Living and learning in India

The Butter CafeSo, after a few weeks in India, surviving my separation from my luggage and contracting bronchitis, I am settling into life in McLeod Ganj, India.

My English class at one of the local English schools,  which is operated by a Non-Government Organisation (NGO) consists of young adults, mostly Tibetan. They are a small but dedicated upper intermediate group and we are working hard together for two hours a day. When we aren’t following the coursebook, I have been encouraging them to give book reviews about the readers they take home. To my great delight, extensive reading is valued at the school and it has a well equipped library full of up-to-date readers. The students seem to love reading and mine are always wanting to read the books recommended by their classmates. The picture below shows a segment of the full library.

One of the books my class is reading is a graded version of The Rabbit Proof Fence and that has given me the opportunity to talk about Australia. We listened to the National Apology to Indigenous Australians and the Tibetans understood the power of the language and its deep significance very well, with Tibet being dominated by the Chinese. Living in exile from the their country, many Indigenous Tibetans in India and other countries live in hope for the day when they can return to their home with full rights to follow their culture, religion and language.

Last week I started an additional songs and poetry class for all levels and have so far introduced two songs. I am not sure that teaching The Cure songs to monks is the most appropriate thing I have ever done, but they took it in good spirit and, by the end, were singing with very clear pronunciation, if not always in tune. We looked at the rhythm, rhyme and symbolism and I will get the students writing their first simple poetry next week on the theme of colours.

I am on the lookout for local Tibetan poets who are experimenting with writing in English now to use as examples for my class and tonight I will attend the launch of a new book of poetry. Hopefully it will be good for demonstrating that poetry writing is accessible and rewarding.

Before teaching each day, I get a taste of being a language learner at the Tibetan Library of Works and Archives. We have two very different class teachers and between them, I feels that I am strengthening my basic Tibetan and ironing out some of the bad habits I have formed. I feel so glad to have this opportunity and know it will lead to better things as I continue to develop my language skills. These are exciting times!

Post script – Saturday night: the poet, Ten Phun, was great and is going to come and talk to my class.

Tibet charity library

balcony view

More reflections on teaching English

I have been back in Canberra for three months now and am still reflecting on my amazing year. Being in Thailand for the last military coup made me abruptly aware of the power structures that exist there and the role of education in their maintenance. I still reel when I remember the regular use of the cane in the poor, rural high school I worked in.  Even the kindest teachers felt they needed to cane boys to carry out their jobs and one of the more up-front cane users entered my classroom several times to whack students, usually while my back was turned to the board. My preferred method was to work hard to engage reluctant class members. Some of my best memories are those times when those students succeeded, even in the smallest ways, and smiled with pleasure when they received good feedback. I realise now how lucky we are in Australia that our education system values questioning over subservience, that we can discuss politics openly and safely, and can learn that there are many ways we can view subjects, especially history.

But it is the role of English in keeping social structures intact that troubles me the most. The contrast between middle class, English speaking students and the rest of the population is stark. They, of course, usually get the best education that private wealth can buy, secure the best jobs, make more money and have a better chance of becoming powerful members of society. Vara: A Blessing  The same is also evident in India. In Dharamsala, I was lucky enough to attend a premier of the film Vara: a Blessing.  From the start of the film, there was a strange dissonance between the setting and the language spoken by  the characters, which was English. The audience members were mostly young Indians and the use of English was the subject of the first question asked of the great writer/director Khyentse Norbu following the screening. He openly expressed his own dismay and advised that the choice of English belonged to the producers. I also noticed upper class Indian families who were visiting Dharamsala using English with their young children and, meanwhile, probably ensuring that their offspring lose their parents’ first language. This was a phenomenon I also remember from Indonesia, particularly Jakarta.

So what is the role of an English teacher in countries where the use of English is controversial? I can tell myself that my role is to help the disempowered and then make sure that these are my students. Ironically, I strongly believe that part of the role of English teachers in these situations is also to help students to appreciate the immense value of their mother tongue and do all we can to encourage them to become literate in that as a priority. I found this story, How English Ruined Indian Literature, in the New York Times particularly interesting and hope you do too.

Counting down

Tibet World entranceThere are only 14 days to go before I fly from Dharamsala to Delhi to Sydney. I have settled into a routine here – going to work at Lha in the mornings where I help write responses to emails from volunteers from all over the world, taking a lunch break and then heading for Tibet World to teach students for two hours.

As I promised myself, I have been trying to help the students with their writing and they have responded well.  They are keen to hear what I think about their latest pieces of writing and are getting used to incorporating feedback into new drafts.  I gave a presentation about writing to the volunteer teachers at Tibet World.  The volunteers teach a range of languages apart from English so I tried to accommodate this and to make it relevant for all proficiency levels. There was a good discussion at the end, so hopefully that was a good sign.

The members of the English class seem much more relaxed now and even the most reserved students are finally smiling and contributing in class.  This has resulted in a much better atmosphere where they are participating and helping each other much more.  I am looking forward to our last two weeks and hope we get a few more good lessons in.

The picture of the class was taken while they were absorbed in writing.  We had studied a model and they were silently writing their own narratives.  They are all deep thinkers, and despite the limitations of their English, they all produce work that reflects their schemas.

monks writing - advanced class

In addition to covering the grammar items listed in the program, we have been working on areas they still find confusing, like question word orders.  I think next week is a good chance to continue to help with common errors, so we will try using Learning From Common Mistakes (Cambridge) .

