Thursday, 21 February 2013

Diary of a Volunteer: Year Two!

Here's the promised blog...apologies for the length...those who read the first part on facebook can skip to page 9!!!

Tuesday 5th February 2013
Woke early after a surprisingly good night’s sleep. Once I’d got over the shock of the lurid purple nail varnish courtesy of the Project Mala beauty parlour welcoming committee I was up and raring to go. Hot water in a bucket was on offer …but not when I needed to get dressed…cold water is bracing and I felt in a “bracing” kind of mood today!
Second shock of the day was the snugness of the “suit” (I tend to go native when I’m here…way more practical and reduces the thinking time  of the morning routine)…surprising how cotton shrinks when left unworn for a year! …the banana for breakfast may help to remedy the problem, no spoon required so a win win situation. Then came the knock, no I’ll rephrase that, the pounding on the door followed by “Ma’am…Can I come in Ma’am” and my reinstatement into school life was complete.
I’d forgotten how much I love the Indian countryside…after a beautiful, but long and bumpy drive out to Patehra we were given, as always, a splendid welcome. I spent today doing word and sentence reading assessments. The children I worked with have only spent one year in school. Their teacher is a quiet, not overly confident English speaker. He spent 3 days with me last year being introduced to synthetic phonics…and despite his better judgement I’m sure, has done everything I asked; which was to teach in a way completely alien to anything he’s encountered before. It’s too early to give an accurate overview but from the sheets I’ve looked at so far, the results are more than encouraging. Bearing in mind that English is the children’s second language and that they have only been learning it for a year…for some of them to be coming out with a reading age of 6yrs and 6months is not too shabby!!! Anyone who doubts the efficacy of the synthetics programme take note. Still got lot of children to assess though, it’s a slow process.  I thought I’d cracked the “instruction through mime and general silliness” … but it seems it doesn’t work for all. One very confident young lady who responded to all instructions with yes Ma’am, when asked to write her name on the top of the assessment sheet wrote,
   “Your name in English”
I spent the day coaxing the children to be accurate in their pronunciation, but couldn’t complain too vociferously if they didn’t always get it right…on the few occasions I tried out my carefully rehearsed Hindi phrases I was greeted with blank looks by the polite, and incredulity and mirth by the not so….an important reminder, as if I needed one, of how difficult it is to not only learn another language, but also to make yourself understood...which I’m obviously not!
I’m now sitting on my very hard bed, which I’m beginning to get used to again, feeling tired and looking forward to my next fix of vegetable curry. I suspect another early night is going to be in order…I suddenly feel like I’ve had a busy day.
Wednesday 6th
Stayed in Guria today so no lengthy /bumpy drive to start the day… something us older ladies should definitely avoid  if possible methinks…Our early morning visitors arrived just as were sending  the beautifully presented breakfast away(curry…what else!) and were fretting about causing offence…Neetu took control… and the breakfast . Result!
Another day of assessments, with more pleasing results…I love spending time with the children one on one…every now and then I know I’ve really got through to them and am rewarded with a huge, beaming smile or a sudden burst of giggles, they really are the most gorgeous children both physically and in character. One of the joys of being here is that we are constantly surrounded by happy faces, and it really makes a huge difference to our outlook on life. I’ve two days of teacher training ahead of me and should really have spent this evening going through my notes and resources, but somehow ended up having an impromptu photo session in my room, whilst having my hair ”done” and my legs massaged…(post flight swollen ankles…) A lovely way to spend a couple of hours…but it does mean it’s an early start for me tomorrow. I’ve managed to pick off the lurid purple from all but my thumbnails so there will be no nasty shocks to put me off my stride.
More good news, the guest accommodation is almost finished which means we will be moving out of here in a week or so; Praema can have her flat back, and we can make a start on the meeting room and language lab. The computer room has been painted today and is looking very smart…it’s in what was my bedroom at the beginning of my visit last year…there’s a very disgruntled, dispossessed pigeon somewhere… unless of course it’s the one who found its way into the science lab and has since had two more of the wretched creatures to  create havoc.
