Working with Children and Transforming Classrooms

Anoop’s deep conviction in creating opportunities for learning; engaging with children whole-heartedly; believing in the process being more important than the product; lesson plans being restrictive rather than liberating, are some of the practices that can be witnessed in his classroom. There is evidence of children taking pleasure in learning, participating, feeling a sense of accomplishment, and getting opportunities to express their thoughts. The emphasis is clearly on exploring and learning rather than on teaching.

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Teacher: Anoop Dhruv
School: Government Prayogik Primary School, Nagri Block, Dhamtari District, Chhattisgarh

As you travel through the lush green stretches of Dhamtari, if you are in any way familiar with Carnatic music, you will find yourself humming Madhura Nagarilo challanamma.’ True to the qualities of the raag (Ananda Bhairavi), the feelings of Ananda’ (happiness) and Shantam’ (calmness) envelop you. The long, quiet roads come as a relief to any city dweller. Such is the scenery of the hour-and-a-half drive to the Nagri block.

Nagri, a town and Nagar Panchayat, is about 70 km away from Dhamtari district, in the state of Chhattisgarh. It spreads over an area of 2070 sq km including 2,059.94 km² of rural area and 10.23 km² urban area with a population of 13,308 (census 2011). Set amidst jungles and mountains, it has the river Mahanadi flowing through. Although Chhattisgarhi and Hindi are the local languages, people also speak Gondi and Kamar.

The School

With the huge gates opening into a large playground, one can’t help but feel a sense of joy for the children having a huge ground. However, such thoughts quickly disappear the moment one sees the school building, established in 1904, tucked away as it is beside the dilapidated Nagar Panchayat’s Public Library and with broken beer bottles and cigarette buts strewn around it. It was quite disturbing to see the condition of the school, but children seem to have accepted their surroundings, they have stopped asking questions; it does not disturb them anymore.

Three teachers got appointed after the school was promoted to English Model School. With more children getting enrolled in classes I and II, the school thought it would be better to move these children to two separate classrooms. Classes III and IV being in Hindi medium are held together. Class V has a room allotted near the MDM (Mid-Day Meal) hall. The building also houses a Staff Room for the four teachers (three teachers and one Head Teacher) who run the school.

After a few minutes of waiting in the Staff Room, an enthusiastic and energetic dhoti-clad (an unusual attire for a school teacher nowadays) young man greeted us with a big smile, with nary a trace of after-class tiredness whatsoever. Quite intrigued, we ask Anoop Dhruv, the English teacher, about his attire. He tells us that the attire is insignificant to the work he does.

Anoop’s saga

Like all parents, Anoop’s parents too aspired for a good’ life for him. They wanted him to become a doctor. As per his parents’ desire, Anoop got into the dental college at Raipur to do dentistry – Bachelor of Dental Surgery. He liked Science and was good at it in school. However, by the II year of college, he found something amiss; perhaps dentistry was not his calling! It was around the same time that he was reading a lot about Mata Gayatri (his mother being a believer, there was no dearth of such books at home).

Since childhood, I was much inclined to the philosophies proposed by the Gurus but now I am doing all these for my own sake, my satisfaction. I do not impose spirituality. I consider the idea of spirituality to be an individual’s choice. I try not to include these things inside classroom processes’.

In childhood, there was no interest in reading. I started with some motivational books (like – Dele Carnegie). Thereafter, I moved to the readings written by enlightened beings – An Autobiography of a Yogi, all the recorded lectures of Osho, lectures and writings of Sri Ram Sharma etc. I read a lot and understood that all the books are pointing towards facing life in a better way.’

After being engaged with the Azim Premji Foundation, I understood J. Krishnamurti in a different sense. Earlier, my view of him was much more spiritual. I got to know later that he has worked in the area of education as well. I am trying to read some of the academic books. I am also impressed by the stories that are close to real life, like stories written by R.K. Narayan and Ruskin Bond for instance.’

His journey as a teacher

The drive to be a teacher was so strong, that he started his journey by giving private English language tuition to high-school students. In just about six months’ time, the number of his students grew from a couple to a hundred! Students wanted him to join their school as an English teacher. By 2010, he started his career as a teacher in a private school. He taught for about two years in schools such as Mahanadi Academy, Gyanoday and used to visit Saraswati Sishu Mandir as a guest teacher, just to teach English. He even helped PG students, as he felt it was all about understanding the text and translating it into a simpler form to help students grasp the content.

