Thursday 31 October 2019

Nanowrimo Writers Workshop #3

The middle schoolers started the class with a brainstorm of their story "sparks" - ideas for what they'd like to write about.  Their brains were fizzing - female empowerment / racism/ middle ages/ equations - yup that's right.  Equations! Somehow Maths has a way of sneaking into every English discussion!).

Once they poured their ideas onto paper, the kids identified the 3-5 most appealing ones for further exploration.

Then came the speed writing - write about your story.  Deep silence reigned in the  room as the children wrote furiously.

Then they got the opportunity to discuss their story ideas with each of their classmates. The partners had to give feedback couched in positive terms. Their nascent stories hold so much promise - from a gang of kids who generate electricity from air to a colony of bacteria which is being threatened.

Wednesday 30 October 2019

Nanowrimo Writers' Workshop #2

Another really cool Nanowrimo class today.

Kids came up with the 3 novels each which they have read and which they absolutely loved.  The books included the usual suspects - Geronimo Stilton, Harry Potter, Diary of a Wimpy Kid - stuff that this age group simply devours.  But there were some interesting surprises - Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Heidi, What Katy Did, Anne of Green Gables, and the all time favourite Winnie the Pooh - books I had loved as a child.

The children then discussed all the elements that had made the books so interesting. Their assessment was surprisingly  mature.  "He makes stuffed toy characters seem real", "Its not a roller coaster of one event after another", "The character makes the setting come alive".

Then we moved onto the "Gross" books - books kids just absolutely hated. Books that made them wish for a trip to the dentist instead.

Interestingly, this list included some all time favourites - the Secret Seven (is it too archaic?), Geronimo Stilton (too much clutter?), Magic Treehouse (plots are repetitive). Here too, the children has some complex insights, ranging from "paper thin characters", to "a hook in every chapter".

The purpose was to introduce children to elements they need to incorporate or avoid in the novels they will be writing in November.

We've also decided to create blogposts of the  kids' book talks and recommendations - which other children may find useful.

Tuesday 29 October 2019

Nanowrimo kicks off

Nanowrimo prep kicked off today with fun activities. The Nanowrimo Young Writers Program is a global, seat of the pants writing challenge where kids try to write a novel and achieve their word goals in a month.

Kids explored what a novel is and its component elements - characters, setting and plots. They identified the different genres that their novel could fit into - a historical adventure, a Sci Fi mystery and others.

Then they got to write about their favourite novel - and create an advertisement for it.  Older kids delivered a Book Talk where they spoke persuasively about why their favourite would make great reading.

The greatest fun was to draw their Inner Editor - the monstrous entity that sows doubt in their hearts, makes them wonder if they got the spelling right or if the punctuation was appropriate.  After sketching him, kids tore out the paper and gave their illustration to me to lock up for a month. Now they can write  freely without that inner voice of doubt.

The Outer Editor - who makes them criticise or mock their friends was also chucked out of the window - making ours a safe space to express innermost thoughts and feelings and to share our whacko ideas and crazy novels.

Looking forward to tomorrow's lessons on creating characters.

#nanowrimo #creativity  #kids

Monday 28 October 2019

Storytelling workshop - A Parent's Point of View

When Al Qamar Academy announced Smart English Academy's Storytelling Workshop on 'Power of Storytelling', I was really elated and overjoyed. This was a workshop I'd been waiting for for a long time. I'd heard and read so much about storytelling and its immense benefit, especially in parenting. And, I was just waiting for an opportunity to learn this invaluable skill.

On the day of the workshop, as I walked in, I had set my expectations high. I knew it would be good, because I've attended many of Sister Nazreen's English trainings. Three and a half hours later, when I walked out, I realized that I was wrong.
Dazed, my head swirling with all the inputs and insights, tips and techniques, discussions and demonstrations, I realized that the workshop didn't just meet my expectations, It far exceeded them.

The concepts of storytelling were vividly explained by Sister Nazreen. The science story narrated by her was very powerful and it grabbed everyone's attention. She showed us how to use similar techniques for Mathematics as well. The techniques which she taught would definitely help me to engage better with my children.

