Friday, July 30, 2010

An Ailing Educational System

I seriously want to punch the person/people who came up with the 10th class exams. The schoolkids, up to 10th, have tons of enthusiasm, are filled with questions, and can actually learn. After 10th, they turn into zombies who may eat brains but have none of their own.

I might be exaggerating a little. They probably don't eat brains.

I'm jumping forward in time from my narrative, but I had to get this off my chest. We visited a degree college here in Hyderabad today, and talked to some of the teachers.

These students are getting Bachelors degrees in Biochemistry, Microbiology, and the like. And yet they have no clue how to formulate an answer from information they know. All they know is the answers, word-for-word, to the questions in their study guides. One of the teachers told us what happened when she asked something very simple of them: "Describe the room we are sitting in."

She was looking for something along the lines of, "It has one door" or "There are four windows" or "There are desks in the center". What she got was silence. And then one of the braver students asked, "You tell us first, ma'am. Then we'll tell."

They are no more than parrots, though their squawking sounds more like "DNA is transcribed into RNA" than "Polly want a cracker!"

Why is this?

I've come up with a few reasons, but the major one is the tests. The questions on the tests must be exactly the same as the ones in the books. I'm serious. Even math problems.

Forget changing the numbers; if the math problem in the book says "Sammy has 4 apples..." and you change it to "Sammy has 4 bananas...", it becomes out-of-syllabus! That's not allowed on the exams. So what do teachers do? They have the students write out each of the allowed problems 20 times, the students memorize them, and regurgitate the ones that show up on the exam, and nobody ever learns anything.

Up until 5th grade, kids can't fail. And many schools have requirements that teachers can't let their students get below 80 marks (out of 100) or something like that. So the tests are basically rigged so that everyone passes. The students get good marks, and then they don't even realize that they know absolutely nothing. After all, they got good grades!

Example anecdote: A new teacher, who happened to be a scientist mother on leave, agreed to teach UKG (kindergarten) at her son's school. So she did. After the first month, the kids had unit tests. Some of her kids got as low as 40 marks, and the headmaster and other teachers came after her and asked just what she was teaching. She told them numbers, colors, etc. Well, in UKG, apparently, teachers are supposed to teach three colors: red, green, and yellow. That's all they're supposed to teach on that subject, grinding it into the kids' heads for a week. Since that's all the kids are tested on, they do great on the tests. And then they have no idea that there are more than 3 colors in the world. And any kid who answers "blue" on his homework gets the answer wrong.

If the kids aren't getting high enough marks, the parents threaten to switch their kids to another school, regardless of whether the marks actually mean anything.

The problem is, this isn't simply up to 5th grade. The tests are like this all the way through college. The state syllabus is actually not that bad, though the science is quite outdated (anybody who quits after high school will know not a single fact about DNA or genes or genetic diseases). But because of the nature of the tests, nobody learns even what little is there. They study, study, study the answers to the questions they know will be asked, with no idea what they mean and no idea how to answer if a single word is changed.

That's the state of education in the state of Andhra Pradesh. There is no creativity. And it's not even about creativity in the form of art or music - many of the older students lack the ability to form a coherent thought of their own! But how can they help it? After all, any sort of independent thinking is systematically beat out of them.

I respect the RDF even more now for trying to encourage some creativity in their kids. Hopefully they'll grow up to be leaders someday and change the whole thing from the inside out.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Day 24 - The First of the Last (Kalleda)

The Golconda Express leaves the Secunderabad Junction station at 1 pm and arrives at Nekkonda, just past Warangal, at about 4 pm. Trains, of course, tend to be late, so by the time we arrive, it's about 4:45. A school auto picks us up and takes us to the village of Kalleda, which is located on a well-traveled road (buses lumber by every half hour or so).

The school here is housed in an old house built in 1936. It's more of an estate, really, like a zamindar's house. 
Since the house was not being used much, the many-branched family that started the RDF donated the building for the purpose of the school. It's impressive, but it feels like a bit more like a house and a bit less like a school.

