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Mission to Teach: The Life and Legacy of a Revolutionary Educator

Book By: Dipak Basu

Mission to Teach is the inspirational story of a courageous teacher who took on American science education reform against deeply-established practices, suffering along the way several tragedies that only spurred her on to astonishing achievements in her all-too-short lifetime.

Spanning four continents, Mission to Teach covers the life and work of NYU Professor Jhumki Basu, who developed ground-breaking techniques that were rooted in her own teaching experiences in embattled inner-city schools. Incredibly, Jhumki realized her achievements while she battled breast cancer with grace for seven years before it engulfed her at age 31 – but could not stop her legacy.

Submitted:Jun 5, 2013    Reads: 9    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   

Mission to Teach

The Life and Legacy of a Revolutionary Educator

By Dipak Basu

Chapter 36

Being Noticed

On January 8, 2008, Radha sent this e-mail to friends and family:

We are back from India but not home yet. Yesterday was a difficult day at MSKCC. Jhomi is stoic but knows that the next treatment may limit her lifestyle. We are terribly worried BUT determined to fight every step and keep at it as long as there are options. One thing that Dr. Hudis said that was mildly positive is that she looks and appears clinically better than 12 months ago when he first saw her. After I wrote the above, we have decided on Gemzar as the chemo agent and Jhumki started treatment last night. It was a painful infusion and she became distraught and jittery, perhaps due to Decadron, the steroid administered against infection. She slept ok but we will watch her today, she might have a fever. Poor baby, she wants to live her life amidst all the rigors and side effects and the uncertainty of treatment. She still plans to go to Seattle to visit the Prokops on Friday, then to San Diego on Monday for a NARST conference where she is presenting, and then come home for a week. She is really looking forward to seeing all of you before starting the semester. Dipak and I are living our lives around her needs. She wants to come home once a month, and go down to see Ranga in Southern California or up to Seattle more often. Love you all a lot. Your love and support makes us strong to keep fighting.

During one of her treatment days at MSKCC, Jhumki met a young chemo nurse named Morgan, who could find a vein in Jhumki's wrist right away without poking around and hurting her unnecessarily. Morgan had the great quality to look her distressed patients in the eye when she spoke and feel their suffering as they anguished through chemo. She loved her job and was extremely good at it. Morgan and Jhumki became friends, and Jhumki always asked her to perform intravenous infusions on her.

Our daughter spent many hours in the waiting area at MSKCC when she could have gotten work done over the Internet. Appalled by the sight of seriously sick patients thumbing listlessly through old magazines and making one another even more depressed, she wrote to management and demanded that they install free Wi-Fi for patients' use. MSKCC agreed to her request and everyone became a bit happier.

How she got through the activities of that spring semester-teaching two courses at NYU, conducting research at far-flung boroughs, taking long subway rides in icy weather, applying for grants, publishing papers, keeping up with friends, working cancer hotlines for other sufferers-I will never comprehend. Was she racing away from shadows that were coming closer? Did the finality of being unable to have children drive her to drown herself mercilessly in work? Was she able to tolerate the physical suffering of cancer because the emotional pain went deeper still? Was she able to devote herself relentlessly to serving others, despite the fact that every fiber cried out to stop and rest, because resting would mean reflection on loss?

In March she was hospitalized with pain and high fever, symptoms that are always worrisome during chemo. She developed a blood clot in her arm, and her white blood cell count dropped. Pale and weak in a hospital bed, Jhumki raged about how cancer treatment was wreaking havoc on her work schedule. The current regimen was abandoned and Taxol, a venerable but toxic cancer drug, became her primary therapy. Scans in June showed that her lungs were clear, the liver lesions were reduced or gone, the bone was unchanged, and her blood markers were down.

Jhumki had a reprieve, but at a cost. Her hair was gone, as were her eyebrows. When she went out she wore one of her fashionable hats or classy bandanas. In the evenings her head ached and needed rubbing as she lay, spent, on the living-room sofa. Her legs and feet ached from neuropathic pain. She applied palliative cream to the soles of her feet and wore crocs.

And then, Jhumki's oscillating destiny went straight from nadir to zenith and pulled her out of misery.

