Monday, April 8, 2013

High School Showed Me the Way

Nancy Garrison

My first high school teaching job was offered to me without my seeking it. In 1996, four years after Kartik had been at boarding school, and about one year after I had quit my teaching position at the CIEFL in Hyderabad, I thought it was time for me to try and spend a little chunk of time near Kartik. I applied to his school to be a volunteer for a year, hoping to be a behind the scenes assistant to anyone from the Dean to the Catering Manager. The volunteer position would give me a small villa for Kartik and me, a very small stipend to cover our weekly treat of plate meal at Paakiya Deepam or a snack at Daily Bread.

Mainly it would give me the time and opportunity to see our son growing up. He had settled in very well in his school at KIS and was entirely comfortable as a boarder. He had a large circle of friends and, as for me, his disposition and sense of humor made him a great young person to hang out with.

Mohan and I are teachers and it seemed odd, if not downright foolish, for us not be actively involved in Kartik’s education during his high school years. I decided therefore that I would spend a year with our son and enjoy watching him grow through school.

A surprise awaited me when the vice-principal in charge of the academic program for the high school offered me the position of English Teacher for the IB stream, at the Higher Level. I had not seen myself in any teaching role at all. I didn't have a degree in English and I didn't have formal teacher training either, regardless of my experience as a teacher trainer. Those were unimportant details for Nancy Garrison, the vice-principal, who put greater store in my PhD in Slavic Languages and Literature from Brown University as well the many years of teaching I had done in India and abroad, albeit at the university level.

Sure I was nervous but I have always enjoyed facing academic challenges. So I accepted the job, but now it meant that I was going to have to stay put for two years at least, to take one batch of IB students through to their examination. That worked for me, as it meant one additional year with my son through his final two years at high school.

Thus began my second career as a teacher, a career that has given me the greatest satisfaction in my working life. That career also gave me rich rewards, both intellectual and emotional. My friends and family have heard me say so. Some have asked me in what way teaching high school students topped everything else I have done. The time has come to write my thoughts on this matter, for I think it would be a good way to acknowledge all the people who enriched my life through the ten years of my life as a school teacher. It would also give me a chance to relive a time of intense and exciting learning, and genuinely gratifying intellectual growth.

Robert Granner

IB English as a first language is mostly a study of literature. That was good. The texts for the most part were very well-known classics and modern works, but not one of which I had ever studied closely or formally. And then, the IB curriculum, as a colleague once described it, was designed by the mandarins at the head-office, and those mandarins usually trained you at a respectably-priced workshop so you could cut through the heavily cross-indexed syllabus written using quaint Latinate terminology.

I got lucky because Bob Granner, a beloved teacher at KIS, whose soft, scuffed shoes I was going to fill, cheerfully let me follow him around for two full weeks of his classes. He knew his syllabus well (well enough, as I discovered subsequently, to break a rule or two), he knew the texts as if he had memorized each, and he had the flair to dance the Charleston on top of his desk to bid adieu to his Grade 10 class. 

Not only did I sit in on Bob's lessons with the IB year 12 class, but he invited me to participate in class discussions and guide a student or two in the writing of an independent paper. The timing turned out right, because he was teaching Shakespeare’s King Lear, a difficult work to get through at high school, and his disciplined, organized, and yet open discussion style gave me many insights into the academic culture in his classroom.

Those two weeks were also an orientation for me and my son to live in a new environment together after a long gap—holidays with your child when he returns from boarding school are not the same thing as being there all the time during the highs and lows of school days. Once again I was going to be full-time working parent—and how full-time I was to discover only when I began the school year in July 1996 at KIS. Not that I hadn’t been sagely warned ahead by none other than the school head, Dr. Wiebe, when he met me formally to welcome me into the fold of the teaching staff.  “Kamakshi,” he said with his unforgettable smile, “Our volunteers are full-time staff, you should know. As a teacher, you are going to have to attend all meetings, staff training, sign up for chaperoning duties, as well as be available for study hall supervision. Oh, there’s also dining hall duty,” he concluded, his eyes now positively glinting with delight as mine grew rounder.

I returned to Nigeria at the end of the two weeks, very enjoyable two weeks, I must add because Kartik and I used to have a great fire going in the evenings to keep warm in the cold mountain air, have hot chocolate before turning in for the night, and enjoy weekend treats at some of his favourite places, such as the Tava restaurant which served the best potato paratha with dahi and puffy poories with srikhand. 

I packed my bag with reading for the following school year, literally a mixed bag that contained Mark Twain and Herman Hesse, Ananthamurthy and Amitav Ghosh. None of whom I had read, I might add.

