Day 0: 5th Jan 2013
I was all set to attend the National Seminar of Association of Mathematics Teachers of India (AMTI) going to be held at Sri Prakash Synergy School, Peddapuram near Samalkot Junction which is some 3 hours train journey from Vishakapattanam (Vizag, Andhra Pradesh, South India). I boarded the train from Mumbai on 4th afternoon. My wife had packed my favourite curd rice for dinner and the following day’s lunch. Luckily, my co-passengers were busy talking amongst themselves and (luckily) I didn’t seem to be an interesting person to them. That gave me enough time and room for me to do my work.
I spent my time in the train on some official emails initially and then I watched a few videos on Mathematical Thinking that I had downloaded from www.courera.org where one can register for online courses offered by Professors from various Universities across the world at absolutely zero cost. I had found this course really interesting because it said that it was not on solving mathematical problems but developing that ability to solve mathematical problems; in other words, to develop the mathematical thinking. Professor Keith Delvin from Stanford University was the Course Instructor and was taking the course very interestingly. So, I spent time on the side-upper berth to watch the videos and came down occasionally to recharge my laptop. The quiet journey and simple food made the journey very comfortable.
As I reached Samalkot Junction, couple of teachers from the host school (Sri Prakash Synergy School) along with two students of the school had come to receive delegates who were arriving at the railway station. There were other delegates and Members of AMTI who had arrived at the station during that time. We were escorted by the students to the school in auto rickshaws. In my autorickshaw was a Mathematics trainer, Mr. Bharat Karmarkar (in his fifties), from Nigri (in Pune) who took classes to improve conceptual clarity in Mathematics both online and through home visits. Since we had the subject of common interest and since I had all the patience in the world to listen to such people, we began the discussion even before we exchanged our names. He said that his objective was to make the concepts clear rather than scoring marks or getting homework done from children. I was happy to see such a teacher after a long time. He also conducted annual excursions for children where they get to learn a lot of things practically through their visits. I was totally impressed by his ways of educating.
In no time we reached the school and were again greeted by the student-volunteers and their teachers. The school campus was big and their hospitality was really appreciable. Few students greeted us at the reception with a smile and Namaste. They applied kumkum (turmeric powder mixed with lime which gives it a red colour, often used in Hindu occasions) on our foreheads and sandalwood at the back of our palms. It was so nice to see the humility with which they greeted us. One of them asked me to keep our luggage at a place and proceed for the registration counter where we were to fill up a form and proceed to our rooms. Another student-volunteer took us to our room. Everything was so well organized that we didn’t face any hurdles at all in getting the initial procedures done.
In my room, there were four beds. One of my roommates was none other than Mr. Karmarkar and two others were Varada and Srivatsav, boys of class 9th (from P.S. Senior Secondary School, Chennai) and 12th (from Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan School (popularly known as PSBB), Chennai) who had come to give presentations in the Seminar. The boys were really smart and energetic.
As we had reached the entrance of the school, Mr. Karmarkar met a friend of his – Mr. Prabhakaran Nair, a retired school teacher from Calicut, Kerala. They were delighted to see each other after a couple of years. Mr. Karmarkar told him that there’s another Nair with him (which was me) and then we greeted each other.
Me & Mr. Karmarkar were in room no. 104 and Mr. Nair was in 102. First thing I look for when I enter a new room is the charging point. And I was surprised to see that there wasn’t any! At last I found a point in the small dressing area before the rest rooms. But the plug had some loose contact and hence it wasn’t working properly. Finally we found two plug points outside our rooms (in the verandah of the floor) for the whole floor which had ten four-bedded rooms. Luckily Mr. Karmarkar had carried an extension cord (a tip for those who travel to such places where you never know how many plug points you might get.) I got my mobile charged for some time and we all went to the canteen for dinner.
After dinner I got an opportunity to talk to Mr. Nair and we both walked into his room continuing the conversation. His teaching experiences fascinated me a lot. Mr. Nair, to my utter surprise, was 70 years old. He didn’t look more than 60 to me. He was full of glee and energy while he was talking. He was a school teacher and also a mathematician-poet (a very rare combination we find these days.) He said that while he used to go to take classes for the differently-abled children, he found these poems handy to teach them concepts of Mathematics. One poem was such that a boy saw a flock of parrots flying in the sky and he asks one of those parrots how many you are in number. The parrot replies that ‘us + us + half of us + one-fourth of us + me, will make 100. Now you calculate how many we are in number.’ Saying this, the parrots fly away. The boy isn’t able to calculate and asks his grandmother. The old lady immediately gives the answer as 36. The answer forms a simple equation as x + x + ½ x + ¼ x + 1 = 100. Solving it further we get 2 ¾ x = 99, i.e. 11/4 x = 99. Thus x = 36. The boy gets a question that if the number of parrots were different, what would be the answer in the place of 100? He goes exploring and discovers an Arithmetic Progression 12, 23, 34, 45, and so on. Thus, in one poem, Mr. Nair explained simple equations and arithmetic progression. I’m sure if a student gets something like this, then undoubtedly he would find a flavor to Mathematics. It reminded me of all the great Indian Mathematicians like Bhaskaracharya who wrote down Mathematical questions in poetry and gave it some spice thus encouraging the students to get to the answers.
