Monday, 14 October 2013

All Bhutanese want to study in Australia ... or so I've been told.

Today I read an interesting post from my friend Andrea about happiness in Bhutan - her response to an article by Bhutanese blogger Langa Tenzin about the difference in motivation (and financial remuneration!) that exists between BCF volunteers who want to come and work in Bhutan and Bhutanese workers who want to go and earn money by studying and working part-time in countries like Australia. It's a topic that's been on everybody's lips here in Chamgang as many of my colleagues research what's involved in going to study in Australia. I enjoyed both articles and my response to Langa's post was too long to fit in the comments sections so I've posted it below.
Hi Langa,

As a teacher (and blogger!) from Australia working in Bhutan through BCF, I appreciate the gratitude you express for the work we have been doing in Bhutan's schools. And in turn, I want to thank you and all other Bhutanese for the kind and generous way in which your country has welcomed my wife and me into your country. Kadinche La!

I think your analysis of the different motivations that would compel Westerners to want to come and work in Bhutan are good: for me, the opportunity to make a big difference in my classes and to experience a simpler, more communal and less-consumer driven culture are the main reasons I love teaching here. The beautiful environment and warm-heartedness of most of the people I meet are two further compelling factors.

As an Australian, whenever educated Bhutanese find out where I'm from and if they haven't already been to Australia to study, they instantly want to talk about the kinds of study and work opportunities that exist there. As a result, I've talked to many people about this topic including many friends and colleagues.

I can understand many Bhutanese people's desire to want to go to Australia to earn money and I wish them well on their endeavours. I hope that when they return to Bhutan that they feel content with their earnings and can feel comfortable about their future. I also hope they can avoid the trap of immediately casting their eyes around at how much their neighbours, who also went to Australia to work, have managed to bring back, how many decimals of land they have been able to buy and what kind of SUV they are now driving.

I have personally seen way too much of this kind of mentality in Australia and the kind of misery that it brings to people and hope our Bhutanese friends can avoid it. I'm sure that if these entrepreneurial souls can enjoy their material wealth without letting it take priority over their family relationships, friendships, fulfillment in work, health, spirituality and other contributors to happiness, then their efforts will definitely be worth it!
One thing on this topic that I wanted to mention here, is that it seems to me that some of the Bhutanese who are trying to go to Australia are so hell-bent on getting there, that they are at risk of not being realistic about the amount of money they will need and where they are going to get this money from. Word is already filtering back to Bhutan from Bhutanese working in Perth, WA, for example, that jobs are becoming increasingly difficult to get.  As China starts to face up to the limitations of its unrestricted buying of Australian raw materials, the Australian economy, especially the mining sector, is also projected to drop which will send more workers from the mines back to cities like Perth looking for jobs. The IMF has recently forecasted a rise in the Australian unemployment rate fro 2014. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm all about pursuing your dreams and don't want to sound like a terrible naysayer - but sometimes certain causes and conditions need to align for our dreams to eventuate. Clinging on to false hopes or ventures that are doomed to failure can lead to deeper misery and unwanted complications that can make peoples' lives worse than they were before they took the initial risk in the first place. 

All of this is no problem if a Bhutanese student has been lucky and hardworking enough to land an AusAid scholarship or something similar, the expenses are much less daunting. But for the majority of Bhutanese who I meet, who are trying to study in Australia as 'private' students - the initial outlay of expenses is considerable. 6 lakh for course fees and health insurance per year, 1 lakh at least for return airfares per person, 30 lakh in the bank account to demonstrate access to suitable funds, at least 3 lakh (per person) as set up costs.  That's 43 lakh (AUD $70,000) for a couple of which at least 13 lakh (AUD $21,000) has to actually be spent and re-earned in Australian dollars and cannot be easily borrowed, placed in a bank account and then given back to the lender as with the 30 lakh needed for visa purposes.

These kinds of funds need to be taken seriously, as do the considerable expenses involved in living in a country like Australia. I hope that many Bhutanese wanting to visit Australia think carefully about their choices and the potential risks involved. Maybe for some, they will need to spend a few more years saving money and harnessing their resources before planning their trip, whereas for others now may very well be the appropriate time. Websites like the Australian Government's studyinaustralia site has good information on available courses and approximate living costs.

