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Book Problems

This weekend I had to move apartments…again. For those of you who are keeping count, that’s five apartments in seven years. But let’s keep the ranting for another post, shall we? Anyway, as much as I detest packing and moving, I have got to say, unpacking my personal library brings me so much joy! In the last seven years here, I’ve amassed a large collection of books, and that’s putting it mildly!

Today, I found myself killing some time in one of Sharjah’s few bookstores (The Book Mall at Qanat Al Qasba). I didn’t go in there with any specific book in mind but I did walk out with four new books to add to my collection. For those who know me well, one thing is certain, this is a pattern, something that repeats itself over and over again.

Despite the fact that I probably have way too many books and despite the fact that I am running out of room to store them, I’m absolutely not sold on the notion of purging my library by ‘giving some away’ like someone ridiculously suggested a few days ago. I don’t even fancy lending a book and I cannot even imagine what parting with them permanently would feel like.

The reason I cannot part with my books is this: a significant number of books I own are ones I haven’t read yet. Some people believe I should read all the ones I have before I purchase any new books, but I cannot help myself. There’s something so special about putting new books in a row with other books, read and unread; and then lingering over the sight of all of them lined up on a shelf waiting to be selected. I don’t know how else to explain it, but when it comes to books, there will always be more books that you haven’t read than books that you have, and a reading desire is in many ways more important than reading accomplishments, no?

My library of unread books is far more inspiring than a library of books already read. There’s nothing more exciting than finishing a book and walking over to my book shelves to figure out what I’m going to read next. So, the solution here is simple – slow down on the buying, not cut it out completely, which means things like limiting myself to one book per bookstore visit. As long as I don’t trip over those piles of books on my floor or break my back trying to transport them to my next apartment (God forbid!), it seems to me that having too many books is a pretty awesome problem to have.

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Learning Guised in Gaming – Using Minecraft in My Classroom

With the recent surge of interest in the phenomenon known as ‘gamification’, our school decided to experiment with a summer assignment using Minecraft. The announcement did raise a few eyebrows, ‘What do video games have to do with literacy skills?’ the skeptics asked. ‘They’re already too hooked to tech’, some said and since then I have also been asked occasionally to explain what gaming in an English lesson would look like. Get ready to read just that!

Can I just say that I personally love video games? I grew up playing the milder and less hostile games like Tetris, Duck Hunt, Mortal Kombat and Super Mario and cold conquer a reasonably good top score when I happened to be in the zone. Nowadays I still catch myself trying desperately to beat my brother’s top score in Temple Run. I fail miserably but the love for video games still lingers.

People today are too quick to dismiss the multiple benefits that gaming can have. Let me explain, a lot of learning can happen while students are playing games: strategic thinking, experimentation with ideas and methods, reasoning, and so many more. But that’s really not going to help students write better, is it? Actually, it might! Games like Minecraft are important to developing literacy and writing skills. Here’s how.

Minecraft essentially allows students to create almost anything their minds can conceive. The creative mode allows them the artistic license to build massive structures and designs – virtual leggo if you like! At first they might choose to build fortresses to protect themselves from monsters but as they progress their creativity kicks in and you’ll see they can create wonderful, imaginative things. In Minecraft, the students have to first envision and then create the world. Nothing happens without their planning, their imagination and their decisions — surroundings, characters, buildings and what-have-you. Using games avoids the sometimes unnecessary focus on grammar and punctuation that many kids struggle with. As a teacher, I don’t just want my students to simply read, write and punctuate, I want them to be able to imagine fantastical worlds or experience new adventures and sometimes, building a fortress, jumping into valleys and teaming up with partners in a video game can help achieve all of that too.

Once I’ve watched their Minecraft videos, I often find myself asking questions such as;

  • Describe this particular setting
  • What made you design this scene in this way?
  • How did you envision a particular situation playing out?
Eric Rajamani Grade 8 - Reflection

Eric Rajamani Grade 8 – Reflection

The answers I receive make it increasingly clear that the students’ creativity is stretched when they create or re-create worlds in Minecraft. My philosophy is simple really, if they can envisage and picture it in their minds and can create it with their hands, chances are that they’re going to be able to write it better too the next time they sit down to complete a piece of prose.

So there you have it – that’s how and why I designed our first experiment with Minecraft to scaffold reading, writing, image building and problem solving. We’ve got a long way to go with mastering gamification but I think this was a pretty awesome start!

Here are two Minecraft Videos from this summer and the students reflection thereafter.

