When teaching becomes learning

Teaching filmmaking to groups of grassroots communities is what my primary role was to be during my internship at MAM movies, Ahmadabad. The initial excitement had me daydreaming of 15 minute documentaries made by little children, but it soon wore off as I began to wonder if I was truly equipped to do this. The encouraging team and the fact that my colleague Sandeep would be taking the workshops with me convinced me to take the plunge without over thinking it.

We began with identifying target groups; some were dropped along the way since the coordinators were hard to get in touch with. Out of the few people I did meet, Jyotsna, the leader of the community centre, had a profound impact on me. A wonderful lady with a fiery spirit, who spends all her waking hours thinking of empowering  people in her community; to put it in a nutshell. The first meeting with her got me thinking of “development” from a whole new perspective. You can read more about that experience here.  Among the many amazing things she does, Jyotsna also takes a life skills class with a bunch of adolescent girls from the community, and they would be our first group. Classes would be held on Tuesdays at 4 pm. This class marked a lot of personal firsts for me: conducting a workshop, teaching filmmaking, working with adolescent girls and teaching in Gujarati!

IMG_2695 copyOn the first Tuesday, we reached the centre at 4 pm; a chattering group of 15 teenage girls came in a while after. They welcomed us, as is customary, followed by a prayer, a few minutes of silence, and a round of introductions. I attempted to speak in my broken Gujarati which amused the girls, and, I’d say, broke the ice pretty well. We proceeded to a discussion on movies and their impact on our lives, which was led by Sandeep; I chipped in where needed. The class ended with a recap and a prayer. Thus continued the next few weeks; some classes got cancelled, we were late for some, the girls sometimes bickered as teenage girls do, but overall, we were making progress. They were learning some concepts; we even did a hands-on session which was great fun, watching the glee on their faces as they pressed the record button, fumbled with the zoom and other features, getting thoroughly engrossed in the process.

2013-02-19 17.13.13Meanwhile I worked on other challenges; I’ve never been great at presenting or conducting a class, I didn’t speak the same language and the fact that Sandeep conducted classes with such ease all lead me to question what value I was adding. I was de-motivated for a bit but Sandeep encouraged me to see this as an opportunity to improve my skills and test myself in the bargain. For the next few classes we decided that I’d take the lead, which I did, in the beginning, after which I’d slowly recede into the background and let him do the talking. There was nothing wrong with that, except that I was becoming complacent. It was only too easy, knowing that someone else could take over.

There was one class where I went prepared to review footage shot earlier by the girls. Various technical difficulties changed our plans and we had to conduct an impromptu session which I hadn’t prepared for. So Sandeep lead the class; though it went well, I returned feeling upset at myself and making up my mind to face my fears the next time around. The next class all technical issues were taken care of and I was well prepared. We reviewed all the footage in an interactive discussion which I led, for the most bit. The class ran for 45 minutes longer than usual; the girls just didn’t want to leave! We ended feeling satisfied and eagerly looking forward to the next class. It was apparent that the girls were quick to gauge their mistakes and identify areas of improvement. All we had to do was nudge them along, explain a few concepts and they’d be making short films in no time.

The next class was planned to be an introduction to writing. Another volunteer, Hanh, joined our team for a short stint, and community media was her area of interest and expertise. She had a great idea for a creative writing exercise that we could do with the girls. When Tuesday arrived the three of us walked down to the centre, eager to introduce our bright young class to a new teacher. Imagine our disappointment when the school teachers conveyed that the girls wouldn’t be coming at all. Our class every Tuesday happened to coincide with sports; the girls were upset that learning filmmaking meant missing out on sports so they were no longer interested in our class, or so we were told. It was horribly disappointing to hear, especially since we thought the previous class was the best so far. We went back to our workplace, on the way gave Hanh her first panipuri experience, so the day wasn’t quite so unproductive.

887692_10200933815933684_1201050831_oOver the next week, after a team discussion, we decided it was futile to conduct a class with students who weren’t interested in what we had to offer. We were convinced we’d given it our best shot, and if the class was to come to a close now, so be it. But Jyotsna wouldn’t take no for an answer, she insisted we give it another shot.  The girls were just teenagers, they couldn’t tell what was valuable to them and what wasn’t. We had to make the class more exciting and fun, simplify things to their level and they would respond positively. This conversation led me to an odd revelation. All this while we’d been looking at the teacher-student equation in such an egotistical manner! True, we had tried to develop some interesting lesson plans but beyond that we hadn’t stopped to think that perhaps there was some flaw in our method of teaching, something we could improve or some way in which we could make the class more exciting. We had let ourselves get disheartened too easily; perhaps our ego was hurt by the students choosing another activity over our ‘film classes. This realisation made me sad, but also strengthened my resolve to give it another try. We requested Jyotsna to allow the girls who were interested to attend and not force the rest.

The next Tuesday Sandeep, Hanh and I, arrived at the centre, mostly positive, slightly nervous about the hour that lay ahead of us. 5 girls from our original class of 14 were waiting eagerly. We introduced Hanh, a prayer was said and then the girls apologised for skipping the previous class. If ever there was a heartfelt apology, this was it. We accepted, and followed it up with an open feedback session. The girls shared that they had difficulty grasping a few technical terms, which we then attempted to simplify. Next we moved on to the exercise Hahn had planned, serving as her translator in running the session. It was a really interesting exercise, where one person writes a quote on a paper, passes it on to the next who draws out their interpretation of it, the next writes a quote based on the drawing, and the circle continues. Whilst the girls took turns at drawing and writing we played a memory game which really lifted their spirits. The exercise was concluded with interesting results that helped stimulate the girls’ creative juices. We ended with a discussion and a prayer, and asked them to write a short story for the next class. When we met Jyotsna later, she said everyone enjoyed the class very much, she was glad we hadn’t given up!

The next class would have been my last since I was leaving Ahmadabad the following week, but on account of Holi, it was a holiday and I didn’t get to say goodbye like I had hoped. But that just means I’ll have to come back. These few weeks taught me so much about bringing humility into teaching, reflecting on your own flaws before looking outside and not being easily disheartened when things don’t go your way. Lessons, I’m sure, will stay with me for life. I’ll be back for sure, there is so much yet to be learnt.

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