India.

If you make the decision to visit India on a spiritual quest or as a stop on a grand tour of Southeast Asia, you go from November to February. It’s hot there, all the time, and when you come back home, it’s nice to have a tan to show off to your friends while waxing on about your ashram/yogi/guru. Only college students go to Kolkata (Calcutta) in July.

I’ll be spending a month in Kolkata, arriving in mid-July and departing in mid-August. I am going with three other Notre Dame students (all girls). Dr. Tamo Chattopadhay, a Notre Dame professor and Kolkata native, will accompany us.

In Kolkata, I’ll be doing research related to my Education, Schooling and Society minor. Notre Dame doesn’t have an education major. The ESS minor is the program of choice for ND students who are interested in education. It is not a teacher preparation track, although many ESS students go on to teach. Rather than being rooted in pedagogy, the program focuses on educational policy. I was surprised to find that education policy interested me so much. Dr. Chattopadhay was my professor for the “Introduction to Education, Schooling and Society” gateway course for the minor, and with his help, I discovered that I have a real interest in the policy side of education.

My passion for helping children learn and succeed first developed when I was in high school, through my experiences as a swim team coach and a swim lesson instructor. I coached swim team at a local country club for the past three summers and worked most closely with swimmers between the ages of 11 and 14. Because swimming is such an individualized sport, it was challenging to keep track of each of my swimmers’ progress and skills while maintaining a cohesive team environment. In addition to coaching swim team, I have also been growing my own business teaching swim lessons for the past four summers. What started out as me teaching a few former babysitting clients how to swim has launched into a surprisingly successful little enterprise. Last summer, I hired my younger sister as a subcontractor to teach lessons for me, and together, we taught 54 kids how to swim over a three-month period. When I teach lessons, I use a different set of skills than I do when I coach. Besides the fact that the lesson clients are often much younger (four and five year olds) than the swim team athletes, I also have the opportunity to work in a much more personalized setting with lesson students. I find that I have to adjust to the learning styles of different children, and I’m able to experiment until I find particular things that allow the child to best understand and learn.

My experiences as a coach and instructor led me to the field of education. After high school and after freshman year of college, I was certain that upon graduation from Notre Dame, I would participate in a service teaching program (like ACE or Teach for America), become a certified teacher and make a career in the classroom. During my sophomore year at Notre Dame, I enrolled in the ESS minor and began to take ESS classes. The gateway course for the program has been so eye opening for me. I was expecting to be exposed to the same kinds of things that my education-major friends at other schools are learning (how to teach multiplication, literacy strategies, classroom management, etc.), but instead of learning pedagogical skills, I’m being introduced to the basics of educational policy and some of the main issues that educators, administrators and policymakers are facing today.

The other three students and I will conduct our research at the Loreto Sealdah School, a Catholic girls’ school in Kolkata. The school has approximately 1,400 students. Sr. Cyril Mooney, the school’s administrator, developed a program in 1979 that cut in half the number of traditional, fee-paying students. The other half of the student population consists of poor children who attend school free of charge. Sr. Cyril also developed the Rainbow Program in 1985, which turned the covered roof of Loreto Day School into a night shelter for 250 girls who live on the street. In India, street children are vulnerable to being trafficked into the sex trade (think Slumdog Millionaire). The Rainbow Program provides these girls with a safe place to eat, wash and sleep. If the Rainbow children choose to stay at Loreto during the day, the students in the school tutor the Rainbow children as part of Loreto’s service-oriented curriculum.

During my time at Loreto, I will be researching the ways that students with special needs, ranging from severe handicaps to autism to learning disabilities, are accommodated by the school and are treated by their peers and teachers. With my research findings, I hope to be able to make practical suggestions for the school to better accommodate and integrate students with special needs. I’ll also consider the stress of living in extreme poverty and examine the ways in which that stress affects learning and cognition.

This is the bare-bones summary of what my research in Kolkata will cover. In a future post, I’ll discuss my research proposal more thoroughly. Once I’ve explained what I’ll actually be doing in India (in July! in monsoon season!), I’ll write more about the trip itself.

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