Great Expectations – The Importance of Critical Thinking
The following is an excerpt from Beatrice Schreiber’s experience as a WorldTeach Volunteer in Ladakh, India in 2017. This is part two of two.
My teaching adventure started the day after His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s (HHDL) event wrapped up and would last until the school’s summer holiday started on July 28. It was not much time. We wondered what difference could we possibly make?
There were two types of schools we could have been placed at, a government school (public, as the name would suggest) or a boarding school (private). Not surprisingly, government schools are less funded and consequently more under-resourced and understaffed when compared to boarding schools. When given the choice, I volunteered to work at a government middle school. It was a no brainer for me. I entered this program to help and challenge myself. Also, I felt this was probably the only time I was ever going to do something like this, so why not really go for it.
Morning assembly every day at 10 am, a mix of singing the Indian national anthem, prayers, and other historically important songs. Kids were belting out with plenty of conviction.
Until my start, I was told to teach English conversation and computer skills because these seemed to be the most needed tools that were lacking among the children. While English was part of the daily curriculum (Social Sciences and Environmental Studies were taught in English), only reading and memorization but not conversing were taught and prioritized. (BTW I have never seen such excitement for rhymes before! In fact, there was a whole period per week dedicated for rhymes, which I only taught once, thankfully.) There was a real need to push the children to speak English in sentences and, more importantly, to think about things in a critical manner. Neither of it came naturally to the children nor to most of the adults.
Unfortunately in my situation, the school in Kuri had different ideas for my stay, despite the fact that I explained my role and purpose to the headmaster repeatedly in the beginning. The reality was that there were no teachers around (many of the seven teachers were out for additional HHDL training or on personal leaves). This ultimately meant that I was going to be a substitute teacher for my time there. In fact, on my first day, it was only the headmaster and me for the attending 19 (out of 27) children. It was not what I had expected but it was what was needed in this school and, after adjusting my initial expectations, I was fine to go along with the new agenda
One of my many schedules, altered according to the presence of other teachers.
Here I was, bouncing from one classroom floor (or random plastic chair when I was lucky) to another, switching up teaching Math to six-year-olds and other English-taught lessons to children from the ages of seven through 14. The classrooms were dark with only one window and no artificial lights that I was used to, random posters covering the gray walls, and a mat on the floor to sit on. As I entered the rooms, I was always greeted with much excitement, like “Good morning/afternoon Madame (or Mam).” I was the new, a different kind of teacher in school and therefore quite the attraction. The small children would just stare at me for days until they finally parroted the older kids by greeting me. They also were so excited to learn to do very enthusiastic high fives from me. (I know I am so creative, but I had no idea what to do with four or five-year-olds without knowing their language.) To me, it was much more enjoyable to work with the older (ages eight to 14) children because when they/we tried, we could actually understand each other, even have a conversation.
The maximum number students in any of my classes were four, which made for a much more intimate setting. Also, if I had four students, it meant that they would be from two different grades and I would have to divide the 40-minute period to meet the requirements of these differing levels. It almost felt more like a tutoring situation than being in a traditional classroom setting. We would read text book passages, discuss new vocabulary including proper pronunciation of already known words, and try very hard to make sense of what we just read. All of that often seemed so advance for these children. I wondered why these textbooks were filled with so many stories, poems, and classic literature excerpts, that not even the other teachers could comprehend and therefore explain to their students. It was frustrating as I tried my best but teaching without students taking notes (it just was not done) simply does not work. So I knew that very, very little was going to stick.
As a result, I saw myself trying even harder with the children I felt would benefit the most from my presence. There were a boy, Tonphel, and a girl, Dawa, in my 5th-grade class who really seemed to want to engage in conversation with me, not necessarily about school, although Social Sciences was their favorite, more out of curiosity about my background. After providing some personal information, I turned it around and made them speak about their lives and point of views. Very quickly did I realize how limited their knowledge about the world and how little individual opinions they had, besides what was commonly known and agreed on amongst each other. While the village provided a wonderfully nurturing and safe place for growing up, it also became a great limiting factor for learning and for forming individual/critical ideas.
I carefully instigated a village clean-up event. I have never seen children so excited to clean.
After all my experiences in the Kuri school, I had a chance to discuss and share them with my fellow volunteers and the team from Voygr. We concluded that, as the first WorldTeach volunteers in Ladakh, our work was not so much important for the individual lives we may or may not have touched but that the information we collected, will help any future volunteer, improve the structure of this program, and hopefully keep it going in Ladakh for many years to come. After all, there is currently still no Peace Corps or the alike in India.
We now better understand the importance of delivering English education with a focus on critical thinking because that crucial part, which is even stressed by the HHDL himself, is simply lacking from the standard curriculum and the lives of most Ladhaki children. Additionally, broadening the children’s horizon by sending a foreign teacher to their school will further help them to become more open-minded and curious about other things/ideas/people than what is already known. After all, a well-rounded, critically thinking, and educated person will make more sound decisions for his/her family, village, or society.