And this giant mansion surrounded by 15-20 foot white walls in the middle of a village of small houses and huts also feels like a symbol of past oppression.

There's a reason Naxalites came into being, and this really seems like a great example of it. But the family donated the house and is very involved in funding and maintaining the school, so their intentions now are good, and I support that. Apparently, so do the Naxalites now, according to a story from the founding of the Matendla school:
On one occasion, when members of RDF were travelling to Matendla for a site appraisal, the group was accosted by a Naxal supporter armed with several grenades and a rifle slung across the handlebars of his bicycle. The man escorted the group to meet his leader who demanded to know why they had visited the area. “When we told him why we were there, he not only extended his support to the project, but also promised a donation of Rs. 10,000 towards the school,” says [the current CEO of the RDF] E. Vandita Rao, who was part of the group.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Day 21 - The Last of the First

Today is my last full day at Matendla. We're going to do a couple labs, take care of the English classes, and say bye to the kids. Tomorrow morning, we'll catch the bus to Siddipet and then another bus from there to Jubilee Hills in Hyderabad, from where we will have to take an auto to get home.

We start in the morning with the 10th graders, doing that Bullseye lab (for projectile motion) that we did in Mr. Robinson's class in high school. Unfortunately, without a smooth, relatively frictionless ramp, the calculations don't quite work out. We turn it into a lesson on how science doesn't work a lot of the time, and how you can work backward from what you find to figure out why it didn't work. Well, at least the kids had fun playing with marbles.

The 8th graders have their turn with surface tension next. We only have a limited number of boats, so we pick popsicle sticks with their names. Some boats move successfully, while others don't. Perhaps a slightly less concentrated soap solution would work better next time.

Not everyone gets to try a boat, but still, they look pretty happy when the boats actually move. If nothing else, they're excited about the camera :D

After school is the last English class. The kids have been falling over Curious George, The Beauty and the Beast, Thumbelina, and Mickey and Friends like piranhas. As soon as the lesson is over and it's time for reading, there is a veritable riot as they scramble for the 15-20 books we have. There still aren't enough, so they read in groups. They're asking fewer questions of us, which I hope means they're understanding more words, but I still see some writing down words they don't know to look up later. That's the best way to do it!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Day 20 - Architecture

So you've seen a little bit of the architecture of the school, right? It's a nice example of sustainability. The red bricks were all made by the parents and students when the school was first built, from locally available materials.

The doors are all carved from locally available wood, and if the door frames (for those doors that have them) don't match up and the doors don't close completely, it's okay because it's a school, not a private house. For the relative cost, and the purpose of keeping students out of the rain, it mostly works. And rain isn't usually the problem in this part of AP. Actually, it's not just Telangana - having too much rain's not really a problem in many parts of the state.

The openness of the place is most useful for letting the wind through on hot days. The construction is well-suited for that.

The whole point of this is that the school was built cheaply and sustainably (and with the community's involvement, which keeps them invested in sending their kids to school). Because of that, a group of 138 architecture from Hyderabad have come to see the school. They arrive in three busloads and walk around measuring everything with their handy tape measures.

After they've eaten lunch, they sit down along the corridor for a while as the headmasters and teachers talk a little bit about the RDF, the school, and their philosophy of teaching. Some of them don't understand Telugu, but they pay attention when my mom and I are given the microphone since we speak mostly in English.

The school needs more volunteers, especially people who can talk to the students in English, and I say as much. I hope we've inspired at least a couple of them to come back when they have a holiday and help out at the school. Afterward, a pair of students come up to my mother and say that they will in fact come volunteer. The teachers also say that they will talk with and remind the students even after they go back. So I guess it's worked, at least a little bit. Having college students from Hyderabad as volunteers is much more sustainable for the school and useful for the kids (since these college students know how the Indian school system works). I hope they follow up on this.

P.S. I'm going to be spending the rest of the day writing up the procedures for all of the experiments I've done that I didn't bring with me. I only have a couple more days here, and I want to make sure the teachers have everything they need to continue doing the experiments. They've been sitting in on the classes and helping me explain things in Telugu  to the students, but it's nice to have a written copy.

