I started this post almost a month ago and updated it once already, now twice, and I just posted a "quick post" about today 6 February 2010, and now it is time to get this post done and posted.  I'm not sure why it is so hard.  I've struggled over education for three years now… and finally feel confirmation of what I've believed needs to be done — there is much I would do differently.  I was clueless about cultural differences in education, in spite of years of sponsoring children here.  I was clueless as to how to get good teachers since there is not a cadre of people who want to teach orphans.  I made assumptions of what teaching was, based on my US experience.  And West Bengal is close to the bottom in education in India in many ways.  I spent so many years "idealizing" the city of my daughter's birth.  I don't think I underestimated what it would take to educate girls who came from such deprived environments — and I'm not referring to living conditions, but to the violence and disorganization of their lives.  But i think others did underestimate the effort it would take and still takes.  As with adopted children, too many people thought they should just be grateful, forget their pasts, and shape up to make me happy.  It doesn't work that way, and shouldn't work that way.


The girls got a wake up call from their school a few days ago, but didn't tell me.  They waited for the school to say something.  Lo!  they were not doing as well as they thought!  Last night we had a meeting about it all.  It's partly described in a post I did but doesn't seem to show up all times… but they got re-inspired for work, and today surprised their teachers with their enthusiasm.  Fundamentally I'm happy with their continued progress at whatever rate it is.  Sure, I wish it was faster, and easier but I'm more committed to understanding what it takes to educate them than pretending they have been easily or magically educated.  The girls need a huge amount of personal support and encouragement.  The best ratio would probably be one teacher to two students most of the time.  They are easily discouraged, which they evidence either by quitting, or by announcing they already know it and so they don't have to study.  (not so unusual of course). 


I'm not going to try to reorganize all this… take it as rough draft, because if I do, I'll end up spending another month figuring how to write it.  I will have an Education Coordinator who will put the teaching program together, based on what we know.  It is a partnership with the girls.  It has to be.  At the moment it is a strong partnership.  Shishur Sevay is a happy place to be.  It's almost 11 pm.  I'm writing;' the girls are watching movies.  Saturday they stay up until midnight (those who don't fall asleep).  I usually fall asleep before they do.  Tomorrow they will get up early and take a walk to see a new school where four of them will sit for an entrance exam later this week.  Good night again from Shishur Sevay.




I'm sitting in our office going over the most recent assessment exams with our math/history teacher.  I insisted we evaluate the girls, and that the teachers NOT explain directions or give hints.  I basically said that any teacher who said anything other than "quiet" during the exams would be fired.  I meant it.  The girls are used to being coddled here and at their school.  "We feel so bad for them," is what I hear over and over.  I can't stand it.  I get so angry.  I tell teachers to feel sorry for the kids in ten years if they are on the streets because they aren't educated.

I wanted to know if the girls could read Bengali well enough to understand questions and directions, and secondarily if they knew the material.  The exams are prototypes of the school exams to be given next month.

The girls did poorly on all six of their exams: English, Bengali, Math, History, Geography, and Science.  I have to admit that when I saw the poor results I felt like an absolute failure.  But I also had validation of what I had suspected, namely that their inflated results had been the result of coddling and kindness, and teachers telling me what they thought I wanted.  The psychological effect on the girls has been that they resent having to figure things out themselves.   And it "goes to their heads," so they say to me, "We are doing so well, why do we have to study more?" 


I started this post nine days ago so I'll sum up what has transpired:

I learned that the girls still have poor Bengali grammar and some speak with thick village accent.  I didn't know that.  No one wanted to tell me.  The reason I put them in Bengali medium schools so they would speak, understand good Bengali.  I think what happened is that because they are orphans, people expect them to sound like orphans, so it was never identified as a problem. 

I met with teachers — confronted them really, as to whether they let their own children speak that way.  I took out my early study papers in Bengali in which I had created forms for conjugating verbs, just so I could understand person and tense.  The Bengali teacher left without notice, just didn't show up and turned off her phone.  This is common here, in spite of written contracts.  I used to think it was about me, and others around me said it was because of me, but now I'm learning that this is just a common way for people to leave a job.  Fortunately I found a Bengali teacher two days later and she will teach until end of the school year (March), and maybe stay later.  We are in the process of interviewing.

