Any given Wednesday:
5:25AM Still dark outside, my alarm goes off… I go unlock our balcony grill door and go down two flights of stairs to unlock the main security door padlock for my yoga teacher. If it’s rainy or cool (a chilly 75F) we have class inside. But otherwise we prefer to have class on the rooftop—with a sea view if you stretch tall during Surya Namaskar.
7:53AM ‘Pss….Psss…..Psssssst…..’, the pressure cooker lets me know my rice is about ready. A home-packed lunch of rice, rasam and curd never disappoints. And it seems to always impress my co-workers!
8:37AM Dodging auto-rickshaws, scooters, motorcycles, lorries, buses and the occasional cow, I walk to the bus depot and hope my favorite window seat in the front of the bus is still available. It is the perfect seat for people watching, and it gives me easy access to getting down 20 minutes later because I inevitably have to squeeze my way between hoards of people—always a challenge.
9:28AM While sipping on green tea (also his favorite), I echo new vocabulary words with my Tamil tutor in his home.
10:00AM Where is everyone? I guess I’m early again! I set up my laptop and start in on the project of the day.
11:15AM Tea break time!
12:49PM Any minute of the day could find me doing a myriad of things: working on making next week’s classroom materials, preparing documents for teacher-training, editing the NGO’s product catalog, converting a story book into a movie, observing classes at a nearby school, giving feedback on teaching materials produced by another team, or just sitting and chatting with my co-workers.
1:30PM Lunch Time—seated on the floor in a circle with all my colleagues, we pass our homemade food or restaurant purchased parcels around and share all that we have. The menu is different everyday!
2:00-3:00PM Phonics Focus Class: A colleague and I are testing a phonics reading module with standard 4-5 students at a local government aided school. It’s a challenging group of students but they seem to be picking up the phonemes and are slowly learning how to blend them together to form words.
6:03PM Back at home in my neighborhood it’s time to shop! I stop in at the vegetable stand, fruit market, egg man, and supermarket before heading home.
7:49PM Sweating in the kitchen, my roommate and I make tomato parrapu rasam, cabbage poriyal, rice and papads for dinner.
8:23PM Sitting under the stars, we sit and eat dinner on our rooftop.
10:45PM Doors locked, alarm set and lights out—Good night!
That is a general overview of a day in the life of one AIF Service Corps Fellow working in Chennai for AID India. Living in Chennai as an American white woman is a daily adventure, at times challenging and often comical. However, my ten-month fellowship in Chennai is primarily defined by my projects and work at AID India.
AID India is dedicated to improving the quality of government education by introducing new programs, creative materials, and innovative curriculum. Immediately I was excited by this placement because during my visits and long-term stays in Madurai, Tamil Nadu (since 1998), I’ve volunteered with an afterschool education center in a slum. While the students and volunteers are incredible, the education system they struggle with is frustrating at best. As a result of my work with this center, I decided to write my graduate thesis on English education in Tamil Nadu. Consequently, I was immediately assigned to work with the English Action Research Team of AID India. This team is responsible for testing and trying English language modules in government schools, which typically serve the economic and socially disadvantaged populations.
Essentially, the dual-education system in India is comprised of privately funded English-medium education and public government funded schools teaching in the mother tongue language. This division is often, but not always, along the lines of urban and rural; wealthy and poor; and high-caste and low-caste, exemplifying the idea that language, culture and ideology are inextricably linked with power and social inequality. Furthermore, at the university level across India, English is the standard medium of education for the sciences and professional subjects, presenting a huge linguistic gap for students who have attended vernacular-medium schools.
In theory, the English language could be the language that unifies India, but it has become a medium used to maintain inequalities in society based on economics, caste or both. Even if English education is a path towards social uplift and does not threaten local languages, without adequate access to English, specifically trained teachers and quality materials, the education system is likely contributing to the social divide in Tamil Nadu and in India. The AID India English Action Research Team is seeking ways to lessen the linguistic divide between the dual education systems. Specifically the two main projects I am focused on include:
1) Developing and Testing a Phonetic Reading Module
Several months ago, the English team and I attended a phonics reading methodology training at a model school in Auroville. Adapting this model for large government classrooms, my colleague and I have been running a focus class at a local government school and preliminary mid-evaluation results are positive. We have also conducted teacher training and will begin monitoring those classes after the New Year. After an evaluation period, the team and I will develop a new model by infusing best practices. This new model will continue to be tried and tested in local Chennai schools after which it will be revised and if successful the goal is to promote it on a larger scale.
Recently, the state of Tamil Nadu adopted a new primary school curriculum and methodology called ABL (activity-based learning). Essentially, the government textbooks have been converted into flashcards, or activity cards. These activity cards allow students to work at their own pace, drastically altering the classroom environment and student -teacher relationship. Within the new ABL system, students sit on the floor and are grouped together according to their level. As students complete activity cards, they move up the level ladder at their own pace. Other students within the same group can help them, although it is not known if any peer teaching is actually occurring. This method has drastically reduced ‘teacher-talk’ time in front of the class. Instead, the teacher must move around helping different groups. This revolutionary methodology is being looked at by many other states in India. However, the success and quality of ABL has not yet been critically evaluated or analyzed.
My ABL research is three-fold: classroom observation, materials analysis and student evaluation. By using this triangulated approach, we are hoping to gain insight into the potential successes as well as challenges this new methodology has for English language teaching. Additionally, the more we know about ABL, the better we can ensure our programs help students and teachers succeed within the existing structure.
I also have a few other non-official projects: converting story books to movies, editing the AID India Eureka Book catalog, and I recently started teaching spoken English in the office. In theory everyday is a busy day and there are a lot of different things going on at any given time. Thankfully it’s also a pretty relaxed working environment. And between the cyclones, national holidays, rain days, exam prep, and exams…projects with schools are constantly delayed and deadlines pushed back. What was supposed to happen last month will only start after the New Year and so on. Some days and months are more productive than others, and while things move a little slower than I would like, my work and projects are coming to fruition and finally gaining momentum.
Recognizing the limited scope and reach of my work, I have no idea what the long-term impact (if any) will be of my small contribution to English education, but I’m thankful to be working with dedicated staff and teaching bright enthusiastic children who inspire me to think about new and creative solutions.