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My Academic Experience At Pathashaala

(February 2011 June 2013)

Two Roads Diverged


Into a Wood..

I Took The Road Less Taken By


And That Made
All The Difference

This poem didnt make much sense to me in class 9 when I first read it but its phrases
somewhat lingered vaguely in my mind among other poems in my poetry textbook. Now
when I think about my journey in pathashaala it is these lines which come to my mind.
Decision to stay
I confess that initially my decision to stay in pathashaala was due to reclusive escapism. I
wanted to stay in this vast place as when I came here it really felt like a tight lasso was
taken of my throat (in the metaphoric sense) . The original arrangement initially was that
I will spend about 15 days in pathashaala and then I would move on to do my ISC in
Valley school . But then with the unforeseen turn of events I would do my highschooling
in pathashaala. I even visited Valley school to speak to the principal and the teachers there
and they even said that they would take me in as a guest student in the current year (as it
was nearing its end) and then enroll me the next year. I even had a farewell at pathashaala
before my supposed departure. Then during the holidays ( I stayed on campus during the
holidays ) one morning Gautam anna came into my room and said Yuvan your
presence has been valuable here. I offer that you could stay here and do youre A levels if
you can manage it independently . I had a very implicit feeling of wanting to stay here
but I wasnt sure whether that was because I had become familiar with this place. I told
my mother about what Gautam anna had told me and also about my inclination towards

staying in pathashaala an doing my A levels. My mother completely disagreed. She had no


trust that I would pay any attention to studies in the absence of any regular classes or any
peers. I am glad she whole heartedly challenged me regarding my inclinations. It made me
put tremendous thought and have many discussions with people regarding the decision I
wanted to make. Finally after a lot of talking and convincing on the way back from Valley
school I was able to convince my mother about me doing my A levels in pathashaala
albeit she was still tentative.
Syllabus and Books
The A levels for the sciences required 5 papers to be done. All 5 could be taken at a stretch
at the end of 2 years after completing the entire syllabus or it could be split into the AS
(advanced subsidiary) and the A2 level which could taken separately at the end of each
year. The AS level tested the former half of the syllabus and required 3 papers to be
done(a theory paper, a multiple choice and a practical paper). The A2 level tested the
latter half of the syllabus and required 2 papers to be done (a theory paper and what is
called a planning, evaluation and analysis paper). I decided to split the A levels to make
myself more at leisure. On February 2011 I went on a trip to Shibhumi school in
Bangalore accompanied by my mother. There I purchased my A level textbooks for
biology, chemistry and psychology. I also spoke to the subject teachers about the
respective subjects and the syllabus itself. The textbooks seemed far less formidable than
the ISC textbooks. On the way back from Shibhumi, from the discussions I had with my
mother it was evident to me that she was unconfident and unsure of my trajectory.
Academics
Back at pathashaala I approached academics in my own amateur way devoid of much
structure or organisation. I picked a chapter and stuck to it till I thought I had an
understanding of it and then did the questions at the end of the chapter. My biology and
psychology text books didnt have any end of chapter questions so I made a few of my
own questions based on the text and answered them. During this time Gautam anna
oriented me with a few tools which greatly helped me with self study. They include the
following

How to make a weekly academic planner

How to make good mind maps(including colour and design in them)

How to write a good answer (this included writing an initial draft followed by
getting suggestions and criticism from atleast 2 people .Then striking out the first
draft and writing a second draft followed by receiving suggestions from another
person which is then followed by writing a final draft)

I incorporated these components rather extensively in my study schedule initially because


I took Gautam anna seriously. But as time passed and as I did more mindmaps and answer
writing in the above mentioned fashion I could see that they were beneficial to my
understanding. The answer writing made me more open to criticism with lesser resistance.
The weekly planners, although I put much thought into them before making one, I cant
say I followed it strictly even for a single week. But the planners did make my academic
day more structured and I was to a less extent a straw in the wind.
Physics
In a months time I had progressed by about 4 to 5 chapters in biology and chemistry but
struggled with psychology and its farfetched theories. During this time I was reading a
book called Quantum which I had borrowed from Ramesh anna . The book talked about
the life and the experiences of all the scientists who built the quantum theory including
Planck , Bohr , Einstein, etc. It was an inspiring book because it talked about the toil and
struggle which went behind building scientific ideas. I wanted to drop psychology and do
physics. After negotiating with Gautam anna and my mother I shortly purchased my
physics textbook from the Cambridge university press at Chennai.
My new teacher
One day at pathashaala Gautam anna called me near the learning spaces. He had his
mobile on the line with someone. He told me that a new teacher at The School , Yasaswini
akka, could help me out with my biology and chemistry. He gave me the phone and told
me to have a word with her. She had a very friendly way of speaking even though she
spoke only a few words. In a weeks time over another phone call I told her all the chapters
I had completed and the chapters I was yet to do. I also sent across my textbooks to her so
that she could photocopy them and keep a copy. We fixed two days during the week
when we would have phone call sessions. During these sessions we would discuss a chapter,
I would clear any doubts I had and then akka would check my understanding of the
concepts by asking me questions and making me solve numerical. At the beginning these
phone call sessions were just incentives for me to study the chapters better, note down
questions and scour the text for any ambiguous wording or phrases.
A Wont
To mention just a few words about my study pattern it was starkly sinusoidal. My mind
would be very receptive for a certain period of time ( say about 5 days to a week ) and
then for the subsequent period of time (almost equal in duration) my head would be in a
dull, dazed and sedentary state that it would be a struggle to read and comprehend

