Monday, January 17, 2011

My journey with Aajoba - into the past and the present

Hearing from teachers who use Tulika's books in innovative ways is a great pleasure. And we were thrilled to hear that Veda Mohan, teacher at The Valley School, Bangalore, is using Aajoba to teach timelines. We asked her to write about it and she has obliged with a description of how she is using the book and the philosophy guiding the use of the book as well.

The back cover of the book Aajoba (pronounced aa-zo-ba) by young Taruja Parande reads ‘Simple, attractive, endearing ... this one-of-a-kind picture book is a moving tribute to a grandfather from a loving granddaughter in which the past and the present come together in an exploration of the universal theme underlying the book.’ What an apt description of what the book is about!  I couldn’t agree more.

I am going to share with you now, how and why using this book was such a rewarding experience as we teachers arduously attempted to integrate the subjects of Social science (history, geography and civics) and English with middle schoolers at The Valley School, Bangalore. I must also mention here, that in our school we incorporate the mixed age group learning approach, which means that children of Classes 5 to 7 are mixed in a single group for all learning experiences in the school - curricular-related work and surround learning. This adds to the challenge for content that will address the learning needs of all levels. We were on the lookout for books that would hold the thread of common content for learning for all age groups. Here was one book that fitted in perfectly - Aajoba.

Second, somewhere I recall having read that the book was recommended reading for 7-year-olds. Here we were using it as a research tool for 11-13 year olds. Never mind, I just told myself. And we continued to use the book.

Moving onto what we did in school ...... It is natural for us, as it is to a child, that when we pay most attention to issues that involve us - we will be deeply interested in them; we will also put our best efforts to know and learn about them. The project in the curriculum was ‘Timeline' - an abstract concept for children of middle school to grapple with.  We also chose to keep one core learning at the heart of everything that we did - to attempt to build essential Social Science and Language skills by helping children to use the ‘process of inquiry’. We observed that once inquiry is triggered then, children flow into the path of learning quite naturally. They create and walk their own path, tracking most learnings independently, and joyfully. They begin to own what they learn. The adult becomes the facilitator and the co-learner in the process. This separates the divide between the teacher and the taught. Both don the learning hat.

Here is the flow chart that broadly explains the framework of learning that we use:

The learning path would thus be unique to each child, but along some defined predetermined guidelines. These guidelines would help the child move towards the minimum learning of concepts, skills and behaviours that would be:
  • Age appropriate
  • Determined by the child’s capacity (stating the minimum learning was important and would be achieved by all, but the outer limit was open ended; once a child’s curiosity is triggered it’s best to allow him/her to follow his/her own trail of learning)
  • Engage the child in simple tools of history - seek evidence and be able to connect/correlate to given facts and data
  • Instil the child to find out on his/her own – through investigation and exploration; using reference and inference skills and if need be, draw conclusions

There were other learnings that we kept in mind, and explored. There were also many more that the children shared with us as they learnt, and often urged us to join them as they guided us through their exploration. We knew that helping children make significant connections is the only way to stir learning that will promote long term memory. It is the only way to remember things easily. Thus, the flow of learning for the project was simple - begin with learning of what the child can connect to and then move into the abstract - which included story-reading and comprehension of 'The Photograph' by Ruskin Bond. The entire comprehension exercise was focussed on queries that related to how time moved with the characters and events in the story. This was followed by a slide presentation on Ruskin Bond. We also used Isaac Asimov’s 'The fun they had' and TV Padma’s The Forbidden Temple.

Children then worked on creating a time line that included important events in their own life and as well as their parents. Children created their own questions to identify the events. Examples were given but it was an open ended task. They also had to identify events in the community, city, country and the world that happened around the same time. All data gathered had to be supported by evidence.

Ancestral timeline - each child chose a favourite ancestor and tracked his/her time line along with important events that happened in the country and the world at the same time. Again, the emphasis was that for each fact that the child collected, it had to be substantiated with evidence e.g. if it was a grandfather that the child was researching s/he had to collect artefacts that could include spectacles, walking stick, recordings of their favourite music pieces, letters/extracts from journals, birth certificates, newspaper cuttings, clothes and so on. The intent was to help children differentiate fact from opinion; fact from fiction/legend. A fact in history has to be supported by evidence otherwise it lacks credibility, they discovered as they progressed in their work.
Research in the library - to track the time line of at least one person, event or place that captured their attention.

