The VIRTUAL Classroom

I’m someone who shares a love-hate relationship with technology. While on the one hand I do subscribe to a Speaker-Home Automation System such as Amamzon Echo, on the other, I run as fast as I can, the opposite direction from complicated cell phones and the like.

Perhaps based on this theory of ‘impersonal’ technology, I had, until recently, in all my years of teaching, never taken on a ‘distance’ student. I’d been approached often to take classes on Skype or some online platform but had largely steered clear. I’d convinced myself that in order to teach effectively, teacher and student must interact in the physical realm.

I’m pleasantly surprised to share that I was wrong, and that I’d made a sweeping assumption. That if the student is dedicated and one has a reasonably quick internet connection (a non-negotiable prerequisite), the proliferation of knowledge is only aided by the ‘virtual classroom’. Just recently I have agreed to lessons for a few students whom I teach online. Am I succumbing to the trend of the many virtual-institutions that are out there? No, I’ve never been governed by the popular or trendy. What I am delighted to report is that these few ‘online classes’ have proved most wonderful.

I usually take these classes for an hour each. They are either through video-calls or simple phone calls. And especially for my areas of education – Communications, Writing, and Identity Enhancement, they have, until now, worked a treat.

Like I always say… Any human being, teacher or student, young or old, parent or child; is constantly learning, evolving, growing, gaining. I’m happy I embraced online teaching. It only means I reach more pupils, and spread the light 🙂

Education’s Planned Murder!

Life is a series of unexpected events, mostly out of our control. Similarly, love is an instinctive, indefinable emotion that strikes us, unannounced. How and why then, can learning, and teaching, NOT be spontaneous?

As a teacher and educator, I’m certain I’ll ruffle a good few feathers with this post. But then my own education has always compelled me to speak my mind. I’d joined a school briefly as a teacher in Bombay. Then I joined a school back home in Jaipur as well. Both those experiences, maybe not personally but certainly through my interaction and observation of the ‘modern’ schooling system, the teachers, and the students, left me a little disillusioned. Why? Because a vast majority of a teacher’s time, effort and energy seems to be devoted to obsessive planning, pre-planning and administrative work – leaving the educator little or no will,  excitement, enthusiasm, to actually TEACH, and god forbid, INSPIRE any kind of DISCOVERY

Daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly. These are the different categories of Lesson Plans that teachers are required to submit to the school administration, in ADVANCE! Depending on the board and the school, these lesson plans need to be detailed to the minutest possible degree, including for instance, what ‘examples’ a teacher will use in class to illustrate a specific point of a particular lesson! I appreciate the need and merit in planning, I really do. But the way we were taught at school was a whole lot more on-the-fly. And I mean that in the most positive sense possible. No two students are alike. No two teachers are alike. The way a students responds to a particular teacher, to an example, to stimuli, to a methodology of teaching – varies vastly. There are too many dynamic variables for this to be standardized. Besides, where’s the element of surprise, or fun, or creativity then? If our students are taught like they’re characters in a circus, then not only will the teacher be perceived as the proverbial ‘ring master’, the subject too will be despised, forever!

This profuse planning, to my mind, is killing the very essence and joy of invention, self-discovery, visceral education. We are, as a result, creating clones. An army of dull, brainwashed robots that might go on to secure decently paying jobs – but will have little else to contribute, to society, and more importantly, to themselves and to their own lives.

Individuality, peculiarity, specialty, uniqueness, evolution, realization, actualization – these are concepts that I’m afraid we are KILLING at the very onset of a child’s educational experience. While schools proclaim ‘experiential’ and ‘experimental’ learning in their large banners and social media brochures; what they offer, by and large, is a thoroughly mundane, thought-thwarting curriculum where both teacher and student are merely going through the motions, waiting anxiously for that school bell to sound, so they can escape the drudgery that the otherwise exciting, invigorating, school-day has become.

 Are we going to give our young generations to come this thoughtless a sense of self?

