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Our host school in Jorhat

19 July 2013

Kendriya Vidyalaya Air Force Station Jorhat is located near a defense complex off a two-lane road (there are only two-lane and one-lane roads here, and the word “lane” is used rather loosely when describing Indian driving). Nearly 1,300 students, Class I through XII, begin arriving at the gate shortly after 7 a.m. and stream through until the morning assembly begins in one of the school’s courtyards at 7:30 a.m., save for a few late-comers who must rush to take their places in line. Most students arrive on foot, some on bicycles, a few clinging helmetless to the fathers on motorbikes (sometimes two children per bike), and a significant contingent is brought on two or three yellow school buses, which are privately owned and paid for. (The principal, Mr. Silas Purty, is pleased that managing transportation is not one of his many duties.) Some parents linger outside the gate, watching their lower-primary children make their way down the dirt path to the school building, where they will drop off their book-bags in their rooms before convening for morning assembly.

The assembly generally includes attendance, a prayer that begins and ends with “OM” and is chanted to the sound of a harmonium and Indian percussion, the school pledge, the national anthem, and various announcements. The students stand in their lines under the sun or darkened sky in the rocky courtyard, a raised concrete platform in front of them with the musical instruments, microphones hooked up to bullhorns, and other necessary equipment. It hasn’t rained during assembly yet, but it is rainy season; otherwise, students would convene on a grassy area in front of the school before a platform with a roof. Right now the grass in that area is waist high; the principal tells me it would be a waste of time to mow it because it would just grow that high again in a few days. So we stand in the rocky courtyard to the side of the school, between the building and a small canteen, avoiding puddles and muddy areas as best we can. The more prepared mop their faces with handkerchiefs.


Morning assembly usually lasts about 20 minutes, but on our first day visiting, it is extended. Several students have volunteered to perform for our benefit. Two students read the daily news from a script they have prepared, replete with local-channel-news-at-5 banter (“So, Ashim, what is going on the world of sports?”), and another sings “Hurt” by Christina Aguilera while a classmate holds a cell phone playing the music up to the microphone over the harmonium. We are introduced and asked to give short speeches. When I start by saying, “Good morning, everyone!” nearly 1,300 voices respond in unison, “Good morning, sir!”

Near the end of the assembly, there is a moment of silence, broken by the command, “Silence, over!” A group of upper primary students takes the platform to sing a marching song, and the students, line by line and in line, head to their classrooms, leaping puddles and maneuvering around the rocks and muddy areas.

The day is divided into eight periods with a recess/lunch in the middle at about 10:40. Students stay with their classes, and generally teachers move around to meet them. If a teacher is absent or has other duties that keep him/her from showing up to a class, the students stay in the rooms and wait for a teacher with a free period to stop in. Teachers are “free” for two of the eight class periods, which in addition to being available for class coverage includes completing administrative tasks (there is no guidance department and scant support staff, so much of the responsibilities of the U. S. school office are scattered across the faculty). I haven’t been in the teacher’s lounge yet, but my TGC partner, Laura, has, and she tells me teachers in there are continuously grading.

The periods are about 40 minutes long. I say “about” because there is no regular bell schedule: one teacher just shows up or waits for the other to be done. My host teacher, Rathindra, has developed his own English lab, with a computer, a projector, and a wall painted to look like a smart board, so students come to him. They take their shoes off before entering the classroom and wait so quietly in the hallway for the prior class to be dismissed that sometimes I have to look out of the room to realize they are there.

Most students enter together. Some make eye contact and say, “Good morning, sir!” Stragglers must wait at the threshold, standing at attention, to be beckoned in. Sometimes Rathindra is engaged intensely in a conversation (and he is almost always intensely engaged in something), and a student will wait silently at the door for several minutes before being let in.

Students are remarkably compliant and pay attention to their tasks, even the pranksters in the Class XII Commerce group (24 boys, six girls) who today on one member’s “1, 2, 3, …” stood up together at the start of class and shouted, “GOOD MORNING, SIR!” (I had noted to them the previous day that their “Good morning” lacked enthusiasm).

The boy-girl ratio usually isn’t so extreme as the Class XII Commerce group. A few classes have more girls than boys. It’s easy to compare the two, both in number and behavior, because they sit on opposite sides of the room, crossing over only when there is not enough space. If the boys outnumber the girls or exceed them in extroversion, the girls don’t volunteer often. But if the boys are outnumbered and not gregarious, I can count on a handful of girls to always offer a contribution.

Rathindra teaches three sections of Class XI and three of Class XII. He is a post-graduate teacher (PGT), which means he has a master’s degree and can teach those upper grades. Other secondary school teachers are trained graduate teachers (TGTs) and can only teach Classes VI through X. Up to Class X, there is no differentiation among students, but with Class XI, student must choose to follow a stream: commerce, science, or liberal arts.

This means on a normal day, Rathindra would teach six classes and have two free periods. As long I am with him, however, there is no normal day. We’re only a few minutes into our first free period that Sreha, the girl who sang “Hurt,” comes in with another two girls and asks for a class with Mr. Andrew. “You have free period later?” Rathindra asks intensely, and Sreha says she can bring her class during period seven or eight. Rathindra looks at his schedule for that day (it changes each day in a pattern I can’t figure) and says intensely, “I can’t do period seven. Come period eight.” The girls giggle and look at each other with a facial expression that would be translated into American as “Score!” “Thank you, sir! Thank you, sir!” they say, first to him then to me, before leaving.

