Friday, July 27, 2007

Movie Magic

I have finally experienced a Bollywood movie. After a lot of talk and very little independent research I have been to a Hindi movie in Mumbai, the center of the movie-making industry in India. From what I had learned before the experience, I knew it would be a longer-than-I’m-used-to film, and that there would be some music and dancing in unusual places. I had no idea what I was in store for.
The movie we saw, “Partner,” was a new (and somehow twisted around) version of “Hitch,” from the U.S. This time the Love Guru was played by the most famous Bollywood actor, a former model who took his shirt off more times than we could count (including a scene in the airport!). The actress whom he’ll marry played the rich girl that he helped to connect with a goofy, clumsy, not-smooth young man who hunted him down while on vacation (much like “What About Bob?”). Anyway, the actor who played this other starring role is a politician who has won millions of votes to promote his acting and political career. The actress mentioned above is actually Canadian and a former model herself (who doesn’t know Hindi but just memorizes the lines they give her in movies) and the other female character is played by a former Ms. World. The cast was, needless to say, incredible.
This version also included a young man whose mother is the reporter and causes some extra grief for the Love Guru. The plot is almost the same, except for the dancing.
In the middle of fairly recognizable scenes (I’ve seen the American version, so I knew what was going on most of the time without translation) the movie would burst into song and dance numbers far more outlandish than anything I’ve seen on Broadway. Fantastic costumes would adorn random people who weren’t characters in the movie, or even reasonable extras as many of them weren’t Indian, and the characters sang these songs while somehow pretending like it was all very normal. I was impressed. I wish I could re-capture or recreate the facial expressions of the lead actor during the hip-hop/Hindi songs as he wooed his true love. Classic. Even my Indian friend sitting next to me couldn’t stop from laughing.
Now if I had seen the movie in a more typical theater there would have been dancing in the aisles for these scenes. The soundtrack for this movie was released weeks ago and only if the CD sells well and has catchy tunes will audiences even bother to go see a new movie. The theater was packed for this one.
We also had an “Interlude” about half way through the 3-hour adventure. 10 minutes to get up and get your snacks (which included dinner options as well as popcorn). Interesting.
It was also fun to think about how this movie industry fits into the Indian economy on a larger scale. Rumors have it that the Mafia has a lot of money invested in Bollywood films (or did at one point) and that other movies frequently push back their release dates to let those uniquely-financed films into theaters first. There is also a lot of connection between politics and acting, as evidenced by the actor in the movie I saw. It is a huge industry, and crosses into the local nightlife (where Bollywood DJ’s are the most popular for dance clubs) and pop culture in many ways.
So, “what kind of movies do they watch in India” is the question, and to that I answer this: long movies with somewhat loose plots interrupted by outlandish comedic roles that don’t really fit into the plot, a wedding scene (there is ALWAYS a wedding scene!), frequent dance numbers, and predictable events that occur in each film (boy meets girl, friends who fight, true love, etc). Those are the types of movies they watch in India. You guys would love it!