 

WONDER-FULL Creative Writing Workshop

As many of you would know, Writing is my profession. However, Teaching has, over the past four years, morphed into my first love. I’ve been fortunate in so far as opportunities to teach. I am regularly invited to schools and colleges, and serve as Faculty to a few institutions as well. Of all the areas of teaching I do – Communications, Identity Enhancement (Personality Development), Public Speaking & Writing, the last one remains a personal favorite. And I am always looking for like-minded educationists to partner with.

This, combined with the fact that being a recent father, I have new-found wonder for young children and their gifted, innocent, creative minds; my next workshop – WONDER-FULL WRITING, at the new and beautiful Wonder Years Pre School is something I am extremely excited about,  and delighted to share.

I have known the owner Sharmilla for a number of years. Her education philosophy, which stems from the Reggio Emilia system, and my own perception of how teaching and learning should take place, are very similar. We both firmly believe that learning should be ‘experiential’ rather than ‘instructional’, and most importantly, FUN

We have therefore curated a 2 day workshop at the end of April, Saturday & Sunday, the 28th & 29th, in the evening, for children between 8 and 11 years of age, for Creative Writing. The workshop is endeavored to be highly interactive, lighthearted, and fun. On day 1, we will mostly watch a slew of age-appropriate Short Films. Rather than shunning the ‘screen culture’, we find it to be a wonderful teaching tool. Kids are instinctively more receptive to the idea of ‘watching’ rather than reading. These films will simply showcase, with the help of some explanation from me, the basic rules of story-writing. There will be some fun writing exercises, followed by us evolving a story in class, together as a group.

NO HOMEWORK! Day 2, we will continue in a similar vein, except we will encourage the children to write a story each, and discuss them.

We owe it to our children to take the mundane out of learning. To infuse scary subjects like writing with the sheer delight that they innately offer. That is the core behind this workshop – to alleviate the fear and boredom of creative writing and provide kids a skill set that will hopefully stay with them for life, useful not just at school as story-tellers but also at any juncture in life, professional or personal. To expose them to a ‘different’ way of thinking and expressing themselves.

That is what I try and do with my own daughter Krisha. And that is what I will try my best to do with the kids who enroll for this workshop. Because telling a story is really about speaking WONDERFULLY, from the heart!

Creating MOOD with WRITING!

As a Writer, Columnist, Content Creator and especially as a Writing Teacher, I always stress on one primary function of good-writing – to create a mood, without stating the obvious. The adage, a picture says a thousand words is true. Its reverse, as well. Because in the absence of that picture, the words have to be plentiful, more importantly, they have to ‘paint a vivid picture’. That’s a challenge, not just for students, also for seasoned writers. There are only so many ways something can be said or described. Only so much the language can express. Herein lies the skill and creativity of a writer. To craft a piece, a scenario, a mood, using the finite expression of language, presenting it in a new, fresh, original, engaging and animated way. To place the reader, inside the scene!

How does one do this?

  1. Use symbols, metaphor and simile
  2. DO NOT state the obvious. ‘Suggest it’
  3. Build character and consequence
  4. Title (in a subtle, inviting, intriguing manner that does not give away the story)

I often use examples to demonstrate this in my classes. And I thought it’d be nice to leave you with one short example that I often share with my Writing Students, to try and illustrate how to ‘build mood’ to them:

‘Shall We Dance?’

OR

‘Lifetime’

OR

‘Off Shore’

The short striped dress fit the nautical surroundings, and her slender frame, perfectly. The sun kissed her wavy blonde hair and she glowed each time her face fell back with laughter. Sat beside her, sharing the modest stretch of the pink beach towel was the man who serenaded her. Of him, it could be said, there was no dearth of charm. As his lilting voice bounced off the waves of water, it seemed to envelop her in rapture. With each new note he struck on his accompanying guitar, a gentle gush of frothy sea water caressed their toes, only to retreat back into the ocean. It felt as if her giggles, his harmony, and the intermittent embrace of salty aqua were engaged in a mysterious dance. In one swift stroke, the singing ceased, and the singer, now positioned on one knee, had produced from his person, a tiny box. Like a deft magician at work, he beckoned his girl to open the offering. Her shapely fingers cautiously unveiled the contents of this unexpected present. She gasped. They kissed. And the sun set on this gleaming romantic beach!

RAYS of HOPE!

