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7 Life Lessons: A Letter to My Students

Graduations remind me of diving boards: parents and teachers become spectators, waiting to see each student jump, spring, and dive into ...

Thursday, 15 September 2011

What's in a Word?

I have always been fascinated by words. Where they come from, how they evolve, how they break down into smaller bits (roots, suffixes, prefixes, parts of a compound word etc.), and most importantly all the baggage they carry. Each word conjures up a host of associations, flavours, and moods. The very idea of connotation fascinates me. How is it that a word, one little word, can say so much? And how is it that we can all understand all that baggage, all the history, all the stories that each word tells?
Why are words so important? How do they define and delineate the parameters of thought? Why are our thoughts so constrained by a lack of vocabulary but so liberated by a rich and varied vocabulary? Although a number of linguists have supposedly proven that thought is possible without language, I’m not totally and fully convinced. I’ve read Steven Pinker’s books on this particular topic, and I’ve heard his view reiterated by a number of other linguists, but I’m still fairly certain that most thought, if not all, is possible only when we have the words to think with. And definitely, having the right words helps to clarify, organize, articulate, and understand thoughts in meaningful ways.  The greater our vocabularies, the more sophisticated and complex our thoughts can be.
Last year, my students did an exercise where they tried to come up with alternatives for highly clich├ęd words like “sad” and “nice” and “mean” and “happy.” What we found, as a class, was that our alternatives were not just fresher, they were always more nuanced. Sad is a generic word, but dismayed, on the other hand, describes not just sadness, but a certain type and degree of sadness. Similarly, melancholic, miserable, and depressed all convey very specific types and degrees of sadness. The broader the range of vocabulary, the more accurately and effectively we can think and the more clearly we can articulate a thought. Quite phenomenal, if you ask me.
Given the enormous role that words play in our ability not only to comprehend what we read  but also to think critically and deeply about the world around us, I think that helping students expand their own vocabularies is a critical part of teaching. A staggering statistic: the average school child acquires between 2500 and 3000 new words each year. Most of these words, obviously, are learned incidentally. This year, I’m teaching a seventh grade course, a ninth grade course, and a tenth grade course. It is amazing to me how many words my seventh graders do NOT know: words like portray, anecdote, and peril. Most of my ninth graders know these words. I’m always impressed by the size of my high school students’ vocabularies. The fact that in two years, my seventh graders too will have these sophisticated high school vocabularies is incredible, to say the least.
What are the best ways to teach vocabulary? I think that using a sophisticated vocabulary is possibly the most natural and effective way to expose students to new words. Instead of dumbing down my vocabulary when I speak with teenagers (or even my own, much younger, children), I very intentionally use complex and nuanced words. If students ask me what the words mean, I will discuss the words. If not, I’ll just use the same word often, with the hope and expectation that my students will learn the word incidentally, just from hearing it used in context on multiple occasions. Additionally, I think that direct instruction is probably important. However, I find it hard to make the time to teach vocabulary in an explicit way, and I also find that these teaching sessions are not as productive as the more natural method of merely using more complex words. Students may be able to define a word that has been explicitly taught, but they often have trouble understanding it well enough to use it effectively. They don’t get the word; they don’t get all the connotations, all the baggage that the word carries, until they hear or read the word used in context often.
As a teacher, however, I can only do so much. Vocabulary acquisition has to start early, and it has to start in the home. The words that a child encounters from infancy onwards will determine not just how well the child does on reading tests down the road but also the child’s ability to think and communicate. If there’s anything a parent can do for a child, it is to expose the child to the richest array of words possible.

The Stories We Tell

Over the last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the impact that foundational stories have on people. By foundational stories, I mean those stories that most children in the culture are familiar with: the religious, mythological, and more contemporary stories that all children in a culture grow up hearing.  The more I think about the role that stories play in shaping a child’s understanding of self and society, the more I’m convinced that at a very early age (maybe 3 or 4),every young child already has a worldview based primarily on the stories he hears.