Events and Interactions

I don’t want to go too long without telling you a little bit about what we’re doing here. I don’t really remember the last thing I told you about the details of the trip, so I’ll bullet a few highlights to get you all caught up.
 Yesterday we talked with professors and students at a Teachers Training College. It was a nice interaction (this is one of our buzz words for the trip – it is on our schedule at least twice a day!), for the most part, but once again we didn’t have enough time to talk to everyone. Lots of local principals and teachers who are alums were also present, and I think they tried their best to give us a happy picture of what is happening in classrooms in India. Many of them still whispered to us (without the mic) that the ideal isn’t happening yet, and that after learning innovative strategies in the College they usually end up using lecture method in their jobs. We learned that they are growing a Special Education system similar to ours, with a Learning Resource Center like ours where students get individual attention, and they can also get accommodations on their exams. When I asked about choosing teaching as a profession (since almost none of the secondary students I’ve met say they WANT to be teachers), one woman described that it is like learning to love your husband in an arranged marriage … you learn to love teaching when it is the career you are in. Others disagreed and declared their passion, which I believe. But I believe the marriage analogy, too.
 Day before yesterday we went to the Atomic Energy complex, which is like a whole separate city behind these gates that keep the scientist employees of the government (and their families) inside. There are six schools for students in KG-10, and one junior college for all students in Class 11 and 12. I visited the latter and went into every single classroom with my colleague to say hello. The most notable thing I learned at this school was the difference between the students in the two strands. Since these students all have parents who work on Atomic Energy, it’s not hard to imagine that about 75% of them have chosen the science strand for their higher secondary studies. These students were very interactive, had questions for the two New York strangers who interrupted class, and joked with us about the perceived apathy of students in the U.S. But the students who choose the commerce strand were less so. They didn’t have any questions for us, almost refused to interact with us, and didn’t even care to understand what we were saying. I don’t know if that is because of the strand they have chosen or just some quirky personality divide, but my friend and I thought it interesting.
 I have learned about so many service opportunities for our school (and our advisory!). I can’t wait to tell you all about Kiva (you can check it out at which is where we’ll start an account and be able to help provide micro-loans to people all across the world who need a little money to help make a better life for themselves. We saw some businesses here in Mumbai that are beneficiaries of the program and I am even more motivated to start it up. I also want to get a peace pole for our school … I’ve seen so many in this country it makes me realize how much of a globalizing force it can be. What better way to bring people together than to commit to peace together?
 Finally I must tell you about a set of commercials that have my mind spinning a lot lately. As I have written about briefly, there is still a sense of class-ism, a shadow of the caste system, and a sense of the Have’s and the Have-Not’s here in India (as I’m convinced there is in most places on this Earth). One interesting characteristic of the “ism” here is the connection to skin color – partly because of the infusion on Anglican blood into many of the upper-class families while the British were here, there is a visible light-ness to the skin of many (though not all) of the more privileged people here. To that end the billboards and commercials (and movies, now that I think about it) have mostly lighter-skinned Indians. But it doesn’t end there. There are lotions being pushed as skin-whitners. Crazy, isn’t it? While Americans are spending millions of dollars a year to make their skin look darker, Olay and Nivea are selling creams to help those interested Indians make their skin lighter. Not everyone buys into it, though. My friend laughed when we asked him about the whole thing. “Why would I do that?,” he asked. It seems illogical, but the motivation seems apparent.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

WARNING: Get ready for a long post … it’s been a while since I had the time and brain power to put this together.

Today we’ve arrived in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, which is the largest and most modern city in India. Already I have seen the Gateway to India which is the port from which the last of the British Army left India for good. We also met some amazing teachers, principals, and future teachers at a College this afternoon who wow-ed us with artistic performances like the ones they hope teachers will be doing with their students in the future. It was a nice change of pace from the lecture only approach we have seen and heard a lot about so far. This city will be an impressive one, I can already tell.

But I don’t want to forget the key things I’ve seen and thought about since my last post. Today one of the pieces was a student-written and performed “ballet” about HIV/AIDS education. It reminded me of the work the Zinn and Livaccari Advisories do for World AIDS Day. The dance showed a snippet about how one can contract AIDS, though it was only visibly through physical contact, which made me nervous that they might spread this misinformation about how it is spread. But the conclusion was inspiring … they choose a song from a popular Hindi movie about not giving up, living your life to its fullest, and joining hands to help make a change in the world. It impressed me to see this final product, to think about the groupwork that I know went into the performance, and the forward-thinking of the teachers who orchestrated it since sex and sexuality are not openly discussed in Indian culture. But the recognition that not discussing it won’t make it go away was obvious, and refreshing.

Yesterday we saw a Synagogue in Kochi in a small neighborhood where the Jewish community once thrived. Now there are four families, 14 people remaining. It was a holiday (which many of you already know), so there wasn’t much activity, but I did meet Sarah Cohen, and embroidery expert with a small shop. She was a dear old woman with a huge smile and great pride in her Jewish heritage. The Synagogue was beautiful, though I only saw it from the outside and through postcard images, and my favorite part is the clock tower which shows one side in Hebrew, on in Roman Numerals, and one in Malayalam (the local language). It shows how welcoming the community was (and is) of diversity and how the people of India recognize the importance of embracing different cultures rather than ostracizing them. It was a touching visit.

I also want to talk just for a moment about Vedic Mathematics, which we learned about at a school visit in Kochi. The Vedas are the ancient religious books of the Hindu Religion, and the records show specific processes used in those ancient times for completing various computations. There is also evidence of equations, problems, and patterns being discovered and worked on in India well before they were “discovered” by European mathematicians, which is something we’ll study in History of Math units more carefully in the future. We learned the pattern for completing a multiplication problem the other day, and finished in just a few moments. The process is much easier and faster than our conventional methods and made me think … why is it that we are so often working to make things MORE difficult as we advance through time, rather than LESS?

