Wednesday, 30 July 2014

A Fundraising Update

Greetings from a rain-drenched and verdant Bhutan! Here monsoon showers have turned paths into streams, pot-holes into frog ponds and our lounge-room into a makeshift Chinese laundry that apparently specializes in cloth nappies and brightly-coloured Swedish baby clothes. 

Summer means rain and rain means rainbows!
This post is intended to give financial supporters and other interested parties a bit of an update on how the fundraising efforts at YGLSS are progressing. The gofundme site is still live if you want to contribute or if you know someone else who would like to. It can be accessed here. If you’re curious and would like to hear a bit of what it’s been like to back in Bhutan with a baby,check out this earlier post here..

Resources for other Schools

This year has seen me working part-time ina new role as a resource teacher within the wider Thimphu Dzongkhag, visiting the four other schools involved in the project and working intensively with theYears 4/5/6 English teachers to help share more interactive teaching strategies than just sitting and copying off the board. During Term 1 I focused on enhancing speaking skills through a series of different talk-stimulating activities.

KMSS students discussing a sequencing activity.
KMSS students playing a communication game.
KMSS student sharing his group's findings.
Jamba Sir reveals the answers...

This role has been quite a challengefor me professionally, as I feel awkward going into schools positioned as ‘the expert’ when really I have sooo much to learn about teaching, but I really felt that so much of students’ disengagement and difficulty with learning has to do with expectations of what it means to be a learner that is picked up very early in the classroom.

The enthusiasm of the local teachers I havebeen working with has of course varied enormously but so far the results of the program have been encouraging – at best, teachers have embraced and adapted the suggested strategies with enthusiasm, creating their own excellent teaching resources, teaching wonderful lessons and remarking afterwards that they have never seen their students so engaged and motivated. At worst, some teachers are resentful of having to do the extra work involved in creating learning materials and adopting new strategies, but they complete the work anyway and the students enjoy a more interactive, student-centered lesson.

 And sometimes I have the pleasure of looking through a students' book only to find that they were talking about me during their letter writing practice. Such as in the example below!

As part of the program, I intend to print, bind and laminate copies of the learning materials used in the initial lessons, as well as create a bank of English resources appropriate to the Bhutanese context such as annotated sample essays (amazingly, there are none in the text books!), listening and speaking games and grammar and spelling resources. I will also give packets of coloured chalk and magnets to the participating teachers - small teaching innovations that the kids love! I will use some of the fundraised money to create and distribute these.

Lopen Sangay whips out his patang to fix the duplicating machine.
Duplicating Machine 

At YGLSS, the effectiveness of last term’s exam period was significantly enhanced by the use of the school’s new duplicating machine. Last year teachers had to take the exams down for printing in Thimphu making printing errors hard to correct and leading to many situations in which the kids would be left with badly printed exams riddled with mistakes – as if they weren’t facing enough challenges with such an exam-focused system!

With the duplicator, I was worried that once the ink and master copy roll ran out that the school would wait for me to buy new ones and that (worst of all) once I left the machine would sit in the principal’s office as a kind of unused vanity project for the school. But I’m glad to say that while we were in Australia the school used its own recurring budget to buy several months worth of copying expendables, increasing my hope that use of the duplicator will become in grained in normal practice.Some of the more pro-active teachers have been leading the way by using the copier to create their own resources which is fantastic.

Lopen Sangay has proven himself to be a spectacular copier-in-charge, even whipping his traditional Bhutanese knife out of his gho pocket to help cut the master roll to meet the machine's specifications. An awesome intersection of traditional and contemporary technologies...

Boarding students from the remote region of Lingzhi turning up the heat
Me Sir! I'm having best smile, sir!

The heaters have been working well in the girls’ hostel over winter. The boys were so enthusiastic in their use of the heaters that they blew up the electrical wiring to the hostel, something that took a fortnight, lots of slightly alarming trench digging on the part of the boys and the tracking down an electrical expert from another village to fix. It’s a times like these that I wished I had paid more attention during science (electronics??) classes so that I would know how much current the lines could take without being destroyed. Anyway, the current plan is to make sure the boys keep the heaters on a low setting next winter or risk losing all their power again. I have also said that some of the money will be used to build washing lines for the boarding students.

Sports Equipment

The village green: our football field sprouts a growth...

In terms of sport, I’m glad to say that thestate administration has spent money repairing the football field’s retaining wall which had collapsed six months after completion, leading to severe erosion of the field and perhaps more worryingly, the road above it. 

To give you an idea of how jobs get done around school here, during my first week back at school, the football ground was divided into quarters and students were assembled in their house groups, given a bunch of picks and hoes, and instructed to plant grass seeds on their quarter of the field. Because everything has to be a competition, the winning house will be judged in six weeks time based on how well their section’s grass has grown. Needless to say, football has been off the menu for the last little while at least but we’ve allbeen having fun watching the grass grow… 
A big thank you from the girls' football team!