Day 18 - Home

Initially, I was supposed to do 2 weeks and Matendla and 2 weeks at Kalleda. But the headmaster, teachers, and students asked us to stay here an extra week. Kalleda gets plenty of visitors (including a small group of WashU students at the junior college every July), but Nik and I were the first ones to visit Matendla this whole year. As far as I know, the last visitor before that was Nik's sister Bella, who stayed for three weeks last summer and then went home and raised Rs. 14,00,000 (yes, the comma is in the right place - that's read as 14 lakhs) or about € 20,000 for Matendla. Impressive.

At any rate, we went home on Saturday afternoon and planned to come back Monday morning. Unfortunately, my mom got sick, and then I caught a light case of whatever she had with a two-day delay. So by the time we finally get back to Matendla, it's Wednesday. We can take the evening English class, I guess, but we've missed the morning one and the actual school period (which my mom has been taking over since the English teacher spot is vacant).

Day 13 - Magnets

It's really difficult to make the iodine clock reaction work when you have no balances and therefore no idea what the molarity of your solutions really are. Magnets, on the other hand, work perfectly well without balances. Nik found some magnets and a little packet of iron filings before he left on Sunday, so we're going to do magnetism for the 8th and 9th graders since it's in their curriculum (though all the pictures here are of 8th).

The kids have divided into their groups, and I give each a little box with some iron filings spread out. After a little introduction to magnets (with the help of a compass), I hand each group a bar magnet, and have them play with getting a field pattern in the filings.

When I go around and tap the box as it rests atop the magnet, the filings fall into place and the kids eyes widen. "Look, it's making a pattern!"

Now to explain the why, and how the field goes from north to south in all directions and how we can find what the field looks like by looking at the pattern in the filings.

And now a little induced magnetism to end the lesson. Iron piece = not magnetic. Iron piece + magnet = magnetic. Take off the magnet, and the filings fall off the iron piece again. It's like mag(net)ic!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Day 12 - Resistors and Circuits

We tried a lot of stuff yesterday, including making a lemon battery and changing the color of a color-changing LED we found. Today, we played around a little with circuits and resistors today in the 10th grade science class.

We basically took a resistance box and had the kids pull out keys (therefore adding resistance) and put them back to see the effect on the intensity of the light bulb. We had a color-changing LED as well, but that burnt out in the beginning of the second class (the 10th class is divided into two sections). At least everybody got to see it once.

The girls are sitting on their side of the classroom, waiting patiently, but...

ZOOM! As soon as it's their turn, they're up like they've been stung by fire ants. It's good to see that enthusiasm.

And enthusiasm is certainly not lacking here. A couple days ago, some of the students came up to us as we were talking to the headmaster and asked if we would teach an English class. My mom agreed to take a class from 8:30-9:30 (the hour before school) and 5:30-6:30 (the hour after school), so I'll help her out with that a little bit. The class will be both sections of 10th, and 50+ students is a tad difficult for one teacher.

The 10th graders want a little more help because they need to take their 10th class exams at the end of the year, and as much as they say they like English, it's not their strong suit. Who can blame them? The school is Telugu medium as of now (meaning all the classes are taught in the medium of Telugu), and they are one English teacher short of a full teaching staff.


I look out my window and it looks like a storm is fast approaching. The farmers will certainly be happy, for their fields will finally get some water. Unfortunately, this means that the kids will not be here early tomorrow morning for the English class because they have to help their parents in the fields, but this is their livelihood, so it's okay. (Click any image for a high-res version).

The sky is absolutely stunning.

To the left, the clouds are white and the sky is bright. To the right, the dark mass of clouds moves in.

The sky is even darker now that we're in the thick of it. This is my absolute favorite picture of the lot.

