Abhinandan Bhattacharya – CAIE and IBDP English Facilitator at JBCN International School ,Oshiwara, Mumbai
What got you interested in becoming a teacher and pursuing the education field?
My father has been my inspiration. He was a writer, academician and a disciplinarian. I being his first child, he ensured that my academics were always up to the mark. He inculcated in me the habit of reading literature from a very young age. I started reading Shakespeare’s classic novels. The world of English literature truly fascinates me.
I pursued Journalism and Mass Communication for my degree at Calcutta University. During that time, I began contributing my articles, write ups and editorials to newspapers and magazines like Times of India and the Tehelka Tabloid. In this way my interest in the subject grew.
I had great admiration for my school teachers. They were an additional source of inspiration, and that is how I started developing an affinity towards teaching. I think my interest in teaching was a journey. It was a matter of chance, rather than by choice.
My father passed away early and so I had to take up a job. That is when I started giving tuitions as a profession. I found myself very absorbed and satisfied when I was teaching, and ever since then I have been enjoying this profession through and through. It has been 12 years since.
If I ponder upon which profession would best suit me, I think it is anything related to education and teaching. That is the most suited job for me.
Over the years I have made a huge difference in the lives of students and learners. I won a lot of awards last year. The closest to my heart is the one I won for being a dedicated teacher. For this, I was shortlisted out of around 4000 nominations across the world. I was among the top 6 finalists and the only finalist from India.
Excellent! Where did you start teaching?
I began this journey by giving private tuition classes. I used to assist students affiliated to the ISCE curriculum.
I started this to reinforce my family financially because after my father passed away we had a tough time. What started as a means of supporting my family turned out to be quite a destination. I am still supporting my family with this profession.
Back then it was about surviving – today it is about passion. I am a teacher, and will perhaps continue to be one for very many years.
Which were the schools you started with?
I began teaching after I shifted to Maharashtra from West Bengal. I officially began teaching at the Wisdom High International School, Nasik. Today I am at JBCN International School, Mumbai.
In between my tenure with these schools, I was at Pune for a couple of years. Post that I have been in JBCN, and it has been around 10 months now.
What methodologies do you adopt to engage students in your subject?
I usually start off with stretching channels. I use a lot of peer assessment and peer reading. For weaker students we have differentiated learning. We give them worksheets that suit their learning pattern.
I also strategize flip classroom methodologies. We have the learners’ email IDs. I send them the lesson plan a week in advance about the class I propose to take. This way the weaker learners are already made aware of the kind of content they will be getting introduced to in the forthcoming weeks.
In my class I divide children into groups and assign buddy learners. This gives them motivation and encouragement to come out of their shell and be confident in participating during class discussions.
When all this is done and I see progress, I try giving them tokens of appreciation. We have gift cards, goodies, chocolates, etc. stored up for them. These work like wonders in lifting children up.
As an English language teacher, another strategy that I follow is that I don’t find it necessary to correct or check my students’ work all the time. For example, in composition, a child may have done an amazing work or may not have made it up to the mark. Instead of correcting the child’s work with red ink, we use green/purple ink which is visually less aggressive. This does wonders to the child’s psychology and I refrain from giving them scores and marks for every assignment. I sometimes ask them to mark their own work.
What I have observed throughout my teaching career is that children only see their marks and their correction and sadly make no progress at all. I feel these strategies are essential to bring in progress.
Can you please elaborate on peer learning and peer editing?
Peer learning is a commonly practiced strategy at almost all schools now, and many international schools are coming up with improvised versions of this strategy.
For example, if I have a class of about 15 learners, I will divide them in 5-6 groups of 5-6 members each. Then I give a chart paper to each group on which they have to jot down their ideas. Each group shares one idea from each member and this is recorded as a bullet point on the chart paper. This gives me 5 ideas from each group. This way all participants get equal opportunities to share their ideas and have a say in the classroom discussion. This assures 100% learners’ engagement and no learner is left aside. In the process it becomes pure learning.
Peer assessment is about getting peers to assess each other’s assignments. Instead of me correcting the books every time, I ask children to exchange books and assignments. Then I display on the projector the marking scheme and the answer key. Based on that, peers get to evaluate the work and give feedback to each other.
We also guide them to give feedback in a very positive and less critical tone. This way it builds an environment of respecting each other’s work and perspective.
Is this part of the IB pedagogy?
Yes, it is a part of the IB and Cambridge program. But, I have been following this strategy much before I got associated with the IB curriculum.
It was a great feeling when I learned that the IB follows similar procedures that I believe in.
What, according to you, is the best method that teachers can adopt to teach English?
When you talk about test solving – that is part of the evaluation process, which should be the final stage. As a life-long learner and teacher I believe in inculcating values in children for learning English.
When I teach the English language, I tell and remind my learners that English is not a subject but a language. Understanding the intricacies of the language is very important. We as Indians are definitely not first language learners of English because it is not our native language. We are gradually trying to adopt it as our official language but it will never be native to us Indians, no matter how fluent we get at it. It will, however, remain part of our lives. So, understanding English as a language and the intricacies of right grammar is important.
To be very honest, even when the British speak English, they can be grammatically wrong. It is their mother tongue and they have grown up learning it, but when I interact with the British, I find a lot of flaws in their grammar usage. It is just like how some Indians speak Hindi in a distorted fashion versus someone who takes the time and effort to understand the intricacies of Hindi as a language and speak it thoroughly well. All languages have a true version and a spoken version.
When I teach English, I incorporate the concept of role modelling, think-pair-share, group discussions, etc. This way I encourage children to speak. From those discussions, I draw parallels to the lessons which are required to be taught in the Literature class.