Thursday 7th
The early night to catch up on my sleep didn’t go quite to plan; I was woken up in the early hours by what sounded like a great big metal container rolling along the road…I then spent the next half hour watching the most spectacular thunderstorm…
The teacher training went really well I thought…really pleased that Kusum was able to join us and give her support to the less confident English speakers. Tomorrow we’re going to tackle progression, assessment and planning… not the most exciting of topics especially after today which involved doing actions, making up words, pretending to be spies and playing games…I might have to dip into my supply of duty free toblerones to keep their enthusiasm going!
Tonight went really quickly, we slumped in Mukesh’s office and didn’t move until bed time…we even had our supper sitting at his desk. He and Anne were a lot more productive than I was…I offered a few ideas but in truth had pretty much lost the ability to think straight.
Feeling very honoured as Anne and I have been invited to a wedding tomorrow night, really looking forward to it but those who know me well will know that my immediate thought was how to wash my hair!  

Friday 8th
What a fabulous day! The training course was fun and I think we achieved a what we set out to achieve..there were lots more questions this year which I’m hoping means that they understood more.
This evening we went to the wedding of the sister of the science teacher. We were given something to eat when we arrived and then waited in one of the rooms of the house, while they got ready for the arrival of the groom, where we were given more food;  women are usually not in amongst the men so we were being treated as “special guests” The arrival of the groom was an extravagant, noisy, sparkling affair, with dancers (men only) and youngsters lighting their way with big lamps on their heads. We were fed yet again before the blessing of the door… the wedding guests had to wait until after the wedding ceremony so we dined in the house…being watched by a host of family members…all men of course. The food was delicious but I was very conscious that I was going to make a fool of myself by sharing my food with my clothing; I’m still not good at eating with my right hand….We watched the bride and groom exchanged garlands (for those that like such detail…the bride wore red and gold and looked absolutely stunning, but very nervous, and the groom looked every bit like I imagine a Raj to look)…and then we left them to enjoy their celebrations. The wedding ceremony will take place in the house sometime tonight and the bride and groom will depart tomorrow morning.  I am so pleased that we were invited, it was a wonderful evening and I don’t suppose there will be too many more invites to attend a wedding in such a venue.
Off to Patehra tomorrow the Raipuri for a weekend with Kusum…

Saturday 9th
After a late night I felt a lie in was in order so set the alarm for seven. We set off for Patehra at nine and for once didn’t have a lengthy wait at the railway crossing or heavy traffic to contend with so made good time. Today was registration day for the school so the entrance was blocked with eager parents all hopeful that in April their child would be attending the school. The children were sitting in lines on the playground…and as we pulled into the school they all turned their head towards us in a well-choreographed way, and we were greeted row upon row of big cheesy grins…what a great way to start the day! Although they are applying to enter year 1 some of the children have already attended a government school and had up to two year of schooling under their belts… so the size of the children varied quite considerably. It also makes the selection procedure more difficult as it’s usually the boys who have had this opportunity and so they have more confidence, are used to being asked questions and doing tests and generally appear more able…the fear is that girls or boys who haven’t attended school, but who have the potential to do well in a school such as ours may slip through the net. Anne and Mukesh work very hard, and are constantly reviewing and tweaking the registration procedure to try and ensure that this doesn’t happen…….
Once again I spent the day assessing the children's reading ability; thanks to Chris Jolly of Jolly Phonics we have a lovely colourful, easy to use assessment pack which makes the procedure much more interesting for the children…and for me! I thought we were in for a spot of trouble when I asked for Roshan and two boys appeared both quite adamant that they were Roshan and wanting to read to me…I had to call the "boss" in to mediate. It turned out the Roshan wannabe really wanted a second go at the assessment and was prepared to go to any lengths to achieve his goal, he was caught out but Virendra succeeded where he had failed and did get another crack at it… interestingly his word reading age was higher on the first test. I suspect that as it was all new to him and he had to rely on his phonetic awareness to read the words, he was guessing in the second one and trying to remember some of the words he’d been told first time round; it bears out the research that memory can only take a child so far…learning the building blocks rather than whole words is a much more successful method of learning to read.