Finally, I must tell you about the martial artists we saw last evening, Kalaripayattu. This once secret art form has become more popular since the Independence, but is a dangerous way to pass the time. The artists wield heavy mallets, swords, metallic shields, and daggers as they jump over one another, duck beneath jabs, and entertain the crowd. One young man was actually bleeding after his demonstration and spent the rest of the evening showing us his blood-stained outfit. Many of you won’t be surprised to know that I flinched a few times and hid behind my neighbor during the “long sword” swinging, but overall I was impressed with the discipline and strength of the talented men (women used to perform as well, but it has become very uncommon), and it was nice to see one of the most ancient martial art forms.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Catching Up

We had an incredible day in Kochi, with an amazing welcome at a school (over 100 young ladies dressed in costumes and holding flower petals to honor our visit, and a drum line we followed in thru the gates). We also got to see some neat parts of this island city by boat this evening as the sun set over the water.

I have finally been able to put up a few pictures from the last several days, but don't want to do too much at once. I will answer a few of the questions asked in comments (don't worry Ian, I haven't forgotten about the movie question, and am still doing research so I can get you a good answer).

We have only really experienced a monsoon in Bhubaneswar where we got poured on. There has been some flooding here in Kochi over the past couple of weeks (according to the locals), but it didn't rain here today. I guess we've been lucky with our travels and avoided most of the bad stuff. It is humid, though ... really humid.

As for the math classes and curriculum, that is something I'm still studying. Most of the material is the same, but is done in a different sequence, or taught at a different grade level. So far, in every class I've visited, the medium is English so I am able to follow along, complete the problems, and often jump in with comments, additions, and my own questions. It has been a neat experience to see these classes and think of ways they are similar to and different from my own classes. It's been good for me to observe and do comparisons.

I'm off to sleep land, but will try to post again soon. Tomorrow we'll visit a college and learn more about this city with a huge Christian population and historical ties to Portugal.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Ancient Civilization

**Note: I am having some difficulty posting pictures, but have a few I will put up when I can.**

Today I witnessed some of the amazing beauty of the ancient city called Mahabalipuram. We wandered through four types of temples: those carved out of giant rock from the top down (which aren't completely hollow, so you can't go inside), those carved into caves (they used the natural hollowness and made intricate designs around every side), those carved into walls of rock (left to the elements of the weather in an open air setting), and those built from the ground up. It was humbling to step into a time very different from ours, to hear the stories of these idols and gods and how detailed the stories are that have been passed down for so long. I also saw what out tour guide claimed is the world's oldest known slide, probably used for play by children in the 6th century CE. There were lots of people there, and lots of people trying to sell us things, but it wasn't an uncomfortable situation at all. It was a pleasant, though very hot, way to glimpse a look at the past.

It was also near the beach, which was a nice change of pace. We all walked up to the water to stick our toes into the Bay of Bengal. The water was cold, which felt good considering the sun had been beating down on us all morning long. The best part was watching the other people, though, who could have been from any part of India -- some city in the north or just from Chennai. There were many families, though, clearly out for a Saturday adventure, enjoying the outdoors and the beauty of the ocean. The beach was different from the ones we are used to, though, as there were five or six ice cream selling carts that had been pushed out near the water (with a great deal of effort, I might add) and not one person in a bathing suit or in the water. The purpose of a trip to the beach is different here ... less about exposure and swimming and more about the event (seeing a body of water when many people in India rarely get to). I was glad we were able to participate.

This afternoon I met a lovely woman with a fantastic bookshop. She has been moved out of the hotel and into a tiny space next to the parking lot. The space is not wide enough for me to spread out my arms, and I wasn't even able to step in because she has thousands of books stacked up from floor to ceiling. I just glanced inside, but spent most of the time chatting with the owner (who named the store "Giggles" because her friend told her to open her own store just for giggles). She told me about herself, her love for Madras (she still refers to the city with this name), for India, for books, and for international relations. She has made me promise to stay in touch and contact her before anyone else in case we need any more books about India when I get home.

