India: Teaching in Kolkata

It’s no secret: travel is my thing. I’m lucky to have found my perfect travel buddy and to have scratched off over fifty countries on the world map that hangs in our hallway. But when my school offered me the chance to go and do something more meaningful and less self-serving for a change, naturally I jumped at the opportunity!

Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) – a sprawling metropolis on the East bank of the Hooghly river – formed my third visit to India and it was fascinating to see another of this captivating land’s many diverse faces. It was in many ways very distinct from my other experiences: the magnificent yet over-touristed ‘golden triangle’ destinations; the sleepy lushness of Kerala’s tea plantations and forests; the packed, industrial hub that is Mumbai; and the deeply religious river-centred Varanasi. But many things were the same too – the vibrant colours, the busyness, the industriousness and resourcefulness of its people, the delicious food, the chasm between the rich and the poor, and the ever-present marks of colonial rule.

Kolkata rarely features on traveller itineraries. According to my guidebook, it has ‘an exaggerated reputation…as poverty-stricken and chaotic,’ perhaps in part due to the spot-lighted attention it received from being the focus of much of Mother Teresa’s work. Instead, the book suggests, it is ‘an enthralling, sophisticated and friendly city.’ I would tend to agree. There’s a huge amount of poverty, sure, but no more than what I’ve perceived in the rest of the nation’s big cities. The city is hectic and bursting at the seams but that’s not unique to Kolkata. Every other street seemed to bare advertising for literary, film and sporting festivals: it’s a place where it feels like things are happening. What I liked most about it though, was that the people were so friendly and welcoming. Perhaps they are not yet jaded by an abundance of tourists.

Here are a few images from around the city:

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This year was my school’s third annual trip to the West Bengal city of Kolkata as part of a project with several Derby Diocese schools and Kolkata’s Cathedral Relief Service (check out all the great work they do with education, health and women’s empowerment here) during which our schools each link with an Indian slum school. My school in Derby already had a link with a more well-off, fee-paying school called St Thomas’ but this year we were also assigned a slum school of our own – Topsia. My colleague, Charlotte, and I spent three happy days with the kids and their lovely, dedicated teacher, Rabia. Our Cathedral Relief Service translator, Linda, also accompanied us.

Topsia is a Muslim area of the city. Here are a few photos of the surrounding streets (beware of the butchery if you’re squeamish!):

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Rabia speaks very little English and has to teach in very challenging circumstances. There are approximately 50 children in the school (all there on the days of our visit but possibly split into two separate groups normally) which meets in a room I guess to be about 12 square metres in size. We were told the age range was 3-7 but in reality, the oldest was about 10 and a large proportion of the children were certainly under 3, barely able to communicate in Bengali, never mind English!

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The building belongs to a sports society so each morning, Rabia must bring in mats for her pupils to sit on, the single blackboard which is hung on the wall, a cord on which dangles a few posters featuring the fruits, time, animals, body parts, and she must screw the single lightbulb into its socket. At the end of the school day, someone comes to check she has adequately cleared the room. There’s no furniture and to use the bathroom, the older children are regularly sent to take the younger ones to their houses.

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The children were an absolute delight! We had so much fun but we – and they – were exhausted by the end of each day! They were initially quite shy and performed us some songs and rhymes they had learnt. However, as the days passed, they became more confident and eager to join in with whatever we asked them to do. They also particularly liked having their photographs taken!

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We read them stories – We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Brown Bear, Brown Bear and The Very Hungry Caterpillar – which we had found dual-language texts for. Our pupils in England had recorded themselves reading the stories to them too. We taught them new English nursery rhymes. We played maths games and we began teaching them – through actions and games – the first few sounds needed for learning English. In some countries it can seem presumptuous to impose our language on them but here, learning English is the children’s key to acceptance into government schools and could open up many more opportunities for them in the future.

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I’m not sure what time school was meant to end but we found they drifted away a few at a time. This is why there seem to be far less than 50 children in the photographs – it was too hectic to whip out my camera when they were all there. When the numbers dropped a little, we were able to do some more active activities like dancing games and giant Ludo.

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One of my favourite moments was when only 10 or so children were left and we gave them all the books we’d brought with us: they devoured them with such glee! If only all children felt that degree of excitement when handed a book!

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There was a similar response when I gave them a card from my class!

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Our previous link school, St Thomas’ was unfortunately closed for several days of our visit for festivals, but we managed to squeeze in a little visit on our last school day. I got them doing some role play with me and they also helped me with a video compilation project I was undertaking uniting the children of Derby and Kolkata. You can see it here.

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The second aspect of the project was to provide professional development for the teachers of the seventeen or so slum schools and so this year we offered two intensive days of training. The two areas we focused on were the teaching of phonics (early reading skills – the way we’d teach young children here) and the use of maths resources to make learning more active and purposeful. All the Derby teachers had fund-raised during the year in order to buy each Kolkata school a large rucksack full of resources covering both subjects. When we met up prior to the trip to distribute the items, it was overwhelming to see the generosity of children, parents, governors and wider school communities come together to form these mountains of resources.

Here are some of the teachers examining the contents of their bag, laid out on the floor:

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The level of English of the visiting teachers varied vastly with a few being fluent and others knowing almost none. To ask them to teach their pupils a language they barely know themselves is a big deal but every one of them was attentive, focused and enthusiastic throughout the two long days of training.

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One of my favourite moments of the week was walking back into Topsia after day one’s training and seeing Rabia and the kids engrossed in activities she’d learnt with us! Here she is in full swing during the training:

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The adults – lovely as they were – may not have quite pulled on our heart-strings to the extent that the children did, but the training days were so rewarding because working with the teachers is the bit with the lasting impact. It’s their efforts and expertise that will carry on the work we’ve started for the next 51 weeks until we visit again.

At the end, each teacher was awarded a certificate and the Cathedral Relief Service presented each of us with token gifts of thanks. They’d also prepared songs and dances for us.

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– – – – –

In addition to the main purpose of our visit, we were taken on a few excursions.

A Jain temple (no photos allowed inside)

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A service at St Paul’s Cathedral (complete with squirrels chasing each other and pigeons flapping about in the rafters!)

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Victoria Memorial

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A boat trip on the Hooghly river under Howrah bridge

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Mother House (where Mother Teresa is buried)

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A day trip to Kuchabaria village (about 3 hours’ drive out of the city – the first 4 photos are from the journey there) where the community gathered at the school to celebrate Republic Day involving the hoisting of the flag (by Derby’s own Rev. Anita). The children performed dances, rhymes and songs for us and then we were given a tour of the village including a women’s empowerment sewing workshop.

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Diamond Harbour and a boat trip

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It’s been such a privilege to be involved in this project and to work with such fantastic people – English and Indian – and I can’t wait to go back again next year!

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