I am still amazed that children who have had only a year in school and who have probably never encountered spoken English before can read sentences such as…”My sister is waiting for me under the tree in her green coat and black boots.” They have absolutely no idea what the words mean but their pronunciation is brilliant,  which makes it even more incredible…I love my job!!!!

After school we drove to Raipuri via Mirzapore where material was bought and tailors consulted. I love being at the school with the children and I have no problems with the accommodation there but I have to admit I look forward to the comfort and lack of GT road noise that Raipuri offers…and of course spending time with Kusum is always a treat.
Sunday 10th
Woke to a different cacophony…the railway line must be close by, and there are noisy peacocks in the garden. 
I’m having an unexpected day off tomorrow. Kusum is taking me to the Kumbh Mela (no idea if that’s the correct spelling or not)…a big tented city has been erected at the meeting of two major river at Allahabad  so that the faithful can go and dip in the water…usually the rivers are in full flow but at this time of the year the water level goes down and the city in built on the sandbank that emerges from the water. I really have no idea what to expect…it only happens in Allahabad once every 12 years and this is the 12 time that it’s been in Allahabad…I think it’s called a Masa Khumb Mela…and that only happens every 144 years, so I guess I’m really lucky to have the opportunity.
It’s my day off so I’m turning off the computer!
Monday 11th
Very early start this morning to avoid the traffic…so I spent most of last night waking up to check my alarm was set just in case I slept in…guess who’ll be sleeping in the car to Allahabad. We very nearly cancelled the trip;  we heard on the news last night that there had been a terrible accident at the station after crowds had become unsettled and surged onto a footbridge which collapsed, there  was talk of the police closing roads as there were too many people in the city…but that turned out to be scare mongering . It took a while to find out if it was going to be sensible to go so we were late setting off;  I bought some  material in Mirzapur so today …along with everything else that’s been planned, we’re supposed to be meeting up with  a tailor..(the suits I’m wearing are OK but a little snug…and if I keep getting invited to eat out the situation is not going to get any better)…so it’s going to be a busy day…
…the one hour drive to Allahabad took four hours, the first part was fairly straight forward but then as we hit the traffic and people making their way into the city for the Kumbh Mela we came to a virtual standstill. A train passed us that was seriously overcrowded…people were sitting on the roof hanging off handrails on the stairwells and presumably packed in like sardines…Probably not the most pleasant of trips they’d taken, but they were the lucky ones who made it out of Allehabad…a lot of trains have been cancelled and those that are running are running to no timetable .  There are no rules on the roads as I have said before…cars were weaving in and out and on occasion we left the road completely to drive at a 45 degree angle along road side embankments in order to move up 5 feet…We got to Kusum’s cousins, Kumal and Shekar, a little stressed…but after being force fed platefuls of mango, papaya spicy rice and chai and we’d been measured by the tailor we felt strong enough to venture out again. Shekar is quite a character. He’s a retired Army Colonel and has a 1948 jeep which he’s had done up to be a replica of Eisenhower’s, and he wears a brimmed hat with a bright red band around it bearing his name…so off we went with him in his jeep. Cars are not allowed to drive through the Mela but we just kept driving at police manned barriers and they more often than not  let us through, not sure if it was the jeep or his hat that disarmed them…anyway we got to see the Kumbh in a way that would have been impossible if we’d entered on foot. It’s the biggest Mela in the world apparently covering 25sq kms…it certainly looks vast as you view it from the bridge. We might have liked to have done some walking but that wasn’t on Shekar’s agenda…what was, was a visit to his Guru, which was nicely timed for lunch…we were ushered into the VIP tent and given a very nice dhal, and vegetable curry. The guru is renowned for caring for the families of those who have given their lives for their country and he feeds literally thousands over the course of the Kumbh …all the food is made by volunteers and is free to anyone. Quite humbling …anyway it took us nearly an hour to drive the 2 miles back to his house, this included a wait of about 25minutes at a railway crossing…cars quickly bunched up by the barrier, ignoring the obvious that, when the gates opened again, no one would be able to move…this so incensed Shekar that he drove resolutely forward through the barriers when we did eventually reach them despite the fact that there was another train coming and the barriers were coming down…we only just made it through the second barrier…he thought he’d done really well to avoid queuing a second time for a train…I think I’d turned blue by about that stage… We got back and said out farewells then headed back to Raipuri…It was my turn to sit in the front so I, being a sensible soul, reached for my seat belt and was laughed at by the driver who’d