Beyond Single Stories

  • Shruti Napeer

Often, when I talk about being with children and facilitating, I slip into my childhood days. I grew up wanting to be a ” Teacher”. I had a very clear definition of teacher till high school and the words that I would often attach to this profession were power, caregiver, role-model, source of learning, etc. The word “facilitation” changed the way I looked at learning and a lot of this happened when I started exploring facilitation skills with different modalities such as art, role-plays, and discussions as a way of learning and developing a sense of understanding about children. 

When I first entered the classroom I had a lot of mixed feelings as this was after a long time that I was working with children. I would often switch from being a “facilitator” to a “teacher” that clearly meant letting students realize their mistake.  And how by the end it changed to ” Making room for new identities”.

With each passing session, I realized there was clear compartmentalisation of students with respect to their conduct in classrooms such as “slow student”, “attention seeker- bhaav khane wale“, “destructive”, “bully” and so on. It would so happen, if I approached a teacher to have a conversation about a student in the class, the things that the teacher pointed out were about what the child failed to do in a classroom rather than their strengths.

Here are a few conversations for instance (The student names have been changed for child privacy):

  • “Ayaan cannot sit at a place and always shows withdrawal symptoms”
  • “Sidhu cannot participate for long because he does not have an ability to listen for long”
  • “Sahil is a very slow child and has also had a mental problem”
  • “Pooja is only destructive and never listens”

These tags or identities became the vocabulary of not just teachers but also fellow classmates and I started to view them from the same lens of what was conveyed to me. 

During Diversity Shala, ongoing training at Apni Shala, we watched a TedTalk by Chimamanda Ngozi “The danger of single story”. A discussion that helped me develop a lense of exploring alternate stories and identities of children apart from the dominant narratives built for them such as destructive, attention seeker, slow, mischievous and so on.

In one of the sessions of class 6th, a student kept complaining that Sahil can’t learn and he does not know anything. This would often come up in every session. Sahil initially did not participate much and even if he tried, students would laugh at him. I noticed not only that Sahil often didn’t give answers to the questions asked but also took more time than most other students to arrive at concrete answers of his own. In addition, other students’ reactions to his answer would also make it difficult for him to answer the questions. Since then I decided to give more chances to Sahil to put forward his ideas and opinions irrespective of whether it’s related to the topic or not. After he completed his answer I would ask everyone about what they think he is trying to say and then all of us together would try to join the dots of his answers and then there was the beginning of creating a new identity of Sahil.

His new identity was, “Sahil understands well “. And this was created not just by the facilitator but by the entire class. 

In another school, where I facilitate Social Emotional Learning (SEL) for 4th grade students, there’s a student Richa who was stereotyped to be “Gundi/bully” of her class. On most days, Richa would often get into trouble due to this, whether she did something or not.

In our SEL session of “teamwork,” we were doing a role-play. Richa was given a role where she had to explain to someone, about the patience required for a team to work. Initially, the students were not willing to participate as they kept recalling her classroom behavior. It was during the play that she portrayed others’ attitude towards her with a preconceived notion that she will throw anger tantrums that triggered her. Because of this, she would often bully others and failed to work in a team. 

This roleplay was truly a “window” into Richa’s world. It helped us see how Richa felt, where her actions were coming from and alternate possibilities for her when she showed us how gentle she was with handling everyone during the play.

This changed the dynamics of the classroom as Richa was now seen “communicating her needs in the most respectful way”, as there was nobody alienating her for her past behavior. Students walked up to her and appreciated her performance and said how Richa has never spoken in a respectable way but we’re surprised today. I communicated this to the class teacher and he was also happy to know.

At another school where I facilitate SEL, I noticed that while Ayaan has great artistic abilities, they were not explored as they did not have an art class at all. Ayaan’s participation during the session was quite low and he would often walk out of the sessions if he got bored. 

Since we use art as one of the modalities, that led me to realize that Ayaan likes to express his feelings through art. His artwork is a canvas of colors and dialogues and the way he describes his artwork is phenomenal. I took permission from the teacher to paste his artwork in class to remind us of the capabilities of Ayaan as we were often restricted ourselves to his dominant identity of “withdrawn kid”.. 

If you see in the above cases, when we ask different questions, such as “what do you think Sahil is trying to say”, “What do you think Pooja did today differently than how she does usually”,  or “What do you think about Ayaan’s drawings”, it is possible to bring forth new narratives and possibilities of our children. This indeed has changed me and impacted my work in a better way.

To realize what harm compartmentalization or stereotyping does to anyone and everyone as it becomes their single dominant story, it is important to look beyond that. This is what being a SEL facilitator helped me explore. Though it takes time to develop and hone this, I am still redefining the ways of educating our students based on my everyday interaction with them and trying to understand their other identities apart from their single stories.

About the author:

Shruti Napeer studied Masters in social work from the Tata Institute of Social sciences Guwahati. She has worked with Piramal Foundation as Program Lead for a brief period of one year. Currently, she is working with the Apni Shala Foundation as a program Fellow. When Shruti is not facilitating sessions or working in the office you will find her clicking pictures and traveling.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Ritu Dhar says:

    Seeing a young lady enter into a dream profession of being a teacher and so quickly realising what is the correct way to comprehend a child’s actions is incredible. Moving away from stereotyping them and further trying to look into their potentials as a citizen is wonderful.
    My blessings and good wishes are always there with you Shruti .
    Ritu Ma’am

    Liked by 1 person

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