Meeting people in this country has been my favorite part of this trip. Talking with people on the streets, chatting with teachers in a school, and grilling students with questions about every aspect of their lives, I have learned what the people here are like. I wonder what sense of the United States people get when they come to our country, and if talking with the locals has the same value there that I have found it does in other countries I have visited.

Tomorrow we are off to Cochin ... and the body of water will be the Arabian Sea. Another phase of the adventure is awaiting!

Friday, July 20, 2007

A Long Way to Go

That's not to say that I feel like we have a lot left in this trip ... in fact I can feel the end breathing down my neck. I can't believe we have less than two weeks left. In fact, I will repeat that we have a lot to learn, and as I told the reporter when I was interviewed for the news in Bhubaneswar, we would need more like 6 months or 6 years to see even part of what we can learn from here in India.

But there have been exciting moments over the last few days. Instead of re-capping them one-by-one, I think I'll tell you a little bit about what I've been noticing, thinking, and talking about since we arrived here in Chennai (formerly called "Madras").

As I rode home in an Auto-Rickshaw this evening, I realized that there are essentially two different economies co-existing here. One is the economy of a developing nation, where we paid the equivalent of $1.25 to get a ride over 15 minutes long. The second is that of a developed nation, where we are staying at a hotel that charges over $200 a night (I'm not sure of the exact price, it's not the kind of place where they put the nightly rate on the marquis out in front). There are two different worlds that exist even here ... and of course the rickshaw driver didn't know which of the two Taj chain hotels to bring us to, therefor taking us to the wrong one so we could enjoy a slight detour of the city. But they make it work, somehow, and we bargain over Rs. 100 as if it means something to take $2.50 off the price of a $10 shirt that in the U.S. we would pay $40 to own. And you wonder when the lagging economy will catch up with the other, and is that how a nation is labeled fully developed? It's all quite dizzying, really.

Earlier today we visited a Non-Government Organization that is doing some neat work with sustainable development, empowering women, and educating underprivileged children. It got me thinking about the ways people need help. In the US we are often very quick to offer money to those we see are in need. We write a check to the correct charity, send it in an envelope with a stamp showing the whole world (or at least the staff at the post office) that we care about making a difference, and then go back to our own lives. But I was reminded today that most people don't want to have help served to them ... they want to know how to help themselves. So these students have come to this place where they can learn to use computers even though their own school can't afford them. And these women are taking their own goods to market instead of waiting for the men to do it, and using the local (rural) technology center to find out if the weather will be good enough for fishing the next day. Service is a meaningful thing to be sure, but one must be an active donor in order to give the kind of help most often needed, I think.

Yesterday we visited the first Anglican Church in India, called St. Mary's, and this morning we saw the original tomb of on the Jesus' apostles. Both were beautiful to see, and yet they each felt surreal. I felt as if I was back in Italy, staring at the beautiful marble and gazing at gravestones from over one thousand years ago. It was a visible reminder of the way this country has grown largely because of (or maybe in spite of) an outside culture. That church was built by the British, and so were the streets with cars travelling on the left, and so were the restaurants that serve tea every couple of hours, and so were the schools that teach classes in English. So much of the culture of the place now called India was influenced by the British. But there are still tribal villages hidden in the hills and the central part of the country ... the ones known as "backward" according to many speakers I've heard while here. One can't walk around the corner in the cities we've seen and ignore the still constant presence of that European influence. I try to close my eyes and imagine it all if that one Indian king hadn't let the British lease that spot of land here in Chennai ... what would India have been like then ... would they still drink so much tea? ... would they have Christian churches? ... would they drive on the "right" side of the road?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

What's in a School?

This morning we visited two more schools and it occurred to me I haven't really shared the extraordinary things I am learning in these visits. It is important to remember, before trying to visualize one of these, that we are here as guests of the Indian Government and are sent by the US Government and are therefore, in many ways, treated "like royalty." That is not to say that we are ever, or ever could be so
deserving. It does, however, make me think about the way we greet visitors to our school and I think we could learn a thing or two from our Indian counterparts.