Day 9 - Ascorbic Acid and Basketball

Since the kids came in yesterday, there is no school today, even though it's Monday. So we're spending the day testing some experiments. Electrolysis with soap bubbles catching the gases was a bit of a failure, but my mom has found some protocol for testing juices for how much vitamin C they have, and we've adapted it a little bit. Instead of starch, we're using ganji, the water left when cooking rice.

Even though it's a holiday, some of the kids have showed up. This is a small village, so for many, school really is their life. School is the center of all their activities. Today, they hang around our experiments for a little while, looking on as we try to get the starch/iodine test to work on an intact leaf (which, without boiling water, is a failure).Then some of the boys go off to play basketball in the dirt court of the courtyard, so I join them.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Day 8 - Baala Mela

Sunday is normally a holiday, but today is special. Vandita Rao, the CEO of the RDF, is bringing some visitors to the school. The students will be here, and some will have classes, but they will also be participating in cultural programs and the like, showing off all their skills. The days of the week don't matter as much here, so they will get tomorrow off instead.

The visitors arrive at about 9 in the morning, and assembly starts as usual at 9:30. Unlike everyday, however, the entire school squeezes into the courtyard as the primary school kids join the high schoolers in morning exercises, prayer, and the rest.

Today's joke is acted out by one of the teachers and a group of P.S. kids up on stage.

The students closest to us are the nursery (preschool) kids, who don't have uniforms. The red/green/yellow/blue patches on the students shoulders indicate the groups. The students wearing white here and there are the group leaders for their classes.

The visitors watch from the sidelines, and step onto the dais as they are asked one by one to come up and introduce themselves. Since some of them only speak English, the teachers pick an older student to try and translate. If that fails, the teachers themselves do the translation. For the rest of the time, Marena and Dan (foreground), Nick (by the pillar) and the other visitors whose names I don't know, just chill. Or bake, rather. It's pretty hot.

Upstairs, the high schoolers have created a mini planetarium with a flashlight and holes cut out of a deflated basketball (I can spot the Big Dipper just there!), a model of a solar eclipse, and various other astronomical phenomena. Pretty cool for a school.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


It's been quite nice living here in the science lab of an isolated village school. The air is fresh; the Hyderabadi smells of smog and pollution and human wastes are nowhere within noseshot. Unlike in the city, there are too few vehicles here to turn the air into the eye-stinging equivalent of a chlorinated swimming pool. A bus passes by 3 times a day in each direction, along with a few motorbikes and autos. Herds of goats and pairs of oxen pass by with about the same frequency as the non-organic moving things (though bicycles, mainly ridden by the students, are present in numbers).

The birds, too, are present in numbers. During the daytime, you can't go ten seconds without hearing some bird or other. In the mornings, the chorus is constantly present but varied in composition. The light, high chirping of tiny sparrow-like birds is sometimes overridden by the insistent, broken-record chirrup chirrup chirrup of a closer avian. Crows communicate their caww-cawws without regard for the gola (cacophony) they're making. The coooo-ooooh of the koyela (cuckoo) often pierces the morning air. And every now and then, if you listen carefully, you can hear the kreee-eeee of the peacock.

Birds aren't the only things that make sounds though. The ballilu (geckos, plural) here are quite vocal as well. Hiding behind the fluorescent lights or the tiles of the bathroom wall, they go chik-chik-chik-chik-chik about twice an hour. The flying insects buzz and hum their daily ditties each time they pass your ear. The big, friendly giant of the bug world, the thummeda (a 1.5 inch bumblebee) can flap its wings so quickly it can juyyyiii as loud as any bird call. The beetles that gather near the lights at nighttime make little tock noises every time they fly and crash into the walls or the ground (which ends up with them lying on their hard-shelled backs two times out of three; hence the sound).

And then, at about 8:30, the harmony of wildlife becomes a counterpoint to the melody of the (slightly) tamer life - the students.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Day 7 - Saturday School

Yeah, there's school on Saturdays in India. I thought it would only be a half-day, but it's more like a three-quarters day. The students have 6 periods instead of 8. My mom came back yesterday afternoon, and we've decided we'll use today to really go through every single box and bottle in the science laboratory cabinet. We need to know exactly what we have so we can figure out exactly what we can do.

