My fourth-grade math teacher, Ms. Madhu Peshwani, is a rockstar. While she was teaching our rowdy fourth-grade class on the weekdays, she was also teaching Bollywood dance at her own studio, Masti Dance Academy, on the weekends.
The memories I have from fourth grade are only warm. Along with the regular fourth-grade curriculum, we would have class discussions about living green. Ms. Peshwani was passionate about the environment. She taught us about the dangers of styrofoam and how we should always recycle our plastic water bottles, but remove the cap first.
She also encouraged us to meditate. “Meditation is all about calming your mind,” she said. “The idea is to clear your mind of all thoughts.” Once, she had us actually meditate in class. “It’s not as easy as it seems. All of you, right now, close your eyes for thirty seconds, and see if you can keep your mind free of thoughts.” After the thirty seconds were over, the classroom erupted into conversation. Ms. Peshwani smiled. “How many of you managed?” she asked. Not even one hand went up. “Okay, now what did you think of?”
“I thought of how I wasn’t supposed to be thinking,” one kid said.
“I thought about mac n’cheese, and I can’t even eat mac n’cheese,” I said (I’m gluten-intolerant).
She held a class tradition called “Star Student”. Each month, a Star Student would be picked. Then, they would create a poster about themselves, and share it with the class. For the rest of the month, the Star Student’s poster would be up in the corner for everyone to see.
Ms. Peshwani taught elementary school for 8 years. Most of these years were at Haun Elementary (go Huskies!), but at the beginning of her career, she also student-taught at Wyatt. Now, her daughter, Sasha, is pursuing acting in Indian film, so the family travels to India often for film shoots. Ms. Peshwani has stopped teaching in PISD, but she still teaches at Masti. “I miss teaching. I miss being with kids,” she told me.
Masti Dance Academy
Ms. Madhu Peshwani started Masti Dance Academy “as a cultural activity.” She grew up in India and only moved to North America when she got married in 1992. Then, she and her husband immigrated to Canada. They moved to the US in 2001. Having spent much of her life in India, Ms. Peshwani wanted her kids to grow up being exposed to Indian culture. Sasha and Sanya Peshwani attended Indian dance classes as kids, but back then, there weren’t many Indian dance studios in the area. Ms. Peshwani had to drive them from Plano to Murphy and back. She said it became “quite cumbersome”.
Soon, Sasha wanted to participate in the India Night dance competition, and Ms. Peshwani found that it was easier to just teach Sasha, and a couple of other kids who wanted to participate, at home. “Once I started teaching dance at home, all the parents asked me, ‘Why don’t you continue?’” she says. So she did. Ms. Peshwani told me that she loved teaching in general, and she loved dancing, so when she opened Masti Dance Academy in Plano, it was really “combining [her] two loves”.
Read more: A tour of Aroma Indian Cuisine, Plano
Ms. Peshwani opened Masti at around the same time she started teaching in the school system, but she says that holding both jobs at the same time brought her only joy. “Dancing is stress relief for me,” she says. “If I just take off and go to a dance party, it’s stress relief. It’s not really a job.” She says that the years she taught elementary school and dance were “the best years of her life”.
Teaching elementary school
Ms. Peshwani always knew that she wanted to teach. “As a child in India, when my parents took off to work, I had this blackboard in my house. It was my only toy, really. Instead of doing my homework, I would just pretend to teach,” she told me with a laugh. She loves kids, and before the start of every school year, she would ask herself, ‘How am I going to impact these students?’ “If I can walk away saying I’ve impacted even one student, I’ve made a difference,” she says.
She says that her students have taught her to be a lifelong learner. “Sometimes, we as teachers think we know [something], but elementary schoolers never take instructions and decide they will follow along. They ask [questions], and that makes you think.” Once, when discussing landmines and the accumulation of trash on Earth, a student raised his hand and asked Ms. Peshwani why we couldn’t just launch all the trash into space. She laughed and said, “So the Earth isn’t enough? Now you want to pollute space, too?” But then she thought about it, and realized, Maybe we will have to resort to that.
Ms. Peshwani told me that from witnessing the school system in India and the school system in the United States, she’s realized that neither rote memorization, which is common in India, nor pure conceptualization, common in the US, is effective in teaching. “There has to be a balance,” she says. She started implementing meditation in her teaching a couple of years after being in the field. “Even if it’s just that a kid is having some trouble focusing, I would take him outside and have him do some deep breathing for a little bit,” she said. “After six years or so, I realized that this actually worked.”
Plans for the future
Currently, Ms. Peshwani is supporting Sasha, who’s acting in her third Indian film. “A part of me secretly hopes to [return to teaching],” she says. “But for now, I’m following Sasha, kind of as a bodyguard and a manager. I feel like she might need me.”
She plans to keep Masti Dance Academy open and even expand it. Right now, most of Masti’s students are younger, and Ms. Peshwani wants to be able to teach performance-based teams. A lot of Masti’s instructors are college and high-school students, so this would also require a larger staff. She also wants Masti Dance Academy to hold classes throughout the week, rather than just on Sunday. Right now, the challenge is figuring out how to manage the company remotely from India.
Visit www.mastidanceacademy.org for more information on Masti Dance Academy, and the classes they offer.
Read more: The Kinsey Collection of African American Art is bringing the Harlem Renaissance to Plano