Vaibhav Joshi Grade 9 - Reflection

Vaibhav Joshi Grade 9 – Reflection

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Assignments, Deadlines and Dirty Laundry

Studying for my Master’s degree while having a full time job is turning out to be so much more challenging that I thought. So is keeping adequate groceries in the house. Two nights ago I had popcorn for dinner, last night sushi, which I also had for breakfast this morning. I ate the last of the cheese slices just now, and the only biscuits left in the packet are the broken ones. The coffee supply is running low too. That’s when it gets really scary.

I thought I might go out for supplies this morning but I ended up calling some friends over and we walked a few blocks to Caribou for an iced Americano. I figured that counted for exercise for the day – something else that’s gone by the wayside this last week since I was away in India. I’m also behind on the laundry and am yet to unpack the two Nike duffel bags that I brought back from my trip last week. My passport and some funky trinkets from @happilyunmarried are somewhere in there too.

Why am I confessing all this in a blog post? I can’t say. Maybe I’m hoping for absolution for this unusual streak of slobbishness by the gods of the blogosphere. Or at least few murmurs of understanding from my fellow bloggers. Maybe even an offer from someone to bring over a pizza or Chinese takeaway. This has been such a hectic week and it has gone by in a blur of assignments…coffee…spreadsheets…coffee…emails…teenage drama….more coffee and more deadlines.

The good news is that the deadline for the assignments is just a few weeks away and I’m nearing the final lap. The excel spreadsheets for school keep getting more and more complicated and I have enlisted the help of someone wiser with the formulae’s to get them done. Once I’m finished with the assignments and the documentation, things will go back to normal—microwave-ready meals and fresh blog posts and lots of coffee shots

Just checking in to say that it feels good to be back in the swing of things though and I hope that all is well with you.

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Diseases of the Heart – Guest Post by Judith Narayan Vaddi

Judith Narayan Vaddi is the author of ‘Dark Shade of Black’ – a collection of 49 verses available on Amazon. I had the pleasure of spending 5 days in her classroom at a VBS many, many years ago. She remains undoubtedly one of the best teachers and genuinely good human beings I have met in my life. 

Sydney had asked me to write a bit of a bio…something I would like people to know about me and I must say I was very meflattered. I have never really looked at myself because well that was something we were never taught, to talk about oneself. So in a way, this too, is a new journey of sorts for me. :)

The one thing I am passionate about, perhaps to the point of obsession and can share unabashedly about is literature, whether it be plays or poetry or a novel. Growing up, I hardly ever played with dolls or dress up, two activities my daughter undertakes with a fierceness that surprises even me. I was always engrossed in books, nose deep in some adventure or the other, fascinated by the tales spun like magic across the inky pages of well worn, well read books.

Both my parents fed this ever growing appetite of mine and later on in school and college by my teachers and professors. So in a nutshell, writing and reading, apart from my children are then the defining and driving passions of my life.

Happy reading!

  # Diseases of the heart

Hearts that are clogged,

Valves closed

By the colour of my skin

The gender of my dress

The slant eyes of my face.

Minds that are set,

Intellects warped

By the lowness of my caste

The tattered attire of my fate

The bleakness of my estate.

Emotions that are swayed

Sentiments won

By the religiosity of my creed

Fed by the hunger, craving need

Insatiable, uncontrollable, unfathomable deeds.

Truth be told, I had intended to write about something else – the thought had come upon me as I sat and waited outside my daughter’s school just before pick up time. I saw a Traffic Sergeant bulldoze his way into why he needed to ‘fine’ us even though we park in more or less the same spot for the last seven odd months this year. There was something oddly familiar and yet at the time deeply disturbing about this scene that plays itself almost everywhere across our country.

But we’ll come to that a little later. I was struck by a question that someone asked yesterday on a social media network – are you even a … (name of an institution) girl? The person in question had some issues of her own, probably even a bad day at work or home or whatever, but the manner in which the frustration was poured out definitely left a bad after taste.

Which brings me to the question – Who am I? Am I a wife first or a mother? Am I a Hermonite or a North Pointer? An Indian or a North-east Indian? Or has been in the news lately, am I then a Hindu?

Who decides then the tags that precede us? Clearly at various points in our lives, we have introduced ourselves, with some degree of pride, as being part of an institution or church affiliation even. Trust me there is nothing wrong with that.

The danger comes when we start imposing our beliefs as to what the ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ that can be, must be associated with these tags, frowning upon the misfits, the ones that do not fit the mould.

There is a danger to that because in the end, kindnesses should matter, politeness and civility should be displayed and decency in all manner and form needs to be the thumb rule for all approaches and reproaches as well.

Having said all that, I come back to the tags by saying I am not a Loreto girl. Never was. And that is because I am also an MH girl, a Carmel Convent, an SJC girl and everywhere else that I have journeyed with my father during his tenure of service as an IPS officer.

In all of these wonderful institutions, I have made some incredible friends, met some wonderful mentors and guides and I have come away with a deep sense of gratitude for all the values that they have instilled in me. It is also true that in life’s journey, one’s intentions may not always be seen in the best of light and at best be misconstrued and opinions, as such, largely differ. What matters, however, is the manner in which it is expressed.

Too often though, the level of crassness has sunk further and further and even as our civilizations expand and grow, so unfortunately does our sense of appropriate behaviour diminish, with little thought or regard for the person on whom it is vent.

I will always be grateful to be associated with these institutions, places I have been, schools and colleges where I have studied and more so, with the people whose lives have touched mine.

But it does not for a single moment define who I am – because in the end, how we live our lives defines who we are, not a tag associated with a culture, race or even an institution.

So coming back to the Traffic Sergeant, when I look at him, I am reminded of my father, how tall his stature and unshaken his beliefs. And I am filled with a deep sense of sadness and a tinge of anger because this man will never be my father, this one who takes great pride in intimidating by virtue of his uniform.

So what do I do? Label him as a misfit, doomed to live a half-life of bribes and gaalis? I don’t think so, for that would make me no better than the others who look down upon my caste, sneer at my very obvious chinki looks and decry me for not being Loreto-ish enough…

I think I will be patient and understanding, little less pompous and ingratiating and a whole lot more tolerant. For in the end, in order for us to change how society works, thinks, behaves, we need to start with ourselves first. Always.

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Rain Dance

The following short story was my entry to the Monsoon Romance Prose Contest conducted by http://www.sulekha.com. The story now features on the Sulekha site and is awaiting moderation.

The first drops of rain that Friday morning sent people scurrying along the bustling boulevard. Office-goers darted to nearby tea stalls and department stores to keep their freshly ironed clothes from getting wet. Hawkers whizzed by each other to cover their wares with tarpaulin, their swift movements like a frenzied ballet that had been mastered over the years. Mothers held their little children tight to their sides, screaming curses at the taxis that whizzed past them, splashing puddle water on their crisp cotton sarees. Everyone was possessed with a sense of urgency to evade the cold deluge that had begun to bathe the city after weeks of stifling humidity; everyone except little Piu.

Across the street a tiny figure had emerged from under the black plastic tent that had been hurriedly set up the night before. Little Piu was all of eight years old. Her threadbare dress had a faded flower pattern that had once been a pale yellow. Her hair was matted and rough and only a shabby red ribbon kept the wisps of brown from breaking free in wild abandon. Piu stretched, rubbed her eyes and watched in surprise as the congested street transformed into a vacant avenue within minutes.

It had begun as a gentle whispering; the faint sound of drops hitting her plastic rooftop had awakened her and lured her outside. But now, the raindrops were heavier and Piu was soon drenched in the first monsoon shower. The blue sky gradually turned a dark gravel-grey. Fat raindrops danced on top of car roofs creating a mesh of wetness that filled Piu’s heart with glee. For twenty minutes, sheets of rain passed over the city, the sounds intensifying as the droplets collected on the sides of the broad street to form brown streams that seeped slowly towards the drains that ran alongside.

The little girl could not contain her excitement. She turned and twirled in delight as she tried unsuccessfully to capture the raindrops in the palms of her hands. She ran up and down the clear stretch of road with a liberty that was rare. She tried to look up at the sky but the incessant droplets forced her to keep her eyes shut. Soon her little brother and her cousin too emerged from under their plastic dwelling and the three of them danced with glee as the first monsoon rain washed over their tiny malnourished frames ; for twenty minutes their hearts were filled with mirth and the unadulterated joy of innocent childhood.

Eventually, the snaps and crackles began to weaken and the clamor of the drops soon faded into a mellow chime. The sun emerged, casting slanted beams of ochre across the rain-washed street. The glimmering puddles of water that had collected in the cracks and crevices of the tar lined roads lay still; reminding the city that the monsoons had finally arrived.

The lady under the black plastic tent began to hurriedly collect the few belongings that she had. Quickly she tied the precious plastic and aluminum paraphernalia into a bundle in an old saree. She yelled out a curt instruction in Bengali to the three children who were playing in the street outside. Soon their tiny hands were tugging expertly at the plastic strings that had held their tent together through the night. Within minutes their home and all their possessions were packed into an old jute sack. Their spot on the street looked empty and bare. It held no hint that the four of them had made it their home for one night.

The lady draped the end of her saree over her head, lifted the tiniest child onto her hip with her right hand and reached for the jute sack with the left. She began to walk as Piu and her brother followed close behind. She needed to find another place for them to sleep tonight.

As the city crept slowly back to life, Piu noticed the people cursing under their breath. Their shoes were dirty, they dusted the droplets from their big umbrellas and ranted about how the rain made everything inconvenient. They stared at their fresh clothes and scowled at the raindrops that had left dampness on them. Slowly life resumed and the day went back to normal.

As the little family of four walked on carefully maneuvering their way along the waterlogged streets of the city, nobody noticed Piu smiling to herself. While others were griping about the weather, Piu’s heart was bursting with joy. She had not had this much fun in a long time and she prayed secretly that the heavy rains would come again. Soon.

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Jacobean For Life

jaco

I cried.

Despite Ms. Susan Brown’s comforting looks and assurances, I cried the day my parents first left me in Nursery B. Over two decades later as I sit here knocking away at the keys on my laptop I can feel my eyes moistening again. I begin to reminisce, I think of the box locked away in my room in Calcutta filled with memorabilia and memories of my fourteen years in St James’. While those memoirs remain stashed away in a cardboard box, I cannot begin to articulate the gratitude I carry each day and how much it means to me, to have had the St. James’ School experience.

How does one capture the essence of growing up in a school like St. James’? A simple walk down memory lane or a patchwork of phrases strung together will never really suffice. Looking back, I wonder if my parents knew the wheels they were setting in motion when they enrolled me as a pupil at St. James’ in spite of having a much easier option.

I am so proud to be a student of this great institution (I deliberately stay away from the phrase ‘ex-student’ – I’m a Jacobean for life). It gave me not only a sound education but also reinforced my family values and taught me lessons for life. I still remember my first class teacher and later a number of teachers who taught me different subjects. How can I ever forget Yasmin ma’am sharing her canteen food with me or Mrs. Joseph’s cold stare when I happened to say the S word or even Mr. Sinha comforting me when I couldn’t make sense of my grandfather’s death.

Teachers like them were of a rare breed, very different from one another and yet special and unique in their own way. If it were not for them, I would never have been the individual that I am today; I would never have even considered becoming an educationist myself. In 2007 I got to be on the other side of the fence and teaching alongside stalwarts like Mr. Sayers, Mr. Sengupta and Mrs. Ghosh was an experience like no other. Till this day they remain my heroes!

I intentionally highlight the teachers in this message, for they are the ones who made my time at St. James’ rich and memorable. Today, most teachers see themselves as service providers but their fancy degrees and qualifications don’t always guarantee that they will make a difference in the lives of their pupils. The secrets to ‘what makes a good teacher’ continue to be more complex than ancient alchemy and yet the mentors I remember fondly from my years in school had it down to an art and I salute them for it!

Forgive my verbosity, but I could wax eloquent about my alma mater and it would still never be enough. Every summer I make my way back to school for a brief visit. Today the colour of the walls are different, the parent shelter looks strange without the red cement benches, the field is not as I remember it (not that I spent too much time there anyway) , the faces are new and the stories are unfamiliar but while all of this reflects change and progress, there is a familiar feeling; a sense of some guiding force that still sets the school apart. A spirit that keeps every Jacobean grounded and yet gives him everything he needs to soar and achieve whatever he sets his mind to, just like it did 150 years ago.

Happy 150th Founder’s Day to every Jacobean, wherever you are. I hope to see many of you at the service and reunion tomorrow morning.

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Terminal Verbosity

Verbosity can be defined as the long-winded manner in which a writer will sometimes (or quite regularly) string together a number of complicated and seemingly necessary thoughts and ideas to say something rather simple that could have been said without the clutter of unnecessary wordiness in a sentence that might often confuse the reader.

;)

I apologize for that first sentence; my intention was not to give you a headache but a chance discussion with @pinktaxiblogger earlier today prompted me to think about some of my work.

Whenever I sit down to write I find that I can’t keep thoughts clutter free. No matter the content, I like to dress my reflections in complicated imagery so that readers ‘feel’ what I might have felt in a moment or to simply give my ideas some texture.  Often times though, I think it gets too much….too heavy but I don’t know how to make my thoughts staccato.

While bloggers don’t really need to consider word limits, I’m forced to consider how my students manage to work within the stringent guidelines we give them when they’re attempting a piece of writing. Ditto to writers and authors who have to strike a balance between reaching a healthy word count and still keep their editors and publishers from falling asleep on their laptops! Editing is a core skill for anybody interested in writing and I surely need to sharpen mine.

Verbose authors bring to mind the stories of Austen, Dickens, Tolkein, and even George Martin (A Game of Thrones) and while I do love their works, there were times when I zoned out of the narratives only to be sucked right back in when it got more interesting. They’re still geniuses though. Just Saying.

Anyway, I know several of you who read these posts are writers yourselves and I’d like your help in deciding where I stand on this. I don’t want to be stuck with a case of terminal verbosity. So, how do you deal with garrulity? Do you prefer staccato sentences or the wordy ramblings that give you vivid details every single time?

Where do you stand?

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