127. Destroying old structures to build a New Nepal

[Nepal after 2015 Earthquake]


We know the earthquake has destroyed our lives. It has destroyed temples, schools and houses. We have lost a lot of lives but we know the earthquake has also brought all (hopefully) Nepali people together.

But amidst this chaos and devastation, we have a perfect opportunity to destroy further.

Just like the earthquake, we should and must destroy the structures our societies are built upon: discrimination (based on religion, caste, gender, ethnicity, culture, color and status), superstition, prejudice and injustice. Out of all these, two things come to my mind.

It was the second day after the earthquake. Every one in our neighbourhood was outside the houses praying and hoping that the quake won’t come back. We were taking shelter under a large tent and started preparing relief-khaja (cheura, noodles and dalmot) for all of us. Suddenly, I heard one respectful elderly woman say to a girl, “nani, timi 2 din ko bhako chau, ali parai basera khau”. You are on the second day of your menstruation, you stay a bit far from us and eat. I couldn’t believe my ears. While everyone’s trying to make sense of what’s happening, this elderly lady was still bothered by the presence of a menstruating girl. Even on the face of terror, some people forget humanity and stick with their own ill-logics.

I heard a friend of my sharing his frustrations. He was in Bhaktapur for relief distributions and some people in a Bahun community told them that they won’t take any relief food touched by dalits. It doesn’t make any sense at first, but some people are ready to die in the name of their tradition and culture. These are proud people. Arrogant people.

Without destroying these cherished structures, we can’t imagine a new nation.

The second structure is our education system.

The news says over 20,000 schools have been damaged completely or partially. One million students have been said to be effected. If there’s something to be optimistic about this dismal situation, it is about the opportunity to build new schools, new curriculum and new education policies.

And as we rebuild the schools, we also need to think about the real purpose of schools and real objectives of education. Our schools reflect factory model (remember, students are referred as ‘products’). Our curriculum promotes one shot three-hour final exams. Our education promotes obedience. These concepts are obsolete. And these need to be dumped into the Bagmati.

Let me clarify why schools are exploitative by prodding on one omnipresent factor in schools – the fear factor. Schools teach students to be fearful. Fear the teacher. Fear the principal. Fear the exam. Fear the society. Fear the future. And eventually, students fear of being oneself. They fear of being different. They fear of speaking out.

Fear is the primary weapon our schools wield against students to make them uniform and complaint. Our schools destroy children’s natural inquisitiveness with years of one-right-answer mentality and leave them without spontaneous creativity. And for this travesty to end, the system that demands obedience has to go first. And we need to replace it with one that promotes creativity, critical thinking and independence. We can build our new education system on the foundations of reality, empathy and social justice.

The earthquake has destroyed our houses and ruined our lives (for now), but we also need to destroy these old structures that has been crippling us. I believe it’s never late to change and this is the perfect time to change. It’s time to build a new hope. A new country where there’s no discrimination. A new country where children grow to be fearless. A new country where everyone loves everyone.

126. SLC: A Goddamn Lie

SLC is a lie

(The result of this year’s School Leaving Certificate exam is out. This year too, over 50% of students have failed. That’s over 200,000 students.)

SLC, short form for School Leaving Examination, is a lie. It’s a lie so well cooked and polished that almost every parent of students appearing in this annual mockery believes that ‘distinction’ means social prestige.

The schools claim their bragging right when their success rate is 100%. There’s a hierarchy within the 100 per cent too – 100% distinction, 100% first division, 100% pass. This madness goes on.

In a couple of days, there will be tikas on the students’ foreheads. There will be garlands around their necks. There will be photos in the newspapers. There will be banners in the school’s main entrance. There will be scholarships for the students with ‘distinction’.

Parents will celebrate. Schools will celebrate. All the while exaggerating this lie: SLC is the biggest hurdle in a student’s life. SLC is the iron gate. SLC is your future.

Worst of all, students believe this lie. (I did too, once.)