So the first day in the classroom I taught seven classes. Today (I am writing this Thursday) I taught all eight. A Class X English teacher had heard about me and wanted to bring her class and view my methods. Also, Sreha convinced one of her teachers to bring her class (remember, it’s the same group of kids as before) during Rathindra’s other free period.

The recess/lunch period has also been spent with students. On the first day, Sreha’s sister and two of her Class XII friends came in with containers of food they and their mothers had made for us: paneer with chapati, and two kinds of samosas (one a little larger than a tennis ball, baked, and stuffed with potato, one a little smaller than a golf ball and fried with a thin layer of filling that tastes lightly of cinnamon). We eat with two of the girls; I find out while I’m munching that the third one is Muslim and is fasting for Ramadan, refusing to swallow even her own saliva, except in class when it is bad manners to spit.

Today brought a more spontaneous and more chaotic proffering of foods. The new group of 10th graders had class with us right before recess, so several students—it seemed like a lot, but maybe it was only a half-dozen—hurried to their room to retrieve their food containers, then hurried back to the English lab to offer me a taste of their lunch. I sheepishly tried to take as little as I could from as many as I could, advising them that they should have enough to eat of what their mothers had carefully made for them (all their mothers are excellent cooks, by the way, trust me). Plus, we still had samosas left over from the previous day.

Teaching and, I hope, learning is going on somehow. I’m working on a short unit on how to write a newspaper report (I don’t hear the term “newspaper article” here, and “report” is how it’s described in the curriculum). I use Rathindra’s projector to display my school newspaper’s webpage, and using sticky notes—donated by the Pompano Beach Chamber of Commerce, thank you very much—which with a little glue stick fasten to the painted concrete wall in the hot, humid room, we identify the who, what, when, where, why, how of the article. I pass out print copies of Tornado Times, and in pairs students complete the same activity with an article of their choice. They do quite well on the task, despite the fact that they are all learning English as a second language, and the competency and clarity with which they express themselves cuts a very wide swath.

The newspapers also give them insight into a U. S. high school, and Rathindra and I project the location of the school on Google Maps (thus showing our proximity to the Caribbean) as well as the photos on the school website. They are surprised at the ethnic diversity of the school and our community: our principal was born in Haiti, students in the district hail from 171 different countries and speak 53 languages at home, and—most surprising and pleasing to them—our newspaper and web pages include names of South Asian descent like Aggarwal, Majumdar, Maharaj, and Mosarrah.

This diversity is one aspect on which I can connect with them again and again. India’s 28 states were set up according to the 28 major languages spoken in each. As a Kendriya Vidyalaya, or “central school” run by the federal government for its frequently moving employees, this facility serves students with a variety of mother tongues and with parents who will be posted in Assam for only a few years before packing up and enrolling their children in another KV with the same curriculum in a different location. I hope they gain faith in themselves that an itinerant person learning English as a second language can achieve great things in this modern world.

So now we have three grades, Classes X, XI, and XII, assigned the task of writing a newspaper article on a topic of their choice, with the prize of an official 2013 FSPA Convention T-shirt for the best article at each grade level.

At the end of the teaching day, mopping sweat from my face, I go to the principal’s office, where some of the women teachers bring us boxes upon boxes of food and where we are happy to eat and drink cold bottled water in the only room on campus with an air conditioner, a wall unit that today for some reason is the only thing I come across that does not function properly.

Image The entrance to Rathindra’s English lab at KVAFS Jorhat. Students must take off their shoes before entering.Image  Rathindra and Laura stand near the projector. Where they are standing is the best place in the room to get the full blast of the ceiling fan.

Image The courtyard where morning assembly is held. This photo is from our first day, during recess/lunch at 10:40.

Image Once rainy season is over, morning assembly is held before the roofed platform in front of the school.

Image Oh, those pranksters in Class XII commerce!

Image KVAFS students read Tornado Times.


From → India travel log

  1. Nini permalink

    You are having a great time!! Keep posting, I’m following! I used to have assemblies like that in Colombia when I was young.

  2. Dr. Shipe permalink

    Did your assemblies have an “OM” prayer? 😉 Many students ask me about U. S. morning assemblies. They are surprised there is no morning prayer or singing of the national anthem, but they like the idea of sitting inside and watching a TV or listening to an intercom.

  3. Julia Perlowski permalink

    Yes! I remember. At Navrachana in Gujarat, there was only ONE air conditioned room on campus! At the end of the day, I too, would run to it as we were teaching all day in hot monsoon weather. Then cooks would arrive from 1/2 mile away with baskets of food for hats and set them down in front of us. Always nan. I remember the heat was so intense…I FINALLY understood the necessity of pure COTTON clothing as opposed to poly blends. I threw most of what I brought to wear, out! And, I bought the long cotton shirts all the ladies wore. Your blog is helping me remember. AND, today, I had the first call from India in a long time from Mamta Kumar, my host and current collaborator. Love to you.

  4. Judy Carruth permalink

    I LOVE reading this Andrew–so vivid I feel as though I am there in the heat with you and Laura. Beautiful experience.

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