We also brainstormed the benefits of storytelling and got so many perspectives on it, and had a lot of fun while doing all these activities. Everybody pitched in with full involvement and complete enthusiasm.

When the workshop was about to close, my eyes glanced at the clock and I really wanted to stop the clock. But I knew it was impossible. Returning home, my mind was reviewing and processing all the techniques; ideas that I just couldn't wait to implement.

And as a bonanza, I got to learn how to narrate my experience as a story like how I have narrated here.

What an Amazing, Enlightening, and Awe-Inspiring Workshop!!!

- Aysha ( Parent of Grade 6, 4 students in Al Qamar Academy)

Sunday 27 October 2019

Workshop on Storytelling

How would you like it if you tried to explain a point to a child, or teach a topic to a student, or convey a message to an audience, and have them listen to you with rapt attention, complete concentration and a lot of interest?

This was the question that set the agenda for the Workshop on 'Power of Storytelling' held at Al Qamar Academy on October 26th, 2019. The Workshop was conducted by Nazreen Sheriff, a British Council Certified CELTA Qualified Educator and Founder of Smart English Academy.

It was a half-day workshop to understand and learn-

  • The impact of stories
  • How to communicate through stories
  • Elements of Storytelling and
  • Techniques of Storytelling

All put together with a hands-on experience at STORYTELLING.

Heads of educational departments and institutions, teachers, social workers, businesswomen, homemakers and others from various professions attended the session with the primary aim of understanding storytelling and enhancing their communication and presentation skills.

The Workshop started with the participants introducing themselves with a ball game, stimulating them to shed their inhibitions and break the ice.

Various inputs were given on the power and impact of stories. It was demonstrated by a powerful narration of a story of an African woman, by the facilitator, Nazreen Sheriff, to drive home the message of the importance of water conservation.
At the end of the story, there was pin drop silence. The tears in some people's eyes and the anguish on others' faces said it all.
The power and impact of a story was experienced by all.

Drawing encouragement from the inputs and confidence given in the training, the participants took their first step and attempt at Storytelling.

A participant’s story that had a woman's husband give her his credit card and tell her to go shopping in Dubai, drew a witty response from one of the ladies in the audience. She said 'Now I truly understand why stories are supposed to be imaginative and a fantasy'

Storytelling as a teaching technique was discussed in detail. Addressing the problem and difficulty of the non-English teachers' perception of not having scope for stories in their subjects, the facilitator Nazreen Sheriff demonstrated a Math and Science story. The teachers were visibly excited at the prospect and possibilities and looked forward to implementing them in their classroom.

Handouts were given to help sum up some of the learning done.  Physical activities were interspersed with the discussions and demonstrations. The ladies thoroughly enjoyed them and plunged into it with gusto and enthusiasm.

The session ended with the floor being opened up for questions and feedback from the participants.

Altogether, it was an interactive and dynamic session, drawing appreciation from all the participants for the valuable insights and learning achieved in the Workshop.  The verbal and written feedback was very positive with many of the participants summing it up as-
"Excellent workshop conducted by specialist, Nazreen Sheriff. Benefited greatly. "– Social Worker

"Amazing tips and techniques on Storytelling. "– Teacher, IMAX SCHOOL

"Useful and Informative. Plan to use this to introduce concepts in the classroom" – Vice Prinicipal IMAX SCHOOL

"Before coming I was very nervous about talking in front of people. Thoroughly enjoyed the learning experience. "– Homemaker

Friday 25 October 2019

Asset Talent Examination 2/3rd qualify

Feeling humbled at God's Grace. And very proud of my students' stellar achievement - 23 of last year's 33 kids were in the top 15 percentile and qualified for the prestigious Asset Talent Exam. Kudos to the teachers.

At Al Qamar, we focus strongly on the key foundational academic skills - reading, logical thinking, independent work. We don't have homework or exams. (Asset is the only exam they have) Kids get loads of play. And opportunities for self directed learning.

The strategy flies in the face of conventional thinking - but ironically shows success in the very areas held important by traditional schooling approaches - exam success!

Tuesday 22 October 2019

River Walk - Tracing the Adyar River from source to estuary

Have you been on a river walk? You may have had different results. Here are ours:

Our river walk trip traced the stages of the Adyar river. And how we as humans living in Chennai are making it hard for a river to flow clean.

