Privacy and Sexuality

This article was part of the longer piece that Reshma Valliappan and I wrote for Tarshi’s In Plainspeak, a digital magazine on sexuality in the Global South.

­Welcome to 8th grade in a municipal school in urban Pune, a co-ed classroom with 18 boys and 12 girls, each of them unique in their own right. The most important factor that brings them together as a tightly-knit group is their age-range: 12-14 years. All these students are at the cusp of adolescence, a stormy yet irresistible world full of intense emotion, risk, and novelty. As they move away from parents to their peers for their attachment needs, the first peer group readily available to them is in their class. In the words of Dr. Daniel Siegel, these teens perceive their need to belong to their peer group as a matter of life and death, so much so that they can sacrifice morality for membership. In such a high-stakes environment, what should Atisha, Bala, and Fana (names changed) do when their all-consuming need to belong is at conflict with their private sexual choices?

Atisha decides to accept a relationship proposal from Virat in her class. Suddenly, the rebellious adolescents seem to not rebel at all, but follow the age-old patriarchal rules, only now, they recruit themselves to be in charge of upholding the law of the land. Atisha is immediately and unequivocally labelled a slut by her classmates – both boys and girls. Groupthink ensures that Atisha is alienated. Girls don’t want to be seen as “easy” themselves by supporting her. Boys don’t want to be seen as future husbands with low moral standards by being friendly with her. Pratap even walks up to her and says, “Come to me when he’s done with you.”

This is a community that will use Atisha’s private choices to justify their attack on her human dignity day in and day out with the choicest of synonyms of “slut” under the noses of oblivious teachers.

What must Atisha do?

Bala from the same class is approached by Sailesh, “Will you be my girlfriend?” Her “no” is respected and accepted until two days later when Sailesh’s best friend Ameet asks her out. Her second “no” is met with disbelief, but is still taken. But when Bala rejects Rakesh, best friend to both Sailesh and Ameet, the boys are baffled. Bala didn’t just reject one’s individual manhood. She ended up rejecting the combined manhood of the group. The assault on their ego was so painful for them to bear that they reframed their rejection as Bala’s rejection of all men. They told anyone and everyone they met that Bala is a lesbian and screamed “lesbo” when she entered class every morning while everyone else who watched sniggered.

Bala didn’t want to date Sailesh, Ameet, or Rakesh. What must Bala do?

Fana has decided that she doesn’t want to be part of romantic relationships until she completes school. Boys and girls who have decided to explore relationships already see it as an attack on their choices, although, as far as I know as their class teacher, Fana has never said or done anything to ridicule their choices. They are hurt by her rejection of their way of being, and as revenge, they now call her chhakka (hijra). A bunch of them surround her each morning when she enters the class and clap like a chhakka would at a traffic signal. Others laugh along.

What must Fana do?

In this microcosm of the world where privacy is honoured and respected as long as one’s choices tow the line drawn by the powerful (bullies), what options do Atisha, Bala, and Fana have if they want to defy the rules? All teachers and parents have consistently asked them to cut off from these groups of boys and girls which seems like a reasonable option to my adult brain. Would this option still seem reasonable to an adolescent brain? To cut off is to risk alienation – no friends, no community, no place where they belong, no place that belongs to them.

This world is not very different from the adult world, a world which believes that private realities and choices, such as the size of a woman’s breasts, who one is dating, how long one has been single, whether one wants to have children, when one wants to have children, are all legitimate matters of public discourse. The need to belong is not a need that ends in adolescence either; it is a fundamental human need, next only to physiological and safety needs in Maslow’s hierarchy, and exists for as long as we live.

What does one do when the external forces that scrutinize our private intimacies are the communities we want to belong to?

Togetherness with Chronic Migraine

This post was published by PatientsEngage here.

Is it possible to have a debilitating disability such as chronic migraine and still be a together teacher?

Short answer: Yes

The long answer follows.

In 2014, Maia Heyck-Merlin’s The Together Teacher: Plan Ahead, Get Organized, and Save Time! not only saved my time, it saved my life. I slowly stopped running around like a headless chicken and found my footing as a new teacher. Over the next two years, I repeatedly revised my togetherness system to almost perfect. Just when I thought I had it all conquered, life happened.