While we had just about begun this activity (we had sent email to parents on the flow of learning for the project), an enthusiastic parent and a friend of Tulika, Rachna Dhir, told me about Aajoba. Before I could blink, the book found its way to my table. The cover and the title just drew my hand towards it, to pick it up in that instant and flip the first page. Then, I couldn’t put it down till I had read through it thrice – all in one go. My eyes were moist at the sheer simplicity of narration and the sincerity of approach. Here was a young writer who had connected so well to her past. She had tracked the story, not just as a narrator who would appeal to the young and the old, but also to all young history students. Each page in the book highlighted a learning that we teachers were striving to achieve through this project and hoping that the children would seek and imbibe in their process of learning e.g. the quotes that Aajoba collected, the meticulous ways in which he kept accounts, his precision to get the perfect triangles of a toast, the fact that they were cloth bags made of Aaji’s sarees and Aajoba’s pants - all facts that could be included as examples in their ancestral research, each little fact of Aajoba was backed by evidence. Aajoba was not a nostalgic story, but one that came from the heart and was so ‘real’. It could have been as much my grandfather’s story, as it could have been the writer’s, or any of the children’s. Was this power of empathy coming through Aajoba’s story line, the illustrations, Aajoba himself or...! I wondered. Instantaneously, I shared the book with whoever I knew would find value (and soon needed more copies of it, with Rachna coming once again to my aid, since my friends did not just want to read it once, but also keep it for a while to read it again ... just one more time). We also made a grand announcement of Aajoba along with another Tulika book, The Forbidden Temple, as must read books at the KFI (Krishnamurti Foundation of India) Teachers’ Conference in Oct 2010 to group of 100 plus teachers of K schools in India. Both books were soon grabbed for a quick look!

While we did not see the immediate value of what we had stirred, as we were progressing through the Timelines project, we realised only towards the end that we had drawn the children to connect to a culture that was their every own. Many parents and children shared with us how the project had opened new ways of bonding within the immediate and the extended family – the child with the parent and the grandparent/relative, and for the parent with his/her own parent, for the grandparents with their children and grand children (and interestingly, for us too - between the teacher and the child and the teacher and the parent).

One child discovered how little he knew of his grandfather, since he had never really spent time with him in the past. He said, ‘My grandfather was just there at home’. The fresh interaction through his research had brought them closer, as perhaps never before. Now, he discovered ‘some of the fun things that his grandfather did, and how he was like his grandfather in some interesting ways’, as a smile quickly lit his face. There were times when we smiled at the funny narratives. At other times, we were also aghast at discovering some truths that were so close and connected to great and significant events of the time; some left a lump in the throat at the courage of a few ancestors, the wisdom of many others and very often the innocence of an 11-13 year old.
And I found in each page of Aajoba, a relationship that comes to life from the its pages, a culture that is simple, yet rich in its values – attitude towards money, love for nature (especially the simple yet important thought of looking after a plant even if it is a solitary creeper in one’s backyard), life’s lessons directly told in Aajoba’s advice, precision of detail in the accounts he kept, and the value of playing for the sheer joy of playing (so, so vital in a world where a child’s time today is driven to accomplish a winning place in one competition or another). Aajoba’s simplicity and yet scientific approach had me completely enthralled.

As for the children and our project in school, there was one child whose research went back to an ancestor who was sixteen generations into history, another tracked her ancestral lineage to Europe (when we had all assumed that she and all her generations had always been Indians) and the third spoke to us about how her great, great granduncle in his middle years, bumped quite by chance at a railway station, into his long lost brother... a brother he had been separated from, in his childhood years. And each story, however hundreds of years old was backed by evidence. Many of them meticulously explained the traits, habits and achievements of their ancestors and the artefacts they brought to class were handled with great reverence, and excitement that was expressed in hushed tones and whispers. Just the same spirit of reverence that Taruja shows with her own grandfather in Aajoba.

Now, when we can integrate such learnings into mainstream subjects, I wonder if there still is a need for a separate value education class in our schools – a set norm in many Indian schools. Well, if we do need to have value education classes, here is a book that will do the magic – it can be used as a trigger for a value education project for an entire term.

Our story doesn’t end here – the children’s research brought great learnings for us. In a report writing activity the children were asked to first narrate an incident that they had experienced as a child in their own words. Then, they were instructed to interview two adults who were part of the incident to get their (the two adults’) versions of the same event. The children followed the process sequentially. Almost all discovered that the stories did not completely match. They then tabulated the similarities and differences. When asked they inferred without batting an eyelid, how the same incident had many mixed versions – and how they were sometimes not able to decipher the actual series of events because ‘it happened so long ago’. We did not have to explain too much when we said that the study of history would always have the same challenges. One bright boy piped in with a comment in a class discussion, ‘Well, that’s what makes history fun!’ ... and another said, ‘Hmmn! If Taruja (the writer of Aajoba) has a brother’, ‘... or a sister’ prodded another instantly, ‘... we’d have Aajoba – Version 2’. And the debate went on ... That had me smiling. Deep in my heart I heard myself say, if the children had garnered so much about loving, learning and living through such a simple story, then it truly is a story that needs to reach out to many, many, many more children. And I am glad I am writing about it.

Thank you Taruja – and we hope to see you in our school some day! We’d like to have you tell Aajoba to our children in your very own voice. And thank you Tulika – you’re leaving behind, through your books a great legacy for the young and the young at heart! Here’s a big hug to TT&T (Tulika Team and Taruja)!

- Veda

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