1st Stop – Chembarambakkam Lake

First, we went to explore the Chembarambakkam Lake or Eri. The bus didn’t have a road so we went by the bund. Which was really long and we felt like we were travelling on a long rocky road.

Chembarambakkam provides drinking water to most of Chennai.  It covers an area of 2600 acres and is 80 feet deep. The bigger picture is really that it is an Eri. It was designed long ago by village people.  There was lush agriculture near the eri, which used the eri water. There are the basic components of an eri in the Chembarambakkam “Lake”. But industries have been built over the agricultural lands. Some of the chemicals produced by the industries enter the eri.  

The amount of water in the lake was very less but at least better than last few months. In June, the water was gone, and the ground was all cracked up.  Which makes it hard to believe that the same lake overflowed and flooded half of Chennai city in 2015!

In the eri itself, there is something called a “kalang”.  You have a kind of a screw you have to twist and the doors sort of open and let the water out into a channel. The water goes to the field and helps in irrigation. But, now the Kalang doesn’t work because now the fields have been turned into buildings and industries. 

43% of the water in that lake is gone by evaporation. Near the Bandh there is something called “Madaga” which is the big dam which stopped the flowing of the eri water. We went close to the dam’s gates and saw the structures. There are a total of 19 gates. We went to a high point and observed the whole Eri.

In 2015 when the floods took place in Chennai, the dam stored a lot of water and the gates weren’t open even when the water came up to 90% - because the dam’s purpose is to store water for drinking. And if they opened the gates, the drinking water would have gone out.  But the dam was about to overflow, so they opened the gates in the night when everyone was sleeping. This caused the houses near the Eri and in Saidapet, Adyar, Velachery, Guindy to flood.

Visiting Chembarambakkam was a wonderful experience, but the saddest part was there was garbage even here.

Next we stopped at a garbage dump next to the road. It was raining and we saw fumes because there was so much toxic waste. Cows were eating the garbage. The garbage was also flowing into the river as it was raining.

2nd Stop Anakaputhur – Under the Bridge

We headed on to Anakaputhur.  Here we went under the bridge to a sandbank under which the Adyar river flows. It was horrible, smelly and slimy place filled with sewage. Yuk. The water was black and highly alkaline because of the leather industries releasing chemicals into the water. During rains, the garbage from the rubbish dumps gets washed out and joins the river.  The river flowed under the bank in pipes. But there weren’t a lot of pipes. There was foam there due to toxic contamination.

3rd Stop – Mambalam Canal/ Adyar River

Next we went to see the Mambalam Canal where it joins the Adyar river, next to a golf course. Of course, we didn’t go to play! The water was really black and polluted. It was also stinky and crazily dumped in, but hey, nowadays, everything is dumped in.  The golf course uses soft grass which requires a lot of water and fertilizers every week. This leaches into the canal. 

Plus, there is garbage in the canal. There is a “boom” which is a filter across the canal to trap solid garbage, but it was of little use so it’s not maintained.  There was a plant name water hyacinth which eats metals in the water. But it covers the water and reduces the oxygen in the water. There was another weed growing in huge clumps.  So basically, there is not a lot of wildlife in the water.  We went across the path to see the top view of the Adyar River. It was not fine. We saw mosquito larvae and other disgusting polluted stuff.  It was really disheartening to look and realise that all of us have destroyed a water body so much.

4th Stop – Adyar Estuary/ Besant Nagar Beach

All that disgusting stuff now went to the sea. There also, like every other place, it was unbearably stinky. But differently. You can’t believe how much foam was there on the beach. Waves and waves of foaming effluent.  We were sitting far away but still it was smelling worse than rotten eggs.  There was a sandbank between the river and the sea which is good for filtration. But a JCB was taking that out since there were buildings near the estuary who were facing a mosquito problem.


This trip was sad but eye opening because now I am able to realise what we did to Nature. I also realised that the water I am saving is not enough. Next time you go to the beach and play in the water, think, what you are really stepping into. That same water with the pollution of the river – has fish living in it and we eat the fish! A “sewage cycle”, isn’t it?

