Opening minds by opening hearts

Chintan Girish Modi

“Saheer liked school. He liked Govindan Teacher, Gangadharan Teacher, Shyla Teacher, Sulaiman Teacher and all. Yet, sometimes, at school, Saheer felt sad. He felt as if everyone, his father, mother, grandfather and all his dear ones, were somewhere far away! It was as if all those whom he loved and who loved him were lost. Even the worlds that were familiar to him felt distant in school,” writes Nuaiman, in a short story titled ‘Textbook’.

Most of his life revolved around the madrasa and the school. He loved both, but there was another world very dear to him – his grandmother’s world of stories, songs, and ballads. They meant a lot to Saheer, and he learnt a lot from them. Sadly, they found no place in the prescribed textbooks at school or in the children’s magazines he read.

Saheer felt bad that his friends and teachers were deprived of the riches his grandmother had to share. “Why don’t they have these songs and stories in school textbooks?” he once asked her. She had no answer to offer, and the boy never asked again.

However, on one particular occasion, he ventured to make his concerns felt. Gangadharan Teacher wanted all the students to write down in their notebooks the names of the characters in each of the lessons taught. Saheer did as instructed. After writing down names like Ramu, Madhavi, Kunjulakshmi, Sathyan, and such, he added a name called Rasheed.

The whole class fell silent. The teacher took the cane, and asked Saheer, “What was that? Where did you discover that name? Such a name is not there anywhere in the whole textbook!” The boy stammered. He said, “Sir, because…nowhere in this text is there a Muslim’s name…”.

Listening to this, Saheer’s classmates burst out laughing. The teacher was bubbling with rage. He tried to control himself, but his fury was evident from the way he rapped the cane on the table. He asked the young boy, “Saheer, are you talking communalism?”

On that note, the story ends. We are told that Saheer did not understand the question. He wanted to ask his teacher what that meant but just then the lunch bell rang. Nuaiman’s story is part of Untold School Stories, one of the books in a series that goes by the name of ‘Different Tales’.

The story got me thinking. How many students in school experience the pain that Saheer did, face the laughter and ridicule of classmates, and bear the ire of teachers? How many feel left out, unwanted, uncared for? I wondered. How many Saheers are able to speak their pain?

colourful-figures And I began reflecting on the role of teachers, if they felt they had a role other than just teaching their subject, the need for them to sit and listen, or get students to talk about differences and differentness. I started thinking more consciously about the possibility of using our classrooms as spaces to teach tolerance, to learn openness. I spoke to teachers, and urged them to tell me their stories.

Meena Joshi teaches at Vasant Valley School in Delhi. She said, “I teach in a very upper class school, but a school that encourages free dialogue on a number of social and political issues. Usually, the students do not show any overt biases or prejudices in terms of gender, religion, or physically challenged people. However, in conversations, one does get an insight into underlying prejudices which sometimes I have had to point to them and discuss or bring to their notice.”

She recalled classroom discussions on reservations and 25% quota for children from economically weaker sections (EWS) of the society. Some of the students felt that they could not possibly invite the new kids from a different socio-economic background to their birthday parties. A few even expressed fear, saying ‘What if they steal my books and notes in class?’ Meena found this rather ironic since stealing of notes and books was already happening in school.

On another occasion, students from the seventh grade were taken to watch the movie, I Am Kalam. They were waiting with Meena for the school bus to pick them up. She narrated, “We were waiting in the hot sun and one particular girl was more restless and unhappy compared to the others. When I asked her why she was more restless, she said she was going to become dark and ugly like a street child! I then chatted with her about colour in a lighter vein and how top models are often dark skinned. This was only to win over her interest. However, it did lead to a discussion about the film and how the young village boy aspired to study and his friendship with the young Thakur boy. Somewhere, sometime, this young girl may see the connections in our conversation.”

She also referred to the usual disenchantment among students in her school about not getting admissions to colleges of their choice. Year after year, she feels the need for a conversation to help them see the rationale behind reservations and the avenues available to them as privileged, upper caste youngsters.

Meena shared, “Sometimes certain comments are very revealing. Recently, we were discussing some questions on the show Kaun Banega Crorepati. One child said that the questions had been made easy to suit the lower caste people on the show. When I asked how he knew that they were of a lower caste, his reply was that the concerned contestant spoke not very good English and many of the others were from villages! This was once again a good starting point for me to discuss prejudices.”

Prejudices, stereotypes, images of the ‘other’ run deep. There is no easy escape. There is, however, a constant need to question, evaluate, and challenge the status quo.

I got talking about this with Anagha Parab, Shankar Chatla, Lata Chavan and Archana Arlekar, all teachers of seventh and eighth graders at Globe Mills Passage Municipal School, run by Mumbai-based NGO Muktangan. The classroom is neatly divided into three spaces, each facilitated by one teacher. One of these groups is called the special group, comprising children who work at a slower pace, who have special needs, who have difficulty reading and writing independently.

