Math Education

About a month ago, the older girls came home with a failing grade on their math test.   Math isn’t their strength, but they haven’t done this badly before.  We had a new math teacher, as the previous one left without notice to take a good job.  I asked the girls, “what went wrong?”  If they had done “medium” I would have assumed they may not have studied enough, but all failing meant something else was wrong.  “They changed the numbers,” one of the girls told me.  “The numbers were different from the ones we studied.”  I looked at the teacher.  Yes, she had been working from the question bank books and didn’t routinely change numbers.  So if a girl got the SAME problem correctly over and over, she was considered taught.  So I told the teacher she had to change numbers. 

This was not the first time this has come up.  I’ve insisted a lot of math teachers do this, but I forget when a new one starts.  I thought we were OK.   The girls are in Bengali Medium school so all their work is in Bengali, including the numbers.  I’m able to do the numbers but can’t read the problems.  I’ve been helping them with fractions also.  Two years ago I found wonderful fraction sheets, strips, online and printed out worksheets.  At that time I gave them to the math teacher, and she gave them to the girls for artwork.  I asked if she told them it was about fractions.  No, she was planning to in the future. 

Last night the girls asked for some help with math.  We got through the first three problems, with them trying to translate, and my knowing the numbers.  Then we came to a problem:  a field has an area of 360 sq. meters.  How many meters on each side?  The girls all agreed the answer was 90 meters.  I went over the Bengali with them, and yes they were sure the 360 was SQ. meters.  So I showed them that the area would then be 8100 sq.m.  They insisted the Bengali asked for area, not length.  So then I tried to figure the square root of 360 and went to the internet to refresh myself and then figured since 3600 was a perfect square, maybe the teacher left off a “0” in the problem.  Or, she made the error in saying it was area, not length of perimeter.

Today I asked the teacher.  I put the problem up and she insisted the answer was 90.  It was clear that even in Bengali (I had a translator with me) she was confused about area and length.  Finally after going over length and area with her I asked if she understood what she had done wrong.  She told me, “Yes, I should not have changed the number given in the question bank.”  Namely she doesn’t know how to do the math.

I pay all teachers and I pay well.   But I can’t really “vet” them because of the language.  The girls have been very happy with her, probably because she never yells at them, and always answers their questions and helps them with numbers.  This has been a chronic problem, teachers who just give answers.  The teachers in school do the same thing.  And in the government school they were in earlier, teachers even give answers during exams.

We have a system of “tuition” here where the school teachers (for fees) teach the same students at night that they have in school.  If a child is getting tuition from a school teacher, then the child will also be given advance information of what is on the exam.  We were in the system briefly and we were paying a math teacher for after-school teaching but the principal intervened and said our four could not be taught there.  I’ve written about this before.

Our solution is that we will move the girls to English medium, a hard task but necessary at this point.  We will have a four-month period in which to do intensive teaching here.  I’m putting together a team.  The girls in special education have been taught in English since the beginning.  I did this because I wanted to be able to bring in teachers from outside West Bengal, and I also wanted to be able to know exactly what was going on with them and their teaching.  There are some computer programs in Bengali but they were made proprietary and require their own switches which are no longer being made. 

I desperately need help here.  It’s a learning process.  I simply can’t find the kind of committment I’ve known elsewhere in teaching.  Special educators do not have to be college graduates or teachers before taking a course and becoming certified.  And they are products of the educational system where you stick with the question bank.  I sold what I had in the US, and with my retirement money came here to take care of children no one wanted and no one considered worthy of education.  The problem isn’t funds; it’s people, skills, curiosity, belief in the power of caring and teaching.

Thanks for your interest in listening.  I have this crazy idea that orphans are as deserving as any other of our children. 

Oh, the math teacher?  She will leave in two weeks when exams are over, and in the meantime she is teaching history and geography.

Rani is pointing to the computer. She is being taught by one of our older girls.

Ganga going to school with the big girls. Bornali is smart but does NOT like to study! She tolerates it because she likes pleasing her teachers.

Sonali has little vision, but manages to organize people to meet her needs (wishes) quite well.


Bornali is smart but does NOT like to study! She tolerates it because she likes pleasing her teachers.

A Regular Morning

On this morning everyone is learning. Four are in the dining room studying for final examinations at their school next week. Three of the children with disabilities are upstairs in a classroom with three teachers, one a special educator.. Gordon, our new English teacher is in our big room working with five other girls, one who is multiply handicapped with CP, but who follows all that goes on, and loves education. She is with a helper who is learning. Another girl in this group is severely dyslexic. For the girls with dyslexia and with CP, I am producing Widgit papers so they can keep up, and indicate thoughts. I’m printing up sheets with words like happy, sad, school, computer, no speech, no walk… I’m also trying to finish the website, just managed to finish writing a short bio… We are an orphanage and school operating in 900 sq.ft. on ground floor and then a classroom on 1st and on 2nd floor, each about 250 sq.ft. All furniture is on wheels.
One day I hope we will have a bigger place, with a ramp from floor to floor, and accessible to all.
I’m the hold up on the website as I’m pulled in so many directions, but in my mind the immediate needs have to come first… like writing up Widgit pages. My BIG dream would be to have an expert with Widgit come and work with us for a while. Anyone feel like coming for Kolkata? You are needed!

