Learning to Speak, Learning to Listen

How can we catch the elusive moments in the teaching experience where learning actually happens?  Where can the literate, educated, and developed among us go to learn the precious lesson of how to speak.  Fewer and fewer places in society allow this. My experience on the Rajamandry Island mini-school has made me ponder this question.

A, aa, E, ee … Learning to speak, learning to listen
Aravinda Pillalamarri

Learning to speak, learning to listen

        The syllables rang in my ear when I caught the Konark Express at 1 am from Rajamandry, a sprawling little city of population 5 lakhs, few of whom even know about the inhabited islands or lankas amidst their beloved river Godavari.  The people of these islands are self-reliant fisherfolk who move among a few land bases as the Godavari rises and falls.  They govern themselves as a community and deal collectively with the world across the river.  For example one person will go to the market to purchase the goods requested by others.  They also keep up impeccable accounts with the shopkeepers in town, sometimes buying on credit, and always repaying.  Bhaskar, one such shopkeeper decided to get to know the people of this village.  My colleague Ravi and I went along with Bhaskar, crossing the river on narrow paddle boats and met some people in the island.

            When we talk about development in a natural resource based community such as this one, we cannot escape from considering the impact of the “developed” upon the natural resource base.  We might propose that a community like this take up education.  One reason we do this is that it seems to us the most obvious advantage we have over them and out of the generosity of our hearts we wish to share it with them.  From their perspective, they enjoy a great deal of self reliance which we do not have.  Every family in this village makes its own house, its own fishing nets, and grows or catches a large portion of its own food.  Within the village are people with special skills like making boats.  Sales from surplus fish cover their expenses.  The houses are attractively decorated and the view is superb.

            Now it should be equally obvious to a villager that this is a great advantage he or she enjoys over the urban visitors.  Still rather than pointing this out, she listens to us talk about educating the children.

        We must ask ourselves a number of questions and examine our assumptions when seeking to assess economic  development – for any community – through children’s education.  Most basic among these is: who is asking whom? What kind of economic development has arisen from the model of education followed by those who ask the question? Do we really want to recommend this model to others?

        What has been the economic contribution of those who are educated?  Everywhere we see “development” and “national growth” widening the gaps between rich and poor.  The highly skilled of our societies devise newer and more efficient technologies for exploiting natural resources and marginalizing the poor.  Assessing economic development from a larger community perspective we find that in the current model of education, the Indian is unable to serve India.  Not just that the educated have consumed times more resources and failed to fulfil some vague “duty” to the land that nourished them.  They are actively participating in looting this land.  Leave aside vikas, we find that vinas is spread by the educated.  The message to the poor is that they have no place in the modern and developed society.  Their way of relating to land as their home for generations – as their mother – is outmoded.  We assess the natural resources only for contribution to national growth.

 Of the new products coming to the market, we find very few that aim to improve the lives of ordinary people.  Inventions that could bring benefits to the poor such as wind-up radio or pedal power remain unaffordable not because they are less useful than gadgets like cell phones and palm pilots but for reasons having to do with the structures our societies have set up for using global resources, to which the powerful elite have given the deceptive name of free trade.

        Conditions are quite adverse for those who want to acquire higher education and skills to use these for any social benefit or even any honest purpose.  Students of life sciences find themselves working in death sciences.  Physicist and chemists abandon their professions because they see it leading only to destruction.  And the academic institutions are suppressing debate on these issues – students in IISc Bangalore were not permitted to invite a leader of a Karnataka farmer’s group fighting Monsanto corporation to speak on campus.  Faculty of leading Indian insitutions have been warned not to criticize nuclear policy.  Engineers make things of no use to the common people, but only to increase the power of the elite through sophisticated communications, security, and surveillance systems.  Doctors are increasingly unable to give honest advice but instead prescribe unnecessary drugs whose possible harmful effects are not known or not revealed.

            The real brain drain is not the migration of those supposed to have “brains” out of India, but the loss of valuable time and creative opportunity to children and adults in India.  In this light we must not ask, why are the poor uneducated, but what are the educated doing?  What are we literate reading?  Do we even raise our voice for our own media?  Where is our voice in determining what gets space in our cultural and educational media?  The dominant question, as we embark upon this century, is not why is there poverty, but where is there wealth, and why?   So I would like to remind all of us that children’s education is very much our own education because we are all beginners when it comes to these questions.  And about myself, I am very much a beginner in development work.  So I shall recount what happened in our very first experience in village education, in starting what is now the Rajamandry Island school.

            When we reached the island, people were happy to talk with us.  Children running around prompted us to ask, “Do they go to school?”

            Ramanujam, who has many years experience in nonformal education in Tamil Nadu Science Forum has found that in the absence of a large industry ready to employ masses of children such as fireworks in Sivakasi or carpetmaking in Bihar, or NIKE shoes in Indonesia for that matter, reasons children are not in school are not financial.  Poor quality of education is the main reason.  Often if both parents work outside the home they don’t even know that their child has stopped attending classes.  If some other activity seems more accessible to them then children will avail of it.

