Friday, March 26, 2010

School Days

I’ve been at school for two weeks now, and I’d better write about my first impressions before they become old hat.

Every morning I get dressed in my half kira (skirt), onju (blouse) and tego(jacket) before heading off to school. As a foreigner, I don’t actually have to wear traditional clothing, but it feels right, and I get a better reception when I’m dressed that way. I don’t know how I will manage in the hot weather though, because even now there are days when it is awfully sticky inside those layers of fabric. I’m hoping to find some lightweight cotton to have a couple of summer versions made.

The students wear uniforms to school. The girls wear a full kira (like a jumper) which is an orange and black check, with a red onju and black jacket. The boys wear a gho in the same check, with a white traditional shirt underneath, and black or navy socks. The colour combination makes it look even hotter, but no one seems to mind. They certainly don’t complain. The students also wear black shoes, carefully polished.

The girls are very excited because the principal just announced that they may grow their hair long if it is kept neat and clean. They may only wear black hair barrettes and black elastics. No jewellery. She reminded the boys that they may not wear their hair long, and they are not to use hair gel. She said that some of them look scruffy, like cow herders.

I meet many children each morning during the walk to school. They all greet me by smiling, and bowing at the waist as they say, “Good morning, Madam!” This continues with every child I meet as I cross the schoolyard. Many children actually come running to greet me. If they are sitting, they stand to bow. (Mr. Dorsey, you would be thrilled!) Other teachers don’t seem to notice the greetings, and rarely even respond, but I am delighted, and say good morning with a head nod and smile for every kid.

At 8:10 a.m. it is time for “Social Work”. The students all have designated areas which they are in charge of cleaning. This involves picking up litter, and lots of sweeping with those wonderful brooms I have told you about. They also have to sweep the open drains to clear them of water and debris. Some kids are in charge of getting buckets of water for the toilets. This I haven’t quite figured out. There seems to be a tap at the edge of the property where they can get water, but only for a short period of time in the morning, and not every day. Even the staff toilets are not very pleasant. They are porcelain “squatty potties”, which may or may not have the benefit of a bit of water in the morning. One morning, we had a speech and demonstration about proper hand washing technique. You would think we were all going to do open heart surgery with the thoroughness involved. I had to laugh because there is never any water for hand washing.

8:25 is morning assembly on the schoolyard. The students (almost 800 of them!) line up by class, from PP (preprimary) to grade 8. They look very impressive, and the little ones very sweet, all carefully groomed, standing straight, without fidgeting. They do a prayer and song in the Dzongkha language. Then one boy and one girl do a short speech, one in Dzongkha and one in English. They are usually quite flowery, but very well presented. Then there are various announcements, some quite lengthy. Finally they finish with the national anthem in Dzongkha as the flag is raised. It is a beautiful flag of a dragon on an orange and yellow background.

One morning there was a lengthy presentation about World Water Day. Most of the kids managed to stay focused, but I did notice a few making faces and poking each other. The funniest was one young boy who grabbed the ears of the boy in front of him. He was pulling them and twisting them in different directions as if he was driving a motorbike. The poor victim was trying hard to stay focused on the presentation, which made the scene even funnier.

First period is supposed to begin at 8:45, but the lengthy announcements and special presentations often cut into first period. The periods are 40 minutes each, with a 15 minute break after period 3, and a one hour lunch break after period 5.

At lunchtime, only the kids who live quite close walk home. I go home for lunch, partly so I can use a clean toilet!! The rest of the kids have picnics on the grass. Some have brought their lunch with them, but many parents also come at lunchtime to have a picnic with their children.

By the way, the school is made up of five very attractive, two-storey concrete buildings, with traditional windows and painted details. (No phalluses on the walls at school though). They are set around a concrete playground, with lots of steps up to each building. The primary building is up the highest, with about 30 steep steps to get up there. I’m getting very fit with all of the walking up and downhill every day. There are also lots of flower beds, which the students take care of, and a huge grassy soccer field. It is quite beautiful, with trees at the edge of the property, and a great view of the mountains disappearing into the distance.

I mustn’t forget to mention the dogs. There are about a dozen dogs living on the school property, and two of them have litters of puppies as well. The puppies are very cute, but a couple of the dogs are horribly mangy, bad enough to almost make me sick. The dogs just sleep most of the time. The kids are very good at ignoring them if they come sniffing around when they are at morning assembly.

Unfortunately, the town hasn’t really got the whole garbage disposal thing figured out, and people tend to burn their own garbage. This goes for the school as well. There are teacher residences around the periphery of the property, and most days there are garbage fires, sending horrible fumes wafting over the school grounds. Even the school burns its garbage, although I am making an effort to put an end to this practice.

Wednesday at the end of the day is time for school clubs. Another teacher and I have the Nature Club, which I have renamed the “Green Team.” I’m hoping we can make a few changes, especially concerning waste disposal. It is surprising how much litter there is along every road and path.

Looking after the environment is one of the four pillars of GNH. (Gross National Happiness) They love acronyms here. GNH is a favourite, which gets used as an adjective as well, such as, “Is that a GNH way of handling the problem?” I read Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” to the Green Team yesterday. We all agreed that the tree was a very GNH kind of a tree.

Back to school: The English curriculum was recently revised for all grades, and it is excellent. A number of Canadians and Bhutanese were involved in the writing, and it is all about balanced literacy and using a wide range of strategies to teach. This approach is quite new to the teachers, but they are doing their best. Part of my role is to model some of these new ideas, and support the teachers as they gain confidence.

Canadian teachers, listen up! You know how many kids we have in each class here? In the forties!!! I have 42 in my grade 6 English class. Marking books takes forever!!! Also, the available resources are abysmal. The kids supply their own notebooks and other materials. There are no math materials or art materials or computers for students.

There are two staff computers, but the first time I used one and tried to save a file on a memory stick, I got a “Trojan”. There is only one printer which is in the office. If you want something printed, you take it to the office clerk and she will print it. That is if there is paper, and toner. One or the other is usually missing.

If we want anything from the supply room, (although I haven’t figured out where that is, or what is actually in there), we have to fill out a requisition, addressed to the principal. It begins with “Dear Madam” and ends with, “Thanking you, Faithfully yours, signed…” I did manage to get three pencils and some newsprint which was ripped out of old notebooks.

They do have a decent library though, and it has many books in English and Dzongkha. Each class goes there once a week to sign out books. As the kids are leaving, the librarian frisks each kid to make sure they aren’t hiding extra books in their kiras and ghos. Everyone seems so honest, I can’t imagine them stealing.

School is Monday to Friday 8 until 4, and Saturday 8 until 12:20. Teachers are supposed to teach a minimum of 32 periods a week, which means they typically get 12 periods of preparation time. BUT, if someone is absent (and they often are) there are no supply teachers. Instead the other teachers fill in for the missing teacher. Even when teachers are on maternity leave, for which they are allowed three months, they still don’t get a supply teacher. Others fill in.

The students’ English skills are really quite remarkable. For most Bhutanese, English is at least their third language, after their local language (of which there are many) and Dzongkha. Many also speak Nepali and Hindi as well. Amazing. Despite that, the English curriculum is on par with the Ontario curriculum, if not more advanced. I’m still not sure how deep their understanding is, but they seem to have the vocabulary down pat.

Until recently, most teaching was of the rote learning type. Consequently, students have difficulty with open ended or opinion questions. That’s where I see my greatest challenge, in getting students to take risks, and express their own ideas. They are great at echoing, and they also seem to have incredible memories, but they have trouble with original thinking.

I think I’ll post this now, but check back in a few days when I hope to have added some photos.

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