Shalinee Gusain Transcript

Elizabeth: [00:00:00] Welcome to Creativists in Dialogue, a podcast embracing the creative life. I’m Elizabeth Bruce.

Michael: And I’m Michael Oliver.

Elizabeth: And our guest today is Shalinee Gusain, who is a science educator, a social scientist, a parent, and an immigrant from India. Welcome, Shalinee. So we have a couple of questions that we generally start with—

Michael: —and the first one is this. In what aspects of your life would you say that creativity has had the greatest impact?

Shalinee: Thank you Michael and Elizabeth. I am very privileged, feeling privileged for being in front of you. And this is the first conversation I’m having about creativity and—

Elizabeth: Well, we’re delighted to have you here, Shalinee.

Shalinee: Yeah, yhank you so much for inviting me for this dialogue. I would start from the very early life of mine, like, childhood. I grew up in southern part of [00:01:00] India where the whole community is celebrating at any point of time. We as children are exposed to a lot of input from the society, school, home, and children themselves when they’re playing around. That gave a lot of input for me.

So if I had to start, when did you start your own first creative thing? It’s in the playground. It’s in the playground with my fellow children, most of them like boys and girls playing together and creating our own place. In India when we’re going to play, it’s actually a game, in American context. And we have our local language, Telugu. I speak the Telugu language—

Elizabeth: This is your native language?

Shalinee: Native language, the first language, Telugu, which I speak with my friends. And then in the school we were taught Hindi and English as part of the curriculum. So, in the house we speak Deccani, Deccani [00:02:00] Hindi. Regular Hindi and regular Urdu are having these words, but Deccani Hindi is an adaptation of mixing Telugu in between. So, it has the grammatical structure of Telugu with Hindi and Urdu words.

Elizabeth: Wow. That sounds complicated.

Shalinee: Sounds complicated, it doesn’t sound—but it’s a good mix of culture. It’s not on the crossroads of two or three cultures, but when it came out like this. Deccani.

Elizabeth: Wow. Wow.

Shalinee: So, at home, me, my mom, my dad, my brother and sister, we all speak Deccani, but when I step out in the street, I’m speaking Telugu, English, and Hindi.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Shalinee: English is inevitable in school because they used to just penalize us for speaking non-English words.

Elizabeth: Oh, it was—

Shalinee: It is like a penalty. So, they were like, “You have to learn English”.

Michael: So, were you constantly like weaving the various languages together when in conversation?

Shalinee: Yes. So, the, when there is a [00:03:00] weaving of conversation, that’s where comes the part where, what would you say this in Telugu? And what would you say it in Hindi? What would you say it in English? And by going back home, how does you say it in Deccani?

When we are listening to the songs in radio, we used to distort the songs. “This is what he was trying to say, miss.” “No, this is what he said.” And I used to translate it to my mom. My mom used to say that. “What did he just say in Telugu?” We were like communication for her—my mom speaks only Hindi, Urdu, and Deccani, so, “What did he just said in English? What did he just say in Telugu?” So in the part of translating it to mom, so we—me and my sister mostly—used to translate it to mom, is becoming a task to the point, like, we started translating everything, including songs.

Elizabeth: Wow.

Shalinee: That’s where the creativity came. Okay. Listen to the song. My sister used to listen to the radio and there was some favorite songs she used to make note of [00:04:00] the lyrics. And I used to feel bored with those lyrics because none of them are my language. So this is what they would sing in Deccani.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Shalinee: So that’s how the creativity has begun.

Elizabeth: Wow. So you were a translator, an interpreter, a rewriter of song lyrics.

Shalinee: Yeah. Unintentionally. Unintentionally. Like it has become a like boring, turned into creative.

Elizabeth: Yeah. Yeah. It sounds amazing.

Shalinee: So it’s like trying to find a life hack.

Elizabeth: There you go.

Shalinee: Instead of complaining, “This is what I would do, blah, blah, blah.” Rolling their eyes, but it was going into certain direction.

Elizabeth: Wow. Translation itself is an extraordinarily creative process.

Shalinee: Yes.

Elizabeth: I have a lot of friends who’ve—

Shalinee: Without losing the spirit of what is being said—and I want to make sure that my mom knows what’s going on around in the street—basically it could have been a good tattling experience. [00:05:00] “Mom, this is what happened.” But she is not the person who is judging. But I just want to share with mom is a big deal for me. “This is what happened.” So when it is describing into mom, it’s in Deccani.  

Elizabeth: Wow. So you have all these channels open—

Shalinee: Open.

Elizabeth: You have this language channel and that one and—

Shalinee: Three!

Elizabeth: Three language channels—

Shalinee: Three coming from outside—

Elizabeth: —simultaneously—

Shalinee: —getting into, when it’s going home, it has to summarize into one. So that’s—

Elizabeth: Wow. Talk about synthesis.

Shalinee: Synthesis. So that is the thing, which is like, it has become a passion for me. When I’m going to tell mom, “This is what I would do.” So it is going on in the back of my brain.

Elizabeth: Wow. So you, even while you’re taking in information, content, experience in these three different languages, you’re rearranging information in your—

Shalinee: Back of my brain.

Elizabeth: Back of your brain. Wow.

Shalinee: And that has set my default. So now I’m wired to the point like, Mom is not there, dad is not there, I have to take [00:06:00] notes. So unless I write it down, yeah, I cannot process it. It has come to that point. Like, okay, I had to make a note of it. I’m never going to refer to that note.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Shalinee: I know it deep in my heart. But it has to go onto the paper.

Elizabeth: So I’m like this, I have to write things down and then I have to see them and I can visually remember—

Shalinee: Yes.

Elizabeth: —something, if I look at the page and it’s “Oh, it’s in green ink, it’s in the upper right-hand corner.” I can remember.

Shalinee: Ditto with me. And it’s a back of the envelope, back of something, which is—I’m like scampering, like this. Where is the paper? Where is the paper? And in the back of the envelope, it is full of rectangles. Rounded up. One connected to another. So it looks like messy to people who are just looking at it. “What’s going on?’ But I have a meaning for it.

Elizabeth: I know. It’s like my to-do list should really belong in the Visionary Art Museum.

Shalinee: Yes. Yes. So that is very important, paper, for me. So when I’m cleaning the closet I know that there are papers from 2014. [00:07:00] It’s like a time travel for me. There’s a little time capsule. I can recall everything what happened on that day, including the dress I was wearing, this is the way she was doing, everything.

Elizabeth: Wow. So it’s almost like you have an, is it called an eidetic memory? A photographic memory?

Shalinee: Photographic memory. It’s like time capsule. So, my house looks like a mess. It’s never been organized. And I feel very nervous when I’m organizing. I know something is going to happen. It’s like an anxiety built up over the time. So, then I realized, okay, let me do it whatever feels comfortable without hurting anyone. Without hurting anyone. So I’m always asking, “Are you good? Are you good? Are you good?” Okay. You leave me alone and from here I can

Elizabeth Wow.

Shalinee: Put my brain.

Elizabeth: That sort of leads into one of our other questions, which is about how you understand creativity itself. You’ve been telling us quite a bit about creative problem solving, but how do you personally view creativity or the creative act?

Shalinee: It is all about focus. If we want to summarize [00:08:00] what is creativity in one word? I would say focus. Not just focus where you have, okay, you’re-staring-out-at-the-art-on-the-wall focus. Like you connect to it to the point, like, you-are-in-a-total-immersion focus.

Elizabeth: In the zone.

Shalinee: In the zone. That’s the most closest word I can say it in English. Because there is a collateral word, but how do you say…

Michael: Well, Csikszentmihalyi uses the word “flow.”

Shalinee: Flow. Yeah.

Michael: When you’re completely immersed and—

Shalinee: Concentrating.

Michael: —one with your subject in a sense.