James W Hamilton

Seriously, did the IB curriculum-writers expect 16 to 19 year-old to actually read the 12 heavy-duty titles that included a volume of poetry? Three masterpieces in world literature in translation?  And writers representing at least three different centuries in the original (and that is English in our case at KIS)?

I didn’t think so. I thought most students in schools and colleges read select passages, or an adaptation, heard a description of the main ideas of the work from the teacher, consulted a guide or two, and that was the end. The thought dispirited me. I knew from the types of IB assessment activities that unless students demonstrated personal knowledge of the texts and were able to engage in a focused discussion of specifics, their performance would show the shallowness of the training given to them.

As I began to read the works myself, what awaited me in a matter months began to give me the jitters. Here I was, in Nigeria, without access to a library and at a time when the internet was unheard of, and I felt adrift on the raft with Jim and Huck, surcharged with the excitement I felt for Mr. Twain’s piercing historicism and accurate sociological observation and at the same time clueless about how to do anything with that excitement when it came to high school teaching.

Enter Dr. James Hamilton. PhD

A spouse like me,  of an international staff member at the IITA in Ibadan, Nigeria, who was (then) an unpublished novelist, a man of letters, and a PhD in American Literature, if I am not mistaken. He and I were stay-at-home spouses then, because we didn’t have the legal right to employment under the laws of the land at that time. Most families of this community lived on a beautiful campus with many opportunities for socializing, which made it easy for me to tap into James’s vast knowledge of American and world literature.
I asked him if there was a simple way to introduce The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to a class of Grade 11 students, so that they would have a good knowledge of the novel and be able to write essays about different literary aspects of the novel as well as make oral presentations for assessment. And, as is my incurable habit, rather than wait for his response, I asked if I ought to select certain chapters for the class to read in detail to facilitate that process.

His typically brief answer showed me the stupidity of my question.

He said, “Have the kids read the whole book in detail.”

That single piece of advice has been the foundation of all the enjoyment I have derived from working on and through the many exquisitely crafted literary masterpieces that I introduced to batch after batch of IB students over ten years of high school teaching, first in India, and then in Oman.

A Crucible

I guess I thought that youngsters would not have the stamina and skill to read fat novels and dense prose. What I didn’t realize was that most youngsters have no idea of what to expect when they pick up a novel as assigned reading. It is sad but true that they don’t have a choice in the matter either. I discovered quickly that every student managed to read and get out of a work of fiction what that individual found accessible. It was no different from being assigned something in Math or Chemistry or whatever. One did what one was able and that was that. Given that my students had all chosen Higher English for their IB Diploma, I could pretty much assume that they expected a challenge.

Many IB candidates who have known me as their English teacher have heard me say that almost always at the end of a lesson,  I left the class on a high, because without fail, at least one student came up with an observation or interpretation that took my breath away. One student, for example, showed me and the rest of the class that the rusting pieces of machinery that lie strewn about in the first station that Marlow arrives at is an astonishing detail because one would, in fact, expect to see in that verdant terrain teeming life and magnificent sights of unfamiliar vegetation. Through this observation, the rest of us began to explore things such as symbolism, irony, estrangement, and a variety of techniques. The main point for me, however, remains this: that particular passage and many others that Josef Conrad masterfully crafted have embedded themselves in my mind. 

With another group, we explored an equally illustrative detail in the interplay of shafts of light in the upper rooms of Darlington Hall (The Remains of the Day) and contrasted it with the dark long corridors in the basement, appreciating Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterful way of creating atmosphere. In those IB classes, the students seldom agreed with the interpretation of a novel or a play when we saw a film version, making astute observations to argue how a key theme had been sacrificed in the cinematic rendering, or a character’s tone didn’t hang together in the film's script. I recall that Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson received full marks for their interpretation of Ishiguro’s main characters, but they had no use for the changes in the story line. 

King Lear only satisfied in the audio-versions but then, how Judy Dench and John Gilegud were adored.

As we explored and enjoyed works of literature, many things worked to help us realize a central objective of the IB curriculum, which is to grow aware of the elements and aspects that link different disciplines of formal study. Something that was a key topic in the history class turned up as a context in a story in the English class; a writer’s deep knowledge of geography explained the conflicts a character experienced in a short story; something one would tend to ignore, such as a list of things a character jotted down on the back of a train timetable (The Great Gatsby) became a detail that held surprises.

Reading works of literature closely, with passionate attention to the details a writer had put in, was an adventure of endless discovery for us, an adventure that took each of us into a world that we could never have known without the words on which we skidded and skated, sailed and rolled, flew and flitted, and sometimes stood very very still.