I met with the girls and we talked about grammar and accents.  No, they didn't know.  Some people had "corrected" them from time to time but they didn't understand the context.  They certainly didn't know about conjugating verbs and how to know what form the endings should take.  I said to them that good speech is like dressing nicely, doing your hair nicely, and speaking nicely.  It's all part of how you present yourself.  We are going to a wedding reception in two days.  The girls are practicing good grammar.

I have had many meetings with the teachers and we have gone over and over the exam papers.  The girls do not understand directions.  But in marking answers, if the teacher thought they knew the material, even if the answer written was not totally correct, and had misspellings, they still gave them full credit!  When asked why, one teacher said, "I didn't want them to feel bad."  An example:  The question called for "write a sentence about ……."  In every case the girls wrote several sentences to fill up the paper.  If one sentence was correct, the girl got full credit!  I went over this with the girls and the teachers:  If I ask you to bring me a ball, and you bring me three balls, then you are incorrect.  Either you can't read or you can't count.  But your response is not correct.

In the case of math, if the process was right but the answer wrong, full credit was given for the process.

I have been sitting in on many classes and although I don't "know" Bengali I do understand the process and i'm pretty good at picking up what is going on.  In geography class the teacher was teaching about industries in different districts of West Bengal.  The first was jute industry.  She told the district and then went on the the next.  I interrupted and asked if anyone knew what jute is.  Only one girl did.  How are children supposed to learn WHERE it is if they don't know WHAT it is?  Then she went on to "gala" which she could not explain even in Bengali.  The girls zoned out. But I called someone to ask about "gala" and put the phone on speaker and we all had fun listening to her struggle to explain it, and then we heard her calling her daughter for a dictionary.  We finally figured it out.  They will never forget gala.  Then I suggested they find the district on the map hanging there.  They searched and searched but when they were looking too far north, the teacher told them it was south of there.  I asked her why she told them… said she should let them look for themselves.  But that is exactly what doesn't happen here.  No one is allowed to fail.  Criticism is bad.  Get the right answer at any cost.  Cheat if you must.  I am in conflict with my environment.  I had not expected this in relation to education, but as I talk to more and more educators I hear the same.  And as I talk to more and more NGOs I hear the same.  The weak link is in the teaching.

I used to have teachers who would only do group reading, so no one girl ever had to face the anxiety of reading alone, and missing words.  I think that is mostly gone.  To me group reading is like chants or prayers, where you don't really need to know the words… just hum along… but never have to do it alone.  I still remember how it felt in second grade when I had to read aloud and missed one word.  I just couldn't figure it out.  To learn we have to have those experiences.  We have to tolerate frustration and anxiety.  We have to tolerate getting it wrong.  We don't learn by osmosis, or at least most of us don't.  And I don't know any shortcuts.

Conflict with my environment:  I feel the most cultural mis-match in the area of education.  But I have to admit this is not just related to India.  I had lots of conflicts with my kids' teachers in the US.  Mostly their teachers didn't like me, felt I was to strict and held standards for my kids that were too high. – I am much more of a traditionalist in education than I'd imagined I would be.  I like good handwriting.  I like sentences with a capital letter at the beginning and a period at the end, with a subject, verb, object in between.  I want the same here, with adaptation to the Bengali differences in word order.  In my school career the only "D"s I ever received were in typing and Latin.

So here I am, some 50+ years later, typing and typing, and remembering "to love" and trying to teach this way of thinking to my children here.

This is what I remember (well, the first part I remembered; the second part I asked for some help from Google):

Amare: to love

amo, amas, amat,…I love, you love, s/he loves.
amamus, amatis, amant,… we love, you love, they love.

It's a system.  Every language has a system.  Bengali language has a similar system.  There are differences, like a familiar and polite form for second and third persons…  But the model holds, so if a child is using first person instead of third there is a systematic correction.  I have not been able to learn to speak or read Bengali well, but I understand the principles enough to help the girls learn to type in "Bangla Word" a word processing program.

So that is the culture conflict over learning.  The other cultural conflict is about job responsibility and professionalism, a critical and widely acknowledged problem in West Bengal. 






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February 2010
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