Martha and Tom's visit to India has so completely occupied my life for the past few weeks I have literally done almost nothing but plan for it and then revel in it. This morning, the day I take them to Delhi for their return flight to the US, I am awake at 4:30 AM, unable to comprehend that it is already about to end. I am feeling such a mix of emotions: sadness that is over, pride in it having gone so beautifully and utter amazement at what their coming here has accomplished.
Here they are at the airport in Delhi one week ago (Tom, as usual, eternally ON: who could say he had been traveling for the past 24 hours?).
Martha is my oldest and dearest friend outside of my family. We met in 5th grade and we have been close ever since. By a strange series of coincidences, we ended up in the same field - though on different continents and from different angles: she has a Ph.d in Special Education and is the head of a teacher preparation program at Salve University in Newport Rhode Island and I, with no official qualifications, am running a foundation for children with special needs in India.
Over the years, I have grown more and more dependent upon her for new ideas and approaches to our work. She has recommended books, films, computer programs - all in an effort to work more effectively with our kids. As every suggestion turned out to be a winner, it finally occurred to me to ask her to come over herself and be the next speaker in our Sir Rata Tata Trust Distinguished Lecture Series.
But because we don't believe in keeping anything simple and because we DO believe in the principle of faida utthao, we also asked her to do a seminar for principals, a workshop for mainstream school teachers and a training session for special educators. While I did feel guilty for making her work so hard, the benefits to the Foundation were so diverse and manifold, I overcame my remorse. She was a triumph.
Each audience was so different that her presentation was, by necessity, different as well. Yet the essential message was the same: Focus on the learner - not on the teacher, not on the test, not on the syllabus. What do we want our children to possess when they emerge from school? A long string of memorized facts and figures (the agricultural products of Madhya Pradesh, the height of Mount Everest, the mean temperatures of the Sahara) or "Enduring Understandings"?
Enduring Understandings, a concept developed by two brilliant educators Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, on whose research Martha bases much of her own work, include the ability to think creatively and analytically, the ability to research, to connect, to perceive patterns and relationships and to work constructively as part of a team to design new solutions for problems and challenges as yet undreamed of.
She laid out the grand design in summary form in the first lecture and then filled in the gaps over the rest of the week with educators at various levels in a series of specific sessions which were fascinating, informative, provocative and funny. Over and over, she reminded each group of their professional skills - reassuring them that including every child and designing the classroom so that all could learn was what they were trained to do. It's not that difficult, she kept saying.
The metaphor she used was an instructive one, especially in India, where food and hospitality are so central to our lives. Think of a large family gathering, she said, which all of us have hosted at one time or another. In planning the meal, we prepare a central group of standard party dishes which almost everyone will be sure to like: karhai paneer, dal makhani, aloo jeera, gobhi masala, raita, poori. But for Masiji, who can't eat anything fried, we make sure to have plain chapatti; for Bhaiya who is on a strict diet, we have some raw salad, dal without the tarka and steamed vegetables. And because half the people love mirchi and half can't take it, we have two separate versions of every dish.
We have all done this countless times. In the very beginning, for the inexperienced cook, it can be a daunting task. But for the old pros, it's a piece of cake. We do it with our eyes closed. And we don't think of Masiji or Bhaiya or the 50% who don't eat mirchi (or the 50% who do) as having "special needs". They are all just part of the family.
That was Martha's message: There aren't special children or typical children - there are just children. There aren't my children or your children - there are just our children. And just as Masiji has the right to her chapatti and Bhaiya has the right to his salad, every child, regardless of learning style, has the right to an education.