Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

This post will:

1. Briefly take you through the development of my relationship with Institutionalised Prayer

2. Offer a view of a remarkable factory-style temple operation

 

Since I was a child, I have lived in contradiction as far as my relationship with Religion and Puja (Hindi for Prayer) is concerned. I hated the idea of praying to God everyday- I would, as most kids are wont to, pray to him when I needed to. When I did pray, I would pray imagining myself to be the little cow-herd from the parable who forced the Lord to drink milk by by his earnest praying, crying and even begging.

 

I found visits to most temples hollow- I took an instant dislike to greedy priests, dirty corridors and the 5-second-blink-and-you-miss-God darshans before you were pushed along by the security-guard. I prayed best when I sat in silence, remembered my forefathers and God.

 

I was mesmerised by rituals- the sound of a smashing coconut (and the laughter when its watery contents emptied themselves onto my Father), the incantations (I memorised lots of the sanskrit shlokas) , the smell of camphor, the beautiful chunari my mother would wear and of course, the chum-chum or barfi that would come after.

 

Over the years, Visits to the Madurai Temple, Salasarji outside Jaipur, Tirupathi in the South, Sidhivinayak in Mumbai, Pushkarji (again outside Jaipur) and Dwarkaji near Mithapur in Gujarat confirmed my disenchantment with priests and their money-making ways. God is nobody’s pillion-rider. Prayer is not a covenant but a loving two-way relationship. I disavowed Puja and prayer for the new-fangled spirituality, good old personal prayer in new clothes.

 

But the contradiction still continues. I am still fond (not mesmerised any more) of rituals. I still like the camphor, flowers and festive atmosphere but have grown to detest the average pandit. What really binds me to rituals are the mantras, sutras and shlokas. I believe that the ancient texts (vedas and the upanishads) and rituals derived from these represent a body of experience and thought of the philosophers and prophets of the past essential for our continued survival. To ignore them would be conceit and to blindly take them on, foolishness. These texts are, even today, expressed in their own contextual syntax which is indecipherable to the average person and an ignorant or worse, a calculating pandit will misinform, misguide and confound him even further.

 

I like to embrace these texts with intuition, intellect and a good dictionary as guides.

 

It was with trepidation then that I visited the Trimbukeshwar Temple, fours hours from Mumbai, this morning to perform a 4-hour Puja ceremony. I hoped that it would be devoid of squabbling about money (just eight weeks ago when at Haridwar I had come face-to-face with an ugly display of naked greed by the priest performing Granny’s last rites) and be personal, a little one-on-one with God.

 

 

(Above: The main temple at Trimbukeshwar. Image courtesy Dharmesh)

Reaching Trimbukeshwar at 5 a.m. we were accosted by a drunk man en route to the sanctum sanctorium and even at that early hour had but a fleeting glance of the Idol. This was followed by a 2 hour wait for the priest who was to do our Puja, a period that saw the devotees standing in wait swell to the hundreds.

 

When we actually got to the Puja, I realised that this was going to be a community affair. The devotees were segregated by language ability into different lines and led to one of several large halls where all the ingredients and paraphernalia of the puja had already been placed by the team of coordinating pandits.

 

A senior Pujari led the proceedings in every hall, taking rows of gathered devotees through a series of synchronised actions and rituals, culminating in the final havan (sacrificial fire) in each devotees’ personal, portable kund (vessel).

 

At first, this batch processing of the devotees interfered with my conception of what pujas should be like. But as the puja went on, I saw that this factory manner was a very effective and efficient way to run the process.

(Above: Devotees wait before the start of the Puja. This picture represents a fourth of the hall. There are several halls of this size with pujas happening simultaneously)

1. The dakshina or fees for the Puja were spelt upfront- all ingredients for the Puja were included, no extra was asked for and there were no hidden costs.

 

2. The pandits had organised every conceivable item to be used in the Puja before-hand. All one had to do was sit down and start the puja. This ensured that no time was lost due to the devotees getting different (or incorrect) ingredients and misplacing or mishandling them.

(Above: flowers, milk, curd and various other items to be used in prayer)

 

(Above: Representations of a selection of the pantheon of Hindu Gods through nuts and wheat)

3. The pandits did their best to explain the rituals – as well as one could expect a hall full of devotees to be talked to anyway. If you wanted to understand the rituals in detail there was a provision to visit the temple the day earlier and speak to a member of the coordinating team in advance. It was perfect- they had discriminated between those who wanted information and those who did not- to the convenience and satisfaction of both.

 

4. There was no distinction based on class or income, everyone was treated in exactly the same way. This was a welcome change from temples where there are VIP or Express queues for those willing to make a payment for quick access to God.

 

5. The rather teacher-like Pujaris ensured silence and were quick to admonish any errant behaviour. This ensured that one got time for a little quiet one-to-one with God before, during and after the Puja.

 

6. From a demand-supply point of view, the small number of designated Pujaris managed to mediate the Puja for several devotees in a small amount of time. If this same Puja were to happen for each devotee individually, it would place an enormous strain on time and resources of the temple management.

