“Donkey Sir” Teaches Math

I can’t believe I’m writing this, but that insult to the children by their teacher we refer to as Donkey Sir,  “Where do you get your teachers at home, from the road?” grates at me, as does his asking them, “‘Do you all eat grass from the fields?”.   He gets his name because he calls all the kids at school donkeys.

Will the school see this blog?  Will they kick us out?  I have to write it though and  I might even bring it to them one day.  Donkey Sir’s words just say so much about how they see us, and what they feel free to say.  Granted the girls are having a hard time.  So are many of the others there.  In fact the Founder noticed that our girls were being singled out as doing badly while others in a similar state were not.  The teacher’s insult to the girls about eating grass in the fields was not taken so seriously by the school, as this kind of language is common.  But the insult to teachers, our teachers, was considered serious.  I understand he was reprimanded but they already knew he calls all the kids donkeys.  But to be honest, teachers are hard to find here, so maybe they feel they have no choice.  And teachers know they can do just about anything without getting fired.

The problem with insults is that they stick, long after you tell yourself to ignore them.  That’s why they are so effective.  That’s why they are spoken.

Today’s NY Times had a Sunday Opinion Piece: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/29/opinion/sunday/is-algebra-necessary.html?ref=opinion, questioning: Is Algebra Necessary?  It is written by Andrew Hacker who has also published with his wife, Claudia Dreifus a book:  ” Higher Education?: How colleges are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — and What We Can Do About It”

Claudia and I have been friends for many years.  Even before I met her, I was inspired by her first book Women’s Fate an early and pioneering work in the emerging area of women’s identity and consciousness.

Andrew Hacker writes:

This debate matters. Making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower. I say this as a writer and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources.

The toll mathematics takes begins early. To our nation’s shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. In South Carolina, 34 percent fell away in 2008-9, according to national data released last year; for Nevada, it was 45 percent. Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason.

He concludes:

Yes, young people should learn to read and write and do long division, whether they want to or not. But there is no reason to force them to grasp vectorial angles and discontinuous functions. Think of math as a huge boulder we make everyone pull, without assessing what all this pain achieves. So why require it, without alternatives or exceptions? Thus far I haven’t found a compelling answer.

To me, the most compelling reason to skip algebra (figuratively) is that the time, stress, hours of work, take away from other aspects of life and of study.  Oddly when I think about an educated person I think about their awareness of the world, literature, history, geography, current events, biology, …. having the skills of expression, thoughtfulness…. and enough math to balance the checkbook, though that may actually be stretching it for some.

I have a funny story about math.  My younger daughter and two of her friends were making chocolate chip cookies at our house in New Jersey, all high school seniors, waiting to go to college.  I was hanging out in the kitchen with them when they got stuck on how to cut the recipe in half as they only had enough chips for half the recipe.  “Mom, how do you get half of one and a half cups of sugar?”  I really laughed because these girls were about to go to Barnard, Princeton, and Brown, but couldn’t cut a cookie recipe in half.  And then I just told them, because numbers are easy for me, but obviously not for these very intelligent young women.

One of our girls loves math.  It’s wonderful to watch her mind spin with numbers and she should be going on with it.  And then there is one girl who likes it, can do it, but isn’t excited about it.  That’s fine too.  But we have a couple of girls for whom it is a huge abyss, with fear and failures and insults… and even without Donkey Sir, the struggle over math is consuming in terms of time, and a killer of self confidence and esteem.   What if math never figured in to self esteem?  It’s actually hard to imagine that in our cultures  — US and Indian.

A life time of experience tells me our girls in school are smart.  I have some who really can’t learn in any traditional way, and so we create other paths for them.  They came to us eager, and in some way were beaten down by a harsh system that discouraged curiosity and exploration, and depended on rote memorization in language (including Bengali) they really didn’t understand.  Without complaint they will spend hours and hours re-reading, even if they don’t understand, but too afraid to deal with thoughtful questions, or other ways of learning.

But Donkey Sirs are hard to get out of one’s head.  I can tell them to just ignore him forget what he said, but I haven’t been very good at that.  How dare he?  Why am I still arguing with him in my head?

At School: Deer Caught in the Headlights*

“Deer in the Headlights.”  That’s how I think of the girls in school.  They are having a very hard time, in academics, and socially.  Academically they have switched to English, so it will take them time to catch up.  But I think even more, they are just terrified.  No one has misbehaved, even in the face of insults from teachers.  We have had tears, appropriate to the situations.

The educational world here is a cruel one, where too often teachers take out their anger, hate, frustrations, on the children.  In spite of national laws, hitting by teachers continues.  So does making them stand in positions of humiliation.  Our girls have not been beaten or made to hold their ears while squatting 50 times.  But they have been asked if they eat grass from the field, and they have been asked if our Shishur Sevay teachers were found on the road.  This was asked of them by a teacher we had already nicknamed “Donkey-Sir” as he calls all the kids Donkeys. Back at home we all had a good laugh because everyone comes from the road, no helicopters here, no flying elephants… just broken bumpy roads.