Shalinee: Almost like meditation. In Hindi, we call it Dhyāna (ध्यान). Like you put all your brain into it, and you are not concluding a, snap, “okay, come on, let’s pack up and leave” kind of conclusion. You are contemplating it over a period of time, not just an hour or so. It is like second day, third day, fourth day. Version one, version two, version three. It’s a work in [00:09:00] progress. By the time you say you have come to the conclusion, it is like a big pile of alternative chunks of paper filled with blobs. It’s not a linear thinking, it is like a radial thinking. You are in the center and you are going into situations. What if that? What if that? So, in, mentally it is coming from where, okay, if I have to talk about this to my mom, I would say this is this in this language versus going back to school, if the teacher asked me, what did you do last night or last day, my version will be different.

Elizabeth: Okay. I love your term. Radial thinking.

Shalinee: Radial thinking. Right.

So when it comes to creativity, it gives lot of stress to say, “Why did you just said what you said?” I can’t explain. Because the moment I’m talking to someone who is a different person, who is not my mom, obviously my audience has changed. [00:10:00] So I’m making sure the whole narrative is friendly to these ears versus my mom. My mom is very informal. She says,
“Okay, just be quiet. I’m focusing on cooking.” I’m immediately, I’m withdrawing, I’m accepting that without feeling, “Oh, I’m wanting to share with her now.” Versus with other audience, I say, okay, this person asked me a question. I feel the obligation of sharing to the point, say, okay, “We are good. We are good. We are good.” So that stops me. “I wanted to share this one, this is the most important part!” But this person is not ready.

Michael: So translating that is moving into the sort of the educational sphere. And when you’re thinking of creating a lesson plan that’s going to engage 20 students in a classroom—or 15 or 25, whatever the number is—obviously each of those students has their own sort of mindset, their own sort of cultural factors, et cetera. Can you maybe talk a little bit [00:11:00] about the creation of a lesson plan and what goes into that? And what are the factors you need to consider?

Shalinee: Yeah, that’s what I was planning to find out. Who is ready? That’s what I was about to say.

So now it’s not my mom anymore. I’m not a child anymore. So anything which I want to share, I have to regurgitate to suit the years of my audience, who are three-year-old, four-year-old at the max. Early childhood education goes from pre-K3 to second grade. According to DCP and US educational standards and all that.

So I am going to recall what I was doing as a three-year-old to second grade. I have the very vivid memory of how I was when I was two and a half years old. Very vivid memory. I used to nag my mom to pick me up when she was talking. I used to crawl all over her, to, all I wanted was to hug her. Staying physically close [00:12:00] to her. So then I realized, okay, when I am able to remember this much, that child who is in front of me, a three-year-old, is going to remember exactly that. They have very good memory. I believe in that. So, when I’m going to leave them— “Bye and see you, goodbye!” —and all that, when they won’t see me anymore, I’m going to leave a vivid memory to them. So that is my motive. So when I want to be, even, no matter how brief the conversation is, I’m not going to leave them with, “Oh my God, this is a woman whom I’m trying to be scared of.” I would leave a memory for that child to carry something to cherish. “I want to meet her again!” So that is my motive.

I’m not the only teacher in their lifetime. They’re going to meet hundreds and thousands of teachers, learning situations. But that is my motive whenever I meet a child who is a three-year-old or any age group any person whom I call a student, child because they have a lot of intellect, [00:13:00] I believe in that.

Michael: So our goal is then to leave a lasting memory in the child. And so what are, when, so when you’re trying to create a lesson plan or experience for the child that will do that, what are the aspects of that experience that might leave a memory in that child? What kind of experience does it need to be?

Shalinee: Yeah. I would prepare, in the beginning, for the readiness of learning. The motivation to learn. So when a child is hungry or going through some kind of social emotional temper tantrum, I might look like a nuisance, trying to teach them about what comes, like, CVC words, sight words. I’m like a noise, unwanted noise for the child. So first I have to make sure if the child is ready or not, student is ready or not, the audience is ready or not, to hear me out. So when they’re not ready, I’m not wasting my energy on that. I would put my energy in preparing for that readiness. That’s what I call, when I prepare a [00:14:00] lesson plan, a warmup.

A warmup, it could be an activity, it could be a prop. It is like asking for attention. And I would do anything, depending on the age group, for a child who cannot read. I’m not going to show something which is written, I would go with something tangible. I would go something which is appealing to the senses. Eyes and ears and touch and maybe smell too. And if it is there for testing, if it is allowed with all that FDA and all that restrictions—

Elizabeth: Regulatory stuff.

Shalinee: Regulation. So I would not go for testing, but certainly, which is visible and audible and tangible.

Elizabeth: So it sounds like you, you really focus on multi-sensory experience, the engagement through all the senses as well as the socio-emotional. So it is not really about content. It’s all about the person and that young child’s ability and readiness to [00:15:00] absorb all the dimensions of the experience itself.

Shalinee: Luckily, very recently, the DCPS, the place where I work for, is accepting that as a curriculum, as a whole child education. You are not teaching the child to go home and becoming some kind of blue collar or something, like a strict, an 18-year-old coming out of the school and going to college and getting a four-year degree. It is you are giving an experience for a child who is a whole child. Who is preparing for the readiness to face the world on their own. Without any dependency on an adult. So that is a bigger picture.

So now it is going, finally after 15 years of being in DCPS as a parent, as a teacher, finally the DCPS is pushing it to the teachers, as this is going to be a new agenda in your classroom. Versus we are judging you based on your child’s performance, like ELA levels, math levels. That is [00:16:00] like a stress for a child. Stress for the teacher.

So, me, when I going to into the lesson plan, the top is warm up, the bottom is exit ticket. And in between activity one, activity two, activity three. Activity one is something which I wanted to give them, and that is one. And plan B is activity two, which is I’m giving child to explore. If you are not doing it, still we are okay, but I’m introducing the child. Like I’m not pushing that across the brains and shoving with the spoon, “Come on. You have to learn it.” And activity three is the most creative part. Even though you did not learn anything from activity one and two, when you come to activity three, you will have motivation to learn.

Elizabeth: Okay, so it’s a, as you say, it’s a warmup.

Shalinee: Warmup.

Elizabeth: It’s a mediation.

Shalinee: Mediation. So that warmup is my life. That exit ticket is my life. Whatever happens between activity one, two, and three, that is the children’s choice, which way to [00:17:00] learn. If you’re not learning on that particular day, at least you will have motivation to come back and ask me, “Hey, didn’t we do that?’

Elizabeth: So gimme an example of a warmup. You and I have worked together a lot and we’ve done different kinds of warmups, but—

Shalinee: I would love to do that. Warmup is something which I would say, let us say, I have a children’s group of PreK4 walking into my classroom. Our breakfast is over. Our basic housekeeping stuff is over. We are all in the circle time. And there are like two kids who are constantly talking and they have been together for a while. So how would I get their attention?

So the warmup piece, like, I will have a soft, squishy ball. And I would say, “Whoever is silent will get to roll this ball first.” The moment I say that, everybody wants a squishy ball, which has a jingle in it, and the moment you squish it glows up. So all those kind of things. So everybody wants it and, whoop, everybody’s quiet. So now it’s my [00:18:00] choice. Whoever raises their hand first got it and that is the way we share the ball rules. So that is my warmup.

And the moment that readiness is prepared, in my mind, I’m preparing, me and my co-teacher, we have the groups, the small group goes to the table and there is one teacher who is focusing on that activity one. And activity two is more like an independent, the people who can go and do. Activity three, where there is lot of hands-on activities, that is my table.

Elizabeth: Oh, okay. Okay.

Shalinee: That is my small group, like four or five. So me and the other teacher are looking at the children who are working independently, but we are having this tangible work going on where a lot of creativity, mushy mess. That is me.

Elizabeth: So like clay or Play-Doh?

Shalinee: Play-Doh, the shaving cream.

Elizabeth: Oh, the shaving cream, yes.

