What India can learn from the US Primary Schools

Sujatha R
10 min readFeb 4, 2018

First Impressions and Best Practises of the US Elementary Schooling

In 2016, we moved to the USA from Bangalore, and my kids joined the elementary school here in Grade 2 and Grade 5. With the stark changes and my exceptional first-year curiosity, I couldn’t stop making these observations. Maybe the practices are very specific to the schools, grades, and teachers here but never mind.. An inspiration is an inspiration. There are quite a few pitfalls too, but that’s not the objective of this post.

Schools are zen houses that provide tools and foundations to instill curiosity, creativity, and logical thinking, and expand the dimension of learning and awareness in this universe. If I were to describe Elementary schools here in a few words -Immersive, Rational, Friendly, and a Self Discovering Environment.

ENGLISH- Foster Creative Expression

Back in Bangalore, we have grammar, creative writing, textbooks, Q&As. My older one was an avid reader, but not interested in creative writing.. Here it was a game changer. English was only about expression and creative writing.. Every few weeks, different categories and tips were introduced, and the children had complete freedom in picking up topics they were passionate about. They did personal narratives, a poem for Mother’s Day, a memoir about their science camp, debate writing, exploratory writing, Wikipedia posts and presentations, trifold presentation, and marketing pitch. The entire focus was on encouraging the creative outburst and expressing all by themselves.. Maybe not so much emphasis on handwriting, spelling and literary styles.

In my opinion, the ability to express themselves confidently through various means gives them a headstart in their professional lives later on. As an engineer in an MNC in Bangalore, I often used to wonder, what were the schools like in US to foster innovation and technology..

Kids are also encouraged to read 30 minutes of a library book every day, and parents sign off the log sheet every month.

For my second grader, he was introduced to different genres of books like science fiction, informative, biographies, autobiographies etc. Each month, the teacher would provide the template and instructions for the project which I think is a stark difference from schools back in India where projects are considered nightmares for parents.

ART CLASSES -Re-living the Pride of Historical and Geographical Diversities

Hailing from the land of art and culture, I wish I wish the Chitrakala Parishads and art colleges integrated Indian Art lessons into the school curriculums.

The art class is a 90 minute session conducted once in 2 weeks. Roughly 30 minutes of theory and 60 minutes of practice. Different techniques like 2 point perspectives, human figures, birds, clay pots, glazing, and photography were introduced. At the same time, the theory class illustrates famous painters/paintings from different eras, geographic areas, paintings from museums, Whitehouse as appropriate to the geography and history curriculum.

In fact before the science camp, they had lessons on sketching and photography basics to enhance their skills.

Back in India, students could be exposed to Warli, Madhubani, Jaipur like templates and connect to the 25 states.. Very simple mediums like stone, glass, cloth could be used.. I wonder if any school or the government is giving thought to this.. I started off collecting templates in pinterest and dropped midway how many things could a person chase :)

SCIENCE

Back in India, I think Environmental Science is sort of looped in grade 1,2,3 and 4. Here in grade 2, they have glimpses of science like Force, Gravity, Centre of Mass, Insects, study of Rocks etc. No tests or home work though.. In grade 3, My younger one watched Tesla movie in his class and was so fascinated by AC current working principle and had crazy ideas about what would happen if a flame was kept between magnets etc.

In Grade 5, they have a variety of topics like circulatory, respiratory systems, venation of leaves, diffusion etc. They have laboratory access to check their facts..

A weeklong science camp in the woods is the much-awaited event for every 5th grader. The students are prepared for almost 6 months for this nature camp where they trek and learn about marine life. I was taken aback by the passion in the teachers for making this a memorable event in the life of their children.

In grade 3, there is quite a lot of Tesla talk about AC current, Tesla movies..

PHYSICAL EDUCATION — A Must

This is so very mandatory here by the school district. Every week, the students get trained for 2 hours on fitness aspects like pushups, crunches, body conditioning, endurance etc.. They have to pass the expected criterion set up by the district. They are introduced to techniques for playing different sports like frisbee, basketball, and tether ball. Children also use the 1-hour lunch break to play a sport with friends and win charms for participating in lunch laps.. On the walkathon day, each class including the teachers makes around 15 laps around the ground to encourage running/walking.

