Sunday, December 26, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Hello again!

So before I leave for our Hyderabad trip, I thought I'd share some pictures from the last few weeks, from the Field Trip posts below (note: this is the second of two posts, see below for the other one).

Since the pictures are taking a while to upload, a funny story. So Elonnai, another IDSer who is doing her placement in Bangalore, invited me out with some of her friends here to a trivia night at a pub. I felt pretty in the zone, since random knowledge and drinking are two of my real strong suits. Things are doing pretty well, and our team was cleaning up (we ended up coming in second). Anyway, the MC was saying something about Australia and asked if there were any Aussies in the crowd. There being none, the bar kind of went into an awkward silence, which Elonnai and I, in a bout of inspiration, decided to break by shouting "Hey, we're Canadians!" To which the MC looked right at me and said "Canadian? No, no, no, anna! You are South Indian only!" He then proceeded to tease me in Tamil and ask about how much I liked Rajnikanth (a famous Tamil actor). It was at that moment that I realized that thanks to my moustache, a remnant of Movember, I was definitely the most desi-looking person in the bar, including the actual desis, most of whom were clean-shaven and in jeans and t-shirts. Possibly this is a sign I should shave?

Anyway, fun times. Here, have some pictures! I am sure that is what everyone wanted for Christmas. This first album is a collection of pictures from the field trip to the dam, and my time at Timbaktu in Andhra, both of which you can read about in the previous posts.

The next album is one which I was totally going to write a blog post for but then I didn't. Long story short, I saw a bunch of temples back in October. Enjoy!

Finally, the piece de resistance: a map of all my travels. I had a pretty awesome nerd-out session with Google Maps and made a map showing all the trips I have made so far. This includes the exact location of Puvidham, found via satellite map and my map reading skills (thanks, Remote Sensing course!), as well as the (almost) exact road routes I took in getting places. Why? Why not? (for best results, click the link below to see it in a new window)

View India Placement in a larger map

Field Trip number two!

Dear readers,

The last two weeks of my life have been pretty hectic! A couple of days after the field trip mentioned in the last blog post, I headed out to visit another school in Andhra Pradesh for a while. After coming back, everything was a rush of activity as my parents, and then my brother, arrived from Canada (woo!) and we've been showing them around. Tomorrow, we set off in a giant 12-seater van for the second ever epic massive road trip to Hyderabad, compliments of the Shaik clan (aka my mother's family). The first ever was during my last visit to India in 2005, and the Andhra countryside has only just recovered.

But first things first. My visit to Andhra two weeks ago was pretty amazing, so I'll start there.

When I started working on an 'alternative' curriculum project back in September, it did not take long for us to realize that I could not really understand a large part of the exercise, since I had no idea of what 'alternative education really meant, in an Indian context. We decided that the best thing to do would be for me to visit a number of other schools to figure out how things ran, so that I could better understand the environment in which the school operates. So far, I have vaguely-formed plans to visit a few schools all over the map, but the first one to work out was one called Timbaktu, in Andhra Pradesh. After a few phone calls and e-mails and setting of dates, away I went!

The Timbaktu Collective is a pretty amazing organization, and the Timbaktu compound (for lack of a better word) is a pretty amazing place. It is in a pretty dry area of Andhra Pradesh, known mostly for its groundnuts. You immediately know you've arrived at the collective's area when the hills around you start to look very, very different. They look different because they, unlike their neighbours, have forests growing on them, the culmination of almost two decades' worth of land regeneration work. In talking with one of the directors – all of whom live in the same compound as the children and staff – I learned a great deal about the Collective's activities, which reach beyond the school itself. Since the conversation was, admittedly, brief, I will forward interested readers to their website, where you can see their projects in greater detail.

Since I was there to observe the school, I spent most of my time with the kids. Since I arrived on a Saturday, the children were enjoying themselves – I joined a game of cricket which I failed miserably at, so I mostly stuck to the sidelines. The kids here seemed really comfortable with me as a visitor, which I imagine must be because they get so many of them. I was a little disappointed, though – I was demoted from my post of 'uncle' for the duration of my visit. Instead, I was referred to for the whole visit as “Adam brother!”

Linguistic aside: most Indian languages have some titles of respect for those older than you. People slightly older than you will be called 'big brother' or 'big sister,' while those a little more old will be called 'auntie' or 'uncle.' If one's proper name is used, it will be in conjunction with one's title, like 'Adam uncle.' For aunts and uncles, most languages also differentiate between those older or younger than your parents, or those on your mother's side or your father's side. I have steadfastly refused to learn these distinctions in any language.

The rest of the week, I sat in on classes and did some teaching wherever I could. Mostly I stuck to the odd game of hangman, or teaching some English songs – mostly Christmas carols and 'skinni mirinki dinki dink,' which I have decided is my key to communicating with small children all over the world. I also gave some of the dramas that the Puvidham teachers had written and used, since they were curious about the teaching material that we were making. Mutual learning for the win! It was a really positive experience and I learned a lot. I hope to be back there for thesis research at some point, since I would like to look at the different teaching methods employed by alternative schools, and the choices behind those methods – but that requires me writing a proposal, now, doesn't it...

