Sunday, April 26, 2015

The First class

On April 8, 2015, Drubgyud Tenzin Rinpoche lead a ceremony to welcome the new class of 52 monks—what we are calling the Lhuk Group—who will be receiving secular and non-secular education at Chökyi Gyatso Institute.

The two-hour event was an auspicious start to the boys' education. The goals were to make them feel welcome, to let them know how special these classes will be, and to create a good foundation for a successful year ahead. The new monks will study for four hours daily. Drubgyd Tenzin Rinpoche has created a new two-year curriculum for teaching dharma to young monks which will be taught by Lopon Dechen one hour every day. Lopon Pema Longdrel will teach one hour of Tibetan grammar and Lhomon Education's Lopon Dawa will be teaching basic Math, science, geography and art based on the LME Framework. Also, fr the next 5 months Laurence Shepherd will be teaching English as a visiting instructor. All were on hand for the ceremonial first day of class.

The ceremony started with a butter lamp offering. Drubgyed Tenzin Rinpoche explained that by lighting candles we hope to dispel the darkness of our minds. Then each student then lit a candle and were lead to the newly refurbished classrooms. They were introduced to the basic daily routine and rules of our classroom - lining up, mindfully placing their shoes, sitting for 3 minutes of meditation, and saying prayers. The arrangement of shoes along the corridor of the class building looked very neat and clean. This practice encourages every day mindfulness and helps students realize that the mindfulness can be part of their daily lives.  Rinpoche talked about  the seven point meditation posture- the back straight, the legs crossed, the hands folded below the navel, the chine tucked in slightly, the eyes looking in front, the tongue be held against the upper palate, and the lips should slightly open and how to anchor our mind on our breath.
All the lopons and Rinpoche plan to work together and meet on a weekly basis to make sure that there is synergy between the various subjects being taught so that the boys learn to relate their dharma studies with the world around them. Lopon Dechen's first unit is on the Life of the Buddha, therefore Lopon Dawa will teach about identity, the meaning of names, family trees with a special focus on history and geography.

While all monks will be studying together for their Buddhist studies, the LME and English classes have been divided into three groups based on previous education experience. Most of the boys have completed class 3 but some are uneducated and some have completed up to class 7. This differentiated class environment is one of the key challenges to teaching at the monastery.

It is remarkable that in a day and age when many monasteries have lower enrollment, CGI will be increasing its numbers by almost 50% with this new group of monks.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Monks of Chokyi Gyatso Are Seeing Clearly

In March, 2015, the monks of Chökyi Gyatso Institute were given eyes check ups and eyeglasses were provided for those who were in need. The initiative has been in the works since 2011, when Pauline Tan of Singapore helped collect used eyeglass frames that were donated for reuse. Healthcare is free in Bhutan but there are very few opportunities for eye check ups. The local military hospital hosts eye clinics from time to time but heretofore the shedra was not informed.

By chance, a group of eye doctors and assistants came to the shedra to pay respects to Rinpoche after a week-long clinic and when they learned that the monks also need check ups, they kindly rearranged their schedules to spend one extra evening checking as many monks as they could. Several serious cases were diagnosed, 10 new prescriptions were written and several eye infections and other issues were detected.

Finally we were able to pair Pauline's frames with good quality prescriptions and, with the help of the Student Welfare Fund, which paid for the lenses, this week the boys got their glasses. Some of the young boys were a bit shy to put on their specs at first but after we told them that Rinpoche and many of the khenpos wear glasses and that they make you look smarter, they have started to wear them regularly.

Many thanks to Dr. Dechen and her team, Pauline Tan, and the Student Welfare Fund of CGI.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

A fond farewell...

The twenty monks of the first LME class with teacher Brodie (can you spot him?) on a birdwatching trip.
I am on a 22 hour train ride from Guwahati to Bodh Gaya and finally have some time to reflect on the 14 months I spent teaching the young monks of Lhomon Education pilot project at Chokyi Gyatso Institute. Cliche or not, I can't believe all those 14 months are already behind me.

