Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Learning Experience

The current political situation in Andhra Pradesh is somewhat charged. The western region of the state, called Telangana, comprises 10 out of AP’s 23 districts, and includes the capital city, Hyderabad. Claiming unfair treatment from the state government, the people and political parties of that area have been agitating to separate and form a new Telangana state. It’s true that water and other resources are scarce there, but it seems to me that they are scarce in other areas of the state that I have visited as well. At any rate, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) is the main political party fighting for this separation. They’ve been organizing bandhs, which are basically all-encompassing strikes, for the last year. These strikes happen at least every week, and everything from schools to buses to hospitals throughout the Telangana area has to be shut down under threat of violence if they don’t comply. That’s the background of the situation.

Now, the first week and a half that I was at Matendla, everything was peaceful and calm. But in the middle of the second week, we had some visitors from TRS on the morning of a bandh . Three guys came in to the school and asked Vishnu, the headmaster, to shut everything down. We could see them talking from the opposite wing of the school, and some teachers told us what was going on. The teachers were somewhat tense, because they didn’t want to waste a day of school. Yet they trusted the headmaster to deal with the situation.

Vishnu is enthusiastic and idealistic and cares very much about the students. He is also very good at showing that to other people and infecting them with his ideas. He somehow managed to convince the TRS people that canceling school here in a remote village would not only do no good for the bandh, but would also be detrimental to the students. If Telangana is to get out of its current situation, he argued, it has to have educated people. And they listened.

But they didn’t give up that easily. The idea of the bandh seemed abandoned, but they asked if instead, they could sign the students up for the TRS. Once again, Vishnu used his quiet logic on them. The students are young, but they must make that decision for themselves. But you can talk to them and tell them why you think they should join, he conceded.

nd with that, everybody let out a collective breath of relief. School would not be canceled. The 10th graders were taken into a nearby room to listen to the TRS folks, but the rest of the classes continued as planned.

The thing that strikes me is that this wasn’t a one-off situation. It had happened before and would almost certainly happen in the future again. Vishnu’s argument worked this time, but apparently that hasn’t always been the case. And what if the school had been located somewhere less remote? What of the urban schools in Hyderabad? Hyderabad is the center of the state, and schools there have lost an immense amount of teaching time to these bandhs, because they can’t argue that they are far away. It makes me angry that children and students have to suffer the consequences of this political action. These strikes only happen in the Telangana areas. How could it possibly help your people to deprive them of necessary services (hospitals and public transportation for the many people who don’t have their own vehicles)? All they are doing is setting their own students back.

I think that Vishnu and the teachers must have felt the same way I did. They’ve dedicated their careers to helping kids gain some education in a place where the previous generation was mostly married by 14 and out of school long before then. But they can’t voice their sentiments, because of the potential consequences.

I think that maybe their conviction that the students must be taught to make their own choices plays into it as well. Now that I think about it, I think that Vishnu twisted the situation around and turned it into a learning experience for the students. The students listened to the TRS people, discussed it amongst themselves (with no teachers present), and told them that for the moment, school was important. Those of the student body who wanted to help the TRS would meet them after school to learn more about what they could do, but they would not give up their school time.

So perhaps it’s not all bad. Having a charged political situation that affects them means that the students have to think more about politics. The students will be more interested in how the whole state is working, rather than focusing on their surroundings. Some of them have not been further than 10 km from their village, so this exposes them to issues that affect a much larger area. So I guess whatever the situation is at hand, if you have good teachers and a good attitude, you can make anything into a learning experience for the students.

Friday, September 10, 2010

To the Students:

Now I've had more than a month to think about things since my project ended, and other education-related events have kept me thinking about it (along with, of course, the necessity of finishing my blog record of my practice). So in the end, this is the advice I'd give to the students:

For math, science, etc.: Don't memorize the answers from the guides. Learn the material and the principles behind the material, and you will be able to solve any problem they throw at you. As an added bonus (though it should be the actual motivation), you'll actually be able to use your newfound skills in the real world, when there is no guidebook to give you answers.

For languages: Read. Next to living in a foreign country where you're immersed in the language, the best thing you can do to learn a language is read. It improves not only your vocabulary, but also your knowledge of sentence structures and idiomatic usage. With enough exposure, these things will get shoved into your subconscious mind, and creating your own sentences will be infinitely more easy.

In general: You all work very hard because you really want to learn. Keep that desire to learn, because the number of things you don't know will always be greater than the number of things you do know. Work on being able to solve problems on your own, based on what you know. Even if you can't see the whole pathway to the solution, do what you know, and see if that gets you anywhere.

The system beats creativity out of you, but always try to draw your own links and figure out how everything is connected. Place what you learn into context with what you've learned in other subjects. Make the information you're learning real for yourself.