As I lay on my mat, engaged in the meditation of my yoga class, I could hear the sounds of an active community; the singing of a talented student, younger children running around and yelling at one another, and a deep thunder rumbling in the far distance. It was in this moment that I realized I was content. I had found my place for the next nine months.
I want to start this blog post first with some appreciation “shout-outs” (even in India, I am TFA all the way!). To begin with, I want to thank AIF for this opportunity. It has been one wild ride these past four weeks, and none of it would be possible without the organization seeing something in my application that considered me worthy of such an endeavor. Next, I want to thank my co-workers and mentors at RIVER; Nimi, Sri, Bagya, Rao and Rama, I could not ask for a better group of people to work with. They have invited me into their homes and community, and have worked to ensure that I am settled in and comfortable. I also want to thank my friends from all parts of my life. The amount of support and love I have been getting via texts, Facebook, and email give me some of that needed extra energy when I am having a tougher day – hometown friends, Amerifriends, fellow Pirates and forensicators, my DC crew, and my TFA and Tallulah bonus family – everyone has rallied around me. Finally and most importantly, I want to thank my parents for their continued support. I am here because of their constant understanding of my need to experience. They taught me to never say no, and the values they instilled in me have shaped my interests in education and international development. It should also be noted that they helped me with all those pesky adult things like figuring out bills and loan forbearance before I left. Thanks Mom and Dad, I love you!
Our teacher kept us on our mats with eyes closed, transfixed on relaxing our muscles and focused breathing. My mind wandered to my recent journey. I reflected on my first few weeks in the valley, and my mind kept returning to the students. The students who have no electricity in their one room schools, no technology, no smartboards, and no one has shoes on (a cultural practice). Their faces light up with the material in front of them which are simple cards and manipulatives, usually pine cones or stones from outside. When given the chance to practice what little English they know, they erupt in laughter and literally jump up and down with excitement. There have been a few times that I have had to hold back tears or disguise the goose bumps on my arms, mostly because I have never experienced this type of reaction to learning – whether as a student or as a teacher. And there is also, a part of me that wishes I could have provoked these reactions in my students in the delta. My interactions with students here in the valley make me miss my students in Tallulah tremendously. There is something simple and beautiful in these schools, and I am grateful I can experience it.
So some background of where I will be staying for the next nine months. I live and work in the Rishi Valley in Andhra Pradesh state in central India. It is near the southern coast of the Bay of Bengal, and about three hours by bus to Bangalore. Hyderabad is about eight hours north. The closest town is Manadanapelle, about an hour distance and where I can do things like retrieve money from an ATM, buy toiletries, have kurtas tailored, and buy a nice warm can of Coke (with real sugar!). Living in the Indian countryside is really a treat. The homes are brightly colored, with palm trees lining the roads. There are low flat fields containing rice patties, sugar cane and other tropical crops. The hills roll out of the fields like a Dr. Seuss illustration. The age of the area is evident in the ancient erosion – mountains that have been decimated leaving only large boulders and high mounds. As we drive by on our way to town, women in gorgeous sarees walk along the road with various items balanced on their head, children run by with flowers pinned in their hair, barefoot goat herders wearing loincloths walk with a staff in their hand and tend to their flocks.
I live at the Rishi Valley School which was founded in 1977 by J. Kirshnamurti. You can learn more about his teachings and philosophies here. I live in a one room apartment with bucket for a shower. I have electricity sometimes, and when I do I can stick a heater into the bucket and voila! I have a warm bath. Usually, however, I don’t have that luxury and have fully accepted the refreshing feeling of a cold bath in the morning. The school is a boarding school so it provides three meals a day and two chai breaks. You are alerted to meal time by a dining hall employee banging a hammer on a giant hallow metal tube. Trust me, that wakes you up for the day. It is completely vegetarian, organic, and delicious. I share my roof with a family of monkeys who can be quite vocal, and I have a lizard for a roommate who continues to show up in the most inappropriate places (you don’t want to know). It is a very conscious community, and I have embraced the lifestyle here. I run every morning, participate in yoga and meditation classes, join group hikes, and refrain from alcohol and meat. Besides the amazing weight loss, it has allowed me to focus on my work and fully engage in the community.
After the boarding school was established, the employees such as the maids, dining hall employees and drivers who were from the surrounding villages, needed a place to educate their children thus the rural school was built. The school has evolved into the Rural Education Center, and is run by the Rishi Valley Educational Resources (RIVER), where I work. It is about a half mile from the main school and I make the walk twice a day. They have since built and continue to manage 12 satellite schools in surrounding villages in the valley. These schools will be directly impacted by the work I am doing. The schools are essentially one room houses with roughly 30 students ages 5 to 12 on various learning levels. RIVER created the Rishi Valley Method which for my teacher friends in Louisiana can be equated to Response to Intervention – however it is highly successful. It is differentiated learning with most activities being self-motivated and teacher interaction is only necessary during assessment and remedial activities based off those assessments. Other similar non-governmental schools with mutli-level learning have also adopted the curriculum.
My project these next nine months will be to assist in developing an English language curriculum for students in grades 3 through 5. I work on a team with full time teacher Nimi and our volunteer Carina from Hamburg, Germany. The first phase of the project is to revise, edit and restructure the already made 3rd and 4th standards. We are in the mist of the 3rd and it will be sent to the printers so we can pilot in the classrooms and receive the feedback necessary to complete it. The next phase will be to create the 5th grade standards. The final planned phase will be to roll out the entire curriculum during the first part of the year. This will include teacher training materials, actual training, and then adjusting based on what we find to work and not work in the classroom.
Some of the challenges we are facing as we set forth; there is little exposure to English in the villages, our teachers also have limited knowledge of the language. Additionally, while I have taught reading and writing to illiterate English speakers, and I have taught multi-levels in one classroom, I haven’t had to teach English as a second language. That population did not exist in Tallulah. I am also working to bridge some of the cultural gaps between me and the students. Since we are using real life scenarios for them to apply their new English words, I take field trips myself; to the tailor, home visits in the villages, to the cattle market, to various festivals, to the hospital, etc. I will continue to do this throughout the year. I have also started taking Telagu tutoring so I can communicate better with the students, their parents, the teachers, and the staff at the main school – the dining hall workers and my maid would appreciate some clarity.
This past month has been, for lack of a better word, amazing. I have made some true friends both in the fellowship and here in the valley, and I have found some peace here. Not to say that the work isn’t already challenging (extremely) or that there aren’t moments of loneliness (usually in the most crowded of rooms oddly enough), but I have a strong feeling that everything will work out. I also know that I am here for a reason. I look forward to sharing my journey these next few months!