Life’s calling answered

Luck favoured him as the government started appointing qualified teachers (people with D Ed or B Ed degrees) in Chhattisgarh. The TET (Teacher Ability Test) happened for the first time in 2012 at the local level in Chhattisgarh and voila! Anoop cracked it with good marks. He joined the service by 2014 and there has been no looking back ever since. He also completed his Master’s in Arts in English and his Diploma in Education and plans to do B Ed from the Sundar Lal Sharma Open University, Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh.

He was selected to work as an English subject teacher with the younger ones in the Prayogik Primary (English Medium Model) school. The fact that it is a temporary post does not deter Anoop. His aim is to make his children understand the language and not learn through rote or memorization. He is averse to the idea of teaching children to memorize sentences.

… there is too much focus on outcomes’, and presenting knowledge divided into bits of information to be memorised directly from the text or through activities after motivating’ children, and finally on evaluating to see if children remember what they have learnt.” (chap.2.4.4. Approaches to Planning, NCF 2005)

Teaching-learning process – Belief in process over product

The ability to introspect, unremittingly working on modifying his methods and approaches to teaching, is what is striking about Anoop. His Action Research on Developing listening and speaking skills in grade I students of Govt. Prayogik Shala Nagri’ is an indication of his quest for learning.

Anoop’s belief in giving children the freedom to explore language is something that comes across clearly. He says, Language learning is possible in an environment where there is listening, speaking or reading for meaning and communication’. Therefore, he gives children plenty of opportunities to speak and express their views in the classroom – right or wrong. He believes a lot can be communicated to society through children and their learning in the classroom.

To an observer, his classes may seem chaotic. But as you start observing, you realise that he enters the class with clear learning objectives. He speaks in English all through and children respond beautifully (in Hindi, of course) which according to Anoop are indications of children’s understanding of the language. Children recite rhymes in a sing-song manner, reading of simple words and short sentences happens through identification, recognition, sight-reading and association techniques. Repeated reading of the same sentences in multiple ways ensures children’s understanding – use of the Whole Language Approach or what he calls, whole to part’.

Examples of classwork done to promote reading

Exercise 1

1. Every sentence of the song is written in strips.
2. Sentence strips are distributed to groups of children.
3. Teacher calls out or sings sentence by sentence.
4. Groups recognise the sentence strip they are holding and stand up.
5. Teacher does not translate at any point
6. It is only through repeated instructions and reading of sentences at children’s pace that helps children identify the words/​sentences

Exercise 2

1. Group representative stands facing the class, holding the sentence strip – this time teacher does not necessarily call out the song in the same sequence
2. A lot of chaos, confusion and excitement among the children ensues as he jumbles up the sequence.
3. Lo and behold! Most children can read and others learn through imitation.

Similar approaches are used for the lesson, A Happy Child’. The TLMs are used to introduce characters, matching exercises to connect words and circling the correct word etc. to develop reading skills through sight-reading.

Interestingly for Anoop, such exercises are only a formality and a way of familiarizing children with such activities. His main objectives for the lesson – naming relationships as brother, father, sister, grandfather etc. in English was long met through the TLMs used and the questions raised while telling the story. He delivers what he intends within the first half an hour or so. He says, What I plan, I do. Beyond that, how much ever you scream it does not help. When you look from outside it is challenging. What I plan to do, I get them to do – for an observer, the classroom may look chaotic, but I feel in this jungle, there is a system you get to see if you observe keenly. I have a responsibility towards children, and I analyse things from this point of view.’

Anoop’s deep conviction in creating opportunities for learning; engaging with children wholeheartedly; believing in the process being more important than the product; lesson plans being restrictive rather than liberating, are some of the practices that can be witnessed in his classroom. There is evidence of children taking pleasure in learning, participating, feeling a sense of accomplishment, and getting opportunities to express their thoughts. The emphasis is clearly on exploring and learning rather than on teaching.

…. lesson plans’ aimed at achieving measurable behaviours’; according to this view, the child is akin to a creature that can be trained, or a computer that can be programmed. NCF 2005

Teacher as an influencer

Evidences of children’s work make parents relate to the efforts made by teachers and school.’

