Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Prior to my arrival in Delhi, I had heard many things about the Indian education system: it was based mainly on rote memorization, with very little creativity; it was teacher-centric; exams were fearsome.  It’s one thing to hear these kinds of things.  It’s another to experience them.  

Still though, I wouldn’t say that my reaction is entirely negative.  Not at all.  In some ways, oddly enough, elements of the Navyug school curriculum actually remind me of Waldorf.  Students have a separate notebook for each subject, which they often decorate with crayons and colored pencils, somewhat like main lesson books.  Everyone is expected to take art and music classes, and, as at Waldorf, P.E. is called “games” here.  Also fun to see are the similarities between Indian and British schools.  As in Harry Potter, my school is divided into four “houses:” Pragati, Ekta, Chetna, and Shakti.  The houses compete against one another in sports events, music competitions, debates, and math bees—sometimes the competition can get fierce!  All students dress in their house colors on Wednesdays and Saturdays for the special sports activities usually held on those days, and it makes a nice change from the pale gray and blue uniforms they usually wear.  Another fun similarity between British and Navyug Schools is the system through which older students help to discipline the younger ones.  As in Harry Potter, my school has prefects, house captains, a head girl, and a head boy.  All wear badges proclaiming their status.

The testing system though.  That is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.  So completely different from Waldorf, Haverford, and even the SATs.  Even what I’ve read in Harry Potter—at least Harry had to be able to perform his charms and spells, not simply regurgitate the names for a test.  What frustrates me is the fact that the exams for all the subjects except Hindi and Sanskrit are in English, so many of the kids have no idea what the test is saying.  Because the teachers are under pressure to teach to the test, kids just memorize the answers that they know will appear.  Understanding the meaning of the answer is far less important than getting the right answer.  Many of my more earnest students do try hard to understand the meaning of the dense passages they are asked to read, but many are discouraged.  Thus, memorizing these chains of unfamiliar words is all they can do.

Some students do not have the time or inclination to do this admittedly rather silly task.  And so they cheat.  Some are stealthy about it; others are sloppy.  Either way though, unfortunately, it seems to be completely expected by teachers and students alike.  This week I have been given plenty of “invigilation” (proctoring) duties.  Some groups have been good.  Others have been loud, with students running around the room, and hitting each other.  In every group though, I have caught at least one cheater.

The rules are as follows: if a teacher catches a student copying from another student’s test sheet, he gets ten points deducted from his score.  If a teacher catches a student using a cheat sheet, his answer sheet is confiscated, and he is given a new blank one.

To me, this seems absurdly lenient.  After all, I went to Haverford College, where even an incorrect citation on a paper could result in an Honor Council trial.  At first, I was angry.  It seemed so clear to me: the kids cheat because they can.  If the consequences were harsher, they might think twice before scribbling the answers on their hands or hiding text books in the bathrooms.  Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, the kids cheat because they must; 8th grade science is designed to be challenging for 8th graders—in their native language.  Imagine how impossible it must feel to take a test in a topic that is already difficult, in a language that you can barely understand?

Further complicating things is one particular law that states that no child is allowed to fail a class until 10th standard (10th grade) when children are placed onto tracks (science, commerce, or humanities).  Because my students know that they will pass on to the next grade, no matter how abysmal their test scores are, there is very little incentive to try hard.  This law is the hardest thing for me to wrap my head around.  Yes, it can be humiliating for a child to have to repeat first grade, and even worse to have to repeat 7th grade.  But it’s a whole lot better than passing through to 10th grade, with the reading level of a second grader.

I should note however, that, even as standardized testing is gaining (or at least maintaining) importance in America, people in India are starting to see the flaws in their own system.  While in Hyderabad, I visited a Waldorf School, whose Principal told me that Waldorf schools were gaining in popularity for this very reason.  A Wall Street Journal article discussing the issue was also recently published: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703515504576142092863219826.html       

I realize though, that, for the near future at least, the problem is much, much bigger than I or any of my teachers, or even the New Delhi Municipal Council can do anything about.  It is also extremely complicated and nuanced, and it is extremely presumptuous of me to criticize this system.  So for now, all I can do is watch, learn, and assist as much as I can.  And hopefully my (probably almost absurd-seeming) aversion to cheating and my focus on understanding the meaning of texts will at least be small step towards some kind of change, at least in my school.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Teachers' Day

As I am sure many of you know, the Indian calendar is full of holidays.  Some, like Diwali, Holi, and Eid, are well known in America.  Others, like Rakhshabandan, and Muharram, not so much.  One lesser-known holiday that I found out about was Teachers’ Day, which takes place on September 5th

One of the first things that I discovered about Teachers’ Day is that it is actually an international holiday; other countries just don’t observe it in the same way that India does.   Originally, the holiday was created by UNESCO to be celebrated on October 5th.   Eventually though, every country picked its own date.  India’s is October 5th in honour of Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, an Indian academic, philosopher, and statesmen, who is known for his role in creating the Indian education system.  In the U.S, Teachers’ Day takes place on the Tuesday of the first week of May.  I’ve never actually heard of it being celebrated there.  After having experienced an Indian Teachers’ Day though, I’m all for bringing the tradition back to the states!

