Cue the infectious Jon Bon Jovi song, as I write this blog at my official mid-point. Halfway through this fellowship it is a natural point to both reflect and look forward. In just four months, I will be wrapping up my project and leaving Rishi Valley. It is unbelievable to think how fast time as gone by. In the recent weeks I have been in more contact with people from home – I had almost forgotten that I have a whole other life back in the states. Living in India has become normal for me, however I realize as close I am to being home, I also acknowledge it is still a long ways off. What I mean by that statement is that although my time here is dwindling I still have weeks before I am home and back to my comforts. This realization made this past week drag on. Almost every night, I craved American food, I even skipped dinner one night because I just could not do the prepared meal (It is mentally tough when you eat the same thing every day of every week with little variation. I did not think this would wear on me so much, but it definitely has). I am missing the little things – driving, watching tv, seeing my friends, internet, texting. While this week was particularly tough, even requiring an email to my dad to vent, I believe that when I leave in July, I won’t be ready. I have loved every minute here, even the frustrating ones.
This past month has been jam-packed – I have traveled to some beautiful places, saw my other fellows, made progress in my project, ran a half-marathon, and survived two more stints in the hospital.
January kicked off with a trip to Nellore on the coast of Andhra Pradesh and Nelapattu Bird Sanctuary. Every year my NGO, RIVER, goes on an excursion for the staff to bond. This year we decided to attend the Flamingo Festival in Nelapattu Bird Sanctuary which is situated on the border of Andhra and Tamil Nadu. The festival’s namesake comes from the thousands of flamingos who had been migrating from South Africa. It was my first time seeing flamingos in the wild, and the park itself was beautiful. The volunteers at the park also insisted on taking a picture with me! In fact, when we were at the main event for the festival, official government photographers took pictures of me and my co-workers wherever we went. It was because I was a foreigner, but I like to pretend because they thought I was a celebrity. It might be my only chance at a paparazzi following so I enjoyed myself.
Overall the trip was great. Not only did we visit the sanctuary, we also visited two famous temples and ate delicious Andhra food. What I enjoyed the most however was bonding with my co-workers. We at times work in separate silos, and my mentor and I also got closer which I felt was necessary for the remainder of my time here. For pictures of our trip click here!
AIF Clinton Fellowship Mid-point Conference
A huge appeal of this fellowship is interacting with the other fellows, and AIF structures our timelines so we can spend time together and learn from each other. This results in three conferences – our orientation, mid-point and end-point. Our mid-point conference took place the first week of February in Rajasthan.
Rajasthan is really something out of a postcard. It embodies the images most of us think when we think of India: men in turbans, women in brightly colored saris pulled over their heads, giant nose rings, deserts, historical forts, grand palaces, elephants and camels.
As excited as I was to see the other fellows, when I saw the itinerary I had to sigh…. We were to spend an obscene amount of time traveling just to get to our location and we would be staying in not one but two places in just 6 days. The schedule informed us that we were to spend 8 hours day 1 and day 2 in the bus and a whopping 12 hours on day 6. However, while I wasn’t looking forward to so much bus time it ended up being a blast; catching up with people, hearing about projects, laughing and watching the ever energetic scenery of Indian roadsides.
We stayed in Jaipur for one night, meeting with the AIF board for breakfast the next morning before heading to a resort in central Rajasthan. The resort was beautiful! We had great comfortable rooms with hot showers and amazing beds. We were near historical Fort Kumbalgarh and visited it while viewing the nightly sound and light show. The next day a group of us went to the nearby city of Udaipur, a historical city on the shores of a lake. We visited the famous City Palace and did some shopping. Katie, another fellow who has spent time in Udaipur, took us to a textile shop that was as beautiful as any art gallery. The family who has run the business for generations were generous, and gave us a tour even though we could not afford anything in their expensive shop.
We even had some chances to experience rural Rajasthani life. We stopped in a village and witnessed their process of irrigating fields. They hook a bull or buffalo up to a wheel and walk it in circles, the wheel then pulls a conveyer belt with buckets down into a deep well and pulls the water out, dumping it in the tributary that travels it further out into the fields. Rural life in Rajasthan can be harsh. It is a very masculine culture, and the summers and winters are equally brutal in their respective ways. It also compared how different rural life was in our valley. Due to the work of Rishi Valley’s NGO supporting rural livelihoods, our villages have modernized in the last twenty years propelling them farther than these remote tribal villages we drove through in Rajasthan. It showed me how much work we had accomplished, and how there is so much work yet to be done in India as a whole.