Dear friends of mine Apra and Kunal Kuchhal and their family have been the chief patrons of a wonderful home for HIV children called Rays. Both Anuja and I have been huge admirers of this family, and the wonderful work they are doing through their two homes, for a number of years. We have visited the children in the past at their annual gala when the students at these homes display a variety of stalls and games. However, it wasn’t until a few days back when I had the opportunity of interacting alone, one on one, with a large group of kids at Rays, that I realized just how incredible these children are!

As an educator, I try to give my best to my students. I’ve been fortunate to be able to balance teaching and interacting with people of all ages and from varying strata of society. I take immense pride that whenever an opportunity presents itself for me to make even a modest impact socially, I grab it. Having conducted various workshops in the past, be it for converting Text Books into Audiobooks for the Visually Impaired,  or creating awareness about Organ Donation among the young; I try to make teaching fun, and take the preaching and boredom out of it.

However, when I visited Rays the other day, I had the most amazing, the most humbling, and the most educational experience myself. Like I usually do, I began the evening interaction with a fun ice-breaking game that I had seen being conducted at an Education Conference I’d been invited to last year. This, if I might say so myself, immediately did the trick and put the kids and I, at ease with each other.

Then, the agenda was simple. To screen a bunch of varied Short Films that I often use in various classes. These were fun, witty, sweet, emotional (but not depressing) films that centered on themes such as Gender Equality, Good Deeds, Freedom and Family. I was extremely conscious of course while curating the selection, given the trauma, both familial and psychological, that most of the kids who live and learn at Rays, have gone through.

The evening was really enjoyable. The 40 odd kids who were present seemed to have loved each film, they were laughing, enjoying, and had a great time. After the screenings, I had a little casual chat with them about the films. And that’s when it hit me. Not only were these beautiful children full of wisdom beyond their years, interpreting the central message of each film correctly and voicing it in unison; more importantly, they made me realize that they are, despite facing in most cases, an uncertain future, so so full of zest, zeal, enthusiasm, happiness, talent, vivaciousness, vitality, exuberance of youth, and a genuine hunger to learn that seems insatiable. It made me reassess my own priorities, made me look inward and suddenly feel so shallow for all the insignificant things we ‘fortunate’ people tend to keep cribbing about.

The kids at Rays are indeed, Rays of hope for our entire society. When I was leaving, I was asked to sign the Guest Book. I was so moved by then that I couldn’t articulate my feelings. In any case, the paltry ‘comments’ column in the Guest Book was entirely inadequate for me to express what I felt, what that visit had done to me, for me.

They say that teaching is a good deed. I have said this in the past, and I’ll say it again. It is a terribly selfish deed. Because what these enlightened kids did for me at Rays, will stay with me as life’s greatest lesson forever. That I shared an hour of my time with them, and that they were so thankful, is just embarrassing for me. Because really speaking, it is we who ought to thank and learn from these gentle souls. These pure, untarnished beings who take life so happily in their stride, and so unassumingly, spread joy and light!

 

New OLD Parent!

Anuja and I got married in 2008. Nearly a decade ago. Ever since, initially subtly, subsequently not as subtly, friends, family and ‘well wishers’ started advising us to have a child. And we kept putting it off, furnishing from the most cliche to some pretty far fetched alibis. In the meantime, all our contemporaries, school and college friends, cousins around the same age, were having them babies galore!

This necessitated a rather interesting phase in our marital lives. Because people we’d normally hang out with got busy with new parenthood, we had to seek company elsewhere. In Bombay at the time, we fell happily into a friend circle that comprised mostly of folks about a decade older than us, couples whose kids had gone past the ‘constant supervision’ stage with children well into their pre-teens (which brings its own set of unique parenting challenges but at least does not demand the kind of time and effort that the initial years of a baby does). We were blissful and merry, having become an integral part of this large parents  group that I suspect was trying to reclaim its own youth, having spent the past ten odd years in dedicated service of their children.

Between Anuja and I, we were sure that we didn’t want to have a child in Bombay. For all its libertarian values, free-spirited ethos, and rewards for the driven, the thought of having a kid there and have the kid say, “there’s my school on the 2nd floor of that building”; to two North Indians who’d been fortunate enough to attend schools and colleges with a ‘campus’, this was an inconceivable situation.

