In January 2012, T. Thomas Elliott, a math teacher at the Northwest School, left Seattle with her family to spend three and a half months in Kerala, India as part of the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching program. This program provides U.S. and international teachers the opportunity to pursue individual projects, take courses for professional development, and lead classes and seminars for teachers and students at a university and local schools.
As part of the application process, Dr. Elliott proposed a project on solving problems by using games for small groups.
“If you had told me before I left that I would be teaching interactive math games to a classroom of 60-90 kids I would not have believed you,” says Dr. Elliot. But the students were so eager to learn that I could work with 16 students at the front of the room and the rest of the class would be completely engaged. They have such an appreciation for learning. It was a raucous reminder of what a joy and a privilege it is to learn.”
“The games were a very unusual way for them to learn math,” she notes, “Most of the teaching is lecture based in India. They were surprised that I wanted them to stand up. Moving the furniture tripped them out!”
But the learning wasn’t only one way. “Someone at the orientation said ‘Going to a new place gives you new eyes’-- referring to the workshop in Washington D.C., which brings together U.S. and international teachers before they begin the program. “That is definitely true,” reflects Dr. Elliot. “I saw what [the Indian students] are getting that my students in the U.S. aren’t. I can bring some of the strengths of their system home.”
Dr. Elliott explained, “I use a number puzzle in my classes in Seattle for the students who finish before everyone else and it is typically very challenging for them. When I gave the same puzzle to the Indian kids I was astounded at how quickly they did it and how many of them got it.”
“My Indian colleagues explained that from a very young age students memorize huge number tables. We shy away from drilling even times tables in the U.S., and I’m horrified when high school students pull out calculators for simple calculations. I now have games I can use with U.S. students where speed is an issue and students will need to memorize to do well.”
“I teach in an international school. Every class is an East-West experience…I now have more ideas about how to bring [different] groups together.”
And there’s another lesson to share, “I was struck with the [Indian] student’s level of understanding about world events,” Dr. Elliot noted. “One day, I was asked to speak to a class about human rights. It happened to be on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, so I focused on civil rights. I showed slides and talked about who he was and how he had been inspired by Ghandi, and what he did. The room was very quiet. They all nodded their heads. They knew it already! Very few Americans have that level of knowledge about India.”
Maybe some will now be inspired to change that.