Thursday, March 7, 2013

Teaching

With the school year winding down, we are long past due sending out a blog on our teaching experience.

Since August we have been teaching English and basic computer to 6th, 7th, and 8th graders at the Shree Dumre Lower Secondary School in southwestern Gorkha district.  What makes it especially wonderful for Harvey is that he is teaching the grandchildren of friends he had made (many of whom are still alive) during his fieldwork in the village in the 1970s.

Most of our students are low-caste dalits and Muslims; wealthier families tend to send their children to one of the many private “boarding schools” (day schools, actually) that have sprung up all over the country.  The greater likelihood that boys will be sent to a boarding school accounts for the majority of girls in our classes.

Our school day begins at 9:00 with an English class for a select group of students (Tuesdays and Fridays) or computer lessons for successive waves of students from the 6th, 7th, an 8th grades (Wednesdays and Thursdays). 

At 10:00 we attend the school assembly in the courtyard, where students line up and sing the national anthem. 



We then sit in the teachers’ room and socialize until it is time for first period. 







Harvey teaches 8th grade, followed by 7th grade, and then Malinda teaches the 6th. School continues until 4:00, but for us the day ends at 1:00.

Earlier this year, the government started requiring teachers to wear uniforms. For men it is a dark blue, pin-striped suit with a blue-and-white pin-striped shirt. Harvey can’t stand it, but sneakers and gray socks appeal to his anti-authoritarian impulses and make him look less like a villain from a bad Hindi movie. Women are supposed to wear hot pink saris, but the women teachers in our school have sensibly refused to go along. Instead, they wear tunics and loose-fitting suruwal trousers. Unfortunately, Malinda can’t carry it off with the elegance of Nepali women, resulting in what we call her “clown pants.”
One of our biggest challenges has been adjusting to a public educational system that emphasizes rote learning over critical thinking, memorization over comprehension. As an example, one morning our grandson Ashim gave us a wonderful description of the solar system.  Yet when probed, he didn’t understand what he had memorized from his science text. But he was able to write it up verbatim on his exam, and that was sufficient.

The positive side of this system is the wonderful symphony of sing-song voices emanating from our and neighboring houses in the mornings and evenings as the kids memorize their lessons. The chanting is done in a way that aids memorization rather than diction or understanding, and it is often difficult to tell if they are speaking English or Nepali or preparing for their bar mitzvahs.

The curriculum and textbooks are dictated by the government, and thrice-yearly district-level exams determine a student’s grades and ranking. Because we are obligated to prepare the students for the exams, we find ourselves teaching the present perfect passive tense to kids who struggle to form sentences in the simple present. The textbooks (at least the English ones) follow no evident pedagogical flow and are riddled with factual and typographical errors.  To their credit, the books try to expose the kids to the wider world, but it requires a lot of backfilling to teach the Trojan War to kids who don’t know BC from AD (Nepal is on its own calendar; we are about to finish the year 2069), or Anne Frank to students who can’t locate Europe on a world map, are not aware that there was a Second (or First) World War, and whose only knowledge of Jews comes from our bad example.  There is a recurring and thoroughly annoying character in the texts, Miss Rockbeat, a poor village girl who since being discovered makes films in Fiji, skis in the Alps, and complains about her hotel room in China. She especially loves doing covers of tunes by the Beatles, a group no one here has heard of. Several times a week we declare a moratorium on criticizing the textbooks that only lasts until we turn the page.

The other adjustment has been teaching without resources. Classrooms have no electricity and only a single small whiteboard. Kids sit all day on hard wooden benches. The library’s three shelves contain donated books, many of which are inappropriate for our students. (If anyone out there is looking for Little Women, we have multiple copies.) The science lab is a single wooden table and a cabinet of equipment not oriented to the curriculum. There are no clubs, sports, or extracurricular activities; no art or music classes. We suspect that some of our students have learning disabilities, but there are no services to diagnose or treat them. Of the 200 students in our school, not a single one wears eyeglasses.

Despite these constraints, teaching the kids has been a delight.  Truth be told, we initially terrorized them: calling on them in class, bringing them up to the board, asking them to read out loud, and generally making them perform in a way that they were not used to. The girls – especially the Muslim girls – were totally freaked out.  But over time they have come around and many of them now enjoy the challenge. If we have done nothing else here, we have given many of the kids a sense of possibility and empowerment, and among our greatest pleasures have been seeing them become more self-confident. We even think most of them actually like us.

Each of our three grades has its mixture of students who are exceptional and motivated, those who need to be brought along, and those who we (bad teachers!) refer to as the “cabbages.”  Both of us try hard to engage all of our students, but some kids are a challenge. Each class also has its own personality.

The 8th grade is a serious and attentive class. If they are to continue on to 9th grade, they will need to attend another school in a neighboring town and the stakes in doing well this year are high. The tone of the class is set by one exceptionally smart boy who makes teaching it most rewarding. There are also several girls who have blossomed and have started to assert themselves.
























The 7th grade has been a hard nut to crack. There are a few very good students, but they are shy and reserved. Many students go through class just wishing they do not get called on. Harvey sings, dances, jokes, mimes, and does everything he can to get a response, and at times he is rewarded for his efforts. The 7th grade has been a really tough audience.












Malinda’s 6th grade presents the opposite challenge. The personality of the class is dictated by her “gang of three”: three very smart (and quite lovable, when they're not being disruptive) boys who sit in the front, know all the answers, and shout them out with blatant disregard for such niceties as raising hands. A few of the girls have started giving the boys a run for their money. The rowdiness of the class is not helped by the fact that the 6th grade classroom is on the ground floor; crowds of students from younger classes often congregate at the doorway and windows and no amount of shooing can keep them away.




















In addition to English, we have been teaching basic computer skills. Teenagers who had never held a mouse suddenly feel a whole new world opening up to them. (Can anyone remember how difficult it was to master the double click?) The Gorkha Foundation donated the computers and funded the installation of a suite of educational software, and that has been a huge asset to the school. We still do not have internet, but even just learning to open files, save files, play games, and hunt and peck on a keyboard has given them the promise of new opportunities. More than anything else we do, seeing kids clamor for more computer time brings immediate rewards and real satisfaction.
We are currently having discussions with the school about next year. When we came, we had wanted a more district-wide role, but our time here has convinced us that our greatest impact comes from a focus on the Dumre school and students. Accordingly, we will be expanding our teaching from four to five days a week and from three to four periods. The school has agreed to set aside a separate period in the day for computer education and to equip a larger classroom with electricity so that more computers can be added. 

The past seven months have been a steep learning curve for us, and we are expecting that next year, when we actually have a clue what we are doing, will be even more rewarding. 


All photographs are copyright Malinda and Harvey Blustain and can be reproduced only with permission at hblustain@gmail.com

If you are new to the blog and wondering why we are in Nepal and how we got here, go to www.blustain.net/nepal.htm

1 comment:

  1. I will honor your post with a closer read soon enough. Must say that I wish I were there with you both and could see what unfolds in the grades 6 through 8th if we were to create Art. The photos you share and the written reflections are mind-opening. I miss you both so much.
    (Emily Trespas)

    ReplyDelete