Sunday, September 4, 2016

Government School

Boy decorating portraits with flowers, school administration

On Thursday, we visited a Government school, which is state-funded with free admission, uniforms, and meals for the children. The students were very polite and friendly. The teachers are trying their best in a situation in which they have little to no support. Supplies are minimal, as is professional development, and accountability is very low. The pay is quite high, but jobs are very difficult to obtain, and usually require what our host Maya referred to as "political influence" to get. The school is in two different locations, one for the primary school (through 7th grade) and one for the upper school (through 10th grade). After 10th grade, students can text for and apply to higher education; there is some talk of adding eleventh grade to government schools, but the logistics still need to be worked out.
The principal with two students

Students are eager to learn at all grade levels, and obviously want to be in school. Learning is almost exclusively by rote, with a great deal of verbal repetition and utmost adherence to a single text.

One of the best classes we observed was the art teacher's embroidery and sewing class. The children seemed to enjoy being there, and she observed that sewing is almost a form of meditation for these students, as they are still and have their hands busy. Absenteeism on the part of teachers is common, and students cannot always come to school. One of the reasons for this in recent times has been a lack of running water due to drought. Girls and other family members are required to stay home to fill containers from tanks supplied by the government.

On the way to the school, we saw many children on the streets who are not attending school at all.
Statues of Ganesh, Saraswati, and Krishna to
be found at many Indian schools

All in all, given the lack of resources and modern equipment, these schools are working hard to provide their students with a brighter future. Government schools now have a great deal of competition from private schools, whose instruction is in English. Parents want to send their children to English-taught schools, since English is the unifying language in a country with hundreds of languages and dialects, and is the language of business. This government school is beginning instruction in English in the lower grades, and working their way up to the higher ones. For now, most instruction is in Kannada, the State language of Karnataka.

Student handiwork from an embroidery class at 
the high school campus

Boys at work in the embroidery class

Girls, seated on the opposite side of the room from 
the boys

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Jagannath Temple: reflections

In these pictures are two groups of children: a class of seventh graders in a Hyderabadi private school, and a some young worshippers at a local temple. The first group had just finished writing letters to American counterparts in my former school, and were eager to be present in a photo that their interlocutors would see. The second were curious about my colleague and I, and asked questions about life in the States, but they also wanted us to know that they felt reverent towards the images represented on the temple grounds. To that end, they posed in front of a very androgynous-looking god, possibly Rama, or one of his myriad avatars...I am not sure. These young people all seem to accept female-male equality, and in fact, the students insisted on it. They stated that discrimination against women currently exists only in the north of India. In the limited social contexts that we were exposed to during our stay (schools, hotel life, the family of our hostess at Jubilee Hills public School, which despite is name, is actually what we would consider a private school in this country) this statement appeared to be verified. The same could not be said for caste discrimination, which was quite evident in the school hierarchy. From the pictures, it is easy to see how school uniforms can be an equalizer in terms of outward appearance: the crisp, pressed look of the students contrasts with the clean but slightly hand-me-down look of the clothes the kids at the temple were wearing. That said, there is a wariness, despite the friendly manner of those children, especially in their eyes, and a knowingness that street children around the world have in common: they have seen more than their share of suffering and sadness. What impresses me is their remarkable optimism and curiosity. The temple itself is a tribute to the multi-layered, colorful, profound nature of spiritual life in India.

Seventh grade students at JHPS
Group of children at Puri Jagannath Temple, Hyderabad


An interesting practice at this temple we discovered by accident. We saw a giant, gold-colored scale, and wondered about tis purpose. Then we saw a priest, placing a small girl on one of the scales. As we approached, we took a picture without thinking, and the parents of the little girl approached us. Quite rightly, the father asked us to email him any pictures we had taken of his daughter. I agreed, and asked him why the little girl was being weighed. He told me it was her second birthday, and that the custom is to donate the girl's weight in a given commodity to the temple. These parents were donating milk.


Why global education? Or as students may well put it, "Why are we learning about people on the other side of the world who we will probably never meet? Why does it matter?" It matters because going forward we will be meeting with them anyway; if not face-to-face, then through communications, through work, through university research and collaborative projects. Perspectives that are not our own matter: because we need the rest of the world more than ever to shape a better future in which we can perceive our histories globally, in order to understand more effective solutions to problems that many of us face. Restricting ourselves to understanding history from our own perspective only, for example, limits our understanding of people we need to work with, and causes breakdowns in communication. Gaining an understanding of different cultures on the other hand enables a broadened worldview that frees us to communicate more easily when communication is vital.  The Asia Society, an eminent leader in global education, discusses "global competence" as being one of the major skills that every student needs to master: the ability to "understand and act on issues of global significance."

