When I began my observations at my placement, I felt concerned. Yes, I admit it. At all of the schools that were run by the NGO, the children seemed to be playing games all day long. Now, I’ve worked with kids for several years now, and I know that play is an essential part of life for a child. But all the time? In every class? How could kids learn math and science through games? Not wanting to appear judgmental, I kept these thoughts to myself. But I felt concerned about whether or not these activities would prepare the kids for the curriculum they would encounter going into secondary school. Where they actually learning the things that they needed to know? Ultimately, when I thought about education, I felt that it was meant to empower kids to make choices about their career in the future.
My project then took me into the government schools to collect data on nutrition in the Sawai Madhopur area. Things work differently in these classrooms that at the NGO schools. Most of the school day is spent doing book work while sitting quietly while teachers with one another socialized at the front of the class. Teachers were often late or did not come to school at all, leaving classrooms full of students to their own devices. One principal who told me his primary priority for the school was “discipline” came to work at 12 pm every day (3 hours after morning assembly). Discipline was certainly a priority when it came to the children. When teachers were leading classes, they often harsh with students for incorrect answers or any misbehavior. At one of the schools, every adult carried a small stick or ruler to whack errant children with.
In the midst of this work, I had the opportunity to take a figurative step back to attend our Fellowship midpoint conference in beautiful Bandipur National Park. I looked forward to this professional development alongside my brilliant colleagues. And develop we did. But I have another confession—it felt like we played games for about half of the conference! Now I was really confused. When I think of professional development, I think about lectures and PowerPoint presentations. Yet I was deeply provoked by these sessions, and drawn to think critically about my relationship to my organization, the development sector, and especially to self. By connecting with my co-fellows and mentors through activities and games, I was able to be a part of a collective learning experience that was uniquely informed by the gifts of each person present. I also grew more comfortable with my presence in the space and was able to stay energized and engaged because I was having fun.
After Midpoint, my co-fellows and I parted ways to go to three distinctly different Thematic Conferences. Because I am doing a public health-related project at my placement, I was surprised to find that I was being sent to the education conference in rural Gujarat. During the first day, rather than being subjected to a long presentation about education in India, we were asked to reflect on and document our own personal journey with education. We then presented this journey to one another.
I was deeply affected by the activity because it required me to think critically about which parts of my education had truly helped me learn and which had detracted from learning. The monotony of sitting in class after class inside a building for most of my days had dulled my passion for exploration and my creativity. Real growth had come in classes where my classmates and I had engaged in discussion, and were asked to lead our own learning.
It was powerful to hear about the educational experiences of both my American and Indian co-Fellows. Hearing from my Indian peers helped me more completely understand the culture of education in India and the problems that my NGO was working to address and change. I also was able to see how my own education impacted the way that I understood the appropriate way to learn. Activities and games were not frivolous ways to entertain and keep us busy. They were intentional, targeted strategies for learning. And they worked—even at age 23.