Shalinee: With the food coloring. And that is the favorite thing people will fall for, which, nobody is looking at time. Unless there is a timer set. That is the way I smuggle [00:19:00] lessons in there.

Elizabeth: It’s like zucchini bread.

Shalinee: Yes. Zucchini bread, zucchini, banana bread with nuts in it and—

Elizabeth: All those veggies that are in that. Really sweet.

Shalinee: That is my approach, but what throws me off all the time is a time limit. I cannot go on and on. So I have hard time staying on time. I had hard time in concluding everything in 20 minutes. So that the next 10 minutes, it’s a 45-minute session in which five, five minutes goes in transition for coming in, five minutes goes away getting out. So in 35 minutes the time limit for the four year old, we can’t hold them on the carpet beyond 10 minutes. So the developmentally appropriate lesson plan is looking out for all these social emotional, physical, cognitive learning experiences. To make sure I’m strictly following them without [00:20:00] saying it to them, “Hey, we are not doing this beyond 10 minutes.” But in the back of my mind, me and my coworker, we are looking at, okay, are you good there? And sometimes children go beyond 10 minutes when they are so much in the zone, they don’t want to be disturbed.

Michael: So you use this, the term audience, and I love that term. And the fact that you, you always consider your audience when you’re constructing a lesson or when you’re constructing any kind of communication.

Shalinee: Yes.

Michael: Now an audience of five students is still five separate, unique minds. And so, each one might be slightly different or maybe drastically different.

Shalinee: Yes.

Michael: So when you’re thinking of audience and when you’re creating that experience for this diverse audience, what are some of the factors, whether it’s cultural or sort of economic background or obviously learning differences, how, talk about creativity within that context of a diverse audience.

Shalinee: Yes, thank you for asking that. I look at every child’s learning experience as a copyright. [00:21:00] I take it to the highest level. Anybody’s creativity is their creativity. It’s unique experience. I cannot steal someone else’s ability to learn because I liked it. So I’m using the word “steal” because this came from my pre-K4 class. A child was complaining saying, “He is copying me!” They were working with chalk on the playground. And she designed a rocket with the peep holes, with a seat, and with a cup to hold her sippy cup. And the other person came in and he added a step to it because he wanted to take a peek with the step in the window and she didn’t like it. And there was a huge fight over adding that step. That is a level of creativity and that is a sense of my design versus your design they have. So when a pre-K4 can [00:22:00] advocate for herself saying that, “Get your own rocket and do your own design. This is my design. I worked on it with the huge triangle and three squares. And with the blazing flames.” So much of detail she worked really hard with her sweat and all that and focus and everything, and her friend comes in and, say, added one step. And he walked away and she was like, “Ah!”

Elizabeth: Intellectual property rights.

Michael: Sure.

Elizabeth: Yeah, really.

Shalinee: But I respect that.

Michael: Sure, absolutely.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Shalinee: I can’t afford to just, “Okay, you are supposed to figure it out. You are supposed to share.” No way. The word “share” comes when you are willingly doing it versus somebody coming and trespassing your design. So that is the creativity which she was functioning with, all her zone, and somebody came and scratched something on it and went away. I said, “Okay, now you have to come and apologize and make [00:23:00] your own and let her do it for your design. That’s how we are even.”

So when we have five students sitting on my table with five—I don’t want to use the word levels of learning, that creates hierarchy. High level of learning, low level of learning, level one, level two, level three. That’s a hierarchy. That’s not how children learn. I will learn in my own time when I want to learn. Right now I’m ready. Right now I’m not ready. That’s it.

So I have to create, again, going back to readiness. So I’m going to tell them, “Hey, this is what my goal is today.” I want to make sure when we are having a monarch butterfly activity coming up after three weeks, where we are going to release butterflies into the garden, I would want you to understand the basics of how the butterfly looks in the microscope. That egg. Can you recognize, what is this? This is a butterfly egg. And this is a butterfly. Do you want to know what goes on in between? I throw the floor open for them to choose from where to begin. And for that, I have to do a lot of homework [00:24:00] to make sure anybody wants to join anywhere I should be ready to go and play that tennis, Wimbledon, ping pong, baseball with everybody with those rules. So I will do all my homework. I have, I do all, I over prepare and I am prepared.

Elizabeth: Okay. So you need to be able, if the child wants to come in at the chrysalis level—

Shalinee: Chrysalis level.

Elizabeth: —of the butterfly, metamorphosis journey, you’ve got to pick that ball up and run with it.

Shalinee: So, “What is your favorite part?” If they say chrysalis, “Okay. Curl up into your ball and feel it.” So that’s Howard Gardner’s theory where the multiple intelligence theory comes, you become the subject what you want to learn and feel it. What would you do if you want to be a snail, take a blanket and go inside and see what it feels like. So the moment you’re curling up into a ball, you’re already an egg. Close your eyes, this is how the egg feels. And then you start crawling like an inch worm and they will actually start doing it. The [00:25:00] whole carpet is and also, I don’t restrict my children to the table and chair. The best place to learn is carpet. You go with your body, full body in, and you come up with your full body out.

Michael: Right, so you mentioned Howard Gardener and the theory of multiple intelligences. What influence have they had in development of your pedagogy, in your approach?

Shalinee: I would go with, the first one is music. Music is anything which you want to learn with your complete body, not just ears. People say you listen to the music with your ears. No, we listen to the music with the whole body.

Michael: Wallace Steven says, “Music is—”

Shalinee: “Feeling.”

Michael: “—Feeling, then, not Sound.”

Shalinee: Yeah. It’s like not an audio sigma wave where it is coming into your ears like the physicists represent, quantum physicists represent everything, is a wave vibration. This, that it’s not the physical form of the music. When you’re listening to the music, it is uplifting you as a soul. And you go into a certain zone [00:26:00] and you grasp the whole meaning of it. It’s not just the music, it’s not just the poetry, it’s a whole transformation of the experience. One person is narrating and it’s going into your mind. Exactly the way he wanted you to understand. Or, if it does not translate well, you are still understanding something.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Shalinee: Now, here I will bring the word “levels.” To my level of understanding, this is what I understood. To my level of understanding, this is what I understood. So at any point of time, whatever the person singing, it’s going somewhere. Whether you want to listen to it or not, unless you are blocking your ears saying, “No, I don’t want to hear, it’s giving me anxiety.” Like you’re getting the heebie-jeebies by listening to some squeaky sounds and all that. It happens when you don’t have any non-methodical music, there is no rhythm to it. There is no melody to it. It [00:27:00] gives the whole screech experience, like it is, like how my son describes it as the nails on the—

Elizabeth: Oh, on the chalkboard.

Shalinee: On the chalkboard. Imagine that is an extreme repulsive—

Michael: Discord.

Elizabeth: Discord, yeah. Yeah.

Shalinee: I would call audio file versus anything which is pleasant, melodious, memorable. “Oh my God, that is a song from 1936. How do you know that, miss?” “Oh, I heard this.” “That’s a lullaby my grandma used to sing.” “Where did you get this from?” So where is this all coming from? Where I read comments on a lullaby and people are like pouring out saying that, “Oh, that is a lullaby my grandma used to sing to me when I was a child. I’m 65 years old and still listening to this song.” That is a connection people will make with music. So to be able to understand music as a learning experience, that is the highest level. [00:28:00] So when Howard Gardner said people are musical, that’s what—

Michael: But then it sounds like you, I mean you bring in the spatial, you bring in the mathematical, logical, you bring in all the different intelligences—

Shalinee: Yeah, interpersonal.

Michael: All of the areas into your lessons.

