Wednesday, March 21, 2012

School Days

March 12
Thought I'd show my school now.  It seems that with a new culture, new school setting, new system, a foreign language and a 6-day work week, there's not much else that happens to me these days.  I know this doesn't describe the reality, but at the start it's how it feels!  Here are snippets of my school week:

Staff parking lot
Pema pretending to study for his Poetry Project...
I walk to school, along with hundreds of students, all going my way.  For me it's 20 minutes, for some, 40. The little ones like to run beside me to keep stride, so this morning I arrived with a whole entourage.  some of them having to run around through the gate because their little feet would slip through the cattle grid I cross over.  Can't figure this it to keep the cows IN our school grounds?!  Saturday's is "no car day", so staff walk at least part of the way, as well.

Social Service time
Our timetable has us at school 6 days a week: 6 X 55-minute periods per day plus 2 X 55 on Saturdays. Each classroom has a padlock on it, and the only 2 keys are with the Classroom teacher and the student “class captain”, who opens the room each morning and locks it at the end of the day.  The school bell is a truck brake rotor suspended by wire on a wooden frame, banged away at with a hammer by the one of the senior students.  At 8:15 all students do their 15 minutes “Social service”: some sweeping the classroom or courtyards, others cleaning chalkboards, taking out the classroom garbage, unclogging the outside gutters, picking up litter in the grounds, tending the gardens…they are the school custodians.
My boys are in charge of upkeep in the children's playground
morning assembly, following prayer
At 8:30 everyone lines up in classes, from Pre-Primary to 8’s, rows of 1000 uniforms, positioned from shortest to tallest, class by class.  In front are School Captains, Vice-captains, Heads of Houses, etc.  The staff all stand facing them or mingle in with their own classes as the Principal, the Duty Teacher for the day, and others address the school from the podium.  Everything starts with the rhythmic beating of a brass hammer on a disk, leading us through a prayer to the Wisdom manifestation of Lord Buddha and through the Anthem honoring the unfurling of our national flag.  Following the speeches and announcements, students return to their classrooms for first period. 
At this point there may or may not be brief teacher meetings, or students reporting for some disciplinary hearings, but whatever time I eventually arrive in class, the students will be waiting, will stand when I enter and will greet me in perfect chorus, “Good morning Sir!”  I usually ask how they are, which has a chorus of answers, before I have them seated.  This routine is repeated for every class I enter.  We teachers travel from homeroom to homeroom like this.  And if I tell the class captain to instead meet me in the Science Lab for 5th period, the whole class will be there.  Students seem to monitor one another as they move around, so I can ask of virtually anyone, who is absent, who has left to go where, etc. and I’ll get the straight goods.

In the Classroom
The biggest overall difference in the classroom for me is the importance here on the collective over the individual.  Their natural training has them being taught as a whole class: chorus replies to questions, memorized responses, copying carefully and neatly into their notebooks, same minority of keeners shouting out pleadingly,“Sir!” if I ask for individual contributions.  What is a challenge is arranging differentiated instruction.  Bhutanese students naturally work together, leading or following one another.  Those who care want to “get it right” while those who don’t, copy from them.  It’s very difficult to displace the pecking order, to momentarily silence the leaders or to expect followers to speak up.  And it’s a struggle to get opinions.  On a good day I am amused by the retraining efforts I make: “How many of you disagree with the author/statement?” Nothing.  “How many agree?” Same three hands as yesterday.  “How many aren’t sure?”  Nada. “How many don’t like to vote?” No takers.  “How many agree now?”  Majority goes up with the original three.  I sigh and move on to the small groupwork questionnaires I’ve prepared, which will likely represent six students out of thirty-three once we’re done.  I’ve got my work cut out for me today unless I revert to mostly “chalk and talk”.
The flipside to this whole scene is that Bhutanese students tow the cultural line, honour their King and their religious traditions, and show great respect for adults and teachers.  They are very easy to be around, and are keen to know things about certain specific areas in my life: my wife, my children, my current living situation, my association with anyone they might know, and my public comings and goings such as being seen in the market, visiting the Police station, playing football, walking out of a store with an unusual package or seen waiting for the bus…this is all important news.  I have yet to witness any intended disrepect of anyone, of any age, here in the Dragon Kingdom.

