The Year That Was: Restructuring the English Curriculum

“You said the spelling of ‘colour’ is with a ‘u’ but look, our school teacher did not mark it wrong in my notebook,” said the child as he ran up to the front of the class in two strides, and shoved his notebook in my face. I was taking over teaching English classes at the Lokshalas, community education centers run by my host NGO Shaishav in the slums of Kumbharwada. This was my first class, and what a first class it had been.

English class in session at the Lokshala.

The Lokshalas is Shaishav’s Community Education center that aims to impart quality education to the children most prone to dropping out of school, using innovative teaching methodology. It was started because the children disliked studies and requested Shaishav to make it fun. “We want to learn from you all,” was the unanimous voice of the children, and Shaishav took heed. Using a multi-grade, multi-level system, children at the Lokshala are divided into three groups based on their competency in the subject, not their grade. Teaching is customized to each group and peer learning is actively encouraged. So the children of group A assist in teaching children of group C while the teacher works with children of group B.

With a camaraderie that I had never witnessed in the big cities I’ve lived in, I watched children put aside their work to make sure their peers had understood the concept. It wasn’t a rat-race as many of us grew up believing in the cities, but a sense of community moving along together. It struck a chord with me. Education is so much more than just marks and degrees. It is in the “aha” moments and the joy of leaving a class knowing that you learned something that altered your thinking, even if just a little bit.

Children help each other learn, especially the older children teaching and supporting the younger ones. Photo Credits: Subha Shanmugavel for Shaishav

The inhibitions and confidence of the children at the Lokshalas were also refreshing. With an innate outspokenness and flair for drama, most of the children could put an adult back in their place, rejecting authority and sometimes, the seriousness of subject matters as well. Here, there were children who refused to conform unless they believed in what you said. Children who heard your shouting and did not always take it to heart. Children who walked out of class because they felt the teacher had wrongly accused them of indiscipline. (This really happened with me!)

As a special educator at my previous job in a private elite school in Delhi, this would not have been the case. One shout and the children would have scrambled to their places, the fear visible. No child would have spoken out of turn. If they did, they would be reminded by the teacher (including myself, I hate to admit) to raise their hand before speaking. They would walk in line from one classroom to another, whispering in-between at most. Every class had a handful of trouble-makers with whom all threats and shouts fell on deaf ears. But they were always the fodder for discussion in the staff room, and as another teacher had put it, “the ones we remember the most.”

Here, I shall clarify that I cannot generalize this to all the children at the Lokshalas. Many are extremely shy and scared to speak up. They fear to say something that will get me angry, and try hard to blend into the background. It’s easy to do so many a times, because of the fire-crackers surrounding them. I had also noticed many of them flinch if I move towards them too fast, expecting to be slapped. The fear in the voice of many while answering was visible every day.

Self paced learning like this encourages the more quiet children to build confidence and participate more in the Lokshala.

I’d often feel very angry at the teachers and educators who had instilled so much fear and apprehension in the children at such a young age. How can you hit such young children? And while I condemn it with all my conviction, I also acknowledge the conditions that have led to the reality being as it is. The government school in Bhavnagar runs two shifts to accommodate the boys and girls. There are 80 children in each class. “I don’t go to use the toilet in the school, Didi”, one of the girls told me one day, “because I can lose the little space I was sitting on and will have to stand on the side and study for the rest of the day.”

The children can also be a handful to handle by one teacher at times, especially in such big numbers, I would assume. I remember my exasperation the first day of teaching in the class. I had arrived to find children eagerly awaiting my arrival. Beaming at the “Didi from Delhi”, I tried to begin with “how to introduce yourself” and found ten questions and anecdotes thrown at me.

“I heard this on a cartoon on T.V.”, bragged one kid.
“My brother speaks very good English”, informed another.
“I don’t like English”, jumped in another in-between shoving the child sitting behind him to move back.
“He hit me!” shrieked a girl from the back as she burst into tears.

I watched myself slip into teacher mode. “QUIET!” I shouted in Hindi to children, who paused for a minute and then continued chattering. “Listen, the boy at the back, no troubling the girl or you’re coming and sitting right under my nose”, “tell me stories about your siblings and gadgets after the class boys.” “I don’t like exercising but you have to do certain things in life, kid”, I rattled off to children who nodded in understanding and then settled down, unperturbed.


English class in session at the Lokshala.

I came home with a headache and having taught barely anything of what I’d set out to teach. But I have always enjoyed teaching, having volunteered and taught in Ladakh and Nepal before, and was up for the challenge. The Shaishav teachers at the Lokshala were also happy to see me come in and told me how they struggled with the language, not being very good with English themselves.

So over the next month, we brainstormed and came up with a skeletal curriculum to be piloted. Using Playdough leftover from our Fellowship Midpoint conference, I taught phonics. Using short animation clips found online as well as some of my own, we practiced English phrases. Using flashcards, snakes-and-ladders games and bingo cards, we learned sound blends and vowel sounds. I designed an English exercise book, but with the children’s incessant need to copy and struggling to make them listen, it soon turned into a coloring book.

Learning Phonics using Playdough.

Nevertheless, with the help of the Shaishav teachers, I was able to bring in curiosity and play into teaching, and the response from the children was exhilarating. They looked forward to the classes, bombarded me with English phrases whenever we met and many a time, it was only the firm engagement of the educators that the classes stopped from turning into a chaotic playground. I learned to make mistakes, failed pretty often, re-structured a lot and learned to be able to listen to what the children needed, rather than follow my own plan.

We’ve only touched the tip of the surface and I know there is so much more to do, but it’s my firm belief that good quality education can make all the difference, slowly and steadily. “Kids walk to school and run back home”, was an advert line that I’d read somewhere.

I’m hoping to be a part of the movement that flips that soon.

Group photograph of the children and the Shaishav teacher at the Madhiya Road Lokshala. Photo credits: Subha Shanmugavel for Shaishav.

Maitreyi pursued her postgraduate degree in Psychology from Ambedkar University, Delhi. After a short stint as an Event Associate with Little Black Book, she joined Vasant Valley School (Delhi) as a Special Educator. Here, she spent her time creating Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for children with autism and Down syndrome and made use of a multi-sensory approach in teaching. Being interested in alternative education, she has volunteered at organizations such as SECMOL in Ladakh and Marpha Foundation in Nepal, where she employed activity based learning in the classroom. A trained Bharatnatyam dancer, she is keen to explore different mediums of teaching. Through the AIF Clinton Fellowship, she also hopes to build her own understanding of the myriad ways in which children learn and assimilate knowledge. In her free time, she loves to travel, read and bake.

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