Friday, November 22, 2013

Spontaneous Holidays and Unexpected School Days

Perhaps one of the most challenging parts of teaching in Nepal is knowing whether or not the school will be open on a particular day. I have basically always taken it for granted that school would follow the calendar published months in advance, with an occasional but widely announced change due to a snow day or two. That is not how it happens here.

Don't assume that February and March will actually include that much school,
it's just too early to know about the unexpected stuff.

I live with another teacher from my school and the headmaster of another local school, so if anyone should be in the know about whether or not school is running, it’s me. But that hasn’t really been my experience. Here is a quick guide to determining whether or not school will be open based on my diligent observations and questioning in a desperate search for answers:

1. Be sure to say “see you tomorrow!” to everyone you encounter at school. Hopefully one of the dozens of students and teachers will pipe up if it has already been determined that school will be closed the following day.

2. Don’t count too strongly on strategy number one. It probably works 50% of the time.

3. Try to make friends with people who are well-connected to the grapevine. This provides access to rumors about upcoming bandhs or poorly publicized local holidays that are approaching. Any kind of a rumor, no matter how seemingly ridiculous, is enough to indicate that school may or may not be closed.

4. Don’t spend too much time asking people. When confronted directly with the question “Is there school tomorrow or not?” in English or in Nepali, most will say “there may be school tomorrow.” Which is a frustratingly vague answer.

5. Definitely don’t try to get an answer the night before. It’s too early. No one knows.

6. In the morning, check with your host family. Questions like “are you going to school today?” generally receive a more informative answer than “is there school today?” Even though it would seem like within three hours of school starting a decision would be clear. If you don’t get a clear answer, check back in 45 minutes; kind of like shaking a magic 8 ball until it gives you what you want.

7. If on the way to school you pass an entire soccer field full of students from grade three, don’t assume this means that school is closed. Simply make a note that class three will be smaller than usual.

8. When in doubt, take everything with you to school on the assumption that even though less than half of the staff have showed up the school will still run and you will suddenly be in charge of way more classes than normal. At least the student numbers will also be running below half so even when the headsir says “you take grades one AND two” the class size won’t be terribly overwhelming.

9. Even if school is running, don’t assume that it will be a full day. Assume that any adult approaching your classroom, at any time during the day, is coming to announce that everyone is leaving at 12:00 or 1:30 or right now. NOTE: DO NOT listen to older students who deliver the same message, always wait for a credible adult who you can identify if later asked “who told you to let all the grade ones go running out the gate?”

10. Laugh. Go with the flow. Bat away a single tear as the time you were going to use to teach that great new game with rhyming words is snatched out from under you. Enjoy the six kids who actually showed up – be sure you know their names and give them an extra star just for coming when no one else did. Sigh as you develop a deeper understanding of why teachers in Nepal are frustrated beyond belief and have no interest in lesson/unit planning. Why plan for a day that may or may not happen? Force a smile when you walk past the seven teachers enjoy their leisure period outside while you run between classes wondering how there can possibly be any spare adults on a day like today. Take the long way home when the day ends three hours early. Buy yourself a pack of oreos at the grocery store to remind yourself that somewhere in the world things are different. Then eat a huge plate of daal bhat to remind yourself that you’re in Nepal whether school runs today or not.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Classroom Management 2.0

I think I am successfully conquering class three.
And the use of the word "conquer" is very intentional because it's been a battle. 

They look so innocent.
After the catastrophic failure of the girls vs. boys point system in grade five and the rapid intensification of behavior management issues in grade three, I determined it was time for a completely redesigned strategy.

Just to recap...I'm working with students who are totally unaccustomed to any kind of classroom management system based on reward. The popular forms of discipline that I have witnessed include yelling at the whole class, hitting students (on their backs, heads, foreheads, etc.) and having students kneel on the cement floors. Although it should be noted that some teachers have managed to develop enough of a rapport with their students that they rarely require serious discipline.

I also wanted my system to address the most frequent problems preventing me from making the most of my instructional time; which has been severely limited due to holidays and bandhs. Problems like frequent absenteeism, constant request for bathroom/drink breaks, talking during class, not bringing a pencil or notebook to class, etc. I needed a way to limit negative behaviors and reward students who were already being awesome, but I wanted to make sure it would not be subjective or cumbersome for me to consistently enforce (part of the problem of the girls vs. boys points system). Based on some fantastic advice via a desperate facebook status, I was reminded that for kids new to behavior management the more immediate the consequences (positive and negative) the better.

And STARS was born.

Here's how it works. Students earn stars for various good things and spend them as they choose -- either by choosing to misbehave during class or by cashing them in for tangible rewards. I use a marker to draw the stars in the front of each child's notebook which means that suddenly I no longer have kids forgetting their book at home. Miraculous! I always have markers in my bag and it takes me less than a second to draw a star so the day-to-day doesn't require me to bring any extra materials or remember who earned what yesterday.

