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!

1 comment:

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