A freak sneeze on a cold December morning in 2017 brought everything to a standstill. I felt something in my neck snap and what followed was the worst migraine of my life. It lasted 12 days and knocked the wind out of my sails. My doctor informed me that my episodic migraine had regressed into chronic migraine. My body slowly turned into a train wreck. I was angry, frustrated, dejected, and anxious, all at the same time. It felt like the life I had carefully orchestrated for myself was snatched away from me.

Over the next six months, I repeatedly tried and failed to bring my life back in order. My daily worksheet, weekly worksheet, and monthly comprehensive calendar – the pillars of my sanity – no longer kept me on top of things; instead they stared at me each night, reminding me of everything I could no longer do and be. Migraine had taken over my life.

The Migraine Trust reports that migraine is ranked globally as the seventh most disabling disease among all diseases. The innumerable triggers and paralyzing pain along with short term memory loss, loss of the sense of time and difficulty finding words makes living hard. A MIDAS score of 40+ had already started sowing seeds of doubt in my mind about my ability to continue being a teacher. Being a together teacher seemed too far fetched. Thankfully, Ayurveda and my supportive husband kept me from accepting that all was lost.

Over the last 1.5 years, my MIDAS score has been consistently decreasing, and about a year ago, I began to believe that I can get my life back. I tried to get back on track using my carefully created togetherness system. It didn’t take long to realize that I couldn’t keep up. I could never go beyond 2 days on track: migraine, migraine aura or sometimes just fear kept ensuring that my system collapsed. I had to come to terms with the fact that my old ways wouldn’t work anymore and find a way to integrate my new companion, however painful, to my togetherness system. This post briefly describes the features of my new togetherness system, the result of a year-long experiment in making friends with pain.

Live in advance

It’s easier to beat pain when you are ahead of pain.

I ensure that I am ahead in both my school work and house work to overcome the angst of not having assurances of future time. I plan the following week’s lessons in a 4-hour time chunk on Saturdays and cook the next day’s meals every evening. I have had to compromise and accept that I am not as responsive as I’d like to be in my lesson plans, and that I don’t eat freshly cooked meals.

Buffer, and then buffer some more

It is easier to make friends with pain if you make time for pain.

I incorporate buffer time in the order of 25-50% to every task. This includes four days of housework instead of seven, and scheduled downtime on all evenings and Sundays. Large buffer times allow guilt-free suffering on migraine days while enabling rest and rejuvenation on non-migraine days. Ergo, fewer migraine days.

Automatize pain and recovery

Pain is easier to suffer through when you know exactly what to do.

My inability to think well during a migraine often leads to poor choices and lasting regret. Here’s what I use I avoid any important thinking at the time:

  1. A MEDICINE KIT with medicines and other migraine essentials that are easy to find even with eyes closed.
  2. A BARE MINIMUM LIST of just enough tasks to expedite recovery and prevent a giant mess that unravels once the pain subsides. The list is devoid of all tasks that can wait. It prevents me from having to prioritize tasks in the middle of agony and reduces the stress of having to find time for reset days after the postdrome.
  3. A FIRST-THINGS-FIRST LIST of tasks that I need to do soon after postdrome to help me get back on track as soon as possible.
  4. DRAFTS OF MESSAGES that I can send to colleagues, friends, and family during the pain. This greatly eases my anxiety about jeopardizing relationships.

All grand plans notwithstanding, there are days when the pain incapacitates me beyond what careful planning and preparation can salvage. There are other days when my brain is so cognitively compromised that I forget that there’s a system I have built to help myself. And then, there are the plain, hopeless days when I am so depressed that I resign to fate and give up.

Although the only way out of pain, brain fog, and dejection is through, my togetherness system slightly makes it easier for me to be patient with myself.

Writing Workshop for ELLs: A Blog Series – Part 3: L1 When Only L1 Makes Sense

This is part 3 of the 4-part series on Writing Workshop for ELLs. Please find the other parts here.

