Sonia Chhabra, Headmistress at Bal Bharati Public School in New Delhi, is my exchange partner and made her home an open, warm and friendly place for me to live happily these last two weeks. Her husband Rohit and two sons, Siddant and Shaurya, are intelligent, creative men who shared their knowledge and ideas about life in India freely. I learnt much from the Chhabra family.
I returned from India yesterday after the most satisfying of professional and personal experiences courtesy of the Australia–India BRIDGE School Partnerships Project. It has been twenty years since I last was in India – a country I have visited previously for extended periods of time – so this was a much appreciated opportunity to return. The main goal – to establish formal school exchange partnerships and deep connections with Indian educators – has commenced successfully.
Any travel guide will tell you that India is a land of contrasts. The cities are both modern and ancient, the geography varying from Himalayan mountains to the deserts of Rajasthan. Extreme wealth and poverty live hand in hand. You may be less aware that India has an English-speaking middle-class of more than 200 million and the largest software and film industries in the world. More than 1600 movies were made here in 2016. Indian culture is a vibrant fusion of the traditional and the new.
I was one of sixteen Indian and Australian teachers who met for three days in New Delhi, led by Aaron O’Shannessy, prior to staying at our exchange partner’s home and visiting their school. There were opportunities to get to know each other socially and sample the local cuisine. A relaxed, focused vibe was very evident and everyone was clearly excited at the adventures ahead.
We were briefed by embassy staff, local school principals, bureaucrats and academics involved in the project or Indian education. Planning for reciprocal visits commenced and we connected online. You can follow the Bridge Project on Twitter and here is the hashtag.
It was a privilege to meet the alumni for the Bridge Project at a special High Tea held by the Australian High Commissioner. Her excellency, Mrs Harinder Sidhu, was very willing to answer my questions about how a young person could become a diplomat when chatting after the formalities. It was wonderful to meet Indian educators who have previously exchanged to Australia, make connections and discuss professional issue
When I travelled on the sub-continent previously there was no internet or email. Poste restante was the only way I could connect with family and friends except for the very expensive and very occasional phone call. It was immediately evident on arrival at the airport for my fourth visit, from billboards and newspapers, that the government is very focused on creating Digital India.
Demonetisation is playing a significant role in this strategy. It is also clear that Prime Minister Modi is encouraging youth to get savvy too. This is an important signpost, Indian educators told me, for the future directions in schooling young people. The following articles are just a few collected from local newspapers during my stay that explore digitalisation.
Like in Australia, Indian education features regularly in the media, often with quite controversial issues. I read a variety of news stories and was able to discus with my new colleagues, from a variety of independent and government schools, for the duration of my stay. Particularly hot topics included the rules for independent schools regarding enrolment of poorer families and staffing challenges for government schools.
Bal Bharati Public School (Pitampura) is a campus for students aged 3 – 18 years of age and is one of many funded and operated by the Child Education Society. There are more than 5500 students on site each day. The principal Mrs Goswami is spoken of warmly by the staff and she speaks highly of them too. I met a variety of teachers, some who took time to guide me to the sights in Delhi and Agra as well as participating in professional development sessions that I ran about edutech and teaching English. I also taught several Year 11 classes about DNA, Big History and using technology to cooperate, collaborate, create and share. It was wonderful to visit the classrooms of the very youngest students too.
Meeting the student “ambassadors” who will engage in cultural exchange with students at Dapto High was an absolute pleasure. Articulate, intelligent and highly motivated, these students will collaborate – using Edmodo and Adobe Connect – with their Australian counterparts in preparation for student exchange. Our workshop to establish protocols, discuss digital citizenship and brainstorm ideas that will stimulate learning about issues of importance for young people was a resoundingly positive experience.
Nukkad Natak is traditional Indian street theatre. Students have an opportunity to explore challenging social issues and develop a script and stage the play live in a variety of settings. I witnessed a performance by students at Bal Bharati Public School that stunned me. The quality of the ideas, script and theatrical skills of the young performers was exceptionally high. This exciting, ancient theatrical form will be a vehicle for our students to explore social issues of mutual interest. The ideas and scripts will be developed online as well as performed when we exchange.
One of many highlights of my time at the school was the assembly on the final day where I was treated to a charming array of performances celebrating Indian culture. The very final dance was set to the music of Australian Aboriginal artist Gurrumul. I felt greatly honoured by this farewell.
A Wider World View
Cultural exchange is a very important value for the school I serve. “A Wider World View @ Dapto High” for staff and students is highly encouraged through hosting guests from overseas, especially in our region of Asia. Sonia Chhabra will stay at my home in May and spend time learning about our school. In 2018 it is envisaged that Indian students will participate in our first formal exchange for young people. In 2019 it is planned for our students to reciprocate and spend time learning in New Delhi.
My whole family is looking forward to meeting Sonia later in the year when she stays at our home.
Featured image: courtesy of Tina Seckold