Then some four years back, we moved bag and baggage to Jaipur, my hometown. And though we didn’t discuss it specifically, I think we’d both individually, and as a couple, arrived at that point. The point where we felt we were ready. And so we had our beautiful daughter Krisha.

Krisha is now almost a year old, I am almost 38, Anuja, 37. By any standard, we’d be considered ‘older’ parents. Especially in a city like Jaipur (that errs on the side of orthodox), we are at least a decade older than couples who’s have kids around the same time as us! That makes for an interesting situation again, thankfully, mostly a humorous one. I keep joking with Anuja, that these parents want to themselves address Anuja and I as ‘uncle aunty’, what will their kids (who are Krisha’s contemporaries) call us!?

I’ve also come to the realization that I am too old for this! Don’t get me wrong, I am ecstatic being a parent, particularly to a baby girl. But boy is it hard to keep up. I mean literally keep up. I’m getting physiotherapy for my back as I write this, my knees hurt, and I feel exhausted carrying, chasing, and playing with Pishu!

But here’s the thing. There really isn’t a right or a wrong time for a couple to have a child. There will always be justified arguments on both sides – to have kids early, and to have kids late. But this is beyond cold logic. It is a decision that ought to be made when it ‘feels’ right. For both parties involved. Its an intangible, unquantifiable, almost indefinable feeling that you either get, or you don’t get. And if you get it, then take the plunge. All the merits of having kids when we’re young, all the disadvantages of having them when we’re not so young, pale when the time is ‘right’ for YOU!

Anuja and I are absolutely loving being parents, even though we’d be considered ‘older’ parents. Age is just a number. The Time however, must be RIGHT!

My City Of Joy

The bread for the day would come from four different places. A loaf from Flury’s, one from Saturday club, another kind from Cookie Jar and a fourth, from a fourth place. As varied as this, were the experiences that Kolkata, the Calcutta of my childhood, would present, each time I’d be here, for at least a month, every summer vacation. ‘Nani Badi’ was a dichotomous contradiction of fun and firmness, of adrenalin and routine, of merriment and meditativeness. Calcutta, charming, addictive, chaotic, charismatic, the beating heart of the holiday.

Camouflaged in all its ivied glory, my grandfather’s hundred and something year old white & green Victorian Bungalow, 5 Rainy Park, at the centre of Ballygunge, the grandiose backdrop of all the festivities. The house, a resting place for my childhood remnants, a place of respite, a sanctuary of calm, an oasis, only real! That my grandmother screaming at one and all, constantly, sounded to my ears, like soothing music, given the unsavoury tones of my own home back in Jaipur; made this ritualistic visit to the ‘bungalow’, even more cathartic. Here, in the midst of countless trips to the races, to Flury’s, to Skyroom, to Blue Fox, to the Oberoi and the Taj Bengal, to Saturday, Calcutta, Calcutta Swimming, RCGC clubs, to AC Market and delectables at Vineet Snack Bar, to family lunches at ‘Kwality’ on Park Street, to muri on Russel Street, to flying radio controlled aircrafts in the maidaan, to Badminton in the house lawns, to being introduced to The Doors and the Carpenters and the Beatles in my younger uncle’s upstairs Bar; I lived, regained some modicum of a childhood.

The moment I’d land into this wonderfully eccentric, poetic, talented city, the fog would lift, the heart would swell, there’d be clarity of mind and purpose. The purpose, to be a child, to have fun, to just, be!

My grandmother (nani) has always been an authoritarian, stern woman. But she of all provided, and continues to till today, the maximum emotional support to me. When I was younger, it was by way of pampering. Boat pastries galore, Sandesh by the dozens, and later, be it my choice of subjects, vocation, or life-partner; my one constantly unwavering source of strength, to her, I owe at least half my sanity! My grandfather (nana), a doting figure who’s expression of love I have known largely through his sheer generosity, of indulgences, of advise (albeit at times questionable!); and that whenever I’d REALLY want something, I’d only have to emit as much as the suggestion of a ‘cry’, and he’d order my mum to procure the desired item (a strategy especially effective in public)! My younger uncle (mama), the ‘cool’ one, the one to look up to, idolize, emulate. The man who’d done it all, from dj’ing to the Himalayan Rally! Whether it was because he didn’t have a son of his own, or because I am his sister’s son, perhaps a combination of the two, he has always showered me with lots of love, and lots of gifts. To me however, the former, I cherish more. He made me want to be cool, and it is so important to have a ‘cool’ role model now isn’t it!