Using L1 strictly in the context of teaching English while sticking to English when it matters most to the child defeats the point. Here are two situations when encouraging the use of L1 can be invaluable to the child:

Writing to Process Emotions

Writing is a great vehicle to process emotions. For the teenage child who is going through a roller coaster of emotions everyday, the writing class has the potential to turn into a safe haven – quiet time safeguarded by a loving adult that enables the child to look inside, untangle raw emotions and unresolved feelings to create writing of value that is read, appreciated and celebrated by peers and teachers. This extraordinary tool is sometimes squandered away because of our intended and unintended behaviours and actions that imply that other languages don’t have any place in the English class. Maya’s unresolved anger at an adult she cannot question demonstrates my point.

Maya is a struggling ELL who has a tough home life. She can think in deep and complex ways. She writes Shayari in Hindi – proof that she uses language to process emotions and express sophisticated thoughts. But in the English class, she is almost invisible and tries her best to go unnoticed by her peers and teachers. An incident with an adult in power left her feeling extreme anger. She wanted to write about it. After three classes of almost nothing on paper, she wanted to abandon the piece and choose something else to write on. The memory of the seething anger in her eyes three classes ago forced me to nudge her. I asked her to write down her initial thoughts in Hindi. She went on to fill a page full of questions to the adult she may never be able to pose in person. A part of her writing is shown in the picture below:


She didn’t want to continue working on the poem to take it to completion. She had toyed with the idea to see where it goes. Once her anger was released, the idea had served its purpose, like many other drafts of a writer which go nowhere. She moved on to write a poem about her aspirations to join the army.

Difficult Conversations

Many ELLs I teach are first generation learners. The pressure on them to perform is immense: expectation from parents, extended family, teachers, peers and mostly themselves. This further complicates the other unavoidable battles they face anyway – poverty, immigration, lack of English at home, to name a few.

They sometimes resort to cheating in tests and plagiarism to save a grade. Having a conversation about something caused by the oppressive forces of English in English is needless irony. Speaking to students in their L1 in these situations not only makes the conversation easier due to their fluency in L1, but also lets them know that I honour their language.

As a multilingual Indian myself, I use Telugu to pray for my mother, Kannada to express love for my husband and English to write about my work. It is unnecessary to want to use English to pray or express love. Understanding this simple truth can make lives of ELLs in our classrooms better with no additional effort or cost.

In part 4 of the series, Sruti Sriram, a dear colleague will write about encouraging multilingual narratives.

Writing Workshop for ELLs: A Blog Series – Part 2: L1 in Writing Conferences

This is part 2 of the 4-part series on Writing Workshop for ELLs. Please find the other parts here.

Conferences are often more powerful than mini lessons as vehicles of craft and language instruction. This post addresses how L1 can be leveraged in conferences to specifically target language instruction.

Tackling Missing Lexical Knowledge

Many writing pieces that an ELL produces in English can turn out to be plain and devoid of sophisticated thinking not because there’s no complexity or maturity in her thought. In fact, many of my students have a profound understanding of life given the enormously disadvantaged situations they have to overcome on a daily basis from a young age. The potential of the writing workshop to mine these gems of insight and experience is short-circuited by their limited lexicon in English. A simple tweak in conferences can solve this problem.

Bhavya’s attempt to try something like Poem by William Carlos Williams with a twist, although not deep and insightful, demonstrates my point. The mouse in her poem makes a series of mouse-like movements to reach its targeted destination, a closet in the kitchen, to find out that the speaker’s mom had cleaned the closet out that day. She struggled to create a conclusion that lands and makes her twist work for the reader. When I walked up to her table, here’s what she had:babliHere’s a transcript of a part of my conference with Bhavya. It has been edited slightly for grammar.

Me: This is a great attempt, Bhavya. You’re trying to do what William Carlos Williams did in Poem, but with a twist.

Bhavya: (smiling widely) Yes.

Me: What would you like to talk about?

Bhavya: Nisha told me that the conclusion is very direct.

Me: What does direct mean?

Bhavya: She said that I must convey this message but not use these words.

Me: Why did she say so?

Bhavya: Because she didn’t feel surprised at the end.