So we spend the day looking at the prisms and lenses and discovering that we have a periscope and two kaleidoscopes to work with. There's batteries and resistance boxes, ammeters and voltmeters, and a rheostat that obstinately refuses to work for us. The students have been reading about electrolysis since the 6th grade, and the teachers have tried to demo it with test-tubingly explosive results. I wanted to try catching the gases in soap bubbles instead, and lighting the bubbles, which is safer because of the smaller quantities involved, but it is an unfortunate failure. We don't have large electrodes to make lots of big bubbles or tubing to catch the small, dense bubbles we do have. The match just fizzles out at the touch of water. Still, the copper wire we brought, along with  the copper sulfate, sulfuric acid, and zinc metal granules in the cabinet mean we might be able to do some electroplating.

I also spy magnets of various shapes, and as luck would have it, a whole bunch of iron filings stuck to the strongest one. Two compasses to show the direction of the field could come in handy. And then, the most exciting discovery! A color-changing LED! The color seems to change based on the voltage, which is perfect, because we can change it by adding or removing 1.5V cells (batteries) in series. If we connect it to a 9V battery and use the resistance box, we can change the voltage on the LED easily. We have to be careful though, because 9 volts appears to be a bit much for the poor little diode (or diodes? There's three colors, after all). We've only got one and we don't want it to blow out.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Day 6 - Back on Track

Okay, back to science! I'm doing a couple of little surface tension experiments with the 9th graders today. The first one is a simple demonstration. Fill a glass with water all the way to the top, and then gently drop in marbles until the water level is above the edge of the glass. What's holding the water in that dome shape and keeping it from falling over the edge is surface tension.

The second one is more fun for the kids. We've got a little tray with about an inch of water, and a small fleet of cardboard boats (which are really just pentagons with a little rectangle cut out of the back). A drop of soap in that cut-out slit propels them forward. Zoom!

We only have about 10 boats for 25 kids, so we pick them randomly. They've got a little box filled with wooden ice cream spoons (like popsicle sticks) with their names on them, and we draw out one at a time. Some of them miss the slot and then the boat can no longer move because the surface tension is equally decreased on all sides of the boat. We explain why you only get one chance, and they seem to understand.

Srinivas, one of the computer teachers, comes in a little late to observe. He's young - he's 19 and still doing his Bachelors degree - and enthusiastic. So when one of the students misses the slot, he tries adding more soap, and the kids laugh and tell him it won't work because the soap has dispersed through the water. It looks like they really do understand. Cool.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Days 4 and 5 - No Science

So the science has died down a bit. I've been trying to get the DNA extraction to work, but it refuses to. I can see a white precipitate between the detergent/onion extraction mixture and the alcohol layer, but the pieces are too broken up to pick up. It could just be the general lack of a sterile atmosphere, but I think that having ice-cold ethanol (as the procedures dictate) would probably help. Ice, however, would probably have to be brought 30 km from Siddipet. I'm not going to make them bring ice when I don't even know whether that's really the reason it's not working.

This is probably the reason that most science nowadays is done in rich countries. Science in general doesn't work. The thing is, though, failure is almost the point, because you learn what is not true, but when your materials and time are limited, it can be frustrating. Seriously, science is something like 98% failure, 1% success, and 1% unexpected results. If you don't have the money to keep buying materials to keep trying, you can't really do it no matter how good your experimental design skills are.

At any rate, I've also been helping Nick come up with ideas for helping the teachers improve their English. We're making a lesson plan for them to follow for the next month. For my practice, I'm doing my hours. 4 hours a day times 30 days is the minimum 120 hours. I'm spending close to that much on the science stuff, trying out experiments, doing them with the classes, and talking to the teachers afterward. Plus there's all the hours I spent in researching experiments and how to teach science and alternate protocols with simpler materials (and writing up the lessons to go with the labs) even before I came to India. So I think I'm okay on that count.