This is a private school, founded on high principles, but it all comes down to the teachers, like childcare comes down to who is actually taking care of the children.  “The devil is in the details.”  I’m writing because I’m at a crossroads again about their education.  I’m continually evaluating what is working, what isn’t, what needs to change, including in my own perspective.  The cultural differences and behaviors in education are far more alien to me than any other aspects of life here.  I just figured out that I have been a school parent for some 40 years now!  Over those years, I don’t think I ever felt demeaned by teachers or school officials.  I had disagreements along the way, many, but it always felt like we were on the same level, even when I was told that the school knew better than I did what my daughters needed.   I’m struggling as I write this because there have been exceptions, but that’s what they have been.  And there have been some good teachers along the way.  There have also been some “nice” teachers who unfortunately held the girls to such low standards, they are still behind.   But now that I’ve made my DISCLAIMER, that I’m not talking about ALL schools, let me tell you what it’s been like.  I need to.  Warning: this may be long. I’ve not done well with schools.

Special Education:  The first school where I sent our kids was one I had funded several years before in a program to help the orphans with disability who were “left over” when IMH closed.  Feeling some sense of responsibility for these children none of us took, I paid for their evaluations and the building of appropriate chairs and other furniture for them, and for training of staff as to how better to care for them.  So, when I came back a few years later, having founded Shishur Sevay, I expected to be treated as another professional, not “just a parent.”  We were off to a bad start when I sang, ‘If you’re happy and you know it, clap you hands…” to another crying child in the room.

I tried another school for kids with disabilities.    They wanted a special letter from the Director of Social Welfare giving them permission to take the four little ones.   We did last three weeks.  At that school the children were not given water for the four hours they were there.  We would pick them up and they would, all four, be thrusting out their tongues for water.  The bottle we sent with them was not used.  The Principal said, “we will look into it,” but nothing changed.  On the first day we had gone to pick them up and they were stuck to the chairs, which had been painted but not dried.  We had to peel them off the chairs, which meant they had not been moved in four hours.  (The school offered to pay for new uniforms for them.) But it was really the water that was the clincher, and my wondering, “What kind of people deny water to children who can’t speak or walk?”  I just didn’t want the kids with people like that.

Well, back to my older girls, the ones with the headlights in their eyes, I need to shift my assessment from, they WON’T study to they CAN’T study.  I’ve had some outside teachers, friends recently who have really helped me figuring this out.   The girls are smart, but what they know is not making it to the tests.  Some of it is just learning English, some is a wall of protection that keeps them from trying.   If I imagine a headlight in my eyes, then parts of speech or lowest common denominator are pretty irrelevant.  Yesterday I was looking at a test on of the girls took.  It was about a story her class had read in school.  The test was a series of questions and answers.  The questions were from the back of the chapter and the answers had been dictated by the teacher.  For the test she had to be able to write the answers word for word.  Her spelling was not good.  She didn’t do them all.  But even if she had, the question remained in my mind, “So what?”   Was she learning comprehension?  She didn’t even have to find the answers to the questions herself.  Back in their first school, the government school, teachers read out answers to the standardized tests.  We used to call that teacher “Answer-Aunty.”  In the next school we had “Caste-Aunty” the one who asked them their religion and Caste in order to place them in the Houses.  Last, I can’t resist adding “Gold-Aunty” who this year complained that I had not sent enough costume jewelry for the dance.  I had however sent enough saris for all the girls in the dance, as we had extras.  It wears me down.  I’m sure it wears the girls down.

I want them to be educated, to be able to think and write and express themselves.  But I also want them to have the necessary certificates to go on into academic or vocational fields.  The workload makes that near impossible.  I’m looking now at the National Institute for Open Schools, a government initiative for older students, with a board exam at Classes X and XII similar to other State and National Boards.  I had tried to do that earlier for one of the girls, but the lower grade program was run out of the same school where I’d withdrawn the children with disabilities, and they turned us away.  That’s what I mean, the vengeance… I don’t get it.

Why re-thinking now?  There is always a reason. For one of the girls we have been able to make contact with her relatives and we will be going to see them.  For privacy I’ll leave it at that.  You see, if she imagines she might be able to go back to her village, then when she is insulted at school she thinks, “I don’t have to take this.  I’d rather live in my village.”  When she told me this, I immediately thought of the others, and whether they take the abuse out of a sense of no choice.  That’s not OK either, not for any of them.  These discussions have brought us all closer.

I’ve looked at the times I’ve been grumpy with the girls and decided to cease and desist, immediately, and I did.  Last weekend we had a really relaxed time with some TV, some cooking, some hanging out, some studying.  I think after Rosalind Forber-Pratt’s visit and her work with the girls, I’m not so worried about them.  I have a better understanding of what keeps them from using their thinking abilities.  Also now that it’s all in English, I have an idea about what is going on, and no one is able to shut me out of their studies.

Well, I just stopped writing to check on how they were doing.  They all seemed really happy doing their work, talking with each other….  It’s REALLY hard being a mother.  You know, here in West Bengal, at exam time the mothers all go to the temple to pray for their children.  The children are happy to have their parents out of the house so they can watch some TV.  I know all about keeping one’s distance, equilibrium, all the theory.  But mothering is being in it with them, and at the same time trying to keep your periscope up so you can see the bigger picture and change course when necessary.

Mother with periscope.

p.s.  Ganga can dance now in a harness made for her.  Here is a video of her first try.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=96I9HfpI7F4&feature=youtu.be    I sent a picture to the school and asked if she could dance with the others in the Independence Day Ceremonies, but they said no.  They said she could sing with the group, but she hates that because she just sits there in her wheelchair unable to make sounds come out of her mouth.  I’m upset.  Down periscope and I tell her the world is a tough place.  Up periscope and the seas look rough, the sun hiding behind gray clouds.  Down periscope and the kids are happy and the house is bright and pretty and full of good sounds.

*The term “Deer caught in the headlights” refers to the situation when a deer is crossing a road and a car is coming, and the sudden headlights cause the deer to freeze, unable to run.  It’s also been used as a method of hunting animals, shining a light in their eyes and when they freeze, to shoot them.

What is G.K. ? (a.k.a. General Knowledge)

GK is a school course in Indian schools.  I first was introduced to it when I was staying with Gibi’s family and helping Jugal with homework.  I’d been puzzled by the questions he seemed to be studying, one day movie stars, and the next day flags of different countries… seemingly random questions and subject matter.  Well, that’s what it is, random, and what you would study if you were preparing for a general quiz.  Quizzes are very popular here.   This year is the first year the girls are studying in English, so I am more able to see what they have to learn.  I’m working with all their subjects to help them find ways to learn, remember more, get higher grades (that’s being blunt).  They are capable of doing better than they are, at least the ones we have in an outside school.

Thursday is a GK test, so I suggested we begin a few days early preparing.  They showed me three pages in their GK book.  One is about animals, facts about several different animals and where they live.  This included polar bear, jackal, pangolin, hyena, armadillo, gibbon, bactrian camel, and opossum.  This evening we went online to look at images and a few videos of them.  Then there is a page of water animals and fish, and last is the page I’ve copied below.  Well, part of the page is here.  There was even more.  The task: to learn what these abbreviations mean.  They don’t have to know anything about the subjects or the organizations, just the names and abbreviations.

I asked, “How will we find the answers?”  I was concerned about how they would find all these names, how I would help them, but there was no reason to worry.  They opened the book to the last pages and showed me all the answers to page 33.  It’s how they had found all the names of the animals, from the back of the book.  “Aha!” I said, and then asked them to leave a copy of the book with me so I could scan it.

To be learned for a test this week.

Next, the answers from the back of the book.  They are random.  I also had to explain the differences (?) between organizations, corporations, associations, companies,  bureaus….  So these are the answers below and they have to make lists of the abbreviations and the names.

It’s now the 4th of July, night time, and today there was a crisis at the school.  A teacher said to our girls, “You eat grass from a field?”  Then, “Where do you find your teachers, on the road?”  The girls have been demeaned a lot, and picked out as a special group for demeaning.  Actually there is a lot of demeaning going on in the school.  It seems to be the default attitude among some teachers.  So I went to meet with the admin, and took Gibi along.  I decided we would approach the school as “sad” and that was fairly effective.  We got apologies, as the school admin does not want this kind of behavior.  But it’s the culture of schools.  This school has taken it seriously.  They asked why I didn’t come earlier and I said simply I was afraid, and the girls were afraid that there would be retaliation.  But today the girls broke down in class crying, and Ganga’s teacher saw them and called me.

Well, now at 11 pm they are still studying the abbreviations.  I decided to help by organizing them by function… sports, tv/radio, science & education, etc.  So this is my contribution.

The abbreviations organized in groups

I seem to have gotten a few wrong, but the girls corrected me.  The girls had about three hours of Bangali and math homework before they could get to this.

It just hurts.  One teacher refused to call them by name, referring to each one as Shishur Sevay.  I tried to explain to the school that these attitudes are not conducive to studying or self confidence.  I’m not sure it registered.  I do believe though that the Founder, Principal, and Vice Principal with whom we met have taken us seriously and will try.

A few weeks ago we were working on a grant application and they asked us for what we thought were our three biggest accomplishments.  Well, our biggest and best is that WE ARE HERE!  We have survived five years.  We continue to thrive and we keep taking one obstacle at a time, one day at a time, one test at a time… I know I keep repeating myself but I can’t stop thinking, “You eat grass?”  This is about animals, cows, horses, sheep, goats, not children who have been abandoned and abused…. The words stay with me as I know they will stay with the girls, stacked on top of all the other demeaning and humiliating remarks that have been made to and about them.  And tomorrow when they take this GK test, they will have to push all this from their minds and try to remember that RBI stands for Reserve Bank of India, and not Runs Batted In, which is what Maggie and I thought at first.

July 2012
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