Best of luck and Tashi Delek to all!

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Welcome to the First Young Author's Conference at YGLSS!

For the past three weeks or so, my Class VI and VII students have been working on developing a piece of written work for our inaugural English Language Young Author’s Conference, something I used to do at my school every year when I was young. My colleague, Lopen Thinley Pelden, has already carried out a similar project with the Class VI students in Dzongkha. The intention behind the conference is to give students an authentic audience for their work other than a teacher with a red pen, so that they really get to see and experience the benefits of writing as a valuable and unique form of expression. Students were allowed to choose their own genre of writing and in my classes students decided to write poems, comic books, folk tales, narrative essays, persuasive essays, songs and short stories.

Sangay and Dawa with their poems
Planning Questionnaire

We began the process with a planning questionnaire to help the students think more deeply about their writing. Who would be the audience for their work? What did they want their audience to feel and experience when reading their work? What kinds of elements of successful writing would they need to think about – e.g. punctuation, paragraphs, spelling, grammar? What specific text features would they need to think about for their particular genre – e.g. topic sentences for persuasive essays, character and setting for short stories, stanzas and rhyme for poetry. Students were also encouraged to set a goal for at least one aspect of their writing that they wanted to improve upon during the project. 

Jigme with his Dzongkha poem
Different methods for pairs work

To make filling out the planning questionnaire more enjoyable, the students sat in two concentric circles, the outer circle facing inwards and the inner circle facing outwards. They then discussed one question at a time with the partner sitting opposite them with the outside circle rotating to a new partner after each question. By the time the questionnaire was complete, students had spoken with several of their peers and had  a much better idea about what they wanted to write and how they should go about doing it. 

VIIB Using Inside and Outside Circles to Complete their Planning Questionnaire
Editing Bookmarks

Next the students worked together to create “Editing Bookmarks” where they wrote down all the elements of good writing that they would need to check for when editing their own and others’ work. Similar to the questionnaire, this bookmark will help to remind them of all the elements of writing that they need to consider not only when writing but also when editing each others’ work. The students loved decorating and personalising their bookmarks and now they keep them in their English textbooks to not only mark their page and but also to help them with their editing.
Premika with her bookmark

 A brainstorm of writing elements for persuasive essays
First Drafts and Peer Editing

The next step in the process was all about peer editing. Students brought their first drafts to school and I matched them up with an ‘editing buddy’. It took me a little bit of extra time the night before to match the weaker writing students with stronger writing students but I think the effort was worthwhile. Most teachers know what can happen when you let students select their own partners: the hard-working, conscientious students gravitate towards each other, while the kids who like to joke around and have fun are pulled by an irresistible attraction to each other. Intentionally matching them up in this way gives more structure and meaning to their editing work. Because the weaker writing students also sometimes have trouble finding errors in the stronger students’ work, I also matched stronger students with stronger students so that after they finished working with their editing buddy, they could have some time with a classmate of about the same level of writing proficiency.

Peer Editing in the sun
Peer Editing in the sun
 Writing a Second Draft

Students then took their work home, corrected it based on their editing buddy’s assessments and brought their second draft back to school to be marked by their teacher. I decided to do most of the marking based on their second draft as it still reflected mostly their own work but they had been given a chance to correct some aspects of their errors as guided by their editing buddy.

Most second drafts still needed a lot of correction

But most students did a great job with their correction
 Assessment Rubric

I created a quick assessment rubric with criteria marked from 1 to 10 on a number line so that it’s easy for students to visually assess how they are progressing in that area. I selected the criteria based on the elements of writing that the students themselves suggested were important for good writing and then added a few more related to the difficulty of their chosen text, their ability to effectively correct their own work and the quality of their final presentation. Marks for ‘second correction’ and ‘presentation’ were left blank, to be given after students had presented their final work. 