Gut feeling is good feeling

Reading literature for a course necessarily entails responding to it. For many, this task has come to mean picking up weighty ideas from earlier, published authorities and stringing together a few paragraphs to submit an essay that shows diligence and synthesizing skills at best, and metaphorical photocopying at worst.

In the early days of my new career as a high school teacher, access to the internet was hardly what it is now. The school where I worked was on a mountain top, where even electric power supply tended to be unreliable with fluctuating voltage and outages. The school library was very good, but fortunately for me, they didn’t stock the standard yellow and black chapter-by-chapter guide books that offer predigested summaries of great books. 

Besides, the IB curriculum gave teachers a wide range of works from which to choose the reading list for the 2-year diploma program. Many works in such a selection at KIS were either too new to be shrunk into handy-dandy formulaic student aids, or came from geographical regions and human cultures that couldn’t flood the paperback market.

I liked that situation, where students had to form their own opinions about what they read. My job was to ask on what this or that opinion was based. Typically, at the basic level, one relates what one reads to one’s personal  experienced.  Meursault is a horrible, insensitive and cold guy, you would hear, because he “doesn’t even know when his mother died.” Most of the class would find that pretty acceptable, and so would I, as a first impression. Once we began to search for evidence in the text, say in the first chapter, to back up our impression of Meursault’s “horribleness”, we would be pretty lost.

I remember distinctly that in one particular class, a student remarked with utter dismay that we really didn’t know the guy that  well at all because “he is so different, kind of weird.” Quickly another student said, “May be that’s why he is The Stranger,” and laughed. The whole class joined in the laughter, and thus began an investigation of Albert Camus’s classic that holds an irresistible appeal to young people.

Articulating gut response is essential if one wants to enter a fictional world. In our general reading experience, we might choose to dismiss a novel as irrelevant or without particular value for our individual selves, but when that work is study material, it is important to evaluate for ourselves as well as explain to others why we find it irrelevant. I like and I don’t like are great points of departure in a discussion of literary works.

Students found out as we became better acquainted that someone disliking a work was a sure reason for me to prod and probe that perspective further, far more persistently than a positive and enthusiastic response to the same work. Defending one’s position is  passionate business with young adults and about literature in general. Arguments and debates livened lessons, which could get sidetracked if I, as the facilitator, didn’t rein in the voices to “show me where” a certain opinion came from.

Unless I knew the work in some depth, and unless I could find the episode or image or description that could support an observation, I couldn’t demonstrate to the class what I meant when I said “show me where it says so in the text.”  These discussion-based classes demanded of me a concentrated familiarity with the works we were studying, and for me, as someone who didn’t know these great works until I began to teach high school, knowing the works in great detail was the main challenge. I read and reread before every class. What I knew of literary theory or approaches to literature were going to be put to the test, and I was going to restrain myself from referring to borrowed and lofty ideas during class discussions. 

Fat novels

Regardless of James's advice and my implicit and tested faith in his dictum, I felt also that reading fat novels isn’t an attractive proposition to many youngsters. Besides, it wasn’t about merely getting the gist of who did what to whom and what happened as a result. Nearly every activity that was going to be assessed for the IB diploma grade required the student to have a thorough knowledge of the work and the ability to explain some of its subtleties in written as well as oral activities.

The IB examination scheme gave me a great opportunity to incorporate a simple model in my teaching strategy that sometimes made the students want to read a novel. This is how it went.

The final examination required students to write 2 essays. One was a commentary on an unseen passage, and the second was an essay on two works studied during the course.  To be ready to address the commentary task, students wrote several commentaries on unseen passages (sometimes a 1000 -1200 word excerpt from a novel, sometimes a complete poem). Early on I figured that I would select a few prose excerpts from novels and poetry selections that we were going to read in the future. 

Thus, students grappled with delicately or densely crafted passages from Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel or Paul Auster’s Mr. Vertigo. A poem by Margaret Atwood or Langston Hughes would turn up in a commentary assignment, quietly laying the groundwork for the work ahead. Sometimes I would give a choice of passages or poems, so that students sampled more rather than less of a complex and multi-layered text that awaited them.

That was with an eye on the examination. Sometimes I would fling at the students a passage from Michael Cunningham or Jane Urquhart, Michael Ondaatje or Rohinton Mistry, and as we discussed the passage in preparation to write the commentary, one or more students would say that the passage was intriguing, that it would be fun to know what happened to the characters. It was easy enough for me to offer such students my copy of the novel to read.

