On my first day of teaching middle school in a government-aided school in Delhi, I asked all of my 8th standard students to stand up and introduce themselves in front of the class. Some students, confident in their English, stood up enthusiastically, telling me about their family, their hobbies, favorite subjects, and what they hoped to learn. Other students felt as if this was a terrifying task and sought the help of their classmates. Disparities in the classroom came in many different forms from learning disabilities to socioeconomic status to their parents’ abilities to speak with them at home. However, one thing the majority of students had in common was a lack of opportunities to speak up whether that was in English or the students’ native language, such as Bengali, Punjabi, Hindi, or one of 17 different languages that students in my Delhi classroom identified as their mother tongue. Students were accustomed to sitting, vigorously scribbling notes, and repeating information. It’s understandable that in a populous classroom of 50 plus students it would be challenging to involve students, particularly as the system prepares students for the board exams at the completion of each term. As I sought to give students opportunities to speak, I began to realize that this problem spanned far beyond the classroom.
At Reaching Hand, part of my role includes facilitating spoken English classes at our three Pratishtha Centers. In their past educational experiences, most of the students at our centers haven’t been given this opportunity to speak up and express themselves. Cognizant of this, I once again asked students to introduce themselves, which resulted in a similar outcome. One student, Mohith, would not utter a word in the entire first month of his time at the center. As many of our students were unable to complete their PUC, or at times, their 10th, their sense of self-doubt can be felt. However, over time, in a much smaller classroom of 10-20 students, there was much more opportunity to speak which has led to increased confidence and language skills. Another student, Pavitra, defies odds by learning at our center against her family’s wishes. Although, she wasn’t able to finish 8th standard because of family reasons and is older than most of the other students, she was eager to learn, practice and became one of the most willing participants in activities. We talk about how the portrayal of confidence and speaking up can be vital in cracking job interviews and gaining respect. The people we often term as “voiceless” actually all have a voice, we may just be the ones who don’t value it, but should. The lack of an opportunity for students to speak, the fear of a wrong answer extends beyond the classroom, into students’ personality development and confidence building as they enter adulthood. As our students are all ages 18-35, I wonder what could have been if they were given this opportunity earlier on in life in any language or any capacity small or large in terms of personality development, life skills, and critical thinking.
Over and over again, the question arises, how can students on a large scale actually have this opportunity when classes often have 50 plus students and education is tied to a standardized testing system?