Assessment Rubric

 Using a Marking Code

When marking students’ work previously, I had noticed that many students would happily copy my corrections into their final drafts but would then repeat the same mistakes again and again in subsequent texts. To try and avoid this, I decided to use a marking code that would allow students to know what type of error they had made but would not give them the correct answer - they would have to find this out themselves. This therefore gave them the opportunity to practice important grammatical skills such as choosing the correct article, selecting the appropriate verb tense and using appropriate personal pronouns all within the real world context of completing a piece of their own writing. 

My dad checking out the writing as one of our special guests
Correction Practice

Before giving students back their corrected second drafts, we completed several ‘correction’ exercises on the board using sections from actual student work (after seeking students’ permission) and using the marking code so there would be no confusion for students once they received their corrected second drafts. I also took a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to any work that appeared plagiarised or completed by an older sibling. Students handing in such work were required to submit another text, written during their lunch break or after school where they had little opportunity for ‘village crowd-sourcing’. 

Yeshey and her poems
Interim Feedback as Formative Assessment

When giving students back their corrected second drafts, I also let them see their assessment rubrics including an interim overall mark presented based on their work so far. I let them know that if they wanted to improve their overall mark, they would need to do well in their ‘second correction’ and ‘presentation’ elements of the project. 

The Conference in Action

The Young Author’s Conference: Presentation and Celebration

The last step in the process was for the students to write their third and final draft and publish their work by presenting it at the Young Author’s Conference. The conference itself involved setting up the students’ classrooms as exhibition galleries by arranging the tables into a nice, inviting circular shape, removing the chairs and having students stand behind their work proudly displayed on the tables in front of them. Teachers were invited to bring their classes, school leaders were invited to come and help with the marking of students’ presentation and in the case of my classes, my visiting parents and mother in law were also invited as ‘special guests’. 

Suren...proud as punch
Class VIII girls checking out the prose

Madam Tashi reading some persuasive essays
 Storytelling at its Finest

Students were encouraged to read their work to visiting teachers, principals and students and at the end of the session, I selected certain students whose work was particularly well suited to being read aloud, to read their work to the whole group. The students loved this so much that I am now planning to give a chance to the other students to also read their work to the rest of the class at a later date.

As for the young authors, these students got a huge buzz out of having so many people, especially their peers and some special guests, read and comment on their work. As they had been allowed to choose their own topic and level of difficulty, and had been given lots of structured support to correct and improve their work, all students were able to present something that they felt confident about and that they knew they had worked hard to perfect.

Sital reading her story, The Blind Girl, to Class VI and VII students
Chimi reading her personal essay My Late Father to students and special guests

An Authentic Space for Reading

The other students were also impressed and inspired, so much so that a colleague of mine who teaches Class III told me that all her students now want to do the same and were handing her piles of unsolicited poems and stories for her to mark so they could be presented later. “So much marking!” she told me with a laugh. I also noticed, that many of the visiting students, including the junior Class I and II classes were highly engaged in reading – or trying to read – the Class VI and VII stories. In particular I love this photo of one of my Class VII boys – not an avid reader himself – bent over totally immersed in reading one of the Class VI stories.

Tenzin, hooking in to some good old fashioned reading...

After marking the students’ presentation and second correction, I adjusted their overall mark if I thought it warranted and gave them back their work to be displayed around the classroom. Student were then asked to write a short reflection piece on the project, writing about what they felt they had learnt through the writing and editing processes, what they enjoyed most about the experience and what kinds of writing they would like to do in the future.

Other Possibilities for Extension

Other teaching opportunities that could be included in this kind of project include using peer and self assessment to triangulate overall marks and to have student type up their final drafts so that the collected texts could be presented in a single volume, copies of which could be given to the students (if affordable) and placed in the library. Particularly outstanding texts could also be forwarded to state and nationwide youth magazines for publication.

Class VII Girls

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

A Wish List for Yangchen Gatshel Lower Secondary School

Before I start on my long-winded request for funds for my dirt-poor, rocking-eating, can't-find-a-pencil kids here in Bhutan (not strictly an accurate description), I wanted to make sure that you know that that is what this blog post is about. So if you're not interested in chucking in five bucks to buy an English-Dzongkha dictionary so that our kids have some vague idea of what on earth their teachers are talking about or chucking in ten bucks to buy a pair of football boots so the girls have the same equipment as the boys, or parting with thirty bucks so we can buy a photocopier and give the kids some resources other than their state-issued text books, STOP READING NOW! (And I'm sorry for wasting your time).