Calcutta, today Kolkata, is much the same, though much changed as well. Now when I visit the city, my mind grapples with the vestiges of a time gone by. It feels like ancient history, not just the place, even my own time spent here. It is a strange feeling. Its like I’m looking from the outside, in. It is vaguely familiar. The smells, the sights, déjà vu unlimited. The emotion however, remains the same. No matter what happens within families, and to this city, Kolkata to me has been, and will always stay, my Calcutta, my City of Joy!

Visually Enhanced!

Now, before you think that here is an educator propagating screen-time for young children who are already obsessing over i pads and such, I am NOT. I entirely appreciate the need to, and the struggle of warding off young children from unnecessary ‘dependence’ on visual-aids.

Having said that, what I am most definitely advocating, is the use of the visual medium as a tool to expose, sensitize, and educate slightly older students, particularly students from middle to high school.

As many of you may already be aware, I am a great believer in embracing the power of the visual medium when I teach my students. We are living in a visual world. Children are positively predisposed to the medium. So instead of fighting it, why not use it to their advantage. I always therefore make it a point to screen Short Films and Documentaries (of course age-appropriate) that provoke thought in a young generation that is otherwise largely concerned with their core-academic studies and/or less meaningful pursuits. Be it a film about the Environment or saving Animals; film as a tool is, in most cases, immediately accepted by students (as opposed to other more traditional means such as a Lecture or a Book). Their acceptance sustains their interest and subliminally conveys the sensitive message one if trying to get across to them, in a non-preachy, and relatively less mundane way.

Even as parents, rather than shun the idea of getting our children to use screens, it might be a better idea to instead, tailor the content, so they don’t end up watching rubbish. The world is a place with many pressing issues. And there is a dire need to make a new generation aware of these problems and to sensitize them, since they are the ones who will have to face these situations and come up with solutions. For this, the Moving Image can become an ally in the education of our children and enhance their learning exponentially. Let us Visually Enhance them!

 

Get Engaged!

If the title of this piece was misleading and led you to believe it will propagate marriage, I apologize!  However, it may not be matrimony that I espouse; it is, arguably, an even more important kind of ‘engagement’ that I wish to talk about.

Our formal education provides us with a certain amount of knowledge and skills in a specific sphere of study. To my mind though, that has little to do with acquiring a real education, which, to me, is about wisdom, and a heightened awareness of the people and the world around us. I’m often asked, “how come you speak so well?” “How do you know so much about various things?” Before you assume this is some self-indulgent show-off; let me tell you, I quote my own examples merely to illustrate my point. That being, it is much less one’s ivy-league degree that endows one with an education and a world-view, and perhaps more, engagement, with people.

I say this because especially in today’s context, while interacting with many students on a regular basis, I am a bit disturbed when I find that most of them seem to exist in this intangible bubble that is defined by ‘me, myself, and my phone’. There seems to be precious little interaction with the WORLD.

From a casual conversation with a bus, auto or Uber driver to a chance meeting with a Pulitzer-winning writer; EVERY and ALL human interaction, is crucial, and leads to immense LEARNING. Even if one does not physically get to meet people, one can still be engaged. I make it a point to follow, listen to, read, and watch people I admire – be it for their oratory skills, their infinite wisdom, their political acumen, their intellect. Even with my students, I suspect it is I that learns more than they do :).. Seriously though, it is through constant human interaction and engagement that we learn the most. By being present and consciously employing ourselves with seemingly ordinary mortals.

Knowledge and education are omnipresent. We only have to seize each opportunity to soak it all up. The greatest virtue of learning is that it is infinite, and the same is true of human-engagement as well!