Last but not least, I will have to respectfully disagree with Charles Schultz. Happiness is not a warm puppy. Happiness is ice-cold water.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The RDF School Matendla

Matendla Rural School is run by the Rural Development Foundation. The students are given a midday meal and their uniforms and school books are paid for by the RDF. The teachers are all local which means they are more invested in the students' learning and more motivated to actually be at school and teach every day. The students, in turn, are invested in the community. Many of them go home after school and help their parents in the fields or in taking care of the little ones.

Last year, the teachers, parents, and students together took some initiative in the village. The teachers began by stopping their alcohol and cigarette intake as completely as possible. Then they talked to the Village Committee and got the council leaders to stop as well. All told, they got at least 30 parents to stop smoking and drinking.

Another project the school stared relatively recently was that of a kids' bank. The students themselves take on the roles involved, and a teacher checks the numbers afterward. It helps the children learn how to use the banking system - and gets them interested in saving money.

Really, the students are involved in everything from their own learning (the Question Bank questions) to the running of the school. They have to participate in at least one extracurricular activity, and sports are highly encouraged. At least within Medak district, many top student athletes are from Matendla.

I played with them. They're not bad at basketball either despite the fact that their hoop has no special backboard and their court is a dirt courtyard.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Day 3 - Science At Last!

Yes! Today I get to actually do some experiments! I'm starting with the one I know will work - the plant pigment chromatography based off what we did in AP Bio. I don't have ether, but Elizabeth bought us a bottle of acetone, which works fine.

I'm doing this with the entire 10th class at once during 4th period (just before lunch). They're usually divided into two sections, but I've got about 50 students here. I've been informed that the little red/green/yellow/blue patches on their shoulders are used for dividing them into groups, so we use them. The students sit either in circles on the floor or gathered around a couple of benches (desks), curious to see what's in the dark bottles I've brought with me.

I explain what the teachers have done so far - extracting the pigments from some leaves using a roll (mortar and pestle) and surgical spirit (which I think is isopropanol, since that's what it smells like) - and tell them what they will be doing. We cut filter paper into strips, mark the loading line with a pencil, and hand one piece to each group. I demo the experiment once, making sure that all of the windows are open so we don't breathe too much of those lovely acetone fumes, and then have them do it.

The solid green line travels up the filter paper, splitting (though not separating as much as I would like) into 3 visible bands of color. Yellow xanthophylls at the top, green chlorophylls in the middle, and faintly orange beta-carotene at the bottom. The pictures of this, unfortunately, are on my cell phone, and I can't get them to the computer :-(

Afterward, the students ask questions. "What is the acetone for?" "What is the spirit for?" I answer as best I can in Telugu, and the teachers fill in the science terms I don't know. I explain why plants have different pigments (to absorb other wavelengths of light), and why leaves appear green despite that (the amount and color of chlorophyll overpower the others).

It seems a success, and as we leave, the students are surprised to see that the lesson is in the very beginning of their very own 10th grade biological science book (though school's only been in for a week and they haven't gotten there yet). They ask if I'll be doing an experiment every day, and I say that I'll be trying to, though they won't all be for the 10th grade. Well, I will try, once I figure out which ones fit in the syllabus.

Day 2 - Classes

Apparently there's also one English teaching spot that's vacant. For that period, either another teacher takes over in their free period, or the kids just sit there. After lunch, Devender sir (as you would call a teacher), the high school in-charge, throws me and my mom into a classroom. No preparation, just "go talk to them." Ummmm...okay...