And the best thing was—no one ever asked me to give them bonus points for doing “extra” work. Usually, if one student read something that seemed kind of interesting and “not for school”, a few others got to know about it, and if they didn’t actually also read the work, they at least got an idea of what it was all about. All of this contributed in no small measure to the academic environment in the class, to intellectual curiosity, and going beyond the limited objective of preparing for the final examination.  In some cases, I developed lasting connections with parents of my students because of this kind of additional reading, thanks to their personal interest in reading for pleasure.

Is any of this path-breaking? Haven’t teachers of every generation and every culture done much more for their students? This record is simply my memory of a time of deep satisfaction;  a time when I felt motivated every day to be better prepared to immerse myself in the environment of learning. What I taught I don’t really know, but what we learned together, I carry with myself forever. 

Hardly All Work

My first introduction to life at high school happened to be at a fine boarding school. Just as Dr. Wiebe had warned (with the glint in his eye), I had to perform a variety of additional duties: dining-hall duty, chaperoning at camps and treks, canteen supervision, study hall… sometimes these things never ended.

When I turned up to chaperone a throng of young people all under 17 assembled at the school gate at 7.00 in the morning on a Saturday, my heart usually sank. I felt awkward as a small built and athletically wanting unwilling trekker to be watching over equally unwilling but robust youngsters, who I imagined were targeting me alone out of all the other chaperones to trip up somewhere.

I shall freely confess that I had a bit of a phobia about mingling with older teens in numbers with whom I wasn’t acquainted.  The rest of the chaperoning staff all seemed on top of things, with their clip boards, familiarity with names and school regulations (Hey, you, Johnson and Khan, no flip-flops on treks. Shoes on, now!), and their own silver and gold pins earned over months and years of climbing up and down the cliffs and bluffs of Kodaikanal’s enchanting Palani hills.

It wasn’t much better when dining hall duty came around. What was I to do, walking around a in a crowded room with lots of boys with cracking voices shouting across tables and lots of girls giggling and squealing across the same tables? What was my duty? They wasted food, they didn’t always clear up after themselves, they ran when they should have walked, they just didn’t sit down and eat like a family at dinner. A good friend said he stopped at a table where groups of seniors sat and checked trays for all the food groups to their great merriment. But then, he was young, sneaked cigarettes between classes, and wore his hair long. My hair was long but that’s all I had in common with him.

And study hall. How do schools come up with things like that?

And yet, when the first semester ended, and I was on a bus to chaperone a group down the hill to the train station some 80 kms away, kids handed their tickets to me for safekeeping. One helped with my suitcase all the way up the train platform. They thanked me and wished me a great vacation as they left on a scheduled train. The best was when we returned to school for the new semester. Invariably dressed in something natty and new, many would greet me with a cheery “hi” edged with a trace of that shyness so endearing in the young, and willingly tell me stories of their journey. Mouths would flash with metal ware, eyes would blink with unaccustomed new contacts, hair would glisten with gooey stuff. And I always smiled.  

In many ways, the kids somehow got to know you. They didn’t mind it so much that you didn’t or couldn’t get to know all of them. And maybe they knew that you were comfortable only with the ones you had in your class. I don’t know, but over time, the kids showed me that you were part of the scenery and you simply had to “chill”.

Sardines and Botticelli

I can’t speak for other IB teachers, but in all the classes that I have taught, we have had time for a bit of fun and games.  Hangman, Pictionary, Charades, and Botticelli (the twenty questions game with a twist) lend themselves very well in a language class,  for example, to learn literary terms, the use of metaphors, and even major details (such as location, symbols) in a story.

We have played charades to identify characters and their actions in fiction works. The  desire to win would inspire each group to find the most obscure character in the least memorable episode to stump the opponents. When I had double periods, occasionally I would announce that we would have a game of charades in the second half. Groups of students would huddle to find a whole series of “hard” episodes in whatever it was that we were reading to be ahead of the other teams. It was cute, too, that before assigning the episode to be acted out, nearly always each team would check with me if that would be a hard enough episode.

If there are parents out there reading this, I know they are feeling delighted that their offspring was in my creative teaching environment. But wait. Those were not the only games we played.

At Kodaikanal, during the cold season, when the sun peeked out, I have very occasionally simply shut down shop, and led the class outdoors to enjoy a game of Sardines or our own Indian Pittoo—played with a tennis ball and 7 small tiles. Sardines is terrific because everyone runs all over trying not to be seen and the game takes a while. The KIS campus was beautiful in those days.  

