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What have I been up to? A non-smartphone, pandemic friendly, Spoken English program!

I'm rushing to write this, since the last time I was inspired to write was when the Georgia runoff results were announced and 2021 seemed to have gotten off to a great start. And, by the time I sat down to writing, the afternoon of that day happened and I was glued to the TV for a couple of days in disbelief, heart sinking. I have discovered that I like to write when things are going well, even though what I want to write about is about the last 6 months. But today is a new day. With Biden + Harris being inaugurated, it definitely is a good day. And here is my long due update on my life, my universe and my everything.

Fair questions at this point are: Have I been bored out of my wits after having quit my Google job? Have I been anxious and going crazy and driving the DH nuts? And a super fair question: Have I done anything other that binge watching netflix all this while?

I'm happy to report that I am doing well and that I am exceptionally, extremely, exceedingly happy about having quit my last job as a software engineer (even though the binge watching does feature in the current life occasionally :/ ). I have been doing a whole lot of things I love, but mainly under one umbrella project that I've been up to. Envisioning, developing and deploying a Spoken English course for children who don't have access to smart devices. This post is mostly about this whole experience that has engulfed me and all my time in the past 6 months. 

After flailing around for a bit at the beginning of the pandemic, scared, feeling helpless, and feeling every painful inch of the miles between me and family that lives on another continent, I gathered myself enough to notice the things I could do if I only applied myself. At a Pudiyador meeting, I found myself thinking about the problem of how to get the children in our after-school program engaged in structured learning, when we couldn't bring them into the center, and a majority of them didn't have access to smart devices. I quickly came up with this: 

With kids staying home because of covid19, learning can only happen if the kids are wholly motivated. With motivation hard to build ground up for new topics at this point because getting their attention has been hard, I’m proposing we focus on a topic we know they want to get better at. Once we start with spoken english, we need to ensure they are making progress by offering any help they may need. With some learnings from this experience, we may also want to try to find other topics in the intersection and work on those as well.

Since I wrote this down in the middle of June, I've worked on creating and launching an English learning program for the children attending after school classes at Pudiyador. We have about 30 volunteers talking 1:1 to children about 5 days a week, over phone calls lasting ~20 minutes. We are a team of 3 women putting together the content that gets published every couple of weeks[1]. We have published about 20 weeks worth of content for this program that I'm super proud of. To cover the major aspects of the language, we think it's going to take about 8-10 more weeks worth of content. When the students and volunteers finish this set, they'll definitely deserve way more than a certificate, but a certificate is what I've planned thus far! 

Two other non-profits want to use this model[2]. The founder of an English language teaching company that I connected with last month validated our approach to teaching spoken English. She also added that they had never considered being able to reach kids who didn't have smart phones during the pandemic lockdown. My heart danced a happy dance hearing this, because here we had created a working program that a veteran of the field hadn't thought possible!

I wanted to write about what I've loved about putting this program together, but I'll start with what I've learned over the last 6+ months of content creation for English language teaching:

0. English is seen as the prerogative of the rich and successful. In India, if you see someone who speaks English well and dresses well, the association you make is that they've made it in life. The association is so strong in our minds that children from impoverished class/ caste backgrounds often don't think it is possible for them to learn the language. Good English medium schools are typically the expensive schools which are ~100% reserved for the middle and upper class kids.

1. If English can evolve just a bit more and get rid of the verb changes that happen for the third person singular, I'll be so much happier! And so will the many English language learners all around. Is there a movement to get this fixed? If so, please count me in already!

2. I have resolved to not be judgy about people who speak incorrect English. I've realized that the definition of language as a means to convey thoughts from one brain to another needs to be taken more seriously. A friend saying "She have the book" is perfectly understandable and I shall not judge her harshly for this henceforth. If I join the above mentioned Society to Fight Against the Third-Person-Singular Conjugation, I shall start fighting for my right to do so without being judged too.

3. There are some English phrases commonly used in India that point to the exact way in which we speak our vernacular. No? 

4. Content creation is political.  My options are being naive, or being worried sick about what I'm getting across. It is so easy to slip here since everything that's been normalized in our world is drenched in patriarchy, colonialism, classism and in my country, casteism. Like America's first ever youth-poet laureate, Amanda Gorman, just said:

"And the norms and notions

of what just is

Isn’t always just-ice"

5. Tamil has gender neutral options already built in and it was super easy to teach the singular "they" to Tamilians. I'm so glad for these terms: "Ivanga", "Avanga", "Ivar", "Avar"!

And then, here's the list of what I'm really grateful for, and have loved being a part of: 

1. What we've been hearing from the parents of the children who are enrolled in this program. A mom, who works as a maid in households, had taken her daughter (our student) to a household where she works. There, her daughter responded to her employer's kids in english. She told us that she had never imagined that her daughter would speak in English. The mom grew teary eyed as she narrated this to us. Another child had told a volunteer that she always looked longingly at other well-dressed children speaking english fluently in the beach. And our volunteer assured her that she'll get there soon. 

2. The connections I've made with other volunteers. I connected in a matter of minutes to some folks I spoke with when we were doing the initial volunteer onboarding calls. These were 30 minute 1:1 calls I made early on, to chat with them about their motivations and about out program philosophy and structure to make sure it would be a good fit for both parties. I was amazed by the people we had attracted to the program and I'm happy to say that I have many a coffee appointment in Chennai when I visit next time! Coffee appointments that I'm really really realllly looking forward to, with people I've never met!

3. The kinds of conversations I've had with friends and acquaintances who have studied in Tamil medium schools. The conversations about their struggles with English when they finally came to college. The terror they faced when they needed to speak the language even if they knew the subject they needed to speak about very well. This is something I knew was a problem, but now I know how big a problem this is. 

4. That I've been able to write and draw quite regularly to generate the content for this program. Since I started this off as a zero budget program (except for printing the material we would generate for the students), and I didn't find free content that wouldn't alienate the children who would be our audience (English content that didn't talk about rich kids and their things, or patriarchal stuff that pissed me off), I started drawing very early on in this process. I drew with the mouse for a while before a friend lent me his tablet which had a pen. Here are a few of the scenes I'm proud of having written and sketched. And a little recording of a rhyme I wrote, sketched and recorded :)

The ammas on the bus go “Jo, jo, jo!”

“Jo, jo, jo!”

“Jo, jo, jo!”

The ammas on the bus go “Jo, jo, jo!”

All through the town

The appas on the bus go “Aaa, raa, ro!”

“Aaa, raa, ro!”

“Aaa, raa, ro!”

The appas on the bus go “Aaa, raa, ro!”

All through the town.

They all sat to eat.

Selvi had a plate full of rasam and rice.

Selvam had a plate full of rasam and rice.

Thaatha and Paati had plates full of

Rasam and rice.

What is she doing?

She is batting, batting!

What is he doing?

He is bowling, bowling!

What are they doing?

They are playing, playing!

They are playing cricket now!

An artist uses their imagination and experiences. 

An artist creates new things or new experiences. 

They give us inspiration.

A writer uses their imagination and experiences. 

A writer gives new meaning to old experiences.

They give us hope!

There's a lot more that I'm grateful for about the last few months. There's also a lot of learnings on the personal front, in the devastating year that 2020 was, but those are for another post. 

For now, take care, stay safe, and enjoy this time when the USA has just sworn in it's first woman, black, south-asian as it's Veep!

[1] Here's the link to all our content: Ping me if you want to learn more! 

[2] If you know Kannada, or know anyone who can help with translating basic content from English to Kannada or, Tamil to Kannada, please ping me! This will make me overjoyed! 


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