Teaching In India again

Tibetan tea

Tibetan tea

It has been quite some time since I last posted on this blog. Since last time, I have been back three times to McLeod Ganj in India teaching English, working with a non-government organisation for two semesters and now for another institution. McLeod Ganj, for anyone who doesn’t know, is located the foothills of the Himalayas and is the home of the Dalai Lama. My students are mostly adults who, like the Dalai Lama, are living in exile from Tibet. Sometimes there are also Bhutanese students and others who are staying here and are using the opportunity to improve their English.

In February this year, I arrived back in India and, yet again, made my way to McLeod Ganj. This time the class was a small group of monks and nuns who were been selected to study science in the USA, and were undertaking a preparatory course. Another Australian ESL teacher has been here many times and this is a task she usually undertakes every two years, but this time she asked me to come here for the final part of the course and this was approved by the Director. I am staying in the English teacher’s accommodation and it is comfortable and clean, with a good kitchen. It’s peaceful, close to the classroom and has great views of the snow capped Dauladar Range. This is an improvement on last year healthwise too. In 2016, a bout of  Typhoid very soon after arriving left me in a debilitated state and I spend the next few months teaching in a feeling exhausted and weak while recovering. And yes, I was vaccinated, just unlucky.

For months before arriving this year, I collected materials, downloading films and many other items for use here. My focus was  on academic English and we worked out way through some of the topics typically studied in Australia in university preparation courses, such as plagiarism and referencing, academic vocabulary and writing, etc. The students particularly enjoyed learning pragmatics and picking up the nuances of the language. We even had a guest speaker from the US who worked with them to reproduce some everyday conversations at university and how to respond. I have since found an interesting website for teachers on American pragmatics.

Another useful website is the Cult of Pedagogy which belongs to a teacher from the US called Jennifer Gonzales. Most of her articles are free, but I paid a small amount for her package “Avoiding Plagiarism” and it was great value, providing a much more accessible introduction to the topic for students that helped us to progress to the usual university level materials.

Chai time

Chai time with some of the lovely science students

Now, for the last few weeks, I am teaching an afternoon class that was intended to be for fairly advanced learners, but instead has attracted a fairly wide range, mostly staff working in the Gangchen Kyishong precinct. Each day I teach about the history of the English language along with some pronunciation and grammar.

The comfortable life here is ending soon and at the end of the month I am travelling to Ladakh, India to work with a former student, a Geshe monk, who is part of a group that has registered a new charitable organisation. Classes will be held over the summer moths only. The skills learnt in 2014 working as a volunteer coordinator at LHA Charity alongside a wise Tibetan friend, Rabsel, have helped me with recruiting teachers for computer skills and English. I am pleased to have four or five great teachers from the UK, Australia and Canada coming to Leh, Ladakh to help and am hoping to find a few more.

Here is our recruitment poster.

Leh Poster v4_Part1

Ladakh is a black hole in terms of internet, so the time here is precious in terms of communications. My next post will have to wait until Is Ladakh, but there should be plenty of stories to tell.

Two more pictures. When Australia played India in Dharamsala, I just had to see it. India won which was a bit disappointing, but it was a great experience.cricket crowd

cricket Dharamsala style


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.

Want to see a great English language learning environment?

This video was made by students in the Australian Migrant English Program here in Canberra. It is an ESL environment (of course) and in the program students learn how to use English in their daily life, in the workplace and for further study.
I have been helping there as a volunteer for the last couple of years while I have been studying and the combination has worked really well for me. As you will see, I have been learning from the best!

I know I will miss them next year.