Books, Books, Books!

Secondary school aged boys at the Okhla Centre.

Today was my second day at the project, and I felt like I really started to get a handle on things. The day prior had felt like playful, insistent interrogation; today it was clear that the real teaching had began. I had planned to teach poetry to the children for the next two weeks, but yesterday had left me discouraged. The kids of the 8th class have good comprehension, but I can see them struggle to have appropriate words come to their lips. Furthermore, they are confused by questions that ask them their opinion, or to explain, always thinking (as many young children do) that there is a right answer that they are not giving. However, in poetry, the right answer is whatever one says it is. Poetry is a writing rooted in abstracts and expressions, not practicality. It is an art that is effectively “useless,” yet it teaches so much about self-expression: the hardest thing to achieve in another language, but the tool most important for foreign connection. The first day left me little hope for encouraging such self-expression, but when I returned to the project today, I had a better grasp of how to be clearer, slower, and more understandable. I tried to have a greater air of simplicity, and to equip the kids with basics. All of these helped, but what really did the trick? Books. 

Rani- the center manager- gave me a few bilingual Hindi-English books of Indian poets to use with the kids. If there is anything I have learned about these kids in regards to writing, it is that they quite like to read. The bilingual books helped enormously as the kids could decipher the abstract meanings of the poems in Hindi and then confront the English words, instead of shouldering the enormous task of doing both at once. Though I still had a bit of trouble getting the boys to express themselves in the morning (tell me what you see, hear, touch, smell, taste, etc.), I hit my stride with the girls in the afternoon. They devoured the books impatiently, sharing between them and reading out loud. One pair would sit so that one girl read the Hindi on the page’s left side, and another read the English on the right. Afterwards, they would get up and switch places. The books seemed to warm them up, and by mid-lesson I was getting them to thumb through the poems to find examples of adjectives and adverbs. At least half an hour was spent with my furiously filling up the whiteboard while they gleefully offered, “Eagerly, ma’am? Happily?” At the end we all laughed at my sprawling words covering the once blank board. One girl noted, smiling, “Dense, ma’am.” It was. By the lesson’s end, I offered them some optional homework to copy a poem and learn it at home. They barely paid attention; by the time I said “book” they had snatched them up again and were reading intently for around ten minutes even after I had said they were free to go. 

The children at the project are so warm and cute. The little ones charm with their funny handshakes and tiny faces, the mid-size girls with their future beauty and their giggles, and the boys with their ideas of American culture (on the board, they drew for me a rockstar turning into the Hulk, turning into a cowboy with a Lamborghini). But sometimes in times of frustration, I forget why I love kids. I was grateful for today, for the moment I watched some young girls fight over some books. It was a reminder of how simple and important the gift of education is even if the means to getting it can be difficult for both student and teacher. Project Why seems to be imparting knowledge in a way that realizes just how special it really is.