Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Peace, not Pieces - Part II

While on the subject of Peace, not Pieces, we look at Lessons 3 and 4. We set out to watch this talk by Lesley Hazelton: On Reading The Koran:

Well, not everything you set out to do always goes smoothly, does it? We were a few minutes into the talk, having discussed what the word "Koran" meant - "Like the Bible for Christians," someone supplied, and "Oh, ah, that." "Who is a virgin?" I was asked, and I replied, fairly euphemistically for me I thought, "A woman who has not been 'touched'," I added the quote marks with my fingers. We must keep the cultural context in mind - and not say to the mini United Nations what one might say to Drama students, for instance. Anyway, from the slightly embarrassed grins I guessed they had understood.

And just as it was all becoming very exciting - the "highlighter version" and talking about fundamentalists and Islamophobes being adequately explained, life got even more exciting as the fire alarm rang out. No, no, there wasn't a fire - it was a practice evacuation drill, part of the CIS accreditation team's requirements. I thought we had made good time, and we made even better time on the way back.

However, just as we restarted the talk, briefly discussed the Shia-Sunni split, talked about Protestants and Catholics and the two main sects of Buddhism - the Mahayana and Hinayana - with Hazuki volunteering that her parents are Buddhists but was not willing to commit to being the same herself... the fire alarm rang again. A prank? we wondered. I stepped out into the corridor, saw Sanjeev step to the railing, look down - on his way back to his room he waved his arms indicating that it was for real. Phew, another one!

By the time we got back, the lesson was over. Then there was a challenge of procuring the LCD projector for Lesson 6. No luck. Finally, we shifted venue to the Flexi and hooked up with the projector there. Almost immediately we came up against the words "agnostic" and "hubris". We discussed Yahweh and Kyeong asked about the Gospels.

Sehun wondered what she meant by "the Koran in English is a kind of shadow of itself". The next part of the talk, to my mind, needed to be highlighted. I did, of course, wonder whether I was doing much the same thing that Hazelton appears to be warning us about - but it was not out of context to repeat that the Koran includes women, and then the "infamous verse about killing the unbelievers". We played this part a second time, connected it to her earlier statement about the "highlighter version".

In the final part, Akhil wanted me to explain the word "fecundity" - the rest appeared to have gone down clearly.

With this we got down to planning our individual presentations.

1. Pick your area/ decide on what you will create
2. Ppt, film, enactment, lecture, debate, write a script, recorded conversation
3. Create the KFW table - what you already Know; what you want/need to Find out; and Where you feel you will find it or Who you will ask.
4. Draft: Show it to friends and Cathy
5. Finalize: visual/audio material on CDs; other material - print-outs

We emphasized that what was really important to keep in mind was the object of the exercise: convince others that your plan is a "good" one - may not be the best and definitely not the only one, but a workable plan.

In the next 20 minutes, I got the opportunity to interact with several students who managed to rapidly put down where they wanted to take it. Others have promised to get back with plans very soon.

The assessment rubric is the same as always: Language, Cultural Interaction, Message.

These are baby steps we take towards our goal, and Inshallah, we shall sail towards a new sunrise because being at Peace makes so much more sense than being in Pieces.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Peace, not Pieces - Part I

Or, My Personal Path to World Peace

Grade 11 Language B lessons are often more dramatic than Drama lessons. We have a mini United Nations scenario going, although all voting situations are won hands down by my generally peaceful Korean students. Last week we approached the mysterious and esoteric topic of "poverty", something that is but a distant concept for my richer-than-thou charges. But they seldom disappoint; in their individual oral presentations, they made connections between poverty and the idea of who controls a country's resources and hence, what it is that leads to poverty. Bravo, I thought, as I set out to draft this week's plan - one that should spill over to the next two.

In brief, the idea is to explore: As a global citizen, what contribution can I make to World Peace? The "guiding question": What are the many paths that can lead to World Peace? And not to leave out the much-maligned TOK: How does language and perception affect our view of "self" and "other"?

My English HOD wrote back on the planning sheet: "Lovely plan! Wish I could sit in." All I could think of, at that moment, was, "I hope it works."

We started off with a discussion yesterday, briefly wondering about "What are the main causes of conflict that stand in the way of World Peace?" Hyungbai immediately corrected me, "It's not conflict, it is confliction. Conflict is a verb." We dived into our respective gadgets - he, the digital dictionary, I, the laptop - and came up for air at the same time. "OK," he said, "conflict is noun too." Hyunbin confirmed it on his digital gadget. They had a minor argument, in Korean, involving nouns and verbs. Phew! "Please speak-a the Eeeeengleeesh," I chanted. They complied for a few seconds. The question I put to them next was: Can you give me examples of instances of international conflict? Choruses of "North and South Korea, India and Pakistan, Tibet and China" floated around. Like I said, they seldom disappoint.