Me: Hmm. . . what is the surprise you’d like to create?

Bhavya: The mouse is surprised that the cupboard is empty.

Me: Are you saying: usko thodi patha tha ki cupboard khali hain?

Bhavya: (nodding vigorously) Yes!

Me: There’s a way to say that in English. You could use the phrase “little did he know”.

(she wrote that down and said that she will edit the poem further)

Me: Let’s write that down in your vocab list. Make sure you include it in your retrieval practice for vocab.

Using a little bit of Hindi, I was able to honor Bhavya’s ideas and communicate a message she needed to hear: “You know what you’re talking about. You have thoughts that are worthy. You have difficulty saying it in English. Let’s find a way to do that.” It also allowed me to teach her the missing lexical knowledge because of which she struggled in the first place, in an authentic context in true workshop style.

Tackling Missing Grammar and Syntax Knowledge

Most Indian children are multilingual and very comfortably so. They have multiple languages in their families and easily code-switch between languages, sometimes in a single conversation without compromising on correctness.

Their struggles with English grammar are sometimes wrongly attributed to a weak foundation in L1 and their limited capacity to use the same as a springboard to learn English. Two important realizations regarding these attributions have served me in good stead.

  • My students are fluent L1 speakers

The fact that my students speak fluently in their L1 is not arguable. Until recently, I conflated their poor L1 writing with poor syntax and grammar in spoken L1. Sure, their writing in L1 may not have the best craft moves and may even be filled with grammar, punctuation and spelling errors. It is important to realize that leveraging L1 in the English classroom at a middle school level doesn’t require impeccable writing in L1. A basic hold on L1’s syntax and grammar is a great starting point.

  • The limited capacity is in my pedagogy, not their language learning abilities

Until recently, I knew very little about what languages my students speak at home and how proficient they are in each of them. Even when I knew that Hindi is the L1 for majority of my students, I knew very little about leveraging their knowledge of spoken Hindi grammar and syntax in the English classroom. I forced them to create new artificial schemas for a new grammar in an artificial environment. In the process, I ignored how they could use what they know to learn what they don’t know.

Comparing and contrasting L1 grammar with English grammar in conferences has been my first step towards taking advantage of my students’ multilingualism in the classroom.

Excerpts from two of my conferences that show a few key differences between English and Hindi demonstrate that it doesn’t take much to bring this into writing conferences:

Conference 1 with Asha

Asha: Ms. Aishwarya, in yesterday’s conference, you said the word order in this sentence is wrong. What should I change?

(The sentence in question: “I am giving you a dare. You can live without me for one day.”)

Me: “You can live without me for one day.” – Is this a statement or a question?

Asha: I am not sure.

Me: Can you say it in Hindi?

Asha: Kya tum mere bina ek din ji sakti ho? [Can you live without me for a day?]

Me: You are asking a question. You wouldn’t say kya otherwise.

Asha: Yes. But what is the problem here? (points to her sentence in English)

Me: Word order. Let me explain.

In Hindi, “Kya tum mere bina ek din ji sakti ho?” is a question. “Tum mere bina ek din ji sakti ho” is a statement. Is that correct?

Asha: Yes

Me: Do you notice that the order of the words tum mere bina ek din ji sakti ho remains the same in both the question and the statement. The question gets formed just by adding kya at the beginning of the sentence and a question mark at the end.

Asha: Yes

Me: In English, especially in written English where intonation and other contextual knowledge is not available to the reader, a question must follow its standard grammatical form.

For example, “You are eating.” changes to “Are you eating?” in question form. The order of the subject and the first helping verb* is inverted. **

Can we try with another example? “He will come”

Asha: “Will he come?”?

Me: That’s right. Now let’s go back to your sentence. “You can live without me for one day.”

Asha: “Can you live without me for one day?”

Me: Good. Now that you know the difference between a statement and a question, what fits in your writing at this point? Is the character making a statement or asking a question?

Asha: Asking a question. Got it.

Conference 2 with Anita

Please note the error: *Yeh meri book hain.