Take, for example, the stories that a typical child growing up in India hears. Even very young children hear about Rama, Lakshmana, and Sita, in the Ramayana. Through this story, they learn the tremendous importance of filial piety since Rama is revered for obeying his stepmother, Kaikeyi, without any questioning or resistance, even when she demands that he give up his kingship and live in the forest for 14 years. Rama is idolized for both obeying his stepmother without question and for ensuring that his father is able to keep his promise. The ideal son, Rama willingly gives up everything for his parents. Additionally, children learn about the responsibility and duty that siblings (brothers, particularly) have for each other. Lakshman accompanies Rama into the forest, and Bharatha only rules in Rama’s name. Finally, children imbibe a host of ideas about gender roles through this story: men fight, women need to be rescued, women should be chaste etc.

 Once an Indian child understands this basic storyline with all the values it carries, he will then encounter other stories through the Indian media, all of which reinforce and re-play these same themes and values. Every Bollywood story and Hindi soap will idealize the family in much the same way, and they will all emphasize and reinforce the centrality of these familial relationships. Without even realizing it, the Indian child, early on, will have been taught that the purpose of life is to uphold the family structure, no matter what the personal costs of this might be. Filial piety, unquestioning obedience towards one’s parents, a deep responsibility towards one’s siblings, and a certain patriarchal view of the world would have been etched in the child’s mind.

In contrast, the average Western child hears a different genre of stories. The stories don’t deal with the theme of filial piety; they centre instead on the individual, who must overcome obstacles to achieve an independent victory. Most Western children grow up either with religious (Biblical) stories, with fairy tales, and, if they’re lucky, with more contemporary classic Children’s literature. The Little Engine (that could) is not only kind but also courageous as she chugs up a very large hill so that she can help the dolls and toys get to the children on the other side of the mountain. Animal characters like Curious George and Franklin are the heroes of their own stories because they take risks, have adventures, and learn something.

 Even ancient Western myths like the Iliad and the Odyssey are about the individual’s quest for greatness. Biblical stories and parables also focus on Jesus’ life and his miracles. The New Testament is largely the story of an individual’s journey to help and save others. By the age of three or four, the average Western child has decided that the main purpose of life is to seek fulfilment and greatness on an individual level. You become great because you overcome obstacles as an individual, not because you make sacrifices for the sake of your family and community. Furthermore, the characters in all these stories tend to help strangers rather than family members and relatives. These themes of individual success are, of course, reinforced by the Western media in cartoons, movies, and sitcoms. Therefore, the worldview that the young child develops is then reinforced and strengthened as he grows up.

I often have conversations with my students about fairy tales, myths, and other foundational stories. How have these stories shaped the way we understand ourselves? How do they shape the way we understand the world and our place in it?  What value systems are embedded in each of these stories? What kinds of scripts do they give us for our own lives? We may think that children’s stories are merely for entertainment and academic enrichment, but I think that the role they play in socializing a child into his/her own cultural context is tremendous. Additionally, from a literary standpoint, these foundational stories often give us the original scripts for all later literature and film.  