I arrived in October of 2013, a novice teacher with a few years of teaching in Asia under my belt, but having never been to Bhutan. I remember being met at the border (after 44 hours of travel) by Noa, the director, and two of my would-be students, Pema Gyeltshen and Tsering Samdrup. They seemed so young, and full of excitement and curiosity, but most of that was veiled by their shyness. As I was introduced to the rest of the 20 monks, ranging in age from 12 to 19, I could have said the same thing about them all.

Over the next year and a half we grew to know each other and trust each other, and at the same time we explored education together, and what it means to know and to learn. In the course of teaching, I was sometimes amazed by knowledge that I took for granted, coming from one of the better public school systems in the U.S. During my first month at the institute we all walked to the river together for an afternoon of swimming, and one of the boys, standing in the middle of the river with the water swirling around his waste, asked me if the ocean was deep like the river. I explained that the ocean was deeper than the mountains were tall, pointing to the peaks that loomed some 500 meters above, and he was incredulous, clamoring to tell any monk around him what I'd said.

At other times I was amazed by their knowledge, which they themselves surely took for granted. On every walk I took with the monks, they would show me different plants, telling me the names, and explaining which ones would sting, and which ones you could eat, and which ones were medicine, and which ones you could surreptitiously throw at your friends when they weren't looking, and have it stick to their clothes. They knew which trees bore fruit, and at what time, and knew which birds ate them. All of this they taught me, never openly judging my ignorance but probably wondering how I had survived to adulthood without knowing these basic things.

During the majority of my time there, my task was to improve their English as much as possible, and Dawa's was to improve their math, but our education was never that straight-forward. Dawa and I were happily subsumed into the fabric of the daily life at the monastery, and the borders between class time and other time was continually less and less distinct. Our office door was always open, and our extra chairs in the office were always occupied by curious monks, some wanting to look at the books on the birds of Bhutan, some trying to make a boat out of recovered materials, some asking for help with their homework, some just wanting to chat.

And even in class, it seemed it was never as straight-forward as a simple grammar lesson, as the boys' curiosity nudged our class time towards learning about the different countries of the world, and how cars work, and why the moon is dark on the left side when waxing, and the right side when waning. Over the months we encouraged the boys to ask as many questions as they could think of, answering those which we could and researching those which we could not. As a teacher, I enjoy saying "I don't know but I'll find out," because it instills in the student that none of us has perfect knowledge, but we should never stop striving for it. And for the students, they relished in finding out what we knew and what we didn't. (I'll never forget one of the more poignant questions asked of me at the beginning of my time there: "Teacher, who is great in your village?" I never could sufficiently answer this question that was so easy for my students).

It is also a fact of teaching in a monastery that not all of the monks are going to be great students. In fact, many of the monks were in the monastery explicitly because they were poor in their studies. Bhutan, which it should be said has made remarkable strides in the pursuit of universal education over the last thirty years, is still operating within the constraints of the very traditional Indian education system on which it is modeled. One of the drawbacks of that system is that it doesn't value individual traits, and has a very rigid and one-dimensional evaluation of ability.

So for our part it was extremely rewarding to take these students and show them not what they were bad at, but rather what they were good at. We tried in our daily teaching to explore the different kinds of intelligences, and then demonstrate to the students that while one may struggle with spelling, he may excel at crafting, or while another is not skilled in mental math, he may be the best gardener in class. Exploring how the brain works, not just with rote memorization (which is standard not just in the modern education system, but also in Bhutan's traditional monastic colleges) but also with problem solving, creativity, imagination, and ingenuity was as rewarding to Dawa and myself as it was to the students who gained a new-found appreciation for what they could do.

And although they weren't perfect students (I suppose its possible I wasn't always the perfect teacher), they never stopped amazing me with their cheerfulness, earnestness, and joie d'vivre. We actually had to make rules in class limiting the singing and dancing, because I learned that if you aren't clear on that, the classroom will quickly resemble a rehearsal room for a Bollywood film.