If, however, you're prepared for the fact that this post may contain a few self-depricating, badly worded, jokes and a wish list to improve the education of the kids at our school then please read on. There's a quiz and prizes for the most attentive readers at the end.*                 

Alternatively, if you want to contribute something but don't want to read through all the background information about the school and explanations for where your money would go you can just click here and contribute through this safe, paypal enabled site. Quick and easy!

Class II students during morning prayer
About Our School

As many of you may know, I have been working as an English teacher at Yangchen Gatshel Lower Secondary School in Bhutan since February of this year. YGLSS is located in the small village of Chamgang, at the base of the Dargala Mountain range, 15 kilometres from Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. The school was founded as a community school in 1992 and has since grown from a primary school to a lower secondary school (Foundation to Class 8) with 365 students including 79 boarders (26 boys and 53 girls) and 286 day scholars. You can see pictures of the school and read more about Chamgang on on this post

Morning meditation

Chamgang itself is a relatively recent settlement.  A large number of the local families are either members of nomadic yak-herding communities from Dargala who graze their yaks in the mountains behind Chamgang during the warmer months and then come down to Chamgang during the winter or are descendents of these communities who have now settled permanently in Chamgang.
Chamgang is also well-known in Bhutan not for its famously auspicious monastery or dramatic fortress but as being the home of Bhutan’s largest jail. Think of it as the Goulburn of Bhutan, without the giant, testicled ram.

Students walking through the village to school

As a result of the jail many of our students are the children of police families who work in the prison and a few of our students’ families have even moved to the area to be closer to a parent who has been incarcerated. There is also a percentage of the student population who come from more remote surrounding areas where there are no high schools. These students study in the school as boarders, since YGLSS is one of the only boarding schools in the wider Thimphu area.

My philosophy on this fundraising business

I have been reluctant, up until now, to consider fundraising for YGLSS for a number of reasons. In the beginning, I was just having too much fun learning the Dzongkha phrase for: “Thank you for this lovely necklace of yak cheese, I will masticate it for hours in the staffroom,” and was distracted by being invited to everyone’s houses for cups of rice wine which would leave me in no fit state for fundraising.

Once this ‘boozy’ phase passed, I decided that I also wanted to spend the first six months or so getting used to teaching in Bhutan and making sure that I was doing as much as possible in my classes with the resources available here. I also wanted to take the time to get to know the strengths and weaknesses of the Bhutanese education system to make sure I wasn’t projecting an ‘oh, poor students’ image onto the kids here simply because they have less material resources than the students back home. In other words, I wanted to see whether there were actual areas of school life which could be improved through added resources. Lastly, I also wanted to make sure that I was building good working relationships with the teachers and developing my understanding how change works within our school so that any new resources or programs that are started at the school won’t come to an abrupt halt as soon as the crazy ‘chillip’ teacher goes back to Australia.

Having said all that, Lucy and I are pretty committed to staying for another year here and whilst there are many elements of the Bhutanese education system which we would do well to emulate back home (that's another article), there are also many resources that the system lacks and which would enrich the students’ learning experiences and extra-curricula activities to a considerable degree. So here’s a pie-in-the-sky wish list of the kinds of resources I would like to be able to provide for our school with a few justifications for while they would helpful. If you don't

Maybe more umbrellas would be a good idea: students get caught in a monsoon shower

A Photocopier (or money to help cover printing costs)

Our school does not have an efficient photocopier that is available for regular staff use. There is an old photocopy machine in the principal's office but as it is expensive, fragile and unable to handle large amounts of printing it is mostly kept for official use.

Photocopy paper and ink cartridges are relatively expensive in Bhutan so it's difficult to do much photocopying or creation of resources as a teacher would at home. As a result most Bhutanese students are used to spending most of their classes with just a notebook and state issued textbook as their learning materials. No science experiments, no levelled readers, no dice and maths games. There are already many other significant barriers preventing Bhutan’s education system from becoming more student-centred (40+ class sizes, lack of teacher awareness and professional development), an inability to print resources only adds to this problem.