The best part of the trip though was seeing everyone and relaxing. Each of us gave presentations on our projects at our respective NGOs – covering our challenges and our experiences thus far. The focus of my presentation was a question I have been grappling with since beginning my work here in Rishi Valley. There is a huge disparity between the quality of education and access to resources in our boarding school and for what is provided in our rural satellite schools. It is hard for me and my beliefs to see the huge differences. I believe that we should be doing more for the students in the villages, and while our schools have vastly improved their lives, I don’t know if we are transforming them and giving them avenues out of poverty. Alcoholism and spousal abuse are still rampant in the villages we have schools in, and we are seeing the behavior continue with newer generations, the very students we educated in our schools. I asked my other fellows the following questions that led to in depth conversations later on – Should our satellite schools do more and equalize the gap between the village students and the wealthier boarding school students? Would a uniformed education system identical for both sets of schools transform lives or would it further colonize a people and disintegrate rural lifestyle? These two questions I have been struggling with and will be the focus of my academic paper for AIF. Look for that in May!
I walked away from the conference feeling rejuvenated and excited to see everyone again. To see pictures from Rajasthan click here!
Pondicherry and Auroville Half-Marathon
Back in December, I was fully recovered from my stomach infection and as Rishi Valley is very conducive to running, I had been getting back into my running shape and loving the distance I was accumulating. A few members of the staff at the boarding school attend the Auroville Marathon every year, and considering how I was feeling I decided to sign up with them for the half-marathon – 13.1 miles/21 kilometers. It would my longest race since running the NYC marathon in 2009, and I was excited. On a completely personal journey, I have been focusing on getting healthy and fit again here in India. Teaching in Tallulah, Louisiana did not equate to a healthy lifestyle for me, and I found much stress relief in cookies and fried food (shout out to Jeff who constantly tried to curb my thin mint popping habits to no avail). As a result I gained weight and lost energy and confidence. For the first time in almost three years, I am back to my old self – running, hiking, full of energy and the confidence again. It is not about being stick thin, because for my genetics and love for food that will never happen, but I do love feeling healthy.
Upon my return from our excursion to the bird sanctuary, I came down with another stomach infection as worse as the first one. Again, I had consumed bad water. I was hospitalized for three days and nights, and I had to go back to the hospital the following week due to further complications. I could not keep anything in, and the pain, while not as intense as the first infection, was still unmanageable. I also lacked a lot of privacy this time around, and while the staff did their best, their needle pricking and IV maintenance are not quite what I have experienced in the US. They also did not tolerate crying. I did not get theatrical or anything, but when your IV needle hurts badly, your hand is thrice its size because of the needle, your stomach is in pain, they will only allow you
to use the latrine, and you can’t call your mom…. Then I’m going to let out some tears. Just silent tears, but I would get a gruff “stop crying!” Which would hearken back to the days of my grandfather the colonel also telling me not to cry. I would hold it in, and as soon as they left I would just let it out. While I wasn’t use to their particular brand of beside manner, they did get me healthy and I was finally able to go home.
When I had a relapse the next week, I dreaded going back, but I had lost so much water in the night I needed to get rehydrated. Thankfully I only had to stay one day, but I was worried about the race. Part of me was relieved, I didn’t have to run or worry about the rigorous training, but the other part of me was even more determined to run in the race. Instead of running to train, I walked, and I decided to go even if it meant walking the entire 21 kms. I wanted to finish, and experience this area of India. So I went.
The race was held in Auroville which is an experimental town found in rural Tamil Nadu, just north of Pondicherry. It was established in the late 1960s under the guidance of the late Sri Aurobindo and a woman known as ‘The Mother.’ The city is meant as an international city of the future, and receives funds from over 100 countries. There is a giant gold golf ball Epcot Center looking structure in the center of the community with a crystal inside of it. When I ran by it, I did not know what it was at the time. It looks rather odd as it sticks out of the jungle. For more information of Auroville, click here.
It was very interesting. As you pull into the town’s limits you begin to see many foreigners dressed in trendy Indian clothes riding two wheelers. I would equate the living to a bit of commune. Everyone is living and working together for a common goal. I was excited to eat real cheese though. Thank god for transplanted Europeans!
The race was held the next morning, and I was nervous. I wasn’t fully trained, and I was worried about the potential backlash my body would have. I decided to start running and if/when I would get tired, I would walk. I am happy to say that I ran the majority of the race. I only walked for about 3 kilometers all together, and I finished the race in 3 hours and 10 minutes. This time would be embarrassingly long for me if I had been trained and in better health, but I was so happy just to finish. I had made a goal for myself, and I had accomplished it even with challenges. The grounds we ran through were beautiful. Tamil Nadu has thick green brush and palm trees are everywhere. I never thought I would run a race through a literal jungle. My biggest challenge besides my lack of training was the heat and humidity. It became insanely hot early on in the race, and the air was so thick you could chew on it. I continuously rehydrated at every station with both water and electrolytes.
I stayed behind in Auroville as my teammates left. I was going to visit a rural school with an excellent ESL program to further impact our curriculum here. I chose to stay 6 kilometers south in Pondicherry. This was a great decision. Pondicherry was a French colony, and still holds many characteristics of its former European control. They have a French quarter, and at times I forgot I was in India. Better yet, the town sits right on the ocean. The views of the Bay of Bengal were gorgeous! I stayed in an ashram guest house right on the water. I had a balcony overlooking the clear blue ocean. I felt like I was at a 5 star resort. I will say this about Pondicherry… horrible mosquitoes. In fact, my mosquito net failed me my first night at the guest house. I woke up with no less than 47 bites and my left eye was so swollen I couldn’t open it. I went to the hospital and they flushed out my eye and gave me a shot of histamine.