Shalinee: Inter-, intrapersonal. Yeah. And when it comes to the spatial experience, I would certainly give this—I have a physical measurement of the body. “As long as you are doing this, your elbow is not touching someone else’s elbow. Your knees are not touching anyone else’s knees.” You are having enough personal space to learn. That is a minimum a child or anybody needs to have like non-intimidating experience. Anything which is in the range of five feet is like giving me creeps. What are you about to do to me? It’s not, suddenly, a personal space. It is like an imminent danger. I mean it’s not a danger, I don’t want to alert like an anxiety issue or something, but that [00:29:00] involves the learning experience, the space which we share with others. So I always respect if I’m getting anywhere closer, “Are you okay if I sit next to you? And let’s do it together.” And I’m always like hovering around the child rather than sitting next to the child. Because the movement adults sit next to the child, it’s an intimidating experience for them. Because it’s physical. Physically, the child is small. Physically, I’m big. So that gives, you’re-big-I’m-small feeling to them, and that involves learning.

Elizabeth: Speaking of children, you are also an amazing mom. We’ve talked a lot over the years about our mothering experiences. If you had to write a chapter, for example, on creative parenting, what topics would you cover in the parenting realm?

Shalinee: In the first thing I would ask my children is about the nutrition. Food. Food comes first. And then comes hygiene. I’m [00:30:00] deprioritizing hygiene because to be able to go and brush yourself, do anything. you need energy. And to be able to do anything, even to get out of the bed, put on your slippers and go to the bathroom, you still need energy. So I have to make sure that they’re well fed, slept, and well taken care of. So the basic things, basic hygiene, is having a clean pair of socks, clean pair of pajamas, clean pair of clothing, at least two pairs to go outside is my basic, these are the basic, like, essentials. I would start from them.

As a mom, it was a struggle for me to requirement, it looks good when I’m saying it. It was a struggle for me because I am like multiple plates person. I’m not thinking in linear. My to-do list is not always like 9:20, I’m going to cook and 9:45, I’m cleaning the closet. It never happens.

Elizabeth: I don’t know anyone on that level of planning.

Shalinee: Yeah. [00:31:00] Alarms never worked for me. Timers never worked for me. Stopwatches. Anything that has to do with the calculation of time never worked for me. So I will say, “Okay, what time are you arriving to certain thing? Like 10-ish?” It’s never 10:00 AM. 10 plus or minus. It’s always plus. 10:10. Like today, I was late by 10 minutes, so I knew, I’m glad you are very understanding, but if somebody is strict on time, you have to be there. Like yesterday, I missed my doctor’s appointment. I said, “Please do it for rescheduling.” So I’ll find a reason to justify my absence. “Okay. One week after one week I’ll have all my meds and I’ll give you a better report and let me do this.” But I missed the appointment.

Elizabeth: That relationship with time is also very different in different cultures. The West tends to view time as a constant, that we are the servant of time. And in other cultures, time is the servant of the person. For example, if you’re on baby [00:32:00] time, if you’re a young mother or a young parent, you’re on baby time. You don’t get to the store until the baby’s finished with her nap.

Michael: I think communicating with other people is probably one of the most challenging tasks that we have. From my experience, miscommunication is the standard, it’s the default, right? Whenever you’re trying to communicate with people. And this would include children. When you’re trying to communicate with children, that chances are there’ll be miscommunication will somehow find its way into that. If you could maybe talk about communicating with your children and the role creativity might play in that communication?

Shalinee: As an immigrant from India, I had a different way of speaking English versus America. So, like when you go into the computer, there are two Englishes. One English, like American English, the spelling, like when you write the word behavior, we write with the [00:33:00] O-U-R in the end “behaviour” versus American English has “behavior” as O-R.

Elizabeth: Right.

Shalinee: Like “favour” is spelled like F-A-V-O-U-R in British English, in India, versus “favor” in American, F-A-V-O-R. Life is simple. Like easier. I like American English. It’s like it’s easy on the spelling, like number of letters to be typed.

But… as an immigrant, I had this disclaimer… and always in the back of my head, “Did I say it right? Did they understand what I wanted to say?” And as a beginner, my English is English. But for the person who is listening, for them, it is a different English. We say our d’s and t’s very clearly, like, I don’t know how to speak American English yet. So that’s what I would look at myself [00:34:00] as. Okay. You’re able to understand because you’re processing, you’re professional, you are, you have listened to multiple audios, multiple narratives. But in a regular conversation, the person will say, “Yeah? What did you just say?” That came only in one context. Like the person whom I was working with she said that she has a strong accent. I said, okay, that’s my English.

So the person who is coming from Nigeria will have their own accent. So at any point of time, anybody will have their own accent of English, but we are all speaking the same language. But we did not, never had this, I’m saying the word “we” because we as a family, we speak a different language other than outside. We don’t speak English at home. Me and my husband, we speak Hindi to each other, but with my children, when I am speaking them in English, my son says, “This is how we say in America.” He corrects me. So that’s where I see like a red flag popping out. Not red [00:35:00] flag, I should say. Okay. That is how we say it. So we are processing various ways of saying the same thing. So now one more aspect is added to my, so he’s doing exactly what I did to my mom. So that is what he is going through. “Mom, this is how we say—.” Because he came to America as a kindergartner and my daughter came as a pre-K3 student, and I have volunteered in the class to internalize the language by listening.

I went to Briya Public Charter School for my CDA, Child Development Associate course. And my fellow students were from Ethiopia, from Lithuania, from Russia. Various ESL people. And everybody had their own accent. Most of them are from Spanish speaking countries. And I learned Spanish—why are those conversations? That’s a different story. But for me, that accent is not anything that I am supposed to be ashamed of. I was taking pride and my teachers [00:36:00] encouraged me, Miss Judy and Mr. Mark. I would keep thanking them and keep celebrating those birthdays with prayers and blessings. But they said, “This is how.” So by listening to them, a female voice and a male voice, by listening to them over and over again, then I internalized, okay, this is how it is.

So it’s a process of assimilation. That’s the biggest thing. You come here and fall onto this land. As an immigrant, and it’s a long process of assimilation into the society. To the point, like, I’m not a native speaker yet, but I can speak English and understand English as good as a regular person. So that communication is like one gap after another gap filled in, filled in, filled in.

Michael: And it sounds to me, I mean with both your early childhood experience with language and your current experience with language, that a part of the sort of creative processing of language is the discussion of [00:37:00] language itself.

Shalinee: Yes.

Michael: And in discussing language itself, you better understand what the meaning behind what it is you really want to express.

Shalinee: Yes. And luckily, I want to add, my husband is a linguist. So he’s constantly juggling with Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, all the languages spoken in the North Indian belt. And I’m from South India. I know Telugu, Kannada, all the Dravidian languages. So these are the two areas where Indians, they’re already dealing with two or three languages. This is a basic default.

But when it comes to DCPS system, where I came into the DC, when I went to a bilingual school, being a bilingual school was a big deal. Oh, we are speaking one day you’re dropping a child in Spanish classroom. One day you’re dropping a child in English classroom, and we are learning Spanish, math and science in Spanish, and rest of social studies and other things go in English. And [00:38:00] it’s a big deal for me versus it’s like a natural thing for us back home in India.

So that’s where I started realizing, okay, now there is one more feather in my cap. I’m going to add by learning Spanish. Because I had to teach my children math and science in Spanish, which is coming in Spanish, but the output has to go in English. We don’t speak Spanish at home. So that’s how the new, how to put another soup bowl on the table. So this is a different soup.

Elizabeth: Wow.

Shalinee: So I had to learn a new recipe for home versus as a teacher I had to work out with the children who know only English children, to learn who speak only Spanish children, who know English and Spanish, and children who don’t speak English at all and Spanish at all, just Amharic.

Elizabeth: So, this immigrant experience that you’re describing, Shalinee, which is shared by so many people [00:39:00] from so many parts of the world is one of extraordinary reinvention. You’ve been speaking about the linguistic aspects of your immigration experience and coming from a place where there are just multiple languages and people interchange languages, and there’s just this layering of ways in which people communicate and everything that comes with that. Can you talk some more about the creative process of your own immigration experience and that of your family?

