“What do you know about Pakistan?” asked a hesitant Sarah Motiwala, facing a classroom of students at the Cathedral and John School in Fort few weeks ago. A Pakistani national, visiting India to get married and settle down with her husband, she was expecting the worst, given the tensions between the countries.
Nervous and stealing awkward glances at the teachers, she wondered whether signing up to speak to sixth graders at a South Mumbai school was a wise move.
To her surprise, students promptly responded:
“It’s full of valleys.”
“I’ve heard that it is a pretty place.”
“The beauty of Pakistan is often not the first thing that comes to a person’s mind, let alone to a sixth grader. I was quite surprised by the responses,” said Sarah.
Schools in Mumbai are experimenting with a new project, where they invite knowledgeable and articulate travellers to their classrooms to share stories about their journeys and their countries. Schools say that the interaction helps students get over stereotypes about other countries, their culture and residents.
At the Cathedral and John School programme, teachers were happy with the results of the interaction, which achieved something diplomatic talks have struggled to find: a friendship, a one-hour interaction with the students quizzing Sarah on Pakistani culture, admiring Pakistani truck art, and breaking stereotypes about the country.
Young minds are impressionable, and biases developed during childhood often take years to undo. Entrepreneurs Shirin Johari and Aarti Chhabria learnt this lesson in their 20s, when they travelled and found that the world is a lot different than how it is perceived within the closed walls of the school. This realisation led to Clap Talks, an initiative that puts schools in touch with foreign travellers, who come into the classrooms and share the stories of their lives with the children.
Clap is a free for all, no-cost platform, said its founders. Travellers are selected on the basis of their profiles. They must log onto the team’s website and write a detailed profile- consisting of background, what kind of experiences they will be able to share with students-on the Clap Talk website. The team then gets in touch with the travellers and guides them on how to conduct the talk. Registered schools choose the travellers they want to invite. Travellers have to follow a format for the talk given by the team
“In school I thought Germany was a bad country because my textbooks only spoke of World War II. I believed white skin was more beautiful than brown. I thought telling your family about your boyfriend was wrong, if you didn’t intend to marry him. Till I grew up, I thought cooking was a pretty much a woman’s job,” said Shirin, who started the programme with Aarti Chhabria. “Why must children wait to grow up before they question stereotypes and discover new worlds and ways of thinking?
A drive to break stereotypes by putting students in touch with travellers spurred the programme. “As a child my only exposure to foreigners was my dad’s Dutch and Swiss business customers. I remember the women being dressed in bold clothes and consuming alcohol. I grew up with the idea that being Western somehow meant being superior,” said Aarti.
So far, these talks have reached 21 schools in Mumbai, covering travels from 33 cities.
Schools are opting for the programme, as it offers a way for the children to see the world, without the risk of travel. “It is not the safest time to travel the world right now. So these talks are bringing the world to the students,” said Sheila Bhattacharya, IGCSE, coordinator, Gold Crest School, Vashi.
In fact, students learn a lot more than what they do on trips, Bhattacharya added. “People who come for the talks are backpackers, adventure-seekers, living an alternative lifestyle, far different from the brand and mall-driven culture that students are used to.”
They also develop a wider understanding of the world through such interactions, Bhattacharya said, “It gives students a bit of reality, they learn about the ordinary life of people abroad. Children begin to mature after meeting such a diverse group of people.”
After slum and wedding tourism, this is becoming a new trend for travellers, going much beyond mere sight seeing. Atthar, a musician from Rasht, Iran, who was in India to study vipassana, spoke to the children at First Steps, a preschool in Chowpatty, about his love for music, and meted out impromptu lessons on how to act in music videos. “This is a mandatory experience for any traveller who enjoys sharing culture, tradition and ways of living in different countries,” he said.
Inspiring young minds
At Vishwajyot High School, Navi Mumbai, Tracy Lee Howard, a globe-trotter from Cape Town, South Africa, shattered misconceptions about Africa. “I loved the fact that I could represent Africa in a positive way and the kids came away being very enthused and happy,” she said.
“The fundamental message is that all things are possible, even if we live thousands of miles apart. We are all connected,” said Tracy
Crossing the language barrier
Actions spoke louder than words when Alejandra Reich, an environmentalist from Argentina, interacted with Class 7 students from Universal School, Malad, despite language barriers. She communicated with the kids largely through gestures and expressions and taught them to dance the tango. “We understand each other very well, beyond words,” said Reich.
“I think it is a very interesting way to educate, generating interest and curiosity in children.”
How clap works
Children get to learn about different cultures through real stories and real people, and gradually develop an understanding of the world that is deeper than popular stereotypes. And travellers get to witness a slice of real life in a foreign land while making an actual difference to the lives of the people they meet. When schools sign up with Clap, they receive a kit complete with conversation aids and guiding flashcards. Similarly, travellers also receive a reference PPT, an uncomplicated presentation template, that helps them plan their talk better.