September 4, 2013 in Archive: Past Education Blogs, Closing the Gap, Poverty by United Front

American Student Learns Valuable Lessons

by MaryBeth Zins

As the summer draws to a close and I prepare to return to finish my last year of undergraduate studies at University of Wisconsin – Madison, I reflect on a great opportunity that I had this summer as part of a three-week volunteer trip to India. I know not all young people and children around the world are returning to the same circumstances as me – not all schools are created equal, but witnessing first-hand the vast inequalities around the world is eye-opening and enlightening.

Sector 3, Faridabad, IndiaDuring my visit I very quickly learned the first rule of India: there is always more. There is always more room, more time, more people, more food, more prayer. But sadly, for Indian school children, there may not be more school supplies, more seats in the classroom, or more teachers to teach them. Three other female volunteers and I were placed to teach English in Little Angels Public School in Faridabad, 25km south of New Delhi. The 15-minute walk to school from our home stay was an adventure in itself as we sidestepped cows, bicycles, burning piles of trash, stray dogs, and bathing men and children.

India classroom

Little Angels Public School, Sector 3, Faridabad

The daily temperature was 115 degrees Fahrenheit, permitting school only to take place between the hours of 7am and 11am during the summer months. We entered the dark, two room, concrete-walled school house with over 40 smiling, sweaty faces looking up at us. The three teachers, none of whom spoke English, came and went as they pleased and imposed their authority in the form of a liberally-used wooden stick. The two classrooms were divided between the young children and the more advanced children; however there was a 12 year old in the young classroom and a 3 year old in the advanced room. Mixed ages make group instruction very ineffective and the random assortment of children possess different levels of comprehension and skills. Each child has two notebooks if they’re lucky, one for English and Hindi and one for math. As volunteers, we assigned each child individualized English and math classwork plus homework each day, while the teacher assigned separate Hindi homework. Teaching English and knowing only a few words of Hindi was challenging in knowing whether the child truly comprehended the vocabulary, or was just able to regurgitate the letters and pronunciation. It was also challenging to determine what level the children are learning at without being able to ask them and to push them to the next level. The daily three hour whirlwind ended as we exited the school into the 115 degree baking sun that feels like a breath of fresh air in comparison to the stifling concrete walls of the school.

To this day, I struggle with what to think about my experiences as a whole. Many of the American school programs that I have been involved in place strong emphasis on children being ready to learn, whether that means having adequate shelter, a safe home environment, healthy food or developmentally appropriate social emotional skills. Meanwhile, the children attending slum schools in India may not have eaten anything more than scraps for days, wear the same tattered clothes each day and have their heads shaved bald because of rampant head lice and mysterious healing sores. By no means are the children in an Indian slum school excelling in the American sense of the word, but they come to school six days a week, 11 months a year, with such positive attitudes and an honest desire to learn. However, the harsh reality is that because of the caste system and lack of social mobility, most of the children will likely remain in the slums their entire lives.

I still think about my experiences in India and the school each day and am thankful to be able to return home and appreciate the conveniences that we are afforded as Americans. We are able to focus on disparities in our education system, investing millions of dollars to close the achievement gap and provide access to out-of-school time programming, rather than having to lay the logistical groundwork of having a school that exists and a teacher to teach in it. As we gear up for back to school, I firmly believe, now more than ever, in the power of the school system and its ability to provide children with opportunities to create a better life.

MaryBeth Zins, community impact intern, United Way
Senior at University of Wisconsin – Madison studying Human Development & Family Studies