And in the same world,
Students those who didn’t get distinction.
Students those who didn’t get the first division.
And, 213,071 students those who didn’t even make it through the pass marks.
They will curse their incompetence.
They will mourn their fate.
They will lament their insignificance.

SLC is a lie. It is injustice.

SLC news, Kantipur Online

125. IATEFL 2015 Reflection 1 – Donald Freeman

Donald Freeman, IATEFL 2015Donald Freeman absolutely blew my mind with his opening plenary session. It was a very eye-opening session in which Freeman weaved stories to illustrate how we justify or give reasons to what we consciously and unconsciously do in the classroom. Freeman talks about three specific myths that have somehow become ‘frozen in our thought’ and we take them for granted in our action as well. Here’s an excerpt (mixed with my own tidbits) of his session:

Myth 1: Myth of Direct Causality There’s a myth that students learn through teaching only, that learning has direct relationship with teaching. Similarly, students are evaluated based on how they perform, and teachers are evaluated based on how students perform. In other words, good students mean a good teacher, bad students mean a bad teacher. Freeman used a metaphor of pool-game where the white ball (the teacher) propels the other balls (students) into action (learning). The myth is in thinking that there’s a direct cause and effect relation between teaching and learning. But teaching has a ‘relational connection’ between teaching and learning. A teacher’s move connects to student’s move and it connects to the teacher’s move and so on, and forms a spiral of seemingly disconnected interrelations. Teaching does relate to learning (that’s the myth) but it also informs learning, shapes possibilities and creates opportunities to learn.

Myth 2: Myth of Sole Responsibility The myth that as a teacher one is solely responsible for making learning happen in classroom. That when things work and don’t work, we are responsible for it. Many a times, we as teachers do think and act as if we are the ones responsible for everything that happens in classrooms. I make the lesson plans. I make the critical decisions. I prepare the questions. I check the exam answer sheets. So in some ways, whatever happens in the class is my responsibility as a teacher. That’s the myth of sole responsibility. Freeman disproved this myth with the help of a chess-board metaphor. The moves a teacher make opens up the moves the students make and then it opens up what the teacher does and so on. In reality, responsibility is not solely own, it is distributed. Moreover, distributed responsibility means distributed opportunities, both for the teacher and the students.

Myth 3: Myth of Proficiency as the goal The third myth is that the goal of classroom teaching is student proficiency. What’s right about this myth? Yes, teaching and learning in the classroom has to improve towards proficiency. What’s frozen about this idea? The relation between what we do in the classroom and the way we think about how it travels outside. One prominent example is that the goal of English language teaching and learning is to reach the native-speaker proficiency.

Freeman asserted that both ideas of native-ness and proficiency are mistaken. Native-ness is a geopolitical concept, not a linguistic concept. Proficiency, which is very appealing, is also conceptually problematic. Freeman labels it as a “usefully wrong idea”. “Language is like water, not like ice”, it is ever changing and therefore the goal of reaching proficiency is problematic. We have to re-think proficiency as Plural and that they are always situated in particular context and therefore bounded by a particular social practice.

Here’s what I am taking away from his session:

Myths indeed have some elements of reality in them, but as teachers, we have to challenge them, probe them and question them. And in doing so, we have to question ourselves. Learning is not only about what a teacher teaches in the classroom, it is not a product of cause and effect. Teaching is not only about managing what you can/can’t control but it is also about distributing responsibilities. And lastly, proficiency is not the ultimate goal, understanding is.

124. Think-Time in ELT class


As teachers, when you ask students to pair up, give them a context and tell them to have a conversation, do you ever wonder why the students usually produce shallow linguistic outputs?

I have done the same expecting the students to have a ‘great’ conversation where they use a variety of vocabulary items, complex construction and perfect grammatical forms. Most often than not, I would get disappointed with the types of sentences they would come up with.

