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Visiting schools in Bangalore

13 July 2013

Most education reform talk is malarkey. Put an intelligent, caring teacher with committed students and learning will happen.

This is not to say that infrastructure is not important: I am glad to teach where I have a room, with adequate lighting and air conditioning; where so much food is provided that students throw it away and leave bottled drinks behind; and where most students (although certainly not all in my district) are picked up and dropped off at school on time.

In the past two days, we visited three schools in Bangalore. There is scant comparison of infrastructure between our schools at home and these. But at its essence, school is not a place or a thing—it’s a relationship. We saw many teachers and students highly committed to this relationship.

The first school we visited was a state-government primary school in Gottigere, at the edge of Bangalore. The bus ride took nearly an hour, through thick traffic snarled further by crossroads with no streetlights and by cows grazing in the median or on the garbage at the side of the road. We arrived just in time for morning assembly. The band, about 15 children with drums, horns, and pipes, stood lined up inside the gate as we got off the bus, being directed by a stern looking man who spoke in loud staccato commands. He turned out to be the phys. ed. teacher, and therefore the director of the morning assembly. His face lit up upon seeing me, the only male of our party, and he maneuvered himself around our collection so that he could shake my hand personally: “Sir! Welcome, sir! Come!”

The other students were gathered in the shade of the portico of the classroom buildings, and a few more students ran across the courtyard of stamped dirt, with narrow furrows carved in it in a gridiron design to indicate where classes would stand during morning assembly, as they arrived through the gate on the busy, noisy road. They smiled and waved at us until we waved back, again and again. The paint was peeling, the walls were crumbling, but they seemed very text rich with the Kannada language, the official language of the state of Karnataka. Because this school is run by the state government, the medium of instruction is the state language. The students also learn English and Hindi, as per the three-language educational policy of the nation, and this school has started an English-medium track students may choose at Class IV or fourth standard, what we call fourth grade.


(This movement toward English-medium schools has been controversial in Karnataka. There is a suit before the supreme court of India about where the state of Karnataka, worried about a loss of native culture, can ban English-medium schools. But enrollment in government schools is dropping precipitously as more parents seek to scrape together the fees for what we call private schools—“public schools” here—which are almost entirely use English as the primary medium, giving their children a significant advantage in the struggle to join Bangalore’s rapidly growing middle class.)

We were led into the principal’s office, past a smiling woman with a tray of flowers from which we were to take one, to plastic chairs around a long table. On a shelf circumscribing the room were framed drawings of the great figures of India and knowledge—Gandhi, Nehru, Galileo, Einstein—and a boy was up there too, nimbly navigating the narrow shelf to make sure each figure got its flower too. A small incense stick burned in front of a statue of Vidya, one of the names of Sarasvati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge. On the right of Vidya was a statue of Krishna; on the left, Ganesh, the elephant-headed remover of obstacles and the god prayed to at the start of an endeavor. Chalkboards covered two of the rooms four walls, and they were filled with administrative information in Kannada.

Two pre-teen girls came in to speak politely to each of us, one by one, answering our questions, before the morning assembly. One girl, a short Hindu with braided hair and a big grin, told us she liked the school because the teachers were very nice. The other, a tall, thin Muslim with a long-sleeved sweater over her school blouse and a long trousers underneath her school skirt, had recently moved with her family from the state of Gujarat.


After a short conversation with representatives from The Teacher Foundation and Vidya-India, another NGO supporting the school, it was time for morning assembly. The band played, the students lined up. The phys. ed. teacher barked out, “Atten-SHUN!” on a microphone connected to a bullhorn attached to a tree outside the principal’s office at the front of the courtyard. The teacher went through a series of commands that seemed to be a routine familiar to them, new to us. It consisted of some movement activities, singing the national anthem, reciting a prayer, and other call-and-response activities. The two girls who talked to us went over to be given the microphone. Fathima, the Muslim girl, read the headlines from that day’s edition of the English-language Times of India. Dvita, the Hindu girl, read from a Kannada newspaper. We watched from the ramp in front of the principal’s office until the phys. ed. teacher beckoned us down, making particularly certain that I had a good view by zigzagging past a couple of my female cohorts to beckon me with hand and direct me to a spot front and center with the other.