The poem in Malayalam was really beautiful; not as dry as I explained it above. He shared a couple of more poems. One of the other poems he shared was that of a boy who asks his father, ‘why are there only two types – even and odd numbers?’ (This ‘why’ is not a usual question from a school student.) His father somehow gives some explanation and tries to cover up his own ignorance. Then the boy corrects his father and tells him that in ‘even number’ of circles, each circle can be paired with another circle. But that’s not the case with ‘odd number’ of circles. In case of odd numbers, one circle will stay unpaired. When you combine two odd numbers, say 5 and 7, then the circles which were left out alone in 5 and 7, will be paired with each other. That is why when we add two odds we get an even number.
Mr. Nair also shared some ideas on how we can induce some thinking ability in children and ask them questions in general to make them think on ideas and encourage them to explore more. It was wonderful discussing with him till 9:45pm. I wished him good night and came out of his room to pen down this experience. In a few minutes another gentleman, Prof. Govinda Reddy from Nandyal (a place in Andhra Pradesh) came to me. I had met him last year at a National Mathematics Seminar at Rashtriya Samskrita Vidyapeetham, Tirupathy (Tirupathy is a place known for the famous Balaji temple in Andhra Pradesh.) In our earlier visit I couldn’t interact with him much. But this time, it was compensated. We sat till 12:45 am and finally I had to send him to his room to take rest.
Prof. Govinda Reddy was an old retired Mathematics teacher from Nandyal. He seemed to me to be in his 70’s (I was astonished to hear from Mr. Karmarkar that Prof. Reddy was 81!) He was tall, lean, dark and soft-spoken. He has his personal library which comprises of around 1000 books on Mathematics. He collects books on Mathematics from different sources. He subscribes some foreign magazines like Crux (a Canadian publication) and Putnam (a USA publication for Mathematics Olympiads.) Sometimes his students gift him some books but most of the times he purchases from his pension. He started the Nandyal Association of Mathematics Teachers 10 years back where he organizes Teachers’ Training Programmes, Contests on Mathematics for students and various other programmes. He showed me one of the question papers for the 10th standard in one of such contests. It had 6 questions and the students were given three hours to solve the paper. The levels of questions were very high but it would definitely bring out the best of upcoming mathematicians into light. He said that the cash prizes of some contests went as high as Rs.10,000/-. I was astounded to hear this and asked him from where does he get funded for such activities in a small town like Nandyal? He smiled and said, “I get a pension of Rs.27,000. My monthly expenditure comes to 7,000. My house rent is Rs. 6,000. The books that I buy amount to Rs.1,000 per month. After some miscellaneous expenses whatever is remaining, I save it for such purposes. At the end of a year, whatever amount is saved is spent for such events.” And he kept smiling.
I was speechless! What kind of dedication he was showing towards his subject. How different are people. Some places we even find teachers who hesitate even to give a prize of a small toffee to their students and here is a teacher who spends his entire pension to bring up the upcoming talents in Mathematics. Here was a man, sitting before me in a plain white shirt and a white dhoti, whose hand shivers while he holds something, and is in his early 80’s, at such a stage in life what he is doing such remarkable things which the Govt. or other institutes should be taking up.
He showed me a book which was going to be released the next day. It was about brief life sketches of many mathematicians across the globe along with their photographs so that children can remember their faces when they hear the mathematicians’ names. He had also brought along with him some 132 flexes on the life of Srinivasa Ramanujan which explained the life of Srinivasa Ramanujan with photographs at various stages of his life. I couldn’t help myself wondering as to how much effort Prof. Reddy was putting in the field of Mathematics even at this age!
Finally, we retired to bed at almost 1 am.
… continued in the following post https://vinayrnair.wordpress.com/2013/01/09/experiences-at-national-conference-of-amti-2013-day-1/