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Ways of Seeing: Two Day Retreat at Yellow Train, Coimbatore, 30 and 31 April

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History for Peace was invited by Yellow Train, Coimbatore to conduct a two-day retreat. 45 teachers came together to experience and explore ways of addressing difficult issues like violence, discrimination and bias in the classroom. This two day retreat aimed to come up with pedagogical tools that can be used by anyone, irrespective of the subject they teach or their grade. We believe that sensitizing teachers towards this end should lie at the core of our vision of peace education. 


Day 1 was designed to make participants think about their own biases that impact how they teach in the classroom. The teachers were split into groups and each group was given a sheet of paper with a list of characters. They had to discuss and deliberate within their own groups and choose 4 characters for a world Peace mission. Almost every group chose the teacher and the 16-year-old as their characters for the mission. Most people chose the teacher because they felt he possessed a diverse range of qualities. The 16-year-old was also a popular choice because everyone felt a young and energetic person would be able to contribute significantly to such a project. There were discussions on how to appeal to diverse groups, not only in terms of religion or language but also in generational terms. Some unique choices were the Eunuch and the Farmer. Debates around including these roles mainly focused on their ability to empathize with other people’s pain and suffering due to their own experiences of marginalization in society. Arguments were made against this by some in the groups that chose these roles, which included the fact that just because someone has gone through pain and suffering in their personal past, doesn’t necessitate their ability to eradicate the same.


After everyone had chosen their characters, the facilitators pointed out that all their choices were based on assumptions they had about these character. For instance, it was assumed that the teacher had a variety of qualities which could help in the mission and that they would be interested in such an initiative. Hence, another set of sheets was distributed which contained one-liners about each role, which gave a small background of their ideologies or situations. For example, the Teacher believed that Dictatorship was good, the 16-year-old had a rare disease, the priest gave sermons preaching religious harmony and so on. It was an interesting experiment to see how much the answers would change, now that they had the necessary context about each character. 


When the answers were discussed, it was evident that the teacher had been removed out of all the revised answers. A very important question was raised: “Does believing in something necessarily lead to practising the same?” The exact definition of dictatorship was also debated, with examples of popular dictators brought up to argue against the fact that dictatorship can have only one definition and form. These were really insightful discussions which debated over the nature of ideologies, and speculations on how it would take shape in such a setting as the one presented. 


One very surprising thing to note was that none of the answer, before and after the context was provided, included a singer. This seemed strange due to the impact we have seen singers and musicians create on various issues by talking about it or making songs about it. The power of music in uplifting people was not discussed extensively. 


The 3rd activity was to discuss positive and negative biases. Each teacher was supposed to write down 1 positive and 1 negative bias they held, and discuss with the group. This activity was individual. As each teacher discussed their biases, there were a lot of common properties. Positive biases tended to be broader and almost acted like an outlook on society and practices. They commented on social traditions. This was in stark contrast to the negative biases, which tended to be more personal and reflective. There was a tone of defensiveness when everyone talked about their negative biases, in an effort to show that they held this bias purely because of assumptions. Very few biases were political in nature, with many simply acting as commentaries on society. Moreover, most of them were very teacher-specific, and were targeted at the behavior of students, how teachers should teach, and overall comments on how the education system should be. 


In the next activity, each person was given a special word. They each had to note down 1 positive, 1 negative and 1 neutral statement they held about their respective words. The words given ranged from Dr. B.R Ambedkar to Corporal punishment. When each person presented their biases, the others were supposed to guess whether it was positive, negative, or neutral. One interesting observation was that, while most of the biases were correctly guessed, there were some instances where positive biases were mistaken for neutral. The negative biases were clear to identify due to the tone of the sentences, but the neutral statements often ended up looking like positive statements due to a confusion in perspective of what is positive and what is a neutral fact.


The last activity for the first day was a debate on whether a teacher’s religion had a place in the classroom. The main discussions were on what constituted “Bringing your religion into the classroom”. Some felt it was a personal choice, while others argued it hampered true education. There was some confusion between both groups on indoctrination or propagating students to follow the teacher’s religion vs. simply practicing their own religions personally. This ended up creating a scenario where both groups were almost saying the same thing in different words. Both clearly agreed that indoctrination should not be allowed, but weren’t able to arrive at a consensus on what exactly indoctrination consisted. Therefore, progress in discussion of the topic was hampered a bit.


The second day started with a small activity. Everyone had to pair up with one other person, and both of them had to draw the other’s face without looking at the paper they would be drawing on. This activity served as an icebreaker, but also showed the importance of perspective. It was interesting to see what each person drew based purely on what they were seeing. 


For the next activity, everyone was re-organized into the group they were in the day before, and each group was given a children’s book written by KG. Subramanyan. However, all the writing was covered with a paper, and they could only see the drawings. Every group had to discern the story of the book they were given. After everyone had finished interpreting the stories and presenting them, the paper covering the writing was taken off, and every group could see the actual stories. Although most of the interpretations matched the actual stories atleast in part, there was quite a bit of innovation and difference. Some groups had connected the images to present-day issues. For example, a story about the loss of our unique identities was interpreted as a story about the LGBTQ+ community, and how acceptance is key in a modern society. 


To cultivate this innovation, the next and final activity in the workshop was to make each group create their own stories with the help of props, drawings or any other accessories they wanted. The stories each group came up with were interesting. One group had created a kind of graphic children’s book, while another simply used separate papers to depict a scene each, with groupmates holding a paper each to narrate the story. One other group had even created props with which they made a skit. Hence, there was a great diversity in the showcasing of the stories. There were some important discussions that took place during the process of creating the story. For example, there was great emphasis put on how children would interpret the story. Therefore, it was realized that trying to understand how the reader would interpret it based on the kind of demographic the story would reach is as important as choosing the right kind of content to display in the story.


Reflections

After all the activities were done, there was a reflection session where the teachers could give their feedback and suggestions based on their experiences in the workshop. There was a lot of positive feedback. While the teachers were previously aware about innovative methods to teach, the workshop provided some clarity on the same and organized their thinking in such a way that they could incorporate those methods in class. The fact that there was a wide variety of activities (Story Making, Debates, etc.) also helped making the workshop interactive and not one-sided. The workshop also made the teachers self-aware about the biases they held sub-consciously. To directly quote one of the teachers, “Being a child through these activities helped me understand one”. 


There were also some suggestions presented. Some teachers felt that it would have been more beneficial if there was more time in general, so that debates or discussions could be in-depth and held at length. There were also some suggestions for the reading given on Day 1. While there were no problems about the content of the reading, the language used made it feel very heavy. There were a lot of words which are not used in usual parlance nowadays, and the use of many of those words obstructed learning for some teachers. It was suggested that a summary be provided, or the text be simplified in language in case of future use. Some teachers also wanted a “more challenging” workshop, with more discussions on relevant and controversial topics like the constitution and historical events. They wanted a more in-depth conversation on their biases, and felt more could have been done to address it than simply recognizing that everyone had biases. 


Conclusion

In conclusion, the workshop was very successful in terms that it helped the teachers understand the various innovative methods they could incorporate in their classrooms to make it more interesting. It also gave the teachers a chance to bond and encouraged team-building among them. With the debates, everyone was given a chance to voice their opinions out while also listening and trying to understand the other side. This workshop hence wasn’t only for the teachers, but also for the students they would teach, since most of the teachers promised to include things from the workshop that they found useful in their classrooms. 


Report by Krishna Srinivas

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