It takes me until my third class (after my mom has left) to realize that I don't really have to teach them English right now. I just have to talk to them. At any rate, I'm not supposed to be teaching English as part of my practice, so I won't count it as part of my practice. I've spent plenty of time preparing, creating, and testing these experiments, so my total number of hours will pass muster even if I spend some time on English. Regardless, I won't really be the one teaching English. The headmaster has actually asked my mom if she would like to stay and teach the 10th graders. There are two reasons for this.
  1. These kids have to pass their 10th grade board exams at the end of the year.
  2. If they want to go to junior college/intermediate (11th and 12th), they'll be going straight from a school where all the subjects are taught in Telugu to one where they are taught in English. That's a hell of a jump considering their current English level.
So my mom will be coming back Friday and staying with me for the second week since she feels she wouldn't be doing much at home anyway. Meanwhile, the headmaster has asked me to talk only in English to force everyone else to try to speak English to me, but that's not working. With the teachers, it's okay, but the students really don't have anywhere near the necessary vocabulary to express what they want to say. Words like "borrow" and "secret" are new to them. I think from tomorrow I will play word games with the students - hangman, charades with clues given in English, etc. I'll get Nick to help me as well. We can have a short dialogue and then have the students answer questions about what we talked about.

For now though, they are much more enthusiastic in Telugu. And after all, I'm here for science, not English. I need to have them understand me - which is difficult enough without a teacher around to translate since all their science terms are in Telugu. If I can speak in Telugu, they can at the very least understand the context of my sentence and figure out what I'm saying about the science.

Day 2 - What Do I Do?

We have about an hour before we're scheduled to meet with the science teachers during their free period to talk about the Question Bank questions for the next day, as well as to answer any questions the teachers themselves had. They seem happy enough about the labs I've prepared, since they are about relatively general topics and can be done at any time. What they really want, however, is labs from the syllabus.

They give us the English medium version of the state syllabus science books, and now I am totally stumped. Now I have no idea what they need me for. The books themselves contain experiments illustrating the principles within. They have suggested activities for the teacher to demonstrate that are quite similar to those I've seen in America (onion root tip, anyone?). The English science book is well written, and the Telugu probably even more so.

In the end, my understanding is that they want me to choose the most important experiments, the ones they could have the students do. Why is that a job I can do and they can't? That's still a little confusing. Well, I can start off by answering their questions and finding out how to preserve a specimen in formaldehyde or test for the presence of starch in a leaf (i.e., how to get rid of the chlorophyll and get the iodine past the cuticle). Unfortunately, the (lack of) speed and unreliability of the internet will make my usual methods of fact-checking difficult. JFGI? Yeah, that's not so easy.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Day 2 - Assembly

It's Monday morning, and we're up by 7 because we're supposed to have breakfast at 8. School starts at 9:30, but some of the students start showing up around 8:30. These are mainly the ones in charge of things like checking the library, cleaning their classroom, or writing the news on the big blackboards set against the walls outside (this particular one is actually for a "classroom" on the veranda).

At 9:30, the bell rings and the high school students gather in the courtyard for assembly. Nick, my mother, and I are called up to the stage to introduce ourselves and say what we'll be doing. The students, meanwhile, stand in front of us in long columns, one per class (grade). As usual in an Indian school, they begin with morning exercises, followed by Vande Mataram and Maa Telugu Thalliki (patriotic songs for the country and the state, respectively). On other days, they recite a prayer to Saraswathi, the goddess of education, or sing Saare Jahan Se Achcha. I'm cheating a little bit with this picture because it's actually from the next Sunday when the primary school kids joined the older students, but it'll give you an idea of what it's like.


A couple of students on stage read out the news, while those in the columns listen and then raise their hands to answer some related quiz questions. Next comes the Question Bank question, a "why?" or "how?" wondered at by a student, written down, and placed in a box near the library. Each day, the question is asked, and if none of the students know its explanation, the teachers provide the answer. Out of the questions in the box from Saturday, the teachers picked this (translated): "If we can't see or touch air, how did we ever find out what it's composed of?"

When we are done here, we are taken to the other side of the building to introduce ourselves at the end of the primary school assembly. Here, the stage is made of raised earth, and the Nursery (think preschool) through 5th graders are lined up in their own columns, standing remarkably (though of course not completely) still. I've yet to see that many five-year-olds with that much self-control anywhere in America. At the end, around 10 am, the students march off to class to the cadence of a snare drum and a very small bass drum. Left, right, left, right, though the student in front of you may be going right, left, right, left...


