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Home safe and sound!

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We are home safe and sound after quite a long journey home from Frankfurt via Newark and Harrisburg. We are surprised to see everything lush and in full bloom in our beautiful neighborhood. The little things are surprising us. The size of drinks at the airport (that’s a medium? looks like an extra-large to me). Ordering at McDonalds I was shocked at all the choices and had trouble placing my order. They thought I was crazy when I exclaimed with glee at being served my favorite Sugar-Free Vanilla Iced Coffee.

When we arrived home last night I groggily had trouble figuring out how to flush the toilet. I kept looking on the top of the commode. I also found my sheets and pillow to be the most luxurious linens I have ever experienced in my life.

The kids were greeted with welcome signs on the door from friends. They played with neighborhood friends today; Todd and I went on a long run. What a beautiful day. We will rest again tomorrow and head back to school on Tuesday!

More blog posts to come on our Paris leg of the trip…

Finding the school of my dreams in Bangalore

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I visited an alternative school north of Bangalore called the Creative School. I fell in love with this school–so much so that I wish I could have sent the kids here during their time in Bangalore. But it for sure would have been a totally different experience. Unlike most of the other schools that I have visited, this is a school that caters to wealthier Indian families with global interests. (Tuition is 55000 or 75000 ($1500 USD) a year.)

The focus is on the child’s emotional and spiritual well-being as much as academics. The school is in a residential/suburban setting of a house/garden. Only 30 students attend. They will meet capacity at 45 next year and are looking for a new location to meet the expanding demand.

In a class of five 9 year olds working on math problems in notebooks as they sprawled about the furniture, I heard this conversation:

Teacher: “Shankar, that answer is still not correct. I want you to go down stairs get a drink of water and take a walk in the garden. Then come back and see if you can focus on the work. Because I know that you know this problem but you cannot concentrate right now.”

When the child returned and immediately wrote the correct answer, the teacher said to him and to a girl, “Both of you came today and your bodies we feeling very cranky. We need to notice when our bodies are feeling that way and take care of it so that we can work properly. That is why we journal every morning. To get those feelings out and so that you are ready to learn. We need to work on you noticing these feelings and finding the best way to get them out of your body without me having to remind you to do so. That way you will be ready to learn.”

If only my children’s teachers here in Indiawould say and believe similar things instead of focusing on writing is a straight line and sitting up straight. No matter what!

The school does not follow a particular philosophy but takes concepts from Montessori, Steiner, Waldorf, and other traditions to design a focus that is child centered and loving and yet meets the academic demands of the ICSI the Cambridge curriculum.

I spoke with the founder for a long time. She was an executive in the IT word back in Seattle before stepping away to find her true calling. She funded an NGO to build schools in rural India called the Asha Foundation and finally moved back to India to build this school. She has currently designed it to break even. She is taking no salary and many other teachers are not either as they find their way. She is following her life’s dream of designing a school that she sees as an ideal space for learning. She is also running workshops and consulting with NGOS on how to impart life skills emotional learning and spiritual teachings (across all religions) that focus on the needs of the whole child.

I asked the founder how the Right to Education act affects her alternative school. First, she had to be certified as a Kannada medium school. She had to open up her school for inspecting and show how instruction was occurring. Most instruction occurs in English. The school is certified through grade 5 based on the Cambridge curriculum (ICSI). The school finds the Cambridge curriculum helpful in terms of a set of standards of what the children should know but they have their own ways to getting the children to those standards. Each child is known intimately.

With the RTE Act, schools must also have a certain number of “highly qualified teachers” which re defined as having education degrees. But much like Shashi Rao and Ananya, the heads of this school do not value the forms of pedagogy and beliefs that are required by the Indian Government. Thus they do not want their teachers to be working out of a traditional schooling background. This school has other individuals serve as the head teachers and the traditionally trained teachers work only as apprentices under these teachers unless/until they can unlearn much of what they learned in their training.

The third issue with RTE is the requirement of 25% of slots being filled by poor children. The founder is very interested in meeting this goal but sensitive of how to do so. She asked, “How do you have a child who lives in hut learning next to a child whose dad drives an Audi?” What supports must be given to the poor child to ensure that the child can thrive and maintain her self-esteem despite their differences? If we are going to do this it must be done thoughtfully to ensure we are helping these children and not making situation worse for them. ”

The children in the school older than standard 5 are considered to be in a coop/home schooled system. The children sit for exams as private students rather than as a school. I observed a confrontation/discussion between three of these older students, a teacher, and the cofounder of the school at the entrance of the facility. The teacher was telling the founder that these girls were not listening, coming late and otherwise being disrespectful of the class. The co-founder told the girls, “You get to choice your coursework. If this course was not a good fit for you, you need to come and talk to us and make wise choices about your learning But if you do choose to stick with a class, then you need to do so with respect and integrity of the class itself. With just two weeks left in the term, it is much too late to be having this conversation. You need to make wise choices and commit to the choices that you have made.”

The girls protested that they weren’t always talking or coming late although they admitted that they were late and talking today.

I was very impressed by the level of respect between the adults and youth in this school. The opinions of the students about their own learning were valued while standards of how to treat others were equally valued.

