The Montessori Method in Chennai Corporation Schools

I ask for some leeway.  I didn’t actually go to the event I describe below on my bicycle, even though I did briefly flirt with the possibility of doing so.  I was instead taken there in a (gasp!) car. But the story needs to be told, all the same.

Amidst the seeming chaos, a lot of good things are happening in Chennai.  One such is an educational project that is happening in some schools run by the Chennai Municipal Corporation, these are of course schools whose students come from the poorest of the poor.  There are various people and organizations making this happen, chief among them being Sri Ramacharan Trust (SRCT: http://www.sriramacharan.org/).  But SRCT is not alone.  Key officers of the Chennai Corporation, dedicated headmistresses and teachers, and CMTC, an organization that trains Montessori teachers, are all behind the effort.

The project is to provide Montessori based education to kindergarten children in Corporation schools. It appears to be a fancy term, but the principles of this education are those that most readers of this blog would have practiced naturally with their own children.  The Montessori system is predicated on respect for the child’s innate abilities.  The belief is that the child comes automatically equipped with the ability to learn, to be focused, to be disciplined, and to make rational choices, and that education in the early years should consist of simply facilitating this intrinsic capacity for learning.  As such, preschool education in this system consists of giving the child guidance on certain enabling behaviors, and then teaching basic skills merely by example, letting the child emulate them of its own.  The child is given a wide range of activities that it can choose, and is allowed to spend large blocks of uninterrupted time doing these activities. The focus is on experiential and tactile learning using specially developed teaching materials. Later, the child is taught language and arithmetic, with an emphasis on phonetics and visual learning.  The child is allowed freedom of movement in the classroom, subject to its not encroaching on another child. (All this contrasts with the usual way even very young students are taught in many schools in Chennai: they are made to sit in rigid rows at desks and simply regurgitate lessons delivered by authoritarian teachers.)

SRCT perfected the art of delivering this sort of education in one specific Corporation school in Saidapet that it had adopted early on, thanks to the cooperation of an earlier commissioner of education who was a very dynamic individual. Working with children in the age group of two and a half to five, and with the help of teachers trained by a private organization called Center for Montessori Training Chennai (CMTC), they have produced a corpus of kindergarten students trained in this method, who have since gone on to first, second, third, and in a few cases, even higher grades.  For these grades, students only have traditional classrooms to go to.  However, there is enough anecdotal evidence that students trained in the Montessori method retain in traditional classrooms certain key behaviors that are predictors of success: discipline, attention span, sensitivity to others, orderliness, care for the environment, and so on. Many of these students become favorites of their teachers later on.

Thanks to a series of very friendly commissioners of education in the Chennai Corporation, including in particular the current Joint Commissioner, this sort of learning in the kindergarten stages has had backers in the higher echelons of city administration.  Impressed by the work of SRTC in their Saidapet school, the Chennai Corporation has recently agreed to implement the Montessori method in forty more schools!  It has sent kindergarten teachers in these schools to CMTC for specialized training.  In addition, in six other schools, in a tripartite agreement between the Corporation, Cognizant (a software company) and SRCT, SRCT is helping mentor Corporation teachers in the Montessori method, with Cognizant providing the materials, and the Corporation providing a beefed up physical environment.

I visited one such place where this sort of mentoring is going on, a Corporation school in KK Nagar. A very open and dynamic headmistress Sujatha makes this possible.  She is an advocate of the Montessori method, and talks it up in meetings with other headmasters and headmistresses whenever she can. Here she is: Image

and here is the playground of her school: Image

And here is one of the Montessori classrooms I visited:Image

The Montessori method had been adopted in this school just this academic year, which was only nineteen days old when I visited.  So, these kids pictured here were only nineteen days into the program, and for most of them, it was the first time they had left home.  (It took a couple of days to calm them down, Sujatha amusedly recounted: they would cry incessantly and insist that the teachers phone their parents and ask them to come and get them, and many would try to give phone numbers, sometimes getting it wrong–these were kids who were as little as two and a half years old!)