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Achieving Balance

It’s interesting that all children – whether they are toddlers or teens – tend to simultaneously need opposing things. For example, they need structure and predictability, yet they also need a considerable amount of freedom. Without structure, there’s chaos and kids tend to do nothing at all, yet without freedom, there’s a stifling of creativity and imagination. Similarly, they need high expectations and a little pressure/stress so that they really push themselves, but they also need a safe and nurturing environment where they feel comfortable taking risks and failing. They need guidance because when left completely to their own devices they tend to flail and flounder, but at the same time, they also need to be given choices and left to themselves so that they think creatively and learn to make their own decisions. They need teachers and parents who are simultaneously firm and nurturing, who are at once both “hands-on” and “hands-off.”
The more I think about it, the more I realize that achieving this balance is an important part of being a successful teacher. And it is not always easy. For example, I often wonder about how prescriptive an assignment/project should be?  And how democratic should my classroom be? How do I find the right balance between guiding students and empowering them? And what about the effect of grades: how much should I consider a student’s feelings/self-esteem when I grade a paper or give feedback on a project? How do I find the right balance between pushing a child to work harder and helping a child maintain his self-confidence and self-esteem? How much to critique/push versus how much to praise?
Similarly, as a mother, I find that I’m constantly trying to find a balance between holding my children close to me and letting them go. I’ve been trying very consciously to give my six year old son more freedom. And I’m trying hard to give him the time and space he needs to play creatively on his own in any way he chooses. Yet, I also want to make sure that he gains exposure to organized sports and music, and I want to help him improve his reading skills, so I enrol him in classes and work with him on his reading at home. What’s a good balance though? How much structure? How much freedom? As a mother, I find this balancing act particularly interesting because it has such an emotional dimension to it. Should one be a “free-range parent” who encourages lots of creativity and risks, sometimes at the expense of safety, or should one be a “helicopter parent” who hovers and protects, thereby squashing independence, creativity, and risk-taking? Obviously, the answer is to be somewhere in-between. The mothers I admire most are the ones who are simultaneously very involved in their kids’ lives but also very relaxed and chilled out about their kids. They know intuitively when to let go and when to hold on, when to encourage risks and when to provide safe support.
So, both in my teaching and in my parenting, I think I need to continue to seek balance between contradictory and opposing forces.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

A Visual World

I just finished a two day workshop on ‘teaching in the technology age.’ The school I work at is going to distribute macbooks to all high school students in the fall, so we’ll be a 1:1 school in August. And we’re working on figuring out how best to use and manage all this technology in the classroom. I am simultaneously fascinated, excited, and terrified by the huge paradigm shift that’s occurring.  My own sense of fear and inadequacy makes me think of Socrates resisting the onset of literacy, and of all the thinkers and philosophers who resisted the mechanization of the industrial revolution. We really are on the cusp of a massive shift in the way people understand the world.
One of the major changes, of course, is the redefining of the Language Arts.  Since the world became literate, we’ve revered the printed word. When I began teaching English, I assumed that my students would read books and then write papers about them. We’d analyze literature and write interesting essays that probe the world that exists beneath the surface of a text. We would, as a class, pay daily homage to the power and magnificence of the written word. Yet, I’m not sure that this vision of Language Arts is true or relevant today. We process way too much information at far too rapid a pace to really have time for long, sustained narratives.  For most people in the “real world,” writing will merely be an accompaniment to visuals. From powerpoint presentations to Keynote presentations to podcasts and multi-media events, we now present all our information in visual and auditory ways. And even our stories are generally told visually – the number of people who watch movies far exceeds the number that reads books. And even books, for that matter, now come in electronic forms, fully equipped with visuals and audio, ready to be played on an ipad or kindle.
So in this brave new world, where the written word is just one of many ways to convey information, what should we be teaching students? Should we be asking them to write fewer literary analysis papers, and instead, to create multimedia presentations that analyze both books and movies? Should we be asking them to respond to podcasts and then create their own? Should we get them used to even more visual stimulation by introducing material using Keynote slideshows with musical accompaniments? Over the last two days, as I messed around with various macbook applications, I was extremely impressed by all the ways in which we can tell stories and convey information. Visuals obviously make a tremendous impact on the human brain; as someone once said, "a picture is worth a thousand words.” And when you add music to a visual presentation, you’re making an even bigger impact on the brain. The writing, generally relegated to a few bullet points, seems almost peripheral.