Shalinee: Yes. I would love to say a word called code switching. That is a thing for me. Because when you are speaking in English, I have to make sure not any other words are popping in, to make sure the person who is listening to me in English is listening to me with the trust that I’m speaking only English. Suddenly I pop in some non-English word, Hindi word, and it throws the person off saying, “What did you just say again?” It gives a person a—”You said something which is not [00:40:00] understandable by me. Can you repeat?”

So when it comes to the code switching, I’m going to tell the person in the beginning, “Hey, I’m not good with Spanish. I might throw in some few English words. I’m learning. Correct me if I’m wrong.” So I will go with the disclaimer. Versus I wanted to work as a volunteer on the desk at Clínica del Pueblo, the clinic on Mount Pleasant. Just to listen the way the regular native Spanish speaking person speaks. And there was a place called Dos—

Elizabeth: Dos Gringos, yeah. It’s a coffee shop in Mount Pleasant.

Shalinee: Yeah. A coffee shop. And there is a group of people, English-speaking people, sitting in a circle, practicing Spanish. We talk to each other in Spanish. The group has a rule, you’re not going to say anything in English. And if you don’t know, you can flash the card, but you’re not entering an English word. It’s the same experience which I had in my school where they used to charge me 10 paise for any word which you spoke which is not in English. So it’s like a penalty. [00:41:00]

So that, unless there’s, somebody’s going to say, so the learning experience has to be conscious because you’re an adult versus the learning experience as a child came as a default. That curiosity that it blended in it, you learned with your listening ears, with your playing hands, with your singing voice. You learned it as a default versus because you’re an adult, you have to learn to make your survival easier. So these are two different things. Have to versus came as default. “I’m learning, I’m playing, I’m singing.” And that came as something which is learning without any conscious learning experience versus, “I have to learn, or else my children’s homework is going to suffer.”

Elizabeth: So, to come to the US as an immigrant or to go to another country, not be a native speaker of the dominant language you have to be in a state of continual self-monitoring.

Shalinee: Self-monitoring. With Spanish. And that [00:42:00] made me, I don’t know, when I’m speaking Spanish and I’m walking in a store to use my Spanish experience, mostly the people, the customers who come from Spanish and say, “Hola, ¿cómo estás?” and all that. We speak to each other. They say that you don’t sound like a non-Spanish person. Because I internalized the tone, internalized the voice, internalize the clusters, the way they speak.

Elizabeth: Interesting.

Michael: Interesting.

Elizabeth: Yeah, so, maybe your phoneme sensibility from your multiple other languages that you speak—

Shalinee: Came to my rescue.

Elizabeth: —resonate more with the phonemes of Spanish.

Shalinee: especially from Telugu. From, the da’s and ta’s are different from duh, so that, that came to my rescue.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Michael: So you, you’ve spoken quite a bit about the various languages you’ve encountered over your lifetime. You also have the experiences of life, of the world, from, in India are much different than your experiences now in the US is different. And at the root of [00:43:00] creativity is that creating a different perspective or connecting with different perspectives, or going back to your discussion of process where you’re leaving notes here, notes there, and you’re dwelling in a sort of a deep flow state on the various ideas that you’re wrestling with. Could you talk about the experience of physical reality and how that part of your immigrant experience has affected your perspective on creativity or your process of creativity?

Shalinee: Thank you. Because I wanted to add to my conversation, the newest thing which came to my table is working with the students who are having special needs. Which is nothing to do with my Indian education system. We are not there yet. We got our independence in 1947. We are 75 years old. With the constitution, the republic, and every five years election. And with the [00:44:00] prime ministers, three prime ministers who are coming from the same family. We have a democracy, which is not comparable with the way democracy in America. It is also a huge democracy, but the advocacy for the rights is different. That’s what I would say. I’m not saying it is more here, less there, because we are still having that mindset created to cater to the needs of the British empire. Colonial mindset.

That’s how I came, when I walked into the place here. First thing I apologetically said that, “Okay, forgive me if I’m calling you sir or ma’am, Mr. so-and-so, miss.” It comes in the package. It’s not a person who is white, Black, or somebody, it’s nothing to do with the racial, physical appearance. Anybody to whomever I’m talking to in English goes by default. Sir, ma’am. English is never going with [00:45:00] the informal. Hey Michael, how are you? Hi, Ellie. Never happened to person whom I’m dealing with. “Okay, I have to be talking to in English. So, it’s Mr. Michael, Miss Elizabeth.” And we are like completely into that experience where a man is wearing a jacket and woman is wearing with a strict chin up and postured face, you know, that it goes with a package. That’s the deepest mental conditioning. That is a mindset.

Versus here I see boss’s boss and the colleague, they are like, friendly. “Come on, let’s go for a cup of coffee.” That’s basically an interview. Your job depends on going to that cup of coffee and suddenly you got the bump in the salary and you got your promotion. It is informal, casual, comfortable experience. Qhere we used to study, in public administration, there is one informal way of communicating to each other, and that’s where you get the [00:46:00] experience of having got the connection between the employee and the employer versus a coffee house experience where you get to know each other and you are actually taking care of your employee without making that person conscious of his level in the hierarchy.

Elizabeth: Yeah, it’s complicated. It’s very nuanced. And you better not get it wrong because there goes your salary.  

Shalinee: There is a word called housewife versus her homemaker right now. Where I grew up, when I grew up, a working woman is actually a working woman with a bag and putting on certain attire, putting on, making it look like as strict, I’m going to be, like, a real person. Stay out of this. It’s like a certain way of demeanor expected out of quote, unquote “working woman.” It’s not a dress code, it is like some kind of social code. So when the “working woman,” quote, unquote, lives in a working woman’s hostel, that was me. There is a word we use, “hostel,” in India, for a dormitory. A dorm.

Elizabeth: A women’s dorm? [00:47:00]

Shalinee: A women’s dorm. And here it is called shared housing experience. I lived in one of those shared housing experience with 10 different women with 10 different beds and they’re working for computers and some kind of programming in America. So they used to go to work at 9:00 PM in the night and come back at 6:00 AM in the morning. To suit the time.

Elizabeth: Is this like a call center or something like that?

Shalinee: It’s not call center. It is like a computer programming.

Elizabeth: Oh, okay.

Shalinee: It is like before Facebook came, it was before Google came, before—it was in 1994, something. So, there I saw the multiple cultural experiences happening around me. Versus me, a receptionist and a student counselor, where I have to talk across the board and make sure—it was a computer center where I’m supposed to sell credits to the students. So it’s a learning experience.

So when the code switching was happening [00:48:00] in my brain, I’m dealing with the students who are coming from multiple languages. And I was working in a metropolitan city where everything goes into that cultural mosaic. That’s what I would call it, there are multiple tiles. So if you are ribbon, a ribbon out of those tiles, your ribbon is full of multiple colors. There is no uniformity. Heterogeneity is a color of the day. So that gives a code switching. So when I’m talking to this person, I have to make sure that I speak in English, and when I am talking to this person, I had to speak only Telugu. And when I’m talk to this person, I’m—I have to be fluent quickly from this to that.

Elizabeth: Shalinee, you are also very generous about sharing aspects of your Indian culture with others in the US, including familiarizing non-Indians with such ceremonies as Diwali and Dushera and other Hindu observations. So first of all, can you tell our listeners what a few of these [00:49:00] holidays are? I know there are many moments of celebration. And also what is your view about how creativity is part of these traditions?

Shalinee: I would go with the seasons. In India we have the climatic conditions of a tropical, tropical zone. There are two areas in India, I’m not going to say North or South India. I would say there are the mountains, Vindhya mountains, the north of Vindhya mountains, and the Peninsular India.

So, Peninsular India is surrounded by three oceans. On the west we have Arabian Sea. On the east we have Bay of Bengal, and on the south, we have Indian Ocean. And in the northern part of India, we have Himalayas and the huge confluence of three rivers, Ganga, Yamuna, and Saraswati is not visible. Yamuna has gone into some kind of most polluted drain. We have Ganga. So the whole Ganga [00:50:00] belt is coming from Himalayas all the way to Bay of Bengal.