Back in India, infrastructure could be a problem. Schools should take fitness and sports coaching more seriously even in the allotted time and infrastructure

HISTORY & GEOGRAPHY — The Art of Narrating Stories

I think every other person of my generation would agree with the Indian style of Social Studies.. Nightmare for many.

Like the art teacher had once described, Geography is a graphical study of the world around us. Back in India, my son was not very interested.. I remember the mothers sighing in relief when the states of India was finally done is grade 4. Too much of facts and very less projects.. A few thoughts on making Social Sciences interesting for kids by sharing our first experience in the US elementary schooling.

This year, he is studying US history and geography.. A mammoth initially as everything sounded new.. To quickly get started with the 50 states and capitals, they have a 50 nifty song for girls and a rap version for boys.. After one month of classes in US, my son started complaining the other way.. Not fair..We have very few geography periods in a week.. Thanks to his teachers, it turns out to be his favorite subject now.

National Geographic conducts geobee.. Similar to math olympiads and it is a good way to keep the kids who like quizzing engaged.. And fun apps like Stack the States and Stack the Country..

Apart from sharing videos and presentations in the classroom, the teacher uploads an interesting jeopardy quiz matrix for every chapter. It is hosted in https://jeopardylabs.com/ I think it is a nice way to summarise and quiz..

A few projects that I can recollect..

  • Native American Totem Pole -Each animal represented certain qualities.. So make a colourful totem pole stacking multiple animal cutouts vertically representing your parents, siblings, grandparents etc on a chips box..
  • On the explorers topic, the entire class was divided into pairs.. Each pair had to make a presentation in google docs on one Explorer.. By the end of the presentations, the kids get to know abt 15 plus explorers.. I only heard of Captain Cook Salt but did not know he discovered island of Hawaii :) I wished we had such teachers in our times.. I always dreaded Social Sciences..
  • For Christmas break, a very interesting linear optimisation project.. Santa Claus wants to visit 26 places/attractions from East Coast to West Coast in alphabetical order.. He should maximise the number of states visited in the least amount of days.. So come out with the list of 26 places and states.. So the kids got interested in noting all the city names all of a sudden.. We tried to do this for India later at home..
  • Apprentice Project — Kids had to make an colonial apprentice avataar of their self on a cardboard.. Carpenter, Baker etc..
  • Colonial Day — A fun filled day for children to mark colonial period; Everybody including teachers are dressed in colonial clothes and different activities like colonial dance, handicrafts, carpentry are organised.

CONNECTING DIFFERENT SUBJECTS

Probably there is a theme in the different Subjects. Like in 5 grade the Art, Music, Geography and History revolved around American Revolution and American Geography.

Like in 6 grade, at I hear, they are learning scientific principles of observation, deduction, hypothesis.. So they kind of have similar learning in English as well as Math so that the concept is reinforced deep within.

In the Indian Context, definitely art, music, history, geography, sanskrit and yoga can be weaved so well. We need creative people to pitch in and design these modules..

ACCESSIBILITY

It seemed just like the preschool days when we could walk into the schools and classrooms.. There are hardly any mommy whatsapp groups here as the teachers are directly accessible over phone, email and after school… Hierarchy is not a big thing here. The principal is seen assisting the children with traffic management.. If we do not report an absentee, school calls back in 15 minutes after start of day to check that the child was indeed absent and no other incident to be worried of. Considering the fees of Indian premier schools, basic electronic accessibility should be given to feel connected with the school and the teacher in my opinion.

PASSION, OWNERSHIP, TRUST, ASSERTIVENESS, SOFT SKILLS ..

Just like I see the passion in Western engineers, the teachers seemed very passionate about their job. The second-grade teacher says she really likes teaching second graders and has been doing for 20 years. Teachers are very Tech Savvy… From hosting websites, generating word maps, and giving updates on NASA for kids to sending pictures of classroom updates to parents.. During the Science Camp, it was amazing to see the ownership that the teachers displayed.. To match the deficit funds, they talked to corporates.. Children were taught how to click good photos and make good sketches and notes beforehand.. Teachers enroll for different programs like GeoBee, Math Olympiad, and Math League and parents do not have to bother with registrations and know how.. Teachers over here seldom shout at children.. They use soft skills and assertiveness to make friends and win the respect of their young buddies.. Something which I want to learn as a parent..

