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Sunday, 29 January 2012

Trial by Fire

Before coming to India many had asked me a basic question, “what will you be teaching when you are there?” I replied that I did know or that it would probably be teaching English, but the grades were unknown. I think my response puzzled some and at times it puzzled me since I did not know the true answer. In the U.S. this seems odd if a teacher does not know what they are teaching a few months or especially a few weeks before they have started. Typically most things back home are planned out well in advance from my experiences particularly when it comes to a job. Things in Agartala operate very differently explaining why our group did not know what or even where we would be teaching until the day we started with our first classes.
The people here are very flexible and time does not work the same here as in America. If someone tells you they will meet you somewhere at 4 PM that day you may see them around then or you may not see them until two days later. Although a lot of things are planned out here, the question always remains of when the plan will be implemented or if the plan will completely change. In some ways this can be frustrating and vexing, but most of the times I embrace how laid back our schedule is and how timelines are not made based on time.

The first week we arrived in Agartala, Iain and I discovered to our surprise that we’d be spending the first half of the year teaching at the Holy Cross School while Charlotte, Christa, and LucyRose would be teaching at the Saint Andre School. I am still learning about the two different schools and although they both are run by the Congregation of the Holy Cross there do seem to be some noteworthy differences. The Holy Cross School is directly across from where we live making for a one minute walking commute each day while the Saint Andre School is about a 45 minute bus ride with all the stops along the way. I’ve been told Holy Cross is one of the best schools if not the best in Agartala and there tend to be wealthier students. “Wealthier students” can be misleading though as it is all relative, because I have seen some of these students’ small two room houses that have conditions that would be considered deplorable and very hard to find in the U.S. A lot of the students Holy Cross receive tutoring or what they call “tution” in the evenings so between that and receiving a quality education in the classroom there are many who are very bright and excel in the classroom.
I have only visited Saint Andre and the school is smaller (still 1,000 pupils) than Holy Cross, and the population is primarily composed of very low income, tribal students. Saint Andre is slightly more affordable than Holy Cross (even though both are very reasonable compared to U.S. private schools) making it a more viable option for those with very little money to be able to send their child to a very good school. I’ve been told that the free government schools are extremely substandard and in some classrooms teachers will not even be present. I have a lot more to learn about both schools, but it is clear that each one is a place that serves local children in need of an education that could be a pathway out of poverty and oppression.
On our first Friday, Iain and I arrived at the school ready for a couple weeks of shadowing other teachers and becoming familiar with how to actually teach since this was all new to us. That morning we were given books and our own class schedules with the wonder of how our training would begin. Surprise! A teacher brought me to a seventh grade class and with no warning I was teaching my first English grammar class. There ended up being no shadowing or additional training, luckily we did have a informative orientation at Stonehill College and a small teachers’ orientation earlier in the week, but nothing could prepare me for this.
My first three classes that day taught me a lot about how to affectively teach here and control a classroom. Having forty to fifty seventh and eighth graders in each class makes discipline crucial. My first rowdy class showed me the rules had to be made clear. For example, the first rule is that only one person in the room is talking at a time, either the teacher or whoever raised their hand to participate. I realized that I could convey a message that demonstrated that I require respect for each other in the classroom that ultimately fosters an environment where everyone has the opportunity to learn. By my second and third class that day we were swiftly moving through the course material with only the occasional laughs and chatter that has to be expected.
I currently teach three seventh grade and one eighth grade English Grammar classes. Also, one seventh and one eighth grade English Literature classes. I’ve never considered myself a master of the English language and tried to avoid English classes in college so I was naturally apprehensive about teaching English classes. To my surprise I have actually found that I know a lot more than I expected from speaking the language my whole life and I do believe this is very beneficial for the students. All the teachers do speak English at the school, some better than others, but it is not their native tongue so it can be difficult for most of them to teach English classes. Hopefully I can develop effective teaching methods and combine this with my ability to speak the language to be a great teacher for the students.
Finally once a week I take a fourth grade class to the library, which is the only class so far I was unable to control as they continually surrounded me requesting autographs with no response to my demands for silence. I’ll be requesting help from by fellow volunteers the next time I meet with those youngsters. So far it has definitely been challenging learning how to best teach here. Things operate differently in these classrooms as it is very hard to do group projects or to move away from the text due to the large number of students, and how it is ingrained in them to strictly follow their workbooks step by step. My next goal is to work more creative exercises into the classroom, and so far the students' enthusiasm and desire to learn has made it all worth it.

