We have been in India for a little over two months now (Aug-Sep 2011). This fact is difficult to grasp; the time has flown by. Our stay so far at the Shunem home has been great. We are always kept busy but we are trying not to get too stressed. The kids are wonderful, and we miss them whenever we are away at another function.
Just Another Day
Days are fairly long here, we get up at 5:30 and usually get to sleep sometime before or around 11:00. We wake up in time for morning prayer, which starts at 5:45. Morning prayer consists of lots of singing, the first daily reading section, and a prayer to start the day. Morning prayer is entirely in English to help the kids work on their reading and speaking skills. Songs come mostly from the Praise the Lord book, with occasional songs that volunteers have taught. The kids have set reading groups for different activities at Shunem. Each morning one of these groups will read for the rest of the children. The group leader helps each reader, and then finishes the last section of the chapter. When the reading is done, one of us explains what has taken place in the chapter, and then tells the children what lessons they can take from it. This is a good exercise for us as volunteers as well as the children. It gets us thinking about how every chapter in the Bible has a lesson that can be taken from it. These lessons are usually five to ten minutes, and then close with a prayer and a chant of “Good morning to you!” from the children. Although everyone is usually pretty groggy, it is a great way to start the day.
After morning prayer we take the kindergarten children to phonics class. Phonics is a new reading system to India, and we introduced it to the children under the guidance of brother and sister Dave and Jo Morgan. The kindergarteners have progressed from recognition of different general sounds (bell, drum, fan, birds) to recognition and recitation of letter sounds. Many of them now know the sounds of the letters t, p, a, e, i, and n. Phonics sessions last about half an hour, and there are four phonics groups per day.
Emily and Abi with the youngest phonics group
After kindergarden phonics is breakfast time, when we sometimes are treated to fried eggs and toast. If not we eat utma with the kids, which is not always what you want for the first meal of the day. When breakfast is over Colton takes the fourth, fifth, and sixth classes to phonics, while Emily takes the first, second and third. Working on letter sounds with children of these ages was strange at first, but we have gotten used to it. We have finished with vowel sounds, though we often have to revisit them because the kids have trouble with remembering and pronouncing them. We’re now moving at different paces (based on age group) through the rest of the alphabet with all of the different letter sounds and letter combination sounds (sh, ch, ing, igh, et cetera). If all goes well the oldest kids will know them all in the next few months, and the younger ones will get them eventually as well.
It is important to realize why the children need phonics at the range of ages we are teaching them. In school the system of learning to read and write is very different from the Western way. Instead of learning and applying concepts, the children are required to memorize basic ideas, questions, and answers. This goes for spelling as well. To learn how to read and write a new word, the children simply repeat over and over again until they have it. For example, they would write and say “c-a-t cat, c-a-t cat, c-a-t cat” until they remember how to spell it. This is effective in teaching them specific words, but the kids are lost when they encounter a word they have not memorized. They simply do not know how to figure out new words. Phonics is designed to help them get to that point.
Colton with the oldest phonics group
After phonics is finished each day the kids leave for school. They leave around 8:30am and return in three groups. The youngest (kindergarden) get back around 2:00pm, the middle group (first through fifth class) around 4:00pm, and the oldest kids (6th through 10th) around 6:00pm. College is different than in the US, and is simply grades 11 and 12, and these children get back at various points throughout the day. After college the students may continue to university for a degree.
The first thing on the schedule after the kids leave is elders’ readings at 9:00. During this time all of the elderly folks at Shunem come to the sitting room to do the first reading of the day in Telugu. First we sing some Telugu songs, then move into the reading. When the reading is done Colton gives a short class about the reading through a translator (usually one of the younger sisters). When the class is finished we close with a prayer, and usually get to listen to one of the older sisters sing a Telugu worship song for us. It is a very peaceful time of day, and the elderly seem to enjoy our company very much. We also try and visit them during the day and before bed, which they seem to enjoy very much. They don’t know any English, but they are still lots of fun to talk to.
One of the Amamas (a respectful term for elderly women)
After elders’ readings we have a little bit of time to ourselves to either rest or get work done. Often there are jobs to do around Shunem like organizing a room, cleaning, painting, or working on lessons or Bible classes for later. After lunch the kids begin to get home, but the youngest ones rest for an hour or so after school. At 5:00pm we study with the kids and help them with their homework or work on their reading skills with them. Many of the kids are anxious to read with you, either to show you what they are capable of or get some help.
Evening prayer is next on the schedule, which begins at 6:30. It is very similar to morning prayer, but all in Telugu. Lots of Telugu songs are sung by the children, and all of the adults and elders who are not bedridden at Shunem are present. We then read the last reading of the day, followed by a short class that Colton gives through a translator. Usually the young brother at Shunem named Prabhu Kiran. After the class there is a prayer followed by Lord Keep Us Safe This Night. After a final “Good evening… All of you!” from the children, they all go and get ready for dinner.
A special evening prayer that included a drama
After dinner there is one more hour of school work before the children have their milk and go to bed. This is a good time to help individuals with their reading skills or specific homework trouble. It is usually no trouble helping the kids, but sometimes the older children’s science and mathematics work is a stretch to remember. Usually everything gets figured out just fine. After homework is sugar milk and goodnight hugs and kisses. So that is how the “normal” day at Shunem goes!