anything unless the motive or inducement is very strong. This pattern persists even now
and even reflects in my behaviour. On those days I usually take a nap after lunch. This
pattern became so evident that I would plan certain activities which I would do during
those dark days , something physically strenuous. I would even be able to foresee when it
would come.
Classes
I enjoyed my classes with Yasaswini akka over the phone. She never used a tone which
portrayed the elevated status of a teacher. After a few months of classes I started sending
my questions by email to akka beforehand. Often our conversations would run into other
areas where akka would talk about or explain related topics not part of the syllabus. She
would also share anecdotes from her research days and personal experiences. This helped
me build perspective towards otherwise tasteless or dry academic content.
Ramkumar anna
A level physics was much more promising than ISC physics. It required no knowledge of
calculus which happened to be a boon for a person for whom maths was a struggle from
the very beginning. Within a few weeks of picking up physics Ramkumar anna started
visiting pathashaala twice each week. He spent time with Robin, Shhalvik and I to guide us
through our physics. The one on one classes I had with him were extremely fruitful. He
attended to me completely which never happened in the physics classes I had with him in
The School. On each day of his visit he would spend about one and a half hours with me
and one and a half hours with Shhalvik and Robin. I would prepare in advance the chapters
we would go through on the day of his visit. Using a pen and notebook he would go
through explaining the concepts , sometimes even teaching me some calculus so that I
understand things better. He would show me videos on youtube relevant to the chapter.
He also introduced me to the lectures of Emeritus Walter Lewin at MIT opencourseware
which I found very useful and exciting.
Practical sessions
In time I started thinking about preparation for the practical component of my syllabi.
One night I spoke with Gautam anna about going to The School and doing my practicals
under the supervision of Ramkumar anna and Yasaswini akka. In a few weeks time he
spoke with Jayashree akka and other people concerned and one day during the week on
which I could go to The School and do my practicals. It was a one train, one bus and a
share auto or sometimes a one train and two bus ride from Pathashaala to The School. I
caught the 4.30 am bus at the Vallipuram bus stand and after the travel I would reach The
School at about 7.00 or 7.30 am. I would start my practicals after having breakfast at

Ramkumar annas house. I used to spend about 4 to 5 hours at The School and I had a
clear practical schedule. My teachers were kind enough to come and look once in a while
at what I was doing. I had many memorable experiences during my practical sessions. They
include sucking concentrated sulphuric acid into my mouth while pipetting it, inhaling
lungs full of sulphur dioxide gas while reacting HCL and sodium thiosulphate (the exhaust
fans werent working due to a powercut. A stinging sensation in my nose and throat
persisted for almost 3 days), checking rate of reaction of the enzyme hydrogen peroxidise
in potatoes on hydrogen peroxide discovering after an hour of anomalous results and
failed experiments that the hydrogen peroxide I was using was several years old and had
decomposed long back and doing titration with expired potassium permanganate (and
therefore initially praising the manufacturer of a certain iron tablet for adding in it much
more iron than the amount promised on the packet) are some of the singular
experiences. I went for about 12 weeks of practical classes and I missed about 3 or 4 of
them due to some local violence and demonstrations in the village and absent buses.
AS level exams
My AS level exams were spread over October and November and my preparation for them
wasnt a very meticulous one. I was overly over confident and that is something I dont
regret because being strained by exams I would have pulled away from many other
activities (helping in the preparations for the teachers conference at Pathashaala for
instance) which I value as well. My exam centre was HLC school at Shollinganallur, which
was about 3 (or sometimes 4) bus and one auto ride away from Pathashaala. HLC is
situated in a suburban location about 4 km from the OMR. I often skipped the auto ride
and walked to HLC from the OMR. The time of my exams were during the monsoons and
all the empty house plots on the way to HLC would be flooded and incidentally it would
also be a place of congregation for teals, spotbilled ducks, stilts, lapwings and many other
waterbirds. Therefore the walk I thouroughly enjoyed. Apart from that I saved 120 rupees
up and down for the auto ride. So I started 2 hours earlier from Pathashaala on each exam
day. I used to reach HLC a couple of hours before the exam time. I read either
M.Krishnans Of Birds and Birdsong or Sherlock Holmes during this time rather than
revise (I dont regret that as well ). So bloated with confidence was I . The exam on the 31 st
of October was a notable one. Not the exam per se but the events surrounding the exam.
A storm was due to pass the coast on that date. Therefore 2 days before the exam Padma
akka took me to The School and made me stay there in the staff quarters. On the day of
the exam I commuted to The School to HLC on a taxi and on the way I witnessed the fall
of atleast 5 or 6 trees due to violent winds .Later I found out from others that I had
travelled literally through the passing storm. By the last week of November all my exams
were over and I felt that I had done largely well. In January when my results came out I