So that is a part where the most of the North Indian festivals, they celebrate based on the harvesting planting and in between time. So most of the festivals are associated with the farmer’s ability to work along with the seasons. So anything which is actually tedious and burdened, they’ve converted into festival.

Elizabeth: That’s a zucchini bread. 

Shalinee: Right. Like that. Because when, unless you have an anticipation of some celebration, why would I put all my effort, like sweat and blood, working for 12 hours, making sure my agricultural land—so this is not just a patch of land in the backyard, this is not just a land which you and me are dealing with as a farmhouse or something. This is a land of acres and acres where you plant the wheat for the whole season and the whole [00:51:00] village is doing that. So, when that village is not my home or your home anymore, it’s a whole community. It’s a whole village. or sometimes it’s a whole province.

Like, for example, the basmati rice, that’s the most familiar with the American food consumption, that’s why I will give basmati rice. The rice grown in the paddy fields in Punjabi is the most wanted basmati rice, most defined basmati rice. So the food consumption is going along with the food growing, that requires lot of effort, especially for the farmer. And especially for the farmer who is dealing with not just his family, his father’s family, his brother’s family. So this is like a joint family versus the nuclear family where the mother, father, two children—we don’t exist like that.

So when it comes to the celebrations, they’re all celebrations. It’s not a single celebration where you go into the corner, you pray, and you cook your small food and you eat and [00:52:00] you go “Happy Birthday!” and we say, “See you, goodbye.” It’s a celebration that’s involving a huge level where everybody is invited. It’s not like Christmas. It’s everybody’s involved at any point walking in and out, the openness of it.

So, the biggest festival is Holi, the Spring Festival, where the Festival of Colors is there. And before, five days, the Holi Festival goes five days before and five days after, and people start cleaning up the house. So now how much of effort goes into making the Holi Festival successfully is children actually go and collect dry wood. As a child, I used to go from home to home, like we are a band of children, like 20 kids screaming songs in front of the door. “We want coal. We want wooden pieces. We want your dead wood.” So, parents used to keep all that in front of the door. So we used to carry the burlap [00:53:00] bags, whoever gets first, and we make a pile in the middle of the street. So one day before Holi, we used to burn all those unwanted ways. Now here comes the spring cleaning. People used to come and dump stuff, which they don’t want. And there is a belief that Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity, comes in when all these negative energies go away, and people actually whitewash their homes.

Michael: Wow. So it sounds like the religious experience is a whole body, whole community experience.

Shalinee: Whole community experience.

Michael: Since coming to the US, how has that experience changed?

Shalinee: We barely know the date of the festival. We, somebody goes, “Happy Holi!” Which was like yesterday because in India they are 10 and a half hours ahead of us. So their Holi is already over when we have one day left. Okay. March 17th was Holi in India. So [00:54:00] our March 17th has just arrived. So, we have 10 and a half hour leeway of getting into, okay, if we did not do this, at least I can do the cleaning. Let me Mr. Clean and, like, quick clean and light a lamp in front of God and we still have our Holi and say, “Yeah, we had Holi. Yes, we had Holi.” But whom am I lying to?   

Michael: Because the whole, there isn’t the whole community anymore.

Shalinee: Yeah, it was our kind of Holi.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Shalinee: That’s what I would say. It is the same experience for anybody who is going from America to live in India. Christmas celebration, in India we have Christmas celebration, but not the way you get together—Thanksgiving, I would—

Elizabeth: Oh, Thanksgiving is very American.

Shalinee: Very American. Yeah. Which is, like, I ask people, like, “How did you like going to India on Thanksgiving?” means, “Man, I hate it.” That is a point I missed in the whole experience. There was a parent who went to work in Indian hospital. She said the biggest thing she missed being in India as a emergency [00:55:00] doctor was Thanksgiving. Nobody knows it. Nobody knows that even a Thanksgiving festival exists.

Michael: Right. It becomes very much of a solitary experience.

Shalinee:  Yeah. So that was like, on that day I was actually sitting and crying, sobbing and all that. So I can understand. So, the assimilation process is universal. No matter who is plucked from where and planted somewhere else. So it takes time.

Same thing happened with all that Holi, and coming to Diwali, Holi happens in the spring and Diwali happens to be in the fall. So Holi is like a spring festival, the harvest, fresh, has come. And Diwali is a time where you are actually wrapping up, getting ready for winter, Diwali is the Festival of Lights. That’s a huge festival. Again, five days before, five days after people will be experiencing Diwali. And that’s a time where the brother comes to the sister’s house and they keep looking out for each other. “Hey, how are you?” And all that. [00:56:00]

And the other third festival, which I want to say, which is a big deal, is Sankranti. This comes in January. There is a strict date, about a three-day festival, where you celebrate animals. As a child I used to see ox, me and my neighbor used to have a lot of cows. So we used to go and people used to go to their house where they actually go to the, the lady and ask permission, “Can we decorate your cow?” Cow is considered as a Gomatha, means “go” is cow, “matha” is mother. So because we drink her milk, she’s our mother. So we used to go and worship Gomatha. Worship is part of the Sankranti. Sankranti is a

time where the sun enters from Capricorn to, sun enters the Capricorn

constellation. It is something related to the, the astronomical experiences. But this particular festival is universal with different names all over India. It’s a festival for [00:57:00] harvest and that is a time where the creativity drawing on the floor Kollam comes. So, we used to have a Rangoli competitions as children and every house in front of them they basically expanded, occupying the yard slowly by adding water, like we sprinkle water in front of the house. So as long [far] as the water goes, that place is mine to show my Kollam.

Elizabeth: Interesting.

Shalinee: Yeah. And we leave a string, a line. When the goddess of Lakshmi comes, the prosperity comes, she will visit my house and she will go to the neighbor’s house too. So, we used to leave footsteps for Lakshmi to go. Not just me, let my neighbor also flourish. So that was a drawing of Kolam that influenced me. When I’m coming to, talking to people in America about mandala painting.

Michael: Sure. And speaking of sort of influences and [00:58:00] vitality and creativity and your current community, can you maybe speak of the mentors that have helped you with creativity or kept your spirits vital?

Shalinee: My, biggest mentor is sitting in front of me.

Elizabeth: Oh, that’s so sweet.

Shalinee: Now I would say “Ms. Elizabeth.” When I met her, the first time I met her, we met her in the classroom of pre-K3 children. And she was teaching specials as a science teacher in summer. And my job is to make sure that as a teaching assistant, I took my students, and my job is to sit quietly. I was waiting. She might ask me to bump in and say that, okay, these are, but no, she was like totally involved with from starting to end experience.

Elizabeth: So, this is the Theatrical Journey Project you’re talking about.

Shalinee: The Theatrical Journey Project in summer 2012.

Elizabeth: Wow.

Shalinee: That memory is like vivid in my brain because that is a thing which I was taking mental notes. “This is how it’s supposed to be.” Versus people are asking, [00:59:00] the teachers were asking a three-year-old to hold the pencil in certain way and asking them to draw the cow. How would anybody will do that? It was like complete contrast for me in one day. That is a time I realized, okay, there is a different way. I’m not sitting back on this. I’m going to work to become a teacher. That was the experience, which I never shared with you, but today I got a chance, I’m sharing with you.

Elizabeth: Let me jump in here and just tell our listeners. This is a project called The Theatrical Journey Project, introducing science to early learners through guided pretend play, which I created in residence at CentroNía where Shalinee and I both worked for many years. And it’s a hands-on process that introduces children to science concepts, but it’s completely experiential and there’s no, there are no wrong answers, for example, in Journey class, everything is based on the improvisational principle of “yes and,” not “yes, but.” So, just a little background there. It’s basically a theatrical [01:00:00] engagement experience for young children.