For example, when I teach Merchant of Venice, I allow them to think if there is a Shylock present in our society today. When I teach them Julius Caesar, I help them to think about so many characters around us who may be similar to the conspirators and Brutus. Once I get these links done and help them with their thought process, I throw out some open ended questions which sets them thinking and they come up with amazing ideas.
Teaching English can be a lot of fun. I include a lot of crossword puzzles, vocabulary games and activities. These things really do help. Vocabulary is an integral part of learning good English.
You have been associated with IB and Cambridge. Have you worked in a CBSE school prior to this?
No, I haven’t. I have taught at an ICSE school for 10 years.
Which curriculum were you part of as a student?
I was an ICSE student.
Are there any differences between the way English is taught in an ICSE school and a Cambridge or an IB school?
Absolutely! There is a sea of difference. ICSE is more structured. It is more like tic tac toe. You do your lessons, answer the exam papers and get marks. I have been an examiner for ICSE as well. I am, currently, also an examiner for A-Level English for Cambridge and IB English. When I judge on the parameters and essential components, ICSE and ISC curriculum is more structured in a lot of ways. It doesn’t counter for the child to think or apply skills logically. It is like whatever the examiner has set in the answer field, is what should be reproduced.
In ICSE papers, question 3 and 4 are grammar sections – 20 marks for grammar and 10 marks for transformation of sentences, etc. The assessment is only about checking if the student follows concepts passed on by the teachers or examination paper setters, moderators etc. I have observed that they do not want to deviate from that.
On the other hand, IGCSE and IB are pretty vast in their approach. Children, here, are encouraged to explore widely. The learning is very much application based.
Do you feel more challenged to teach Cambridge/IB syllabus in terms of the responsibility of the teacher?
Definitely! Teachers have a bigger challenge and responsibility in the IGCSE/IB set up because we are also learners and then we prepare ourselves to do our homework on very strong foundations. We cannot go to the classroom and teach without that ground work.
Also, there isn’t any structured formula for teaching in the IGCSE/IB syllabus. It is about how well you can bring out concepts and can help identify applications.
We’ve known Shakespearean English, millennial English, etc. Do you think this evolution of the English language over the years is a good change for the students in terms of learning the language?
It is! I agree with the learners when they say that in today’s world no one uses Shakespearean English. It is archaic but I would not call it redundant or irrelevant. What I would call it is archaic because it is old English. It is no longer in vogue. But the content of Shakespearean English is still absolutely relevant. Switching on the TV will give you characters brought out by William Shakespeare in a new avatar. William Shakespeare has been able to touch upon the human framework so succinctly and distinctly that I believe he was a school in himself. He is a legend! No other playwright has been able to achieve that kind of status.
I would definitely promote the study of William Shakespeare for all our learners. The question lies in how well we can tweak the study of Shakespeare to make it more interesting for our millennial generation.
When people interact on the social media, they use short forms for everything. Do you think students miss out on the actual usages of English?
Yes, I do. This is very appalling and alarming. Modern day learners, unfortunately, because of the social media influence, lose out on the crux and the beauty of language usage. We are helpless to some extent and are headed towards losing out on true language. This erosion is true for all languages, not just English. That is a sad aspect.
I would reach out to all the educators and language trainers worldwide to preserve the real essence of pure language and maybe form a community wherein we can teach our learners to bring back the past glory of language learning and steer away from all kinds of digital and social media influence.
How are the A level grades for Indian students for English? Are they on par with students in the UK, studying the subject and appearing for the same exam?
Till date, Indian students are writing the 9093 components. In IGSCE, they have English as the first language and second language as well. Till a couple of years back A Level English had only the English component. This was pretty difficult for learners who did not have the ability to express themselves in English. They had no other alternative for English in IB. But, since the past two years, CAIE – Cambridge Assessment International Education has also introduced another English paper for Indian students specially keeping in mind that for the Asian students English is a general paper. This is the 8021 component. This is still in an experimental stage. But with the feedback that I have received from educators, principals and language teachers from around the country gives me the understanding that students are coping well with the challenges. This is quite a breakthrough and Cambridge is always a student-friendly board. They aim at reaching out under the canopy of providing good education. These things are quite sensitive and they need to be dealt with quite mindfully.
Based on the students you interact with, what do you think are the challenges students face today?
The biggest challenge is that they don’t read. We are losing out an entire culture of reading. Reading age-appropriate and reasonably good stuff is fading away. This is much to our disadvantage. Children would always opt for walking into a movie than reading a 200 page book. This is really something very challenging when we come to teach English. The assessment would be expected in well-articulated language. This is a big challenge we are grappling with. Reading as a culture should be inculcated amongst all learners.
How do you try to grapple with this challenge?
At schools we try various strategies. For example, once a week we have the DEAR programme, which is Drop Everything and Read. DEAR is a strategy to inculcate reading. The bell rings and we have an alarm going around in the school similar to fire alarm. During this time, each and every member of the school, wherever they are and whatever they are doing, they need to drop it, pick up a book from the learner resource centre and read for the next 45 minutes – 1 hour. We have this rigorously practiced with teachers monitoring this activity.
Gradually, we hope to inculcate the habit with dedicated reading slots in the timetable. We also have events, like literary week. With this, students are given a book 15 days in advance – we choose the book for them. We give assignments based on the book, they are judged and we conduct book review and similar competitions. They have to write a book review and present their ideas. They have to talk about it and write about it in the presence of external and internal members. They get awarded too. I have realised that when there are awards associated with any kind of learning, this generation gets charged up to accept the challenge.