Good Morning Radha,

I am delighted to tell you that Jhumki has been selected as the Castilleja Distinguished Alumnae Award recipient for her outstanding and innovative contributions to education. I understand that she is planning to attend the Centennial Symposium on Saturday, May 3rd in Palo Alto and we were hoping to present the award at lunch. Head of School, Joan Lonergan suggested that you would know how best to contact her to give her this special news. We would love to have you present too.

Many thanks,

Maggie Ely Pringle '71, Alumnae Director

This news broke amid a flurry of activity. There were just ten days to go before the Castilleja award ceremony, and Jhumki didn't even know about it. Radha was in India on a work trip when Maggie's e-mail arrived. I happened to be in New York and the sunshine came back to her tired face when I told Jhumki.

"But, omigosh, Baba! I've got so much going on . . ."

As she said that, I could see from her expression how proud she felt. I knew wild horses would not keep her away from beloved Casti. She moved staff meetings, doctors' appointments, lesson planning, triathlon practice, and heaven knows what else, to make it to California for the weekend.

Mommy, desolate in Kolkata, would miss the award.

Jhumki's flight arrived at SFO after midnight and I met her at arrivals. From a distance she gave me a brave and weary wave. I took her backpack, gave her a hug, and managed to get her into the car before she fell asleep.

The following morning the April sun shone brightly on Castilleja Green, around which Jhumki had spent six rich years. Spring flowers smiled from the periphery. She wore a sleeveless dress with pink and red floral patterns, matching belt and hat. I took her picture in the thriving garden she had started as a science teacher nine years earlier, and which is now formally dedicated to her memory.

Centenary celebrations were underway in the main auditorium when we arrived. Condi Rice had sent a video message from Washington. Mark Hurd, CEO of Hewlett Packard, was speaking. At the entrance we met Doris Mourad, and the two science teachers caught up on news. Then we sat down and listened to the speeches. It was hot inside and Jhumki took off her hat.

<insert image 30. Receiving Castilleja award, with Anjelika Deogirikar, Joan Lonergan and the author.jpg>

At noon we walked over to the well-remembered school cafeteria for the award luncheon. Joan Lonergan, the school principal, was there with Doris and several members of Castilleja Alumnae Association. Anjelika Deogirikar, association president, read the commemoration and presented Jhumki with the memento. I was taking pictures when I realized Jhumki wasn't wearing her hat. I was about to remind her, but something made me stop.

Jhumki did wear a hat after that memorable day-but only if she needed to keep out the cold.

In early 2008 Jhumki had applied for a research fellowship from the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation.

KSTF's programs support outstanding early-career scholars who conduct research to gain insight into the complexities and challenges of preparing and supporting high school science and mathematics teachers. The executive director of KSTF, Angelo Collins, is a forceful and deceptively motherly-looking lady. She had much to say about the process of Jhumki's selection for the coveted fellowship in competition with a "goodly" number of others.

"Jhumki's submission was one of four that were ranked as fundable that year," Angelo told Maithreyi during her interview. "After determining this, I spoke with her several times because her task was to summarize her entire research project in one page for our Board of Trustees. These people are not educators, not teachers, not scientists, but financial and businesspeople. She sent me the first draft and I told her it was absolutely beautiful, but my Board will read the first sentence and say, 'What does she mean by democratic pedagogy? This woman doesn't know what she's talking about because she's using all this jargon, and it's not going to work.'

"In one of our conversations Jhumki said, 'I've finally got it!'

"She was going to write it for a grandmother or an aunt, I think. And once she got that idea, the one-pager came out just perfect. Thereafter, the Board had quite a serious debate about the final two proposals. Both were concerned with helping underprivileged children by providing them with really strong teachers. It was the quality of Jhumki's one-page presentation and the clarity of her writing style that persuaded the Board this was the proposal it would fund."

Here is the one-pager:

How New Science Teachers Interpret and Enact Democratic Science Pedagogy

Implications for Teacher Induction, Development and Retention and Student Learning

Student empowerment in science depends on teacher empowerment. Retaining qualified science teachers is of major concern in America's urban public schools if we are to address the grave challenges that urban, minority students face in gaining access to STEM disciplines and science education. However, limited research exists on factors supporting the induction, development and retention of science teachers in early stages of their careers.

In this study, I introduce the idea of democratic science pedagogy as a teaching philosophy and practice designed to address issues faced by students historically disenfranchised from a high-quality science education and, in turn, important for developing and retaining teachers. The study is innovative in that it will explore how urban science teachers theorize and practice democratic science pedagogy, how their experiences connect with professional development and satisfaction, and how their practices influence student learning and engagement in science.

