Meera in India

Meera is a first-year computer science major in the Lyle School of Engineering who is a Dean’s Scholar and Engineering Fellows Scholar, among other awards. During summer 2011, she was named a Maguire & Irby Family Foundation Public Service Summer Intern by the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics & Public Responsibility at SMU. She will be interning at Swasraya, a school for the mentally disabled in India, where she will design a curriculum and help students in order to promote inclusive education. She also plans to help raise awareness by updating the school’s website and creating brochures and fliers.

Goodbye, India!

Today was my last day at Swasraya, and it was definitely bittersweet.  I never imagined I would grow so attached to the children in the short amount of time I spent here. I even have a list of about 12 children whom I want to adopt and take back to America with me!

This internship has been such a great learning experience for me, and I feel truly blessed to have been given the opportunity to spend my summer doing something so meaningful. This next part is going to sound like a cheesy award show speech, but it has to be said. I would really like to thank the Maguire Center for selecting me as one of the recipients of its prestigious summer internships. I have learned so much, and it has definitely made me appreciate the education I have been given.

It was very empowering to know that what I was doing was actually making a difference in these children’s lives. I would also like to thank Shanta Menon, the principal of Swasraya, for the wonderful work she is doing and for allowing me to spend my summer at her school. She has dedicated 20 years of her life to this school and her hard work definitely shows; it is amazing that she has lived her life so selflessly.

I leave for America tomorrow, and I am definitely excited to see that Dallas skyline again!

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One-on-one time with Jones

After my experience with Aishwarya, I felt like I knew how to handle autistic children. That’s why when I went to Jones’ class, I was completely confident in my ability to teach him. The teacher had warned me that he was very difficult and had a tendency to scream and cry when he was upset, but I did not anticipate that happening. 
I observed the class for a few minutes, and Jones seemed okay. He had been crying earlier that day so his eyes were red and puffy, but he was doing the puzzle the teacher had given him without complaint.  Then, out of nowhere, he got up, lay on the floor, and started writhing around screaming. It seemed like he was in a lot of pain, but no one knew why. It only lasted for a few seconds and after the teacher comforted him, he was back to normal.
The teacher said that he was one of her most difficult students (autistic children usually are) and that if this continued, his parents might have to send him to an institution for more severe cases. For some reason this upset me; I thought Jones was adorable and I secretly did not want him to leave the school. I volunteered to have one-on-one classes with him to see if there was potential in him that was not being tapped into.  We went to an empty classroom and I gave him a numbers puzzle. He completed that and the shapes puzzle in about two minutes. This was way too easy for him.
I then asked him to write his name in English. He wrote “Joe Baffy”; close, but there was room for improvement. I spelled out his name for him and told him to copy it down until he got it right. He wrote it correctly and looked up at me. I smiled and told him he had done a good job, and he made the high-pitched bellow he makes when he is happy. He proceeded to write his name perfectly 10 times, making his happy noise after each line. I figured it was the same incentive idea that I had used with Aishwarya; he was writing his name so that I would keep telling him what a good job he was doing. Not only did he write his name correctly, but when he was done he got up and did a dance. The more I clapped and encouraged him, the more he danced.
During my hour with Jones, I discovered that he was a wonderful singer as well. I would never have guessed this because he doesn’t talk, but he was keeping the beat on his leg and tapping his feet.  I noticed something else as well that I had read in books, but had never seen in action. Autistic children love attention; both students worked best when my attention was focused on them and only them. Of course it is impossible to have a teacher for every student in the school, but I think the autistic children should have at least an hour of one-on-one time with a teacher who will boost their confidence and willingness to learn.
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Striking a deal for learning

Today I spent time in the eighth grade-level class. This is the highest level of academics reached by students at Swasraya, and when I walked in, they were learning about democracy. I was surprised to hear Lincoln’s quote – “government of the people, by the people, for the people” – being used in their class lecture.

As the students started copying the quote, I noticed one girl staring out the window, oblivious to the lesson being taught. When I asked about her, the teacher told me she has severe autism and can be difficult because she does not do anything she doesn’t feel like doing; today that included participating in the class lecture. She also has a tendency to get up and walk out of class when she gets bored. It takes three teachers to get her back into the room.

I tried sitting next to her to see whether I could convince her to copy the quote. As I approached her, her eyes were instantly drawn to the shiny silver bracelet and earrings I had on. She reached toward me to grab them, and reflexively I backed away. This upset her and caused her to use more force in an attempt to get my jewelry.