I was definitely impressed by the fast and flashy world of all this new technology, and I left the workshop feeling committed to trying out some of this technology in my classroom. Yet, the workshop also raised a number of questions in my mind. The basic premise of technology seems to be that faster is always better. My colleagues and I were impressed by how we could use this new technology to quickly access and share lots of information  as a class -- no more slow and deliberate writing on whiteboards. Is faster always better though? My brain needs time to process and incubate ideas, and I suspect that many of my students need that kind of time too. Also, I value the slow and deliberate process of reflection that is encouraged by reading and writing. Will a technological world allow for that kind of unhurried reflection? And will a fast and flashy visual world diminish the quality of human interaction? Will it cause some sort of yet-un-named anxiety within students? How are students going to cope in a world where they are literally deluged by information all the time?

I have one other big question as a result of this workshop. Many of the teachers at the workshop kept talking about the need for us to "prepare students for this hi-tech future." I fully believe that students have to be comfortable with technology, and I agree that a large part of our jobs is to prepare them for the future. However, I think that, as educators,we have a complex challenge on our plates: we need to simultaneously prepare students for the future and help them retain a connection to their pasts. Educational institutions serve as a connector between generations; we help students  understand the wisdom accumulated over time. Schools are, by nature, conservative institutions that change slowly and gradually so that we are able to stay connected to our pasts even while we get ready for the future. I, for one, am all for more gradual shifts. These radical and sudden upheavals are exciting but scary.

Nevertheless, I feel committed to learning more about technology use in the classroom, and my goals for this summer involve preparing my own keynote presentations (with music and effects) and designing assessments that involve a variety of media. This year, I made a few short powerpoint presentations, showed some You Tube clips to my classes, and had the kids do a couple of presentations that involved technology. Next year, I’m going to do much more.

Yet, I am, at the end of the day, a book lover. And I like the slow and unhurried pace of a book, and I, for one, love long and sustained written analyses.  Despite all the new technology, the human experience itself hasn’t changed: we are born, we grow up, we love, we suffer, we experience joy and sorrow, we grow old, we get sick, and eventually we die. That hasn’t changed. The essence of our needs hasn’t changed. And since we are still mortals, we can’t possibly sustain this frenetic pace of life. We need the natural world, we need downtime, we need quiet time, and we need human contact. We have to remember our innate needs, which have not quite caught up with all this rapid change.
Anyways, I clearly have a lot to think about and a lot to learn.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Does Memory Matter?