This guide is an attempt to integrate the intensive learning and knowledge I have gained over the course of the past year into a series of resources for educators at Crystal Lake Middle School in Broward County, Florida. Please feel free to use the resources, add comments, add resources yourselves, and inform all of us of new resources, especially local ones. I also would like to encourage anyone who is interested to apply for a Teachers for Global Classrooms fellowship, or any of the other travel opportunities that I have supplied under Travel Opportunities for Teachers.

In fact, by clicking on any of the tabs on this blog, you will find information about the indicated topic. If you haven't yet read my travel blog, you can click on that as well. 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

How to Avoid Blaming Politicians and Assume Responsibility for Our World

Peace. Happiness. That is what many of us are searching for, in our lives, in our communities, in the world. How can we achieve it, when every week there is news, in the United States of police shootings resulting in needless deaths, or people shooting at police and killing them in retaliation, and around the world, in France, in Germany, in Syria, in Afghanistan, Belgium - the list extends, it seems, all the time - attacks on people in the street, using whatever weapons are in hand: bombs, firearms, axes, a truck.And the bombings by our own jets in Syria, with again senseless, needless killing of people whose only connection to our intent was there being in the same place as ISIS. I am taking a deep breath and posting some thoughts that I have been developing over the past few years.
Where to start, where to unravel this endless chain or murder, revenge, rage, fear, and cold destruction? Certainly not with dark lectures on excluding the “perpetrators” from our country, certainly not with the continuing stance of bellicosity towards anyone who questions our values. We are so afraid of people imposing their values on us we have become blind to the fact that we are constantly expecting the rest of the world to accept ours, without question. Are we the best country on the planet? In some respects, we have many advantages over other places; however, in other ways, we are not even trying to keep up. Our fear of being deprived of weapons we hardly need, such as assault rifles, for example, has led us down a road towards sociopathy: the thought that we have the right, and the obligation even, of blowing away anyone who threatens what we perceive to be our place in the world, or anyone who we suspect (mostly unjustifiably) of even representing a threat to our identity.  In the middle east, the fear of points of view that could undermine long-held beliefs and lead to the decay of society is equally strong, and equally sociopathic.
So, essentially, we are moving rapidly towards a state of mind that cancels society: everyone else is to blame for our lives, and we are the victims of terrible violence. There is no “either/or” for the vast number of people in this country: if you are a proponent of Black Lives Matter, according to the view of many, you are against the police; if you support the police by recognizing they have a societal role that also must be protected,  you betray the African-Americans, Muslims, and others who are targeted by the police. These opinions are disturbing, and reflect not only schisms in society, but schisms within our individual minds. In the political arena, they have allowed a cold-hearted, apolitical, con-artist reality TV host to become the spokesman for the Republican Party. They have also have allowed Democrats to show the same bigotry as their rivals in attacking Republicans as a whole, further fanning the flames of hate on the part of those who support Trump. Even Barack Obama, who began his presidency extending the olive branch to Republicans and holding out great hope for resolving our differences, has changed his stance on dialogue, criticizing the Republicans openly and often. Recently, a friend of mine wrote to me on Facebook that Obama is even a murderer, responsible for killing of innocent civilians in Syria. My response to him is essentially we need to stop blaming politicians (yes, even Trump) for the dark state of the world.
So who can we blame? Let’s try to move away from blame: it’s part of the cycle of blame, hate, killing, revenge, blame, hate….and so on. Let’s ask another question: who can change this state of the world? Apparently not politicians: they are as much at a loss as anyone. The correct response: we can. I mean “we” in the broadest sense of the word: every single one of us, from the most powerful to the (seemingly) most insignificant. We need to undergo a quiet, steady, sincere revolution to avoid self-destruction. There is nothing new in my saying this: ancient philosophies affirm this, the strongest and most lucid among them being Buddhism. However, time and again the concept of self-reflection, and more, active self-observation, needs to be brought to people’s awareness constantly. A wise woman once told me that what was inhibiting my happiness was the tiny seed of resentment that I allowed myself to cultivate in my relationships. That tiny seed, when nurtured, grows into anger, to deprecation, to thoughts, words, and actions that disseminate negativity: all because I am blaming another person for my own reactions. It denies responsibility for the effect I have on my environment; it is “giving” away what cannot be given: the power to govern my own reactive decisions. If I decide to react negatively, that is my choice. We are so accustomed to affirming our right to choose whatever we wish that we do not consider the ultimate effect: am I creating happiness with my response, or am I making the cause for misery? For example, if someone insults me, or steals from me, or treats me with contempt, will my retaliation create a better environment? Perhaps it would seem so temporarily, because for the moment I may feel appeased, but the energy will continue to vibrate with negative force. If on the other hand I can try a different path, and decide that my actions will remain impeccable, and that I will do whatever I can to surmount this obstacle peacefully, I have created a different path, and have moved towards a resolution. The energy that I am driving into the world is positive.
This positive energy is not “turning the other cheek”, but finding a peaceful solution, whether it is dialogue with the person who i feel has slighted me or some other action that is the opposite of negativity. For me as a practicing Buddhist, this means chanting; for others, it will be meditation, positive prayer. For atheists, it may simply be the driving force of compassion for themselves and for others, but this is very difficult to maintain without a strong philosophy as a basis. I have many atheist friends who maintain that religion of any sort is itself the cause of society’s ills, but this is akin to saying that all Republicans are hopelessly narrow-minded and bigoted: it just is not true. When religion loses the power to self-assess and becomes a tool for fear-mongering is becomes destructive, but religion per se is not evil; in fact, the only goal of religion is the construction of happiness.
My happiness can never be complete without the happiness of those in my environment. Resenting someone else will make me unhappy because I do not have the happiness of that person as my goal. The constant desire to feel superior to others, to be better than others, will never lead to personal happiness, because it does not take into account that our lives are intimately connected, and that in order to live well as human beings we need to consider that each of us is as important as anyone else, regardless of how we are otherwise distinguished from one another, that is, by race, gender, capacity, profession, and so on. The desire to feel superior is fueled by the fear that we ourselves are not adequate. This is the most debilitating of all human obsessions: self-doubt. Self doubt leads to doubting everyone, and that tiny seed of resentment grows to suspicion and hate.  If I have eliminated self-doubt, I can react positively to everything in the world with confidence, and be happy with my decisions, knowing that they will lead to happiness. This will have an effect on my environment, as people will naturally be inspired to make changes in the way they perceive their responsibility towards themselves and others.
So how can we resolve the terrible acts of violence and hatred in the world? By creating millions of positive actions that transform the world, one microcosm, one environment at a time. Stop thinking that politicians will take care of it. Politicians reflect society’s desires and motivations. If our desire is to create more conflict with people who do not think exactly as we do, then we will continue to bring to power people who reflect that. If our desire is for true change, an end to resentment, hate and violence, than our own thoughts and actions will move towards governing bodies who represent that movement. For those who do not practice Buddhism, forgive me if I include a pearl of wisdom from Daisaku Ikeda: "Buddhism teaches that the mind encompasses the entire universe. When we change our innermost state of mind, our whole being changes, and this affects the world in which we live." This is the way forward: to exercise hope against darkness through means of action.