Anita struggled to understand why a construction such as “you were mine best friend” is wrong. My writing on Anita’s draft compares the syntax in Hindi and English for the same sentence and demonstrates that Hindi uses mera/meri to say both my and mine. It was easy for her to see that English works differently.

Again, using a little bit of Hindi, I was able to honor Anita’s ideas and communicate a message she needed to hear: “You know what you’re talking about. You have thoughts that are worthy. You are using a syntax pattern that works in Hindi. I’ll show you how English is different.” It also allowed me to teach her the missing  syntax knowledge because of which she struggled in the first place, in an authentic context in true workshop style.

* Currently, we use the word “helping verb to refer to auxiliaries and modals in my classroom.

** pg. 37, The English Verb: An Exploration of Structure and Meaning by Michael Lewis.

Part 3 in the series will address Writing Workshop for ELLs in the context of the writing process.


Chapter 4: The Role of L1 in the Lexical Approach from Implementing the Lexical Approach: Putting Theory Into Practice by Michael Lewis


Writing Workshop for ELLs: A Blog Series – Part 1: L1 in Mini Lessons

This is part 1 of the 4-part series on Writing Workshop for ELLs. Please find the other parts here.

The work of great writing teachers like Nancie Atwell, Donald Graves, Georgia Heard, X.J. Kennedy and Carl Anderson are at the heart of my writing classroom. Many of these lessons which use draft and final versions of mentor texts are effective because they are designed to evoke awe in the student when she notices how simply stated principles can change the game in one’s writing.

I classify writing mini lessons into 3 categories from the perspective of an ELL:

  1. Language Dependent: Lessons that are valid only in the English language. For example, Homonyms, Four Capitalization Confusions, and Suffixes: To Double or Not?
  2. Language Agnostic: Lessons that are valid as sound writing principles in any language. For example, Leads: Begin Inside, Cut to the Bone, and Considerations in Creating a Main Character.
  3. Language Sensitive: Lessons that require basic proficiency in English and a familiarity with the way words combine to produce an effect on the reader. For example, The Power of I, The Rule of Write About a Pebble, and Use Repetition.

I have found that Language Sensitive lessons present the most difficulty for ELLs. This difficulty is further exacerbated if the mentor texts are poems. Michael Lewis points out in his book, The English Verb: An Exploration of Structure and Meaning that “poets sometimes put together words which do not normally belong together, or use unusual syntax.” It takes one to know the usual syntax and words which do normally belong together to be able to recognize and appreciate the deftness with which poets “dislocate language into meaning”1.

To expect the ELL to get the mentor text, be affected by the words, and then analyze its effectiveness in 15 minutes can be unreasonable. It also makes such lessons, however carefully designed, esoteric, and ends up with the ELLs feeling, “I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t get it.”

Fortunately for us, Language Sensitive lessons are almost always Language Agnostic. Using mentor texts in L1 for such lessons can easily take the ELLs towards getting it. I will attempt to demonstrate this using The Power of I and a lesson on onomatopoeia.

The Power of I

When I read Nancie Atwell’s lesson, The Power of I, I was blown away both by the principle itself and how she masterfully orchestrates the learning experience for her students in the lesson. Much to my disappointment, my ELLs didn’t appreciate it as much as I had expected them to. Their poems with “I” were just that, poems with the word “I”. They could not exploit the power of I because they understood the lesson as: “change all occurrences of we, you, and they in the poem to I”.

The recent Hindi movie Gully Boy came to my rescue. In an interview with Film Companion’s Anupama Chopra, Zoya Akhtar, the movie’s director narrates how the most important song of the movie Apna Time Aayega [My time will come] got written.

Divine had written “Apna Time Aayega” and it was written as “Sabka Time Aayega” [Everyone's time will come]  and my dad read it and he said, “Sabka change kardo. Make it apna. Because apna is what you own. Apna is more personal. Apna will make you feel something.”

When this is used as the first mentor text, it takes all of 15 seconds for ELLs to nod, smile and for their eyes to show me that they get it. Once they do, asking them to engage with Atwell’s mentor text Wind by Ceysa McKechnie seems less unreasonable and more productive.