Does Memory matter? Should students ever memorize anything?
Before mass literacy became the norm, people relied entirely on their memories for information. Teachers had to lecture and “teach,” and students had to memorize information because that was how all information was preserved and transmitted. Obviously, with the emergence of writing and reading, people became far less reliant on the spoken word for information, for stories, for ideas. People didn’t have to remember things anymore because they could write them down and then refer to the written word.
 In his travel book Nine Lives, William Dalrymple examines the remnants of the oral tradition in India today and then asserts that literacy kills the oral tradition. When people become literate, they lose their ability (or inclination? Or need?) to memorize and recite thousands of verses of poetry that have been transmitted orally from one generation to the next. Similarly, the cognitive psychologist Maryanne Wolf, in her book Proust and Squid: The Science and Story of the Reading Brain, describes Socrates' fears as he watched the world around him transfom from an oral society to a literate one. Among other fears, Socrates worried that a literate world would suffer from memory loss. People would begin relying on the written word, and in the process, they would lose their ability to memorize and remember.
When the world begins to change in revolutionary ways, much is gained, but much is also lost. Clearly, the written world brought tremendous benefits to our societies. It enabled us to communicate across distance and time. It allowed us access to far more information than we could ever commit to memory. And it made the preservation and the acquisition of knowledge much easier. It also made knowledge far more accessible, and thereby democratized knowledge in ways unheard of before. However, a newly literate world also saw the loss of a whole way of life. The written word doesn’t have the same life and vibrancy as the spoken word does. When one speaks, one communicates through language but also through tone, intonation, gesture, and expression. There is something alive and warm about listening to a story or watching a play.  There is a social element to the spoken word and the oral tradition that is lost when one engages in the solitary pleasure of a book. And of course, as so many thinkers and writers assert, when one begins to read and write, one stops committing words to memory.
I watched my own son “lose” his ability to memorize whole books as he became acquainted with the written word. As a preliterate toddler, he memorized  his storybooks word for word because he still had to rely on his memory to access information and stories.  Of course, at the time, I was convinced that he was a genius, but after a little research on the subject, I realized that this was very normal toddler behaviour. However,as he slowly and painstakingly became literate, he no longer recited and remembered every word in his books. He relied much less on his memory, and as a result, his capacity to memorize seems to have rusted over time.  Now, as a literate person, he can just look at the book and read the words; he doesn’t need to remember his books.
Does research support this idea that literacy kills or harms our memory? Apparently not. The only study I’ve encountered so far is by the French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, who claims that the opposite is true. In his book Reading in the Brain, he cites a variety of experiments that he performed on literate and illiterate women in Portugal and concludes that the literate people had better memories. However, while there is no scientific evidence to suggest that literacy harms our ability to remember, there is tremendous evidence that it eliminates our need to remember. Writing simply removes the necessity of memorizing.
Which leads me to my next point: if literacy eliminates the need for memory, then what does technology do? With all our gadgets – laptops, blackberries, cell phones, ipods, and iphones – do we ever need to remember anything? When I teach now, I can look up pretty much anything instantaneously.  As a kid, I used to remember people’s phone numbers, but now, there is no real need for me to do this. It’s faster for me to retrieve a number from my cell phone contact list than it is for me to retrieve the number from my memory. From phone numbers to historical dates to poems to mathematical formulae: the answers are all a click away. And with the assurance that all this material exists outside us, safely stored in words and numbers on our various gadgets, we don’t have to bother to remember anything. So,  in a world where we are all electronically connected all the time, is memory totally and utterly redundant? We have our electronic memories, so do we need our human memories at all?
With this huge shift from a print based world to an electronic world, we are even less reliant on our memories than we used to be. So should educators make students memorize anything? Is there any value in memorizing a poem? Is there any value in memorizing historical dates and scientific facts? We still make students do this kind of work on a routine basis. Kids have to memorize and recite poems and Shakespeare speeches. They have to memorize historical information and scientific facts.  Are there benefits to committing information to memory? Should we be asking kids to remember things for “closed-book tests and exams” or should all our assessments be open book and open laptop assessments? What is the connection between memorizing and learning? Does an English student benefit from memorizing a beautiful poem? Perhaps. I’m not really sure. I know that I ask my students to memorize very little. They are always allowed to use their books and their computers for assignments, tests, projects, and presentations. Yet, this is obviously a huge shift in education. For millennia, educators have demanded that students commit vast quantities of information to memory. But has memory now become an obsolete tool of the past?