            On this island the difficulties were somewhat different.  The families moved from island to island, with no regular way for children to commute to the mainland schools.  Staying in the hostel was unaffordable for some, and often culturally shocking to the children, who would quickly lose confidence in their ability to learn.  Even some parents lightly dismissed the idea of their children going to school.  What can she study?  they asked.  Will she become an officer or something?  But others were sure that the island children deserved to learn.  “Even we can sign our names, but some of our children are giving only their thumbprint.  We are ashamed of this, but we haven’t changed it.”

            This problem of shame and inertia is not only with the villages, it is with all of us.   And so we joined hands and decided to try again what some of the village elders had themselves tried before, which was to gather the children and teach them.  That evening we bought a few slates, chalk pieces, roll-up blackboard, and sandpaper.  We cut the letters of the Telugu alphabet out of the sandpaper so that children could hold the letters in their hand and feel their shapes – something I picked up from a Montessori book I read long ago.  The next day we found the children sitting on the sand, older ones teaching younger ones, even before we arrived.  What a lovely sight, we hardly wished to interrupt.  Anyway we finally couldn’t resist the temptation to join in the teaching and in the days and weeks that followed, we formed groups and developed a few teaching aids like flash cards suitable for the different learning levels.


         One four year old girl named Satyavati took the dictation very seriously.  When I emphasized the aspirated letters, namely kha, gha etc, she also put her all into pronouncing them properly.  “Idi gha,” (this is gha) I said and >”Idi gha“, she repeated, with confident authority.  Students like Satyavati keep me on my toes because what I say will come again from their mouths as child’s truth, which, we say in Telugu, is equal to god’s truth.  It certainly makes demands on our confidence level, not only on what we are teaching but why we are teaching it.   And at a more subtle and consequential level, what we teach by example in running the school itself.

            Here is an example of something I learned after just a few days’ experience teaching on the island.  Four months before that I had visited the non formal education centers run by Bhagavatula Charitable Trust in Visakhapatnam District and saw how old the slates were on which the children were trying to write.  My impulse was to provide new slates.  Of course one new slate implied 8000 new slates to cover all the centres, so fortunately I gave up the idea.  When I began teaching myself in the Rajamandry school, I appreciated the perseverance of the child working on the old slate, which she had brought from home.  Before I saw only what was lacking – the smooth surface of a new slate – now I see what is there, the will to learn.  Before I was caught up in the materials, now I could relate to each child as a person and no longer felt it right to overwhelm her self reliance with my excess.

            Self reliance can never be understood separately as a result that we gain at the conclusion of a skill building process, but must be the basis of education itself.  Such an experiment is being tried in the curriculum being developed and implemented by Sandeep Pandey and his colleagues in Ballia, UP.  The jeevanshalas run by the Narmada Bachao Andolan in the tribal areas of the Narmada Valley offer another beautiful example.  These villages had schools only on paper since the time of India’s independence.  Teachers showed up, if at all, only for flag hoisting on Republic Day.  When the first batch of jeevanshala students was ready to take the state Fourth Standard exam, the school was not recognized and the children were not allowed to take the exam.  So the Andolan brought the block education department officials and asked them to look at their government schools which were recognized.  They came, they saw, and were embarassed.  The next problem was that the village itself was slated for submergence and the authorites asked the children to register from the resettlemet site.  The children refused.  Only in the following year were the children allowed to take the exam.  In India where children compete for seats starting right from LKG it is not easy to “give up” a year in the educational track as these children did.  But this lesson in standing up for their rights will serve them in the long fight ahead far better than the chance to enter some government job one year earlier in life.  It is those coming from this kind of  education that are serving the country today, in the struggle for true and sustainable development.

           In fact it is almost inevitable that questions of country and service arise in any education effort.  This I found out, among so many things I learned, so many I hardly had time to reflect on them or even make a note of them, in the process of teaching.  When we started the island school,  I felt the need for a song everyone could sing.  Not knowing any songs, I went for the national anthem.  In a subsequent visit many months later, I still did not know any songs, but found the children massacring Jana gana mana like anything.  And I couldn’t sit them down and correct them the first day, because after all we were to encourage them.  And my energy was expended in not wincing and fainting at their frightening pronunciation.  At the same time I felt bad that we had chosen such a difficult song that meant nothing to them.  And therefore they could not pronounce it.  One day I decided to start correcting their pronunciation.  That meant I had to begin at the beginning.  And explain why we were singing this at all.  I had made a mistake the previous day by showing the Gandhi diary and asking them, “Who is this?”
Gandhi tata– they knew the answer.

           Who is this?  I asked.  They didn’t know and I did not know how to tell them either.  Luckily the topic switched to words beginning with ga … Godavari, gali, etc.