It is easy to conflate this idea with the value of bringing pop culture into the classroom by virtue of the example I have used. Although I have nothing against pop culture in the class, such a misunderstanding will undermine the power of L1 in an ELL classroom. Apna Time Aayega worked because they could immediately notice the power of I and its effect on them, and not only because they had been humming it since the song had released. It is important to view the change in lyrics by the veteran poet Javed Akhtar as an intelligent writerly choice that led to a blockbuster hit song as opposed to a hit song that worked in the classroom.

Word Music in Poetry

I love Knock at a Star: A Child’s Introduction to Poetry. It is by far the best resource I have found to introduce my ELLs to poetry. The poems chosen by the authors are testament to their genius as people who deeply love and understand both children and poetry. The poems are short, each of them have something for the young mind and soul, and they are organized beautifully without jargon, with the sole aim of encouraging children to like poetry. In the authors’ own words, these poems “amuse, delight, and engage children.”  The poems also help in providing the necessary foundation in poetry that my middle school ELLs need but lack. My students loved every one of these lessons until I taught them Word Music, specifically onomatopoeia using the examples in the book.

My Expectation When I Made the Lesson Plan

T reads the poem Rain by Emanuel diPasquale

S1: Wow Ms. Aishwarya! This poem about rain sounds just like rain.

T: That’s right, which words do you think sound like rain?

S2: brush

S3: hushes

T: Good. In XJ Kennedy’s words, “such a poem is full of word music as you’ll hear if you read it aloud. Good poets choose words with care. They are as much interested in the sound of a word as in its meaning.

“In one poem Emily Dickinson calls bees “buccaneers of buzz.” The description is an apt one because like pirates (buccaneers), bees roam around and steal something: juice from flowers. The “buzz” imitates their sound, besides.

“Edgar Allan Poe uses sounds in much the same way when he talks about “. . . the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain . . .” All those sssss sounds almost set up a rustling in our ears.

“A word which imitates the natural sounds of a thing is called onomatopoeia.”  Let’s note it down in our list of Words We Use When We Talk About Poetry.


I read the poem Rain by Emanuel diPasquale

<blank stares>

Me: Do you hear it?

S1: Yes

Me: What did you hear?

S1: The poem

Me: Ok, wait. What is this poem about?

S2: Rain

Me: That’s right. Do you hear the rain?

<Blank stares again; 2 students look out of the window to check if it’s raining.>

Me: Rushbrush? Don’t these words sound like rain?

<Blank stares yet again>

After class I walked up to my colleague Alekhya’s room who was waiting to tell me that the lesson flopped. She shared a few moments from her class with me:

Alekhya: What are the words we use for sound of rain?

S1: tip tip

S2: rhim jhim

Exasperated, she said to me, “Aishwarya, the sound of rain is different in India.”

With the newfound humility that this experience imparted me with, I present an alternate lesson plan to teach word music.

T reads a poem in L1 with onomatopoeic words

T: Do you hear the word music?

S1: Yes, sounds like rain.

S2: Where?

S3: The words sound like rain – tip tip

T:  That’s right. In XJ Kennedy’s words, “such a poem is full of word music as you’ll hear if you read it aloud. Good poets choose words with care. They are as much interested in the sound of a word as in its meaning.”

You have heard of dhuk-dhuk, the sound of heart beating, kuhoo kuhoo, the sound of the koyal [nightingale].

A word which imitates the natural sounds of a thing is called onomatopoeia. Something interesting about onomatopoeia is that a certain sound can have very differently sounding onomatopoeic words in different languages. For example, in English, dogs woof-woof, whereas in Hindi, dogs bau bau.

In the English poems that you read, you will find English onomatopoeic words. Let’s read  a poem in English in which the poet uses onomatopoeia effectively.

In conclusion, embracing the child’s L1 is not only simple, but also just pedagogically efficient in teaching English and fostering truly multilingual citizens.

Part 2 in the series will address Writing Workshop for ELLs in the context of writing conferences.

