Monday, March 3, 2008

Chad's a'teachin

So it has recently occurred to me that I spend too much time on my computer doing the promotional, administrative thing, advocating for the school but not participating with the school much outside of the daily asssemblies and playing with the kids during recess. It also has occurred to me that I only have about four more months here, and to think that I will not be able to spend everyday with these children five months from now tears me apart.

So I have decided to take a more active role in their education, trying to utilize the holistic, challenging pedagogy of the school. I was inspired recently in reading an excellent book by Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence to make a lesson plan. Sen posited that recent academic thinking in regards to economics and politics has been surprisingly reductive, relying on the categorization of countries and their people's actions and decision making by overarching, stereotypical cultural norms, most commonly of the popular religion. This approach enumerates the differences between communities and puts in place large barriers in cooperation that we collectively cannot seem to surmount. But this frame of mind, views the individual and community as belonging to only one identity category, typically along religious lines (e.g. the muslim world). But this is highly flawed and is dangerous when used to shaped domestic and foreign policy, which increasingly is the case. As a result, we can clearly see that the currency in such policies in our recent history have contributed to a rise in violent factionalism and communalism in the last century, especially in the Indian context, the partition violence of 1947, Anti Sikh Riots of 1984, Bombay Riot in 1992, the Gujarat Muslim pogroms of 2002, which continues to this day with Gujarati CM Modi's dangerous rule and rhetoric.

This view denies, inherently, that every individual is made up of a complex multiplicity of identities that interact with one another. While one might ascribe to a religious tradition, that tradition in itself does not make up the totality of their existence, and while that tradition may influence and shape their decision making process, it is not entirely responsible for their every decision. If one critically thinks about who they are they will find a vast array of connections, communities, interests, etc. which can be quite contradictory to their stereotypes. For instance, I am an American who lives in India, a Christian by birth who no longer practices and is interested in the religious traditions of India, a heterosexual male who is also a feminist and a proponent of gay rights. And our varieties of identities also vary in importance contextually as we interact with others in the world. For instance, one's identity as a music enthusiast may be more important than one's national identity when at a record store, concert, or in discussions with other enthusiasts. While one is applying for a visa, the importance of one's national identity most likely would supersede music enthusiasm. But in no way are these two identities entirely exclusive: one's taste in music is regionally linked to other's musical taste and a person can take great pride in their own national identity because of the nation's musical heritage.

So I set out with my very limited Hindi skills to illustrate this fairly complex idea to the sixth grade class with a lesson plan called मैं कौन हूँ? (Who am I?). The first day, we had a brainstorm about the composition of our identities and we all made lists of about forty identities that we have ranging from familial relations and friendships, to religious, educational and political affilliations, future ambitions, character traits, passions, physical distinctions, etc. We all then made Who am I? Charts, writing all of our identities in Hindi and English and drawing a picture to represent each indentity on a large piece of paper.

The next day each child presented their identity chart and we made a group list of identities. The children were then to stand in a large circle while the teacher and I called out the identities. Those that ascribe to the identity would come to the middle of the circle and join hands. In this exercise, the children were able to see their similarities and differences with classmates that they might have been unaware of in the past. We then sat in this circle and I offered the question, 'Say that someone came from a distant country and wanted to know who you are, but they wanted a simple answer, just one trait from your identity chart, what would you say?' What happened next was quite beautiful. One child began with human being, yes, we are all human beings it is what separates us from all else in the world. Then we asked, but what about the differences between humans? Then another student piped in, oh yes, our Indian identity is by far the most important. Then organically the children started questioning each other. But South Indians live much different lives than those in the north. But I our lives are much more different than that of those living the northern plains, Uttarakhandi, that is most important. But Uttarakhand contains a loose ethnical split between Garhwali region and Kumoan, So Garhwali. Yeah, but there is quite a difference in between people living in different districts, so Tehri Garhwal district. But what about our villages. Oh, yes villages are most important. But then what about our families? That is the most important yes. Not until a half hour of discussion did we introduce religion, which then left the kids puzzled. They concluded completely on their own that it was impossible to view themselves as just one identity. It was quite an amazing experience for myself to see them work out this difficult question on their own and come to a conclusion without directly telling them it.

The next day we took the exercise a step further. The Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 to date has been the bloodiest single incident in the subcontinent's recent history. During this period, millions of Sikhs and Hindus migrated to India, while millions of Muslims went the other direction into newly carved out country of Pakistan. This dramatic flow of people, coupled with communal angers that spurred on the division, sparked unprecedented violence taking the lives of an estimated 500,000 to over a million people. I brought in the identity charts of three fictitious people who had been murdered during partition; a Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu. LIke many people living in pre-Partition India, they had many similarities, vocations, interests, ethnicity, language, familial relationship and frienships, etc. The only thing that separated them, and ultimately cost them their lives, were their religious affliation. I presented these charts to the children and they read out all of identities of each of the individuals and concluded that they had much in common and how it was unfair that the a person could be killed by one identity when they have so many important other identities. I then presented a two more Who Am I? Charts for two boys in the US. I remembered a story that I learned in class about an African American child from the North went to visit his cousin in a small town in the south during the summer break, I believe in Alabama. He said hello to a woman coming out of a store, a common practice presumably in the North at that time, but not in the South. Within a week he had been lynched by a hate group. I made an identity chart for him as well as from a white boy of his same age in the same community. I have found that working with boys in India that it is clear that boys all around the world share similar interests and I think one wouldn't be hard pressed to have find a white boy with very similar interests as the boy who was lynched. I then asked if this white boy would have said hello to the women, what would have happened?, and if they had so much in common then why was he killed? I then asked them to write a couple page paper about their feelings about the lesson and what they had learned. Pretty heavy stuff to lay on sixth graders but they really seemed to be engaged, thinking pretty critically and through their writings and presentation during assembly, I feel confident that they understood what the lesson was about and had reflected upon it.

Recently I have switched to lighter topics. I have been teaching English through basketball (we have a sparsely used basketball hoop, a situation I am trying to change), where I have also gotten to introduce to the children the joys of wall sits. Also I am working with kids on writing simple songs in English. I am currently in the process of teaching the second and third graders a song about animals that dance. I am very proud of my line about elephants, 'I cannot wear pants but I can dance.' Unadulterated brilliance.

But the more time I spend with the children the more impressed I am with their spirit, intellect, and wit. It is really going to be hard to leave this place.

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