Shalinee: So that experience which the children were having, there was one more learner in that classroom. It was me. So, I would certainly I was trying to take that learning experience to every school wherever I worked. I used to come back and say, “Ms. Elizabeth, can you gimme more brochures? I want to talk to my principal.” And all that. There, there’s a lot of bureaucracy and all that. So that threw me off. Then I realized, okay, let me not give wrong hope. But I learned a lot with that experience, how it’s supposed to be and how she was timing herself because at 45 minutes, so she has to wrap it up. That part was highly challenging for me, wrapping up. And how she’s keeping the flow from the beginning to the end. There was no disruption at all. And how she is downloading the information into the child who is willing to learn by participating, by [01:01:00] being in that journey. When she is taking, she is a main engine, and we are all the train with the caboose on the back. She took all the, all of us on her, under her wing, all the children.

Elizabeth: Let me just say, one of the tenants of the Journey project is that the children are the science problem solvers. It’s not about the teacher teaching. It’s all about the adults joining the children as collaborators in this immersive experience of becoming and role playing the scientists or the farmers or the water scientists or whatever. So it, it’s just a wonderful participatory theater experience that is just so much fun. You talked about playing, so I think that’s what you were referencing is. It’s not school.

Shalinee: It’s not school. It’s an experience where you go in, you come out, and when you come out, you’re a different person. With the feeling that yes, I have done something, I learned [01:02:00] something. It’s not necessarily the lesson plan where the goals and objectives are met or something. So that is a big deal for me.

Elizabeth: That reminds me, Shalinee, you are incredibly reverent about the natural world. On your Facebook page, for example, you’re constantly posting these extraordinary images and phenomenon from the natural world. So I wanna ask you about the role that nature plays and wonder at the natural world, how that is one and the same with your own imagination? What does that say about your own creative imagination?

Shalinee: Yeah, I would relate this to my student experience first. As a student who, like in India, we have this 10+2+3 system when it comes to the study education. During my student experience. Now, they have changed with the new education policy in 2020. So, until 10th grade you study everything, which is in general, [01:03:00] but in +2 is the 11th and 12th grade experience. We have choice to go in which direction you want to study. So I took botany, zoology, physics, and chemistry. That is my area. And in +3, the graduate undergrad, we had this botany, zoology and chemistry, only physics went away. And in masters I did sociology. So it’s a blend of humanities and pure science. I wouldn’t say pure science, but the science per se, biology per se, where you dissect something and you look through the microscope and you draw that particular transfer section of leaf, transfer section of the root nerve, ring of the earthworm. And you put it on the microscopes. You study all the phylum, invertebrates, vertebrates, and classification.

So, when you are studying at this deep level, unconsciously, [01:04:00] you are actually relating to them. Any learning experience for me, unless I don’t relate to it, I never learned. So when my teacher was teaching botany as a Linnaeus system of classification where the genus and species, genus is written with the capital uppercase and species is always written with the small letter. It is like a thing for us. Okay, that’s how it is. Like it’s learning experience.

So now, when you are looking at a flower, you’re not looking at a flower, you are looking at the botanical name, what would be the botanical name? Now we have apps where you scan a picture and you look for it. The botanical name pops up and it gives a whole description of the—but when I was a student, we are supposed to remember everything. So all these terms are like—I became passionately learning.

For me, it’s a passion to learn because I used to relate to the animals and I used to have five cats in the house. [01:05:00] So for me, this is what I’m going to do to take care of my cat. How would I do that? Felis domesticus. That’s the one. And there is a sparrow there. What is the name of the sparrow? Passer domesticus.

Elizabeth: So this is a—

Shalinee: It’s a whole other language. It’s Greek and Latin. So when the nomenclature came, everything was in Greek and Latin. Greek and Latin. Greek and Latin. So now Greek and Latin became familiar, friendly to me.

And in, when I was in 10th grade, my sister was very mischievous. My older sister, five year older sister. And I used to nag her and she wanted to get rid of me. She gave me an Oxford dictionary. A thick one. And she said in those days, I don’t know whether they’re doing it right now or not, in the Oxford Dictionary, all the foreign words, which are not in English are italics.

Elizabeth: Okay. Okay.

Shalinee: And she used to tell, find all the words. She gave me a big journal. She told me right from A to Z, all the foreign [01:06:00] words, which are in italics. And she gave me, this is the summer, and she was preparing for—

Elizabeth: The OED? She had you do this for the entire Oxford English dictionary?

Shalinee: I did it!

Elizabeth: You did? The OED, to, for our listeners, the OED is legendary in language circles because it’s this massive dictionary that—we actually have a complete OED volume—but you have to have a micro, a magnifying glass to read it because there, there’s so many words. Then the pages are paper or just, tissue thin.

Shalinee: Bible paper. That’s what we call in India, Bible paper.

Elizabeth: Yeah, and, yeah, I don’t know how many words are in the OED, but it’s—

Michael: Well, the university library, it’s like a 12 volumes.

Elizabeth: This is like just massive.

Shalinee: Luckily the book I was handling was given to us by my father. So it was not so new version.

Elizabeth: So, yeah. Yeah.

Shalinee: Even then it was this thick.

Elizabeth: This thick, yeah.

Shalinee: And it was into tatters, but still I had to make sure it won’t [01:07:00] rip. And I wrote down from A to Z the maximum amount of foreign words. And then by the time—

Michael: Must have kept you busy for a while.

Shalinee: She did that. She did that. She is mischievous.

Elizabeth: I think your sister owes you for that.

Shalinee: She never looked at it, but I learned something. Patience.

Elizabeth: Right. Let’s talk, just briefly.

Shalinee: Yes.

Elizabeth: As, I’ve always been impressed with you as a lifelong learner, you’re one of the most dedicated lifelong learners I know. So can you just talk briefly about your, as you just said, your passion for learning and how that quest is connected to your creativity?

Shalinee: Let me summarize the part where it comes to delivering what I have learned to the audiences versus what I have to learn new. I would consider this as some kind of bad analogy, itchy experience. I would say, until you scratch your head, you don’t get rid of your aches, which is, like, bothering you. So it is [01:08:00] like constant violence going on in my brain. How should I learn this?

It’s like, I have to learn to understand because it is a key to something else. Unless I learn Spanish, I can’t teach my children the science and math. Because the homework sheet used to come in two versions. On the left side, we have Spanish, on the right side we have in English. So at some point I used to get frustrated and break pencils. “Dang, I’m not getting this.” Then, there was a Larousse dictionary. Again, dictionary. Spanish to English, English to Spanish. Given by one of the gentlemen as soon as I went into the bilingual school. This came in handy to me when I was learning English. So now you are saying on the other side of the table that you want to learn Spanish? Go ahead and dig into it. Here we go. Another dictionary. So that Larousse dictionary with the color coding, with learning experiences with index cards. So that changed my life. That [01:09:00] color coded index cards was my key. It is my next grab when I’m doing that monkey bar. So, when you are on a monkey bar, you can’t afford to be dangling in one spot unless you want to enjoy the part where you are hanging in. When you are on the monkey bar, it’s like a ladder, which is in the horizontal position. To keep moving on, you have to leave behind something.

Elizabeth: I love this analogy. This is amazing.

Shalinee: Yeah. So, unlearning what I have learned to move on to learn something new. Because the more I’m sticking my hand on the back, I’m not moving ahead. So I have to let go of my hand to go further down.

Michael: And this actually leads into a couple of our concluding questions and one of them is particularly fascinating to me, and this is the role that creativity plays in recreating ourselves as individuals and as people.

You’ve spoken quite a bit about the ingrained, sort of, way of thinking about [01:10:00] language from an early age. But also, a number of times you’ve talked about, sort of, key moments when you’ve discovered something about yourself or your approach to life. But maybe also about who you are as a person. And in this latest analogy about leaving one bar of the monkey bars behind in order to go to the next level. But so, in this, in terms of the creation of who you are as a person and the role creativity plays in that, how does creativity affect who you are as a person in your identity?