In every school we are welcomed by someone, either a committee of adults, of students, a color guard and choir, or the principal. We are usually then ushered into the conference room and given tea, coffee, or snacks. Then we introduce ourselves and hear introductions of the teachers and administrators involved, or sometimes we go straight to the all-school assembly (described in an earlier post) to introduce ourselves. We are often immediately taken on a tour -- sometimes as a large group (so we walk through the halls causing quite a stir, as it is really difficult to
ignore 16 Americans creeping through the halls) or we are split into smaller groups (this also gets us into trouble because then I get to go into a math class, and you all know what happens when I get to enter a math class: I start talking with children, doing problems, asking questions, etc). After the tour we return to the meeting room for "interactions." This is the time set aside by our hosts for talking,
either with students on a panel, with teachers, or both. This is ALWAYS accompanied with tea and snacks, and we are ALWAYS running late to this session because we get caught up in the hallways talking with students (I know, you're surprised). And then the conversations wane as we are told we must hurry to our next appointment. We slurp down our tea, are treated with special gifts (often a copy of the school's yearbook, which is like our Literary Magazine) and then we are shuffled back through the hallways for a group picture in front of the school.

I'm not sure why I thought this narration would be of any interest to you, but since this pattern of behavior has consumed my days since arriving here, I guess I thought you might want to be able to imagine what it is like.

The reality, though, is a bit different. This morning we saw a government school only for boys, 100 of which were picked up from a tribal village and live in hostels near the campus. The building was falling apart, the boys didn't speak English and for that reason didn't seem to understand the friendly nature of our visit. The library was the size of my closet and the principal had no helpers or gifts to give
us. It was a reality check in comparison to make of the fancy schools we visit.

In other words, there are students in this country that need our help to ensure they have a fair shot at a good education and a bright future just as badly as the ones back home.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Monsoon Season

The flood waters have started pouring, and the flood of information is keeping pace. The last couple of days have been a blur of meetings, school visits, and riding through town on a funky tourist bus (complete with brown-based upholstery and neon lights in the dashboard and out the windshield). We have been inundated with ideas and examples of what is happening here, with materials to explain procedures and lectures to detail policies. I am still learning, though I think the curve has slowed, if only because my brain is starting to get too full!

I would like to tell of the schools we've visited in this mystical town. This state capital has over 1000 temples and so it is a mecca for pilgrims from all over India, as well as from other parts of the world, from a number of different religions. We have barely had time to see much, though we've visited a few of the major ones. Today's was a magical experience: as the monsoon rains poured down I walked into a temple where a monk had candles lit, incense burning, and wanted to tell us all about the idols inside. I wasn't able to stay long, but felt suddenly peaceful and a sense of harmony in that place. It was lovely.

The schools we have visited are continuously impressive. Today's was a "public" (which means to us "private" since they are not funded by the government) school where students sang to us in Hindi, shared with us the food they'd cooked, asked us to teach them (a colleague of mine taught about the Russian Revolution -- his favorite topic), and talked with us about their thoughts on education systems (they highly recommend school uniforms, and have the impression that US schools have very few rules).

The most exciting experience, though, was the school founded by psychologists for students with disabilities. To see these students who are otherwise forgotten about learning to use computers, to bake and sell bread at the local market, making collages about the local festival, and laughing as we tried to dance with them ... it was a very special experience. I was happy to see that side of the work being done here, as much of our trip has focused on the privileged youth, the ones who are getting everything they need to survive AND the right to a good education. The children at this school were getting what they deserved, but what so many others cannot have. I was proud to be there to support them and the good work their teachers are doing.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Unfair Comparison

Two roads diverged,
One thick with comfort – fluffed robes and room service, personal cars and the freedom of speech, of thought, of expression.
The other rich with culture – hundreds of languages, arts and tunes, dizzy with a wardrobe that wraps around your soul.

Two worlds,
But blending together as the globe around them shrinks.
A cell phone and a sari,
A blaring horn and a stubborn cow,
A holy temple and a public entrance fee,
A river and a right,
A hotel and it’s staff,
A school and a sacrifice,
A bargain and a steal,
A picture that could be worth a thousand words,
A cup of chai,
A dream, a wish, a hope.

The smiles that surround you are telling a story,
Of history and heroes,
Of sadness and belonging,
Of the future and the past,
Of families and fortresses,
And they’re also begging for your attention.
Don’t forget us, don’t ignore us, don’t shoo us away.
The air is thick with pollution, humidity, and the tension of uncertainty.
Will the people of this country every catch up with its growth spurt?
ALL the people
When will it be fully developed?
When, if ever, will we?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Smiles are Worth more than a Thousand Words

Today we arrived in a new city: Bhubaneswar in the state of Orissa, on the coast south of Kolkata. I wasn't able to see much of the city yet, but can already feel the difference when in a town of only about 600,000 (rather than over 10 million). The people are, of course, very nice, and welcoming. Tonight we saw students dance the classical tribal dance in a recital at a local community center. The similarities between our cultures continue to grow on me.