In addition to this, our cyclostyling machine (a kind of neolithic photocopier) broke down during the last round of exam printing and despite much wrangling on the part of the very resourceful teaching staff it hasn’t been able to be fixed. This means that exams have to printed at other schools which results in inaccuracies in the printing and confusion for the students doing the tests and significant inconvenience for the teachers involved.

Our school has already expressed a desire to buy a new photocopier and I have been told that if one was bought it would be made available for regular staff use. Being able to buy a school photocopier would also cut down on my own printing costs which at the moment are abnormally high. It's accepted that I would be doing a reasonable amount of work printing from my own printer at home, but here, in the absence of a school photocopier and many of the school resources we take for granted at home, I am regularly printing three class sets (120+ copies) of comprehension texts, worksheets, assignment criteria, games, plays, reader's theatre scripts and even novel chapters from our home printer.   

 If not enough money is raised to buy a photocopier, then I would like to raise at least a bit of money to cover the cost of printing resources at home. To give you an idea of expenses, I currently get paid AUD $332/month from which I have to pay for rent, food, transport etc. A new laserjet print cartridge costs roughly $80 and a ream of copy paper cost $5  which is the same as the prices back home. By contrast, I get paid roughly ten times less here than what I am paid at home so it's not sustainable to keep paying for these things out of my own salary and savings when we they would normally be paid for by school at home.

Class VII
A class set of English/Dzongkha and English/English dictionaries
When I travelled to the district book fair in April to help buy our year’s supply of books for the library and classrooms, English/Dzongkha dictionaries were high on my list. But I was told by the other teachers that these were provided by the charity Save the Children and that we had many copies at school. Wrong! Most of the kids here struggle significantly with written Dzongkha (it has only been a written language for 50 years or so), let alone English and need as much help as possible.One dictionary costs a bit less than AUD $5.

Lockable Cupboards For Class Libraries

This year, as part of our jobs as Literary Coordinators, a colleague and I instituted a school-wide Drop Everything and Read (DEAR) session, every day after final period. One of the obstacles to making these DEAR sessions a real success is that it is impossible to keep a collection of books in the classroom for the students to read during these times because none of the doors or cupboards lock. The school is interested in either being able to pay to fix the broken classroom doors or buy cupboards that lock. Unfortunately, in a community where there are not many books at home, books go missing from classes too easily.

The reading culture at YGLSS is growing but there's still a long way to go!

Books and Stationery

Our library can always do with new and interesting books, especially in the high-quality picture book and non-fiction categories. India prints a lot of great young adult fiction which we have access to here but the aforementioned categories are harder to get. Our students would also benefit from access to class sets of scissors and glue which most of them don't have. Even enough for one set would help teachers be a bit more creative in their lesson planning.

Student/Teacher Transport to Thimphu

Thimphu, the national capital, is the country’s hub of contemporary arts, sporting and educational opportunities and it’s only thirty minutes drive from Chamgang. So far Lucy and I have been trying to make the most of this proximity and last month took a group of ten students to the Mountatin Echoes Literary Festival where they met Indian author Jerry Pinto who gave our students an exclusive talk about the creative processes involved in writing his graphic novel When Crows Are White. You can see pictures of the trip here. We also took the students to the Volunteer Artists Studio, Thimphu (VAST) an NGO that provides free art lessons for Bhutanese school students. You can find out more about VAST here.

Author Jerry Pinto sharing his graphic novel with our students in Thimphu
YGLSS also has eight boys currently training in Thimphu with the national under 16’s and under 19’s cricket squads which involves travelling to and from Thimphu up to four times a week after school. Our volleyball, football and basketball teams also recently participated in the annual district sports meet, but after this two day knock-out competition the teams won’t play any more games because transport to Thimphu schools is too expensive to organise.