I talked with the founder about this tension faced in alternative schools. It as a tension that I see very visibly in Quaker schools and Quaker camps. Often the celebration of the voice of a child does not come along with norms of discourse and expectations for how to treat one another as loving and caring individuals. Individual needs trump communal caring and the place becomes a “Lord of the Flies” atmosphere. A balance is needed between community needs and respect for others with meeting individual needs. I think traditional schools often do poorly with both or tip too far in one direction or the other.

As should be when visiting a special school, I left wondering how I should be parenting differently and thinking about what I wish for my own children’s education.

Bureaucratic nightmares

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Mom and I spent the last two days registering as foreigners with the government. The experience ranged The emotions of mind numbing, confusing, exhausting, frustrating, tedious and utterly ridiculous.

I had spent hours preparing our documents for review, and already getti a taste of the madness when trying to print out the application online on,y to,have it crash at the very end each time.

When arriving on the first day, after three lines, a Duty Offucer outline all that was wrong with my papers. Much like the Amazing Race, Mom and I were challenged with the following feats:

-notarize a statement saying that mom would not earn income in India
-provide my bank records to show that I could support her
-rescan visa pages to clearly indicate arrival stamp
– revise the letter from our landlord to make his name easier to read and provide a copy of his government ID
-request a new letter from NIAS, my sponsoring institution stating my duration of stay more specifically (and dated this week–a letter from several months ago cannot be trusted)

In State College these would be challenging, let alone an unfamiliar city in India. To begin our challenge, we hoped in an “auto” (auto-rickshaw).when auto drivers see Americans they doubled or triple the price. I am developing my gasped reaction and rejection of such proposals to secure a reasonable fee. While I think we should do even better, we are getting better with our negotiations.

 

Our first stop was finding a notary. We were sent to a shopping center, but think seedy strip mall that has outdoor stalls instead of shops. After one person said we had to go to the courthouse on the other side of town, we managed to find the notary in the center. Imagine a small table with a manual typewriter in an open air corridor. He said he could have the paper tomorrow but after persistence and another 100 rupees, it would be ready in an hour.

    

While mom filled out the paperwork, I worked the cell phone. I called NIAS for a new letter and woke Todd up to send me the bank statements. Ran said that if we wanted the builder to write us another letter, it would be wise to show up with the Rs. 40,000 ($800) in cash that we owed as a deposit.

So time to take another auto to the bank. But none of our ATM cards could withdraw that much cash, so we had to use a combination of four debit and. REIT cards. Even in State College carrying $800 is silly. But we jumped in another auto…and sent him to the builder’s old address! He kept insisting that we were there at a very fancy building, and we kept insisting we were not. “french loaf!” we kept yelling, because the new address was near a “French Loaf” restaurant. Finally I tried to dial the builder’s office and handed the phone to the builder, but it turns out I had dialed NIAS. “Wrong number!” the auto driver yelled. I tried again and this time the builder gave the driver proper directions. Imagine the surprise of the driver whe. We to,s hi. To stop at what looked like a bombed out building, the builders new building was not yet finished and the first two floors were still rubble!

  

Finally we received to new letter, paid the cash, and returned back to the hotel where I printed out the documents sent by Todd and by NIAS. meanwhile, the kids had been in the hotel all day with Dada. They didn’t mind and kept busy wrestling on the beds, roaming the halls, fussing in the business center, swimming at the pool and experimenting in the fitness center. We have been here so long at they know all of the staff and have free run of the place!

Day two I was battling a minor stomach bug but we had to,press on. It was Friday and startign Monday we would be living an hour north of the city! We arrived when the FRRO opened at 9:30. Today we were permitted to received a token number and proceed upstairs (after two lines downstairs). We the proceeded to the “Scrutiny Desk.” The man continued to have trouble with our papers. For some times I told him that the duty officer downstairs approved and that seemed to work. But he remained stubborn on one item. My new letter from NIAS said I would work until April but my flight left May 2. Insufficient! I needed a new letter.


Suffice to say, the requested letter too 4 hours to arrive and be processed. We left the place with papers in hand shortly before 4– seven hours after we arrived. The photos on our papers capture our emotions of that day.

 

Prep and Landing

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Our playroom turned into packing room in the final few days--yes all of that stuff was to be packed into suitcases

Packing for a four month stay with two kiddos, two senior citizens and a mom is not a small task. Preparing to leave two days after Christmas is a bit insane. I finished Christmas prep last Friday and I’ve been in full blown India prep since (when I’m not grading papers and finishing up a few articles). Tasks in the past few days of tasks have included:
-Buying and organizing two tubs of food
-Having the kiddos try on all of the clothes in their closets to see what fits and what they are willing to wear
-Printing out every important document I might need since I will not have Internet while traveling and when we first get there
-Getting a notarized letter that declares that Todd knows that the kids are traveling internationally without him.
-Purchasing $450 in malaria and typhoid meds
-Making final doctor and haircut appointments for all
– Canceling papers, magazines, gym memberships, parking passes, etc.
-Configuring VPN on all i-touches, laptops and iPads to be able to access Netflix and hulu plus while we are abroad.
-Selecting paint colors for four rooms (to be completed while we are gone).
-Arranging meetings with teachers to discuss missed schoolwork.
-Shipping books to India via diplomatic pouch
-Helping my parents get their house ready to rent while we are away.
-Organizing going away parties for both kiddos–laser tag for the seven year old boy and an “almost” sleep over for the 10 year old girl
And so on, and so on, and so on. Count down…Two weeks!

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Food prep!
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Staging area for suitcase planning