Looking back, there were a few days that didn't go perfectly, and others I've already forgotten, but both of those are dwarfed by the number of days I'll remember as wonderful explorations with young monks who were just starting to understand the world, and leaning on me to help broaden it. I feel so fortunate to have been one of the people these young men came to for answers about the world. I miss them already.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Putting Monks To Work On The Auto Line

The many holidays of mid-winter are mostly behind us now, and we're excitedly getting back into having regular class. To make it interesting, we've started an in-depth study of one of the most transformational inventions in human history; the automobile.
After getting some of the basics out of the way, today we delved into the early history of the automobile, and how Henry Ford changed the US and the world when he set about changing how people make cars.
We went over some basics of economics first: If Henry Ford wanted to sell more cars by making them more affordable for the common person, how could he lower the price? By making them more efficiently. And how could he do that? By improving on the assembly line model that had been developing for the last few decades.
Ford was able to streamline production to make it so fast that they could pump out a Model T in 15 minutes. And soon, Ford was one of the biggest auto manufacturers in the world, and companies that failed to incorporate his advances were soon out of business.
But how to make that efficiency poignant to a young monk in Bhutan? For this lesson we tailored a classic lesson plan; make two different teams, one of traditional, individual craftsmen, and the other of a streamlined assembly line. Both teams were expected to make 8 "cars" (an assembly of surplus straws, rubber bands, and paper that we had around the office). The craftsmen each had their own tools, and the assembly line all shared on set of tools.
Unsurprisingly, the assembly line was much faster, completing their 8 cars in under four minutes (Take that, Ford!). The surprise was how much longer the craftsmen took- more than twice as long. The students rightly noted that all of the many small movements that were eliminated by having each person have one job added up to a large gain in efficiency.
Of course, making things more efficiently is only half of the story. Afterwards we discussed the social effects of this. Students listed some of the benefits of this streamlining: efficiency, cheaper cars, more profits, and cars that everyone, even the people making them, could afford.
And the drawbacks? A few months ago we watched Modern Times, the Charlie Chaplin classic, and none of the students could forget the scene where Chaplin goes temporarily insane after working on an assembly line that was too fast and impersonal.
Some of the more subtle effects were surprises to the students: a factory with people in a streamlined system is safer than one where people are moving around. On the flip side, making more cars means more of an environmental impact.
Regardless of the overall net good of Ford's  revolution, one thing the students walked away from today with was that it certainly changed the world they live in profound ways.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A blade of grass makes sound- Sound Sandwich

If you pick a blade of grass or a leaf, stretched it in between your fingers or thumbs, and blow into the gap you will hear a high pitch sound. A lot of our students have had played with this effect. The working of a sound sandwich instrument, which can be made using simple items like craft sticks, a straw, one wide rubber band, two smaller and a narrow rubber band is no different in working as a blade of grass sandwiched between fingers and thumbs.
How to make a sound sandwich?
Stretch a wide rubber band length-wise over one of the craft sticks, and cut two pieces of straw, each about an inch to 1 ½ inches (2.5 to 3.8 cm) in length.
Put one of the small straw pieces under the wide rubber band, about a third of the way up from one end of the stick.
Take the second craft stick and place it on top of the first one, wrap one of the smaller rubber bands around the end of the stick a few times, about ½ inch (1.25 cm) from the end, on the same side where you placed the straw.
Make sure the rubber band pinches the two sticks tightly together. Take the second small piece of straw and place it between the two craft sticks, at the opposite end. This time, though, place the straw on top of the thick rubber band, so it sits just under the top craft stick. Wrap the second small rubber band around the loose end of the stick, about ½ inch (1.25 cm) from the end. When you are done, both ends should be pinched together and there should be a small space between the two craft sticks.
When your sound sandwich is complete, put your mouth in the middle, as if playing a harmonica, and blow. Notice that you can make different sounds by blowing through different areas of the instrument, blowing harder or softer, or by moving the straw closer together or farther apart.
What’s going on?
When you blow into the Sound Sandwich, you make the large rubber band vibrate, and that vibration produces sound. Long, massive objects vibrate slowly and produce low pitched sounds; shorter, less massive objects vibrate quickly and produce high-pitched sounds. The tension of a rubber band also will change its pitch: higher tension leads to higher-pitched resonance.
Reference: Exploratorium Teacher Institute (2009). The Exploratotrium Science Snackbook: cook up over 100 hands on science exhibits from everyday materials (revised edition). Robert J. Semper: United States of America. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