So as it turns out, I'm staying in the "science lab," which has had a couple beds added to it to turn it into a guest room (very fitting, no?). There's an attached bathroom, which suggests that the room's double role is built in. The room is to the right of the headmaster's tiny little office, which never needs to be locked.

There are posters hung all over the room illustrating science-related topics, with multiple more rolled up on the shelves. In the picture above, there's one about great Indian scientists, vegetative propagation, and mitosis. Meiosis is on the other side of the room, and the male and female reproductive systems (surprisingly) are hanging in one corner next behind the TV (which may or may not work though we don't plan to watch it either way).

The floor in one corner of the room sports a cement-and-paint map of India, though it seems somewhat out of place in the science room/guest room/English book library (the Telugu library is made up of two shelves like the one above in a room across the quad).

There are also science materials present, so I suppose it's fine. The school recently got a donation of some science materials from a vocational school in Siddipet, which are stored in the glass-windowed cabinet. Through the glass, we can see that the top shelf holds a variety of dry chemical bottles, the second (despite the cracked glass) dark-tinted liquid containers, the third a panoply of instrumentation (prisms, lenses, rheostat, voltmeters, bulbs, etc.) along with a human heart model, a sphygmomanometer (for blood pressure), and the fourth books and glassware.

Well, that's good. There's more equipment than I would have guessed, although some of the basics are missing. Elizabeth bought and brought a set of six 100 mL beakers with her since there were none here.

At any rate, the plan is that my mother will stay here the first night, meet the students, and return to Hyderabad by bus tomorrow. As it turns out, they'll ask her to stay and help teach English, so she'll be back here again Friday, but, shhh, my fellow time travelers, keep it quiet - we don't know that yet.

To the School

Okay, I'm going to start posting what I've been doing for the last two weeks. Since I haven't posted much detail yet, what I'm going to do is to pretend that today is the first day, and schedule a post every day in that way. So let's step in the time machine (oh, you don't have one handy? That's okay, I have an extra you can borrow) and journey back two weeks to our arrival at the school.

We rent a car and leave Secunderabad Sunday while the sun is just past the midway mark. A couple hours later, we arrive in Siddipet, the nearest big town to Matendla. Here, we stop for some chai or coffee and end up eating Gobi 65 and Veg Manchuria in a restaurant that, curiously, serves neither chai nor coffee. Then we meet up with Vishnu, the headmaster of the school, who joins us in the car and directs the driver (renting a car here means renting a driver as well) to the village. He also explains a little about the geography, history, and politics of the area, pointing out villages and landmarks on the way.

My first impression of Matendla is that I am very impressed. The school building is large and modern in style, painted a warm, welcoming (but not gaudy) orange. Since the whole landscape is greens, reds, browns, and oranges (hurray for the iron-rich soil of Andhra!), it fits right in. The courtyard is pretty, there are farms on all sides, and unlike any city school, there is space for the children to play.

Upon reaching our home for the next two weeks, we spend some time talking about how the school works, the guiding principles of the Rural Development Foundation, and the students. At the RDF School Matendla, they teach not only the subjects needed to pass the 10th class (grade) exams, but good values and life skills as well. They have little Aesop's Fable-like sayings painted on all the walls:

It's getting dark, and the others have arrived. There's a high school senior named Nikolaus from Austria who will be spending a week here helping out with English classes, and the volunteer coordinator Elizabeth has brought him up from Hyderabad. I show my plant pigment chromatography and DNA extraction lessons/protocols to the science teachers, and they decide that the material is 10th-grade level.

Soon afterward, we eat dinner and retire to our guest rooms. Unfortunately, the rains a few days past combined with the fluorescent lighting have brought in a storm of flying insects. Now is probably the time to mention that I really don't like bugs. Still, once I've climbed into the mosquito net and tucked it in securely, all is well. I feel safe enough inside to get a good 8 hours of sleep. In the morning, the students will come, so a little rest should be good.