Then we began to watch Jody Williams' talk on "A Realistic Vision for World Peace".

They were delighted, of course, with her using, without actually saying it, the F-word. We stopped to briefly speculate about which country the speaker was from - most of them worked out "USA" - either due to her accent or her reference to "Congress", "the President" and "dollars". We paused at the reference to Hiroshima - they were not familiar with the bombing, except Hazuki, of course. When I narrated this part of world history, there was a wide-eyed question, "Why did they do it?" Then they turned to Hazuki to ask, "Where do you live?" She responded with, "Tokyo." Then, endearingly, "Is that far from Hiroshima?" "Yes, very far." "Oh, thank God."

We made another brief pause to figure out the reference to "His Holiness" and giggled at the reference to "action" hero. Then, just as we reached Aung Sun Suu Kyi, my sweet SoYoung piped up. "Ma'am," she sang, "I'm not following any of this. It has too many big words."

I offered her the transcript. She looked at it with some interest. "This also has very big words." The others wanted the transcript too. "SoYoung, wherever you don't understand, we will stop and discuss it. OK?" She didn't look convinced.

The rest of the ride was fairly smooth. Conchita looked delighted at the mention of the Northern Ireland conflict [she had worked that into her "poverty" oral last week - talking about discrimination and unemployment] and Akhil was pleased with the Tree Lady's strategy to get people together. Deepak pretended to be staring out of the window, but whenever questioned on what had just been said, he supplied a suitable answer.

Then they made the first part of the following list: the need for peace.

Need for Peace
Kind mind
The world would be a better place for everyone to live in
Understanding with or between their different cultures
People live happier and safer life
Spread happiness
Not to be selfish with each other
Relax and be happy

So today's lesson began on the same note. Each one of them wrote his/her "need" on the board on one side, and possible reasons for conflict on the other. Kyeong signed his name with a flourish under "Not to be selfish with each other" - this, he explained, was because some day he wanted to join the government in his country and he wanted them to know this.

Here's the second list:
Reasons for Conflict
differences of thinking
different perspectives of people
different thinking and individual identity
different wishes
different opinions
can't understand each other

The discussion that followed, linked ideas from the first list to thoughts on the second. For example, "understanding with or between their different cultures" was linked to "different perspectives of people" and " different thinking and individual identity"; "kind mind", on the other hand, linked with "money", "resources", "greed" and "pride". Soon, the green lines connecting the two lists created a tenuous spider's web. We identified four main areas that could be worked on:

1. Money
2. Resources
3. Discrimination
4. Differences

What they began to plan next was the project called: My Personal Path to World Peace.
The Objective of the project is: Convince other people that your "path" is a good solution.

We also discussed the TOK angle: Language and Sense Perception - the effect of these on our view of "self" and "other".

What is the minimum word count, Kyeong wanted to know. When is the submission date, Hyungbai asked. I shook my head at both of them. "Don't worry about minimum/maximum/optimum… or about deadlines. Do it from your heart. Otherwise it's no use for you won't learn anything from the experience."

Tomorrow we will watch another inspiring talk: Lesley Hazleton - On Reading the Koran.

As they began planning the project, which can be in the form of a ppt, film, photographs, talk, recorded conversation, enactment, etc., I sat back and watched furious scribbling on paper or rapid clicking on laptops, with a certain sense of satisfaction.

For, this is my personal path to world peace… and I have set off down the road with determination. To help my students think like global citizens, to invent creative solutions to reduce conflict, to walk for a while outside the narrow confines of curricula and learning outcomes… to sow the seeds of peace, not pieces.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Fine Art of Stilt Walking

On a crisp November afternoon, four of us made our way to the mini-soccer field armed with some strange looking wooden objects. Tyger carried two long wooden planks with ropes spouting out of them while Sara and I had two pairs of stilts which were heavy enough for some bicep-curling activities along the way. Mr David Chandler, occasional D & T Teacher and black-belt stilt-walker, strolled behind us, waving a camera and whistling.

This was to be Lesson 2 at stilt walking… the first having been conducted outside the AV Room where I walked the entire width of the corridor (all 10 feet of it), screaming in terror that I suffer from vertigo, supported by Mr Chandler the whole time. So, being the dare-devil, willing as always to risk life and limb to learn something new (well, I know I was only two feet off the ground, but can you imagine how terrifying it was to not have Mother Earth under my feet?) I signed up for Lesson 2. The clan wanted to be part of the action. Did they want to learn too? Not necessarily. "It'll be great fun watching you fall off," they said. So much for filial loyalty, hmpf!

Tyger was set the task of walking on the skis (that's what they turned out to be, only they were made of wood), and Sara told to have a go at her stilts by herself, and ah, I thought, I'm going to be able to try this out without wild cackling from the offspring… Mr Chandler turned to me. First came the theory. "You get onto the stilts, hold them like this," he demonstrated, "then take short steps. Keep your legs close together, and keep your steps short." And finally, most importantly, "Don't worry, I'll be holding on to them."