- By Grade 7 students - Shahana, Rayya, Hasna & Tasneem

Saturday 19 October 2019

"Question Thinking" - a professional development workshop for teachers

You are a car salesperson. Selling a brand or cars costing upwards of 1C! You get a call - "I am interested in your car". How do you make the sale? What do you reply when the customer asks you how many cars you've sold so far?

This was one of the role plays in the workshop for teachers and staff "Question Thinking" - on understanding the mindset we are operating from,  through the questions we ask ourselves and others.

The facilitator, Siraj Samsudeen, a management and data analytics consultant, brought to bear strands from mindfulness, professionalism, interpersonal communication to conduct this first of a four part series.

"We make assumptions about others based on our background and experience. We live life on autopilot. This is fine for most routine tasks, but key interactions require more engagement, a non judgemental  attitude and openess"

In the case of the role play, most "salespersons" focused on making a quick sale - and evaluated the customer's needs basis their own selves - price consciousness and quick delivery. However they failed to garner that the customer was solely interested in exclusivity.

This roleplay made participants conscious of the mindset that we operate from -  a "Judgers" closed mindset which leads to reactive behaviours that is based on the past.

Mr. Samsudeen talked about the need to develop an open "Learners" mindset which leads to more conscious choices focusing on the present and the future. Once we understand our own mindset,  we can change our mindsets on the fly to improve the way we communicate. He emphasized that learning to stay out of Judger mode takes time and conscious effort over a period of time.

The workshop is critical for any educator who deals with children. Very often the implicit power equation, the deadline driven syllabus delivery and the daunting task to handling a large group of children, makes teachers work in the Judgers mindset. The goal is for teachers to use the Learner mindset to understand and help their students 

Entrepreneurial spirit..

One more successful kids' entrepreneurial venture. Sales at Moms meetings.

Al Qamar Academy kids routinely design and set up their own businesses at parent events.

From sales of homemade cookies, pizzas, juice, organic produce and many other delicious items, artistic kids also make their own crafts for sale.

Kids as young as 6 years are busy thinking up of more business ideas.

The school simply provides the space. Teacher involvement is nil, zilch.

Why is that important?

Children need the space and freedom to create and experiment with their own ideas. Once adults get involved, kids start backing off, shutting down. They become glorified puppets - showcasing adult ideas. Which is poor foundation for real life.

For Al Qamar kids, running a business provides a plethora of learning. From planning, pricing, costing inputs, (aggressive) marketing to finally doing (informal) accounts. Language skills, Math thinking, economics, food safety - its all in there as an integrated project unit. Real life stuff!

Having no stress through homework or exams allows children's minds to be uncluttered and focused on highly creative ideas.

The Al Qamar way....

Workshop on Impact of Punishment

Discipline and consequently punishment are hotly debated topics for most parents. Do you lean on the side of permisive parenting or should you be a strict disciplinarian? The answer perhaps lies between the two opposite poles and is supported by latest research in neuroscience.

Parenting Matters,  an organisation which works with parents, conducted a talk for parents on Discipline and Punishment at Al Qamar Academy today.

The speaker, Sujata Dewaji, a certified Parent Educator from Echo Parenting, Los Angeles, began by talking about what all constitutes punishment - and delved into some of the reasons why parents punish their children. She shared some common justifications parents offer in support of their stance. "However", she said, "brain research shows how punishment activates the 'Fight,Flight, Freeze' response in children. They actually stop processing any message we are giving them, however pertinent or relevant.

The better way is Positive Parenting, which acknowledges the child's feelings, doesn't make judgements and helps to actually modify behaviour.  She showed a video with examples of both styles and invited the parents to comment.

The Question Time had queries on parenting teens, resolving sibling issues and the universality of this approach.

"Helped me put my faith back in positive reinforcement.. Wonderful reminder how much as a parent we need to change before trying to change our kids .." was one parent's feedback.

Parenting Matters conducts various workshops for parents and educators.  They may be contacted at

Wednesday 16 October 2019

Learning History through Ads

We were delighted to have Sriram Nanganathan come and give an absolutely fascinating talk on History.  Sriram used old advertisements to drive home the point that history is just as much about common people, values, lifestyles and mores as about kings, wars and conquests.  He showed different ads to kids and asked them thoughtful questions - "What does this ad convey?" "What was the shared assumptions in those days?" "Would you see such an ad now?" 