And as Marc Helgesen explained in his session on “Think time” during his training titled “ELT and the science of happiness”, as teachers we give students very little time to think and construct answers. Similarly, he said that teachers tend to forget that ‘happiness’ is a very crucial factor that determines students’ capabilities to respond with well formed answers.

If we give students some moment to ‘think’, they can demonstrate increased fluency, increased complexity and increased accuracy. Likewise, they can use a range of vocabulary as well.

Here’s a sample activity:

Suppose you are making the students practice “WH-question” structures. First, show them these cues:

“Talk about a time….”

(are) very happy
(lose) something important
(hear) wonderful news
(take) a long trip
(get) a special present
(are) in a game or contest
(make) someone happy
(are) angry
(speak) English for the first time
(do) something stupid
(buy) something special
(go) to a wedding
(wear) special clothes
(find) something
(feel) sad
(eat) strange food

Now, here’s the tweak.

Ask them to choose only 5 out of the list. This way, they can choose the topics to talk about.
And ask them to think and visualize about those time.

Then in pairs of A and B, A asks B about those 5 moments, and vice versa.

This is a very simple yet effective activity to engage students in a very enriching way.

Key takeaways:

Don’t jump right into any task.
Engage students in warm up activities, happy activities to be specific.
Give them some time to think and form answers in their minds.
Then tell them to do the task.

(Marc Helgesen was one of the key speakers of NELTA International Conference 2015, held in February. I got to attend his pre-conference training session on Feb 14 and 15. Marc teaches in Japan and incorporates positive psychology in his language classroom. His website: www.eltandhappiness.com)

123. Teacher Confession: Leaving Radio Nepal to Change the World

Teacher Confession: Leaving Radio Nepal to Change the World

radio nepal studio

If you had known me five years ago, you would have known me as a news reader in the national radio. You would have heard: This is Radio Nepal. I am Umes Shrestha and you’re listening to the news. First the headlines.

That was my daily routine. Translate the news. Edit them. And go live. I still remember the day I went on air for the first time. Inside this small square studio, I was literally shaking behind the microphone. Needless to say, it was a scary and entertaining job. Getting to speak to the whole nation through the prestigious national radio. It was a dream come true. That’s what I thought at that moment.

But as the years went by, my enthusiasm for the job started to wilt. Something started to bother me. May be it was the routine job. May be it was the same political news day in and day out. But definitely I needed a change.

So after sitting on the same chair for almost half a decade, working on the same PIII computer and going into the same old battered news studio of Radio Nepal – I decided to quit the job.

I went to see my news in-charge. And I told him: Sir, I’m leaving the job.

He turned his big baldhead towards me, stared into my eyes and said: But you are good at it. And I shocked him with this answer: Yes sir, and that’s the reason I want to quit this job.

You see, for almost half a decade, I lived in my comfort zone of that studio and embraced mediocrity. I was the best at being an average. I lost my drive because it was easy, it was patterned and it was getting boring. I had hit the rock bottom.

When I told about this to my mom – she got really worried and said: How can someone even think of leaving a sarkari jaagir? I told about this to my close friends. They reacted the way my mom did. I told this to my to-be-wife. With complete disbelief in her eyes, she told me: You’d better have a good plan – because we’re getting married soon.

But I did leave the job. And after a few months of soul searching, I started teaching in a school and a college. It was my calling. It was what I was meant to do.

And then, I got my hand on the book that changed my life. It was “Leaving Microsoft to Change the World” by John Wood. I suppose, you have gone through this book. One thing I’ve learned from the book is – if you remain happy in your comfort zone, you will settle for that happiness and will eventually stop dreaming for something better.

I am in no way trying to compare myself with John Wood. He left Microsoft and his lucrative salary. He started an amazing organization Room to Read from the scratch. I – well, I left a minor job. But he and his book are always an inspiration to me. The book keeps me reminding to step out of my comfort zone and do something challenging.

I am a teacher, and I want to do something amazing, inspiring and even crazy. I want to be the guy who left Radio Nepal to change the world. Big dream, hai? I believe teaching is a very challenging job. At the same time, teaching is a very rewarding and inspiring job. And I also believe that – teaching can change the world for real.