I was quite amazed to see the discipline and the quiet focus in these children, just nineteen days away from home.  One of the first exercises they learn is to roll and unroll their work mats: they go over to the storage area, pick up a mat, pick a spot on the floor where they would not intrude on anyone else, and lay their mats.  They also pick an activity.  In some places kids were working with paper and scissors, learning to wield scissors, lay the pieces in a holder, etc.  In other places, kids were playing with jigsaw puzzles. In yet others, with blocks.  In one case, a kid was slicing carrots. All by themselves, with minimal intrusion from the teacher. (Earlier, they had been given demonstrations of these activities, of course.  Also, they get gentle guidance from the teacher if they are stuck: the teacher is constantly wandering around the classroom.) Each of these activities has a series of corresponding behaviors that is built into it, for instance, after each carrot or paper cutting activity, the child knows to get a broom and dustpan, sweep up the work area, and drop the trash into the wastebasket.  (I was quite impressed: one kid, who could have been no more than three years old, had a really runny nose.  So he gets up, goes over to where his lunch basket is stored on a shelf, picks out a handkerchief from the basket, wipes his nose, and then returns to his play area, all entirely of his own without anyone telling him to do this!  Independence is a key trait of kids trained under this method.)

The activities are grouped into various levels: the lowest level consisting of activities which would be similar to what the child would have seen at home, and the highest ones developing and then building on sensory and motor skills.  Phonetics and number sense come with these highest sets of activities. Some kids had already progressed to this level in nineteen days.

Your correspondent has interacted for nearly a decade with the good people at SRCT.  He belongs to a small mom-and-pop US based charity that raises funds for such projects in India (he is the mom).  He is encouraging SRCT to expand their mentorship model to the remaining 40 Corporation schools that have adopted the Montessori method, so that this method gets effectively absorbed into the DNA of these schools rather than get lost without guidance. To expand to more schools, SRCT needs to raise sufficient funds, train enough additional teachers, and so forth.  There is thus some preparatory work involved.

I leave you with a video of one of these mat rollers.  Happily, he turned out to be a namesake!

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Bicycling to IIT. But First, Some Honesty.

This chronicler has a professional duty to be honest.  While spinning breezy tales of bicycling bravura, he must also show what it really feels like to bicycle Chennai.

And the fact is that cycling in Chennai is downright unpleasant. That’s simply the truth.  Chennai, like any other city in India, is incredibly filthy, smelly, crowded, noisy, and chaotic, with crumbling to non-existing infrastructure and air pollution levels that leave one choking and gasping for breath.  Away from a few prime spots, Chennai resembles a war zone.  And on a bicycle, you see, hear, and smell (especially smell) all this very intimately, something you would not do if you drove by in a car or even whizzed by on a motorcycle.

There, I have said it.  That’s the honest truth.

The trick is to try to understand what would cause a population of such incredibly smart and talented people to allow their immediate environment to be so degraded.  But that is a serious question, and while casting about for necessarily serious answers, some other strategy is needed to cope with the immediate horror of the surroundings.  Perhaps diving deep into one’s spiritual self is the answer. (I certainly try to do just that, and it helps me immensely.)

Some random images of what you will see as you cycle:

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(The presence at the back of the trash bin is noteworthy.  When provided at all, facilities are just not enough for the population.)

DSC01834 (This was on a sidewalk; the amazing thing is that a sidewalk existed in the first place)

And a random movie of my Bike Friday and I in traffic, trying to keep at bay fumes of unburnt hydrocarbons from idling motorcycles and poorly tuned diesel engines (that black handlebar you see in the beginning belongs to my Bike Friday, I was steering with my left hand while taking this movie with my right, do not try at home).  Again, you will have to believe me when I say that traffic was actually light at this time:

It was with considerable relief therefore that I pedaled into my alma mater IIT Madras this morning, to visit my classmate and current IIT professor Devdas Menon and his wife Roshni.  IITM is an oasis: densely wooded, clean, with deer and monkeys and birds and butterfles floating around like the land belongs to them (which, if you think about it, it did at one time, and it should for eternity). I had breakfast with them: Roshni makes a mean dosai.