Here is a blog write up about the talk by a student:

On the 27th of September, we had a class all about History. Or more specifically, how it has changed.

Now it’s easy to look at a really old civilizations and compare it to how we live now. But what we didn’t realise is that even our more recent history can vary from the present.

Old documents such as newspapers and advertisements can help us learn what it was like back then. We can identify old articles and advertisements and ask ourselves would these be published in a newspaper now?

An example of an ad that you would not find nowadays is one titled “Shikar”. The ad basically invited people to come to India, shoot tigers and KEEP them as if they were some type of trophy.  By looking at the bottom of the ad we can see that it was published in multiple places, most of them being from the West. So, we can say that this ad was directed to other people from the West and was inviting them to shoot a tiger and take it home. Hurting an animal was not really punishable back then, so people could easily get away with it.

By looking at old ads or pamphlets, we can also say that things that are affordable and easily available would have been a lot more expensive and rarer back then, such as radios and record players and weddings. However, there’s another side of this spectrum, where things that are a lot more expensive now, would have been a lot cheaper back then. Such as train tickets and flights. Things such as air-conditioned trains with breakfast, lunch and dinner service were considered a luxury earlier. This is why they chose to highlight those luxuries in this ad.

Of course, we couldn’t have found out things such as sweets – when consumed in large amounts – are not good for us without trial and error first. Before we had done scientific tests proving that sugary items (when consumed in large amounts) can affect us badly, you could find ads encouraging people to eat more sugar – with the headings like “Put more sugar in your tea!” Ads that encouraged parents to make their children watch television could also be found. However, once you read the ads, in this context, it’s not as bizarre as you would think.  Basically, the ads explain how parents can used a child’s urge to watch TV to their advantage. For example, “Mona Kausar! Do your homework and you’ll get an extra half hour of TV Time!” Some parents still do this even though it creates the mindset for the child that “Oh!!! Do my homework because I want to watch the telly!” Ad they forget that this is not good for their future and well-being.

So history isn’t always old civilizations and ancient artifacts. It could also be any thing or idea from a little earlier that has evolved. We humans are always coming up with ways to find links to our past.

- Ishaal Azeez, Grade 7

Thursday 3 October 2019

Talk on Indigenous Cotton

We were delighted to have Swaminathan Vaithilingam come give a talk on indigenous cotton at Al Qamar Academy. He narrated the history of indigenous cotton, explained how a group of people are trying to revive this crop and the difficulties being faced.  The children got to see natural cotton, the yarn and some gorgeous clothes made out these using natural dyes. The children understood the key point that life shouldn't be about unlimited choices, but instead about  sustainable choices.

 Here is an account by a student of his talk:

India used to have a wide and vast variety of cotton, yet, here in the present, only 2% of our cotton is "Pure" Indian. So, how did this happen? Let us find out..


As of current, our vast varieyt of cotton has been replaced by American cotton when the British colonized India. The reason being that, Indian cotton was getting popular - with audiences outside India as well. The British were afraid that this might affect their sheep wool industry. So they started to experiment with American cotton and growing it in other places.

The problem with this is that different varieties of "Indian Cotton" are made to fit different Indian climates. The term for this is called agro climates.


The companies provide cotton seeds for farmers to grow. The farmers have to pay back using the money they make from the cotton. In some places, the seeds won't grow well, so the farmers are in debt. This forces some people to commit suicide.


Honestly most of us are aware of this problem - factories making toxic dyes which pollutes the area around it. Despite thi, we turn a blind eye and say "Its not that bad.". Little do we know that the clothes made in factories are "wear and throw away". So you constantly buy more making the environment a toxic and polluted area.


It might not seem big, but if you cut down on buying from big companies that profit from the wear and throw away clothing and switch to more eco friendly sources and encourage other people you know to do so as well.