A couple of the Shunem days are different from the rest. On Wednesdays there is a Bible class that alternates between the Shunem home and the Moinabad home (a Christadelphian orphanage nearby.) The topic for the months we are here is the Psalms. They are going through the five books of the Psalms, and each week the discussion is either about God, Jesus, man, or our hope from the book of the Psalms. That’s 20 weeks of class about the Psalms! The teachers alternate between brothers at Shunem and Moinabad, unless someone is nervous or not prepared in which case Colton leads the class. The trouble with being a western brother in India is that other brethren almost always assume you are more prepared or capable to lead a class than they. Because of this Colton often has to do last-minute classes for CYC, midweek Bible class, Sunday preaching outreach, and even sometimes exhortations. It is getting easier to come up with classes on the fly with always having to give daily lessons from the readings.
Sundays are also very different, for obvious reasons. The first part of the day is singing for about 45 minutes. This is daunting enough a task with the 85 Shunem children, but the kids are also joined by over 100 kids from the local village! Each Sunday we try to teach the kids one new song, usually from the Praise the Lord book, with Colton playing guitar. Most Sundays the singing is fine, because we have lots of help controlling the 200 children (many of which do not speak English.) Sometimes, though, it is just too much stress for one morning.
After singing time on Sundays, we each have a Sunday school class to teach. Emily has some of the younger kids, and Colton has the oldest group. Sunday school class is usually fun enough; the kids are better behaved in smaller groups. Emily’s class just finished the life of David, and is moving into Solomon and the division of the Kingdom. Colton’s class is going through all of the prophets of Israel.
Brother Prabhu Kiran with some of the children
After Sunday school class the oldest kids and some of the staff go into the city for the exhortation and memorial service. The service is usually mostly English, but sometimes is entirely Telugu. After memorial service there is something different each week of the month. One week the CYC meets for class, one week there is an outreach lecture for people in the city, one week there is a memorial service for those who can’t make it to the city, and one week there is a Bible class at someone’s home. The ecclesia is active in the city, and they have a Bible Education Centre in the city that offers classes and study tools to anyone interested.
Library and Computer Room
One of the projects we have been working on is organizing a new Library and Computer room for the children. Because the children come from families that have essentially no monetary resources, the children have few opportunities to work with computers. This puts them behind the curve of many Indian children who have more and can learn about computers before they take computer classes in university. The computer room allows the children about half an hour a week to practice typing, learn about Microsoft programs, and practice using internet search engines for school work. There are five computers, and all computer time requires supervision, which is why each child only can have half an hour a week.
We also organized the younger kids’ library, putting all sorts of books, puzzles, and games into newly built cupboards. Each day the youngest kids get about half an hour of free time to read any of the books they like. It takes some convincing, but usually the kids will settle into a book after a few minutes. Surprisingly, the kids do not particularly like being read to, they would prefer to pick their own book and look at the pictures and try to figure out the story.
Vijayawada Bible Week
The most recent big event here in India was Vijayawada Bible Week. Somewhere around 300 Indian Christadelphians meet for the week at a Catholic college for classes, discussions, and lectures. For your curiosity, brother Tim Galbraith estimated that about 90% of those over 20 years old were baptized. Before we left we were told that Emily and Abi (the other volunteer here with us) would be teaching daily kids’ classes while Colton would teach nightly CYC classes. The bus ride to Bible week took almost 12 hours due to protestors blocking the roads!
We still got there safe and sound, though. The first morning after we arrived, Colton was asked if he would teach a daily class for the oldest children. This surprise was not really surprising, because last minute class requests are pretty common in India. The daily classes were very stressful, because about six hours a day were dedicated to classes and singing with the kids. We also had to write a drama in Telugu that the kid would perform on the last night. Writing a play in another language is exactly as difficult as it sounds. The kids really shined on the night of the performance, remembering all of their lines and the songs they had to sing.
Make CYC “not so boring”
CYC, however, was less successful. Colton had been told to plan on half an hour of class and half an hour of games each night. It turned out that CYC meant ages 15-30, and that young Christadelphians in India are less keen than Americans to participate in evening devotions. The topic for the week was the Kingdom of God, and the first night Colton introduced the topic by talking about the sufferings of Jesus, and how he was able to endure them because of the joy set before him. After the first night Colton was approached by an Indian brother requesting that he make CYC “not so boring.” He suggested scrapping the class, and only playing games. Colton was not really prepared for this reaction, and tried to adapt the classes to be more interactive. The next two nights were comprised of group activities, examining prophesies about the Kingdom and parables from Jesus about the Kingdom. Colton’s hope was to get the group more excited about the Kingdom to help them get through struggles in life. The next complaint was that group activities were “too childish” for those who complained about a traditional class, so nothing ended up pleasing everyone. All negativity aside, there seemed to be enough people enjoying the activities, so overall they seemed relatively successful. We played unusual games, such as one that started with Colton finding Bible passages that contained lists of “things that can be found.” Colton chose passages like the parable of the sower, Jesus sending out the disciples, and Solomon preparing the temple. The groups then had to run around and find the items contained in the passages. It proved too time-consuming to explain western games, so we played Indian games like that and they seemed enjoyable enough. Vijayawada was a very hot, very stressful week, but it seemed to be very enjoyable and profitable for the kids and adults who attended.
Climbing the mountain at Vijayawada was tough!
Upon returning from Bible week, we are back to our normal routine. The youngest kids who did not attend Bible week (due to lack of room in the bus) are slowly beginning to return to Shunem. Settling back into routine is nice, despite the earlier mornings and jumping back into schoolwork. We are loving our time at Shunem, and it is such a blessing that we can be here to help the children learn and grow in their knowledge and love of God.