Thursday, 12 July 2012

Teaching this year at Saint Andre

Remember me? Contrary to popular belief I have not disappeared in the vast country of India. Due to the fact that I haven’t updated my blog in months you might think so but I’ve been quite busy with school this semester. Now that we have two weeks off (5 days of which we spent in Dhaka – maybe I’ll blog about it in 2 or 3 months ;-) I’m finally taking the time to update you on the most important part of my time in India – Teaching!
My work load has dramatically increased from last school year. I am now teaching the following: English in class 5a, Moral Science in 6a, Value Education in 9a, Environmental Education in 9b and 10, Indian Economic Development in class 11 and Intro to Economics in class 12. I see class 9 and 10 only once a week, but English and Moral Science meets three and two times, Indian Development is 4 times a week and Econ 7 times. So there’s a range and some classes need more lesson planning than others. Both of my Econ classes definitely take the most preparation time but I also enjoy teaching those the most. This is true not only because of the subject but also because I really love the kids in 11 and 12.

Class 11 just joined Saint Andre and there are 60 of them. Thankfully they pay attention and take great notes. They also laugh at my silly jokes! During breaks I love to hang out with the boys from that class, 15 of which are studying to become Brothers. They are inquisitive, sweet and funny and I’m impressed that they have made such a choice at their young age.
I took this picture of school during vacation if you're wondering where all the students are!

My students in class 12 and I have become even closer. They were my favorite class last year and now I teach them a difficult subject seven times a week. Sometimes I think they’ve become too comfortable with me because once in a while, they are not too shy to tell me that they are bored in class. I’ve incorporated the Smart Board (we now have 4 of them at school) as often as I need it but we don’t always have electricity. The material I’m teaching is something I didn’t study until college and I understand why they are overwhelmed with what they have to study. I try to break the material down as much as possible but it’s so frustrating. Luckily there are only 14 of them so I can concentrate on each of them and try to help them outside of class. They have national exams at the end of the year and then they are finished so I want them all to do well.
School grounds and chapel
My other classes are going well, sometimes a bit too crazy or impossible to stick to my lesson plan but that’s okay. I think teaching has a lot to do with spontaneity and quick thinking. I’ve started to just hang out with my kids during breaks which really makes my day. Or I’ll play volleyball with them but then I have to cope with sweat stinging my eyes in my next class! Here’s a shout out to all you teachers, either substitute, full or half time! I admire you for your strength, perseverance and patience!!

Charlotte and Lucy are switching to Holy Cross, the school in Agartala, and will start teaching there next Monday. I’m sad that they’re leaving but also excited for Tom and Iain to join me in Bodhjungnagar. That’s all from me for now, hopefully the next blog entry isn’t too far away.

The stage and where we have assembly every other day

Sunday, 1 April 2012


Bisho, Jinu and Francis

All of us after a battle of colors
Our first big holiday celebration in India was an awesome one – Holi! We had the day off from school so we had plenty of time to “enjoy only” (that’s what everyone here calls having a great time). There were some leftover colors from the volunteers of last year, but we also went out to get more over the course of both days. The colors range from pink (most prominent) to dark blue and red to green, all being very vibrant and in a powder form. Since everyone is sweaty or water is also included, the powder sticks very nicely to clothes and skin. In the agricultural sense, Holi symbolizes the end of winter and the coming of Spring with its vibrant colors. But this Hindu tradition is also based on several different myths.
Holi is celebrated on two days, this year it was March 8 and 9. On the eve of Holi, Holika Dahan takes place. This is based on a legend involving an evil king named Hiranyakashipu. He forbade his son Prahlad from worshipping Vishnu, but Prahlad continued to offer prayers to the god. Getting angry with his son, Hiranyakashipu challenged Prahlad to sit on a pyre with his wicked aunt Holika who was believed to be immune to fire. Prahlad accepted the challenge and prayed to Vishnu to keep him safe. When the fire started, everyone watched in amazement as Holika was burnt to death, while Prahlad survived without a scar to show for it. The burning of Holika is celebrated as Holi. According to some accounts, Holika begged Prahlad for forgiveness before her demise, and he decreed that she would be remembered every year at Holi.

At Sir Pintu's house on day 1
Holi also celebrates the legend of Radha and Krishna which describes the extreme delight Krishna took in applying colour on Radha and other gopis. This is what we actually did on both days, even though the coloring part only takes place on the second day. We went over to one of our fellow teacher’s house and played with his daughter and many of our young friends. It was a blast!!! We used a kind of water gun called pichkari and buckets of water to get everyone cooled down and sticky. Before we knew it, everyone was tearing the little bags of powder open and color went everywhere!! This part of Holi is meant for pure enjoyment and a way to let loose… bura na mano, Holi hai  means “don't feel offended, it's Holi". My kind of holiday ;-) At the end, we were offered sweet drinks and sugary snacks, a Holi custom.

