Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Contrasts Galore

Thanksgiving 2011 will be one I always remember—and not because of the turkey and trimmings. Instead of the usual family feast, I shared a delicious meal of chapati, curry, and rice with students and teachers at a boarding school outside the city of Faridabad, not far from Delhi.
Arriving at Vidya Sanskar International School was like reaching a garden oasis. It’s lush, green, and well-appointed with extensive sports facilities and plenty of fresh, clean air. (After a few days in Delhi, blanketed by pollution, this was especially welcome.) About a third of the students and half the faculty live on campus, and our digs were a comfortable faculty apartment. Getting there involved a bumpy, three-hour cab ride from Agra, where my husband (who joined me a week ago) and I spent a couple days marveling at the Taj and other historic sites.
I spent the first morning at Vidya Sanskar (which translates, roughly, to “holistic learning”) sitting in on classes, and saw everything from 3-year-olds doing ambitious literacy work in Hindi and English to 16-year-olds studying environmental science. Then it was time for two half-days of workshops on project-based learning. By the end of the second day, one team was planning to have kids design and plant a medicine garden (after interviewing family members and health experts about various herbs) and another was imagining a student-designed rainwater harvesting system to water it. At the upper grades, teachers were talking about having students analyze the pros/cons of privatizing railroads and doing a marketing project on cell phones.
Not surprisingly, the question of covering the syllabus came up in our conversations. This school follows the University of Cambridge model, which culminates in challenging tests. Just as teachers in the U.S. worry about high-stakes testing, teachers here are accountable for student results on exams. At the same time, many teachers in India are recognizing that the traditional, test-heavy education system isn’t preparing their students to be critical thinkers. Hence, their keen interest in PBL—along with tough questions about how to make sure it works well.

Next stop: Mumbai
Then it was on to Mumbai, where I spent a day with a high-energy group of teachers at American School of Bombay. This IB school was a contrast to others I’ve visited in many ways, but the most dramatic difference here was the prevalence of technology. ASB was one of the first international schools to adopt the 1:1 model, and teachers (and students) have a familiarity with tech tools that I haven’t encountered anywhere else yet in India. Sitting in on one class, I saw students sharing Glosters, Prezis, blogs, and other products in a project that had them interpret Indian culture for different audiences, such as filmmakers, journalists, or police officers.
(Hat tip @solomonsenrick)
With technology well-integrated, ASB is now focusing on strategies to further expand students’ 21st-century skills. An action research team has been investigating project-based learning, and several teachers have already taken the plunge into projects. Given this context, we turned the day into a mini-project. A highlight was listening to teacher teams share out their ideas about making sure essential elements of good projects are addressed. I’m eager to hear where they go next on their PBL journey.

Village Contrast
Next on the itinerary: Pune, a quick flight from Mumbai, and home to two schools operated by Gyanankur English School. I started with a visit to a school in Kesnand, where nearly 500 children from seven surrounding villages come to learn. It was a stark contrast to the high-tech environment of ASB (although there is a computer lab at the village school, with donated equipment that allows students to learn basics like how to use a mouse and save files). The school vision is to offer children a joyful learning environment, and that was evident as I made my way from one classroom to the next. It’s also a place for hands-on learning, and students were eager to share their recent creations.

I spent the next day working with teachers from Kesnand along with their colleagues from Gyanankur English School in Pune. Our focus what how to shift from activities—which they’re already doing—to authentic projects. It might seem like a stretch for low-resourced schools to even try PBL, but these teachers were game. By the end of the day, they told me they were eager to build inquiry into projects and find more opportunities to give students a voice about their learning. And because both schools are anticipating new construction in the near future to accommodate demand, teachers are also excited about involving students in school design. (Video Courtyard Redesign was a great conversation-starter.)

End in Mind
Just one more workshop in Mumbai on my Indian adventure, and then I’ll face the challenge of packing up my many memories and mementos for the long trip home.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Forward Thinking in Rajasthan

I've just wrapped up two energizing days of workshops at Alwar Public School, located in the state of Rajasthan. In the first photo, I've just been warmly welcomed by students and teachers. The good vibes were a constant feature of this stop on my whirlwind tour of India.
Alwar is a school with a strong collaborative culture, where considerable effort has gone into laying a foundation for project-based learning. Under the gentle but forward-thinking leadership of academic coordinator Anshu Beniwal, teachers are well on their way to adopting new strategies for the classroom. They have developed rubrics that cut across grade levels and subject areas, creating a common language for talking about quality student work. They regularly team up on interdisciplinary projects. And they go about their work with good humor and a caring spirit. I came away inspired and eager to see what they accomplish next.