           Awake that night, I thought of a way of explaining Gandhi, but anyway the next day we went straight to the anthem.    Why are we singing this, I asked.  I explained that this was a desa bhakti gita Why should we sing a desa bhakti gita?  Of course, no one knew.  The correct answer is, of course, that we shouldn’t!  Why should we?  At the very least, if no one has an answer to that, it is as good as saying that there is no reason to sing one, and that is more than enough reason not to sing – but like classical mechanics, it is somehow necessary to teach the wrong answer first.  What is our goal in singing such a song?  To create a sense of togetherness, to make the children feel that they have not just come here, repeated a few sentences and gone back home, but that some event has happened and will have a time and space and rhythm within their lives.  The national anthem readily present itself, seems the obvious choice.  Still, though we may not have anything at hand to counter it, there is something wrong with it.  How do we find out what this is?

           So why, I asked the children the next morning, should we sing desabhakti gitalu? desamante emiti? What is adesam(country)?  I asked.  Why should we have desabhakti (devotion to country)?  Clearly these questions made an impression on them.  They were not used to being asked.  That they didn’t have the answers bothered them,if at all, only secondarily.  That I didn’t have an answer either was as irrelevant to them as it was to me. Somehow they too were aware that this was not a dialogue of questions and answers but just a process of thinking.

            So I was relaxed while I was answerless.  But I went to the next question:  What is a desam(country)?  Here the obligation to provide an answer was slightly more, because in fact I did have some information they did not have.  So I asked, “I lanka daati baytiki vellaara?  (Have you travelled off this island)?” and so on.  “Have you travelled outside of Rajamandry,”  I asked. Annavaram, Dhavaleswaram, Vijayawada, and some other names came up, where these children had gone, or perhaps merely names they knew. “ivanni kalipi emavutundi?  What do all these amount to?”  They didn’t know, and it meant nothing to them, but I told them, Andhra Pradesh.  Then I thought I could make them understand by asking, “Andhra Pradesh lo e bhaasha maatlaadutaaru (What language is spoken in Andhra Pradesh)?”

           Maybe it was the way I repeated the question, but they rang out with the answer, “English!”

           So I had to smile.  I couldn’t deny it.  English is what they speak in Andhra Pradesh.  But see, there were so many things wrong with the question!  Telugu is not a bhashato them.  It’s like the boat which crosses the Godavari.  Does it have a name, like the Konark Express?    Telugu is just Telugu.  One hardly even mentions its name.

            Somehow we got to the next question which was, have you been outside of AP?  I don’t think anyone had.  They didn’t know the names of states.  So I described a journey south that would eventually lead to Tamil Nadu and a journey north which would eventually lead to Orissa. What happened in Orissa, I asked?  Do you listen to the radio?  Do you listen to the news?  At last one boy knew that he knew the answer and said, “pedda tufaan vaccindi.”

            “Then what happened?”

            “Everyone died!”

            And so we went through the details.  How many died, how many lost homes, what were their sources of livelihood.  “Vallandariki inta kastam avute manamu emi cestamu?  Sarele Orissa lo edaite manaki emile? – ani anukuntama?”  What do we do when they are in such difficulty, do we just shrug and say, well what’s it to us what happened in Orissa?

            After a brief moment of confusion they realised that “no” was the correct answer.  It was very brief, but there was confusion just because it took them some time to digest all the information.  Not that they were in any way lacking in sympathy.  But it dawned on them that knowing more information than simply “everyone died” could affect their response to the news.

            “So what do we do?”

            They could hardly contain themselves.  “ayyo, vallaki anta kashtam vaccindi …” all grieved aloud.  “So we do care about them,” I summarised, “If possible we go and help them, or we send supplies, clothes, at the very least we find out what is going on.  Why do we do this?”

           What I said next became sort of a formula for them.  Because we are all one, I said.  “desamanta okate.”  And to remember this, I explained, we sing desabhakti gitalu

            Concepts like country and community service are not text book concepts but need to be imparted through examples that children can relate to by themselves.  Even while I as a teacher supplied information, I also withheld information so that the children would have to think at every step.  Such an interactive and thought provoking process, if sustained, can teach the more essential lesson that it is more important to think than to get the answer.  This is the hardest lesson to learn in schools, as in life.  Even those who have learned it have to keep on learning it. Were I more interested in teaching geography I could have probably made each child recite the names of all the states within the hour.   But the question of what is a country would have died, and along with it the finer feelings of unity, sense of duty towards the distressed.  There is a link between developing this sense of unity and education.  This unity can be mobilized for a sense of mutual respect and support, for seeing oneself as part of a wider whole so that one appreciates the relations with people who might not live on the island, may not speak the same language, worship the same gods or dress the same way.  There is also strength in this unity which can give people the confidence to work for a larger goal whose benefits are not readily apparent.  Just as we come together for school every day, we take a moment to think of the larger community to which we belong, and which also has the potential for constructive work if it comes together.

            One objective that organizations like AID strive to achieve is a very high degree of community participation in any development activity, so that the “funders” of a given project are those who benefit from it. This is what we often call “self reliance” or “sustainability” of a project. It is equally necessary for conceiving a successful project for the volunteers of a group like AID to inhabit the perspective of the village and of the global resource base, its dynamics in the holistic sense, and not from the point of view of themselves as donors seeking evidence of economic development arising from “their” contribution.  If we are truly concerned about improving the conditons under which the next generation of children will learn and grow, we must educate ourselves and create paths for us to use this education for honest and equitable economic development.

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