Politically Correct!

The country is in the firm grip of election fever. Homes, streets, offices, are abuzz with election-talk, with people offering their individual perspectives on who will win, loose, and form the new government. It also seems like one of the most unpredictable elections to call. In this kind of politically charged atmosphere, there is a huge part of our young Indian society, missing. Absent from the general discourse, absent also from having their own opinions on the matter.

I am referring to middle to high school students of India. Although they may not be in a position to cast their vote, does that mean they shouldn’t have an opinion? I feel it is vital that they do. Having said that, are they really knowledgeable, invested, aware, enough to have an opinion?

Students in India are made to study how our political establishment works. By middle school, most students gain an insight and understanding, at least of the basic fundamentals of the Indian Democratic & Parliamentary systems. How elections take place, representation, voting, constituencies and the like. But perhaps this theoretical knowledge is too rudimentary, and doesn’t evolve into a more reality-based understanding of anything that is politically current. Our students, especially those attending ‘good schools’ in metropolitan areas, go to great lengths to hone their debating skills and participate passionately in a forum such as the MUN (Model United Nations), debating furiously, international problems and seeking possible solutions. While this is a worthy pursuit, should there not be a platform such as the MUN for our own, native politics? A regular and prestigious event that will compel tomorrow’s voters to research, gain different perspectives, and form their own opinions on national political history, issues, parties, states, regions, problems. It will familiarize them with the current political landscape of the country and engage them in a manner that will best prepare them to make informed decisions when it comes time to cast their own votes in the real world.

This kind of grounding and base-formation will also prevent young Indians from blindly adopting a political ideology that they seem to presently either inherit from their parents and families, or imbibe from their suddenly politically charged college environment – there is an argument here that when a young Indian voter does start thinking about his or her politics, it is too late already to really form one’s own, personal, well thought out perspective.

I remember my own experiences as a child, in most quarters of my family, there was this overwhelming loyalty towards the Congress Party with senior members of my family entirely dedicated to Indira Gandhi. I just accepted this bias towards the Congress to be the gospel truth because I had no other alternative. No forum to debate, explore, or historical perspective on which to base, and come to my own conclusions and opinions. I suspect the influence family holds over young students today isn’t vastly different. And it is time that we, as parents, educators, and responsible adults bringing up a new generation of Indians, thought about this, and provided an opportunity to young India, to decide what’s politically correct for them, themselves!

A Legacy Of Learning

When I was a student at boarding school, now over two decades ago, my teachers told me that there wasn’t a single day that they didn’t learn something new. These were masters we idolised, worshipped, poked fun of, at the same time, revered. To have them confess that they did not know it all, was a revelation.

Of course, this confession was long forgotten. Relegated to a deep recess of my memory, until recently, when I, the accidental teacher, stumbled upon the very same realization. And from that crevice of my mind’s labyrinth, these words from my own teachers, revealed themselves.

Teaching has been a cathartic rebirth for me. For someone who was firmly set in a media career, doing well, then became disenchanted and decided to shift tracks, unsure of what the alternative would be; I’d go so far as to say that teaching has fulfilled me, completed me, in a way that perhaps not even music could (my first love that never quite materialised). My fortuitous foray into the world of teaching has reacquainted me with myself. It has given me purpose, pride, and ignited a passion that probably always existed, only it was dormant.

That I have no formal education that qualifies me to teach, a fact sometimes held against me, I feel is my biggest advantage. It does not colour my approach to my work. In fact, I hardly perceive it as work in the first place. No training, no career-long teaching experience, are facts that have, in fact, granted me a great sense of freedom and liberty. My interaction with my students is spontaneous, freewheeling, spirited. In turn, their’s with me is uninhibited, uncensored, unfiltered. The way I plan, and un-plan my workshops and lessons benefits from a similarly open and experimental ethos. There is a destination but how my students and I reach it is random, interactive and, on occasion, emancipating!

I have come to realize that to be an effective teacher and an inspiring mentor, the person can not feel or act ‘above’. That there MUST be a genuine openness to learn with each encounter, each interaction. That students in fact, in many cases, teach the teacher more, than the teacher does, them. Teaching then, is a legacy of continued learning. A process that is infinite. A pursuit that endless. A calling.

Learning is AGELESS

Through the four years I’ve been actively teaching, I’ve come to certain realizations. Good ones. First, that there is no such thing as having attained ‘complete knowledge’. This is a concept I  was introduced to when I began learning Hindustani Vocal as a young boy. I heard my own Gurus and doyens of Classical Music say that they remained students their entire lives. That there was no limit to gaining knowledge, honing one’s craft, improving, evolving. Now, I am experiencing the same phenomenon myself. With each session, either as a result of interacting with a wide age-range of students who constantly keep me fresh with a perspective unique to that generation, or through having to answer a slew of diverse queries,  I stay informed not only about my own subject but the world and its people. It is a beautiful thing to happen, especially to an educator – to stay fresh, relevant, and energized.