We both wanted something from each other, so I decided to strike a deal with the determined girl. I told her that if she copied the quote completely, I would let her play with my bracelet. She immediately grabbed her pencil and starting writing in immaculate handwriting. Five minutes later she was done, and there were no mistakes (besides her writing “4” instead of “for”). I realized that she had kept her end of the deal, and so I gingerly handed over my (expensive) bracelet.

To my relief, she was equally careful in handling it and slid it onto her own wrist. She then showed her friends and gave it back to me with a big smile. Although bribery may not work with all children, I think that a reward system might be beneficial for autistic classes. Punishing them just agitates them more. They take instruction well if it is something they want to do, and if there is something in it for them, it gives them incentive to learn.

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Learning English with Scrabble

Today I was told to look after a class with cerebral palsy for a few hours. There were only three children in this class, who were about 8 years old.

During English class, I noticed that they had a lot of difficulty copying the simple words I gave them, like “cat” and “dog,” but their social skills were much more advanced than I would have expected. One exceptionally talkative boy somehow convinced me that they had done enough work for the day and that they should be allowed to play a game. I looked through the cabinets and came across Scrabble. I figured this could pass for teaching them English and set up the game.

Five minutes later Scrabble pieces were flying across the room and into the hall. Before I could get angry, I was informed that they were not intentionally throwing the pieces, but that children with cerebral palsy do not have control of their muscle movement, which makes it difficult for them to use their hands.

After putting the game away, we spent the rest of the day working on their conversation skills. At the end of the day we managed to have a 2-minute conversation completely in English. Though they might forget what they learned tomorrow, it was still very rewarding to know that for those three hours I was working with them, they were actively learning and applying their knowledge. This also made me realize that though I resented homework all through high school, it is important to practice what you learned in school at home as well to improve progress.

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Miss Meera’s first day

Today I sat in on different classes to see what they were learning and to identify ways in which I could help out. My first class was a group of 6- to 8-year-old children with Down syndrome.

The teacher was teaching them how to count to 20, but this mischievous group of boys was soon running around the classroom pushing and kicking each other. Obviously, they soon became my favorite class. They were a very enthusiastic and friendly group, and seeing a new face in the classroom was just the distraction they needed to lose any desire they had to learn numbers. They took turns interrogating me about my name, age, and home. When I said I was from America, their eyes widened as if I had said I was from outer space.

The class consists of about seven boys, but they are definitely loud enough to be 20 children. First is Haridev; he is the star student who is always first to raise his hand to answer a question. Next is Vishnu, baby face and also teacher’s pet. If a classmate was not doing their assignment, I was immediately notified with a small tug on my arm. After that is Hari, the quiet one. I would adopt him in a second. He has a face that reminds me of Charlie from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” He is smart too, but is usually overlooked because he does not raise his hand or ask questions. Last is Suraj, who took other children’s puzzles and toys and threw them into the hall just so I would have to leave the classroom to go get them.

After about 10 minutes of playing fetch, I decided that a new seating chart was in order. In a stroke of genius I placed Suraj next to Vishnu and Haridev next to Hari. I figured Vishnu would tell me any time Suraj was acting up, and Hari and Haridev could combine their intelligence. This was the perfect seating chart until Suraj started strangling Vishnu. After trying a few other arrangements I decided to make them sit with an empty seat in between each person. This worked out the best because it limited their distractions and they were able to focus on their work more easily.

I learned that with children who have trouble paying attention, the best thing to do is not to punish them but to provide an environment conducive to learning and studying. This arrangement could possibly be used in other classrooms with small children who have trouble paying attention.

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First week in India

Day 1 (Saturday): After enduring the 14-hour journey to India, I was exhausted. My plane landed around 3:30 in the morning, but fortunately it was only 6 p.m. in Texas. so I was able to keep my eyes open. My taxi sped along a small bumpy road (with no traffic lights, speed limit, or lanes) for about an hour as I peered at the palm trees through my window. I was surprised to see people awake and starting their day at 4:30 in the morning. I was going to need to get an alarm clock.

Day 2 (Sunday): I slept literally the entire day. I hate jetlag.

Day 3 (Monday): My first day of school! I got to visit all the classes and meet the students. As I entered each classroom, the students immediately clasped their hands together and yelled “namaste” in unison. I felt like a celebrity shaking all of their hands as they practiced the English words they knew, like “hi” and “thank you.” The teacher explained to me that because several of them have speech impairments, they rely on their hands for communication. The classes were divided based on age and skill level. The younger children learned reading and writing, while the older children focused more on life skills like cooking, sewing, and crafting.

Day 4 (Tuesday): My first assignment was to compile the school’s old photos and videos into one concise video illustrating how Swasraya started in 1991 and the progress it has made since then. This video will be used to raise awareness and increase the school’s publicity. This assignment took me the rest of the week.

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