(Please read this book.. it might just change your life as well.)

Also published on ELT Choutari Feb 2015 Issue

122. What can Public Speakers learn from Nepali Politicians?

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 14.30.28

Once upon a time, I used to be a miserable journalist with a shiny new DSLR. And I had to cover events where politicians bitched and dissed other politicians. Usually in such events, I would take a few lousy shots and then I would rest on a chair to secretly take mental vacations.

But in this one event, I almost had to chock myself to death. Seven times. This is what happened: our dear politician started yelling like a sheep right from his first note. Even though his lectern had a powerful mic, he went on his bleating rampage for over 45 minutes.

Finally, he said “ani, antya maa” – meaning “and, finally…”. I jumped up with excitement and sighed – thank dog, at last, this abuse comes to an end. Unfortunately, he was not done yet. Somehow he squeezed in another issue and went on to say “ani, antya maa” seven more times, literally – before he finally concluded his prolonged monotone verbal assault.

Of course, there are some soft-spoken and sensible ones, but many of our politicians (and general people) are well skilled in delivering rambling speeches that get nowhere – na yetaa, na utaa ko. Worst of all, the politicians seem not to care that they are yelling and shouting and forcing the audience into the dreaded coma.

I only wish they knew the difference between being persuasive and being repulsive.


So what’s the lesson for an aspiring public speaker or presenter?

First, you don’t have to shout or yell and create a moshpit in front you. Be passionate and be calm.

Second, if you say “Finally…” or “Aba antya maa”, even by a mistake, just conclude your speech within the next 60 seconds. Even if you had four more things to say, don’t spread the verbal diarrhea epidemic to the audience. Just stop. Your audience will like you more for that.

Thank you politicians. Though bad in public speaking, you’ve still managed to teach us something important. :)

If you agree with me or find this blog useful, just shoot me a comment! I would love to hear from you.

121. Published: Students are not the problems, Teachers are

Article published on the national daily The Kathmandu Post, on Jan 18, 2015.

Umes Shrestha

Students are not the problems, teachers are!
Umes Shrestha

I teach teenage students in a couple of undergraduate colleges. And, during breaks my teacher colleagues and I gather in the faculty room, sip milk tea and vent out our frustrations. We complain that our students are ‘ekdam khattam’; they have terrible concentration and just don’t like to study; that ‘student haru testai hun, jati padhaaye pani kaam chaina’; and that they have horrible sense of discipline and manner. ‘The problem is ten times worse in the students of plus two level’, we moan and decry. ‘Class ma ta chhirnai dikka laagcha’, another teacher confesses with a dikka laageko face.

These complain-sessions with my colleagues have made me question my own perception on this issue: are today’s teenage students the real problem? In this reflective article, I argue that they are simply different and we need to rethink on our outdated teaching principles. I also talk about how our students are very active and critical thinkers contrary to our quick assumption of how ‘bad’ they are; and at last I urge on the need to change our perception about students in general.

Teach for the Future, not for the Past:

Things change. With time, the meaning of education has also changed. But what about the teaching method? Has it changed? When I was in school, I had a Math teacher who would not hesitate to slap, punch and kick the students every time we could not blurt out algebra formulas. Our Science teacher believed in giving ‘notes’ and making us cram up every definition word by word. Most of the teachers were utterly mean, scary and forceful; and they made sure that everybody answered in the same pattern during exams.

That was a long time ago and, to quote our politicians, a lot of water has flown under the Bagmati Bridge since then.

However, we are still teaching as if we are the preachers at the center of a grand stage. We expect the students to be obedient and listen through our lecture. Some of us still believe in brandishing sticks and thrashing our students to yield compliance. We share them our glorious feat, “I used to study for eight hours a day when I was your age” but completely misread their faces – they are not going to do that. They don’t want to do that.