By that same token, I have been blessed to have students who are as young as five years, and as mature as fifty-five. That published authors and writers would come to a much younger and relatively inexperienced writer like myself to take a Writing Workshop is proof that there are people out there, living and breathing the philosophy I earlier mentioned. That despite their laurels, they are OPEN. To gaining more exposure, to putting themselves out there and being among other students, I suspect to gather different view points, a myriad of shared experiences, and partake of the buffet of knowledge that is served up with each new human interaction.

I am sharing this particularly addressing the many people who think that they are ‘past their prime’, that they’ve ‘missed the boat’. There is simply NO such thing. As the cliche goes – It is REALLY Never Too Late. And this is what Teaching has taught me. That a teacher can improve with each lesson, as can his students, no matter who or what they may be – that is the beauty of knowledge and shared, lifelong learning. An eternal quest that only rewards and enriches!

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?

 

What Qualifies Someone To Teach?

In India, in order to teach, a B Ed Degree is mandatory. I present to you, with no disrespect intended to the millions of teachers who have secured their B Ed Degrees, an alternate scenario. One where, in my limited experience, the engagement, enthusiasm, participation and learning of a class of pupils, has little or nothing to do with the teacher’s ‘qualification’. I teach from Primary School all the way up to College and beyond. And I have found that EFFECTIVE teaching demands a few KEY elements…

  1. Earning Trust – For a teacher to earn the trust of a class, is vital. But this has two big prerequisites. One, that the teacher student relationship be given TIME to develop. Two, that the relationship itself, CAN NOT be based on FEAR. There will be NO trust building in that case. There is a fine line between FEAR and RESPECT. And I believe it can be maintained.
  2. Entertaining Education – We live in a world where students have access to an array of ‘instant entertainment’ – be it youtube, online games, social media sites/platforms; all on their cell phones. THIS is what teachers are competing against. So in order to ENGAGE students, a TEACHER must be an ENTERTAINER, a PERFORMER.
  3. Cultural Context, Similarities – In order to ‘connect’ with students, teachers should be able to ‘speak their language’ – literally, metaphorically, culturally. Unfortunately, because of how most of our society is structured, our teachers and students belong to completely contrasting universes. So where then, can be the commonality? How many teachers will be able to have a chat with a student about Bieber? How many students, will be able to identify with a teacher’s last family holiday?
  4. Respect Students – Respect can not be demanded. And it is certainly not one-way. A teacher today is living a fallacy if he/she thinks that the teacher is some beacon of knowledge and the students are empty vessels. A teacher HAS to respect a student intellectually and individually. I learn everyday from each student of mine. But if a teacher is closed-off to that notion, chances are there will be very little engagement.

I have been teaching for not TOO long now. But I have made some observations that have been corroborated time and again. That a teacher NEEDS to know about what he or she is teaching, and along with that, know the students’ world. And in that world, no B Ed is required!

TOSSed Salad for the Creative Soul!

I had the privilege recently of getting to know a very interesting couple in Jaipur. Shilpi and Hitesh Adwani. These photographers/film makers have given birth to a silent but potent movement in the city. Their radical, free-thinking school/college/creative playground, The Open Space Society (TOSS), has quietly begun to make an impact.

The couple, and their ‘society’, has certainly made an impression on me. Though I’d met them some time ago,  I finally made my way to meet the two, at TOSS, earlier today. From what I can understand, it is a space that has no ‘boundaries’. Literal ones aside, just as their mission, to espouse creativity; the space has no limits to what can be conceived and created within its liberating campus. TOSS regularly holds workshops in the broad area of the ‘media-arts & sciences’, be it Photo-Book Making or Theater, conducted by carefully selected, highly qualified & experienced, eminent experts. The school also organizes film-screenings and other events, with a slew of exciting, piping hot offerings always brewing.

I’ve always fancied myself as someone who provides an atmosphere for creativity – Shilpi & Hitesh though, have fashioned a living, tangible reality in TOSS, one that quite literally is a manifestation of their creative-karma! Poised to shortly turn into a state-of-the-art, full fledged Media College offering a slew of courses covering the entire Media Gamut, TOSS has to be seen to be believed. Made entirely from reclaimed materials, the air through TOSS is easy yet inspirational, modern yet traditional. To house, among other things, a one-of-its kind Media Library upon completion (very soon), TOSS will emerge as the definitive Media-Studies & Expression destination.

