Experiments in Kolkata

When: May, 2020
Where: Remote (Kolkota, India)
Facilitators: Manonita Bhattacharya, and Aman Singh


Experiments with Pre-Texts in Kolkata, India

It has been our privilege to be introduced to Prof. Doris Sommer through a chance meeting that my colleague Aman Singh had with her, at Harvard University. Over the last eighteen years, we have been working in the education sector of India and we specialize in assisting the set-up of new academic institutions. As we explored the possibility of having her guidance for setting up two new institutions in India, we came to know about Pre-Texts. Over the course of online interactions we not only learnt about Pre-Texts but also about Kant’s aesthetics, Levinas’s ‘Faceto-face’ and about the philosophy of arts. We found the idea very interesting and it generated a lot of excitement within our team.

In order to appreciate the magic of Pre-Texts, Prof. Doris encouraged me to try it with my six year old daughter and some of her friends. As a reference, she shared the experiment by Talata Rodriquez who is a teacher based in Argentina. Her note was in Spanish so I translated it to English and Prof. Doris was kind enough to make the edits and that became the blueprint for me to conduct my own experiment.

I was a little anxious in the beginning as I am not formally trained in Pre-Texts and didn’t know the actual method for conducting the session. However, I was hopeful since it looked like a simple protocol and my intuition told me that this will be definitely useful for children. So I took the initiative to share the idea with the parents of my daughter’s friends and invite them to the online engagement. They were quite excited to learn about this activity. The response from the parents was very positive. Especially, keeping their children busy in a productive way during lockdown is something every parent is quite conscious about.

I conducted the experiment with a group of four kids and with some help from their parents.

First day of my experiment:
1. Preparation:

1.1. A small group of 4 children in the age group of 6 – 9 years were identified and their parents were on-boarded in advance about this experiment and its expected outcomes
1.2. A WhatsApp group was created and all of them were invited for a video call for an hour, the very next day

2. Execution:

2.1. The children were requested to use old newspapers, color pencils, colorful papers, unused and old cardboards, glue and scissors for the art and craft project.
2.2. On the first day, I narrated the story of The Ugly Duckling. It was a common story and all the kids knew the text in advance.
2.3. Given that we are on WhatsApp, I urged them to listen attentively while they created their craft. It was easier for them to connect with the story and all of us enjoyed the process very much. I paused occasionally and checked on them to confirm if they understood the meaning and they were all engrossed in creating something with all their creativity.
2.4. While they were listening to my story, they tried to create a book cover for the story
2.5. The participants were able to complete their work between 60-75 mins

3. Outcomes:

3.1. The kids enjoyed the whole process of working together and they could see each other on the video call which made it a very exciting experience
3.2. They were competing with each other to complete the project on time.
3.3. As a narrator, I was quite excited to narrate the whole story which they enjoyed and also shared their comments on the story.
3.4. They all were keen to do another project and create another cover.
3.5. They sent the photographs after finishing the projects. You can get a glimpse of the few activities they did on the very first day:

Second day of my experiment:
1. Preparation:

1.1. The process that we followed on the first day was repeated
1.2. We all agreed to do a video call, but this time on Zoom to meet the kids. A date was finalized. My daughter was so excited to get back with her friends to participate.
1.3. They were asked to use the same materials as used earlier

2. Execution:

2.1. However, this time, I chose a different story which was a little tough and unknown to all the kids. This was the story of The Breakdown of a Bus by Ruskin Bond.
2.2. The kids were a little concerned as they did not know the story but were excited
to know about it.
2.3. I increased the time and gave them an hour and a half to listen, understand and then create the book cover with the story. The kids this time were very attentive and as I continued to ask questions, they were trying to listen to all that I shared with them.

3. Outcomes:

3.1. The kids are coming up with the idea of improvising this method for the next day. They want to enact a popular story and then meet on zoom or WhatsApp to play dumb charades.
3.2. The best part about organizing this was to see how effectively the kids adapted to this method and not for once they shared any discomfort

Lessons learn:
1. The teacher can truly become a facilitator of flow of creative ideas among the learners
2. The format of storytelling and the attempt of visual presentation by learners triggers learners to share their life experiences. Every learner can now combine her own unique experiences with the ‘text’ and create outcomes that are distinct from other learners. In doing this, the outcomes of any ‘lesson’ becomes unrestricted and we enable, in some sense, a personalized learning experience. This in turn, makes for a richer engagement for the teacher and mitigates the monotony that comes in, if we have pre-planned ‘fixed’ outcomes
3. For parents, particularly those who are working and are pressed for time, teaching can become a burden and a chore. One may feel that ‘they are teaching what they already know’ and that can be monotonous and feel irritating. However, this form of facilitation can be fun as also a learning experience for the parent. Personally, as a working mother, I learnt how to interact better with the children and make them feel interested about an unfamiliar topic
4. Children were quite delighted to see how the mobile device can actually be used for a fun-filled learning activity. They also get to handle the basic nuances of group dynamics and communication as they navigate the constraints of the online medium. Interestingly, the format of engagement also allows them to ‘compete’ in actually making something better and faster than others
5. It seems possible that this experience may be scaled up to add a few more learners without expecting a significant loss in the quality of outcomes
6. The story became the anchor for interacting and sharing their experiences

Way forward:
1. It will be wonderful to get a formal training in applying Pre-Text that will allow us to do these activities better
2. I plan to continue these experiments on a bi-weekly basis with children of age group 5-7 years in our immediate network of family and friends
3. I want to try and use texts that are rooted in our own unique cultural and literary tradition. I think stories and dramas written for children by Rabindranath Tagore, who is also a Nobel Laureate, may open up something new for all of us in understanding and apply Pre-Texts. I can also try and use the works of Satyajit Ray, a celebrated Indian filmmaker, writer and illustrator
4. As we move forward, I am keen to learn more about how we can apply pre-text to helping slightly older children in overcoming the discomfort they may have with a specific subject or topic they are learning at their school
5. I may also consider inviting adults and co-create a learning experience where we introduce interesting works of Tagore
6. We will also look forward to having Prof. Doris interact with some of the participants and their families, in the coming week.

Concluding remarks:
We have been inspired to learn more about how arts can be used for positive, tangible change in our society and explore opportunities of collaboration to further the mission of Cultural Agents in India. While Pre-Texts opens up a whole new world of possibilities for making new institutions in India innovative and contextual, we are motivated to create new models of education in India, with Pre-Texts at its core.

Submitted by:
Manonita Bhattacharya | Aman Singh
manonita@renprojects.in | aman@renprojects.in
Kolkata, India | Gangtok, India