While having breakfast, I wondered what it was that I was feeling after a long time, and it suddenly struck me: normalcy. There was tranquility, and a sense of order.  Exactly like what I have gotten used to, lo these thirty two years in the west.  Clearly, life inside IITM is very different from life in the rest of India.

After breakfast, Devdas took me to his terrace, which lies in the shade of a huge banyan tree, pictured below. The tree is situated in the middle of a deer corridor, and at most times, deer can be found lying in its shade.  As I sat up there on the terrace, under the banyan tree, a mango tree off to the side, deer wandering in and out, monkeys by the fence, butterflies flitting about, a feeling of serenity enveloped me.  A feeling I was grateful for.

When I pedaled away from his home, my path was blocked by a gigantic deer that was crossing the road, and I had to wait for it politely to pass.  My camera battery had unfortunately died just a few moments ago, so I couldn’t take a picture of that particular deer, but here are a handful of other pictures from the campus.

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(The banyan tree outside Devdas’ house)

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I will end with a little plug for Devdas.  He’s a highly nontrivial dude, with a strong spiritual bent.  (Disclaimer: It was he who got me started on my own spiritual path.) He has his own website at http://www.devdasmenon.com/index.html

The Murukku and my Bike Friday

Any Chennai resident would know the murukku, pictured here a trois:

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Just as the dosai represents the pinnacle of tiffin, the murukku is the king of snacks.  It is made mostly of rice, with a little bit of urad dal thrown in.  My mother says she’d grind about seven parts of rice along with about one part of (roasted) urad dal to make the batter for the murukku, often using even a slightly higher proportion of rice to dal.  She’d throw in asafetida and cumin and salt. And then comes the hard part, the laying down of the murukku before frying.  As you can see, it has a pretty intricate shape.  There are two independent twists going on.  You take some batter in your hand, close your fingers around it, and then squeeze out the batter onto an oiled banana leaf, feeding out a small stream in between the thumb and forefinger. You twist your fingers as if you were screwing in the cap of your toothpaste tube, and simultaneously, you move your wrist in ever widening circles, so the batter is laid out as a spiraling spiral.  Then you lift the laid out batter carefully from the banana leaf and deep fry it till it is golden.

Laying the batter out is an art form, and not all are blessed with this skill.  My grandmother (who at 98 is mentally still sharp as a razor) used to be pretty good at it.  Not for aught is this known in full as the kai murukku (or “hand murukku”). There are other (lesser) murukkus, where the batter is shaped by a press, in other words by a mere gizmo, before it is fried.  Purists should scoff at these.

But as with all fine skills of life, this art form is being practiced less and less in people’s homes, as people’s lives get more and more busy.  Conservative maamis who would never allow food from outside into their homes now simply buy their murukkus from the market.

Grand Sweets and Snacks are reputed to have the best murukkus in Chennai.  Indeed, I used to make special trips to Adyar ten years ago, just before I’d head back to the US, buying a few kilos at a time. They add tons of butter to their batter (butter-to-their-batter, that should be in a song somewhere), which made their murukkus irresistible. But that was then, when there was only one Grand Sweets, and that was in Adyar.  Since then, they’ve adopted the franchise model, and can be found everywhere in Chennai.  Within a kilometer radius of my mother’s flat there are two, for instance.  As with Starbucks, there has been brand dilution, and quality dilution.  The old Adyar GSS proudly employed only women, but these new franchisees not only have men, but, in the case of the GSS closest to our house, Nepali men. Sacrilege! The holy murukku, emblem of Tamil culture, purveyed by Nepalese!

I prefer to get my murukkus from Suswaad instead.  A much smaller outfit, just down the street from my mother’s flat, with less commercial ambitions, and a friendly small store ambience.  Moreover, they don’t seem to add any butter to their batter, which is actually a good thing, and they make quite an effort to spin out the oil after frying. So, their murukkus are not greasy at all.  The thing that seals the deal for me though is their advertisement right outside their shop:

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That’s a cute and lovable Tamil Brahmin there, replete with kudumi and sacred thread! (Do they repaint the thread on this advertisement every avani avittam, the time of the year when Tamil Brahmins change theirs?) He’s kinda like the Pilsbury dough boy: who wouldn’t want to buy a murukku from this tubby TamBrahm?