Shalinee: I would still stick to that monkey bar analogy. After monkey bars, you have to come back to the ground. That’s who you are. Good, bad, or ugly. I’m going to accept myself. “Okay, I did not learn.” I’m not going to beat myself up, “Dang. I should have learned it.” Okay. I didn’t learn. Whatever.

There is certain recipes which go wrong no matter how much strictly you follow all that. It doesn’t come out the way it’s supposed to, but you’re going to [01:11:00] eat it because you have invested your time in it. You accept it. That’s how the life is. Because you cooked it. You’re not going to ask anybody to eat and taste. I’m going to eat this because—

Michael: Sure. Okay.

Shalinee: It is my creation, so I’m going to like it. No matter how bad it is for all of you, I’m going to enjoy that with a dollop of butter in it or with a dash of lemon. Still, I make it palatable.

Elizabeth: I love that. Creativity is—

Michael: Whatever, whatever comes out of the creative experience, when you come back down to Earth, you’ll find a way to make it palatable.

Elizabeth: There’s, I feel like—

Michael: I love that.

Elizabeth: Just speaking of monkey bars, I don’t know where this fits in the analogy, but there’s a whole subspecialty in the emergency rooms of monkey bar broken, broken arms. Our daughter broke her elbow, she broke her elbow once falling off the monkey bars. And it’s a particular—

Michael: Yeah, that’s why I’m—

Elizabeth: —particular subspecialty in pediatric orthopedics.

Shalinee: I would go again with the monkey bar [01:12:00] analogy because when I’m teaching children the physical, the thing, go from one direction to another direction, to left or left to—making sure you land on the safe space. But in the beginning, I’m holding their feet. To give them the confidence. That you are able to go from point A to point B. Where are those steps? I’m here to make sure that you won’t fall.

There was a child who was like, “I can’t do it.” Like, she declared. I said, “No, you can if I’m holding.” Just to give that experience, to visualize how the success looks like itself—

Michael: Sure.

Shalinee: — is the step one. You have to build that confidence. And I used to do that. Okay, it was hurting sometimes to carry a heavy child where I cannot handle beyond like certain weight. I was able to do it. Then I realized at some point a child was able to say, “I don’t need your help anymore. I can do it.” And that child was my anchor child. So when she did it, like, she became a mini teacher to teach others, “Oh, you need to do that.” So basically you are [01:13:00] repeating the directions, standing behind, at some point.

Elizabeth: So that leads absolutely into our next question, and that is what practical advice you would have for our listeners on how to nurture and sustain your own creativity. Actual concrete advice.

Shalinee: Concrete advice is don’t stick to one pedagogical concept.

There is no one magic bullet where a child learns, da, like that. No, I never, when I did not learn like that, I don’t have right to expect someone else to learn like that regardless of a child or an adult or anybody. The person who is not in your body is certainly an outsider. That’s me. So, there’s the smallest place where I can live is my body. That’s the smallest address. My body lives in certain address. My body is driving that car. My body is going somewhere, which I call “I am.” Is not, [01:14:00] I am the person who is living in this body. When I leave this body, I’m, I still might exist, might not exist, okay.? The Hinduism, reincarnation, karma, this, that happens. But as long as I am in this body, I am the person who is having this body as my frame of reference. And anybody who is not me is other. I have to make sure, not necessarily that person is going to understand, even if it is my identical twin, that person has a different self.

So here I want to bring George Herbert Mead, the social psychologist. He’s my favorite. If you want to define a God in person, he is my God. He did not write this book, Mind, Self, and Society. One of his ardent students, in those days, they used to have shorthand, longhand. I don’t know, people will relate to it or not. They were typewriters. So a good student of his took notes in shorthand and when he [01:15:00] died in 1931, he published these lectures as Mind, Self, and Society. So—

Michael: Based on the student’s notes?

Shalinee: Personal notes. So that book is my first book I read as a student in sociology. My, my teacher asked me to summarize that particular book for 20-point assignment. I got only eight out of it because that is like a huge new thing for me. I learned as sociology is a study of social interactions. Interactions is one-way communication, two-way communication, reciprocity, no reciprocity.

And now the new aspect in my life is working with children with autism. Where we don’t have choice how to communicate now. Now look at that. I have so many things I wanted to communicate, but I don’t know how to do it. I am a biological speaker. I’m listening, but I don’t know [01:16:00] how to make the structure of the grammatical sentence— “I want a cup of water” —to fulfill my need. How would I do that? Okay, American Sign Language system is there. And I, this is for more, this is for help. We have those things. But how should I process in my body language? I’m talking with my body now. I need my body. I need my two free hands to communicate, without which I will go thirsty. My survival depends on it. So, if I want to say something to someone, “Hey, this is a pedagogy.” There is no one pedagogy where I have to follow that today with this particular table, with these six students, this worked for me. Might not work for you with this particular student. If you want to teach the same subject with the thing.

So, when I’m making a lesson plan, I will leave lot of loosens, I will make the children make that improvement. “Okay, this is what we are doing.” But in my back of my mind, if they don’t like it, I need to have a backup [01:17:00] plan. So there comes my bags and bags. Bag one. What’s in bag two with a squishy toy, with fidgets. My job is to make sure that at least these six kids stay on my table for next 40 minutes.

Michael: Teacher as improvisational artists.

Shalinee: Yes. The main processing of communication happens, the real core learning happens only for 10 minutes. Rest of it is all they process it. Elizabeth was saying, it’s an improvisation. So unless you are not ready to learn, no one can teach you.

Elizabeth: Speaking of learning, the last thing we’d like to do is give our guests a chance to announce either events or publications. You have a book that we haven’t talked about, but it’s called The Feminist Contributions to Indian Sociology, it’s a study of three sociologists. So if you have anything else you’d like to share with our listeners? Any web links other publications, anything that, that they could [01:18:00] go to find out more about you and what you’re doing?

Shalinee: This is actually my, in India we have this, we used to have this M.Phil PhD. After completing your master’s, the British system had M.Phil, two years of pre-PhD program, and then we go for PhD. Now, with the new education policy that’s changed to master’s two years and three years of PhD. So during my student experience at Jawaharlal University, I did this M.Phil under the Sociology Center for Study of Social Systems. So this was my dissertation.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Shalinee: The Feminist Contributions to Indian Sociology, a study of collect texts, and I studied three women sociologists who are not from the field of sociology. Number one was Leela Dube, she’s a social anthropologist. And number two was Tanika Shakar, a historian. And number three was Vandana Shiva, maybe [01:19:00] you’re familiar with that, she is a eco-warrior. That’s what she calls herself. Eco-feminism. Where she’s advocating for non-GMO foods, making sure that the genetically modified foods are not there and there is no monoculture. So these three people have contributed to sociology without being from the traditional knowledge of, okay, I’m coming from sociological, master’s, bachelor’s, this, that, they just came in, they gave the delivery and they went away. It was, yeah, unconventional. That is the unconventionality of learning resonates with them, resonates with me.

Elizabeth: Thank you so much, Shalinee. This has been a fabulous and really stimulating conversation.

Michael: Absolutely.

Shalinee: Thank you.

Elizabeth: So many dimensions.

Shalinee: So basically, I was summarizing all my learning experiences.

Elizabeth: It’s just been a pleasure and a joy to talk to you. So thank you, Shalinee.

Shalinee: Thank you, Elizabeth. Thank you, [01:20:00] Michael. I cherish watching both of you as one individual. I just wanted to share that. Two in two bodies, like you’re supplementing each other.

Elizabeth: The yin, the yang, whatever.

Shalinee: Yes.

Elizabeth: All right. This has been great.

Tremendous thanks to all our listeners. To those of you who are free subscribers, please consider becoming paid subscribers so that Creativists in Dialogue can continue bringing you insightful conversations about creativity from Washington, DC and beyond. Thanks.

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