terms of their English education. There are hundreds of materials for teaching ESL and for teaching students with visual impairments, but still I have yet to find a satisfactory criterion with which to assess their abilities, let alone a course plan with a sound teaching method to meet their needs.

I fear that I may not actually be qualified to make the assessments and propose the methods by which the students’ speaking skills can be improved that I have been tasked to make and propose - at least not to any official or accredited standard. I simply do not have the training in education or special education that I need to develop the effective and comprehensive program that these girls deserve. Perhaps once I return to my own college, I can seek the help and resources from our education department to finally set the bar for the students English education at Deepa Academy.

What I can reasonably hope to accomplish in the meantime, at this point, is a solid starting point; a course that introduces basic English vocabulary, structures, and grammar and helps to build the students’ confidence in reading, writing, and especially speaking English.

I have written about these issues in further detail in the manual, which will eventually be made available on this blog.

Despite all of that, I am enjoying my class time with both groups. I have been able to visit a number of dance programs with and featuring several of the students from the Academy, as well as a play at the Ranga Shankara Theater. The faculty have been incredibly generous with their time to take me to different events, and they are always looking out for me and asking after my needs. I am planning on more activities and exploration for the coming weeks, including a trip to Goa to meet a friend from my college for the weekend, visits to several local temples, and as many more arts and performance events as I can manage to attend.
An interesting note on the girls performance that I was present for last week: I have been trying to learn about the perception of visually impaired persons by the general public in India as well as the various other social constructs that are active in society still today. From what I have been told, though things are changing, there is still a common belief that any “differently-abled,” (or differently-gifted, or disabled, or however you want to call it) person is inherently “less-abled” or “unable” because of their physical “short-comings.” They are considered “idiots,” “useless,” “parasites to society,” and so on. In general the discourse on this topic makes me very uncomfortable, whether it is coming from a positive or negative standpoint. I was reminded why it makes me uncomfortable at the performance, last Wednesday night. I put it this way after the show in my notebook;

“They come on stage and do their thing. It would be beautiful, and spectacular whether or not they were blind. I thnk that is what all the announcers and speakers are thinking as well, but they are so proud of themselves for thinking it, that their progressive good intentions get smothered in their heightened sense of self-worth. The man who organized the event, young with a blazing mustache, literally said to the audience, ‘I am so proud… of myself’ (this was while he was explaining that he never thought twice about including a blind group in the program) I couldn’t help laughing quietly in my seat.”

I’m no expert on the discourse surrounding visual impairment or any other kind of impairment for that matter, and so I will try as best as I can not to pass any judgment, even if it is a positive judgment, on any of my students that takes into account their visual abilities. I try to not to assume, expect, or overemphasize any thing. I’m here to learn and to do something that may be useful to someone. I said before than when you enter a classroom at Deepa Academy, it is easy to forget that the students you meet and interact with are blind or visually impaired. They act and perform the way students act and perform. That’s all I can say, the line is too thin to thread on for very long.

What is truly a damn, damn shame about India is that the ignorance about the differently abled is paired with a seriously twisted construction about the female gender. The ignorance exists everywhere in the world, and discriminating social constructions exist in most places as well, but the combination that the girls at Deepa Academy are faced with from the public must surely be daunting…..

Edits and more to come when time affords.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Week One In Bangalore

I have been in Bangalore two days and a week now, with hardly a minute to spare to begin this blog. Finally, I have taken a moment to post my first report, and I have too much to say all at once. Some details will have to remain in my journals and memory and my work may just have to speak in detail for itself.

I have come to India to teach English at Deepa Academy, a small residential high school for visually impaired girls. I teach two classes every day from Monday to Friday: level one for about two hours in the morning and level two for an hour and a half in the afternoon. The level one students are 8th, 9th, and 10th standard students with a fairly low level of spoken English skills, and the level two students are in 1st and 2nd P.U.C. and have a slightly better grasp on the language but are not quite fluent either.

My name is Alex Bilodeau, and I am an undergraduate student from Skidmore College in upstate New York. I am working on a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies and Asian Studies with a focus on South Asia and Indian religion. I have completed three years of my undergraduate education and will be embarking on my last year in September. Last summer, I worked for an education non-profit organization in New York City called Previous to that, I tutored Buddhist monks in two of Chiang Mai's Buddhist Universities while studying abroad for a semester in Thailand.

Growing up, I moved around a fair amount. I was born in Weymouth Massachusetts, but after two years relocated to a Native American Reservation in Southern Arizona. Four years after that, my parents and I moved to South Korea for six years and then came back to the states for a year before moving to Qatar for three years. I finished my last two years of high school back in Arizona, before heading east to attend college. My parents are not in the military, they are not diplomats or business-people, nor are they missionaries or activists. They are simply school teachers, K-12 qualified, who discovered early on that teachers are needed everywhere, and the demand for American teachers to teach at international schools across the globe is high. This afforded them a lifestyle of travel and adventure, that most teachers only dream of.

I haven’t decided whether I will be following in my parents footsteps. My dabbling in the education non-profit field has happened by chance. Working with non-profits or NGO's has intrigued me as a means of continuing my travels and of doing work that is useful to more than just myself.

My first week at Deepa was challenging and overwhelming, but it was also very rewarding. Already, I am beginning to develop a rapport with the students who are all friendly, lively, and enthusiastic. I now have an understanding of what I need to do, which I could only gain by getting to know the students over the last week and seeing first hand, how much English they can each manipulate.

I have settled in quite nicely to the girls hostel where I will be staying for the next seven weeks and for the most part I am adjusting smoothly to a South Indian diet and climate. Every morning and afternoon I enjoy the 10 to 15 minute walk to and from Deepa Academy and over the weekend I was able to explore the Iskon Temple and Sankey Tank park that are not too far away, with the pleasant company of several of the Academy’s lovely staff. There are many dangers present in India, as I had been made more than well-aware of prior to coming here, so my guard is constantly up when I am out and I am limited somewhat in what I can do, where I can go, and when. But so far it has not been a major issue, since most of the time I am busy preparing for my classes and trying to figure out the best way to teach the most English in the short amount of time I have here.

For now, this is all I have time to say, but there is certainly more to come.