A lot of people have asked, "But don't the students add their own stars to get more prizes?" which is a really legitimate concern. So far I haven't had any problems. I talked about it on the first day and told students that if I caught them cheating by drawing their own stars I would take away ALL the stars. I said it really dramatically and even let my co-teachers translate the warning into Nepali. I usually use the markers that I brought from the U.S. so the colors are slightly different than the standard sign pens you find in Nepal. I told the kids that I could look at the colors and know that it wasn't from my marker. In reality, the kids just aren't that good at drawing stars so it would be obvious if they tried to add their own.

All students get four stars just for showing up on Sundays. In retrospect, it's a little bit high considering they can start earning prizes at five stars but it was a worthwhile decision to get the system going. Plus it encourages kids to show up at school on the first day of the week which is also the day that I am most likely to start something new and the higher the attendance the less re-teaching I have to do later in the week.

Each day I try to offer at least one opportunity to earn a star during class. Sometimes we play a team game and everyone on the winning team gets a star. Sometimes my co-teacher assigns homework and anyone who has it done, BEFORE class, gets a star the next day. Sometimes I forget and there aren't any opportunities for a star but when students ask I'm just honest and say "maybe tomorrow."

Of course students can also spend stars during class. It costs one star to go to the bathroom or get a drink during my class. For me, this is huge. I hate deciding when kids can and can't use the restroom. It's not okay with me for everyone to need to go at the beginning of class, but I'm also unwilling to arbitrarily decide who gets to go and who doesn't. As a friend likes to say "it was only four years ago that these kids were toilet trained" and I certainly don't want to be the one responsible for a kid who really really has to go not quite making it. In another miracle, the 25 tiny bladders that used to be nearing an explosion two weeks ago have suddenly synced to the school schedule and I rarely have anyone asking to leave the room.

Students can also spend stars by choosing to create disruptions during class. Most of the time it's enough for me to walk towards the offenders and take the cap off my black board marker (thus indicating that I am about to cross out someone's star.) I always have the marker in my hand when I'm teaching anyways and I love that it's a non-verbal method. The students stop what they're doing to disrupt class and they don't even get the satisfaction of interrupting my train of thought or forcing me to stop giving directions. Perfect.

For students who opt not to misbehave, do assignments, and regularly come to class stars can be spent on prizes.
  • 5 Stars: choice of pencil, eraser, or sharpener
  • 10 Stars: new notebook
  • 20 Stars: lunch with Miss Rachel
Pencils, erasers, and sharpeners are all pretty cheap. And I don't mind spending money on them because it means that I no longer have trouble with kids not having a pencil. At the very least, there's always a friend nearby who has an extra. Similarly with notebooks, I know that finances are not great for all my students and this gives them an easy way to get the supplies they need. I don't care if they use the notebook for my class or someone else's. I have also learned that kids LOVE drawing copies. These are just notebooks without lines, but most parents don't spend their money on them. So students can now decide whether they want a lined copy or a drawing copy (they call notebooks copies because they are mostly used to copy whatever the teacher has written on the board.)

The prize of getting to eat lunch with me is admittedly a bit vain. But it's also a huge hit. I had two boys in fifth grade cash in all 20 of their hard earned stars for this last week. I met them for lunch and we walked to a nearby restaurant and shared some momos. Feeding myself and two students cost me all of... one dollar.

In an effort to get students to save their stars, (another good life lesson to be earned from a classroom economy), new prizes will be unveiled the next time we have school.
  • 15 Stars: a medium sized chocolate bar (based on a poll of students' favorite candy.)
  • 15 Stars: a small box of colored pencils (a nice addition to the drawing copy.)
  • 25 Stars: a printed photo of me and the student (because I would love an excuse to take pictures with my kids and as a child I would have jumped to the moon with excitement to have a picture with me and any of my student teachers.)
  • 30 Stars: an English picture book
I anticipate that the story books will become a fast favorite based on student reactions when I bring mine to class. What more could an English teacher want than students on their best behavior clamoring for the opportunity to earn a new book?

For now, I'm extremely happy with the STARS system. Since I get paid WAY more than the average Nepali teacher I have the funds to support a system based on store-bought prizes. Normally I work hard to avoid doing things at the school that the average teacher wouldn't have the resources to do herself. But I have two solutions for this: 1) prizes for this system don't have to be store bought and the next time I do a teacher training at the school we're going to talk about some ideas for no-cost rewards. 2) I have seen prize distributions after school games days where winners of the banana eating contest go home with three new copies and two somewhere in the tangle of bureaucracy and lack of administration there is money to purchase things that the school thinks are important.
Why are your cheeks so puffy? Oh because you just ate a whole banana at once.

