PLT Activities Energize the Teaching and Learning in Gandhi’s Home Town
I am an associate professor of math and science education at Virginia’s Marymount University, and am fluent in both Gujarati and Hindi. In January 2010, I and another professor took seventeen graduate students to Porbandar, India, to participate in a service-learning project to teach grades PreK-7 through an integrated approach. The goal of this project was to establish a long-term collaborative program between Marymount University, in Arlington, Virginia, and Dr. Virambhai Rajabhai Godhaniya College (PreK-B.Ed), in Porbandar, Gujarat, India.
The plan was to take pre-service teachers to India for ten days and have them teach math and science to the children from PreK-7. I wanted my students to develop skills of scientific inquiry, integrate the environment into their teaching, and further their understanding of how a diverse population with little concept of U.S. teaching methods approaches learning core mathematics and science concepts using a constructivist approach. I knew that the PLT curriculum would work well to implement this approach.
The head of the host school wanted to include his B.Ed. pre-service teachers in the methodology training of the visiting Marymount students and another local primary school principal wanted her teachers to learn a hands-on approach. The program soon grew to three times its original size.
Be the change you want to see in the world
Porbandar, a seaport on the Arabian Sea with a population around 133,000, is the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi. His message of “Be the change you want to see in the world” resonates in my teaching. Eleven percent of the city’s total population consists of children younger than six http://gujarat-education.gov.in/education/. There is one main street for shopping, and beautiful historical buildings are found throughout the town.
Through my discussions with the local people, teachers, and school officials, it is evident the importance the community places on having trained teachers educate the young. Schools that have the English Medium title have elected to teach in English, but despite this title, the teaching is conducted through limited English or no English at all. Schools have concrete or tiled flooring, and walls are bare with limited or no pictures. The focus is on teaching to the state and national tests at all costs. Children wear uniforms and are required to behave according to high cultural standards of discipline. Students are separated by gender and line up with a finger on their lips to maintain silence as they move through the hallways.
The school that hosted us in Porbandar conducted teaching through a traditional approach. Rote learning reinforced with blackboard and chalk, and paper and pencil, appeared to be the main focus of teaching. Children remained at their desks while their teachers imparted knowledge through a lecture. There were no indications of inclusion of different learning styles. All students were taught the same material at the same pace. My students observed that no accommodations were made for diverse learners. Yet it was important for them to understand the culture and the circumstances of their hosts.
A busy schedule
The study abroad group met several times for preparation work: classroom assignments, concepts to be taught as required by our counterparts, lists of materials and textbooks needed. Before departure, students were briefed by Marymount University’s director of Center for Global Education programs about the required paperwork, and health and safety guidelines.
In India, Marymount students worked relentlessly: teaching, learning, and understanding the cultural aspects of the population they were immersed in. Every Monday through Friday, for two weeks, they loaded a yellow school bus, ready to receive and impart academic and cultural knowledge. Wheeling travel bags full of teaching materials in and out of the bus, they were determined to put their numerous hours of preparing and planning to work. The bus dropped them off at the primary-school courtyard, where the principal, B.Ed. students, and their director eagerly awaited their guests.
Every day from 10:00 am-12 noon, my students conducted hands-on activities and used visual demonstrations to drive concepts to the level of understanding. The B.Ed. students started to participate in using manipulatives, which for them was uncharted territory. The children they taught were familiar with rote learning, but it soon became clear to teachers that using manipulatives is an exciting and fun way to learn.
At noon the bus returned the Marymount pre-service teachers to their hotel for an hour. This was a most precious moment for my students. They could have their Diet Coke and French fries. Fruits and uncooked vegetables were not recommended due to possible contamination, and eating meat was out of the question as the hotel and majority of the townspeople were vegetarian, following the Hindu religion. Also, Gujarat is a dry state, so students were unable to access any alcohol. Toward the end of the trip, the hotel ran out of Diet Coke; the manager reported it was the highest Coke consumption ever!
After lunch, students returned to the school for intensive planning with the B.Ed. students and teachers from 1:00-2:00pm. After a few days, this evolved into team teaching using teaching styles based on Gardner’s multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1983. Frames of Mind: The theory of multiple intelligences) to implement learning.
PLT soars inside the classrooms
I was fortunate to be trained as a PLT facilitator for Marymount University by Virginia’s PLT coordinator, Lisa Deaton, in the summer of 2009. I consider this training an invaluable tool to my teaching because PLT’s teaching strategies extend beyond the University, and into classrooms.
I planned to train Marymount students in PLT in Porbandar along with their counterparts. After I trained the local teachers, B.Ed students and Marymount students, PLT lessons were used in the classrooms by all participants. Students used both Project Learning Tree’s PreK-8 Guide and Forests of the World module as resources during the teaching process.
Throughout this collaborative teaching, PLT resources proved to be an asset in developing an integrated approach to math and science. One of my students used PLT Activity 77 "Trees in Trouble" along with other PLT activities to get children to examine trees for signs of damage or poor health. She explained to the teachers how this PLT activity satisfies Virginia’s Standards of Learning (VASOL) in recognizing the symptoms of unhealthy trees and describing possible causes. Students conducted a series of experiments to determine the conditions that may cause plants to become unhealthy, and connected art and music to this activity. Children drew pictures of their tree and enjoyed Billy B songs that engaged them in motion and physical movement, a new experience compared to their usual traditional sitting in their seats and learning.
