Lessons in English, by Madeline Gressel

I came to Udaipur, India with FSD to work as a teacher in a small school for poor children, called the Talent Academy. I was told that I would be working with the school’s English teacher, helping supplement conversational English lessons. I have previously worked teaching art to elementary school students in the U.S., so I thought I could teach some art classes as well.

GresselM 1.JPGWhen I started at the Talent Academy, my supervisor told me that the English teacher was on vacation and would be back in few days, so I began teaching on my own. I worked with about 120 students daily, in sections of ten students at a time. In the mornings I worked with the seven year olds, and in the afternoon I worked with eleven year olds. For my first lesson, I had planned to have my students draw their favorite animals. I thought this was a good lead-in to learning the names of animals in English. I had assumed that, since the students took English class, they would know enough English for us to communicate, but they didn’t speak any. It was incredibly frustrating to realize that I was unable to communicate the simplest of ideas, like “favorite animal” or “draw this” or “sit down and be quiet.” By the time the fifth graders arrived, I was tired enough to let them play “English” hangman for the whole afternoon. Everyday since the first, they have begged me to play hangman again.

The English teacher never came back from vacation. I had no idea how to teach English, especially considering how little Hindi I knew at that time. When I asked people for help, I got the same explanation again and again of “lesson plans.” There seemed to be a pervasive conception that if I planned my lessons the night before, my students would understand it. I was given the English course reader to study, a grammatically incorrect English book that taught sentences such as: “He is a simple boy,” “This is a red color,” and “He is a playing cricket.”

GresselM 2.JPGI decided to focus on the art lessons, since I’ve been told art is a universal language. The biggest challenge with the art classes was convincing the kids to draw from imagination. Previously, they had been taught to copy from a book. Whenever I asked them to draw something, they asked me to draw it on the black board first (“madam, banaona!”). Then they would copy it line for line. So I had them draw themselves, their families, their homes—things that held personal, individual, and specific meaning. It was exciting to watch them experiment, and to watch them find their own style. For the first time, their drawings emerged completely differently from their neighbors’. When I was younger, I watched the Sound of Music and wondered how it was possible for a whole family of children to simply not know how to sing. Teaching my art classes, I felt like we were truly starting from the very beginning, and I was Maria von Trapp Meets India.

At one point, I brought in some American children’s books that my mother sent me from home. When I showed them to my students, I realized that the books were a complete novelty to them. I also realized, though perhaps I should have noticed before, that my students had no free access to story books.

GresselM 3.JPGWhen I was a child, I didn’t enjoy school, and I spent most of my time reading. Part of the reason I loved to read was that, in those moments, I got a chance to be elsewhere, to escape the things in my life that made me unhappy. When I showed the books to my students, I spent a lot of time explaining the pictures—a merry-go-round, a circus, an ice-skating rink—things that I took for granted in my own childhood. In a lot of ways, my students have a more difficult childhood than I had, and it upset me that they didn’t have the opportunity to escape the realities of their own lives the way a child can only find in a book. I decided to apply for a grant to open a library at the school.

Sometimes while I’m teaching, I try to remember my own student teachers, and I barely can. When I began teaching, I thought it would be a miracle if I could remember everyone’s name. Now I can’t imagine forgetting them. It’s strange to think that I’ll only be a vague memory to them soon. I asked my mother to send me some of my favorite books from childhood for the library. Those books were so important to me as a child that leaving them here feels like leaving a part of me. I doubt that my students will think of me when they read the books, but they might think like me, get excited about the things that excited me, love the things I loved, go the places I went. I think that opening the door to reading, which is in some senses opening all doors, is the most important thing I can give them.

All photos by Inga Peterson.