  • All mini lessons referenced are from Lessons that Change Writers by Nancie Atwell
  • 1 Michael Lewis quotes TS Eliot from his 1921 essay, The Metaphyscial Poets in The English Verb: An Exploration of Structure and Meaning
  • Knock at a Star: A Child’s Introduction to Poetry by X. J. Kennedy and Dorothy M. Kennedy

Writing Workshop for ELLs: A Blog Series

This Blog Series was featured on Two Writing Teachers here.

Being an English teacher in India is complicated. NCERT‘s Position Paper on the Teaching of English rightly calls English “A Global Language in a Multilingual Country”.

English is in India today a symbol of people’s aspirations for quality in education and a fuller participation in national and international life. Its colonial origins now forgotten or irrelevant, its initial role in independent India, tailored to higher education (as a “library language”, a “window on the world”), now felt to be insufficiently inclusive socially and linguistically, the current status of English stems from its overwhelming presence on the world stage and the reflection of this in the national arena.

Although the colonial roots of English may now be forgotten or irrelevant, its hegemony in the Indian society cannot be ignored. The language of opportunity, access, education and social standing is also a language that is oppressive in classrooms across the country. This is especially true for first generation English learners whose parents do not speak English.

This Blog Series attempts to explore how to embrace students’ multilingualism in a workshop classroom as not only an effective pedagogical choice, but also as a counter measure to the oppression of English on students from non-English-speaking homes.

Part 1: L1 in Mini Lessons

Part 2: L1 in Writing Conferences

Part 3: L1 When Only L1 Makes Sense

Coming Up: Part 4: L1 in the Writing – A Guest Post by Sruti Sriram

Learnings About Learning Needs

This post was written in collaboration with my dear colleague Savitha V and was published on in September 2018

As middle-school teachers working in the low-income sector in India, we face several external impediments such as insane workloads, lack of support systems and professional development opportunities, meager salaries and the expectation to innovate constantly.

In addition to this, a constant reality that has stared at our face everyday is learning gaps in students. Despite our best effort everyday, we have not been able to reach a few students, and every student we don’t reach has left a nagging feeling of inadequacy in us – a feeling that has remained long after the student graduated from our class and moved on, a feeling that forced us to question ourselves and our practices.

During our initial teaching years, we rightly attributed the learning gaps to our own teaching practices including curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. As our practices became more evidence-based and rooted in research, we began to reach more students. But some students still remained marginalized. It is at this point that we started asking if there’s anything else at play.

Unfortunately, none of our training had taught us that learning gaps are all too common and have two broad causes (Thambirajah, M.S; Ramanujan, L.L., 2016):

  • Developmental and learning difficulties which can be caused by socio-economic disadvantage, lack of educational opportunities, poor school attendance, change in medium of instruction, lack of family environment and stimulation necessary to facilitate development and learning, emotional turmoil due to child abuse, severe family dysfunction, insecure attachment etc. (Thambirajah, M.S; Ramanujan, L.L., 2016; Jensen, E., 2009)
  • Developmental and learning disabilities which are neuro-biological conditions that interfere with the acquisition, retention, or application of specific skills or sets of abilities caused by atypical brain functioning. (Thambirajah, M.S; Ramanujan, L.L., 2016)

We also learnt about the prevalence of learning difficulties and disabilities in the demographic our school served, the laws in India and abroad, the process of identification and assessment of learning difficulties and disabilities, and organizations and people in our city who could potentially support us.

Our preliminary knowledge about learning difficulties and disabilities was not enough to reach the marginalized students and made us feel even more inadequate and helpless. In the absence of resources and formal support systems for students with special needs (Turnbull,A.; Turnbull,R.;Shank,M.;Smith,S.J, 2004), it was clear that we had to find things we could do by ourselves to even be able to create a small difference in the learning experiences of our students.

Given that the demographic we serve is highly susceptible to learning difficulties, we started there. We started an Academic Support Group to provide explicit and targeted instruction to 15 students with learning difficulties. After about 6 months, we realized we still lacked certain crucial data. This led us to collect data about developmental and academic history of the students and the nature of their academic challenges –  from the teachers, parents and the students themselves – to gain insights about possibilities of developmental difficulties. As far as we could, we tried to find relevant support structures for the student – school counselor, social worker and the parents.