But what’s all this got do with my bicycle you wonder?  Well actually, everything. You see, ever since I landed, I have been eating murukkus like they are going out of fashion.  I wake up and eat them first thing in the morning with my coffee.  A few hours later I wander into the kitchen and grab a few. I round out lunch with a couple, then have a few more for tiffin.  I don’t end the day with at least a couple more. And of course, when I go over to my grandmother’s home, she gives me a few murukkus with coffee.  I am concerned that with all this ingestion of murukku, I am going to put on weight not in itsy-bitsy ounces and pounds, but in kilos.  After much effort on my part (i.e., drinking lots of red wine), I just got my cholesterol down to 200, the first time ever that it has been down at this level since I started testing for it.  I am really concerned that my lipid count will be all shot to hell with this murukku intake.  So what is a guy to do?  Not eating murukkus is simply not possible.  There is only one other viable option—get on your bike and GO!  Exercise is the only weapon against hyperlipidemia.  And so:

Off I go everyday,

Pedaling my trusted Bike Friday,

Exploring these environs,

Chronicling these Chennaians,

And hoping these murukkus will simply go away.

The Cooum (or is it the Koovam? or Kuvam perhaps?).

If you ride in Chennai, it is kinda hard to miss it.  A ribbon of sewage that flows through much of the interesting parts of the city, emptying into the Bay of Bengal at Marina Beach. Egmore is where I encountered it up close and personal this visit. It is typical of India that you see modern gleaming structures cheek-by-jowl with the most depressed downtrodden dirty habitations possible.  Check this out:

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I was pedaling along Ethiraj Salai (“Salai” = Road in Tamil) when I came upon this scene. That is your modern gleaming structure looming tall in the back, probably home to some software company, and that’s the wall of sewage (aka the Cooum) in the middle, and that’s your debris laden patch in the foreground, probably already appropriated by some goon for some illegal construction. What is really really sad is something you can see in this semi-closeup:

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If you look closely, under the pink building, you will see a number of low lying structures of unfinished brick. Those are slums.  People live there, right along the Cooum.  They use the Cooum as a public bathroom, they cook along its side, their kids grow up playing on the banks, that is their home. It is easy to feel disgusted, but think about them, particularly those kids. What kind of environment is that to grow up in?  What lifelong diseases are these kids going to harbor?  How much child mortality would there be in such surroundings? Yet, these people have no choice.  They are at the bottom of the economic pile, with just enough resource to survive, and none whatsoever to move elsewhere.

Now giant slums around the world—Dharavi in Mumbai, the Favelas in Rio, Kibera in Nairobi—have been written about in plenty and their praises have been sung widely.  Those are buzzing hives of energy, with enough small-scale manufacturing and service activities to make them economic powerhouses.  But somehow, I don’t think these slums along the Cooum fall into the same category. I doubt that there is anything to celebrate or praise here.

The Cooum is actually a river, and at one time, it was apparently even clean.  That fount of knowledge, Wikipedia, has much to say about it. Apparently it figured in Roman trade with the port of Mylapore, and wine jars and Roman and Chinese coins have been found by archaeologists along its banks.  Anyway, check out Wikipedia for yourselves: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cooum_River

Continuing with the theme of disparities living side-by-side, I swung around 180 degrees from where I took the picture above, and I shot this picture:

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Yup, the Radisson.  They charge $100 a night for that view of the Cooum from their bedrooms. The actual residents of the Cooum, those with the unfinished brick buildings as addresses, get by on $2 a day.