In this photo, Alwar teachers are busy preparing posters about their projects for a gallery walk. They had some great ideas--connecting with experts at a nearby tiger preserve, designing rainwater harvesting for a nearby village, and having students advise travelers about what's worth seeing in India. (Hint: Stop in Alwar and stay at the historic Burja Haveli!)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Islands of Progress

Picture a school with an average class size of 15 students, where attention is paid to individual learning needs, and where teachers are willing to devote a full Saturday to building their toolkit with new instructional strategies. In broad strokes, this describes APL Global, a relatively new school in Chennai, India, where I’ve just spent a full day working with teachers interested in project-based learning.
Right off the bat, I noticed that the school design sends a welcoming message. Colorful graphics, big windows, and lush greenery provide the backdrop for learning. Modular classroom furniture is designed to be rearranged in an instant for small group work or individual study. Students and teachers share South Indian vegetarian lunch in an open-air cafeteria.
But it’s the student-centered philosophy that most distinguishes this school. The majority of government schools in India stick closely to the traditional model, where it’s all about covering the curriculum and preparing students for the big tests that rely on memorization. At APL Global, a private institution, the vision is personalized learning through a varied instructional approach. It’s an island of progress in a sea of conformity.
In this morning’s Hindustan Times, the perils of tradition were spelled out in an op-ed piece by Abhijit Banerjee, Ford Foundation international professor of economics and director, Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT. Citing a recent report on the status of education, he bemoaned the fact that about half of students in government schools lag years behind grade level in reading and fare even worse in math. Results are only slightly better at private schools, where even poor families struggle to send their children to help them gain an edge.
Why? Here’s Banerjee’s theory: “The goal of education is to permit the most successful students to get through the difficult exams that get thrown at them and hit the jackpot of a government job or a place in an engineering school. The rest, unavoidably, will just drop out.”
But then you find islands of progress. It’s mostly in private schools where innovative teaching and learning is taking root in India. This is where you find teachers determined to do the hard work of learning to teach in new ways—very different from the way they were taught. The teachers I worked with at APL Global seemed eager to get started on their journey with PBL and ready for the challenges ahead.
Like many teachers who are new to the project approach, they wrestled with the difference between engaging activities—which they do already—and project-based learning. But by the end of our day together, they were seeing how they could remodel activities into academically rich projects. And they had no shortage of good ideas for real-world projects that I’m certain will engage their diverse learners. A business teacher got excited about a project idea she called “It’s My Business,” in which students will develop business plans for their own enterprises. A primary teacher was keen to find a partner school somewhere else in the world for a collaborative project. I fully expect to read someday about Indian students who have helped eradicate mosquito breeding grounds, who have addressed a difficult social issue, or who have designed an eco-friendly car engine. It won’t surprise me a bit if they come from Chennai or one of the other islands of progress in this vast country.
Photo: Teachers in PBL workshop, APL Global School, Chennai

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Glimpse of Village Life

These lovely children are from the village of Ladhra, about 60 kilometers and several centuries removed from the planned and very modern city of Chandigarh, where I've been staying. I'll have more to share about school life after I do a workshop this weekend in Chennai.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Arriving in India

My first stop in India is Chandigarh, known as the "city beautiful." It's India's only planned city, with wide streets, beautiful architecture, and many parks. Photo above is at an intriguing rock garden--a local treasure. I'm enjoying a few days at the home of my hosts from The Achievers Programme. I'll depart from here to Chennai later in the week for teacher workshops. Stay tuned!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Greetings from Nepal

I’ve just spent an invigorating two days with about 50 passionate educators from India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh, gathered in Kathmandu for the South Asia International Baccalaureate Schools Association conference. The event, hosted at Ullens School in Kathmandu, was my first stop on a month-long journey to work with schools across India.
In my sessions on collaborative learning and 21st century skills, participants offered keen insights about the challenges and opportunities in their schools. SAIBSA represents the progressive end of the educational spectrum here, with schools emphasizing deep learning through inquiry, critical thinking, and service learning.
I was struck by some of the day-to-day challenges: A teacher from India said she sometimes has to encourage parents to cut back on family socializing so that students will have time for studies. A team from Pakistan told me what it’s like to work in a school building that’s guarded by rooftop snipers and where many students have their own bodyguards.
Project-based learning is a relatively new term here, although a few schools are embracing the approach. One administrator from India said PBL may be a new term, but it describes many of the practices already in place at her school. She was excited to continue the conversation and build a common way of talking about this approach to teaching and learning. And that’s exactly what I’ll be doing for the next four weeks.
More impressions to follow as my adventure continues.
Top photo: Peaceful oasis of Ullens School. Bottom photo: Bustling Thamel district of Kathmandu.