The couple is ingenious, unorthodox, and quietly eccentric (in my view, and I mean that as a big compliment). Just what the city needs to ‘charge’ up the environment. For the young and the young-in-spirit, The Open Space Society must be engaged with. Because here, they don’t give a TOSS about who you are… rather, what you CAN BE! It is then, really, a delectable TOSSed Salad for the Creative Soul!

https://www.facebook.com/tossjaipur/

Open Minds, Free Hearts

Yet another brutal reminder of terrorism. The New York attack. Barely 10 hours back. In Lower Manhattan! My brother, his girlfriend, cousins, countless friends; all a stone’s throw from the scene!

A lot of ‘noise’ is made on this subject. There will be news debates galore, social media will be buzzing in the aftermath of this nth brazen violation of our collective freedom.

Perhaps one way of solving this deep-rooted terror problem is to really start with the younger generation. I always try to sensitize my students about the problems of the world we live in.  Terrorism is a tricky one. What is the right way of introducing such an ugly truth to young minds? How, when, where? One has to be careful not to upset an innocent mind; at the same time not bring up kids in a rose-tinted fool’s paradise.

I leave you with the link to a short film. In my senior grades, I tend to use this beautiful short film to initiate an important discussion. Perhaps, this is one way?

Heart Over Head

A lot of the parents of my students ask me to ‘convince’ their respective children to choose a specific set of subjects, leading up to a specific, predetermined career. This selection of course, and I don’t mean to deride at parents’ intentions, often times has nothing to do with the child’s passion, talent, instinctive abilities or leanings. If I question the parents, I’m often told that they’re too young to know any better, or that they are confused and that it is incumbent upon the parents & teachers to ‘guide’ them. ‘Guide’ though, in most cases, is a euphemism for ‘direct order’. And that, I take issue with.. Serious issue!

Why must we as parents be in such a tearing hurry to have our kids ‘figure it out’? Is it not wonderful that life be this journey of discovery throughout? Does the sense of wonder, amazement, and happiness not count?

I must confess.. I rarely propagate what I’ve been asked by a parent to do! Not because I’m unjustifiably rebellious. But if I feel the ‘suggested’ path is at odds with the student, I DO NOT propagate it.

Instead, I show them this…..

Lets Go Outside..

The classroom can be a wonderful place for a student to learn, gain knowledge, explore, and discover. Sometimes however, it helps to GO OUTSIDE!

Whenever I teach a session on ‘communications development’, grooming, or what is unimaginatively called ‘personality development’, I like to take my students outside. One of the sessions I always take is at my favorite breakfast eatery in town. Here, the students and I get an opportunity to interact in a more informal environment. And there is an immediate and tangible reflection of this lighter atmosphere in the students’ behavior. They are more open, more free to express, less inhibited. In doing this, I also have the chance to expose them to a real-world scenario. Not that my students don’t go out with their parents; the act of being out with a teacher is altogether different though. So be it simple instructions on table manners, public etiquette, and an informal chat about what’s going on in all of our lives – all of this solicits some surprisingly intimate bonding, confessions, free banter, and subconsciously, gaining of public-conduct skills.

This weekend for example, I am taking one of my batches to breakfast, and now that the weather is better in Jaipur, another batch will just sit outside in the garden with me and we will read stories to each other.

Think of it this way… If man had never crawled out from under his rock, or emerged from his cave, how would he have DISCOVERED the world?

Ta-boo!

Competition.. Schools, parents, children, are all competing..

Vigorously.. Vehemently..

To what end though? To gain that enviable spot at an IVY League College? Which, will then land that once-in-a-lifetime Job Interview? Which will make that student a Ripe Marriage Prospect? Which will then facilitate yet another Suburban, Mortgaged, Cloned, Picket-Fenced Life?

Was a time when our grandparents and teachers told us about stories of courage. Of kindness and of love. Of living life in the moment. As we were growing up, blissful, rolling about in the mud with the neighbor’s children, eating mud, racing paper-boats through rainy-streams; something changed.. Something died..

It became more about Marks & GPAs, less about exploring, expressing, learning and understanding. It became more about Certificates, less about empathy, helpfulness,  sensitivity and caring. It became more about “my Harvard graduate son”, and less about “my son”.

How? Why? When? Because of What? And by Whom? One is not sure about these answers. But I can offer a small solution. Let us TALK to our kids. Not LECTURE, Talk. Not INSTRUCT, Engage. Not REPRIMAND, Explain. Not PUNISH, Reason.

Talking CAN solve the world’s problems, including this one. The world needs, now more than ever, SENSITIVE, AWARE, EMOTIONALLY-AVAILABLE Young People. Let us create those, rather than A+ Robots & Zombies.

And to start, Let Us Talk about ALL the ‘Taboo’ issues…

Because ONLY Awareness will create Inclusion…

I leave you with a film I ALWAYS show my students… Its just a 6 min Short Film.. Please watch..