“We’re not a communal nation, dear; giving, but not caring, outgoing but not friendly.” This is line from A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee, which I believe exposes the core of our American malaise: there is a disconnect between the appearances of what we do, and the motivations that drive us. We are willing to give greatly of our resources, but we do not particularly experience someone else’s joy or suffering as our own, or see that joy or suffering as connected to our lives, and we appear to be socially adept, but without the compassionate understanding that builds honest relationships. One more thought before I end this long rant: Again, according to Ikeda, "Each of us is the center of the Universe… Our practice of this wonderful teaching puts us in a position to see that it is the karma we have individually made that puts us where we are, and others where they are, but the truth is we are each able to affect change in our own world, and by extension of the change within us, our environment will also change, including other people within that environment, but the life of each person contains a Buddha, which means everyone is totally worthy of respect due a Buddha, whether they at this moment exhibit the behavior or understanding of being a Buddha…" 
Whether you agree with being a Buddha or not, just know that your own life is as precious as everyone else's, and our relationships are entirely symbiotic, so remember that before kindling the resentment and the anger. We can act positively to thwart evil without those debilitating emotions.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Lorenzo's City

Recently, I wanted to know more about one of the most famous Florentines, loved, hated, and feared, but whose loyalty to his home town was rarely questioned. Lorenzo de' Medici was a statesman who above all knew his duty to the Republic of Florence and to the Medici name, and throughout his short life not only succeeded in mapping conquerors out of the city, but prevented all-out war in the Italian peninsula. His methods were both diplomatic and ruthless, by today's standards, sometimes savage. Lorenzo however had a passion for philosophy, for art, literature, music, and dance; he is well-known as a great patron of artists whose means of survival depended entirely on wealthy and powerful supporters such as himself. What may be less know is that Lorenzo himself had a gift for poetry, and met frequently with the great minds of the day to converse about art and philosophy. He included many artists among his friends.

In the Palazzo Vecchio, which although is right next to the galleries of the Uffizi, I had never visited before, there are rooms dedicated to the Medici family members Cosimo the Elder, Lorenzo the Magnificent, his father Piero, and his son, the future Pope Leo X. These rooms are decorated with scenes from their lives. In the photos I have included below, the first is a scene of one of Lorenzo's most courageous diplomatic missions, to intercede with the ruthless and fickle King Ferrante of Naples in order to prevent Neapolitan support of a papal attack on Florence. In the second, a more relaxed and decidedly happier-looking Lorenzo is dining with a circle of talented and brilliant friends.