I’d chosen to ride on Ethiraj Salai because just the day before, my friend Raj’s daughter’s wedding had taken place at one of the marriage halls close by this road, and so, when riding along Mount Road, I had simply turned my wheels towards this hall.  To continue along Ethiraj Salai after passing by the hall was but natural.  Riding along, I discovered that there are two women’s colleges in the area (one of which lends its name to the road): Quaid-e-Millath college and Ethiraj College.  I have family members who went to Ethiraj college, so I certainly knew about it, but I believe this is the first time I’d even realized where it is located.  (And no, I hadn’t known before riding on it that day that there is a street called Ethiraj Salai, otherwise I would have realized where the college was, of course.)

It wasn’t all slums that day.  I hung a right after taking those photos above on to Pantheon Road, and on a short flyover, I discovered a stunningly beautiful building that I could see through the treetops.  It was the Government Museum.  The traffic was too heavy and there was no natural shoulder for me to stop the bicycle and take pictures, but I intend to come back. I was awarded a consolation prize just a few meters ahead however (I mostly think metric when in India, although not all the time): a charming colonial era building that turned out to be a hospital for women:

ImageChennai is full of interesting buildings like this.  But you gotta look beyond the surface clutter. They seem to all date back to British times though.  It is almost as if the natives (as the British called us) were a little too confused after centuries of colonization, and were thrust a little too suddenly into the modern era, that their creative energies all went underground.  Sadly, those creative energies do not seem to have resurfaced in the municipal arena (although they are certainly going gangbusters in many other fields: films and music immediately come to mind).

More such buildings, undoubtedly, in future posts.

America is officially NUTS! (You listening, NSA?)

That’s right, NUTS.

So, I’m riding peacefully along the Gemini flyover.  Those familiar with Chennai would know that the American consulate sits right under the flyover.  Now, the Chennai consulate is what launched my own immigration to America over thirty years ago by issuing me a student visa, and as such, it is of interest to me.  I look over the side of the flyover, and I see a long line of people winding its way by the wall, on the Mount Road side of the consulate. Clearly aspirants to visas to the US.  I identify with them: I stood in such a line thirty-two years ago myself (thirty-two is a power of 2, but I digress). So with a warm fellow feeling, I stop pedaling, and start to take some pictures of the line and the consulate behind.  Suddenly, a private security dude starts to wave me away excitedly.  Clearly, he doesn’t want me to take pictures of the situation. I am several feet over the line of aspirants, and several feet away, on the flyover.  Hardly in any position to harm anyone.  Besides, the flyover is a public place, chock-a-block with traffic.  I ignore the fellow, and continue with my camera.  I discover that I have accidentally put it into video mode, and therefore, I end up taking a video of the situation.  I decide to swing the camera around, and take a video of the traffic on the flyover.  But the security dude, excited kid, continues to wave at me and shoo me away.  I’m very far from him, up on the flyover, so I kinda ignore him, but he gets insistent.  Soon, he calls over some cops and they look up at the flyover and motion me to come down.  This is India—you don’t want to take cops too seriously, they will always try to pull their weight in that childish, decidedly unprofessional manner of all officials in India.  And besides, I was far from them on the flyover and they were on foot. So, I didn’t take the cops too seriously—I just waved at them and made some vague gestures that could have suggested that I’m moving forward.  But that said, I decided I would not ignore them either—who knows, perhaps they had a direct line to the consular officer inside, who perhaps had a direct line to Kerry, who might have sent a drone over to check me out, which perhaps would have shot a missile at me, which might have incinerated me but almost certainly would have incinerated those seventy-three people on the bus next to me, none of whom were armed with cameras and none of whom therefore were enemy combatants.  So I stopped my movie-making and pedaled away along the flyover.

How ridiculous can America get? At some small outpost consulate somewhere halfway around the world, a guy riding a bicycle on a flyover over which maybe a quarter-million people might pass on a given day stops to take some pictures, and security guards and police get all excited and try to shoo him away?  And what good will that do anyway? There must be a dozen satellites in the sky taking pictures of the consulate anyway, and most of those pictures will be in the public domain. One attack twelve years ago, and America has become a miserable frightened nation, descended mightily from its former glory. No beacon of freedom this, no shining city on the hill, just one giant whimpering wuss. What a shame.

