The courtyard at one of the schools I visited.

1. Poetry in the Indian schools serves a different function than in my classroom in the United States. Because English is being taught as a second language here, poetry is a tool for pronunciation and diction. Therefore, the methods are different.

Once, consoling me about my frustration the bureaucracy of school, a poet-friend argued creative writing is the only class where students get to be human.  In the United States, one view is that English class is the place to slip humanity into a system that values income at the expense of art. I’ve had many gifted math and engineering students eschew the study of literature. They already know English. Why, they ask, would studying something they already know be worthwhile?

In India English is a necessary step. In one classroom a poster read, “ENGLISH CONNECTS PEOPLE! WELCOME!” It’s the language most likely to be shared by speakers of Indian languages. Even the students interested in engineering must know English, and poems and stories are the tools by which one learns the language; therefore, there’s less overt resistance to studying a poem or story. The poem or story has value because English itself has value.

My observation, of course, is clouded by the fact that Indian students do not argue with teachers, while American students are expected (and even pushed to). Compliance with a teacher’s requests doesn’t necessarily signify agreement in a culture where respect for authority is important. I’ll learn more as I go.

Even in the short time I’ve been here, I’m struck by how sad it is that students in the United States aren’t offered a second language K-12.

2. Student behavior is so different here. The first class I observed had seventy students. Shoulders pressed together, they sat on benches and shared books. No wiggling. All pages turned at the correct time. Sometimes the teacher says, “Take this down,” and they do. I ask an education professor later, “Do you teach classroom management? Do you even have the same word for classroom management?” She tells me not really.

3. In her book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo, describes Manju’s education in this way:

“Today’s assignment was eighteenth-century Restoration drama and Congreve’s The Way of the World. Manju hadn’t read The Way of the World,  nor did her professors expect her to. Except in the best colleges, dominated by high-caste, affluent students, Indian liberal arts education was taught by rote. At her mediocre all-girls college, founded by the Lion’s Club, she was simply required to memorize a summary the teacher provided for each literary work on the syllabus, then restate it on the test and, later, on state board exams.”

Manju lives in Annawadi, a Mumbai slum. Classes I’ve visited have been in long-established Catholic schools in French-influenced Pondicherry. India contains multitudes of worlds.

Sitting for exams.

In this world, teachers walk the students though the poem stanza-by-stanza, modeling close reading and closing out comments on each stanza, asking, “Do you understand that stanza, children?” The class always answers in chorus, “Yes, Miss!” There’s an emphasis on vocabulary and detailed attention given to an author’s use of literary devices. Advanced Placement English Literature teachers in the United States are sent to AP Institutes where we’re taught methods for close reading (the literary critical kind, not the Common Core kind). AP Institute’s TPS-FASTT minus the ubiquitous handouts and advance organizers is a close approximation of how poems are presented in India.

4. No hands are raised. No one kneels on their seat, squirming out of their chair, in a full-body expression of pick me, pick me. Answers are provided in chorus. To signal it is time to answer the teacher subtly changes his or her tone of voice and the class calls out together. When a student asks me how Indian students are different, I mention this. She tells me, “We are trained in this from kindergarten.”

5. No teacher has quietly confessed, “I just don’t get poetry,” a common confession in the United States. As a poet, I find it disheartening how often English teachers tell me they either don’t like or don’t understand poetry. In India, teachers are quick to tell me their favorite poet, with that rapturous look that poetry fans get when talking about poems they love. In each class the “beauty” of the language in the poem is pointed out to the students. Beauty is treated as valid, worthy, admirable. I can’t recall hearing that in a United States classroom.

6. Poems (and other literature) are presented as morally instructive. So often I’ve heard poems described as offering a perspective on how to be a good person. What’s valued is kindness, compassion, selflessness, loyalty. Teachers will point out the language in a poem that encourages these values and encourage students to reflect quietly on these values in their own lives.

In one class, a middle school teacher had written on the board, “Life is a race and I can win at any cost.” He told the class, “This is not correct. We need to make sure we do not win at the expense of other people,” then shared a story about runners in the Special Olympics who helped each other to cross the finish line. This may be Catholic school, but in Boo’s book, there was a description of a teacher in a juvenile jail who often waxed morally philosophical.

7. Indian teachers seem to focus more on language, theme, and symbol. Unites States teachers rely more on narrative. I observed a teacher at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram working closely with a few students on The Merchant of Venice. They focused on speeches by different characters, analyzing metaphor and image. In the United States, standard practice for Shakespeare is plot-driven: trials in which students argue who might be guilty of Ophelia’s death, mini-theatre performances, iMovies. I hadn’t considered before the difference between plot-driven and language-driven instruction.

8. Creative writing is not taught in the schools I’ve visited so far. Poems are for reading, memorizing, analyzing, and appreciating. Writing poems is happening somewhere else. I’m going to see if I can find out where and how.

An Indian teachers' schedule kept in his wallet.
An Indian teachers’ schedule kept in his wallet.

9. Indian teachers have “no-prep-days” too. Take a look at this photo of a teacher’s schedule. He keeps it in his wallet. As he explains the seven period schedule to me, I say, “Oh, Thursday you teach all day with no break. We call that ‘no-prep-day.”

“We do to!” he says laughing. “That’s that day that you take leave if you have to.” Teachers around the world are not so different. No-prep-day is the day to schedule the dentist appointment all over the world.