Weeks before Teachers’ Day, I was informed that, I had to wear a sari on that day.  I kept this in mind, but put off the sari buying until the week before.  It was a little tight time-wise getting the fall stitched and obtaining a blouse and petticoat, but I somehow acquired all of the necessary accoutrements two days before the appointed date.  The day before Teachers’ Day, I attempted to tie the sari myself.  “It can’t be that hard,” I told myself, as I intently watched “how to tie a sari” videos on goodindiangirl.com.  How naïve I was.  I have only worn a sari once before in my life, and that time I failed miserably in tying it, and ended up getting my friend Laura to wrap it for me.  This time was no better.  Finally, I admitted defeat, packed my sari up in a bag, and carried it with me to school the next day.

As soon as I walked through the school gates, I was greeted by a group of my sixth grade girls, all of whom looked quite put out.  “Ma’am! Why are you not wearing a sari ma’am?” They asked.  I showed them the bag, and they shrugged, shook my hand, and wished me a happy Teachers’ Day.  I quickly extricated myself from them, and made my way to the Principal’s office, where I found a group of teachers, including my coordinating teacher, all in beautiful, perfectly wrapped saris.  I explained my situation, and they quickly took action.  Because the staff bathroom is always locked, there was some indecision as to where I would change, but we eventually settled on the biology lab.  After almost no time at all, I was wrapped up in my sari, with eyeliner under my eyes and a bindi on my forehead.  I was also lent a necklace and bracelet.  As my teachers remarked, I truly was “looking like a real Indian girl!”  Below is a picture of my teachers’ handiwork.  I like to think that they quite enjoyed having a life-size doll to play with that day! 
मैं हिन्दूस्तानी हूँ!
The assembly followed.  Except today, it was run by the class 12 students, all dressed up in teacherly garb, who gave speeches about the origin of Teachers’ Day, and about the Navyug School teachers specifically.  They then led the younger children through the usual routine of Vande Matheram, Hindi prayer, and National Anthem. 

After the assembly, the teachers went off to the staff room to relax and socialize while the 12th graders taught the younger kids.  From time to time, students would come into the room to give gifts of cards and roses to the teachers.  It was quite nice.  Eventually, all of the teachers were called down to the library, where the class 12 students who were not teaching handed out sweets and handmade cards to the teachers, then sang a song.  Soon after, the students went home, and the teachers were fed a lunch of dosa that had been delivered from a restaurant nearby.  Sidenote: I would not recommend having dosas delivered—they really are best eaten fresh off the pan.

What followed was not something I was prepared for.  All the teachers were summoned down to the principal’s office.  “Now you shall sing to me,” she proclaimed.

Now, this is one thing about Indian culture that I truly love.  In America, one never just asks another person to sing them a song.  It just isn’t done.  If one ever tried to do such a thing, the reply would inevitably be something along the lines of “Oh no, I don’t sing!  Well…only in the shower.  Oh no, I can’t sing in public!”   And so on and so forth.  But in India, there is no such thing as “I don’t sing.”  Everybody sings.  It is as natural as breathing or talking.  People sing as they walk down the streets.  They sing in temple.  School children sing every day in assembly.  Singing is just not something to be self-conscious about.

Back to Teachers’ Day.  After the Principal made her request, of course, the American was called on to sing first.  “Country Roads Take me Home” was the only song that came to mind, so I sang that.  I think it went alright.  It was an unfortunate choice of song in some ways, as it made everyone assume that I was homesick, but…no matter.  I’ve got other songs all picked out for the next time this happens!  After I started us off, some other teachers sang some beautiful songs in Hindi, which I really enjoyed listening to. 

And that was my Teachers’ Day!  I hope the U.S. will eventually pick it up as a holiday.  Teachers work so hard, and do so much good.  Cliché as it is, I want to take this opportunity to thank all my teachers up until this point in my life.  I wouldn’t be where I am today if it hadn’t been for all of you!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Attempts at being cultured

As some of you may know, I contracted an awful viral fever around the middle of August.  I started feeling sick on August 15th (India’s Independence Day) and didn’t get well again until a whole week later.  Not only was I out of school for a week, but I also shivered and slept through two three day weekends.  This means that, while I was flat on my back recovering, my fellow ETAs were being good Fulbrighters, seeing the sights of Delhi, and getting to know our new home.  Once I recovered, I was determined to catch up.  Here are some of my adventures.