So I am turning my mind to going home and tying up all the loose ends here before leaving. The University of Canberra has accepted my application to continue my studies and am looking forward to university life next semester. My TESOL studies have played a crucial role in the quality of my teaching and I definitely want to keep improving.

I am also looking forward to meeting up with other TESOL graduates who have started teaching so we can share our experiences. Who knows, maybe I can encourage other students to spend some time volunteering in Asia like I have.  There is so much waiting out there and I can guarantee that it’s a richly rewarding experience.

Teaching Tibetans

In the fascinating town of McLeod Ganj, India, my fifth week will soon be over. The Dalai Lama has been teaching this week so English classes were cancelled for three days.  Unfortunately, as soon as I started teaching I managed to catch a cold and coughed my way through most classes, so the break has been most welcome. Combining three hours a day coordinating volunteers with two hours teaching has been fairly demanding but I am better now and life is settling down again.

Tibetan monks - Sunday activities

Tibetan monks – Sunday is laundry day at the waterfall.

I am slowly getting to know my students. They are nearly all Tibetans although for the last three weeks we were joined by a lovely young Japanese woman who was visiting the area. About half the class are monks from different parts of India and even from Bhutan.  They have come here to study and I think it must be hard for them living in freezing guesthouses with few belongings and very little money.

They are here because they have a strong will to learn and the class is delightful to teach. It is great to have an advanced class and the challenge of guiding them though some of the complexities of English is enjoyable. I have a sneaking suspicion that they are more comfortable when I use more traditional approaches to grammar teaching, but despite that, they they are experiencing a variety of approaches. I still think back to the expression “an eclectic range of approaches” from lectures at the University of Canberra and that’s the way I have been teaching all year.

Over the next few weeks, I want to see them writing more. This skill seems to be a bit neglected by some teachers here. Maybe it is regarded as too hard or unimportant, but I disagree.  English is widely used here and being unable to write in English has the potential at times to leave many Tibetan refugees in a relatively powerless position. It is also the language mostly used in countries that they (remember that we are talking about refugees) often want to emigrate to, such as the UK, Canada, Australia and the USA.

On a side note, the issue of official and national languages of India is a volatile political minefield, but for now, English and Hindi are the (main) official languages of India.  Even though the Constitution states that English is to be phased out in favour of Hindi, Hindi is not universally popular, while English is widely used and sometimes is referred to as the national language. 

McLeod Ganj is a good place to live for a while.  Sometimes it is heart rending to think about the difficult position of the refugees here, always waiting and hoping for world support and a chance to return to their country.  Their spirit is amazing though and their Buddhist traditions help keep them strong.  This is a place no visitor could forget.

Talking with students in Laos

Luang Prabang in Laos is a beautiful world heritage town and I went there for eight days before journeying to India where I am now, but that’s another story.  In Luang Prabang, I was pleased to meet quite a few enthusiastic English students at Big Brother Mouse , an organisation that publishes and distributes books to promote reading in villages. Big Brother Mouse also runs free drop-in English speaking sessions and that’s where I ended up on most days. The sessions are attended by high school and university students as well as monks and working people.

What they have in common is bravery and motivation, and it was marvellous to practice English with them.  They actually wrote down word meanings and asked questions.  This was a contrast to my last experience in the high school in rural Thailand where no-one ever asked a question and it was rare to find a student who connected with English outside their regular lessons.  The people I talked with in Laos ranged from fluent university English Major students to a high school girl, Lee, who came along for the first time and was painfully shy, but she was there!

The benefits of practicing with foreigners were plain and their knowledge of the world was pretty impressive at times too.

The experience reinforced my reflections in Thailand that teaching English isn’t a finite process involving stuffing a set of knowledge into students’ heads, although I encountered some people there who believed that this is the case. It is more likely a long term process reliant on autonomous learning that can be helped by good teachers and suitable materials.

The picture is from the Big Brother Mouse website.  english practice

A teacher’s thoughts

Although a lot has been happening here, just lately I haven’t been posting to this blog. I have, however, been working hard at school, all the while reading and reflecting on the incredible experiences I am having as a teacher in Thailand. This article from the Guardian, directed primarily at teachers returning from holidays, appeals to me because of the author’s humility and dedication.

High school students are not always easy to teach, even in Thailand (despite its reputation for respectful subservience).  While the behaviour of the senior students is usually no less than angelic, unfortunately at other times a couple of my classes have resembled a minor battlefield.  The article helps to keep it all in perspective.

Secret Teacher: we all have our dark days, but don’t forget you’re making a difference | Teacher Network | Guardian Professional.

Changing lanes – two very different English camps

Currently lessons at Thungmaprao High School have been suspended while the students play sports and undertake other activities for a couple of weeks. So this week I taught at two contrasting three day English camps. Both were for government school students, but the first was at a five star resort and the other was in a primary school located in a very small Muslim village.

The camp at the resort was for the most proficient English students from a large high school in Takuapa. The other camp was the first one ever at the little primary school and you can see from the tears in the farewell picture (top left) that it was something very special for the children. The younger children were fascinated and were often found watching at the door and, at the end, some of the mothers were there too.

Both camps were wonderful experiences for me and I have picked up a few new tricks from some of the other teachers.  The pictures show that the students enjoyed themselves too.

I have just found out that I am required at Thungmaprau on Monday morning to attend an event and give a speech.  As long as no-one puts a microphone in front of me and asks me to sing “If you’re happy and you know it” again, I should be fine. Anything but that, please!

And I am back to regular classes on Wednesday.

I hope you enjoy the pictures.