We insist on discipline management but the very word ‘management’ reeks off control and authority. They don’t want to be controlled.

The classrooms still resemble a horse stable with desks and chairs fixed to keep the students arranged, assembled and tamed. Schools and colleges look like factories that manufacture standard ‘products’ ready to join the workforce. And what about the curriculum? The pedagogy? The methodology? We tell students to think outside the box but rarely do we step outside the textbook and question patterns of the examination. Our teaching is largely directed by the standardized examination and we still measure our students with the percentage they get in SLC exam.

And here’s the kicker – our students know these all.

Our students are smart thinkers:

Our students are not ‘normal’ teenagers the way we want them to be; they are the screenagers who grew up with television, technology and internet. We ridicule them by calling them facebook generation, cellphone generation, Xbox generation, internet generation, Generation Y, etc. In the contrary, we are the ones who need an upgrade, similar to regular virus updates.

If Darwinism makes sense, we should know that human brain is highly malleable and adaptive. Studies say, because theses younger generations have been massively exposed to technology and digital media since their childhood, their brains have been wired digitally. Their brains have evolved to adapt with this new environment of constant interference and information overload. But that’s why they are the way they are – different from us when we were at their age.

Of course there’s a flip side to this digital evolution. Youngsters these days do want ‘instant gratification’. May be because of Reality TV, they think success and fame can be easily achieved. There are some who display obsessive compulsive behavior and are hooked on to technology and social media sites. Cell phones, for some of my students, are more important than the books. Facebook presence, for some, is more real than their offline lives. But that’s the environment they grew up in and they will eventually adapt to that environment.

Steven Johnson, the writer of the book “Everything Bad is Good for You” argues that today’s movies, television programs, videogames, etc are challenging the young viewers to think like grown up, to analyze complex social networks. There’s too much information out there, and it can be accessed freely. And thus as a result, Johnson suggests, our students have become very sophisticated thinkers who can understand opportunities and risks on their own. And hence, now we are not the traditional ‘pool of knowledge’ teachers anymore. We are just facilitators. We can’t treat our students like they are blank slates lying around in a corner, waiting for us to fill up their minds with our ‘outdated’ knowledge and ‘bookish’ skills.

Change is a must:

Our teaching is linear and one-dimensional, very left-brain approach. Where as the youngsters are more multidimensional and inclined towards right-brain approach. We need to realize this new truth and help our students see the big picture. But sadly our education system doesn’t have a tangible big picture. And as teachers, we are helpless and without vision.

Therefore, in many ways, students are not the problems, but we are. Let’s understand: they are different. Let’s accept: they will be disruptive. Let’s expect: they will not comply, they will not confirm. They simply have a different style and motivation of learning. We need to stop making quick judgment. We need to stop labeling them as jhur students.

We are still driven by the ethos of our past education and the teaching culture we valued so much. We believe in Guru devo bhawa – teacher is god. And with this ‘godlike’ authority and sometimes with abuse of authority, we still set out to make students obedient. Where as, we should be giving them autonomy and collaborative learning opportunities so they can understand and form their own construct.

We also need to step out of our daily classroom routine, defy the irrelevant ‘factory’ model of education and make efforts towards transforming it. I know this is a lot to ask because we might also say that teachers don’t have any authority over education policy, university policies, curriculum and so on. But let’s not wait for someone else to bring about any change in the field we are responsible for. Let’s be critical about everything. Our teaching, our education and our vision of education. There will be a change.

In conclusion:

We still imitate our own school-teachers and their methods. We are consciously or unconsciously becoming the teachers we used to hate. We hated them because they used to dominate us, abuse us and lecture us. Let’s not make our students suffer through our sufferings. Most of us were once the same khattam, manner-less, and hopeless students but let’s not give those labels to our students anymore. Because, what goes around comes around. Imagine our students sipping tea in a nearby shop, complaining and badmouthing us with the same adjectives – khattam teacher, jhur teacher, lecture matra diney teacher.