The assembly concluded with the band playing as the students marched to their classrooms, grade by grade. We went back into the principal’s office to learn more about the school from the Vidya representative (the principal did not speak much to us, although she seemed pleased we were visiting). The school was founded in 1905 and currently employs 11 teachers for 312 students in Classes I-VII. The Kannada chart on the far wall showed that three teachers have bachelor’s degrees, and one has a master’s. (In India, a bachelor’s degree is not required to teach primary school.) Most students are first-generation students, meaning their parents have no schooling whatsoever. (We would hear this repeatedly about many government schools and low-fee public schools.) Classes are from 9:15 to 3:30, with half days on Saturdays. Class VI and VII students have the option of coming in an hour earlier for special session in English skills and computer skills, provided by Vidya. Because of the poverty of the students, the government and private foundations provide extra funding so that the families do not have to buy the school uniform, the textbooks, or the midday meal—they are all free to these students. Girls even receive an annual stipend to come to school of Rs 350 (about US$6) to counteract the attraction of pulling daughters out of school to help earn money.

We visited various classrooms. First, second, and third standard learn in the same room with the same teacher. In the two classrooms we saw of these grades, there were no lights, no desks, no chairs other than one for the older of the two teachers. The students sat on the floor in circles to complete their assigned tasks: one group learning the 49 letters of Kannada script, one group learning to make words from those letters, one group reading sentences. The walls were filled with text and student-generated materials, and the bottom of all for walls consisted of chalkboards with reserved spaces for each student to practice writing.


The teachers continually circled among the groups to monitor and guide their progress. It was a noisy chaotic room, but we could see with their little pats and nods that the teachers cared about the students and their learning. And if I wasn’t understanding that, the phys. ed. teacher stayed close by to help, smiling at the children and me, and pointing toward each woman: “She very good teacher!”

We were next led to a seventh-standard class, learning algebra at the time. The phys. ed. teacher made sure to tout the young woman at the front as we entered (again, “She very good teacher!”). Students here got to sit on benches with narrow, long tables in front of each, although one row of students were directed to give up their spots for us and cram into the remaining spots.


This class was in the English-medium track; Fathima and Dvita were in this class. After we entered, the teacher had the students count off—standing up quickly to say “One!”, “Two!”, “Three!”, or “Four!” before sitting down as quickly—to form groups of about six students. Each group had two algebraic sums to work on (e. g. “3a from 2a”) together before writing them on designated parts of the chalkboard. We chatted very briefly with the girls in front of us as Dvita was writing her answer on the board and the teacher checked notebooks of the students on the other side of the room. Two wanted to be police, one wanted to be a teacher, and one wanted to be a doctor. They worked together a little more on their sums, then one of the future policewomen turned around to say to my colleague sitting behind her, “You are very nice, ma’am!”

After a short debrief in the principal’s office, we headed toward the bus. But before we could get on, the children wanted to give us cards that they had made. (Padma, one of our contacts from The Teacher Foundation, had told us the day before, “The children are very excited about your coming to visit them.) Dvita gave me a card with hand painted flowers, the petals of which seem to be made from carefully intact pencil shavings. She beamed as if it were the greatest honor in the world to give this to me, and I hope she saw in my face what an honor it was to get this from her.


The bus then took us to a nearby secondary school, with Classes VIII through X. This school employed 13 teachers, all of whom must have bachelor’s degrees both in their subject areas and in education. The teachers move from classroom to classroom, while the students remained in one place. “If they go out, it’s difficult for them to come back,” one administrator told us. This school does not offer an English-medium option yet, but will likely have to once those in that track at the primary school come to the high school (pending the decision of India’s supreme court).

The room I observed was a 10th-standard class learning geometry at the time. Seventy students were crammed in benches before narrow, long tables—here with boys on one side of the room and girls on the other. Our presence again worsened the space situation with two benches of students making way for us, although the boys who donated my spot might have been pleased because my table consisted of just the frame with no slab on which to rest my notebook. The teacher, a woman in a red sari with a kind face and a constant calm smile, led the students in a lesson on transverse common tangents, speaking at the start in English, probably mainly for our benefit, to describe the problem written in Kannada on the board that she would lead the whole group through, calling a different student up to the board to complete each step.

Again there were no light bulbs, although I did see empty light fixtures in the ceiling. The walls were bare. Students followed each step in their notebooks, using rulers and compasses held in little tin boxes. The boy in front of me generally kept one step ahead, erasing if his anticipated calculation was incorrect (which happened rarely) and quietly guiding his fellows on either shoulder through the difficult bits. Sometimes a student would raise a hand in offer to help another having difficulty at the board, and the teacher would shake her head, letting the one at the front figure it out on his/her own or, if he/she still didn’t get it (which happened rarely), calling on the class for help.

With the problem finally complete and the mystery solved, the teacher erased their work and changed the numbers. When we left, the seventy students were working quietly and individually on the new problem.

We then went to the crafts room, where students were sitting on the floor working on stitching and embroidery. This is the only class students must move to because all the materials are in one room. We went in one by one to admire the student work hanging on the walls. “Hello, sir!” a student said, and I smiled and answered back, “Hello!” and this seemed to start a deluge of students saying “Hello” to hear my “Hello” back to them. One girl changed the topic of conversation by asking in a thick accent, “What is your name?” and on my response, “Andrew,” “Where are you from?” I told her I was from America and praised her for her stitching and the color of her fabric. This began another deluge. One by one students raised their fabrics to receive my praise.