never actually seen anyone do that before! We picked up a delightful couple of students, brother and sister, en route  who were going in our direction and kept us entertained with their chatter until there was a loud bang followed by the car swerving all over the road the frightening shriek of brakes, and that awful smell of burnt rubber and  we came to a standstill at an angle to the centre line in the middle of the road…It’s amazing that  we didn’t hit anyone,  the GT road is a fast ,busy dual carriage way…it was our destiny the students told us, it was not our time to go…but for this green eyed creature it probably means if I take the railway crossing incident into consideration I’m down to 7 lives now! We think the drive shaft broke…but being mere females in India were not allowed to express an opinion or even help push the car off the road for safety…actually, you couldn’t  push it at all…the wheels wouldn’t go round…anyway we spent the next  half hour standing on the side of the road with the goats, squatters (not  the type that take over people’s houses…actual squatting people who …. I don’t think I need elaborate) and some lorry drivers  drinking tea at the Chai Whaller’s (sp?) hut. We were finally rescued and the 5 of us…Kusum, Anne the students, our new best friends forever ,and me…set off…We finally got home at eight , after a quick detour via Raipuri to drop Kusum off and to pick up the Marmalade sandwiches that Bopar had decided to make for us seeing as we’d had such a horrendous journey…Marmalade sandwiches really work I have to say…
Tuesday 13th
I visited the University today; Anil had arranged a meeting with a Professor from the Education Department. We had a very interesting conversation about Teacher training in India…suffice to say no one is going to give up their seat on a bus for a primary school teacher over here!!  I am going to give a lecture on phonics to a select group next Saturday…hopefully someone will think I’m talking sense and the discussions can begin! Rome wasn’t built in a day…In the meantime we shall continue to assess the children’s progress in our schools; although we don’t have data from other schools to compare the word or sentence reading ages of our children with, we can at least identify if there are any significant differences between the schools, and I’m quite interested to see if on average the boys or girls have a higher reading age. Really looking forward to going to Turkahan tomorrow to see the girls in the pre-school.
Wednesday 13th
What a wonderful day! Turkahan may be a long way off the beaten track and difficult for some of the children to get into school, but the children don’t see their trek each day as a hardship but a blessing. They are so bright and eager to learn, it’s a joy to be with them. I spent this morning with the preschool children…we made music and danced divinely, we comforted our dolls, we learnt how to catch a ball, we made fabulous lego models and completed difficult jigsaws…and we were having so much fun time that we forgot all about our break and before we knew it, it was packing up time! The girls are being encouraged to interact with each other and with adults, which is a bit of a novelty for them and their teacher but it seems to be working. I was so pleased to have Kusum with me to help translate for the teacher, who was watching my every move and asking questions…she seems very keen to learn. Hopefully they will continue to thrive and we will see a big difference in the number, and confidence of the girls entering year 1 in two years’ time.  After lunch I assessed the reading ages of a random sample of children in year 2; they are obviously doing something right because they could all recognise and make the sound of the phonemes of the basic code and blended and segregated with confidence. Well done Vinod!  We took along a extra pair of hands, a designer/ artist who is in Mirzapur on business and put him to work in the garden… and an amazing job he did of it too! Working over here with the children has a way of bringing out the best in people. Turkahan has to be the dustiest school in Project mala so I was grateful to be returning to the bungalow this evening and not back to Guria… never has a bath been more enjoyed.
Thursday 14th
Happy Valentine’s Day…An interesting morning. I saw first-hand how some teaching methods just don’t work. One little girl, who we think had attended a Government school prior to coming to us had obviously been taught to repeat everything she was told…we see it a lot out here…so, in she comes for her assessment, I say “good morning” , she says “good morning”…I ask her to write her name …she asks me to write my name…and so it went on. We managed, more by luck, to get to the end of the assessment…which wasn’t the best or easiest I’d conducted but I felt that both the girl and I had put every ounce of effort we could into it ,…so I smile my biggest smile, look encouraging and say “Well done…good girl” in a bright and positive voice and was rewarded with a big grin back and a probably even brighter more encouraging “Well done…Good Girl” …have to say it felt good…we all need that bit of support and encouragement along the way! The teacher at Patehra was telling Anne that the children who have not had any schooling before coming to us are really doing well with the phonics programme, those who have been taught to sound out letters and not phonemes are now struggling…but I knew that already!