I have been periodically adding to thestock of sports supplies as needed using the fundraising money and the girls' were particularly grateful to all have a pair of football boots to take to the sports meet which starts this weekend. At present schools are not allowed to request particular items from the state administration, they have to just accept whatever equipment is sent to them each financial year, whether it duplicates what they already have or not. So having money to fill gaps in these equipment lists allows for more meaningful and effective training programs.

Recently, YGLSS played host to a group of high school students from Cushing Academy in the US, the school where Bhutan’s current king His Majesty Jigme  Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck completed his high school education. They donated $8000 to the school to be used for ‘greening’ and construction of a new toilet block for the boys to replace the barely worthwhile wooden shacks previously in use (the girls’ block was updated first in 2010). In addition,the kitchen facility is due for a state-sponsored upgrade which will hopefully improve the sanity and nutritional value of the food being consumed by the students. If funds are needed to help improve the quality and longevity of the kitchen then I will look to put some of the funds in that direction.

Anyway, I hope this gives you a sense of how some of your hard earneds are being spent.

Many, many thank yous again from all here at YGLSS,


Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Baby in a Frontpack in Bhutan

Lily does a few blockies (koras) around the Memorial Chorten, Thimphu
I’m sitting in Thimphu’s Clock Tower Square as I write this. Our two month old daughter, Lily, is asleep in a carrier on my chest and my wife Lucy is catching up with her colleagues in a nearby hotel. The square is filled with the usual faint clamour of a Friday night in Thimphu: dogs squabbling by a rubbish bin, cars and taxis sounding their horns, a children’s football game being played across the cobblestones of a disused fountain.

It feels strange to be back in Bhutan, after almost ten weeks in Australia for Lily’s arrival. Strange to be somewhere so familiar but also so completely different. I felt prepared for everything to be different when Lily arrived, especially as she was born in a city I had never visited before. But I realize now that I had been subconsciously expecting Bhutan to feel familiar, somewhat more known. But it’s not.

The serpentine road etched into the side of a cliff that leads up to our village used to thrill and excite me with its beautiful cross-sections of exposed rock and dramatic views down to the forested valley below. Now, in my parental-anxiety-addled mind, fueled by jet lag and overnight REM-sleep interruptions – the same road leaves me seeing only eroding cliff edges, potential threats to Lily’s safety and a gleaming question mark asking, “Why did you bring her back here?”

Similarly, the unlikely prospect of encountering a bear during a walk in the forests around Chamgang used to lead me to a sudden feeling of excitement, a few shouts of ‘Yo! Bear!’ and a quick mental reassessment of my Himalayan-black-bear-survival flow-chart (a chart that mostly dove-tails into ALL CAPS instructions: ‘Run home screaming and praying for bear-spray’). Now my reaction to the idea of a bear is one of almost pure terror and defenselessness (although I still do the shouting and praying for bear spray).

Our previous life in Bhutan also involved a wonderful leap-frogging between the energy, diversity and indulgence of regular time spent in Thimphu, and our everyday life spent in the quiet, parochial community we felt so much a part of in Chamgang. But given how bumpy the drive is and Lily’s intermittent dislike of car travel, I wonder if we won’t be instead spending more time camping out at home and enjoying a somewhat more limited range of entertainment options.  

Lily, Lucy and some of the Ambient Cafe crew (Jigme Namgyel, Junu and Jigme's sister/cousin)

But on my first day back at school, as I walked into an exam hall that just coincidentally happened to contain all of the students I have taught over the past 18 months (classes VII and VIII), I was reminded of one of the reasons why we chose to come back to Bhutan. Risking a clip around the ears or an accusation of cheating, students smiled broadly when they saw me and looking up from their exam papers whispered heartily, “Wel-come back, sir! How is your baby? How is Madam Lucy? We are very much missing to sir and we are happy to meet you!”  

This warm reception was mirrored in all parts of Bhutan, with teacher friends in the village picking us up at the airport, offering to cook us meals on our first few nights, friends in Thimphu offering us baby clothes and accommodation, expat medicos offering their attention and expertise and the wonderful owners of our favourite cafĂ© organizing us emergency accommodation and support when our quarters proved to be not quite ready for baby-habitation. 

Besides all this, Bhutan is also phenomenally beautiful at the moment. Whilst the mountains surrounding Thimphu often look barren and harsh during the dry seasons - red, rocky soil scattered only with the spindliest of pine forests - during monsoon they pulsate with a verdant lushness that brings warmth and softness to even the most remote and inaccessible mountain peak. The walnut and apple orchards seem to have erupted into a carnival of weeds, birds and fruit and the lively spectacle of watching village and city-folk negotiating the intermittent storms is as entertaining as ever.
Outside Madam Nancy's
The heading of this post is a tribute to the fun travel memoir Baby in a Backpack in Bhutan by Australian writer Bunty Avieson.