discovered that I had got Cs in all the three subjects. It was greatly daunting. I remember
sleeping that afternoon and getting up only for dinner. I had sent my results to Gautam
anna , Ramkumar anna , Yasaswini akka and my mother. Strangely enough none of them
were as disappointed .The way my mother talked to me after seeing my results were
greatly consoling. My teachers sent me motivating mails. The mail Gautam anna sent me
ended with Only good things lie ahead of you. Good luck.
Preparation for A2 levels
After thinking over and over and consulting many people about whether I should retake
my AS levels or go on to do A2 levels I decided to go on to take the A2 levels the
following May-June. With barely 5 months left I put in 8 hours of study per day for the
first few weeks whilst having regular classes with Yasaswini akka and Ramkumar anna.
During this time Yasaswini akka pointed out to me during one of the phonecall sessions
that she got the feeling that I was feeling burdened by academics and that my interest
seemed to be fading. I was asking fewer questions and our discussions never wandered out
of context. This phenomenon however didnt last very long. Soon I returned to my
pattern of bouts of heavy workloads alternating with short periods of backseating. I
worked much harder this time reading, summarising, underlining, memorising and
answering questions in a more mindful fashion. This was only for the theory papers. For
the planning , evaluation and analysis paper I required a lot of practical experience and
skills to assess and analyze practical data from experiments. Travelling to Chennai once a
week didnt seem feasible anymore(Yasaswini akka had moved to Assam and in the AS
exams I had done the worst in practicals) so I started thinking of how else I could prepare
for this paper. Each PEA paper had 2 questions. The first one asked me to plan an
experiment to test the relationship between 2 variables whilst using the right apparatus,
controlling other variables, and taking the right precautions. The second question
required me to analyze , graph or infer from given experimental data. To prepare for this
exam I just kept doing past PEA papers available at xtremepapers.com . After completing
each paper I refered to the marking scheme for that particular paper(which is also available
on the website) and went through the paper I had done along with my teacher. I later had
started correcting them myself and every 3rd or 4th paper I do I would correct it along with
my teacher. I wrote down in my notebook things I should pay attention to after
correcting them. I then continued doing more papers. I then continued doing more
papers. After completing about 8 to 10 papers in each subject I got a reasonably clear idea
of the skills being tested and the expected terminology. Before my exams I had completed
around 15 to 20 PEA papers in each subject. When I did sit for my PEA exam I felt I did
quite well and that I had paid attention to areas where I would have previously not taken
into account.

I completed the theory part of my A2 level syllabus about I month before the exams,
finishing with direct and remote sensing in physics. I found these 2 chapters most
challenging to tackle and towards the end I had one hour skype conversations with
Ramkumar anna each morning from 6 to 7 am for about two weeks to consolidate these
2 chapters. I found the working of op-amps the most difficult to grasp. To prepare for my
exams I just kept doing question papers (sometimes I felt guilty for the number of A4
sheets I was using although many of them were reused) and then corrected my papers
using the marking scheme. From the marks I got in each past paper I decided which
concepts I will revisit and revise ( for chemistry I found the website chemguide.co.uk
extremely valuable. It is made exclusively for IGCSE and A level chemistry and it is created
by a person who studies the patterns of the Cambridge chemistry exams). Every 4th or 5th
paper I would go through with my teacher and note down their comments as well. After
doing 10 papers or so in each subject I figured out questions or their variants recurred in
every or many papers. Through the marking scheme I also got familiar with the preferred
terminology ( as well as the rejected terms). By May I had completed about 10 to 15
papers in each subject. This time I had a logical confidence that I will do considerably well
in the A2 exams. When I did sit for the exams which spanned over May and June I felt I
was an enormous improvement over the previous year and my results which came in
August did turn out to be a significant improvement.
Multidimensional journey
Academics were only a fraction of my journey in Pathashaala. The larger portion of it
include my encounters and experiences with nature, being alone on the campus during
the holidays, my numerous singular interactions with people younger and older to me,
music practice and teaching the recorder to students, taking part in various discussions
and school activities, playing and teaching football and being able to push beyond my
resistances. I could expand on each of them greatly as they were also very much part of
my education at Pathashaala.