I wanted to address Liana's comment from the other day, about whether or not the government is doing anything to help the "untouchables." I have mixed feelings about what I've learned and what I've seen in this area. My gut reaction is to say that from the LOOKS of things, the government is most interested in showing a strong and modern image to the world. It seems to be focusing it's resources on technology training, outsources to foreign companies, and the Indian Stock Market (which is a popular place to invest right now, from what I'm told). In the meantime, the PEOPLE seem to be the ones left behind. Because the rest of the world isn't looking in small villages, or along the sidewalks, or inside the shacks that make up the "slums" of the big cities, the government doesn't SEEM to be doing anything about it.

BUT, I will say that there is a growing sense of SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY. We have visited several schools where community service is an integral part of the children's lives, and since schools are allowed to talk about religion and do prayers in school, there is also a sense of moral education going on. So there is a growth of concern for others, and every student I've talked with has a genuine interest in contributing something back to India (though some have different ideas of how they'll want to do that, through academic work, charity work, etc.). I am sure that there are members of the government who do CARE, and who are working hard to ensure that all citizens of this beautiful country are being treated fairly. I guess for me, it doesn't quite feel like it yet.

But the poor have strength in ways I think Americans can't really understand. I have never heard anyone complain here -- not the drivers who are cut off, the students who get only bread to eat at school, or the teachers who are reassigned to schools all across the country without the ability to refuse. The people here are very peaceful, content, and make the best of what they've got. The students we met in the village school yesterday were as kind as the ones from the private school the day before. And their smiles are just as contagious.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

So Much to Learn

Over the past several days I have realized that there is a lot of stuff that I don't know. I don't know why we can't educate ALL the children in the same way we educate the children of the wealthy, and the ones who live in the right area of town. I don't understand why there isn't enough FOOD for the families I see living in the streets and sending the adorable toddlers up to Americans begging for money. I don't get how there can be so much wealth in the world and there are people dying every day. I don't know what to do about it.

I have also learned a lot. Yesterday we visited a school that works very hard to educate the whole child, and has an activity center that includes martial arts, mime, dance, music, and art to make sure the students appreciate their own culture. I learned that everywhere in the world there are people who understand the value of a well-rounded education. This morning we visited a school in a rural village where many of the students had never seen anyone from outside India before. I learned that one can communicate a lot of things without more than 20 words in any language in common. We sang "We Shall Overcome" with about 100 students today ... in a spontaneous gathering led by one of the students (who claimed not to know any English, by the way). It was fantastic!

Other things have been fun and interesting, but maybe only to me. I saw a Temple where there are daily sacrifices of a goat (and the smell of blood mixed with the heat and sweat was overwhelming). I myself have been so overheated and sweaty that I ruined a necklace because I didn't know the sweat could take the color out of the beads. My picture was in a local paper about our group's visit here (yes, mom, I have a copy for you). I visited a very sad Zoo where there were only a few animals and several of them were overheated and hungry (maybe it had something to do with the fact that we paid only 25 cents to get in). I have been harassed by shopowners who desperately want the Americans to visit their places of business, and it is clear how difficult times are around here. It surrounds you, envelopes you, suffocates you sometimes. Or maybe that's the pollution from the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of cars. Or maybe just the heat.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Welcome to Kolkata

First, let me address a couple of comments. The food, Lianna, is amazing. I have enjoyed more delights than I could try to count, and even though I shy away from the spicy stuff, I am still able to enjoy a wide variety of foods. I know Mrs. Francis knows of a good Indian food place on S.I. ... I'll want to check it out when I get back. As for the Caste system: Yes, it still exists only in that some people in the former "untouchable" caste aren't getting access to the same education that others are. I think it is now more like the class system that we have at home, where the poor are getting poor-er because they aren't able to work their way out of it. I have also seen some domestic help (butlers, maids, etc) at schools being treated with little respect, though they are often the first to look us visitors in the eye. I have made sure to treat everyone equally ... and was thrilled to see a large group of children cleary from that group (you can tell the differences visualy most of the time) in a museum in Varanasi. It felt nice to see that they were learning about the history of India and had access to that experience. All in all, I'd say that although the System is legally gone, there is still a major difference in the way people are treated and certainly in how monies are allocated for education.