The body of the KSTF proposal contains Jhumki's vision of empowering science teachers to engage all underserved youth in science through democratic pedagogy. It is written in no-nonsense style and with full academic rigor. Angela Calabrese Barton acted as a referee in support of Jhumki's application. Her letter to KSTF read:

Dr. Basu holds the stance, and I believe rightly so, that many youth from low-income, urban backgrounds have an interest in and a desire to succeed in science, but that teachers struggle with the strategies and tools they might deploy in support of real student learning. Her study should offer teachers and curriculum developers with new insights into how one might better reach a population of students so often left on the margins of science education.

Dr. Basu is one of the most driven and rigorous young scholars I know. Dr. Basu is an experienced teacher, and draws extensively upon this personal practical knowledge side by side with the literature as she seeks to understand youth learning in school contexts. Indeed, I believe that Jhumki has a remarkable future ahead of her in academia. She is just the kind of person that Knowles Foundation would be pleased to have as a Young Scholar.

After Jhumki received the award, she spoke with Angelo about the budget for the fellowship. Only at this point did Angelo learn about the cancer.

"She wanted to know if her illness was going to change anything," Angelo recalled. "I told her no. We were interested in the quality of her work and how it fit with our mission. So there was no problem at all.

"You will smile," Angelo continued, "when I tell you what I told Jhumki. 'You have written into this two-year grant, five years of work. You cannot possibly do everything.' She was going to do some survey work. She was going to trial the surveys and design teaching modules. She was going to publish them. She was going to author a book. I told her, 'Jhumki, in two years as a junior professor, you cannot possibly do it all.'"

The astonishing thing is that Jhumki did it all.

In eight months.

E-mail from Jhumki Basu to her parents, July 11, 2008

So I wanted to tell you that things are sort of good at work, despite all the stupid cancer stuff:

  • 3 grants supporting 3 doctoral students
  • 7 papers published, 4 are independent research, 2 reviews, 2 in the pipeline for this summer
  • got good course evaluations for the semester, despite hospitalization, etc.
  • got a perfect 5 score from the undergrads I teach
  • things are good at SDL with respect to research, and I'm starting at another school close to our house
  • thinking about the book prospectus and laying foundations for it with the article writing and the new doc students

Good, right?

Good? It was the understatement of the millennium. These were fantastic achievements.

As the year progressed, five of Jhumki's academic submissions were published and, in addition to KSTF, she received two grants, the Rudin and Petri Fellowships. She decided to utilize all the money to fund four NYU doctoral students under her guidance. One of the four, Frank Signorello, worked at the New York Hall of Science, where he set up experiments for droves of visiting school kids.

"Jhumki was very open to everything I threw at her vis-à-vis ideas about the way that I teach," said Frank. "She espoused many of those methods: ideas of reform-minded pedagogy, democratic ideals, giving students voice, giving them choice in what they learn and how they learn. They come to the Hall of Science for free. We don't tell them what to do. They can play. It's guided play. They can take a workshop."

Jhumki was receptive to Frank's ideas. She suggested that her doctoral students incorporate methods that were used in Frank's informal techniques into a formal classroom environment.

"The one thing I really enjoyed as I was working with Jhumki," Frank added, "was she wanted us to be equals. But I would look to her for experience. I was always very in awe of all the experience she had at a very young age because I was older than her!"

The world was paying attention to Jhumki's crusade. Through academic neglect, territorial politics, and parental apathy, kids in urban American schools were increasingly being left behind. Parents, schools, school boards, and governments were discouraging science either overtly or implicitly. Most science teachers in under-resourced New York schools were untrained in science. Young science teachers with dynamic ideas were the first to be laid off because of state budget crunches. America was losing the scientific innovations that had made it great. Students from affluent families-those able to afford private education-and foreign students were filling the demand for scientists in corporations and universities while inner-city youth languished in an unending cycle of poverty.

A dying educator was saying:

Rise up, America!

The flower of your youth is fading. See your lost children. They are your future. Love them. Respect them. They have the solution. They are the solution. Here is the way.

Give them a good education. Give them all a good education. Bring out their best. It is their birthright.

They are my legacy.


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