When I began my career as a teacher, my students were middle and senior school children. I taught them English. I also had a weekly class with the Kindergarten children—story time. I had no idea how to speak to them. I imagined myself playing with them, petting them or listening to them, but not addressing an entire class of little ones. The first day when I entered, they were all playing in the classroom. Some of them came to me when I smiled and asked me if they could sit on my lap. When I said ‘Yes’, they were happy. Everybody wanted to sit on my lap. I was a little worried as I was not sure of the consequences. But there was no choice. Soon the bell rang and that was it.

The next week, I thought of telling them a story, but only ended up imagining I had, as there was no appropriate response. Most of them were all over the place and immersed in their own worlds. Their questions were not in the least related to my story. It was a relief when the bell rang.

The next week, I went with a definite plan. When I began the story session, I started including their names. This made a difference, though it meant including everyone’s name. Part of my problem was solved. The story required a situation that could include them or their loved ones, especially their parents and grandparents. They liked birds, animals, the moon, little incidents that included their anxieties and happiness, beautiful things, toys, a little bit of fantasy… I had to include their suggestions as well to make them happy. It became a delightful time for me. They were full of love, easily satisfied, very sweet, besides giving me a beautiful exercise for my brain. We enjoyed the time together.

That was the beginning. I applied this while teaching the older children as well. I had to find topics close to their heart, give them a lot of freedom, be non-judgmental and encouraging and, at the same time, teach them. Most children are frightened of red ink, especially if there’s too much of it. They like comments or remarks. They are extremely conscious of language rules. All these form a mental block, leading to what can be called a writer’s block. Therefore, my remarks encouraged and highlighted their creative ideas; I corrected using a pencil, asking them to rewrite if they wished, and read out or display their writing on the soft-board with coloured illustrations. They had to feel the freedom to express their ideas fearlessly, understand the space that allowed them to explore while learning, and that the quality of the content was not entirely based on language rules. This way creativity gets focussed, children find adults more approachable, besides being satisfied with their own work. The challenge again was to find activities and ideas that would interest them. This became, and continues to be, a fascinating aspect of my work. There is always a challenge, adventure, learning, enjoyment, in the journey through every class. The outcome remains a mystery till the end. It could be amazingly beautiful, incomplete or chaotic as plans very often don’t work, but never unfulfilling in the long run. Besides, children find their own pace, there is no syllabus or time-bound restrictions, no immediate target or expectations to trouble their minds. The teacher has to remain flexible, ready to change plans as required, sensitive and accommodating.

Once, I planned an exercise out of sheer curiosity to know how they would analyse a picture. It depicted the underlying theme of the Mahabharata in modern art. I was early for the class and in the library, I found another scene from the epic painted realistically on the back cover of a magazine. It was a coincidence. I picked it up. In class, each child commented on what they felt or understood about the first picture. I gave no inputs, but they came up with all the ideas the epic offers. It was surprising because it was way beyond my expectation. I passed the second picture around. They articulated every character’s emotion — again, amazingly exact. They almost had the theme of the story without being told, and understood the feelings so well! After this exercise they wrote stories, poems or drew pictures as they wished.

Generally, I tell them a story followed by an exercise or activity, which includes writing, drawing, painting, creating a theme collage, wall magazine, and maintaining a scrap book. After an exercise to make them sensitive to their surroundings, I once asked them to complete the question — Did you…? The class poem that emerged was this:

Did you see/ hear –

A book without a cover?

A leaf fall quietly in the afternoon sun?

A dragon pass by?

My lost pencil box?

A mysterious camera?

The stars yesterday night?

My brother and my puppy?

A man with green hair wearing a pink jacket and purple trousers?

A wolf howl in the moonlight?

My pet snake Jake?

Mademoiselle Lallob blast her head off at the poor kids?

My parents somewhere?

A flower nodding in the breeze?

A sparrow fly into her nest and turn her neck?

A pup lost in the mist wagging its tail?

My grandma day-dreaming with a cup of tea in her hand?

My friend as pale as a moon in daylight looking for me?

A butterfly, light-winged, carrying a bag of stones?

It was a rainy day just after lunch. As I entered the class, I could sense the excitement. The sky was overcast, the gathering thick clouds darkening the otherwise bright landscape, and the violently shaking treetops sprinkling showers of raindrops from the leaves, lush and dark. I was looking forward to a lovely poetry time. But the class wasn’t in tune with my mood. The classroom was in a mess. The floor was wet and muddy. Obviously they had been running out into the rain. Books were scattered. So were the chowkies. They were full of requests–‘Akka, a spooky story…’, ‘Let’s play’, ‘We’ll close all the doors and windows…’ etc. As I tried to quieten them, I was thinking of a story I could tell. I wrote down on the blackboard—Quiet. I’ll wait outside till you are ready for a story. I went and stood just outside the door, watching them settle. Some of them wanted to write limericks. Some were gesturing to me to enter. By the time they settled down, I had lost what I had in mind. Anyway, most of them wanted a ghost story. So I began, despite exhausting my collection of original ones. Losing even a second would mean chaos! Scarcely had I built up the atmosphere, when it struck me that they could try completing the story. Just then there was a flash, followed by ear-splitting thunder, stunning us. I said, ‘Why don’t you write now?’ That was it. It started all over again. I heard myself saying that I was leaving the class.

It was pouring outside. I could hear them calling me back. They were concerned and apologetic. But I didn’t stop; we had lost out on time, there was no point in continuing. Besides, I didn’t want to spoil their fun. I had walked quite a bit when I heard voices. Two of them had followed me. ‘Akka, come back. See, we’ve written a poem.’ They were holding out a paper. ‘Join us under this umbrella. Please…’ I would have to bend quite a bit if I had to join them. I said it was alright and took the piece of paper. The poem:

Deep clear blue sea

Cool rivers too

The world is so beautiful,

Unless the cyclone comes with force

Destroys everything

Dirty, dust everywhere

Tree’s bending branches

All by the cyclone

In the mountain, hills, valleys

Now at last comes the…

(Rain – only the picture is drawn for me to guess the word)

This is when I realize how limiting I can be.

There is one exercise that works well with children of all ages. Darken the classroom by closing doors and windows. Children can be blindfolded, adding a dramatic element. They are requested to remain silent and follow instructions. They have to hold their questions. Now a lighted candle is placed in the centre, a few flowers placed next to it. A folded newspaper is lit. The children open their eyes and watch silently. This is an experience almost everyone instantly relates to. They can choose to write, draw or paint. All the materials they want are placed in the classroom—water colours, brushes, paper, gum. The result is tremendous. As they settle into a world of their thoughts and I get immersed in mine, work happens in silence. Watching them, I know their silence speaks volumes. And that somewhere we are sharing our thoughts.

It’s a beautiful silence.