Saturday, 21 January 2012


When most people think of Indian food they typically imagine a real spicy dish with some curry. Well my taste buds have found a much different story over here as a variety of diverse ingredients and specialty cooking techniques fuse into vibrant flavors. There's still the curry and the spices, but there's many things I've never heard of or tasted before. 

One of the most extraordinary foods I have tasted while here is a Bengali (a lot of people that live in Agartala are Bengali meaning they are natives from the Bengal region in northeast India/Bangladesh) specialty called Pumpkin Bhaji. Pumpkin Bhaji is a thin strip of pumpkin fried in a crispy batter that contains delicious sesame seeds. It is unlike anything I have had before and is truly one of the best things I have ever had. The sesame seed batter is perfect and I think that anything fried in it would be a treat. The type of pumpkin used looks a little different than we’re used to and is pictured below. As you can see they aren’t your typical orange pumpkins we’re used to carving, but have a deep green color.

If you’re feeling adventurous I encourage you to try to make this local delight. The recipes I’ve found online all seem to vary and I’m unaware of how to exactly make it, but I’m sure it’ll be something you’ll enjoy if you choose to try it out. Once I am taught how to cook it I’ll share it with you for sure. Bhaji is one of many foods that the people of Agartala use to bring families and friends together. People here really take time to enjoy their every meal and their company even if it requires long breaks that put work on hold. I’m not complaining yet about the numerous breaks to eat the fresh food and to the drink tea along with my new friends.

One thing that I do and do not recommend is trying a green chili pepper from here. I do recommend it, because it'll be the hottest thing you have ever eaten. I do not recommend it, because if you are like me you will be crying, drinking milk, and eating Tums for the following hour. The other night we bought a large bag of them and then tried one whole pepper each. It was mind blowing how intense the spiciness was as my tongue and entire body was on fire. I wish I had a jalapeno to cool me down.

Here’s a link to the pictures I’ve taken so far during the first week

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Blessings Around You

After starting our travel from Boston to India Friday morning we arrived in Agartala around noon on Sunday. Although exhausted from jetlag the warm weather and welcoming faces of our new neighbors quickly re-energized us. We are finally here! Our group of five volunteers are staying in two small cabins across from the Holy Cross School, which lies about 5 kilometers outside of the center of Agartala. I don’t know where to begin since we have experienced quite a lot since entering the country.

I knew the long trip would be tiring and one cancelled flight, difficulties communicating with those at the airport along with my checked bag (and three of our bags too) still missing in action added to the exhaustion. Nevertheless, this has only been minor blockade as I have been consumed by the energy and warmness of the people of Agartala already giving me a real sense of why I am here. 

Iain and I live in the cabin to left that has a small common area and kitchen, while Charlotte, Lucy Rose, and Christa live in the cabin on the right. The living quarters are really tight bringing our group literally and figuratively closer together. The bucket showers along with my lack of clothing (one pair of pants, socks, and underwear) due to the lost bags at first seemed impossible to handle until I truly thought about things. Many of those in Agartala are living very simply, with bucket showers, only one shirt and limited resources, but make the most out of what they do have. This brings to mind a line from a poem we read at the Holy Cross Teacher’s Orientation, “Think of the blessings that surround you, not the ones that are denied.”

Here there is severe poverty. Poverty that I have never seen, but there truly are a lot of blessings all around. It’s easy to wonder how people that have so little can have such great spirits and love for others. What I have seen is that many of the teachers and students do not dwell on what they do not have. They instead embrace the beauty of the landscape, the vibrant food, the cricket matches, and each other’s company. I have never been some where so foreign yet so welcoming. As a group we have been greeted with open arms by so many making us feel as if we’re been here for a lifetime.

The Holy Cross School and where we live is a relatively quiet spot full of palm trees like our own little jungle. Up the road in the city’s center it is not so quiet, but instead hustling and bustling with rickshaws, tiny stores, and masses of people wherever you turn. Here I was able to see where I can buy pretty much anything I need over the coming months and picked up a few small things. Here’s my shopping spree with the money conversion so you can get an idea of what things cost here. One US dollar equals approx. fifty Rupees.

Thomas the Tank Engine towel                      100 Rupees ($2)
Bar of herbal soap                                         15 Rupees ($.30)
20 baby bananas (plus 6 free samplesJ)          20 Rupees ($.40)

The voyage ended with a tour of the extensive market where fresh vegetable, fruits, fish, and meats can be bought by the bushels. It was exciting to see where a lot the food we have been eating has come from and where we will be hand selecting our food. The market was no Stop & Shop. It was a whimsical place full of new sights, sounds, and excitement that will be my life in India for the next eleven months.