We returned to our meeting room to debrief, discussing the research-based strategies we saw like guided practice while acknowledging the existence of traditional teacher-centered strategies like unity response. As we talked, a large bag from McDonalds was brought in along with a two-liter bottle of Coke. We were munching on McAloo Tiki Burgers, vegetarian patties with a slice of tomato and a light curry sauce, when we were told there was a group of students outside who had been waiting patiently to be allowed in. They had made their own thank you cards for us as well, along with fabric-covered little notebooks that they hoped we would fine decorative and useful. I received a card and notebook from an eighth-grade boy named Arun. I thanked him and praised the quality of the drawing, asking if the house he drew was his (he did not answer but remained standing at attention). I asked what he wanted to be when he completed his schooling (an engineer), what his favorite sport was (football, i. e. soccer), and who his favorite footballer was (he did not answer but again remained standing at attention). I wondered what sort of house he lived in, or whether he had seen soccer on television. Or perhaps his English was not fluent enough for my questions. Recess was starting outside, so I told Arun to continue working hard on his studies and dismissed him.


The third school we visited was the next day, within Bangalore. The bus brought us down a very narrow clay road in a slum area that was predominantly Muslim. ImageChildren were walking through the two large metal doors of what seemed to be a warehouse, some of them accompanied to the door by parents, who lingered at the threshold to see their children make their way across a large, low-ceiling room decorated with bunting of different colors up the stairs at the opposite end or, if the children were very small, into rooms adjoining the large hall. This was the primary grade building of Citizens High School, a low-fee, English-medium school.

We walked through the entry hall and up several flights of stairs to the top floor, where we were directed to take our shoes off before entering the library, which had a wall of full bookshelves, divided by grade level, 12 computers, a projector fastened to a pole poking out from the ceiling tiles, and a ceiling fan whirling at full blast.

We were introduced to Mr. Khan, whom Padma from TTF described as “a very strong and focused leader.” Image(Mr. Khan here stands at the front doors of the primary-grade building of his school.)

Mr. Khan’s father, along with some other neighborhood men, founded Citizens in 1970 as the first school in a “broken” area. The school offers pre-K through Class V in the primary building and Classes VI-X in another building we would visit later. Parents pay Rs 500 per month (about US$9), and all subjects are taught in English, except for the other two required languages, Kannada and Hindi. Mr. Khan told us most of the students spoke Urdu or Tamil at home, so in essence most students were learning three foreign languages.

Mr. Khan emphasized, “We keep our teachers training very often” with the “latest trends” moving away from teacher-centered rote learning. Plus, Mr. Khan noted, as a public school (what in America we call “private school”), it is difficult to attract trained teachers (we were told later that public school teachers could make as little as one-third what a teacher in a government school could make). “So we train them,” said Mr. Khan. TTF has worked very closely with the primary school over the previous two years to provide training for more student-centered strategies. Still, due to space and funds, there is no playground for the children or specials like music or art class.

Outside the library, the morning assembly was starting for Classes III through V. Mr. Khan told us all the students can’t fit in one space, so the topmost floor is used for the older kids’ gathering while the large room on the ground floor is used for the younger ones. Music, “Happy Birthday to You” in fact, was playing on a loudspeaker, and about 250 kids were singing along in unison to a boy at the front. When the song finished, the boy returned to his spot in his line and the “Good Morning” song started. Students turned toward each other and shake hands and/or dance as they sing along. Occasionally, teachers pulled kids out of line for deviance. Students then stood quietly with their arms at their sides as a slow song with an Arabian feel played, and I assume a prayer of some kind followed. The assembly finished and the students marched past us, many making eye contact and saying, “Good morning, sir!” Once again I was deluged because I responded “Good morning.”

We were led to second-, third-, and fourth-standard classrooms. This time it was clear our presence surprised the children: they looked at us like grotesque attractions at a carnival, and I immediately doubted that I would get another hand-drawn card. In the classrooms, many students had a difficult time focusing on the task at hand, fascinated by us strangers who showed up, with tablet computers and Sony Bloggies.

Other TGC fellows told me later they were invited to the front of the room to answer questions or to participate in the activities, but I was not. The first class I visited had 42 fourth-graders studying English grammar from a friendly woman in a Muslim headscarf. She did ask some questions that the students have to figure out to answer, like identifying the nouns in a sentence. One boy was so excited about participating that he stood and offered his answers without being called on, so the teacher walked toward him and said in a firm, kind, and heavily accented voice, “Sit down!” But when we got to the workbook, we went through the answers rather quickly, and I would have liked to have seen her ask students to explain why the answer they gave is correct.