Very impressed with Amoi, the children were polite focused and welcoming, and I loved the food… (We always get fed well but this was a bit special…especially the mango pickle)…I know Amoi is a very long way away but I may have to revise the timetable...never look a gift lunch in the mouth.
 Friday 15-Sunday 17th

What a lovely few days. Friday was a holiday for the children and all the boarders went home. I had the privilege of escorting Neetu to her village home in Amoi...we were greeted with the usual gathering of the clans and were given a guided tour of Neetu’s home. Anne and I spent Friday very profitably catching up with admin, making resources and plaguing Mukesh!
The weather took a turn for the worse Friday evening and we were entertained  by a spectacular thunderstorm…in the morning we had a swimming pool in place of the playground …and still it continued to rain. The classrooms were cold and dark but it didn’t seem to put the children off their studying. In the evening we went to Raipuri to stay with Kusum. There was no bigli when we arrived because of the storms so a fire was lit and we ate dinner by battery light and then enjoyed the rest of the evening putting the world to rights by candlelight; a  very relaxed occasion.
Mukesh invited us to a fair near his village today (Sunday). We stopped en route at an old, run down bungalow built by a French trader on the banks of the Ganges probably over 200 years ago. It must have been quite a sight in it’s glory, with superb views across the Ganges from the vast verandah. Trading ships from Calcutta would have come up the river to the traders house. So pleased Kusum takes such an interest in these things otherwise we’d have missed out on something so memorable. We then went on to the fair…we always attract a lot of attention when we go out to the villages and today was no exception…it does sometimes make me feel sorry for the Queen! Mukesh’s village is very close to the Ganges and he too enjoys fantastic views. It was so kind of him to invite us; we thoroughly enjoyed our visit. After such a wonderful day coming back to Guria might have been a bit of an anti-climax, but as we drove up to the office, Geeta and Pooja came out to meet us, big beaming smiles as ever which would have been enough to keep spirits up but  the big surprise was the new guest house…rumour has it we are moving in tomorrow so we went to have a peek…I may just have to stay here forever now…we have a shower and a boiler…no more cold water hair washes!!!
Monday 18th
Early visitor this morning…a woodpecker; very shy he kept hiding behind the tree…but I finally managed to photograph him just before he flew away… our roof is obviously the in place to be seen first thing in the morning.. Managed to fit in a few more assessments when school started, before we set of for Mujehra, it’s a long process but at least we’ll know if we’re on the right track and it will definitely make planning for next year much easier.

Mujehra School, with the help of pupils from Guria school put on a very colourful concert to celebrate their Foundation Day; lots of super dancing and storytelling for parents and locals. As always when you are a guest you are given water and something sweet to eat followed by a savoury… today it was something brown and sweet…I’m not great at differentiating the different concoctions…and then really tasty samosas…I thought the sweet stuff was chutney to begin with and so dipped the samosa in it….no one commented so I think I got away with it. After a shaky start, problems with the sound system…not helped I suspect by the too many cooks syndrome…Anne and I were greeted by the children who put garlands around out necks threw petals over our heads and put dye on our foreheads…We were then invited to put garlands around a statue of one of their Gods and were both, at different times invited to speak…I’m hoping all this attention doesn’t go to my head!
The concert was enchanting. There are some very talented dancers…boys, as well as girls, in our schools and the acting was excellent…I managed to get the drift of what they were saying even  if I  “nuhee hindi sumerstai hun!!” (to be sounded out  phonetically… of course) Back at Guria now working on data and playing with graphs and charts…Off to Turkahan tomorrow, Hasra on Wednesday and Mujhera on Thursday…which means probably spending up to four hours in the car on bumpy dusty roads each day again…no internet or mobile signal, possibly …and if the bigli is still not on at Raipuri no hot water either…but excellent company to look forward to.