The ride back was eventful, in that I ended up taking a bus to a place I had never heard of before. There were no direct Bangalore buses, I guess. That and I ended up walking through Bangalore to my family's place at past midnight. I'm really enjoying all the random bus travelling that I am doing, much to the surprise of most people I meet, who generally do everything in their power to stay out of buses and bus stands in general. It works for me because it requires little planning, is cheap, and completing a bus journey makes me feel good about being able to get around in a language I barely speak (if you want linguistic confusion, try asking someone for directions in Tamil while trying to read bus signs in Telugu in a city where most people speak Kannada. Thanks, Hindupur!).

Anyway, that was Timbaktu! I have spent the last week since then hanging out with my family, and showing the place in Dharmapuri to my family, who just arrived. Tomorrow we head to Hyderabad, so I am going to sleep now!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Field Trip!

Hello Everyone!

It's an exciting time of year now, and my life here in India has definitely been no exception. As I write this, I am impatiently waiting for 3:30 AM Monday morning to come and bring my parents with it, and for my brother to arrive on the 24th (edit: parents are here now, hooray!). Over the next three weeks, I'll be showing my folks around my new life in Dharmapuri, and then going on a sweet road trip to see the village my mother grew up in and meet family I've never seen before! You can expect a blog post about that in the new year.

But what have I been up to lately? After all, while it seems only yesterday that I wrote my last blog post, I am assured by reliable sources that more than three weeks have passed in the real world. So, here goes:

I finished my stint as a fifth grade teacher last week. The new Puvidham curriculum is split into a number of four-week modules. The last week of the module provides a sort of closure to the module – on Wednesday, all the classes present what they learned in the last month to the whole school, in the form of a drama and songs.

The 5th grade class did a drama on one of the stories they learned, about how oil is formed. Other dramas included the 3rd and 4th grade class doing one on soil formation and the 1st and 2nd enacting a baby cuckoo bird's search for its mother. I will write more on the curriculum process in another post in greater detail. For now, I'll just say that I was very impressed at how the new process makes such extensive use of everyone's creativity: the teachers and the students really shape the way learning progresses, and it has been a joy to see things take shape, from the initial brainstorming and story-writing to the final product at the end, the drama presentation.

Thursday and Friday were a bit of a break, the students got a break from the normal routine to have two days of unspecified activities. I was not quite sure how this would turn out, but I figured it out pretty quick when I arrived on Thursday to a chorus of “Uncle! We will go to the forest!”

Huh. Well, I'm always down for a hike and I had heard that there was a lake a few hours' hike away, so I suggested this course of action to them. Their first reaction was “woohoo,” and their second reaction was “are you sure we are allowed to do that?” This last question convinced me that this was an excellent idea. The only small problem was that I had no idea which way to go.

This is where a curriculum that is based in self-reliance and experiential learning is awesome. It is perfectly acceptable for a teacher to tell their class to take the teacher on a field trip, rather than the other way around. All I had to do was make sure that I knew the way back so that we could get back to school.

After they argued on the best route to take (I probably should have gotten worried at that point), we set off towards the dam. Two miscalculations became evident. First, noon on a hot day is not a good time to start a hike. Second, if you must go at midday, it is generally a good idea to bring more than three bottles of water for a dozen people. But our spirits were high, and the route was beautiful.

As an envirosci nerd, I was in heaven seeing the changing landscape and the different ways people were using the land. To indulge my curiosity about everything I was seeing, I gave groups of children 'assignments,' like telling me what different trees were, or the different crops and how they were grown. I learned many things: firstly, the kids know the names of more plants at the age of 10 than I have ever known in my life. Second, most of them can explain, in their second language, the local practices of paddy agriculture, crop rotation, and intercropping. Thirdly, all the children had some relative along the way and were eager to show their land and what they did with it. One of the girls' grandfather grows sugarcane, and he gave us some, woo!

I also learned that taking a dozen children to an overflowing dam is a terrible idea. The lake we went to is an artificially made one; the local river has been dammed to provide irrigation water for the area, which is usually quite dry. Since the rains had been very good this year, water was spilling over the edge of the dam, creating sort of a natural algae-covered waterpark. There was a part of the dam where one could slide down about twenty feet or so into a shallow pool at the bottom. Of course, everyone did this at once – what happened next is a bit fuzzy. No one was hurt, though I feel like the stress of watching them shaved a few years off of my life.

(edit: for anyone who is confused about this dam -- an irrigation dam has no moving parts, it is just a big wall that people put up across a river to trap water. When the water level gets really high, it flows over the other side which slopes gently downward. I would not have let children play in the vicinity of hydroelectric turbines. Just clarifying.)

Anyway, that was my last week at Puvidham before the holidays. But there's more! Last week, I took a trip to Andhra Pradesh, a state to the north of Tamil Nadu, to visit a school there called Timbaktu. More on that in the next post!