One morning, a grade 12 class and I were happily engaged in a game of Pittoo on the basketball court, when Dr. Wiebe happened to pass by. He called out a greeting and I waved cheerily. He didn’t ask what was going on, which was entirely like him, given his sophistication as an educator and leader, but I felt that propriety required me to tell him that I was giving my desk-bound youngsters a break that day. If he hadn’t been going somewhere on an errand, I think he might have joined us for a while.

Once I had the unexpected responsibility for teaching a Grade 9 class for a whole semester and while they, too, deserved a break, in my judgment, it would have been difficult for me to organize a game with them outdoors.  So, I ended the class some 15 minutes early, had the class line up outside in rows of three according to height, and had a crazy march down the corridors into the yard, everyone chanting “left, right, left, left…” at the top of their voices. I am sure many classes were briefly disrupted, and for all I know, some teachers were livid, but other than the kids who marched and me, who remembers it? For days afterwards, the kids would ask to go out and march, obviously to no avail.

Fun times but few and far between. And once in a while a zany thing perilously like indiscipline, but with sensible administrators and school heads, I could take the chance. It was so good for the class as a whole and me to do something spontaneous and unusual, for pure enjoyment.

More to come...


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Sadhana Ramchander said...

Very interesting writeup, Kamakshi. Education interests me immensely, and I read your post with interest. I had toyed with the idea of sending my children to do IB (I later decided against it), and so have been curious about how the IB system works. You seem to have had a great time working with high school students! If you had been in a school here, it would have been easier for me to take a decision in favour of IB :)

Kath said...

Very familiar territory for me as a high school teacher who looks back so fondly on my own teaching life.
Kamakshi you have managed to capture both your own love for literature and your dedication to your pupils in an interesting,amusing,touching and gentle narrative.
I know when we were workig together ALL the students loved you and spoke of you with much affection. That is a real achievement.
You should be very proud of your teaching days and feel a real sense of pride for all those 'kids' whose lives you have enriched. I am totally confident that each and every one of them remembers you so well as well as valuing what you taught them.
I just regret we are not still spending those crazy summer evenings at Stanford, together with Elizabeth, admiring the Californian lifestyle and enjoying the lovely students we had the pleasure to teach.
I look forward to the next chapter xxx

Sujata Rajpal said...

Nice post Kamakshi ! Do write more often.

James Hamilton said...

Sorry it took so long for me to get around to reading this, K. Good stuff, and a clear sign that you understand how to teach. Get your students to enjoy playing with you and the subject under study and you can learn nearly anything. My PhD was in Prose Fiction, though, not American. Dissertation on The Sidle into Faith: Humanistic Nihilism in Melville, Conrad, Forster. Tonight I attended the MFA graduate reading at Cornell's Creative Writing Program: some really good poets there! I'll be glad to read more of your prose.

Kamakshi Balasubramanian said...

high praise, indeed, james. i feel encouraged to keep at these jottings.

Anonymous said...

OH, Kamakshi, what a delight it is to re-connect with you in this way. Let's hear it for FB and other channels so 'chancy' and so readily available these days.

I, too, remember those wonderful times we spent together, partnering not only with each other but also with those remarkable and energetic students. Always ready to challenge or to add a new point of view or to ask their own probing questions that sometimes stumped all of us: the "Kodai Kids" have never ceased to amaze me, even now, after many years of what I have come to refer to as my recurrent 'failed' attempts at retirement. After teaming with you and going of to Turkey for sixteen months, I returned to Kodai on behalf of one grandchild after the other (four of them) who wanted to come to KIS and have 'that experience'. . . I, of course, wanted it, too, so I agreed to come back 'out of semi-retirement' and get back into the classroom while getting to know these grandkids. I know you have done the same, Kamashi, in merging parenting with teaching in so many good ways. Knowing Kartik here in Middlebury several years ago helped to remind me again and again what wonderful critical thinking our young people are capable of. I don't any of our 'special people' ever get lost so I don't apologize for the long laspse since we last touched base. Naturally, we would come together eventually. I am certain we will meet again -- maybe soon. I do come to India now each year from January through May, spending much of my time in Pallangi at my home there known as "Kavithalayam" -- after that book of creative writing and poetry that we all worked on together along with Paul Love and the students at American College. Remember?

Well, I haven't prepared or planned this comment so you'll just have to wade or wobble through the stream of my consciousness. I think youi'll get the main point: that I'm absolutely delighted to read your blog, to think of you, and to know we will most certainly reconnect again soon.

You probably already know my e-mail, but just in case: will get you ongoing responses.

Love to all your family, especially Kartik.

Classboat said...

I agree with whatever you have written. The High School days were really awesome. This brings back some beautiful memories of our teachers. It's great that you shared this with us.
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