Weekly Art Education (in a system with no visual arts classes)

I would like to develop a transport fund to be used to transport an art teacher from VAST to Chamgang for weekly visual arts lessons as there is very little arts education in Bhutanese public schools and none at YGLSS. Many of my students are talents drawers and illustrators but get almost no access to formal training. The transport fund would also be used once a term to take YGLSS students participating in this program down to Thimphu to visit VAST where they would be able to share their work and meet other young artists.

For Sporting Matches and Training

The fund would also be used to set up friendly sporting matches with neighbouring schools for both girls and boys sporting teams. (There can be a tendency here to preference the boys).

For field trips and cultural events

I also want to use the fund to take students on field trips and to cultural events when these opportunities arise and to provide transport scholarships for students training in the national team whose parents can’t afford to send them to Thimphu that regularly.
Hiring a school bus for large groups and share-taxis for smaller groups in relatively inexpensive by Australian standards ($2 per student for a return Thimphu  trip in a share-taxi).

 Sports Equipment 

Football Boots for the Girl’s Football Team

Chamgang has never had it’s own football field – the terrain is just too hilly to simply play in a ‘paddock’ as people would at home but this year YGLSS inaugurated its own football field. There has been much excitement and enthusiasm and in a boarding school where boarders are on school campus 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – the new soccer and volleyball fields have provided a whole new lease of life for the school.

Boots are essential when you're playing in a swamp...

Last month, the school fielded both a boys and girls football team in the district sports meet, but because there’s only enough boots for one team to use, the girls missed out for most of the training season. Given that football season also coincides with monsoon season – football boots with grip are a must. Indian-made boots sell for about $10 a pair in town so it would only cost $150 to buy a whole team set for 15 girls.

Marker Cones

The school also lacks a simple set of marker cones to be used when training students or conducting PE lessons. When I was coaching the girls basketball team we used stray sandals and rocks but it was a little bit haphazard and probably just a tad unsafe. 


IT Resources

Bhutanese schools are developing in their integration and availability of IT resources. YGLSS is lucky to have a large IT lab with about 16 computers and an excellent projector which means that audio/visual and online learning can be used with large groups of teachers and students. We are also lucky to have access to the internet which was connected to the school this year at considerable costs to the state government. Recently, a local NGO and training organisation, The Rigsum Sherig Institute has put together a software package specifically designed for use in Bhutanese schools. You can find out more about it here. It contains offline access to a student-friendly form of Wikipedia, Khan Academy maths and science lessons, Dzongkha and English typing tutorials, information about the syllabi, audiobooks and many educational games. Many of the staff at YGLSS have downloaded this collection but we have not been able to install it onto the school computers because of lack of effective anti-virus software. It would not cost much to buy a comprehensive anti-virus program and install it on the school computers. But at the moment such a small investment is limiting the use of such potentially rich learning resources. 

How to contribute

If you'd like to contribute to any of these causes (remember, even $5 can buy a dictionary) or if you'd just like to lob in some cash to the cause, you can donate through a safe, paypal enabled site here. You can also leave a comment to let me know if you'd like your money to go towards a particular cause.

Many thanks for even reading this post, and I hope I will be able to post a few photos in the not too distant future to show you how your contributions have made a difference.

And as an expression of immediate thanks, here's a picture of a Takin, Bhutan's beloved national animal. She says thanks too.

(*may not be an actual quiz) But aren't you a star for finishing the post!

Saturday, 5 October 2013

A Heartwarming Teaching Moment at the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival

As Thimphu is only a thirty minute drive from Chamgang, Lu and I decided to take some Class VII students down to the annual Mountain Echoes Literary Festival for a little bit of a Sunday cultural injection and the chance to see some real life authors in their natural habitat.

We arrived at the Tarayana Centre a bit early, so after a compulsory photo shoot, we walked down to the Volunteer Artists Studio, Thimphu, VAST where the lovely Asha Karma (cofounder and well known artist) very graciously showed our students around and gave us a handful of exhibition programs to take home for inspiration. He talked to us about the bottle cap collecting competition VAST initiated in many Bhutanese schools to generate recycled resources for large scale art projects and also to teach students about environmental responsibility. The competition also included collecting plastic PET bottles for a man building a lhakang (temple) in his village. "Oh, he's building the lakhang out of recycled plastic?" I asked, a bit surprised. Asha Karma looked shocked, "No, no, he gets money for recycling the plastic which he uses to build the lhakhang." "Oh, silly me, of course."