Now I just have to convince the headsir that supporting a classroom management system might be more beneficial to society than rewarding the kid who can shove a whole banana into his/her mouth the fastest...

Sigh, only one enormous institutionalized problem at a time.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Grade One Art: Update

My grade one co-teacher walked to the front of the room in the middle of my art lesson last week. She stopped me and reached for the textbook, you remember the one that is half social studies and half art.

She then proceeded to tell me that I should stop teaching art, but should instead go back to the beginning of the social studies content because there are many new students...

It's true that there are some new kids in class. But I just spent a weekend dying beaten rice a variety of colors and then drying it in the sun so that I had something to use a medium for teaching mosaics.

So we're doing at least one more art lesson.

Saturday, November 16, 2013


Tihar is a grand celebration basically centered around the victory of good over evil. It is praised as a holiday for all castes and religions and celebrated throughout Nepal. Many people told me that even though Tihar is shorter than Dashain it is their favorite holiday of the year.
There is lots to do in terms of decorating the house. Garlands are made and draped on every window and every door. A grand mandala or rangoli is put on the ground outside the house and the path leads all the way to the space inside the home where puja, worship, takes place.

The mandala or rangoli that we created out of tika
powder on the ground in front of the house.
Making the mandala.

A marigold garland along the door frame.

For two nights, all the houses are lit up and groups of kids come around asking for money and gifts. It's like the strange offspring of Christmas and Halloween.
Some electric lights and a lot of candles.
These kids showed off by bringing a guitar. Most groups are just 3-8 children singing/chanting.
During the day, kids enjoy giant swings built from rope and bamboo. And by kids I mean kids of all ages. Not only did my host siblings and I enjoy it, but two women who I would guess were in their 50's were waiting in line to take a turn after us! **Correction: giant swings, called pings, are actually constructed for Dashain not Tihar. In my family it just so happened that we didn't find one during Dashain and later happened upon a leftover one.**

The guy in the picture is standing on the swing, he's just got his legs bent to build more momentum.

Worship is directed towards certain things on certain days. There were days of puja for dogs, and crows, cows. My family doesn't have a dog so one of the neighbors brought their dog over and we put a garland and tika on it. There was some confusion regarding the astronomical date for the cow puja. I ended up not being witness to the event because my host mom went and did it early one morning somewhere else since our family does not have a cow.
It took some convincing (read bribery with food) for the dog to wear the garland.
And the cow is someone else's that I saw in a field on the way to the giant swing.
 Using thin twigs and two leaves little "boats" are made. This is what holds the offering during puja.
I asked my host mom to teach me how to make them. It's tricky business!
On the last day we celebrated brothers. This involved a particular kind of tika with seven colors; normally there is just red or yellow. Plus lots of gifts --mostly food-- from sisters to their brothers! (But then the brothers have to give money to the sisters.)


**Sorry for the insane photo layout and lack of captions at the end. Sometimes I love blogger and sometimes the way this website handles images makes me want to swear off ever trying to post pictures. But don't worry, I promise not to resort to that! You'll just have to tolerate less than aesthetically pleasing combinations of photos.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Egnilsh as a Sencod Lagnuage

Egnilsh as a Sencod Lagnuage
Anglias com un duexiem lange
English as a second language

Even though I’m living in Nepal, English is everywhere. Stores, newspapers, flyers, and advertisements often feature the language they know will attract the attention of many tourists. But if you are a native English speaker you will quickly notice that the spellings and meanings aren’t always textbook quality.

Look back at the first three lines of this post. I bet most people who are reading this blog noticed that the first line was supposed to say “English as a Second Language” but the letters were all rearranged. But did you realize that all of the words in the second line were misspelled and the third line doesn’t make any sense at all? If you’re honest, probably not, unless you are already pretty familiar with French or one of the Devanagari languages. Even if you do speak a second language, think about how much harder it is to edit your own writing or how many little mistakes you make based on what you know from your first language.  

Below is a list of strange, silly, or just downright confusing English that I have seen recently. But as you are reading (and chuckling to yourself) do so with empathy and appreciation for the people who have tried their best to learn a second language and accommodate all of us Anglophones visiting Nepal.

On a clothing boutique: Fashion is our Fetish.
Not a slogan you see in American malls.

Above a bench in a museum: This seat saved for differently-abled people.
Part of me really likes the use of the phrase "differently-abled" and part of me finds it unnecessary to label benches.

Outside a Kodak picture shop: Metal itching and framing available here.
When your steel has an itch it just can't scratch.

Teachers trying to describe a rambunctious student: He moves with negligence.
(Turns out this one is a direct translation of a Nepali saying so there is some reasoning behind it.)
A school on the way to Kathmandu: People Centroid Academy
I'm sorry, the word we were looking for was centered.

And my personal favorite...