One of their students is a girl who refuses to sit with the special group. She faces the same difficulties that they do; however, she is uncomfortable being identified as one of them. While the word ‘special’ is intended as a positive term, it has come to mean just the opposite in this student’s eyes. Being thought of as special is a source of embarrassment to her. She appears to resist every well-meaning attempt by the teachers to help her learn at her own pace. She would rather forego that special status. “Regardless of the term you use to make children feel good about themselves, they continue to label each other,” remarked Shankar.

Chatting with Shankar, I discovered that many of the so-called special children who are poor at academics are brilliant at art, music, and sport. I wonder who would be called ‘special’, and how many students would populate this category, if art, music and sport formed the core of our school curricula. How would students relate to each other in a scenario like that? Would the artistically inclined begin to think of the academically inclined as less intelligent or even deficient? Perhaps. Calling people names is a convenient way to avoid actually interacting with them and getting to know them.

Deepesh Chandrasekharan, a research scholar at the English and Foreign Languages University in Hyderabad, recalled his experiences as a teacher at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan’s Sawan Public School in Delhi. He often found his students harbouring casteist prejudices. Since it is a residential school, Deepesh had ample opportunity to chat with the students. “I had to constantly remind my students that prejudices are not based on any logic. There is no experience involved. They are just based on preconceived notions. Whenever I found students outside class passing offensive comments about other students belonging to another caste, I would talk to them. There was a great need to sensitize them. There was an incident in which a colleague of mine was involved. In an attempt to spark off some humour, she mocked a particular community for the way they speak English. The jokes were made on the stage at a function where all students were present. I made much noise about it. Also, in a residential school, teachers have a greater responsibility to be role models than teachers in day schools. I protested at the lack of imagination and at the insensitivity shown by that teacher. She understood quickly and apologized, and promised to be more careful in future.”

friends Deepesh’s experience highlights a significant point. While we talk about sensitizing students, we must remain vigilant about our own conduct as teachers. This may sound terrifying but students watch their teachers all the time and often pick their prejudices from them. At the same time, students do not necessarily lap up all that they see around them. They come with their own upbringing, sense of values, and view of the world. Our efforts at engaging them in conversation about respecting people different from themselves are crucial; but our efforts would be in vain if we became over-zealous educators dispensing how-to lessons about life at the drop of a hat. The wisdom is in the discernment.

Swathi Rajan, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, noted, “The freshman writing class I taught last year was in some ways very much oriented toward conflicts and seeing how they took shape both in the form of class discussions and student writing. One of our readings meant to this end was a section of poems from Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imagination whose primary theme, broadly speaking, had to do with racist stereotypes about black men in America, and one Susan Smith who drowned her children but alleged a non-existent black man to have committed the crime. This story tragically and blatantly oozes the history of lynching in America, and the potentially cruel racial-profiling and sexualizing of black men that continues today.”

She remembered students being very vocal about how much they loved and admired the poetry in the sections they read together, how ‘true’ the story was, how ‘horrific’ Susan Smith was, among other things. However, Swathi spotted a problem. “There was no contextualizing, no willingness to talk about the more political and abstract issues involved. Otherwise bright and intelligent students simply did not know or want to discuss ‘race’ as a complex, current issue, one that went beyond simply the examples of racism we had at hand,” she recounted. She sensed in them an unwillingness to contribute to a discussion about race beyond a certain point, although they approached the poems with seriousness. This led her to reflect on the dynamics of her classroom interaction.

“Maybe I didn’t handle it right – I think I was definitely aware of my nationality/gender quotient and their expectations of an English teacher as both potentially unconducive to open-hearted conversations about race. This was probably the case. I have even wondered if it was an act of resistance to me, or the fact that they felt it would be a symptom of reverse racism to hash out the country’s past in the way I framed it. I think the most immediate issue was, maybe, for me to be a bit less pushy about it.”

She learnt that “smaller doses” are more effective in getting.students to think and write productively. She never taught Eady’s poetry again, but has taught essays about race since. “While I don’t rake up in my students’ minds brutal images of race, I do make references to certain events in history when I feel the need to. Race and gender still have a major place in my classroom, but my pedagogy reflects this in a manner that believes any kind of race-and-gender-neutral thinking is unrealistic and quite dangerous.”

Conversations about conflict are difficult but they are indispensable. They often require us to keenly listen to people as they speak from the deepest, the most passionate, the most hurting, the most unsorted parts of themselves. We may not have the time or feel the inclination to take on this responsibility when we are swamped with lesson planning, teaching, assessment and a million other things. However, if we recall the original impulse that made many of us want to become teachers, we may feel more invested in the lives of young people in our care.