This still left us with a number of students whose academic failures we couldn’t explain. In addition to this, the underrepresentation of students with learning disabilities in our school (Thambirajah, M.S; Ramanujan, L.L.i, 2016) strengthened our suspicion about some of our struggling students having learning disabilities.

We learnt that Identification and assessment of learning disabilities are carried out by psychologists and involve three main stages. (Thambirajah, M.S; Ramanujan, L.L., 2016)

  • Initial screening – to identify those who may have a learning disability
  • Comprehensive assessment – to confirm or rule out a diagnosis
  • Psycho educational tests – in case of a confirmed diagnosis, to understand the specific difficulties of the student to be used to create an IEP.

In our city, generally, one round of initial screening is done by a special educator at school before the student is sent to a government hospital for identification and assessment. In the absence of resources at school, we couldn’t move forward in our investigation. Our reading led us to discover an encouraging development – the tools for the initial screening are becoming increasingly available to classroom teachers in recent times. (Thambirajah, M.S; Ramanujan, L.L., 2016)

In the following paragraphs, we have tried to explain in brief the key pieces of information that helped us conduct initial screening tests for dyslexia on our own.

[Cautionary notes:-

      • Screen positive is not the same as positive diagnosis.
      • Although, we suggest that one should err on the side of caution and conduct initial screening tests after ruling out all other causes for the learning difficulty, one must be aware of overrepresentation, the resultant labelling, the emotional impact on the student and other long term negative effects if this process is not carried out with utmost sensitivity.]
      • Inaccurate reading, difficulties in spelling and slow reading are the three cardinal features of dyslexia. (Thambirajah, M.S; Ramanujan, L.L., 2016)


  • In order to suspect dyslexia in a student, the professional should be able to answer the following questions in the affirmative. (Christo, C., Davis, J. M., & Brock, S. E., 2009)
    • Does the student perform significantly below his/her peers on measures of basic word reading and decoding skills?
    • Has the student had sufficient instruction?
    • Have you ascertained that the difficulties in reading are not due to another developmental disability such as ID, ADHD, or emotional disturbance?
    • Does the student have a deficit in phonological processing, orthographic processing, and/or rapid naming?
    • Does the student have oral language skills within the normal range?
  • Here are a set of tests that a classroom teacher could use for screening. (Thambirajah, M.S; Ramanujan, L.L., 2016)
    1. Single word reading and spelling tests –
      1. Schonell’s word reading test (Schonell, F. J., & Schonell, F. E., 1950)
      2. Schonell’s spelling test
    2. Tests of phonological awareness – (rhyme recognition, syllable deletion, phoneme recognition, phoneme differentiation, phoneme deletion, phoneme substitution)
    3. Tests of decoding – non word reading tests

Once our initial screening was done, we alerted the school administration about students who screened positive and we are trying to put together a system in place to address their needs. Since creating a system is a long-drawn process, we have been trying to figure out what accommodations we can already start providing to the students in class, and how we can change our pedagogy to suit them better. The most significant change in our pedagogy has been to move towards direct instruction from more inquiry/activity based methods. It helps that special education is based on sound educational practices that can be beneficial to even general-ed students.

In cases where the screening turned out to be negative, our quest to find out the root cause of the students’ learning difficulties continues.


  1. Thambirajah, M.S; Ramanujan, Lalitha Lakshmi (2016), Essentials of Learning Disabilities and Other Developmental Disorders: Sage, New Delhi. Pages 5, 6, 10, 31, 33, 40-41, 52, 55, 60-62.
  2. Jensen, Eric (2009),Teaching with Poverty in Mind: Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD, Page 13-45.
  3. Turnbull,Ann; Turnbull,Rudd;Shank,Marilyn;Smith,Sean J (2004), Exceptional Lives: Special Education in Today’s Schools: Pearson, New Jersey, Pg 15.
  4. Christo, C., Davis, J. M., & Brock, S. E. (2009). Identifying, assessing, and treating dyslexia in school, New York: Springer, Pg 89.
  5. Schonell, F. J., & Schonell, F. E. (1950). Diagnosis and assessment testing. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd.