(This was a story about the school, and the class I took, that I started writing in 2014–15, intending to publish as a book. With so many other pressing work claiming my time, this was never completed. But I thought I will put up the unfinished work anyway, a bit of it everyday, for our students to read. If you like it a lot, maybe I can be persuaded to write more!)
‘Bring out your sentence homework,’ I say.
This is one of the few conventional stuffs that we do — students have to write sentences using the words given.
‘The first word is — absorb. Anybody has a sentence on it?’
Urgi raises his hand. His enthusiasm never diminishes, no matter how many bad sentences he writes.
‘I absorbed the lizard which was walking on the classroom wall.’
The class erupts into hoots of laughter, shrieks, screams. ‘That’s observe, Urgi, not absorb,’ I say. ‘And it is evident you observe lizards on the wall, rather than listening to the classroom discussion, otherwise how could you write sentences like this?’
‘Well, next one — extravagant– who has a sentence on that?’
‘We did not understand the meaning of this word,’ Fluffy volunteers to explain, bravely.
‘Well, you are being extravagant when you spend excessive amount of money for something.’
‘Like the Shah of Iran, who used to take bath in milk?’ Bhau, always the first to connect issues, apply concepts.
I talked about the Oscar winning movie ‘Argo’ once in the class, and talked about why Iranian people were furious with the Shah because of his excessively luxurious ways.
‘Yes, yes, but it was not the Shah of Iran who bathed in milk, but his wife.’ I corrected.
A torrent of comments.
‘But why would somebody like to bathe in milk? Won’t it feel sticky?’
‘Yeah, and she would smell funny!’
‘I want a WC which uses milk to flush.’
This comment takes the class to a frenzy of imagination — a bathroom where there are separate buttons in the WC, giving you various options for flushing, one with milk, and another with Pepsi.
‘Why Pepsi? I like Coke!’
‘You are not going to drink it, it’s just for flushing!’
‘Well, well,’ I find it difficult to stop the flurry of comments. Raising my voice over the din, I say, ‘Well, such a bathroom will be called an extravagant bathroom.’
‘Shah of Iran did one other thing — he supposedly got his lunch flown in by concord planes to Iran — such a thing can also be called extravagant.’
‘That day we saw a picture in the newspaper where a politician was wearing a garland made of 500 Rs notes,’ Bhau says, ‘such a thing may also be called extravagant.’
‘Correct,’ I say, ‘now let’s move on. We can’t be learning only one word during the whole class.’
Cloudy day. Light drizzle.
The students come to me even before the afternoon class begins. ‘Sir, let’s go out somewhere.’
‘No, no, we are always going out. We are hardly staying in the class. The parents are complaining.’
‘Oh, you always say that. That’s just an excuse. Only you are complaining.’
‘Ok, ok, we’ll see. We can go out after the school, if the weather stays like this. But now we have to work. Come on, get inside — open your ‘Life is beautiful’ booklet.’
Life is beautiful, an Oscar-winning movie by Roberto Benigni, is a favourite with the students. We discuss the screenplay first, then show the movie. The dialogues are full of humour, and of course, we can sneak in some history of World War II and the holocaust without the students noticing it.
But today they are in no mood. Goody-Goody crosses out the ‘beautiful’ in the booklet name, to change it to ‘Life is disgusting’. A few others see her and follow suit.
We wanted our kids to know important news around the world, but newspaper articles are too difficult for kids of class IV or V. So we collect a few articles, simplify the language a bit, and give them to read as a weekly newsletter. This class always produces a lot of lively discussion.
Today’s first news item — ‘Woody Allen refuses to screen his latest movie in India’. The director felt that the anti-tobacco scrolls during a couple of smoking scenes in the movie will be distracting for the audience. Since those anti-tobacco scrolls are mandatory in India, he refused to screen the movie in India.
‘So what’s your view on this?’ I ask. ‘How many of you support the idea of the anti-tobacco scrolls?’
No hand is raised. A very anti-government class, I think! But lack of support could also be due to lack of opinions, lack of a desire to speak up. So I decide to stir things up a bit.
‘Many movies show a lot of violence, killings. Shouldn’t the government also make it mandatory to write: ‘Murder is an evil activity’ during those scenes?’
Now they get the idea.
‘Yes, and during chase scenes — ‘Running around in busy roads could be injurious to health’?
‘And when lovers hug and kiss on screen — ‘Kissing is not recommended for kids and teenagers’?
‘Ok, enough, let’s not go to that direction,’ I say. ‘At this rate, the scrolls will be running for the whole duration of the movie, along with the subtitles.’
We meet everyday after school to discuss how the day went, and to prepare for the next day. This is also a time when we talk to the new teachers about the way we teach.
‘Are we really following the syllabus prescribed by the board?’ a new teacher asks.
That’s a question that has been asked a hundred times — by parents, new teachers, visitors to the school. It bothers me that people are so caught up in prescribed syllabus that they forget what real learning is all about.
‘For the elementary level, say from LKG to class V — there is nothing like a syllabus prescribed by the board. Obviously, there are milestones — you are supposed to learn multiplication by class III, fraction by class IV and so on. But primary classes are more about developing skills, so that you can tackle more mature subjects like history or science in the middle school. You need to be good at reading and writing, good at calculation and logic, good at applying concepts to solve problems. Those are the skills that we prioritise.’
‘But the textbooks prescribed by the board will be followed in higher classes, right?’
‘Yes, sure,’ I reassure her, and she seems satisfied.
In reality though, I have no plans to follow any board textbooks till class VIII. Obviously, I need to get my students prepared for the board exams, so we have to do the standard syllabus from ninth standard, but before that I am determined not to put them through the standard grind. I will plot, conspire, lie, delay — I will use every strategy in the book, every ‘art of war’, so that dry, outdated textbooks are not unleashed on our children.