LIFE SKILLS

Students are taught Life Skills that go life long. They take turns in emptying trash bins, cleaning the class every day.. For older kids they need to pick 2 jobs of their choice like home work help for absentees, traffic management, flag hoisting, helping younger kids, computer technicians, library help etc.. This way they learn the importance of being self dependent and doing chores with respect. This is something missing back in India in more upstream schools.

PARTNERING WITH GOVT INSTITUTIONS

The Sheriff makes frequent friendly visits to the school to teach them about safety, traffic rules, disaster management drills. The local lady Mayor has opportunities for the girl students to have a chat with her and discuss her role. The Science museum comes to the school and conducts simple experiments that every child can enjoy.

PARENT VOLUNTEERING

A big backbone to the school.. right from assisting lunch tables, conducting art classes, serving goodies during walkathons, conducting ice cream socials to fall parties, chaperoning field trips and camps… volunteering makes a lot of difference.. It also gives parents an opportunity to be part of their children’s schooling.

OLYMPIADS & COMPETITIVE EXAMS

Well this is not directly related to school.. In Bangalore, we used to have Math, Science, English, Cyber and now they have GK. The Math olympiad was reasonably good. Science expected knowledge of the subject and little boring, English was OK and Cyber was hardly logical and extremely pathetic as it expected the 3rd grade 4th grade kid to be Windows OS manual and after being a SW Engineer, even I could not answer many of the questions.. So think about the motivation for a third fourth grade kid.

Competitive Math is totally at a different level here and is targeted typically at 3 levels elementary, middle and high school and not for every grade a different paper. For example, for 4th and 5th graders, they have an olympiad test every 3 weeks. Every test has only 5 questions.. And at the end of 5 tests, they are assessed for the 25 questions. The questions are extremely logical and test the critical thinking and analytical abilities and not just the rote applications. In middle school they have opportunities to compete in AMC, MathCONT which is altogether at a different level. Came across a book published by the topper of these elite exams and I wonder if this was in India, a potential IIT candidate taking time to write an interesting book ? May be the Math league competitions in India are not that strong as the winners for International Olympiads are mostly from other Asian Countries.. May be I am wrong..

WHAT IS MISSING HERE ?

Well, Comparison is not the intent in this post.. Just for completeness putting it here.. Kids miss the GK competitions, Quiz workshops, the elaborate school culturals. They were delighted to get rid of Languages though..

Back here, many Asian parents get jittery that the quantum of Math in school is not enough and enroll for Russian Math, Kumaon extra Math Classes.. This is not the case definitely in Bangalore schools for Elementary Levels.. The quantum of Homework, Tests, Rote Memory, additional Language Skills is very less compared to Indian Schools.. Unless kids know how to use this free time non disruptively, it can become very distracting with gadgets..

With too much logical raising, Kids here start challenging everything right from our beliefs, culture and sometimes we need to be ready with logical answers to fuel them in the right direction.. The concept of “Guru Math Pitha Devo Bhava” may be hard to digest and as a friend puts it “a war of argument between dad and his genes.. who is more logical” Definitely with logically charged kids, parenting becomes an issue.

And Indian Languages .. Kids loose the connect at times when not willing to learn it from Indian Language Centres outside..

On the other hand, fearing competition from Asians, some parents put their children to private schools and the circle repeats .. they try to mimic the rigour and rote methods of Indian schooling.

It is time we bring disruptive changes in Indian Education system. Children are not grammarians, Linguists or Historians to memorise facts and go by the rule books.. We are in the era of Google and past the colonial days.. Reinforce the concept and facts by innovative methods. Link the subjects. Involve young crowd to come up with popular songs.. Involve parents and hear their ideas.. Make children aware and proud of Indian History and contribution to the world. Improve the Math breed. Hope to see HRD ministry making changes in education system to making it more refreshing, enjoyable and fuelling the spirit of self enquiry.US

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Sujatha R

I write.. I weave.. I walk.. कवयामि.. वयामि.. यामि.. Musings on Music, Linguistics & Patterns