Another one of my students used PLT Activity 79 "Tree Lifecycle" to get students to discover that trees have a lifecycle that is similar to that of other living things. She shared how VASOL states that a diagram of the lifecycle of a tree be shown to better their understanding. My student talked about the uses for wood (natural resources), and on a paper plate had students draw their own personel "tree cookie", each circle representing a year and a special event in their lives to date. Some students recorded this particular activity as one of their highlights!
Another activity, related to an assignment for my students, was based on classification and getting the children out of the classroom to explore their environment. Using PLT Activity 64 "Looking at Leaves", my students used a variety of leaves and objects in a Venn diagram to develop skills in comparing and contrasting, classifying and categorizing, and identifying attributes and components. Children used leaves to create critters through art. The leaf was part of the body of the critter and then the students drew the legs, antenna, wings and head.
Amongst the older grades the most popular activity was PLT Activity 19 "Viewpoints on the Line". Students loved exchanging their views on ‘Is our environment in jeopardy?’ They found this activity enabled them to express their own views and opinions in a setting that was non-threatening and eventually led to a good open-ended discussion. Again, this was new learning territory for them as they were used to remaining at their desks and basically being lectured.
The students talked of all the activities conducted during the day to their families, who reported to the school principal their own enthusiasm for this new approach to learning.
Collaborative teaching and learning
Marymount students returned to the school following lunch for an hour-long intensive planning session with the B.Ed. students and teachers. The beauty of this collaborative teaching and learning was evident through the exchange of ideas. Marymount University students explained and modified PLT activities while the B.Ed. students and the teachers adapted them for their teaching environment. This broadened the horizon for my students as they learned alternative activities if they needed to modify their own.
This hour of cooperative teaching and learning was a huge undertaking. In a room packed with more than sixty participants, I not only translated to and from Gujarati but also taught the content knowledge. I relayed the methodology concept of a particular content area in science to all, with a few strategies on its application using a hands-on approach. The integrated teams of Marymount students, B.Ed. students, teachers, principal, and B.Ed. lecturers developed several different strategies of approaching the taught concept. They had to implement some of the activities in the days to come within their own classrooms.
One of the activities they used was the PLT Activity 27 "Every Tree for Itself". The task was to develop skills in: determining causes and effects, identifying relationships and patterns, predicting, and using higher order thinking. My students realized that in Porbandar the trees are different from that in the U.S. Their counterparts and my students used the maps and Forests of the World books to identify the similarities and differences. Marymount students also discovered that in India they only have three seasons.
A second PLT activity we used during this intensive teaching and learning was PLT Activity 10 "Charting Diversity". This title was a perfect fit for the group that had congregated to learn. A globally diverse group of East and West, including teachers and pre-service teachers from both sides of the aisle, learned multiple ways to get the objectives across for teaching and learning through collaboration. They used factors such as, where an animal makes its home, how it moves, what it “wears,” to determine whether a particular animal lives in India or in the U.S. One of the learning objectives for my students to implement in their teaching was the interaction of living and nonliving environmental components (such as air, water, climate, and geological features). An important concept for their counterparts to learn was that organisms adapt to changes in the environment according to the genetic and behavioral capacity of their species.
When the time came to say our goodbyes to the children, teachers and B.Ed. students of Dr. Virambhai Rajabhai Godhaniya College, the teachers set up a celebratory dinner and dance for Marymount University students. We were showered with flower petals as a gesture of special welcome.
Finally came the big moment. The teachers invited my students to join them in the dancing. It was a multicultural bond in the making. The teachers encompassed my students in a circle. The teachers’ flexibility and graceful motions humbled the Marymount students, who fumbled the choreography of their hands and feet simultaneously. Soon enough the East and the West danced the garba in a united circle.
B.Ed. students celebrated the kite flying festival, Makar Sankrati, with my students to mark the end of winter and welcome spring. The fun of who can fly a kite the highest and who can “cut” and tangle another’s kite wore off as the cut kites dropped to the ground.
The head principal of the institute, Dr. Nagar, gave a farewell address, quoting Rabindranath Tagore’s poems to electrify the connection of teaching and learning, Dr. Nagar expressed gratitude for the cross cultural exchanges that had occurred over the two weeks.
The last half day before leaving Porbandar, Marymount students set up a systemic resource center for teachers and B.Ed. students to use in their absence. Donated by Marymount University and the students, the materials included hands-on math and science kits, Project Learning Tree books, math and science textbooks, children’s books, crayons, markers, and scissors. When the bus filled with Marymount students was about to depart on its final journey to the hotel, the children gathered in the courtyard shouting and waving their goodbyes.
The principal of the host school reflected by summing up our visitation with the following statement: “…indeed lively teaching, wonderful way of teaching through the latest activity-based 'kinesthetic methods'. The trainee-teachers [students] from Marymount University did not remain confined only in the classrooms but the kids were taught out of the four walls of classrooms. All the activities left beautiful impressions on the minds of our little-students. The knowledge of the length of different species of whales, principles of basic sciences and environmental awareness of the trees, singing rhymes & songs with actions, the kids were literally engrossed in all the related educational activities just because of the sincerity and dedication of the trainee-teachers [students] from Marymount University. The trainee-teachers put in their best efforts and our school-students learned difficult things very easily. The workshops organized after the school-hours were interesting. We all were fully absorbed in the fountain of knowledge”.
This program not only created a richer learning environment for the Pre-K-7 students in India, but also provided opportunities for the B.Ed. candidates and participating teachers to enhance their professional skills while serving as a model for other Indian colleges and universities as they attempt to prepare teachers for successful careers in a global learning society.
Usha Rajdev is an Associate Professor, teaching Mathematics and Science Methodology and is an assessment coordinator for education at Marymount University’s School of Education and Human Services in Arlington, Virginia.