For a while we tried this on the grassy slopes, occasional stumbling caused by the hidden bumps and crags. Then he decided to take the exercise to the paved path next to the field. "It may be easier to do this here since the surface is firm." It was, and we went down the path, turned, walked back, turned again. The whole time he held on to the stilts. I think on the couple of instances that he did let go, I must have screamed, "Don't let go," and I felt the reassuring support again. I fell off many times, then got back up again and gave it another shot. I don't clearly recall what he said the whole time, just that they made me feel that I had to keep trying.

When I took a break, he went off to help Sara, then Tyger. The three of us got onto the skis together and faced the challenge of walking all the way to the other end of the field. We even successfully attempted climbing up a short flight of steps.

Finally, I got onto the stilts again, this time with Sara supporting me while I swung myself on, and with complete ease and to my utter amazement, I walked at least 10 steps before jumping off.

Then came the epiphany. For several weeks I had been struggling with my Grade 9 IGCSE students, deconstructing poetry and analysing it. We were all up to our necks in literary devices, knew them backwards, were able to identify them accurately and give examples ad nauseum. But, here's the catch, when it came to analyses, we were always looking for an explanation from the teacher… i.e. yours truly. "But how do I write this?" I had been asked many times. Providing them with a structure for an analytical essay had not helped. They were still paraphrasing like the dickens, not responding or commenting. "What do you FEEL about this? What does this image make you feel?" I said repeatedly. And mostly, what I got [not in discussions, of course, but in their written work] was "I don't FEEL anything - except that I can't figure out what to write." Fear stared starkly each time they approached a clean sheet of paper on which they had to put down their wise words of deconstruction.

So, what was I doing wrong? Or, what else did I need to do? It all became clear that afternoon:
First, demonstrate and give clear instructions. [This I had done, but what needed to be done next was way more important.]
Second, give them many chances to try it out, make mistakes.
Third, if a certain way [surface] wasn't working, change it and find a new way.
Fourth, most importantly, don't let go of the stilts till they came to an independent decision to take off by themselves.
Fifth, applaud every little victory and encourage them after every fall.
Sixth, do something fun and achievable every once in a while.

I went back into my Grade 9 class on Monday morning, full of renewed vigour and energy, bubbling over with enthusiasm. We were about a week from the mid-year exams and they were terrified. But everything else was suddenly different. I began by telling them about the stilt-walking lessons and what I had learnt from it about teaching them. They were appreciative. "So now, we are going to make a lot of mistakes, but it really doesn't matter because each time we will learn something new. What I want you to do is stop worrying." That week was amazing in terms of the response I got. Some of them managed to improve in leaps, others strolled along but no longer fearful or lazy. Most importantly, we all started enjoying this whole deconstruction thing. Have they all cracked it? No, of course not. Are they all now willing to try? That's a resounding YES!

Hats off, Mr Chandler, you taught me so much more than stilt walking that afternoon!

Monday, January 10, 2011

In Search of a Fairy Tale

… and what the dewdrop calls the end
the Master calls a new day…
But what of the dewdrop when it melts
is absorbed by the earth and
everlastingly lost to itself and obscure now
to the world?
And what of the leaf which had clung
to the dewdrop,
- the possibility of love -
for when love broke through the fog
the dewdrop evanesced into its heat
And left the leaf
lonelier, if possible, than before.

[With apologies to Mr Bach, for distorting the original "what the caterpillar calls the end/ the Master calls a butterfly".]

What happens when a year, a decade, a millennium, a moment, or a relationship, [or to be honest, the possibility of a relationship], comes to an end?

That's what most relationships are, aren't they? They contain the possibility of relating, the seeds of relationship, just as life brings with it the possibility of living. Who can say with complete confidence and assurance that they have a relationship, a rock-solid one which is unshakable in the storm? Who can say without hesitation that they are really LIVING, not merely existing, from sunrise to sunrise? Who has found love that came with a "guarantee" sticker? Who has found immortality, the possibility of endless living? Mostly, love and life come with a "use by date". And even if, as sometimes happens, the relationship goes on till the physical end of life of one or the other, who knows how deeply they related at all? That they didn't spend many years losing themselves in the habit of co-habiting, where questioning the foundation they think is rock-solid would have exposed fissures that run deep into the earth that seemingly grounds them? That didn't go from one chore to the next without wondering "why am I doing this" till the final moment of truth when they had to face the question "Did I really live"?

What may happen then, is that you are left with a panorama of memories, visions if you like, of scents, textures, sounds and togetherness. You may find yourself reaching for the vision only to have it dissolve in your arms. You can choose to erase, efface or even deface those memories - for hidden underneath that warm, remembered glow, is pain born of the longing for it to repeat itself. You can choose to step back, step out, step away, but are inexorably drawn into the longing again and again and again. But the moment is gone, the chance lost, and neither love nor life really offer you second chances. You can, of course, frame the memories and look at them from time to time to help with a desolate present.

There are those who look carefully at the "use by date" and consciously create memories to sustain them in the future. They are able to live entirely in the present, ignore any intruding thoughts of consequences, and in the final analysis are able to enjoy the snapshots because they came with the fore-knowledge of the fore-told ending. They do not approach opportunities with hopeless hope that anything on this earth is but ephemeral. They are secure in the knowledge of the epitaphs on their tombstones: "He lived, whenever he could; he loved, whenever he could; at all other times, he was useful and productive." They have the wisdom to live entire lifetimes in just a few moments, the ability to find meaning in life as it comes to them and not reach out to life and imbue it with meaning. They have my sincere, humble and heartfelt admiration.

But what if you are not equipped with that wisdom or ability? Perhaps you choose to climb into the tower, lock the door and throw away the key. For, you're not going to let your hair down for just anyone who comes riding by; you will only let it down for the Wicked Witch called "loneliness".

And, of course, you forget in such painful moments, that after sunset the soothing night will rise again, bringing with it perhaps another dewdrop or two, another hope that in spite of the loneliness of most parts of the journey there is always the possibility of a relationship; that in spite of the lifelessness of existence, there is always the possibility of living it.

You can, finally, choose to approach the situation armed with your omnipresent sense of humour: laugh at human follies and the fallacy of assumption; grin at the way in which this fairy tale ended. Oh yes, I've written some really weird endings to many fairy tales - ones in which the princess kissed the prince and he turned into the Toad, or the Beast; ones in which he flew off and crashed his plane leaving the princess wondering "what if"; and, of course, the ones in which the prince rode off into the sunset to rule his kingdom of chores!

And you smile indulgently at the heart's need to keep on writing fairy tales! May the future, then, be prolific....

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Parenting Double Bind

Between stimulus and response, there is a space.
In that space is our power to choose our response.
In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
--Viktor Frankl
As quoted in: Promoting Responsibility & Learning #114, January, 2011,

Early this morning I received an email from my friend, Nats, with a link to an article on Chinese parenting [the word "Chinese" here refers to the traditional philosophy of parenting followed by the Chinese, as clarified by the author in the article]:

Not having a "life" [it's confirmed now - officially, Cathy has no "life"], I read the article, wrote back to Nats, who was still up on the other side of the world, shared the link with a group of friends that I explore family therapy with, received a response from the group leader, Shelja, read her blogpost on the same topic, responded to that, and then began to rapidly put down random-stream-of-consciousness thoughts that occurred in that irritatingly random way. Why is it, I wondered, that thoughts cannot be linear, logical or even literate? Not that I'm a control freak, of course, as I tell all my friends [and some day I hope that this will be true!], but wouldn't it be so much less incoherent if thoughts followed logic? Why do they go back and forth, ad nauseum, sometimes pendulum-swinging, at others roller-coastering, but never, ever, following a pattern that one can grasp, interpret, understand, and draw conclusions from?

Well, anyway, as it emerged, the thoughts centred around the problem of sibling friction as posed as an endless challenge to my mothering skills by my two offspring, Sara and Tyger. On this chillingly windy morning, the walk posed a challenge which, however, paled in intensity to the problem of: how do I help them to get along with each other? No, cancel that, how do I help them to co-exist? For, Sara, the in-the-throes-of-adolescence fifteen-year-old finds everyone and everything "irritating", especially her little brother. And Tyger, just out of the sensorimotor stage, wants to simultaneously emulate and reject his elder sister.

When they are deadlocked in some sort of combat, one has two impulses: the first, to tell them to have it out with "...and I'm not going to play the referee, either", possibly to flounce off to my room or a work-out at the gym; option two is to enter, full-force, into the situation, get them to talk it through, find a solution, help them be at peace with each other, at least till the next conflict erupts.

They say that children learn from their siblings to resolve conflict, a life skill they carry into adulthood. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, but you really want me to leave them at it so they can bash each others' heads in? On the other hand, the more I referee, the less effective I am as a parent - for, both end up feeling that I took the other's side [even if I remained completely and mindfully neutral!], retire with feelings of anger - but at least no one's head needed stitches. Which instantly reminds me of battles with my elder brother, in which my parents intervened only if we got too loud or noisy, and which [being of superior strength and older] my brother always won. Therefore, it's that much more difficult to remain in a position of neutrality, since Sara is approximately twice the size of Tyger, and naturally, I empathize with the one that will not come out on top. However, I do know for a fact that my greater affinity to the status of the younger, smaller sibling, is a myth in the mind of the elder - since, and I have this on record, Tyger also always feels that I'm on Sara's side!

So, here's the double bind: if I do nothing, one of them will definitely get hurt - and can I therefore, as a conscientious parent, allow a situation to develop to its logical conclusion; on the other hand, the more I intervene, the less chances they have of finding solutions that work for them. To compound the problem, I am practically allergic to high-frequency screeches delivered at 120 decibels or more, almost continuously through the conflict by Tyger - who, being a little lion, mewls like a cross between a cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof and an owl-going-for-the-mouse-in-the-field. If he didn't screech like that, I often feel, I may be able to approach the situation in a more stable-headed way. What does happen is that the yelling pierces my brain cells, each one pierced separately, or that's what it feels like, and I lose the ability to think at all till everyone is somewhat calmer. And here's the news, it doesn't get calmer since the issue is not resolved!

Anyhow, stepping back, an exercise that is often touted as the panacea but very difficult to practice with pierced brain cells, does afford a bird's eye view of what is really going on. So this is my meta mirror exercise. And instead of stepping in with a response, the Frankl Space [if one may be allowed the coinage] comes in handy. In that space, here's what I see:
Sara: You idiot! If you don't know how to play the game why do you want to play it? Mamai and I will play it without you. (what she really means, probably, is "I wish you were older and we could enjoy each others' company more." or "I miss the days when I had my mother all to myself and didn't have to share her with you.")
Tyger: (screaming and throwing his arms around) I'm not an idiot! I know how to play! I don't want to lose! I want to win! (that's probably exactly what he does mean)
Sara: You can't win unless you know how to play the game! You're an idiot! (Why couldn't you be older and more sensible?)
Tyger: I can win! I can! I can! (exactly that!)
Sara: I wish you hadn't been born. (exactly that!)
Tyger: I wish YOU hadn't been born. (ditto)
Sara: Ha ha, you can't wish that! I came before you! (You've divided our mother into two. She has to care for you as well, now.)
Tyger: I can! I can! I can! (exactly that)
Me: TIME OUT! (Stop yelling, both of you!)
There is silence for a second or two before it starts up again.
Sara: I'm not going to play with you if you can't be a sport when you lose. (It's bad enough that I have to share my mother with you; you can't even be a good loser!)
Tyger: Then I'm not your brother anymore.
Me: Hey, this is not happening. (Really, that's what I mean - I can't have you both dissociate like this from each other. My breathing has quickened, I'm very nervous because I really want the two of you to get along with each other, be friends, because I'm not going to live for ever; and I would really like to die feeling secure that the two of you are there for each other.)
The Stepped Out Me: There are no guarantees in life. They may end up on different sides of the world. They need to be able to form relationships with other people as well.
Me (to The Stepped Out Me): Well, how are they going to form meaningful relationships with other people if they can't co-habit this house? If they can't get through a game of Uno without sticking knives into each other?
The Stepped Out Me: It's not always like this.
Me (to The Stepped Out Me): No, because she's locked up in her room and he's playing in his. Whenever we play or have a meal or are in any way near each other, this erupts.
The Stepped Out Me: Well, it hasn't always been like this.
Me (to The Stepped Out Me): True enough. But it just seems to be getting worse. And I feel so ineffective, so helpless. In this situation I'm the adult around; it's up to me to help them get along.
The Stepped Out Me: Who decided that?
Me (to The Stepped Out Me): Sorry? I mean, isn't that a given? I'm their parent. The most important lessons they learn are at home.
The Stepped Out Me: That's an assumption. It may not reflect reality. They could be learning a great number of important lessons when they are playing with friends, or even by themselves.
Me (to The Stepped Out Me): So what should I do? Let this carry on?
The Stepped Out Me: Why not? Unless they start hurting each other physically.
Me (to The Stepped Out Me): But what about emotionally? What Tyger said just now was really hurtful.
The Stepped Out Me: Do you think Sara believes that for a moment? Even if she did, at the moment she probably doesn't give a jot. And when she does, she will have forgotten that he ever said it.
Me (to The Stepped Out Me): How do you know that?
The Stepped Out Me: You remember anything you said to your brother when you were kids and fighting or stuff he said to you?
Me (to The Stepped Out Me): Not really. But I grew up feeling that he was the most awful bully.
The Stepped Out Me: Presumably you don't still feel the same way.
Me (to The Stepped Out Me): No, but it took an awfully long time.
The Stepped Out Me: I rest my case.
Me (to the kids): Would you guys like another game? Tyger, I know that you'll get better the more you play. Sara, perhaps you could shuffle the cards, or do you want me to?
Sara : I'm not playing with him!
Tyger: I'm also not playing with her!
Me: OK, no problem. Maybe we could try this again tomorrow. (And I'm OK with this. We can try this tomorrow. Maybe it'll work - perhaps we will have more fun than conflict. This is not the end of the world and tomorrow is another day.)
Sara: I never want to play with him again.
Tyger: I also never want to play with her again.
Me: Fine. That's not a problem at all. (I really mean it. If the two of you want to lead separate lives now or in the future, I have no issues with it. I've taught you to swim, so even if you find that you can't cross the bridges you come to, you can certainly try swimming across the river, or tarzan-swing or whatever. You're both beautiful and strong kids, and right now you are physically dependent on me for many things, but you will grow up and be independent because that's the way I'm bringing you up.)

Thursday, December 30, 2010

On Uniforms and Dress Codes

Bangalore: If you are a college student in India's Silicon city, be prepared for security guards to stare you down if you aren't "properly" dressed. In fact, they can refuse entry to students if they aren't "decently" attired. Worse, if your tank top doesn't measure up to the outsourced guard's sense of morality, you will be fined… College authorities admit that security guards are authorised to monitor the dress code… "…We are preparing students for a professional life…"
In B'lore, college guards enforce dress code; The Times of India, New Delhi; Saturday, March 20, 2010, p. 11

Once upon a time, I worked in a school in which teachers were forbidden to wear starched cotton saris. In fact, they were encouraged not to wear saris at all. The dress code, if one could call it that since there was complete freedom afforded to the faculty in this matter, comprised of jeans and comfortable t-shirts or kurtas. The die-hard sari cadre was inspired to seek comfort in salwar-kameez or churidar-kurtas. And they were reformed….

The children of this school were, initially, allowed to wear whatever they wanted to. Then, acting on requests from parents who wanted their lives simplified, the school introduced jeans and t-shirts for the students. At one point of time, it was quite easy to mistake a teacher for a student.

There was, of course, a philosophy behind this apparent madness. The school's vision envisaged a place in which there were no artificial barriers between teacher and student, especially those created by attire. As one founder-teacher put it, "If a little child wants to plop down in the teacher's lap, she or he should not feel hindered by the starch. And the teacher too should not have to worry about the pleats falling awry."

This was a school in which "academic" teachers regularly trooped down to the soccer field or the basketball court with their children and played with them. They observed their students in contexts other than their own limiting subjects. But what the dress code really made space for was an approach to education which made a lot of sense: teachers were constantly, weather permitting, holding classes outdoors. What better way to teach Wordsworth than in early spring when the dahlias burst the garden with colour? How can a classroom experience of area and perimeter compete with actually going out to the field, measuring and marking the exact area required for various sports and athletic events? We did not need ICT to teach the children about pollination - we just took them out and settled them down to quietly observe the butterflies at it. If we needed an effective setting to discuss dominant and recessive genes, we strolled down to the sweet-pea trellis, and the name Gregor Mendel was always indelibly linked with the dusty fragrance of the colourful flowers. I could indulge in many purple passages on the excitement of working in such a school - the day-to-day delight of teachers and students alike - of the curious phenomenon of students who did not want to go home at the end of the day and who hated weekends as these kept them away from school; the even more curious phenomenon of a body of dynamic teachers who did not really care about the paycheck and did not treat being in school as a job.

However, imagine doing all of the above clad in your organza or Kanjeevaram? Or even in your pleated trouser with matching jacket?

And what is the significance of this clothing style, you ask. It was deep: in the absence of the "teacher-image", students found us approachable simply because we looked like them, not like figures of authority. It led to an exchange of views and ideas, not being afraid to admit that we didn't know something, and then being detectives hunting down the information together. It made a lot of sense. The clinching factor, in case you haven't seen it yet, was that WE did not see ourselves as different from our students. All educationists worth their salt will tell you that the best teachers are those who approach their subject not as experts of their fields but as enquirers or learners.

This was, as I said, "once upon a time". It seems like a fairy-tale land which no longer exists, thus inspiring the opening phrase. The school attracted the kind of parent who is not looking for high grades from the child - or a delivery mechanism to turn the child into an info-regurgitating machine. These were parents who thought about what sort of education would help their child to be happy and fulfilled as a grown-up. They were parents who were dissatisfied with the strait-jacketed, exam-oriented system which was out to kill the uniqueness of the child.

It was before the corporatization of education took place. And with this came a new philosophy that saw parents as potential clients. A natural outcome was that suddenly all schools, right-wing, left-wing, and bang centre, reviewed what their teachers were wearing, and enforced strict dress codes. Simultaneously, any debate about uniforms for children went, instantly, flying out of the window.

To understand the above phenomenon, here's an example of how dress codes work in many ad agencies. While the client-servicing people are required to wear complete formals, the "creative" people are given complete freedom to dress any which way they want. The logic: the client-servicing executives deal with the clients and must present a certain image to inspire confidence; on the other hand, the "creative" people are not supposed to be hindered by uncomfortable attire lest their creativity be blocked.

Transfer this information to a school's adult community: those people who deal directly with parents-the-potential-clients must dress formally so that they are viewed seriously. Imagine the head of admissions or marketing in a pair of faded jeans! God forbid! Parents would definitely wonder about the quality of education on offer. But should not the school's "creative" division be allowed to dress in accordance with comfort? The creative division being, in this case, the faculty….

Not really. For, parents often interact with faculty members, and would they be able to trust that I, dressed in jeans, will be able to effectively take their children through the Drama or English curriculum? Will they not see my casual approach to my clothing style as a casual attitude towards my work as well?

The debate here does not focus on whether or not formals affect our ability to work more professionally. It does not even wonder about the effects of attire on creativity. In fact, the debate really exists only in small pockets of teacher-groups who feel that we need to prepare our students to question more and accept less on face value. And here is where the contradiction strikes one horribly between the eyes.

The corporate world is about unquestioningly following orders. It will brook no dispute with company policies which are printed without embarrassment in Times New Roman 10 Points sometimes in Bold on documents you have autographed with or without hesitation. You don't like it? Well, there's the door, and don't bang it on your way out.

Faced with that attitude, most slink back to their cubicles, tail between their legs, grit their teeth and silently curse the day they signed on the dotted line. Of course, there are those few who do use the door, some who even bang it on the way out. Many of them make it bigger than the company they quit. Some, unfortunately, find another equally oppressive situation, and learn to live with it. Do these different responses have anything to do with the way these individuals were taught in school?

The word "teach" is from Old English tǣcan, from a Germanic root meaning "show" (The Concise Oxford Dictionary, Ninth Edition, Page 1429). Therefore, a teacher must "show"…?

But before a teacher can "show", s/he must ask:
Should I prepare my students to be the slink-back-to-cubicle type of person or the door-banger gutsy guy who is principled and ruled by what s/he believes to be right?
Should I nurture the creative uniqueness of my students or through devices such as neatly tucked-in uniforms convey to them that no matter who they are inside, they have to live according to certain pre-defined standards and appearances?
But most importantly, should I treat this corporate culture as one that my students should accept or teach them to question the very basis of Appearances vs Actual Quality?

Uniforms and dress codes are but a symptom of the deep-rooted superficiality (although that sounds like an oxymoron, I suspect that it isn't) that forms the foundation of the corporate world. They garb and cloak mediocrity under shiny ties and well-cut jackets; they straitjacket originality of thought and enforce conventionality. They contradict the very basis of any sound educational philosophy: that each child has a unique potential, and the true role of education is to help bring that potential to fruition.

We tell our children not to judge a book by its cover and in the same breath pull them up for the tie gone awry; does no one see the contradiction?
Some responses from friends on Facebook:

Rukmini Sen December 31 at 1:04pm Reply
Uniform is a good idea. If we agree that EDUCATION is indeed a RIGHT! if we agree that education should be EQUALLY distributed...which means we take care of special needs of everybody and treat every kid with dignity...then we would see kids from different sections of society coming to same kind of schools. In such a case parents of lower income group can relax if there is an uniform or 'study clothes'. The focus will shift from trendy clothes to basics...sports, music, drama, fun and education...


Jayanto Banerjee December 31 at 12:46pm Reply
i have always had a problem with this 'uniform' debate, where the politically correct answer is to shun all forms of dress codes. and this coming from someone who IS in advertising.
this comment is purely from my personal point of view and experience. it centres around 2 core premises:
1. why do we believe a 'dress code' hinders 'creativity'?
2. i think it is extremely important to 'dress up' for work and it allows me to 'switch on and off' from work.

let me start with the first issue. there is a school of thought that says truly great ideas come not from 'thinking out of the box,' but by 'thinking within the box.' what this means is that, think within the framework of a problem or an opportunity. i really believe 'school uniforms' build discipline --- not in the sense of conforming to 'corporate culture' but fosters 'discipline in thinking - in applying a logical process in understanding and learning.' while 'discipline and rigor in creativity' sounds like an oxymoron, it is probably the single most important thing FOR genuine creativity.

the second point is even more important for me as a person. 'dressing up' for work and 'dressing down' when i get home plays a huge factor in my being able to separate my work and my personal life. even when i work from home, i find it aids my productivity (and focus) when i dress up, sit at the table and swith off the TV --- rather than sit on the bed in my shorts with my laptop on my, well, lap. dressing up in 'work clothes' allows me to switch on to my 'work mode' and conversely and as importantly when the time comes to 'switch off.'

as a head of an ad agency office for the last 5 years, i can count the number of times i've worn a tie to work (maybe 10). my usual dress code is chinos, shirts and a jacket. smart casual as it is called nowadays. much as the 'jholas of JNU' don't foster 'intellectualism', neither does an unshaven, crumpled shirt(ed) creative person in an ad agency foster creativity.

and lastly (and i've kept this for the last as i have very little authority to speak for or against educationalists), i also believe that children in their formative years need 'role models' from their 'teachers.' this does not contradict with them being 'fellow enquirers.'but i've personally always lost respect for teachers who try hard to be 'friends with the students.' please teacher - dont try and be a friend - be a good teacher who i can look up to.

moyna's school here (which is an IB) has a flexible uniform. a choice of 4 colours for the T-shirt (light blue, dark blue, yellow and white - with a small school logo) with blue or black trousers/ pants/ skirts/ capris etc. the student has a choice every morning to decide which colour to wear to school that day and whether to wear a skirt or trousers.....
if you visit the school, initially you think there is no uniform.
somehow i like the uniform with 'choice' concept. it has a certain amount of discipline, without it being rigid and totally, ahem, uniform.

Abhimanyu Dasgupta January 3 at 9:47am Reply
Finally managed to read through your blog! Made me reflect too on my wide ranged experiences in different schools and their norms with regards to the uniform! Have seen both sides of the story! Finally my rule of thumb, which is guided by the only proverb taught by my mother in Hindi... ap ruchi khana aur par ruchi pehna, is that as in Rome dress like the Romans! ;)

Shirin Hasrat January 3 at 11:43am Reply
Surprizingly, or maybe not so, my mother said something similar in Hindi, "Khao apni pasand ka, pehno dusron ki pasand ka." The one reason why uniforms make sense is that there is equality and no "keeping up with the Jonses' syndrome.

Divya Oberoi January 4 at 10:40am Reply
As a parent of two boys I think uniforms is extremely important in Schools because it make our children believe in equality of Education and inculcates a sense of DISCIPLINE in the young minds. ANOTHER ASPECT OF ALL THIS COULD BE YOU SPEND LESS TIME ARGUING WHAT YOUR CHILD SHOULD WEAR TO SCHOOL.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Delightful News

I am really happy to announce that the end of the world (predicted by some to be caused by an inter-religious war in which no side will win, all will lose), has been deferred indefinitely. The reason may be found in the following news item:
or at:

Hmm…. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Usually, they don’t agree on whether to break an egg at the big end or the small end (sorry, Mr Swift, for plagiarising), but the minute there’s talk of “making dem queer guys legit”, they come together to form the homophobic morality police, warning the courts and the government that the moral fibre of human society will be destroyed forever.

Wow! With utter delight, I watched leaders from various (otherwise) warring religious groups take the platform together (AHA!) and jointly address a press conference about the HC’s ruling on article 377. Just as, according to the history books, Indians of every hue came together to fight for “freedom” from British rule in 1857, all religious leaders have decided to pitch their lot with each other in order to fight this GREAT EVIL called homosexuality.

I don’t think there’s any point, in fact, of countering any of their arguments. Many fellow scribes are already doing that and we really can’t know for a fact whether God would actually object or not to the High Court’s view. What is of great importance here is that they CAN agree on something! Call it “unity in diversity”, the “sangam” of opposite minds, the basic commonality of religious streams, whatever…

So, I see this as a reason to celebrate; to call it the harbinger of religious harmony. What we should do is quite simple: place a challenge before this august board of homophobic fanatics – set them a task that REALLY needs to be done. And in our country there are far more important goals to be achieved. Let them come together to eradicate poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, ill-health, etc. etc. etc. We must capitalise on this rare moment of camaraderie between forces that at other times tear apart the very fabric of social harmony they are now together to protect.

Let us allow them to exercise their moral superiority over lesser beings who are obviously not as connected to God – by turning their hand to something constructive for a change, so that they cannot see through this act of God.

Really, I’m serious!

We need to act quickly to divert their minds from this path-breaking chapter in God’s plan for humanity… You see, they have missed the sub-text in God’s script: basically, the religious clerics have got the obvious part of the Delhi High Court’s ruling that the following two things will happen to humanity immediately: 1) by legitimising homosexuality, all the closet gays and lesbians will come out into the open, thereby destroying the (out-dated, patriarchal) institution of heterosexual marriage; 2) by ensuring that heterosexuals begin to feel hopelessly out of place in the newly-expanding gay milieu, that they too will turn gay to keep up with the Joneses.

Like I said, our sage leaders have got this part bang on. But they have missed the reason behind this grand plan: why, to bring down the human population by 2050 so that every (gay) human that survives this Immoral Flood (and the one connected with global warming) actually has a bit of earth on which to live!

P.S. This may actually indicate that God is female rather than male since such delicious lateral thinking for problem-solving has usually been beyond the capabilities of men!

By the way, Sara (who goes to church as often as she can hitch a ride) was INCENSED the other night at Father Emmanuel’s suggestion that homosexuals were usually from broken families. According to her, "Well, du-uh! this is totally ridiculous!"