Classrooms are in buildings together: two up, two down, with doors and windows opening directly to the outside. Stone buildings with traditional wooden ornamentation, pigeons roosting in the attic, walls all plaster-concrete mix with horizontal wooden slats inset for hanging up posters, notices, etc.  When the morning frost or afternoon winds are there, you can feel/hear it in the classroom: no such thing as weatherstripping or insulation.   Students sit at hard pine chairs on metal frames, two to a table.  Graffiti covers the ancient classroom furniture: today a student suggested this was to keep them looking like they belong in our room, and not to be taken by others.
The Science lab is the best-equipped I’ve seen.  There’s so much equipment, purchased in bulk orders subsidized by this NGO or that, depending on the year, it seems.  To get stuff from the lab I have to hunt down the lab assistant.  Same thing with the Library and Book Room.  The thing is, everyone has a job.  So if you’re not a classroom teacher, you are the “in-charge” responsible for some part of the running of the school, or possibly a teacher on-call, waiting in the staffroom to be needed.  Teacher supplies are available by order requisition, so many of us buy our own until a replacement arrives. I’m tearing up last year’s posters to have paper and cards on hand for class memos, flash cards, etc.. The gym is truly a “Multi-Purpose Hall”, and it’s large concrete-floor is covered with red carpets for afternoon prayer, filled with plastic chairs for public meetings and movie night, tables for a formal festival dinner, or emptied for sports games, badminton night, or for Tara’s exercise class which she teaches twice a week.

Canadian trying to dance traditional Bhutanese
Although there’s usually no soap outside the rustic toilets--never seen toilet paper--at school, two students from each class leave 5 minutes early from 4th period to set up waterbuckets, soap and a towel as a wash station on the grass.  Students line up there on their way to eating lunch.  Some days the health captains can be seen in the morning inspecting fingernails, or distributing calcium or iron tablets, checking off their classmates’ names on a list they carry.  As with adults, it seems that everyone has a job.

the morning "Bukhari Club" in the staffroom
The canteen is where I sit to be served my lunch, though some teachers sit in their classrooms, others join their own children or spouses picnic-style on the grass, other staff drive into town to eat.  I’m served rice with one or another of perogie-sized veggie dumplings called momos, runny lentil dahl, mixed veggie curry with cheese, or leafy mustard greens steamed with cheese curd and chilies.  Hot water is the drink du jour.  This is pretty standard restaurant fare: simple, quality food made from real ingredients on a gas stove-top.  Tara and I are the only people around with an oven: it’s not part of their menu needs here. 
As I sit at the little table in the corner, small groups of kids filter in to buy prepared food such as chilies cooked in batter, samosas, flavoured noodle packs, etc. brought in from India; others might join me to slurp soup, watching and commenting in whispers at the phenomenon seated near them, shyly acknowledging me with a nod, “Sir”, if our eyes meet.  This lunch experience costs me 40-60Nu ($1) per day, put on my tab and charged to my salary.
lunchtime at our annual Rimro celebration: a day of prayer to protect us during our school year

These pics are my school, from the King's Birthday celebration in town 

Parent-Teacher Meeting
Last Saturday our Parent-Teacher Meeting was attended by pigeons flying back and forth over the crowd of parents patiently sitting, listening to the staff speeches: two and a half hours, followed by warm sweet milky tea and little bowls of sugared yellow rice.  All 3 hundred remained seated while staff attempted to hook up a generator to deal with the power outage (snow damage on the highway meant the power line had to be shut down for a few hours throughout our Dzongkhag (Province). Parents were asked to bring a mug with them, to support our “no plastic policy” this year.  As I filled my sign-in list with the names and signatures of my own class’s parents, I realized what a cultural mosaic I’m teaching here: several parents needed their children at their side to understand my English, and others had friends translating the speeches into their own local languages, depending on their place of origin.  Several of my parents are illiterate, so when it came to signing the form, they pulled out inkpads and pressed their thumbprints onto my paper for their signatures.

food items to be blessed by the monks, then redistributed to each family

Butter lamps being filled for the altar at school

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