Back to my narrative: This morning we arrived by train (yes, it was a long ride; yes, it was a small bed; yes, we were delayed be several hours; yes, it was a WONDERFUL experience) in Kolkata. But before I tell of the city, I must talk of the train experience. The platform on which we sat was a cultural immersion unto itself: children sniffing glue and trying to sell fruit to passengers, security agents pushing people around with giant sticks, porters waiting for their tip as payment for moving the Americans' heavy bags, an oppressive and humid heat that made it hard to breath, the constant mutter of announcements in incomprehensible Hindi, the loud blaring of engine horns to indicate forthcoming movement, and the anticipation of an overnight ride that couldn't start too soon. We crowded into our air-conditioned slots and only felt cramped because our bags are so big. It was a peaceful ride, though, and I did sleep quite a bit. In fact we were lucky for the delay so we could see the rice fields and townships that we passed along the way this morning in the light of day. This truly is a beautiful country with a lot to offer.

Now, for the new location. This city of intellect is bustling with people (is it possible it feels more crowded than the other two cities we've seen?). The first interesting fact I learned was that there are 60,000 taxis in this city ... can you imagine that? There are yellow cars (just like the ones in NYC) everywhere, and at least ten people on the sidewalk for every one of them. The short ride to the hotel showed a small portion of the city, including a fairly new bridge that floats on the water and is not secured to the ground in any way. Cool, huh?

This afternoon we met with teachers, a principal, and students, and enjoyed a lovely discussion about what the education system could be like, and what it's really like. I connected with each of the students and felt compelled to ask them a probing question (I know that surprises all of you to know that I put them on the spot and asked them to think!). They were each very bright and articulate and fed the hunger my brain is feeling for more knowledge about this place. They have all promised to email and stay in touch, as well as to write for the Insider (yahoo!).

I must tell you that I have heard more philosophies in the past few days that match the work we are trying to do than those that oppose it. I got a slew of books for our school, the staff, the students, myself, and anyone who is interested in how learning can help make the world a better place. It is still hard to look around and see that so many aren't getting access to it ... but there is good work being done by those who want to make a change in the world.

Monday, July 9, 2007

The City of Knowledge

Varanasi (also known as Baranas) is a center of studies and education, and so I have thought a lot about schools and visited a university where Ghandi addresses the Women's College in 1942. The city is also a religious center of this country because of the Hindu's belief in the holiness of the water in the Ganga (we call it the Ganges). They travel here from all around in order to bath in the waters. Yesterday I met a brilliant man who has studied the science of the river and started a non-government organization to try and clean it up because he realizes the dangers of the pollution ... but he is so devoted to his religion that he still bathes in it every day. He was the embodiment of the polarization of our world today: how can the logic of science co-exist with the passion of religion?

I continue to learn from what I see and hear on this trip. Yesterday included several hours of driving and walking so I got a chance to see what life is like for the people who live here. I have seen many children without enough clothes. I have seen many families crowded under a meager shelter waiting for food to arrive. I have been prodded by beggars near the river asking for money. I have been in the home of a young artist who does batik and weaves silk with his father. I have ridden on cycle-rickshaws through very crowded streets and been stared at like I was from another planet. I feel like that is how they see me .. and wonder if I am looking at them the same way or not.

Tonight we will take an overnight train to Kalkutta (Calcutta). I look forward to another adventure there and I know that I will have more questions and observations as we travel through this beautiful country.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Not Yet Enough Time to Reflect

I am wanting to write so much ... again. This morning we awoke early to take a ride on the River Ganges. I am still groggy from the pre-dawn wake up call and need some time to process, but thought I'd share what I saw with all of you. The people there are so happy to be in the water, but I encourage all of you to research the cleanliness of the water and decide whether or not you would want to jump in.

I have many more things to tell you about Baranas, the second city on our journey, but I will wait until my mind is clear.

Friday, July 6, 2007

So Much to Say

I have many things to tell you all, but won't try to do it in this forum. I'll save my journal writing and my notes to make sure I don't miss any details.