The Whole Language Approach is demanding and requires teachers to be well prepared with TLMs, charts, picture cards, sentence strips, says Anoop. But gradually, his colleagues have started seeing the importance of it and have begun using TLMs in their classes too. The openness to learning from each other, inviting each other into their classes, and seeking each other’s support, has become part of school culture now. This once again speaks volumes about the school-level transformation that Anoop has been aiming for.

Anoop is humble and conscious of such recognitions. He says that his colleagues and other teachers feel that this fellow has been through many orientations, attends workshops, keeps visiting SCERT, whatever he is doing must be right. Even if I come into class one day and sleep off, they think it might be a strategy — so much faith they have in me. So, this is a huge responsibility for me.’

His personal journey

Anoop wears many hats – the one at home being very different from the one worn to work. He considers himself to be a lot more responsible as a teacher than as a son to his mother. It hasn’t taken much time for Anoop to see the influences of professional life over personal life. He sees himself being more responsible now than before at the home front too. He is willing to do the chores that his mother asks of him, I am willing to go buy cheeni when mummy asks.’

Initially, when I started getting interested in the English Language, I used to make a lot of mistakes while speaking in English. People used to mock at me, interrupt me. As a young boy, I wanted to share my views and ideas, but I could not.’ Such experiences have made Anoop give children plenty of opportunities to talk, converse, discuss, share their views, talk about issues.

Anoop comes in early to school, prepares TLMs, gets into the class with set objectives, pens down thoughts on what was taught in class in retrospect. He spends at least an hour reflecting on what he taught and why, and how children received it? He finds lesson plans to be restrictive. Even if you teach as per lesson plan, you end up feeling class hasn’t gone well because you come out feeling you left out something and this ties you down. I wish to allow my ideas to flow in my class and not feel restricted or tied down to a lesson plan. I would like ideas to flow, be spontaneous in my class. I pen them down later, as they are ideas after all, and it might be useful for anyone or even for me at some point in time.’ This is akin to what Anne Edwards says about the tyranny of the lesson plan and its negative effect on responsive teaching (Edwards and D’Arcy 2004).

Anoop comes across as a true learner when he says, I tell others about the importance of writing so I should also practice. It also gives me a sense of what to do in the next class because I put down the pros and cons of what I do or teach.’ Anup also spends time writing Kavitaye, action research has helped him work with a lot more focus in the classrooms.

Working with children and transforming classrooms

As parents are wont to do, they compare their wards with other children and neighbourhood schools. Anoop’s belief in educating parents along with children stands him in good stead with parents. In one of the Parent Teacher Meetings, teachers were showing evidences of children’s work to parents. One of the parents felt that her child was not speaking in English. Anoop patiently explains how a lot of preparation is required in building comprehension before making a child speak in a language. He had a conversation with the child in English to prove the child’s comprehension of the language to the parent.

One can understand that English medium is not just a tag for Prayogik Primary School. All the teachers and the Head Teacher are working hard towards it. They are beginning to earn the trust and support of the community. The school is gradually gaining its identity as an English Medium School. The school has managed to retain children, parents have stopped pulling children out, this includes even those who could afford private schools, in fact, the school had to refuse admissions at one point. All this clearly indicates that parents have started believing in the school and its teachers.

Reflections

Parents feel learning of English language equips their children with greater communication advantage. Schools recognise this need and teach children a few words and sentences used in daily life which is a false impression because such approaches hardly prepare students with any communication skills.

Very little attention is paid to children’s curiosity of knowing the world around them, they desire to explore and take joy in doing rather than worrying about results. Because adults consider products to be more important, as a result, schools emphasise on the teaching and learning aspects of language from the examination point of view.

Meeting teachers like Anoop who work with the conviction that children need to be taken through the process of learning left me with a glimmer of hope for the public-school system. I stepped out of the school feeling that the work of teachers and their approach to teaching is challenging the myth that the school infrastructure is more important. Prayogik school is beginning to rewrite the story that in fact, it is the teachers who are the pillars of a school.

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Mr Anoop for sparing time and sharing his journey both personal and professional with me. I would like to thank Mr Mayank of the Azim Premji Foundation, Dhamtari, for accompanying me to the school and facilitating the meeting. 

Author

Aruna Jyothi V, Faculty, School of Education, Azim Premji University