Meera Gautam, a science teacher at Shishuvan School in Mumbai, said, “Every class has at least one student with a behavioural problem. My class had tolerated one such student for many years. She often got involved in every problem in the class and even drove some teachers up the wall. There were also times when she was innocent and got blamed by her class as she was an easy target and a very believable story could be spun around her.”

Meera decided to talk to students about it. She wanted everyone to know that the student in question was being victimised for things even when she was not present in the situation. The class admitted it and also felt that the student deserved that kind of treatment.

“This was really disheartening to hear. Revenge was reeking through their action and words. We had a face-to-face conversation about things that irritated the class, specific incidents that triggered her abnormal behaviour. She also confessed to the class about her weakness – her inability to control her reaction when she is upset. I facilitated the class to resolve this by agreeing on certain areas. The class offered help by giving their notebooks to her so that she could complete her notes. She made notes in her diary every morning where she promised to take control of her reactions.”

colors According to Meera, such interventions happen in school on a daily basis, but one does not find much time each day to delve into matters deeply. She feels saddened by the fact that education today is all intellect, no heart. I wish more teachers found the courage to say this. Many of us rant in private conversations about what education today is doing to students and to teachers but few of us assert our disappointments or speak our longings in institutional spaces.

Recently, while reading The Courage to Teach, a book written by Parker Palmer, I came across something very powerful. “If identity and integrity are more fundamental to good teaching than technique – and if we want to grow as teachers – we must do something alien to academic culture: we must talk to each other about our inner lives – risky stuff in a profession that fears the personal and seeks safety in the technical, the distant, the abstract.” He once listened to a group of teachers argue about what is to be done when students share personal experiences in class, especially when those experiences are related to the theme of the course. Some of the teachers in that group felt that sharing of feelings is more suited to a therapy session than a college classroom. The group split up into two camps. One insisted that the teacher must focus on the subject and never compromise it for the sake of students’ lives. The other insisted that the lives of students are far more important than the subject at hand. Allowing or inviting students to talk about feelings can be difficult. However, it is inevitable if one wants to create a learning space that cares about the whole person, not just their subject knowledge or grades.

Pooja Sudhir, who currently teaches at an international school in Pune, reflected on her experience with high school students in a suburban Mumbai school. “I was taking a First Language English class and we were analyzing the use of language in different forms of media and communication. I had carried the lyrics of a song named ‘If God was One of Us’ by Alanis Moriseette for listening, reading, comprehending and analyzing. Besides the observation of the language and the form used, we discussed the content and began interpreting its various meanings. One of the students picked up a strand of interpretation from the text, which veered towards the questioning of the existence of God, which led him to say that the Bible, the Quran were nothing but fictitious tales and therefore, glorious lies.”

As soon as this student had expressed his opinion, two others got really angry. They asked him to shut up. One of them even closed his ears. The classroom atmosphere began to grow tense and hostile. At this point, Pooja intervened, and got them to have a healthy discussion over the matter. “While I did praise the student who had come up with that interpretation, considering the text clearly indulged in the thought, I had to ask him to tone down his aggression and possessiveness over his opinions,” she recalled.

I loved what Meera said. “I believe strongly that there is learning in everything we say, do, think and feel.” That is so true. For the interested teacher, every moment is a learning opportunity to be explored. This is something I learnt from bell hooks, the feminist African American writer-educator.

helping Her book Teaching to Transgress offers a radical feminist conceptualization of education as the practice of freedom. It accords a place of great significance to the languages her students speak in their homes and communities. She writes about encouraging them to use their first language in classroom settings, and to then translate it, “So they do not feel that seeking higher education will necessarily estrange them from that language and culture they know most intimately.”

Here is a warm invitation that could be perceived as a risky proposition by teachers who fear that their classroom would become all too chaotic if everyone started using their home languages. The perceived risk, of course, comes from a perceived loss of control. bell hooks discusses a similar response that came from students. She writes, “When students in my Black Women Writers class began to speak using diverse language and speech, white students often complained. This seemed to be particularly the case with black vernacular. It was particularly disturbing to the white students because they could hear the words that were said but could not comprehend their meaning.”

Here is what she did. “Pedagogically, I encouraged them to think of the moment of not understanding what someone says as a space to learn. Such a space provides not only the opportunity to listen without ‘mastery’, without owning or possessing speech through interpretation, but also the experience of hearing non-English words. These lessons seem particularly crucial in a multicultural society that remains white supremacist, that uses standard English as a weapon to silence and censor.”

This is something to learn from. Opening up may take time. Or it may just happen in a flash. It may happen with some students. It may not happen at all. Persist, we must. Challenge, we must. Unsettle, we must. Only then might we be able to teach in a truer sense, if teaching is to nurture well-being.

The author works with Shishuvan School in Mumbai, and Muktangan, an educational programme run in collaboration with municipal schools in the city. He can be reached at

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