I had an incredible day visiting Mr Ajay's school where I was the guest of honor and was treated like royalty. I met some great teachers, the award-winning principal (nothing like what we do in the US, though), and a lot of amazing students. I got to teach a class and talk to another one, met with students who are writing articles for the International Insider, and teach Mr. Ajay how to use Geometer's Sketchpad. I spoke at the all school assembly (see picture at right) and talked with the math department about our different methodologies (though there were many similarities as well). It was a wonderful experience to see what a school here is like ... for example, my colleague and I walked into a room where a physics lesson was taking place; when we entered the teacher stopped what she was doing and left while the students got their math notebooks out and started taking notes. An interesting and quick transition.

I have so many things I've been thinking about ... philosophical things the value of which I don't want to diminish by rushing to write about. Today we had the amazing experience of being a panel of 16 American teachers to a room of 99 (no, I didn't count them all) Indian teachers convened from all over the country. They hit us with a lot of questions, some of which were tough to answer without starting a political debate. We got a lot of applause, though, especially when I mentioned that we all think Hindi should be taught in more schools in the US (Mrs. H, what do you think?). The event has got my mind spinning about what the real differences are between our two systems ... is it culture? philosophy? strategy? methodology? beliefs? I don't know yet, but I'll keep working on it.

Tomorrow we are off to a new city and a new phase of the adventure. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Happy Birthday, USA!

Feels silly, but this day feels just like any other day in India. We weren't invited to the US Embassy party tonight, so we're making our own here at the hotel. Should be nice, though we're all in for an early night since we'll get up early in the morning to go the schools of our cooperating teachers.

Mr. Ajay and I are excited to put together our project (and yes, Mrs. K, I have also been trying to get him and teachers from other schools to have students submit articles to the Insider, I've got your back). I have learned that the class size here is much larger than in the US (40 to 70) and that he doesn't use any technology at all (the students aren't even allowed to use calculators until they get the University level). His curriculum doesn't allow for group work or activities, though there is a national movement to include more of this. In fact, when we sat in the National Curriculum center yesterday we heard the latest political party line, which sounded a lot like a class from Trinity's MAT program ... all about learner centered instruction, etc. But we know that's not what is really happening here.

What is happening is a further division of the "Have's" and the "Have Not's". The poor students and village students don't go to school at all, certainly not past fifth grade. The girls (attn: GLI) are allowed to attend, but are often the first ones to drop out when their families need them. Only one in 100 girls who starts 1st class (our first grade) will finish 12 class, and even then she may or may not go on to University.

Tomorrow I will teach a small part of one or two classes, and hope to learn more about what the schools and students are like. So far I have met only kind and generous people, like the two teachers who helped me reach a bargain today when I bought some books for school. There are those sad faces begging for money around every corner, too, to remind you of how lucky you are, and to motivate you to enact far-spreading change in this damaged education system. They deserve to read children's books too.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Making A Project Together

Today Mr. Ajay and I are working on our curriculum project. We will write up the plans for math projects that students in New York and in India will do, and then share.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Learning Curve

I have been inspired to think of a great many things today, only some of which I will put before you to ponder.

We heard a lot today about the Education System in India and how they want to go through a renewal process to give a chance at an interesting education to ALL students (including the remote villagers). The drop out rates are tremendous. It saddens me to know that NYC has similarly dismal rates.

We talked about SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY and the fact that Indian people haven't traditionally been brought up to feel any responsibilities to go with their fundamental rights. This helps explain why the 3rd richest man in the world, an Indian who lives in London, spent hundreds of millions of dollars on his daughter's wedding but doesn't donate any money to help people in his home country of India. There is some hope that the younger generations will understand their duty to help each other -- it reminds me of our service requirements and programs at school. We are lucky.

One speaker said it well when he explained that changing the education system will be: "... challenging, interesting, difficult ... possible." This speaks to my own educational philosophy and I appreciate his sense of hope.

There was much more (like the square being a common and almost holy image in Indian traditions because it is so perfect), but I will leave it at this for now. I will continue to think about how the US system IS serving students well by helping them become thoughtful, moral, engaged citizens, and how we can learn so much about the motivation and skills that drive highly dedicated Indian students to earn at least a 98.5% on the college entrance exam or else they won't get in (there aren't enough seats in colleges and universities to fit every student who graduates from Form 12, so a lot of them just don't get to go to school).