Charlotte and I with some of the hostel girls on the sports field

The next day at school, some of the students were playing and they got into lots of trouble for it. Glitter is also part of the ammunition for Holi and my 11th graders, albeit hesitant at first, put so much glitter in my face!!! After school, on this actual day for merry-making, we ran out on the Holy Cross field with more friends and went wild! It’s so fun because there are really no restrictions as to whom or how much color you can apply, and everyone takes advantage of this rule. Even out on the streets, some people would come up to us and put colors on our faces.  After a great day, we all went back to holi our cat Jack and take outdoor showers. What a mess!! The five of us agreed to bring this holiday back to the States so that no one is deprived of the fun!

Below is a poem that I found online about  the Holika tradition.

Holika Dahan
Year after year
purity of fire
is challenged by evil,
appeased with offerings

A full moon looks on
as winds stoke embers,
flare flames
to a flickering dance

Right in the center
of crimson blaze
sits Holika,
Prahlad in her lap -
her arms a circle of heat

White sparks fly from her hair,
eyes smolder in fury;
her mouth sucks in air,
engulfs rice and wheat

Wood chars,
coconuts splinter,
flowers singe
smearing earth with ash.

Year after year
faith survives.
Holika burns to death.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Teaching at St. Andre

It's been four weeks since we have officially started teaching at the St. Andre village school in Bodhjungnagar. When we got there a few weeks back, internal exams were going on so that we spent almost a week proctoring the students. This was quite interesting as it was very different to anything I have seen before. Grades 2 through 11 squeezed together on small benches in the library, auditorium or the verandas on each floor. It was overwhelming to be in a room with about 200 kids, 6 grades and all different tests and subjects. When distributing and collecting, I had to run around like a crazy woman because the students of one class were sitting far apart from each other. Then it was time to pace up and down the aisles and listen for the little whispers of students asking for extra paper. It sounded like they were calling me "Miss Paper." Here also, I was receiving many stares and glances and I felt bad because I really did not want to distract anyone. But props to the students, especially the small ones who sat through at 2 hours of exams.
After so many days of only proctoring, we were eager to finally start teaching. This proved to be challenging in many ways. On our first day, we missed the bus. Typical. The bus ride is 45 minutes through several villages on VERY bumpy roads. Our bus is overfilled with students and teachers. After a long exhausting day it is sometimes a lot to socialize with either students and teachers but I'm happy we can do it. This way, I've gotten to know them so much better. It's great!
I'm currently teaching Lit and Grammar to class 8b. There are 34 of them, and they are a great class! A lot of them are naughty (which kids are called here if they makes us chuckle every time) but in general they are a very quiet class. Actually too quiet. They don't really participate in class, and I often have to call on them. Luckily, I know all their names, some are easier to learn (e.g. John Christopher, Veronica) and others not so much (Boyarkwchang, Jensish, Jenish, Saijak).
It's very common among the tribal kids to be very shy and not speak up in class. So if I do call on them, it is mostly barely above a whisper. Especially the girls. One time, Solami, one of the girls, only moved her lips when she was reading part of a story. I tried to make her speak up, and the rest of the class was getting rowdy because it took so long. In the end, I made her stand up on a bench. It didn't seem to phase her, as she kept whispering.
Sometimes this gets really frustrating because we have to go at an extremely slow pace with the material. The situation is similiar in my 11th grade. I teach them Indian Economic Development. The book is not the greatest and I really have to stick to it most of the time. But the other day, I had them debate. They were a bit overwhelmed at first but it ended up being really rewarding because some kids really got into it. 11th grade is great, I think I'm really obsessed with them. They're older and I have their full attention most of the time. There are only 16 of them and I really adore them all. I know I am their teacher but I also want to be their friend so badly! The other day, I had Lucy come into my class to help with the debate and one of my students told her that I was the best! There are days that are really draining and disappointing, but a comment like that makes up for it.
Lately we have been preparing for the final exams that are in three weeks. All the teachers make their own tests and hand write them. We have taken over helping Sir Pintu, who usually does all the typing himself. Sometimes teaching at St. Andre is really crazy and unorganized because we can't get a real answer for a desperate question. But at the end of the day, I leave with a heavy, albeit tired heart. I just love my kids!!!!

Here is part of grade 11

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Agartala - where did everyone here learn to drive?