As I gazed at the frescos and paintings in these rooms, I realized that I may have admired them even without knowing the stories; but having read about the Medici family, I felt that I was "reading" the rooms like an illustrated text. Even the cameo of Lorenzo's brother Giuliano below the second picture of Lorenzo I have described had a particular significance. Before his murder at the hands of the Pazzi, Riario and the other conspirators, Giuliano too was a part of those intellectual gatherings. I felt fortunate to be able to see art in that intimate connection to history; I'm sure art historians take this for granted, but for me it was a revelation.

The Medici coat-of-arms is ubiquitous in the palace: six red balls in an inverted triangle. Hmmm...somewhat phallic. The role of women in 15th Century Florence was restrained.
Lorenzo interceding with Ferrante of Naples

Lorenzo in discussion with his intellectual circle
Giuliano dei Medici

Thursday, July 24, 2014

I catch up to the past

Coming back to Florence this year I felt very much at home; almost as though I had never left, except for the obvious fact that my life, and those of friends and family, have gone through twenty years of change. Florence itself has changed in clearly measurable ways. So I spent my time there in a kind of paradoxical, euphoric bubble: knowing very well that it is no longer my home, yet feeling happily at home; feeling that some things have not changed at all, while knowing that change and time have left their inexorable effects on everything and everyone. I also felt for certain that this would not be a final visit, and also that I would almost certainly live there again. These certainties still have a dream-like quality in that I have no idea of the time frame or the how of these future occurrences; the fact is, though, that the certainty removed any wistfulness from our departure and return to Florida.

One of the most wonderful parts of the trip came as soon as I arrived. My long time friend and mentor, Raimonda Ugolini, came to meet me at the airport in Bologna. We got off the autostrada and took a back route to Florence. Our first stop, strangely enough, was a cemetery for German soldiers, at which Raimonda had attended a performance of The Trojans. It is in the heart of the Tuscan hills, on a quiet peaceful slope, and represents, to me, the impermanence of the emniities that inflame our heats and cause the mindless, ineradicable destruction that we call war.  At first, I felt strange being in a place that housed so many Nazi souls, but looking at the youth of many of the soldiers, I realized that they could just as easily have been young Americans in Iraq, fighting for an illusory ideology that had the power to convince them to lose their lives. It's not for nothing that I consider Raimonda one of my great life teachers.

The stone reads,"Two unknown German soldiers"

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Home Again

While I was in India, I saw teachers writing lesson plans in minute detail, by hand. At the Bhavan's Sri Ramakrishna Vidyalaya, an assistant principal showed me a massive binder of lesson plans, including the plan for the lesson that was in progress. While I greatly admire these efforts, I am also very happy to be able to use my computer and keep my lesson plan files online, only printing out when it is really necessary.

Looking around my portable, I also noticed that while the walls were painted (an effort in which I was assisted by family and a friend) in green and yellow, I noticed that the bookshelves were the same light gray. They are now a shade of orange that I feel matches some natural flora. You know those brown rolling book carts? Okay, I covered the front in a curtain made from Rajasthani fabric. And the blinds...yellowing, broken in places, eternally dusty despite the best efforts of Mr. Talgo and his cohort, they were hardly even adequate to keep out the intense Florida light when I have film clips or pictures to show. Soooo...Hector Javier of the teacher's resource store, run by Broward Education Foundation, very kindly gave me some rolls of fabric when he found out I am a drama club sponsor. Some of the fabric I have used in the Kiva as a backdrop, but there was so much left over that I could whip together some curtains for my classroom, and then some.

This has made me reflect that while my Indian colleagues are certainly maintaining rigor in their classrooms, and the students demonstrate respect for them at all times, standing and chiming, "Good morning, Ma'am" when the teachers enter the room, the magic of a bright, friendly and print-rich classroom is mostly non-existent over there since it is the teachers who do the class change, and not the students. Color means a great deal to me, not just as an eye-pleaser, but also as a mood changer. When I finished painting, though, I noticed that somehow I had painted the Indian flag right into my classroom...

About a year or so ago, I met through e-Pals a school librarian in a rural area near Mumbai and slowly we have become friends, sharing personal as well as professional details. I suppose if I had had a choice about where I was going during my TGC fellowship, I would have visited her school. She has just written to me proposing a partnership...I really think that this reflects a characteristic of culture: that it is important to develop a real understanding between teachers before plunging into a joint project without the basis of a relationship.  To be continued...