The Perse School

Thoughts on an Indian Summer…

Since 2011, The Perse has supported the Christel House Foundation, a charity which transforms impoverished children’s lives through running schools which serve some of the most deprived communities of the world. As well as providing quality education, pupils have access to nutritious meals, healthcare, life-skills training and work-study opportunities, and has helped over 3,000 children worldwide.

We support the Foundation through a wide range of activities, from sending Perse teachers to a Christel House school to share expertise and experiences each year, to raising funds through charitable activities (almost £5,000 has been raised to date), to participating in joint educational projects. This collaboration is hugely rewarding and inspiring for staff and pupils of both organisations.

In July, two Perse teachers travelled to India to work at Christel House in Bangalore. Here, Director of Teaching and Learning Deborah Vernon Purvis blogs about her experience.

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Given that my usual journey to work is a leisurely cycle ride through Cambridge’s green spaces, the morning commute in the Bangalore rush hour to Christel House School was always going to come as something of a shock. The maelstrom of traffic travelling in all directions, the flagrant disregard of signage reading somewhat hopefully, “We don’t honk our horns”, and the all too close encounters with auto rickshaws, overloaded buses, open trucks with workers hanging precariously off the sides and stray cows, proved to be a very different experience.

Along the way, the vignettes of Indian life we saw were an introduction to the context of the school where Perse art teacher Anne Cunningham and I were to be working for the next ten days; barefoot children on their way to school, worshippers gathering outside the brightly painted temples, women searching through the rubbish piles with baskets on their heads, a whole family washing from an empty paint tub on the roadside. We quickly realised that our teaching skills would need adapting to this challenging environment if our visit was to be successful.

The Perse has supported Christel House Schools for a few years now, believing strongly in their vision that education is the way to lift the next generation out of poverty and empower the very poorest children in some of the most deprived areas of the world, to create meaningful and useful lives for themselves out of the chaos and vulnerability of poverty. Apart from raising money through charity events and hosting a visiting Principal last Spring, we have seen the positive difference that sharing our resources, including sending teachers on short-term visits, can make to colleagues working in difficult circumstance in South Africa and India.

Our particular brief this summer was for Anne to work with the Art Department of two Christel House Schools, in Bangalore and Lavassa to develop their teaching and curriculum planning. It was a real privilege to see art specialists from three different schools all working together to deliver some exciting workshops in batik printing, with very limited facilities and extremely excited students. The word obviously spread through the city, because one such lesson was interrupted by a group of five burka clad women from a nearby Islamic school who wanted to ask Anne’s advice on setting up an IGCSE curriculum in Art! One of Christel House’s requests was to improve the quality of displays around the school in very bare classrooms. Anne ran a two hour workshop for every teacher in the school, showing how to create low cost and effective displays which showcase student work and achievement. It was highly satisfying at the end of our time to see the wide range of creative displays that everyone, from the PE department to the kindergarten class had produced on the walls of classrooms and corridors.

My time was spent with teachers, department heads and the two Principals and the aim was to gain some understanding of the particular teaching and learning challenges the school faced and to suggest some ways in which they could move forward. A Saturday morning training event was a useful time to share some of The Perse’s ethos and experiences with Christel House teachers and encourage them to think beyond the very narrow strictures of the Indian state curriculum with its defined pedagogy. Working with individual teachers in different departments and age groups, I was both inspired and humbled by the commitment and loving concern which teachers showed for their students. All teachers want to change students’ lives for the better; the difference at Christel House is that the stakes are so very high. When children arrive at the school from illiterate families, living in shacks with no water or electricity or even food at the weekends, teachers know that they have just one chance to help their pupils gain an education and a decent future.

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From an initial awareness of how different our own school is from Christel House, Bangalore I came to understand how much we actually have in common as educators. We too can be subsumed by the necessities of examination requirements and forget that we need to balance curriculum demands with the joy and excitement of individual discovery and a meaningful dialogue between teacher and student. One of the things I tried to work on, was how creative tasks and conversations in the classroom can actually help students progress with their routine instructional goals. Teaching a Keats poem, To Autumn, stipulated by the Indian board exam despite there being no such thing as Autumn in Southern India, made sense to the students after talking and writing about their favourite season of the year. Whereas Keats waxed lyrical about English cottage gardens, they surprised and delighted both me and their class teacher with some wonderful pieces about the taste and smell of mud in the rainy season!

At the start of another busy and exciting academic year at The Perse, I will be thinking of fellow teachers in the heat and dust of Bangalore and remembering that though our contexts are very different, our concerns are similar. We both want to our students to be safe, happy and successful in school, to be surprised by their own learning and to have the confidence to engage fully and freely  with whatever their future holds.

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