I'm blogging again, already, can you believe it?? I thought that the best way to keep this up would be to do random posts, and stay away from any kind of chronological order whatsoever. That's just not me. I'm hoping to keep everyone interested, especially specific people from Virginia whom I've never met but are still interested in my life ;-)
Anyway, tonight I would like to talk about the crazy city of Agartala. It's the only Indian city that I've been able to experience so I have no comparison. But I guess that's good, because this city cannot be compared with anything. Let's start with the most obvious...the roads! I have never had to share the streets with...cows, bike rikshas, auto rikshas, motorcycles, dogs, pedestrians, cars, buses, trucks, cats, bikes, chickens, bulls. On top of that, many of the vehicles are overloaded with 20 feet bamboo trunks, people, vegetables, clay or bricks, or bags with random items. And so far I haven't been able to discern any traffic rules, except for an unspoken rule of hierarchy: bigger vehicles have the right of way before smaller ones, motorised vehicles over those moving with man power. I have the most pity on bike rikshas, the drivers have to work so hard, yet they'll get pushed off the road the easiest. Yes, the little vehicle below with all the woodon it is a bike riksha.

Crossing the street is quite the endeavour because there are no pedestrian walks and never a quiet moment on the streets. People are selling their goods half on the street, half in tiny, over-filled stores. Honking is a necessity and everyone does it. All the time. Since we are almost the only foreigners in town, people will stare openly at us. There is no shame in this, and I like to stare back. Many will also take our picture, or we'll get asked to be photographed with someone in their shop. I'm sure that more often than not, we contribute a significant amount to the traffic jams since many drivers will turn their heads to look at us.
Getting into town is sometimes a hassle. Not because there are not enough auto rikshas (see below). But we've come to realize that many drivers try to overcharge us, hoping that we don't know how to bargain. We have been taking some Bengali lessons with a friend which helps a lot, and there will be times when the price really goes back and forth. Eventually, we end up paying around 50 rupees for a ride. That comes to about 1$. But you can't really think in terms of dollars here because the price level is so much lower for most goods and services here. I've paid 20 rupees for 20 small bananas, 650 for my sahree or 190 for leggings. 
Driving in a riksha is so much fun! The drivers like to weave through the traffic with exorbitant speed and more often than not, I thought that we would leave our side mirrors behind. If not more. We always get to where we want to be, though.
We're finding more and more stores that we like: M/S Laxmi bakery, a nice cafe, and different book stores. And OF COURSE the occasional clothing store. So many options!! I've had my first street food (samosa) and I was fine! Agartala is definitely a sight to see.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Hello Everyone! I want to share with you the amazing opportunity that has been offered to me: being a teacher in Agartala, India for a year. I know it's going to be a roller coaster ride filled with emotions so please enjoy!

Namaste. Kahamda. Kamon Acho. Hello.

These are just a few greetings in the many different languages that we were welcomed with here in Agartala. And what a warm welcome it was, as well as continues to be. Fact is, we finally made it to India. For me, this journey started on a beautiful friday back in April when I was walking through the sheep pasture near Stonehill with two of my closest friends. Kris (our lovely program director), called offering me the position to be part of Extension India 2012.

I can’t believe more than eight months have passed since the good news. After a short orientation back at Stonehill, preparing us for our year abroad, we departed at 6.30 am on Friday, the 13th of January. In retrospect, we should have been more suspicious of that date… Our flights from Boston to New York and then to Delhi occurred without complications although I wouldn’t really call being stuck in an airplane for 14 hours an easy task. Yet this also passed and Tom, Lucy, Iain, Charlotte (more about these amazing individuals later) and I found ourselves setting up camp in the Delhi airport, in anticipation of our five-hour-long layover. I knew that we were still in an airport full of tourist traps, but I started to feel my feet tingle in excitement thanks to the friendly faces and many colors everywhere.

And then disaster struck. Well, maybe not that bad but it was definitely the beginning of a lot of frustration and uncertainty. Our flight to Kolkata had been cancelled, so after many misleading directions by Indian officials we were able to pick up our luggage. Oh wait, we wanted to but four pieces were missing. Lucy, Tom, Charlotte and I got to leave the airport with fewer pieces of luggage than we had intended to. It took quite some time to figure out where to have our luggage sent to especially because we weren’t sure how long we would be at the Delhi airport. In addition, nobody really knew what to tell us or where to send us, so we were running around the airport like headless chickens. Having left the terminal, we tried to talk to somebody from Air India, but they were completely understaffed and the other passengers were yelling at them, what we only could imagine as being the angry Indian style. After too long of a wait, we booked a flight on a different airline straight to Agartala. At 6am in the morning. So... a long and cold night at the airport awaited us. But we survived and were even greeted on the plane by Father Joe Paul, one of the priests at Holy Cross. He was going to pick us up at the airport in Kolkata, but when we called him about our plans, he changed his as well and gave us our first warm welcome to our new home.
Here's a picture from the roof of our main house where the Iain and Tom live. There's also a living and kitchen. Lucy, Charlotte and I share what we lovingly call the barn as we only have bare cement floors and lots of critters. But we each have our own bathroom. We also plan to plant a small garden and hope that no stray goats or cows will eat our veggies.