- Ishaal Azeez, Grade 7

Ecology Class Yr 2 - Dark Side of Electricity -2

For Thursday’s trip we went to Ennore.  When we were going to Ennore we made our first stop near the Chennai port. We stopped near the beach. We learned that the industrialization was bringing the ocean into the land. We learned that the ocean carries sand 8 months north and 4 months south. So what’s happening is that the port is stopping Marina Beach to give the sand on the other side of the port.

The next stop we made was at Ennore in a large ground next to a power plant. That power plant had stopped working in 2010 or so because it couldn’t produce the amount of watts it needed to.

The amount of ash the power plant produces per day is equal to a football field when laid out. The coal ash is harmful for the human body and the power plant dumps the ash in a nearby field where kids play.   In summer, when the fly ash starts flaying it goes inside their lungs and gets stuck on the alveoli which causes respiratory disease.

Did you ever wonder what kind of building you live in? Well you are actually living in poison. Because the cement you use to stick bricks together may contain fly ash.  So, it is better to live in a house made of limestone.

Well after that we stepped on a bridge over Kosasthalaiyar and saw people in the water looking for worms. They sell the worms to big companies so they can get some money. The power plant had polluted the water so no fish were living there.

There were pipes connecting the power plant and the point to transfer the coal. And I saw that there was a crack and something was leaking. I just hope it doesn’t break.  We went and saw some more pipes and they are in a very horrible condition. Some had a water fountain coming out of them. Most of this water goes and lands in the river’s flood area (an extra area in the river that is used if there is too much rain.

As we were getting further into Ennore, the pollution was getting stronger. Alhamdulillah the pollution in our place is not that high. I could hardly breathe. It was suffocating me.

We also saw traditional methods of fishing. An uncle was on his knees in the water catching shrimps with his hands, putting them into the bag.

Then the girls were talking about how to solve the problem, but we didn’t get an exact solution.  Now I realise if we want to change earth, we just have to cut down electricity usage. Well this is my own solution, not everyone has to listen to it. Why don’t we switch the lights off in the day time and sit under a tree for cool breeze.

- Fareeha Rafeek, Grade7

Ecology Class Year 2: The Dark Side of Electricity

Do you know where electricity comes from? Well, it is generated from coal in power plants. But where are the power plants located? They are located in north of Chennai where green villages and blue water bodies are found. But now people from central Chennai are using these people’s lands and the beautiful water bodies to build power plants to generate electricity that will be given to people from Central Chennai and not the villagers even though it’s their land.

So today we went to learn about the power plants and the people’s lives. When we entered the area, there was a strong difference in the air we breathed. It was more smoky and unnatural. It was most likely because of the power plants.  A while later we stopped and went to this empty piece of land with only one tree. Over thee we discussed the plan for today with a help of a map. After some time of chatter, one of the educators pointed to a tall structure and said that it used to be a coal power plant but it got shut down for various reasons.
After that we went to this bridge from where we saw a large grey polluted water body. There were people fishing for bait to sell and make a living. The polluted water looked so contaminated. To see it was really disheartening. Then we walked a little further and saw the power plants which were causing this pollution. 
After some time, we went to this place where so many pipes were spotted.  One of the educators told that the purpose of these pipes is to let out used ashes mixed in steaming water. They also said that if one of the popes is broken, the factory people would wrap a plastic paper around it and put a rock around it so that it doesn’t fly. It seems that the area used to be a nice green land where people lived but now it’s just a place with small puddles of contaminated water.  If a child plays there every day, it is most likely s/he will get asthma. 
The next stop was a beach where there was a man who was fishing with his hands. He had a basket for him to keep the fish in as soon as he caught one. The educators told us that is very hard to catch a fish here and the fisherman only gets Rs. 300-500/- per month. 
After what we were free to collect shells. After various shells were collected, the educators told us that some locals have to collect shells and fill 60 bamboo baskets for a job. They get only Rs. 600/- After all the shell collecting we went to a nice shady calm area. We were told that all the trees over there will be chopped down for making another power plant. This was a disheartening experience for me but it has motivated me to save electricity. 
- Rayya Shawar, Grade 7

Au Revoir

  Au Revoir  The crucible moment came for me when, 16 years ago, I pulled my 7 year old son from school. Once again. Thrice in four years. W...