130. Meeting the one who arrested God

Samrat Upadhyaha

Today I got to meet Samrat Upadhyay in person. He was way taller than I thought he would be, and way nicer than I imagined. And, unlike many writers, he had an amazing voice and impressive presentation skill (many good writers are bad speakers, most of the times).

Thanks to Edushala, I was invited to participated in a two hour mini workshop with Upadhyay (and two of his students from an American university). It was 120 minutes well spent. We did a few activities to help us generate ideas and content for any creative writing. But I enjoyed listening to him explain about his writing process and his style.

Thank you Samrat sir for your suggestions on how to make my writing more realistic fiction.

Here are some of the excerpts from his talk:

“I am a hardworking writer. I am not a genious writer (like Laxmi Prashad Devkota). I have to go through multiple drafts, sometimes even 20 drafts.”

“Read a lot. Reading is half writing already. But read the classics. I don’t recommend you read stuff like Chetan Bhagat. Well, if you want to read that kind of stuff, read it but don’t get influenced by that kind of writing.”

“It’s okay to imitate your favorite writer’s style, because eventually, if you keep writing, you will get over that style and will create your own.”

“There is nothing pure or original in art.”

129. Should a teacher hold grudge towards student?

Last week, I came to find out that a student had complained about me to my coordinator. Naturally, my first reaction was: WTF!

Yes, I got angry for a while. I imagined punching the teeth out of that student’s whiny mouth. Then my anger gradually frothed to cold grudge towards the student. “Wait, you asshole. You’ll see how your internal marks will look like”. I wanted to teach that student a lesson.

I am a teacher but I am not a superhero. Nope, I don’t have that feeling anymore. May be it was a genuine complain. May be it was a miscommunication. But I’m so fallible. So damn fallible that I might screw up some day.

128. Woes of Education

classroom

The head teacher said, “If only we could implement the system similar to the boarding schools, our students would not drop out”. I didn’t understand it right away. He added, “If only we could teach the students in English, if only we could provide them two sets of uniforms, if only we could have proper khaajaa system, the number of students will increase in our school too”.

We were at a public school in a not so remote village of Madadevsthan, Kavre. As we chatted away with the head teacher, we could feel his distress about the high rate of student dropping out. I know there’s a huge English-mania in our context but naively, I had never thought that uniforms and khaajaa made such a big difference in student attendance.

“Last year, our teachers collected some money on their own and provided the students khaajaa for three months since the start of the session”, the head teacher continued, “there were around 100 students then. Now there are only 48.” And it makes sense. The majority of students are from the marginalized community of Danuwar. They are not doing well, otherwise “they would have sent their kids to a private school”. In other words, they are poor and they have no other choice but to send their kids to the public schools. “Rinn kaatera bhaye pani, people send their kids to private schools.”

The head teacher, clearly helpless, wringing his both hands described, “Some kids start yelling ‘bhog laagyo’ right after the assembly and some run away after the break. And people expect good results from public schools.”

Even before we argue on the effects of English as the medium of instruction, even before we discuss on the nature of assessment, I believe we should think about the hungry ones, the dirty ones. Because when your stomach is rumbling and your uniform is ragged, being a ‘good’ student is not in your priority.

But there’s another side too. The teachers themselves. I asked him, “Aren’t they responsible for the degradation of public school system? Otherwise, why would a poor family take loans to send their kids to private schools?”

His answer was plain and simple. Politics le bigaaryo. “Teachers in private schools work hard from 9 to 4, but teachers in public school are busy working for the parties. In some ways, I’m involved in this game too, other wise I wouldn’t have been able to be in this school for all these years”. He shrugged his shoulders.

I am not stating that all government teachers are selfish, irresponsible and opportunists. But sadly many are. So, is it possible to make them caring, responsible and hard working? What if we could change the education policy and reform the system of teacher’s permanent appointment. Every teacher works under a contract, say a 3 year one, and the contract gets renewed based on his/her performance evaluation and recommendation by parents. What if we can wipe out all the political affiliations from schools and universities, and end the criminal-like political appointment of teachers, head teachers, rectors, deans and chancellors. And what if there are teacher bodies and student councils but without any political aspiration and backing.

But it’s not that plain and simple. The whole education system – from the bottom to the top – is muddled in politics. And when there’s no politics, there’s our society with hopeless crater of economic divide, there’s private schools with glamour and grandeur of English based education, and there’s people with desperate dreams and hungry stomachs.

How is it possible to end this injustice?

127. Destroying old structures to build a New Nepal

[Nepal after 2015 Earthquake]

school

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

marc-elt-happiness

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)