PET Bottle Membranophone

The PET (Polyethylene terephthalate, the plastic found in most platic bottles) bottle Membranophone is fun to make and even more fun to play. Using simple materials like a clean empty plastic bottle, a balloon, a rubber band, a straw, and A4 size paper we can make and play with one. This instrument produces sound from a vibrating stretched membrane or balloon.
 How to make:
Get a PET bottle and measure down about 3 inches (7.5 cm) from the top of the bottle. Using scissors, cut along the measured line. Make sure you cut evenly along the edge. Trim off any bumpy spots and recycle the bottom of the bottle. You will need the top half of the bottle to work with. Take out a punching machine and punch a hole near the cut edge of the top half bottle as far as you can get it. Put the straw through the hole to test it for size. It should be a tight fit. If the hole isn’t large enough for the diameter of the straw, re-punch in nearly the same spot to widen the hole a bit. Cut the neck off the balloon to form a sheet of elastic material- a membrane. Stretch the membrane over the hand cut opening of the bottle, making sure that the hole you punched in the side does not get hidden by excess material. Attach the membrane to the bottle with a rubber band. Wrap the rubber band around the bottle several times, making sure that the membrane is taut. Twist the cap off the bottle and set it aside. Roll a piece of A4 size paper into a tube, making it as tight and straight as possible. Put the rolled up tube into the neck of the bottle, where the cap had been. Let go of the tube when it barely touches the bottom of the membrane. It should fit securely in the hole. Tape it to the neck of the bottle so it stays in place. Insert the straw into the punched hole on the side of the bottle, and you’re ready to play.
Now that your instrument is ready, simply blow into the straw on the side of the bottle and your pet bottle Membranophone should play.

What’s going on?
As you blow into the straw, you create pressure in the space between the outer wall of the paper tube and the inner wall of the water bottle. That pressure forces the membrane to rise, allowing air to flow into the top of the tube and escape out the bottom.
As the air escapes, the membrane returns to its position. But as you continue blowing air into the instrument, you force the membrane to rapidly rise and fall, over and over again. If you place your finger over the top of the membrane, you can feel it vibrate. These vibrations produce sound.  

Exploratorium Teacher Institute (2009). The Exploratotrium Science Snackbook: cook up over 100 hands on science exhibits from everyday materials (revised edition). Robert J. Semper: United States of America. 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The sound and straw

By cutting the two lips of a soda straw, flattening the end, and blowing with just the right pressure, we can make sounds vibrate in the straw.
Flatten one end of the straw by sticking the end in the mouth, biting down with teeth, and pulling it out. Do this for several times to make flexible, flat-ended straw. Cut equal pieces from each side of the flat-ended so that straw has two lips at the end. Put the straw in your mouth and blow into the straw. You will probably have to experiment with blowing harder and softer while biting down with different amounts of pressure until you make the straw sing.
The monks here at CGI make straw reeds in same way to use it with Gyaling. Gyaling literally means "Indian trumpet" and is used during the monastery puja (chanting and prayer) and is associated with peaceful deities. All the monks know how to make and use this simple straw reed. Normally when they make them the reeds are shorter in length and can produce high pitch sounds. The reed goes on top of the Gyaling to make it sing.
So, the question we asked our class was ‘’What makes the straw reed produce sound?’’ To this question, the 20 students have responded with a few one-word guesses- air, pressure, vibration, high, low, hole etc. They were some pretty exciting responses. In fact, all the words that can explain the working of the straw reeds were spoken by them.
With supporting responses from the students, it was quite convenient for me to discuss the working of the reeds- when we blow through the straw, there is high pressure in your mouth. As air rushes through the straw, the pressure in the straw drops, and the high pressure outside the straw pushes the sides of the reed inward, closing off the flow. The pressure then builds inside the straw and pops the reed open again. This causes the vibration of the straw lips. When the reed vibrates at just the right frequency, there we hear loud, buzzing notes.

This is not only a good lesson on acoustic physics but also a fun way to reuse a straw.