Across the hall was another fourth-standard class, this one with 41 students taught by a sad younger woman in conventional Indian dress. This was a social sciences lesson: The teacher had written sentence starters on the board and was calling students to the front of the room to generate the content. A good student-centered strategy, but the reasons provided to complete the sentence don’t make sense: “The sun rise in the east … because the sun set in the west.” Students copied the sentences on the board in their notebooks. I wrote the sentence about the sunrise on a pad of paper, but without leaving off the –s of rises and sets. I underlined the s three times and nudged the girl next to me. I pointed at the s’s on my pad, and the girl immediately stood up and asks for attention: “Ma’am, there is error on the board. There is missing s.” The teacher thanked the student and said something like “it doesn’t need to be changed.” For the next ten minutes, the teacher walked down the aisle to check each student’s notebook while the kids wait, with nothing to do.

We then were taken to the secondary school, a right and a left turn down a few other muddy lanes in a narrow building with an iron gate that a man opens for us. I am brought to a classroom with 49 eighth-graders, and the teacher is teaching Hindi. I have very little idea what is going on, but I can tell this is one of the best teachers I observed in all the schools. ImageHe is animated, calling on a variety of students, sometimes joking and making them laugh and sometimes serious. He asks questions and students have to generate answers—he even has them close their Hindi books. I assume they had to read a passage from the textbook, and now were being called on to talk about the passage. The students’ expressions when speaking reveal that they are thinking deeply about their answers, but the teacher nods and says “Aha,” while still offering furtive glares toward the more squirmy students. A bell rings and the teacher stars glancing at the doorway, but he keeps teaching and questioning various students. After a few minutes, satisfied with students’ performance, he erases the board for the next teacher and gathers his materials for his next classroom. I assume this is my signal to leave also, so I get up. This makes all the students get up as well, turn toward me, and repeat their greeting from when I came in: “Good morning, sir.” I smile meekly and say (or try to say) “main hindi bohut zeada nihin samajhta hoon” (“I don’t understand very much Hindi”).

We return to the main building, after taking a couple of wrong turns, and share with Mr. Khan our feedback. We definitely saw student-centered teaching methods being tried out in the classroom, even though the physical setup made that difficult and some teachers have bought in more than others. Still many of us had very positive things to say about the teachers. Mr. Khan beamed.

A special note must go here about The Teacher Foundation, the organization that has hosted us, arranged our orientation, and brought us to the school we observed in Bangalore. Much of the work it does is based on development of the teacher, not only by practicing student-centered strategies but also by giving teachers the confidence needed to cede control. They realize real education reform must start at the personal level, with a teacher who builds relationships with students.

TTF was also a huge contributor to making our first week here amazing, both professionally and personally, accompanying us to shopping and dining after hours. At the final session yesterday, when Maya Menon, founder and director, wished us good luck and began packing up, we went silent. They have been so infused and enthused into our experience this week that we can’t imagine going through a day in India without them. Thank goodness Maya, Padma, and Indira have imagined it though, and I’m sure we’ll be fine.

I leave for Jorhat, Assam, with Laura early tomorrow morning. Assam is currently experiencing major flooding, so I’m not certain what we’re going to see when we get there. I also do not know what internet access is like there right now, so this might be the last post for a while. I will continue to write about what happens—sorry for the length of these posts, but I am still trying to process a lot of information and experience—and will post them whenever internet becomes available, even if that’s not until we leave Jorhat for Delhi in about two weeks.

We often tell students, “Don’t end your essay with ‘Thank you for reading my essay,’” but I feel like that rule doesn’t have to apply to blogs. So thank you for reading my blog. I appreciate all the comments I receive, both here and on Facebook. They make me feel less disconnected from home, and it’s pretty cool that the stats tell me this blog has gotten views from places like Morocco, Australia, and the United Arab Emirates. So, whoever you are, wherever you are, and whatever reason you’re here, thanks once again and I look forward to hearing from you.


From → India travel log

  1. Julia Perlowski permalink

    I MISS INDIA!!!! Your descriptions are SO familiar! Especially the assembly passages. And the lovely gifts of drawings! I have every one still. Some are waiting to be framed for an alter I created around the gods (Radha and Krishna) that were given to me by my host. I had them shipped back only to find Krishna decapitated in the process! I had him tenderly repaired and mounted on a wall on my porch so that when I sit out there, I may gaze upon love and devotion. I am so glad you found the time to write, in such detail, about your travels. Love.

  2. Jeanne Pellegrino permalink

    Great reading so far. I’m going to save the rest for later. So cool.

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