(You listening, NSA?)

I share with you that video.  The joker in the hoodie at the right is the said security guard. At t=27, or thereabouts depending on youtube’s mood,  you may hear me try to brush him off, not that he could hear me of course.  Check out the traffic on the flyover—believe me, by Chennai standards it is light.

Chennai is small!

The first time I rode in Chennai, I was amazed at how small and un-intimidating the city really is.  So, it is not like I’m new to Chennai, in fact, quite the contrary.  I was born here. I spent three of my first five years here.  I came here religiously every summer during my school days.  And, I did my undergraduate studies here (although, “studies” is a fancy term). Somehow, the impression I have had of Chennai is one of size and distance: the heart of Mount Road is so far from my mother’s place in T.Nagar, the Gemini flyover (which took eons to build) is so high, the beach is at infinity,  etc. etc.  Perhaps these were the impressions formed as a five year old child that never got erased.  (Okay Okay, the said flyover didn’t get started till I was eight years old, but you get the point.)

All these impressions of distance and size got shattered during my first ride on my Bike Friday.

In five minutes of riding from home I was on the Gemini flyover.  In a couple of minutes I was at its peak, it felt no more like a bump in the road.  (I huff and puff much more on stretches of Rinaldi in the Valley.)  In another five minutes I was at the heart of Mount Road: Spencer Plaza, VTI, LIC, etc.  And, in about ten more minutes, I’d reached “infinity:” I was on Marina Beach. I was thrilled!

Sure, I’ve been over all these stretches by car, in fact, I used to drive here myself.  A car eats up the miles (at least when traffic is light), and Chennai would not have appeared large from a car. But I suspect the impressions you form from a car are subconsciously tagged by the psyche as “unreal” since they take place at speeds that I think the brain has not yet evolved to be at home in. So, I believe my psyche gave emphasis to my childhood sense of the scale of Chennai and disregarded contrary impressions I may have obtained by driving.

A bicycle, by contrast, is something that I suspect our brains can handle quite comfortably.  I think that both the speed and the level of mechanization are just within our evolutionary comfort zones. Therefore, the recalibration of scale that occurred during that first ride seemed quite “real” to me.  I think I will carry the new impressions of Chennai’s size permanently.

This is the magic of a bicycle.  It shrinks distances, but in a human way.

I leave you with a couple of photographs of Marina Beach (taken on a subsequent ride).

ImageThat’s a statue of the poet Subramanya Bharatiyar in the foreground. Illiterate as I am in Tamil–did I mention that it is my mother tongue?–I haven’t sampled his wares, but from the description of his work and values at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subramanya_Bharathi  it seems that he’d have been my kinda dude. My loss for not being able to read him.

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More on Marina Beach later.

She’s here!

My Bike Friday appears to be intact!  I set it up yesterday, without the rack, and took it for a spin around Chennai.

For those new to the doings of he who my wife thinks of as The Crazed One (!), I recently invested in a high quality touring bicycle. It has a key feature that is of much value to me: it can be dismantled and carried around the world in a regular suitcase.  And that is what I did with it. I dismantled it in LA and brought it with me to Chennai.

It is manufactured by Green Gear Cycling, better known as Bike Friday (http://www.bikefriday.com/), of Eugene, Oregon. They make customized bicycles. They ask you for your height and weight and inseam, along with various measurements on any current bike that you are happy with, and then design the bike specifically to fit you. Their bikes go by the Bike Friday moniker: my model is called Bike Friday New World Tourist. (Aptly.) All their bikes are designed to both ride very comfortably, and to fit into a regular suitcase after some not too major dismantling.

Quite nifty!  Here she was in LA, before packing (of course she’s a she):

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And here she is, packed into a Samsonite F’Lite 30 suitcase (Yup, that’s the whole bike in there):

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And here she is, reassembled in Chennai, without the rack (I’ll put that and other doodads on later).  The picture was taken in front of my mother’s flat, after I returned from my first ride:

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Matters look promising!