Tuesday 19th
Assessments completed at Turkahan…I snatched an hour in the preschool …it seemed a suitable reward. The children were talking about themselves and their families today…quite an eye opener; we have no idea how some people live…I often recall text book pictures of life in Feudal England when I travel around some of the more remote villages…although there probably weren’t the ubiquitous orange plastic bags in those days…Today I taught them how to play hopscotch…having to hop and then land on two feet proved quite a challenge but we mastered it in the end. In the afternoon after talking through the assessments with Vinod I taught a lesson revising the short vowel sounds…the sun was shining…so naturally I took the class..all 50 of them… outside and we played games… after which  we endured the bumpy road back to Raipuri. Kusum has a couple of guests from Canada who have been in India for nearly three months. Judy lived in India as a child before contracting polio and moving with her family to Canada. A really inspiring couple…they have hired a room in the middle of Mirzapur and apart from odd trips to Varanasi and Allahabad are living very simply, enjoying the local community. I’m reading her book which describes her mother’s life in India and hers after returning to Canada…it’s excellent and made even more interesting now I’ve see the places and met some of the people referred to . They have both spent time at the schools and are very supportive of what we are doing which is encouraging.   Anne has had the honour of opening the guest house today and will spend the night in there hopefully. I’m looking forward to seeing it furnished…it looks very comfortable…much as I was prepared to put up with the pigeons…no pigeons has to be the better option. My first visit to Hasra tomorrow, looking forward to meeting the staff and children.  
Delightful drive out to Hasra passed some amazing buildings…it’s like being in the land of the three little pigs….some houses made of brick , some of mud and some of straw and twigs! Fascinating…Had a random thought as we drove past a ridiculously overloaded truck driving along an uneven camber …having  seen so many trucks on their sides by the side of the road…if the lorry overturned onto our jeep who would finish the assessments? ... dedicated or what! I was also intrigued by Daktars ( I think I spell the poor chap’s name differently every time I write it) car lighter phone charger…it’s an amazing bit of kit…it has every possible type of charger on it…but then if you have no bigli…car journeys become so much more than just a means of getting  from a to b.
Hasra is a charming little school…once again I had a welcome fit for royalty. I was shown to the office, given the usual water and sweet biscuit then some papaya and chilli paste which was very tasty. I was an exceeding brave soul as I had to share the office with two …I’ll repeat that so you understand the seriousness of the situation…two pigeons, who were nesting on top of the filing cabinet…honestly I only squawked a few times as they flew in and out during the assessments; one of the little girls took my hand at one point and was gently stroking it to calm my nerves!!
I did really well and had almost completed 10 assessments by lunchtime. I was on my own today but seemed to be managing OK…I I thought I’d made myself understood when I explained I would continue with Kiran’s assessment after lunch…the Head teacher misinterpreted what I’d said and I was taken outside to be shown all the children being forced to play Karam, a board game that involves flicking counters into holes in the corners of the board,  for Ma’am’s benefit! I did what I do best…I laughed,  got my camera out and took photos! Someone has constructed a mini mud hut and out houses in the playground…the equivalent of our Wendy house…it’s fabulous.
I’m now back at Raipuri and the Bigli has just come on, batteries are being charged… all in all a happy and productive day.
Thursday 21st
Mujehra School today more assessments…have now done 107 and wishing the sister under the tree in her green coat and black boots would go home, or at least get changed..(you need to have used the Jolly Phonics Assessment pack to understand!) Another interesting  day; the teacher at Mujehra is new and obviously keen to do a good job so insisted on sitting with me during the assessments. Every time a child didn’t select the right word or mispronounced a word he’d put his head in his hands, groan, jump up and start pointing vigorously in a manic sort of way or start praying…it was agonising to watch. I had to ask him to leave…I was beginning to fear for his health. The children were absolutely fine!
I am writing this from my  bedroom in  of the new guest house…the beds are as hard as ever but it really is a lovely “space” to be in…better than some of the hotels I stayed in last year. Robin arrived yesterday so we dined out last night…the ritz on the GT road serves a very acceptable chilli paneer and the kingfisher is cold!

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