 

(Above: The Puja in Progress at Trimbukeshwar)

 

7. Throughout you dealt with one main organiser so you didn’t have to take the trouble of finding the right person to answer any questions. As for the rituals- the Pujaris were available after the Puja to answer any questions and queries and to offer advice.

 

Most devotees gathered there after the Puja left satisfied. They had completed the Puja they had come for, been given all details upfront, avoided greedy pandits and ignorant ones and returned home in quick time.

 

It was simple. It was standard. It was quick. It got the job done. Ray Kroc would have probably nodded in approval.

As for me, the fascination with rituals continues.

 

Just before I started this post, I paid my regular visit to Charu’s blog and came across her nice post on rituals, inspired by Krish’s Priestly Matters, his account of his tryst with a Priest and Rituals at his Wedding. You must read both.

Read Full Post »

With only ten days to go before I head to the United States, I’ve been bust typing up odds and ends leaving me with little time in which to think about writing a thoughtful post.

Between all the assembling, wrapping and packing however a series of thoughts, some coherent, others less so; some connected others as different as the quiet of assembly to the ruckus of recess.

I’m going to jot down thoughts in random order. Here we go!

How can we improve our Knowledge Management?

Schools, as institutions for learning and knowledge-creation often do little to archive the creativity and potency of the materials that our teachers create. There are two primary gaps in our management of knowledge:

a) In accessing organisational knowledge and

b) In archiving accessed knowledge

– It surprises me how few of the teachers in schools visit other classrooms or other schools. There is so much to be gained by having two teachers collaborate on observing each other (maybe to solve a particular problem identified earlier while sitting in on a pre-determined session) or even by observing how other schools get their basics right. I would like to see Principals set a policy where every school year every teacher collaborates with another teacher for at least two half-days on peer observation.

– Rookie teachers routinely flounder through teething troubles that a well-organised experienced-teacher-written wiki could easily solve, as could a mentor at school.

– As a newbie teacher, I spent several hours designing experiments, crafting props to use in the classroom and making sure I got my hand-outs spot on. It took a lot of my time. It was easier back then without a wife to come back home to, with more energy and maybe more nerves. Sure, all of us would love to have children immerse into practical hands-on learning, we would love to wipe the dust of teacher resource books and create new materials- but if you are teaching a large number of classes (or worse, large number of students) even the best intentions can go awry. Moreover, many activities-for-teachers books are well-intentioned but often carry programs that are not-pilot tested, causing demonstrations to blooper and learning to falter.Some of us give a few classes our best, disadvantaging the others – the best of us try and give all classes our best and are forever running to catch up with own own schedules. Several of our classes then become ‘chalk and talk.’ It would be nice if schools kept teaching materials, curricular samples, worksheets from year-to year as a one-stop-resource for teachers looking for a handy resource. It would help the dull teacher make his classroom more exciting and help the reflective teacher think about improving student success rather than with cutting chart paper.

 

What makes a good teacher?

I spent some time crafting a personal vision for myself. At the very top of this assignment, I wanted help!

What kind of teacher did I want to be? Obviously the kind that motivates students towards a love for learning, that makes class fun. What did that mean? What traits would embody a teacher of that kind?

I reflected on my own days as a schoolboy and found myself remembering teachers who were as different as chalk from cheese; from the tough booming-voice Mr. Sharma who was soft on the inside, who set us dry assignments and made us read textbooks in class as a way of learning, yet who loved each of us dearly to Mr. Bhagat whose classes were an intellectual adventure like no other but who outside the classroom was unapproachable. Also Ms. Singh, who would feed us (I went to a residential school) cookies in the evenings and run an efficient classsroom in the mornings- yet who wasn’t even a trained teacher (she was a teacher’s wife subbing for a regular on leave). Why did each of them endear themself to us?

I realised that my year at Harvard would do nothing to make me a better teacher. It could probably make me a more aware teacher and a better-equipped one, but not a better teacher because teaching rises above what we are and comes alive in the moments when we reach out to a student and focus on him, not on ourselves.

Which is why most we had less hiring mistakes with those we hired post a Classroom demonstration compared to others hired through more conventional recruiting procedures.

I wonder if you could help me with this? What do you think makes a good teacher?

 

 

Who does the Principal learn from?

In this country, most Principals are captains of their own ships. Yes there are board meetings with experienced educators. Yes, there are workshops. But that happens one one or two occasions a year. A principal is coming from a context where as a recent teacher he has had a Principal/Administrator to guide him, workshops in collegial environments to share and learn from. With the elevation to Head, he moves from being to counselled to being the counsellor.

I know many people who find it rough. It can be difficult to provide all the answers when you are at sea yourself.

I call for a Learning Circle where Principals of a few nearby schools visit each other, observe, evaluate, comment, critique, learn and share. Apart from making the Principal a more able leader it would also send a strong signal to the staff about personal development and collaborative growth.