Lighting a Fire

“Such fire in the heart of the twig!
Without being struck,
How will it ignite?”  (Kabir, Baahar Kyon Bhatke?)
Kabir, the 15th century mystic poet, poses this rhetorical question, and then goes on to suggest that self-discovery is the means to striking and igniting this twig.  As an educator, I believe that Kabir’s question is central to the very purpose of education since an educator’s goal is to help students discover themselves and unleash their own potential.
As a high school teacher, I spend much of my time contemplating the very idea of learning. What does it mean to learn? And how does one learn most effectively? And, importantly, what is the connection between learning and teaching? Oscar Wilde once wisely commented that “education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing worth knowing can be taught.” The more I ponder what it means to learn, the more I become convinced that learning is an active process. We cannot learn by being taught. When we learn, we must be the subjects (not the objects) of the learning process.  We can only learn by actively engaging with an idea or a problem, and then constructing and creating meaning for ourselves. Memorizing information is not learning; it may be useful, but I don’t really think it is the same as learning. To learn, we must understand and/or create.  If learning is in fact something that the student must do on his or her own, then what is the role of the teacher? And what is teaching? What is the connection between what I do in the classroom and what my students learn?
The first step towards effective teaching is gaining an understanding of what it means to learn. Once a teacher fully acknowledges that learning has to be active, that it cannot be passive, then the teacher has to cede much of the power in the classroom to students and create a classroom environment that provides students with opportunities to engage actively with texts, problems, ideas, words, technology, art etc. Popular educational jargon advocates that teachers should be the “guides on the side” instead of the “sages on the stage.”
When I think back to my most memorable learning experiences, I realize that many (most) of them occurred outside the classroom. I have vivid memories of warm summer days in Kodaikanal, when I was seven years old. Every afternoon, I would take my book and sit quietly under the shade of the big wide tree in front of our summer house. I’d open up to a dog-eared page and enter a magical world of enchanted forests and adventurous lands. I would slowly work my way through a couple of chapters each afternoon, and finally, a few days before our Kodai vacation ended, I finished that last chapter. Even today, I remember the exhilaration I felt as I read an entire chapter book independently for the very first time. I learnt many important things that summer: that I could read on my own, that reading was magical, that ideas and imagination are wondrous. I learnt new words and new ways of structuring sentences and narratives. No one taught me anything, but I learnt so much. Since that first book, I have had many, many intense learning experiences through my engagement with books, stories, and ideas. And, most often, I have not had a teacher guiding me through these learning experiences.
Much of my learning has come from my experiences. When I watched my father suffer and die, I learned powerful lessons about the human experience, and similarly, when I experienced the miracle of pregnancy and birth, I learned equally powerful lessons about life and humanity. One cannot be taught these things, but they are incredibly powerful, moving, frightening, and humbling learning experiences.
Through my travels and my various teaching experiences, I have learned much about people, culture, history, politics, language, and life. As a child, I understood the brutal inequities that characterize Indian society because I saw them all around me; I could see the stark contrast between the privileged life I led as a child and the tough lives that our domestic helpers lived. As an adult, I began to fully understand the ways in which privileged people like me cause and perpetuate these inequities. I began to see the mechanisms that cause and sustain these brutal disparities.
Similarly, I began to fully understand the politics of race and class in America when I worked as a teacher in a failing middle school in Baltimore city. I began to understand the rage that simmers and explodes in disenfranchised Black communities across America. And I began to see how institutionalized racism works to create a two-tiered world in the richest country on our planet.
And of course, as I supplemented these real world experiences with books and conversations, I began to understand these experiences more fully. I learn when I see, when I interact with people, when I read, when I think. That is how I learn. I know that for many people, learning occurs when they engage with the natural world, with a machine, or with objects. That is how visually-spatially oriented people learn.  Regardless of what or who one engages with to learn, the key to learning is the process of active engagement. Of reading, of thinking, of painting, of programming, of talking, of looking. We learn when we use our brains and our bodies to do something active. We don’t learn when a teacher talks unless we are really listening carefully and thinking critically about what the teacher is saying. If learning is, in fact, a process that occurs independently of a teacher, then what are teachers for? What’s our real role? What do we teachers need to do to facilitate the learning process?
Once a teacher begins to understand the nature of learning, she must alter what she does in a classroom. She must begin to focus not on her own teaching but on the learning process of her students. How does one do this? Is the key in the choice of topics and texts to give students? Is it in the design of activities and tasks for students to work on? Is it in the conversations (discussions and debates, for example) that one has with students, or, better yet, that one facilitates between students in the classroom? Is it in the feedback we give students as they work through sustained projects over time? Is teaching really about motivating or inspiring a child to begin that process of active engagement? And if so, how should a teacher motivate or inspire? By modelling a love of learning? By designing tasks that motivate and inspire? By rewarding effort and initiative? How should a classroom be structured to truly facilitate deep and thoughtful learning?