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A Warm Welcome in India

by Laurie Callahan
 
Good morning, Madame!
Good morning, Sir!

The Marymount Master of Education students were met with polite greetings and bright faces as they entered the crowded, open-air elementary classrooms of a school in Porbandar, a small coastal city in the Indian state of Gujarat. The children were eager to see what fun, hands-on activity they would be doing that day. They knew that their guest teachers wouldn’t just lecture them. After all, they had already demonstrated how whales are measured and how to make little rockets that really lift off!

Dr. Usha Rajdev, associate professor of Education, organized the study-abroad experience that took the 17 graduate students from her Math and Science Methodology course halfway around the world last winter. In Porbandar, they worked with the children and shared their teaching methods with Bachelor of Education students enrolled at the Dr. Virambhai R. Godhaniya College.

Dr. Rajdev explains, “Before leaving the U.S., my students had learned hands-on techniques and projects for teaching math and science through partnerships with NASA, the U.S. Forestry Service, and an environmental education program called Project Wild. These organizations generously supplied materials for the projects that our students would do with the children in India.” The materials included the makings for flip books about the lunar phases, as well as components for experiments to explore the water cycle, the parts of a tree, plant classification, and so on.

Before the trip, Marian Gormley wrote on the class blog, “We are preparing for the best ways to teach students with whom we do not share a common language, and we are reflecting on the exciting culture we will be immersed in.”

The group began their adventure on New Year’s Day. Upon arriving in India, they enjoyed a whirlwind tour to soak in the culture – visiting Gandhi’s birthplace, the Taj Mahal, a Jain temple, and the Hanging Gardens. Then it was on to Porbandar.

Under the guidance of Dr. Rajdev and Dr. Kristi Johnson, professor of Education, the MU graduate students taught in the mornings at the elementary school associated with the college.

“I worked mostly with 4th graders,” says Jennifer Zimmermann. “The first thing I did was read them the picture book, Whoever You Are, written by Mem Fox and illustrated by Leslie Staub. It stresses that children around the world may look different, live in different homes, and speak different languages, but they are basically the same.” She adds, “Porbandar is a very traditional small town. I wanted to instill the idea that kids around the world are like them.”

Not sure how they would be received, the visiting teachers soon found that they need not have worried. Sally Wodatch expresses what they all discovered: “The people were so welcoming and treated us as honored guests.”

In the classroom, the MU students quickly bonded with the children. Meaghan Casey observes, “They were excited to see us every day, and they were so eager to participate in all the different games and activities that we planned for them.” She was overwhelmed by the children’s pleasure in things that American youngsters take for granted. She recalls, “Teaching children who basically had nothing, and seeing their joy at having markers and crayons to draw with, is a memory that will stay with me always.”

After each morning class session, the MU group was joined by Bachelor of Education students at the college for training on the next day’s lessons. Usha Rajdev notes, “Out of 100 Indian college students we worked with, only 15 spoke English well.” So non-verbal communication and improvisation became critical skills.

“In India, teaching is done in more of a lecture format,” explains Dr. Rajdev. “It’s not as hands-on. So our students really brought a new approach to the B.Ed. students there. One of the teachers in training there said, ‘I wish you had come earlier,’ lamenting that these new insights were coming so late in their preparation. I assured her that it’s never too late; teachers can always add new ways of engaging students and become more effective in the classroom.”

Courtney Trowbridge found the relationships that she built with the Indian B.Ed. students to be a highlight of the trip. She explains, “We learned from one another, grew together, shared stories of similarities and differences – all with one thing in common: the best interest and love of the children.”

In the afternoon, the Marymount students went by bus to another elementary school, Sandipani Gurukul. There, they taught the same lesson as in the morning. Dr. Rajdev says. “This gave them a chance to use their earlier experience to make the lesson even better.”

Jennifer Zimmerman notes, “I learned to slow down my speech and to show pictures to illustrate what I was explaining. As teachers, it’s important to make sure that every student understands the concept and to provide extra help to those who need it.”

She also made a surprising discovery: “Growing up, I hated math! But, through this course, I learned that I love to teach math. I was teaching the lattice method of multiplication to the children. It makes it really easy to visualize the process and get the right answer. I went through the process slowly, and the students got it! That was a very rewarding experience for me.”

After teaching at Sandipani, it was time for another session with their Indian counterparts – an opportunity to review the day’s results and prepare for the next day’s lessons. Altogether, the Marymount students spent nine days teaching, learning, and sharing in the Porbandar schools.

“I was in awe of our students,” says Dr. Rajdev. “Not only did they adapt to the culture, they also adapted their teaching style. They learned how to make do and maintain teaching excellence.” She adds, “They worked in teams, and they were all in it together. I think that Marymount’s focus on community was reflected in the way they worked together.”

Dr. Rajdev also points out, “They were good improvisers! For one project, ocean in a bottle, they collected empty water bottles, got cooking oil from the hotel, and bought blue food coloring. I was so emotional just watching them! They taught with so much passion and patience.” The MU students also shopped for school supplies to leave behind for the children and set up libraries of math and science resources in the schools.

All too soon, the visit to Porbandar came to an end, but the experience will be with these novice teachers for a lifetime. Megan Reese says, “This experience taught me to roll with the punches. When we got into the classroom, some of our plans worked, and some didn’t. We had to be flexible and put the students’ needs first.”

Hallyn Brewster knows that she, too, will now be a more effective teacher. She says, “Having been to India, I know that it doesn’t take a big budget or the greatest technology to get children excited about learning – just a little inspiration and a positive attitude!”

The Marymount students and the Porbandar community were equally sad to part. “The children asked if we could stay longer and keep teaching!” Sally Wodatch recalls. The farewells were made bearable by knowing that the Marymount-Porbandar connection will continue. Usha Rajdev explains, “Next year, a new group of our students will do the course in India, and some of this year’s group will accompany them as adjunct instructors. So the learning and sharing of knowledge continues.”