 

 

Better Writing and Better Assessment

This one could interest all you bloggers and creative writing teachers. I came across Creative Writing 101- tips on better writing by Kurt Vonnegut in the introduction to his excellent collection, Bogambo Snuff Box. I have included 4 of the 8 tips here:

1. Use the time of the reader in such a way that he will not feel that the time was wasted.

2. Every sentence must do two things- reveal character or advance the plot.

3. Write to please just one person. If you make love to the world, your writing will get pneumonia.

4. To heck with suspense, give your readers as much information as possible.

I found this interesting because I love to write and have penned several short stories. But his tips, especially point #2- every sentence must either reveal character or advance the plot, is relevant to every writing situation, be it blogging or even teaching- whether in class or while setting questions for student assessments.

1. Use the time of the reader in such a way that he will not feel that the time was wasted. Students know when the unexpected assessment in class means that you have not prepared your material and being unable to teach, are using the assessment as a diversion. Don’t waste their time. Ditto with asking them to read pages and pages of hand-outs that have little relevance to the learning objective, simply because as a teacher, its been difficult to find appropriate passages and reading material.

2. Every sentence must do two things- reveal character or advance the plot. Now wouldn’t that make for great teaching even if we were lecturing?

3. Write to please just one person. If you make love to the world, your writing will get pneumonia. A call to action for those differentiated instruction and differented assessment designed to meet the needs of individual students.

4. To heck with suspense, give your readers as much information as possible. Very often we either expect students to guess what we want in response to a question on an assessment. It tickles our ego, provides us with the thrill that beseiges a creator of a good puzzle, but it does nothing to advance student learning.

 

Other Random Thoughts

– One way to promote classroom collegiality may be to shift seating plans in classes around every few weeks. It will make students more comfortable with each other. The next time there is a problem, the student in question, will have several other to consult with rather than just one trusted friend; a situation that most teachers crave.

– If there is one thing I would like to do at the start of every school year it would be meeting every student of mine for a one-on-one chat where I learnt more about him as a person, as a member of a family and community, as a young man with hopes and dreams for his future. That would probably help me shorten the learning curve and understand him better than I could even after several conventional assessments or classroom sessions.

Reading five blog posts and offering thoughtful comments and engaging in dialogue is better than reading twenty without doing any of these. Holds true for any kind of reading. I plan to stick to this principle even when new carnivals and my Google Reader conspire to seduce me into reading several blogs at a go.

 

 

Read Full Post »

I was speaking to my wife who, sharing a few friends’ experiences, mentioned that teaching kids in the West was more difficult than teaching kids in India. The main difference, she felt, is of relationship- here the teacher is revered, there the relationship is more of equals- respect, maybe, not reverence.

She hypothesised that having kids revere you makes it more easy to teach them.

I feel what she really meant was “having kids revere you makes it more easy to teach control them.” All other things – and a healthy dose of respect – constant, I feel that teaching ‘equals’ is much easier and much more effective.

Reverence in the Indian school context makes the teacher an Authority who is supposed to inspire awe and intellectual subservience. (although in private schools across urban India this may have changed, it still remains a reality in many others). Students are tacitly expected to take the teacher as an expert on his subject, hang on to every word spoken in class, smile politely and not ask too many questions. But, without questioning, can learning happen? Sure the classroom is more disciplined quiet, but is it really more enagaged?

What do you think? Would you rather be the Sage on the Stage or the Guide by the Side?

 

 

Read Full Post »

Personalising things, people, situations makes emotions run high. Personalisation can be a bad thing (e.g. someone opposes my opinion, I think she is opposing me).

It is often a good thing, too. Whenever great upheavals have happened, history has documented passionate men and women who have personalised the cause. Made it their mission.

The same thing can be seen in everyday life. My five year old niece is not interested in gardening. Her mom, avid gardener has tried to get her interested in gardening. No luck. Last week we gave her a potted plant. Did a naming ceremony. Now little Anouska dotes on the green plant, on every little bud that sprouts from the tender stem.

Whenever I visit a school, I try and get a student to show me around. I find they are more frank, opinionated and more aware of the subtleties in the school culture than are teachers. I look out for how they refer to the school and their teachers. Is it My School? Or The School? Or no pronoun use at all- Just ‘school’?

That tells me a lot about what kind of school it is.

It seems I have a new friend who uses this technique too. Robert Reich, former secretary of Labour notes,

 

 

“For six months now, I’ve been visiting the workplaces of America, administering a simple test. I call it the “pronoun test.” I ask frontline workers a few general questions abut the company. If the answers I get back describe the company in terms like “they” and “them,” then I know it’s one kind of company. If the answers are put in terms like “we” or “us,” I know it’s a different kind of company”

Thanks Hoopscoach for the tip.

Here’s a cartoon on Teachers and on Pronouns 🙂

 

Pronoun Test

 

I had to smile at the Grandmother above. I can be like her sometimes.

Read Full Post »