So hard to get the kids to smile for a photo!

But we managed...

Lula, Asha Karma and students at the VAST gallery
Culture faux-pas aside, Asha Karma's work is a beautiful and unique blend of traditional Bhutanese painting and more contemporary influences. Here are some of his paintings for your enjoyment. You can see more of his work here.
Buddha grid
Satyr Tragopan

Dragon for the Buddha at Taj Tashi
When we arrived at the festival we were greeted by Lucy's friend and colleague, the excellent Dolma Roder, cultural anthropologist extraordinaire who was not only involved in the festival as a facilitator but was also being interviewed along with her mother, famous Bhutanese writer Ashi Kunzang Choden.

Jerry Pinto showing the students through his graphic novel

Dolma very kindly organised for Mumbai writer, Jerry Pinto, to come and talk to our students. As an ex-teacher himself, he was well at home introducing himself to the kids and making them feel welcomed and included. He spoke to them about the creative process involved in writing his graphic novel When Crows Are White and encouraged the students to write down some of the images and ideas that come from their dreams. He finished the session by giving us a copy of the book for our library.

Tandin Tshewang soaking up the writing secrets

Me, doing the same, apparently
We then sat in on Jerry's formal session in which he discussed not only his graphic novel, but also his highly autobiographical first novel, his biographies of famous Bollywood icons, his children's books and his love poems. He spoke with a great deal of honesty, passion and humility and I know that even if they didn't understand everything he was saying, the kids appreciated how alive and real he was (kids always appreciate a sparky adult, right?).

After the session we joined the crowds for some fancy biscuits and tea, looking a little bit conspicuous as the only school group amongst many of Thimphu's well-heeled elite but made it fun by managing to do some celebrity spotting as Bhutan's newly elected Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay was also in attendance much to the delight of the students. We then sat down and shared a reading of When Crows Are White. 

We only lost three students into the river - my lowest attrition rate on a field trip yet
For a break we headed down to VAST's sculpture garden which involved a lot of silly mucking around on a bridge and Deoki surviving a risky encounter with a giant fish.

Deoki and the fish
Next stop, a fantastic drama workshop being conducted in the Nehru-Wangchuk centre where the kids got to hear some great impromptu story-telling, beat-boxing and a whole group of adults clucking and scratching around pretending to be chickens and a Bhutanese boy pouring his heart out with the story of his first girlfriend - which our much more conservative students had a good giggle at.

With teenage stomachs rumbling it was time for some tucker. A few of my first choice restaurants were closed but lucky this trusty momo restaurant near Chang Lam Plaza was still open. The kids needed a little bit of encouragement before they would relax around accepting food from us - they are so respectful of their teachers that some were worried that it would appear disrespectful to receive from us in this way - but soon everyone was happily hooking in to some momos or veg thukpa. Yummmmmm! Then it was time to pile into a couple of share taxis for the ride back to Chamgang.

A bit of a naff heartwarming teacher moment at the end of it all

A week later, I was reading over the recounts that I had asked the students to write about the field trip. One of the Class VII boys, Sangay Lhendrup, had decided to write his response as a poem about Jerry Pinto. As I read it, I began to realise just how attentively Sangay had been listening to and absorbing everything that Jerry had been saying. I also realised how lovingly he had been able to stitched together all of Jerry's positive qualities despite Jerry's constant self-deprication and openness in discussing his own faults during his talks. I then had one of those cliched but wonderful spine-tingling teaching experiences where I realised how lucky I am to be teaching such a beautiful, thoughtful and loving group of students and how going to the extra effort of taking them on this trip had obviously had a worthwhile impact on at least one, very deserving student and possibly one equally deserving writer. 

Later, when I forwarded the email to Jerry, he wrote back to say that reading it had caused him to sniffle a little and presumably not because he was suffering from a late summer cold. Happy vibes all round.

Sangay's Poem