After visiting the school, I had my auto drop me off at the northern tip of Pondicherry and I just walked through the streets. I stopped at bookstores and bakeries. Drank European coffee and talked to other backpackers. While it would have been nice to share the trip with someone, I also loved that I was experiencing the city on my own. I walked around for hours, window shopping and taking breaks to sit on the beach and watch the waves. I ended my night at an amazing and highly recommended restaurant – Rendezvous. I ate way too much, and slowly made my way back to my guest house. I sat outside on my balcony until early in the morning. To this point here in India, that has been my favorite day. I even navigated my way back to Rishi Valley relatively easily. I did a trip all by myself! I plan on visiting Pondicherry once more before I leave India. It was worth it. For pictures of the half-marathon and Pondicherry click here!
At the end of this week, my project will complete its second of three phases. I will have finished and edited the 4th grade curriculum. I have conducted research, structured, created activities, authored a teacher manual, created teacher keys, and laid out design for the activity cards for 14 milestones (chapters). On average, each milestone has 25 activities. I will submit my finalized work this Thursday for further editing and designing. I am very proud of the work I have produced, and while there is a lot more that must be done with it to ensure its success for our students in the classroom, I am confident that it has a great starting point. My final phase will be to create the 5th grade curriculum and finalize a teacher training model for all three grades.
Some have asked questions regarding my research I have done in constructing the material. My research of ESL education and of our multi-grade, multi-level pedagogy I follow three guiding tenets in the curriculum.
1) Content-based instruction
- Students will learn about a certain theme or process. Within the theme they will learn specific grammar or vocabulary skills while using them. These themes are culturally significant. For example, our villages grow sugar cane and make jaggery from it every February. Jaggery is an unrefined sugar that considered auspicious in India and used in many dishes. I have created an entire milestone about these processes and documented it through interviews and pictures. This allows them to practice the skills in context, and understand the concept of the English rule. Check out pictures from the harvest and jaggery making!
2) Presence of their mother-tongue
- Our students are rural students in an isolated geographical region. They have little to no exposure to English, and their teachers and families are also not fluent. That being said, using their first language, Telugu, in conjunction with their English is vital to comprehension. This is different for urban students or for ESL students in Europe or the US where they are constantly exposed to English and English speakers.
3) Conceptual teaching
- I am a firm believer based on my experiences in the classroom that students must understand the concept of any skill they are learning and practicing. They should be allowed to reproduce this skill in other situations. Indian government ESL textbooks require students to memorize words or information in that moment with little explanation or practice to the skill in various settings. I have structured, as best I can right now, the activities to have the students understand the concept and practice the specific skill in various manners to truly master it.
As I enter the last phase of my project and my final few months here, I am choosing to focus on finishing this project with integrity and working on professional skills I need to improve on. I have learned many things working here in the office. I am very grateful for these opportunities even the frustrating realities of development.
The monkeys have been rather absent in the past month as the monkey catchers were called following their rash of break ins. This has been a relief for me. My dog, Duranta is now pregnant and becomes a little chubbier every day. She and Scar rarely leave me out of their sight, and Duranta even interrupted an assembly I was holding for the younger students at the boarding school. With absolutely no regard to the fact that I was talking to a crowd of +100, she jumped over students and ran towards me in the front. As any good teacher will tell you, you have to handle the distractions so I just kept talking while petting her and giving her the attention she needed to calm down.
I have been busy helping both the rural school and the boarding school with their Mighty Milers programs. This youth running club is sponsored by New York Road Runners. I love running with our rural students. I have seen them grow in confidence and athletic ability, and our girls are so much more outgoing. It has also been a great way to bond with the students. The mornings that start with a run with my students make the rest of the day that much more enjoyable. We survive on donations, and our students need proper running shoes and clothes (our girls for instance run in their dresses). We also need to improve our nutrition program. If you are interested in sponsoring any of our students or just donating, let me know at email@example.com.
We have had German university students visiting this month from Bavaria. Our NGO has an academic partnership with two universities who also employ our multi-grade, multi-level pedagogy. Once a year they send a group of teacher students to observe and practice the methodology in our schools. They have been working with my material, and seem to be impressed with the materials I have created. I finally received some tangible feedback and constructive ideas. These things I have been lacking as I proceed with the curriculum. I took them on some of my favorite hikes, and it is always great to have visitors.
I was interviewed by the Times of India! It was such an honor. Thank you to Gwen DeBenedetto at the Whitehead School (my alma mater) for setting up the interview. If you would like to read the article click here.
I have a book suggestion for anyone who has traveled to India, wants to come to India or is just interest in a great book: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. It is an amazing story about one family in Kerala. I highly suggest it!
Next month will be the start of the South Indian summer…. Which I have been warned is hot and deadly. Can’t wait to roast alive!! Until next time!