I can be a literary snob, turning up at my nose at people who read Sidney Sheldon or Danielle Steele. But I have my bestseller favorites as well. Jeffrey Archer certainly is one. A master story teller, he never fails to create stories that keep you hooked. I finished reading ‘Only Time Will Tell’, the first book of the Clifton Chronicles on Diwali day. Amid all the madness of Diwali, I found myself stealing time to take in a few pages. What is it that makes some books so addictive and engrossing?
Archer’s formula appears, to me, to play on our close identification with certain values that we consider admirable, that evoke warmth within us. Values and traits like moral uprightness, bravery, sacrifice, loyalty, humility and I could go on and on, conform to our sense of ‘right’ or ‘good’. Archer creates a central character who is disadvantaged in some way (in this case, Harry Clifton is a fatherless, poor child). Then he builds another set of characters who play key roles in helping the hero overcome his difficulties (in this book, he uses the character of Harry’s mother to deliver a strong commentary on motherhood, female strength and the ability for the poorest and weakest to dream big). The negative character in the story is also human, in the sense that his scheming and meanness are all born out of certain explainable circumstances and of course, that famous English concept of ‘weak character’.
Add to this compelling set of people who push all our right emotional buttons, Archer sets a strong historical and social context. The 2nd World War is about to begin while the English are still reeling from the people they lost in the first. The play off between the upper class and working class backgrounds of the people in the book adds layers to the story (friends, lovers, colleagues from the two opposite ends of the social spectrum) and people everywhere in the world can relate to the conflicts this sort of situation creates.
And finally, Archer absolutely excels in using simple English, sticking to short sentence constructions but never boring the reader. In fact, brevity is something I really admire in him for we know too many authors who ramble on and on! Cannot wait to get my hands on the 2nd book.
Kids enjoy their summer vacation to the hilt. At least mine do. Whether we travel or not, whether we do interesting things or not, both the children manage to keep themselves thoroughly occupied. Udai, now eight, lives in an imaginary world created by the books he reads all day. Aadyaa is at that wonderful age when she can create an imaginary world all by herself. Along with her friends or even alone, she created interesting plots through role play. Her characters have outlandish names. She incorporates all the activities, mannerisms and attitudes she observes in adults around her and parodies them in her little games. It is fascinating to watch and being a silent observer has many rewards, including a priceless insight into the innocence and creativity that children inherently possess.
A favorite game they play is what she calls ‘Ram-Ram’. Last year in playschool, her class performed an adaptation of the Ramayan in rhyme form. The story had an interesting twist, with Ravan apologizing to Ram in the end for all the mess he created! Aadyaa and her pals recreate several adaptations of the barebones Ramayan plot. In the park downstairs, sometimes there are three little girls all playing the role of Sita, with one Ram in tow. The other day, they tired of the the kidnapping and decided to enact the bit about Ram, Lakshman and Sita leaving for the forests and building a home for themselves. I was sitting nearby and was told to play a two-bit role of Dashrath and weep while they walked away into the jungle, holding their imaginary bows and arrows!
Another typical game, common to many little girls, is the routine of feeding, bathing and clothing all her imaginary children, ten of them no less! In her head, they range in age from a new born to some seven years. That she in only four does not bother her a bit! Their names are so bizarre- the oldest is Turkish (we took the airline to Barcelona a year ago and the name has stuck!) and the youngest is Saaha (we cannot give away her stuff, it has to be all kept for the baby)! When Udai was about this age, he had an imaginary girlfriend called Alisha Shopshish, who lived in Bangalore and visited him in a Posche! Many of our friends and relations still fondly remember this phase.
It fascinates me to see how their real worlds and their imagined ones come together to create such well-rounded fantastic plots, how they can sustain and feed the same plot for weeks and months on end, how they never tire…Yet we adults tend to accuse kids of low attention spans because our idea of good attention span is playing with blocks for 30 minutes in a row! I can just hope their imagination remains ever fertile even when they grow up. I’m hoping that, as a parent, I am able to provide an environment conducive for creative thinking and free expression for many years to come!
The first half of yesterday was spent attending the school PTM. Fortunately, in Shikhantar, its not a typical deal where you hear what the teacher has to say about your child, where she can improve, how good or naughty she is, etc. We usually have a short group session in each classroom where general observations and concerns are shared and curricular goals discussed. Then parents of a single batch are brought together to discuss something relevant to the age group. I always complain that many of these sessions become criticisms of modern parenting methods and laments on current lifestyles and not much constructive emerges.
This time was different as the session was conducted by E K Shaji from Jodo Gyan, an exemplary non-funded, non-profit organization that focuses on making math fun for kids. They work with kids in government schools and train teachers at some private schools including Shikshantar, which is a liberal institution, one of very few in perhaps the entire country that isn’t scared to break the mold and act in the true interests of children.
Shaji is an entertaining teacher, using humor, drama, narration and discipline in equal measure to hold his audience. He demonstrated simple ways to teach grade 3 kids the concepts of fractions and multiplication.
Here is some stuff that struck me particularly:
- Concept of math for children is totally different from the adult conception of math
- The entire objective of primary school math education should be to make children fall in love with math
- To make kids understand math, it has to be set in a familiar context and have some emotional content. Also, the problem has to be worth solving. He demonstrated by narrating a story of a kid who loves cake going to another child’s birthday. There he finds several tables, each with identical cakes on them, but with different numbers of people, 3, 5, 7, 9 seated at each table…Where does he sit? I tried it at home and bang on…the kids knew the table with the least number of people would mean you get the biggest piece of cake! Ingenious 🙂
- Challenge is what drives kids to learn. The idea to expand their horizons and make them see the limitlessness of math, not give them repetitive problems to solve…..
Shaji emphasized the role of practice in being able to develop math skills. He also enlightened us about recent research that shows that even right brained people, previously thought to be not as good at math at the left-brained variety, go on to become brilliant at math if they have good math teachers during pre-primary schooling.
Essentially, the foundations of good math are being laid in nursery and kindergarten, through conceptual clarity. I picked up a couple of Jodo toys yesterday for Aadyaa who is 4 and I’ve had several at home for Udai as well. They are simple and allow young children to make endless patterns, strengthen their fine motor skills, make connections and have a lot of fun while at it. Its like having many variations of Lego-type blocks (which I think are the best ever toys for kids!).
For grade 3, they have games focused on place value, fractions, multiplication, division…strengthening concepts that are essential to moving to more abstract mathematics and algebra in middle school.
We spent our Sunday at home playing another math game, that coincidentally my mum got back with her from a recent trip to the Netherlands (that’s where one of the institutes that collaborated with Jodo Gyan is based; 55% of their content is adapted from R&D in Netherlands, Scandinavia and Belgium). I played Rummikub too as a child and it’s great for developing the concept of sequences and its super family entertainment. Like Scrabble, it will challenge all age groups. In the first round today, Udai seemed to be just abut getting comfortable, but I predict many hours will be spent playing Rummikub in the soon-to-commence summer vacations!