Little Girl Alone on a Corner, Summer 2001

 The year was 2001.  This was our second summer in Kolkata.  I’ve carried the picture of this little girl for years, and then put it up on our photo board at Shishur Sevay.  This little girl is part of our history. 

One day we were driving in town and stopped at a rather long traffic light.  The little girl was standing there alone.  I looked in all directions but there was no adult, or child anywhere in sight.  The little girl stood there, expectantly, as if someone would come for her.  I wanted to get out of the car and get her to a safe place, or just stay with her in case someone did come.  But our driver, and others insisted that if I were to get out, people would think I was trying to kidnap her and they would beat me up.  I knew they were right.  Eventually the light changed.  I’d taken her picture.  I’ve never forgotten her.  She is part of the story of why I am here, why we have Shishur Sevay.

That night I called someone who ran an adoption home.  I told her about the child, asked if there is a way to trace children, wondered what would happen to her.  My friend told me there was no system.  Sometimes police bring children to that home directly; sometimes they go other places.  There was no system, no way to know.  I kept wondering why there weren’t computers keeping track, records, posters, emergency sirens.  The situation is not so bad now.  If a child is taken by police to the correct agency, the child can be found if anyone is looking.  But sometimes police don’t take the children to the correct place.  Sometimes children are just disappeared.  And even if they are taken to the “right place” they may still spend their lives behind the bars of a government institution.  Ironically, in 1997, when I was Director of the Johnson & Johnson Institute for Children, I was able to get funds to help establish Childline in Mumbai. 

I’m working on the website for Childlife Preserve Shishur Sevay.  It will be accessible for visually and hearing impaired, and additionally will be supported by Widgit (c)  symbol language.  But it’s writing the content that slows me down and that slows everyone down in the process.  Today I was writing about the origins of our girls.  I was thinking about illustrations.  One of our girls was lost in a similar way.  She says matter-of-factly,   “My mother left me on the corner of the street and told me to wait until she came back.  But she never came back.”  And eventually the child wandered and eventually she ended up with the police, who took her to the government home.  She was there about a year and then came to us.  For a very long time she could not remember the names of anyone in her family, but then she started to remember, started to draw picture after picture of herself crying.

For a few years after I’d photographed that girl left on the corner, I’d talk about her.  A couple of times people offered to look for her, or rather promised they could take the pictures and find her.  I gave out her picture.  I don’t know where she is, but her lostness touched me, so she too is part of this home. 

Our girls all have terrible stories of violence, abuse, suicide and murder of parents…. and of course our two girls with CP each have closed earring holes, so they must have had families at one time.  Well, actually, all our children had families at one time.

I hope this little girl from the corner, who now must be 12-13 years or so, has found a safe place.  Sometimes I try to convince myself that five minutes later someone came for her.  But I know that’s not true.  In Kolkata, if you care about a child you don’t leave her unguarded for a minute.  It’s not safe.   You don’t leave money on the street and expect it to be there when you come back.  You know it won’t be there.  But people leave children all sorts of places, on corners, on trains, next to ponds…. those are the stories told to me by our girls at Shishur Sevay.

This little girl’s picture will be on the website too.  She is part of our history, her story is the story of all our girls, and the story of our lost children.


This morning I asked Gibi (Jasvinder Kaur, who founded Shishur Sevay with me) if she remembered this girl.  She said she has her picture up, looks at it from time to time, and wonders what happened to her.  She remembered that I’d sent my driver back to the area, asking about the child.  Yes, this little girl is part of the history of Shishur Sevay.


When Staff Hits A Child With Disabilities

I consider this one of the “hard subjects” of taking care of orphan children, abled and with disabilities.  Some years ago I fired two teachers for hitting a child so hard her mouth bled profusely.  One was a Montessori teacher.  In both cases the teachers tried to hide what they did, and the children did not report it.  In both cases I learned about it quickly and fired the teachers. 

What happens when children do not have voice?  Yesterday I was suddenly called to the dressing room because Bornali was screaming and bleeding from the nose.   She had just been in the shower and was now on a mat being dressed.  She is difficult to manage physically because of her size and kicking.  No one would say what happened, no one saw anything.  I accepted that maybe she had knocked herself while being bathed.

That was yesterday.  Today I learned that one of the childcare workers had hit her in the face with her fist.  Another person knew but was concealing it.  She told a teacher who also concealed it.  This afternoon I learned the truth after someone told someone who told someone who told me.  The childcare worker and the teacher are gone.  For the teacher it was a second time she has known but not said.

Once, two years ago I looked up from my desk and saw a childcare worker “fling” a child by an arm and leg.  I rushed into the room, but everyone else in the room denied that anything had happened.  There was nothing I could do.  No, I can’t, especially as a foreigner fire someone for something no one else present saw.  Several weeks later this woman did something else bad.  I don’t remember what.  I fired her.  Then I heard many stories of how she had been abusing the children.

This is not unique to Shishur Sevay, or to India.  It happens everywhere.  It’s the “dirty little secret” of taking care of children, especially those who cannot speak.  All doors at Shishur Sevay have glass.  Privacy is dangerous to children.  I know I will “take heat” in the community for this.  I believe that abuse is widespread, in schools, Homes, and homes.  We have a “child protection policy” that says you MUST report any abuse you see.  But no one will do it.

Tonight I hugged Bornali and told her this person was gone, that she would never come back.  Bornali rested her head on my arm and closed her eyes.

October 2011
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