This past Saturday, my flat-mates and I decided to take a trip to Old Delhi.  I had been there before, close to the end of my junior semester abroad, but was eager to go back.  It was as I remembered it: hot, crowded, busy, dirty, and caught in some bygone era.   Please do not take these words negatively though—I love Old Delhi for these very reasons.  It is the most alive-feeling place I think I have ever been to.  The energy there is indescribable, but incredible. 

The highlight of the trip for me was our visit to Jama Masjid, Old Delhi’s most famous mosque.  I had been there once before in May 2009 with my friend Taylor, but had not had a very positive experience.  That time, I had been wordlessly roared at by a man sitting outside the mosque; only later did I discover that he was trying to tell me that I could not bring a camera inside without paying.  Additionally, I had made the mistake of wearing ankle baring pants that time, and had to borrow a robe.  That time, Taylor and I decided not to pay the exorbitant camera fee, so went in one at a time, while the other stood outside with the cameras.  Due to this less than ideal situation, the visit was short and stressful. 

This time though, I met my roommates Jessica and Krish at the mosque, and had no choice but to bring my camera in with me.  I’m glad I did.  Inside the Jama Masjid is a tower that one can climb up into.  Women are not allowed into the tower without male accompaniment, so I had not been able to go there last time.  This time though, Krish secured tickets for Jessica and me, and we all climbed up the winding, narrow staircase.  I’m glad we did.  Not only could we see all the mosque grounds, we could see all of Old Delhi.  From such a great height, it looked just as hectic, but there somehow seemed to be an order and harmony to the chaos.  Definitely worth the return trip.

Courtyard area of Jama Masjid

View from the tower

Jess and me

The next day, I headed to the India Habitat Centre (IHC) for the Asia Livelihood Documentary Film Festival.  (See www.indiahabitat.org and www.jeevika.org for more information.)  First of all, I have to say, I am so glad I found the IHC, as it seems like a great place.  There are always Indian art and cultural shows—galleries, plays, dance performances, music concerts—I’m sure I’ll be there a lot.  The film festival was great—all of the films were on life in India, but they were all very different.  The day I was there, I got to see a film about homeless children living on a train platform, one about the Baul musicians of Bengal, another film about street hawkers, one about a young boy working in a cinema, and two films about ambitious Indian teenaged boys.  Quite a diverse sampling!

Last Wednesday was Eid, the end of Ramadan.  I spent the evening, along with my roommates, with the family of the cousin of one of Krish’s friends.  The family was wonderfully kind and welcoming, and also very knowledgeable about India, America, economics, theater, literature, and everything in between.  This made for very pleasant and interesting dinner conversation. 

Now about the dinner.  There was SO MUCH FOOD!  This makes sense of course, as most of the people present had been fasting for an entire month.  I had not been, but I ate as though I had.  The food was delicious, and almost entirely non-vegetarian (the idea is that, after a whole month of fasting, no one wants to eat vegetables).  I am almost completely vegetarian here in India, and also have not eaten any mammal meat since 2009.  This time though, I really felt that I should get into the spirit of things, and celebrate Eid properly.  So I partook of the chicken biryani, mutton curry, roast lamb, prawn curry, and liver fry, as well as the parotha (bread), the salad, and the raita, which were the sole vegetarian elements of the meal.

This past Friday, I went along with some other Fulbrighters to the India Habitat Centre, where there was a dance and music festival going on.  I got to see some truly amazing Odissi dancing by a male dancer, who first did a dance based on different legends of the sun god, then did a second dance about the many reincarnations of Vishnu.  His ability to tell a story through not only the grand gestures and turns usually associated with dance, but also with the subtlest of movements with the fingers, eyes, and eyebrows was amazing.   Also part of this festival was a sitar/tabla performance and a kathak show.  The beautifully graceful kathak dancers definitely inspired me to practice more!  I know I will be attending as many dance concerts and “cultural events” as I have time for this year.  I am disappointed to be missing things like the Philly Fringe, but am very excited for the dance and theater I will get to see here.

Also this weekend, I went to the Delhi book fair, to “Zindagi na Milegi Do Bara,” the Bollywood movie that the other ETAs had seens while I was sick , and to Dilli Haat.  Dilli Haat is a rather contrived little crafts marketplace that seeks to recreate a village feel.  (For any Hyderabad people reading this, Dilli Haat is basically the Shilparamam of Delhi, except about half the size.)  As in Shilparamam, there are little stalls all around Dilli Haat, where vendors hawk crafts from all over India.  Unlike Shilparamam however, there is also a huge selection of food stalls.  Each food stall represents one of the states of India.  Krish and I ate at the Uttar Pradesh stall, and it was very good.  I doubt I’ll be shopping much in Dilli Haat, but I’m sure I’ll be going there quite often to eat!  My goal is to sample food from every stall by the end of this year.   I am quite excited to try some of India’s lesser known cuisines, such as the cuisines of Manipur and Nagaland!